Chapter I: Flying Solo
I was on the job.
Reporting for the Brando Weekly? Check. Overseeing the halls of Donner Prep and helping others? Check. About to turn 16 years old in a week? Check. Dating the best girlfriend ever? Check.
Sure, I used to savor getting out of school and running into the forest by my house. There, I’d hide out in the Fortress of Only Dudes, the old fort my dad had helped me build when I was little.
Well, it wasn’t the Fortress of Only Dudes anymore. As much as my younger self swore it would never be the Fortress of Dudes and Dudettes, well…
“This might be the best grilled cheese sandwich I’ve ever had,” Penny said, setting down her plate.
I nodded modestly. “Solid dunch.” Since Penny and I had met, it became a tradition for us to have a small meal at the Fortress between lunch and dinner. Hence, dunch.
The Fortress had changed since I met Penny. The games, radios, and walkie-talkies were still there, but now there were also pictures of Penny and I nailed to the Fortress’s walls, a mini disco ball for late night dances, and a small table for two (complete with a tablecloth and candle I stole from my mom).
“Mom said she’ll teach me how to make spaghetti next time,” I said. I had made every single simple snack food that didn’t require an oven or peanut butter. I needed to step up my game.
Penny raised her eyebrows. “You’re going to try to make something that requires a stovetop? Impressive.”
I laughed. “I can only serve you grilled cheese and oatmeal for so long.”
My phone buzzed. It was George, one of the people I worked with at the Brando Weekly.
George: Hey butthead, got our story submitted to the paper for this week.
“What’s up?” Penny asked.
“It’s George,” I said, putting my phone back in my pocket. “He just submitted that article we did on the Donner Prep gym modifications. Quick work.”
“Awesome. Isn’t that your second article this week? You’re almost at my writing pace.”
I shuddered, remembering the one week Penny wrote five articles for a single issue of the Brando Weekly. “Let’s hope that never happens.”
Penny laughed. “You know it won’t.”
I sighed contently. “I wish you were gonna be here next weekend.”
Next weekend, I was turning 16 years old. Mom was planning on throwing a birthday party to celebrate. It was technically a surprise birthday party, but my mom always did one every year. I had already stumbled across one of the invites.
Penny wouldn’t be there. She was leaving on Friday for a weekend writer’s summit in New York City. It was too good of an opportunity to pass up.
“Hey, I’ll be back after the summit,” Penny coaxed. “We’ll celebrate on Monday.”
Penny glanced at the setup on the other side of the room, consisting of radios, walkie talkies, a shelf full of games, and, importantly, a clock. “It’s getting pretty late; I should get back home.”
We stood up, hastily kissed, and Penny departed. I stayed in the Fortress an extra minute, breathing in the scents emanating from the coconut candle. Tomorrow was Monday, but oddly, I wasn’t dreading school. Supaperman was on the job.
Chapter II: Parasitically Speaking
I took a deep breath and checked the time. 12:03 P.M. In just two minutes, Emery Bradley would be making the rounds in his bullying campaign.
The halls of Donner Prep were bustling, as was common at the given time. In between classes, there was time for people to talk to each other. As a reporter, it was a goldmine for interviews.
As Supaperman, I knew all too well that this was the time Emery Bradley had been spotted terrorizing the halls. Emery Bradley was a member of the golf team and prided himself on his ability to swing his hands. Both in golf and in fights.
Sure enough, the swift movements of a white polo and sunglasses made their way through the crowd. Emery was a big guy, but I knew his moves.
Emery stopped, pivoted, and cornered a kid named Alvin. I knew Alvin from a couple of my classes—he was ingenious, but had no idea how to stand up to Emery. Now was the time. I strutted over, microphone and notepad in one hand and a pen in the other.
“Mr. Bradley!” I shouted. “Chris Booth, Brando Weekly. Is it true you golfed a triple bogey this past weekend?”
Emery turned from Alvin with rage. “Of course not—do you know who I am? I am the fifth best golfer in the state. I have never golfed over a par in the past three years!”
With Emery distracted, Alvin quickly slipped away into the crowd.
“Where did you hear this rumor?” Emery demanded. “I swear, if Katie Higgins is doing this to get me kicked off the golf team—” He paused, his eyes narrowed, and he finally recognized me. “Oh, it’s you. Supaperman. Chris. Whatever.”
“The game’s up, Emery,” I said, pulling out Supaperman.
Emery chuckled. “It’s Parasite.” He pulled out his own puppet version of the villain Parasite from the Superman comics, complete with kirigami pink hands to match Emery’s own. Puppet in hand, he swung his fist toward me.
I dodged it calmly. “Emery, you’ve already been reported twice for school fighting this semester. One more and you know what that means.”
Emery’s face hardened.
“Possible removal from the golf team,” I answered for him. “I mean… you don’t want that, do you?”
Hesitating, Emery finally lowered his hands. “Fine.”
“I like the puppet, though,” I said, looking at it curiously. “Did you do pleats for Parasite’s abs?”
“Yeah,” Emery said, somewhat proudly and somewhat embarrassedly.
“Well, it looks good.”
I sighed. “Alright, dude, take care.” I turned and made my way down the hall.
I turned to see that Emery was still smoldering with a quiet rage. “What?”
“At least I have a team, huh?” he said smugly. “I heard about Justice Pleats. That didn’t last long, did it?”
His words hit me like a ton of bricks. To tell the truth, I missed Justice Pleats. Neil defeated our team before we even really had the chance to work together. We broke up almost immediately, thanks to the Legion of Plume. And, if I’m being honest, Alan. After what he pulled, I’m not sure we’ll ever be on good terms.
But I missed being with those washed-up fools. And now that Emery mentioned it, being Supaperman on my own didn’t feel as fun.
“Shut up, Emery.” I turned on my heel… and immediately was knocked over by one of the strongest people I had ever met.
The force took my breath away. I looked up, only to find a blurry image of a person looking down at me. I couldn’t make out the face in the midst of my own dizziness.
“Watch where you’re going, Supaperman.”
“Call me Doomsclay. See you soon, Chris.”
I collected myself, scrambled to my feet, and watched ‘Doomsclay’ walk away. I sighed. Whoever this dude was, I’d have to deal with him later.
Chapter III: Prep at Donner Prep
Ms. Benning surveyed the class with an intense stare. She taught Algebra II, often with an ongoing intensity that most people found intimidating. Oddly, I often found it comforting.
This morning was different. Ms. Benning was not just here to talk about algebra.
“The SAT’s are not like any test you have ever taken,” she said, eyeing each of us individually. “You will have just over a minute to answer any given question on the math portion of the exam. Each question is designed specifically to target specific skills you have garnered over the course of your time at Donner Prep. Absolute, focused preparation is essential to achieving a strong score.
“And a good score is essential. These scores are the same scores that will be evaluated by colleges upon your applications.” Ms. Benning’s eyes fell upon me.
I shifted uncomfortably. I had never necessarily struggled with math, but it had always seemed like something with very immediate consequences: one class at a time.
This was different. I hadn’t even thought about looking at colleges. I mean, I knew I wanted to go, but that was far in the future, right?
For the first time, I felt something I had never felt before: pressure from college. This test mattered.
“Donner Prep is built upon great academics,” Ms. Benning continued. “You all have what it takes. You just need to practice.”
This is insane, I thought. College? I turn 16 this week. I’m just a kid.
Ms. Benning focused on me again. “Practice.”
Chapter IV: Pennyless
The rest of the week wasn’t much better. Ms. Benning had put the seed in my mind. I wasn’t going to mess up the SATs. I began studying every SAT worksheet I could find. As SAT prep began to pile on, I fell deeper into worksheets and guidebooks.
I was worried. This exam could determine my future. Was I ready for that?
I wasn’t Alan Wade. Alan was rich. The way he dressed, the way he carried himself… Alan looked like he had a plan. Sure, he had insecurities, but Alan could afford mistakes.
I thought about Theresa Carter. Head of the girl scouts troop, Theresa took no nonsense. She was a natural leader, quick to make decisions that satisfied all of her Amazonian troop. She probably knew exactly what she wanted to do.
I didn’t. I liked reporting, but I had no idea what sort of college experience I needed. Or where I would go. All of a sudden, I felt myself getting older. And it scared me.
It didn’t help that work for the Brando Weekly intensified. Due to my recent initiative in taking on more articles, my boss assigned me more stories. And so it was that I found myself on a Friday night—my birthday eve—tucked away in my room studying.
I had turned away all offers of comfort from my mom, somehow set upon the idea that if I learned just a bit more math, my worries about my future would go away.
There was a knock on my door. “Not now, please, Mom,” I groaned.
The door opened. I turned to see Penny standing in the doorway, looking concerned. “Hey.”
“Hi,” I said.
“What’s up?” she asked, coming in and sitting on my bed. “I wanted to hang out before going to the summit tomorrow. You haven’t answered any of my texts all day.”
“I haven’t?” I said wearily. It was true. I hadn’t looked at my phone since I started studying.
Penny looked at me like she could see through me. “Chris, what’s wrong?”
I sighed. “I’ve been studying.”
“Finals aren’t for another two months.”
“Not finals. SATs.”
“Those are not for, like, six months,” Penny said. “You realize you have the whole summer to study for them, right?”
I shook my head. “The SATs are not just any test,” I said fearfully. “The score goes to the colleges, it goes on your record…”
Penny shrugged. “So? You’ll be fine, Chris. You’re a good—”
“What if I‘m not, Penny?” I demanded. “What if I go to take the test, and I can’t handle the pressure? That’s what happened with Neil. I had a responsibility to lead Justice Pleats. I cracked as soon as it happened. I could’ve kept us together.”
Penny stood up. “Woah, where is this coming from? I thought you liked being on your own and not with… you know, Alan.”
“I did—I do. But what if I can’t do this on my own? I’m not strong enough to juggle all of these things.”
“You know you—” Penny started.
“I’m getting older, Penny. I’m scared. I turn 16 tomorrow. College is coming up. How are we going to deal with that? What if we go to separate schools? How are we going to stay together?”
Penny suddenly stood up. I jumped. “This isn’t you, Chris,” she said furiously. “Sometimes I wonder if Supaperman is forcing you to be someone you’re not. The Chris I know wouldn’t fear for the future because he didn’t know what would happen. Do you think I don’t get scared? I worry about the future, too. But it doesn’t matter because there are things that I’m sure about. Like you. I thought you felt the same about me.”
There was a moment of silence. “I guess I just don’t feel sure about things anymore,” I said.
Penny looked somewhere between exasperation, tears, and anger. “Get some rest,” she said. With that, she walked out the door.
I felt worse than any amount of SAT stress had made me feel before.
Chapter V: Bittersweet Sixteen
With Penny leaving for the weekend to go to the writer’s summit the next day, I didn’t feel much better. The tables had turned. Penny hadn’t responded to the hasty apology text I had sent last night.
And, of course, it was my 16th birthday. I went downstairs from my room to find that my mom had already pulled out all of the stops for birthday breakfast. I put on a smile and tried to enjoy my birthday muffins, but ultimately escaped mid-afternoon, telling my mom that I wanted to get some fresh air.
Walking around the breezy parks by my house often helped me clear my head. Today, my worries continued to linger. Even the park seemed to know it, with foreboding winds sweeping through the trees as if even they were trembling with the fear of unknowns. College was coming. Penny wasn’t responding to my texts. I was getting older. And then there was that Doomsclay guy…
I hadn’t seen him since the beginning of the week. I shuddered, remembering how easily he had knocked me over. Dealing with him was not something I was looking forward to.
I went back home to find my mom had indeed thrown her traditional not-so-surprise party.
“Happy birthday!!” everyone yelled. It was a small but devoted group: my mom, my grandmothers and grandfather, three of my cousins, and my aunt and uncle.
Even though I didn’t feel much like it, I greeted everyone I could. As the night broke, this ultimately led to me chatting in the corner of our laundry room with Terence Booth, my older cousin and senior at Donner Prep. He’d taken every honors class the school offered, and he took great pride in acing all of them.
“So, how’re you feeling about graduating?” I asked him, sipping on a bottle of Coca Cola.
Terence coolly leaned back against our clothes dryer. “Good. I sent in applications for fourteen universities. I was lucky enough to get three recommendations, including one from the superintendent. I’ll be hearing back later this month.”
I perked up. Maybe I could get some wisdom from Terence. “Any advice for college?”
Terence looked at me and nodded, as if he had seen my problem and solved it with speed. “Constant preparation,” he said immediately. “You need to own your confidence and practice on all fronts. If you want to get into the right colleges, you need to separate yourself as a candidate. When I was applying for colleges, I was citing a plethora of academic and extracurricular activities so that they would know that I was their best option. You have to be, quite simply, the best.” Terence smiled with that confidence he always had.
“Wow,” I said, not really sure how to respond. “You’re like a real-life Doctor Fate.”
Terence looked confused. “Who?”
“He’s a DC character.”
“Oh,” Terence smiled. “I prefer General Zod… Anyway, I’m gonna get some cake. Happy birthday, dude.”
And with that, Terence stepped out of the laundry room to go get what he wanted, each step filled with purpose. He was everything I feared I never would be.
Chapter VI: A Terrifying Encounter With Play-Doh
Penny texted me back to wish me a happy birthday, and we decided to meet for dunch after school on Monday.
Honestly, I could barely focus on anything in class. I kept thinking about the SATs, the articles I had to write for the Brando Weekly, colleges, growing up, and what I would say to Penny. It hurt more than gosh darn Flexonite.
My only comfort was Supaperman. In between class, I carried the symbol around, twiddling it between my fingers. As long as I had Supaperman, some part of my life was consistent.
As I walked down the halls, I suddenly felt myself pulled by the shirt collar to the side. I stumbled into the nearside wall and found myself looking into the face of my problem.
Fletch Butcher. As a football player, he was one of the strongest students at Donner Prep. He was also a senior (two whole years above me), and wielding… Play-Doh?
“So you’re Doomsclay,” I guessed.
Fletch nodded, continuing to corner me against the wall.
“What do you want?” I asked.
Fletch coughed. “You’re a reporter. I heard that you and George are running a story in the Brando Weekly about the gym upgrades at the Donner private gym.”
“Yeah?” I said confusedly. “So?”
“I…” Fletch paused. “I don’t want you to run it. Nobody uses Donner’s private gym. If you tell them about the upgrades, they might.”
I was having trouble believing what I was hearing. “So… you don’t want us to inform people that the gym is getting upgrades?”
Fletch constructed as serious an expression as he could. “Yes.”
“You know the Brando isn’t associated with the school, right? It’s just an online website.”
“You have an impressive following—and I happen to know for a fact that one person I don’t want to see at the gym in particular follows our website.”
I tilted my head curiously. “Who?”
“I’m not telling you!” Fletch roared.
I shugged. “Okay.”
“Fine! It’s my ex. If they hear the gym gets upgrades, they’ll be back at the gym. So you can’t post the article.”
“I can’t—” I sighed.
“You have twenty four hours. Otherwise, Doomsclay.”
“What the heck is Doomsclay?”
“You know, just…” Fletch seemed lost for words. “Just regular bullying stuff. You know the deal.”
“Great.” I rolled my eyes.
Chapter VII: Curious George
Chris: So, we can’t run the gym story.
Chris: If we run it, this guy at Donner’s gonna beat me up.
George: Lol ok. I’ll take it down
Chapter VIII: Dunch Munch
I was in the Fortress, studying away in hopes of memorizing some algebraic equations, when I heard a voice.
I looked up. Sure enough, Penny was here for dunch.
“Hey!” I said excitedly. “How was the writer’s sum—”
“Good.” Penny was just looking at me with a certain sadness. “Chris… are you okay?”
She looked at the table, which was now covered in my notes and SAT worksheets. For the first time, I realized how crazy it looked.
I took a deep breath. “Penny… I’m really sorry.” I tried to collect my thoughts. “I’m scared, Penny. I’m sixteen, and everyone I know that’s my age seems to have a plan for their life. If I said I was acting like this because I was stressed about SATs and the Brando Weekly, I wouldn’t be lying, but… in all honesty, I’m not scared of that. I’m scared of the future. I’m scared about picking colleges. I’m scared about graduating and moving out in a few years. I’m scared about not being able to be a kid anymore. I know that’s not healthy, but it’s what I’m feeling. And all I know is that, whatever my future holds, I want you to be a part of it. I don’t want to lose you, Penny. You’re one of the things I’m sure about, too.
“I’m just scared of getting older, Penny.”
Penny walked over and sat down next to me. “It’s okay. Me too.”
I felt a few tears forming; it was the first time I had cried in years. I thought that I was stronger than this, but there I was, in my fortress, just letting it all out. “Why is it that everyone has their life figured out?”
“Nobody has their life figured out, Chris. None of us know what’s in our future. I don’t know what I’m going to do when I graduate. And that’s okay! It means that we’re going to grow and things are going to change. But the most important things will always be with you—you just get to explore new things.”
I looked Penny in the eyes. “Then why am I so scared of growing up?”
“Because you’re never gonna be a kid again,” Penny laughed. “There’s comfort in what’s familiar to us. But hey, ever heard of the phrase ‘young at heart’? Don’t fear things changing. Embrace it.”
“Thanks, Penny.” I hugged her tightly.
We broke the hug. “So,” Penny said. “I smell Italian food.”
I laughed, wiping the tears out of my eyes. “Yeah. Mom taught me how to make spaghetti. You want some?”
“You bet. Happy birthday.”
And, I must say, it was one of the best dunches we’d ever had.
Chapter IX: Epilogue
“I don’t get why we’re here,” I complained, watching with Penny and my mom as Donner Prep seniors walked across the stage. It was May, and the graduation ceremony was making no haste in getting each senior their certificate.
“We’re here to support your cousin,” Mom said firmly. “He’s part of the family.”
I sighed. “I guess.”
“Oh!” Penny said. “Is that him?”
As if on cue, the presenter on stage called out, “Terence Booth.”
Terence strode across the stage to shake hands with the school administrators (taking particular time with the superintendent). For a moment, I felt a familiar feeling of fear about the future.
But this time, it subsided. I clapped for Terence,
“Fletch Butcher,” called out the presenter. Fletch, looking very uncomfortable in his graduation robe, shuffled across the stage.
I smiled. Yes, I was getting older. But I was learning to let go.
“Hey,” Penny said next to me. “You okay?”
I hadn’t used Supaperman ever since our spaghetti dunch. Penny was right. It was holding me back. I wasn’t a kid anymore.
After all, what could I possibly use him for now? There was no Justice Pleats—no Neil plots. I didn’t need Supaperman anymore. All I needed was my girlfriend, and my family, and all will be right. I had placed the symbol back in my fortress, but I doubt that it’ll ever move from the frame. I don’t think I’ll ever need that again, especially with the other puppets that are found in this town.