Let's begin at the end, on the night when, flying high above New York, the Blue Wonder's heart failed him for the third and final time.
It was November, and a light snow was falling. The city sparkled under a moonless sky. The Blue Wonder flew above the clouds, staring at the stars but thinking of home.
It was cold, very cold, and the Blue Wonder was an old man flying without his suit. It'd been a long time since he'd worn his costume—a blue-black Lycra diving suit—and a long time since he'd flown, and so even though it hurt his heart to fly, and even though his tattered topcoat was no match for the chill air this high, he flew on, occasionally ducking beneath the clouds to warm himself in the city's glow.
It was on one of these dips, skirting the rooftops and smiling at the swirls of snow, that the pain and cold faded with the last beats of his heart. He fell, tumbling past shaded windows and empty balconies, landing finally and firmly in a Dumpster behind a bakery.
The next morning, in the gray light before dawn, Edward Markos tossed a rack of stale donuts into the lap of a dead man half-buried in trash and snow.
Edward yelped and dropped the empty rack on his toes.
Then he called the police.
Two of them pulled the old man from the Dumpster and laid him on the ground. They found a wallet in an inside pocket.
"Henry Givens, sixty-seven years old. Ring a bell?"
This question was directed at Edward, who was leaning against the bakery wall, massaging the toe of his right shoe. "Not that I can recall," he said.
In the ensuing discussion, it was decided that Mr. Givens died cold and alone while scavenging for a late-night pastry. Odd, maybe. Sad, certainly. But not that unusual. Except for the smile. The cops all agreed with Edward that it was a strange thing to see a dead man smiling like that, like he knew something you didn't.
Henry Givens was born with an electric heart, which of course, to some extent we all are, but his was different. Inside his chest, a tiny engine of fission burned, transforming his emotions into untold quantities of power. Maybe if he hadn't been born in 1955, in a small town in Mississippi, someone might have noticed the oddity of his heart, but as it was, he was sent home with his mother without so much as a warning about letting her baby boy stray too close to power lines.
Home for Henry was a cotton farm in Mississippi. His mother taught American history at a nearby community college. She named Henry after Patrick Henry. She had a thing for those men who screamed loudest and longest for liberty.
Henry had an older brother named Thomas who ran away to join Martin Luther King, Jr. when Henry was twelve. Thomas slipped into Henry's room after midnight. He handed over a stash of Playboys and Dylan, tugged Henry's left ear, then vanished through the window. He was shot and killed in Montgomery in 1968, but that's another story.
The Earth is one big electromagnet. A giant blue ball of energy spinning in the dark. This is how Henry flew. Charge yourself up with enough energy and you can ride the invisible currents turning the earth the same way a hawk rides the wind, which if you think about it, is also invisible. Most of the important stuff is.
It hurts to fly, though. Holding that much energy in your body stresses the heart, even one designed to burn brighter like Henry's. Every time he flew, it felt like a warm hand squeezing his heart.
As a boy first discovering the joy of passing through clouds, or flying naked through the night just because he could, Henry didn't notice the pain, or maybe didn't recognize it as pain. It's possible he thought that's just how it felt to fly.
As he got older, though, it became harder to ignore his heart. The pain made it hard to concentrate while following screams. Once, blind with pain, he'd collapsed in an alley before completing a rescue. When he woke up, the woman whose screams he had followed lay pressed up against a brick wall, her head tilted to the right, a black stain on her chest.
That was the second time the Blue Wonder's heart failed him.
Henry flew for the first time on the day he learned of his father's death. This was 1964, three years before Thomas left on his ill-fated adventure, and one year since their father had shipped off to Vietnam. Henry had spent the year alone for the most part. His mom split her time between teaching and keeping the farm up with Thomas's help. When he wasn't helping, Thomas sulked about in his room or ran off to town. So no one minded, or noticed much, that Henry spent most of his afternoons wandering the cotton, armed only with a spoon and a jar of peanut butter.
This is what he was doing when he heard his mother calling his name. She didn't sound scared or angry, so Henry took his time weaving through the high cotton, imagining he was a miniature man walking through a field of giant grass, or a giant in a world of tiny trees.
His mom sat on the back porch. Thomas slouched in the doorway. Two strangers in black uniforms stood beside his mom. She held an envelope in her right hand.
Henry's father had sent many letters home while away. Sometimes his mother cried while reading them, as she was doing now. Sometimes the letters had something for Henry, usually a story of some kind, about being lost in the woods or tricked by a kindly seeming goat. Henry's favorite story had been about a little prince lost in a strange universe who traveled from planet to planet trying to make his way back home. The little prince would lie awake at night on whatever alien planet he found himself on and count the stars, imagining his homesickness spread out among them. This way he felt calm, less alone. The little prince would fall asleep thinking to himself, "Everything hurts. Everything is wonderful."
One of the soldiers coughed. He was tall and blond and had a chest covered with ribbons and medals. The other one was younger and less decorated. He stared at the cotton. Thomas stared at both of them.
Henry knew his father was dead, with the same certainty that people have when falling in love.
Henry's mom patted the porch beside her leg, trying to smile as she cried. "It's okay, Henry. Come sit next to me."
He ran back into the cotton, his heart beating hard against his ribs. He closed his eyes, hardly noticed the leaves whipping his skin. He didn't see the trail of floating cotton left spinning in his wake. Hair rose along his arms and the nape of his neck. His skin felt electric.
It was a while before he noticed the absence of resistance. When he did, he opened his eyes and saw the cotton field far below him. It didn't occur to Henry that this was strange. He accepted his flying and his pain and his father's death as one accepts the oddities of a dream—how people change shapes when you blink, or scenes transform in the middle of a conversation.
Henry ran until he was among the clouds above town. There, in the high cold air, he cried, imagining his father never coming home, never running to town with him to get emergency peanut butter, and never telling him another story about how to escape the woods and find your way home.
Back on Earth, in town, a man read his paper at a bus stop. A drop of rain struck the front page. He eyed the blue sky suspiciously. When another drop landed on his shoulder, he grumbled his way under the bus stop overhang and waited impatiently for a rain that never came.
Henry wiped his eyes. He sniffled. His stomach cramped, his bones tingled. A warm hand squeezed his heart. Below him, people drove home under flickering streetlights. The clouds caught fire as a cool wind blew in from the north. The first stars peeked through a darkening sky. Everything hurt. Everything was wonderful.
Henry finished watching the sunset and then began the business of figuring out how to get down.
When he was fifteen, Henry had a crush on a girl named Amber who wore a leather jacket and said fuck a lot. At lunch. "Fuck sloppy joes." Slamming her locker door. "Fuck me." Under the bleachers. "No, Henry, I will not fucking kiss you."
At which point they kissed until Amber's ears turned red and her lips blistered.
"Fuck," she said, a wisp of smoke escaping her mouth. Then she passed out.
Henry avoided girls after that, at least the ones that made his heart ache that electric ache.
Henry went to college. After all, the ability to fly and knock girls out with a kiss wasn't going to make him any money.
He studied sociology and got involved with the local chapter of the Black Panthers. That wasn't the kind of idealism he was looking for, though.
He did make a friend there, a guy named Jack who loved comics almost as much as he loved women. He reminded Henry of Thomas.
He asked if he could borrow a stack or two and Jack said, "Sure, so long as you don't fuck the corners up or anything." Jack was a big man with delicate sensibilities.
Henry read comics instead of sociology. He didn't have super strength or super hearing or X-ray vision. He wasn't rich, he didn't have a butler, and he didn't have a special ring. But he could fly, and he was pretty sure he could stun, maybe even kill a man with a touch, and that didn't seem half bad.
He dreamed of foiling bank robberies, catching women who fell from the sky. He dreamed of saving the world.
He dreamed of villains. Of Dr. Lightning, who caught electricity in a bottle. Of Mr. Mud, a vengeful Delta Spirit impervious to puny strings of electrons.
And he dreamed of women, particularly of a slightly evil sort of heroine named Elasto Girl. A woman with long hair and rubber skin, safe to touch and impossibly stretchy.
Henry masturbated a lot in college.
He never did meet anyone like him, though.
One night, near the end of his first semester, when he should've been finally getting around to reading John Nash, Henry stayed up all night trying to think of a clever name for himself.
Sipping coffee at two a.m., rocking in his chair, surrounded by the paper wreckage of a dozen or more almost, not quite, and completely wrong ideas, Henry rested his head on his desk and prepared himself to lose hope. He tilted up on his chin and looked at a photograph of Thomas holding court on top of a tractor, proclaiming kingly proclamations to the rapt cotton field. He thought about the first time he flew, about Thomas in the doorway, his mother on the porch. About the loss of his father and the first stars peeking through the darkening sky. That's when the Blue Wonder knew who he was.
The Blue Wonder fell in love with a girl once, a girl with hair like autumn whose only superpower was her need for the kind of happiness that hurt. Or maybe that was her only weakness. It's hard to tell with superpowers.
This was several years after the Blue Wonder dropped out of college, to his mother's forever disappointment, and moved to New York because if heroes existed, he figured that's where they'd be.
He got a job at a gas station and took the first apartment he could afford that didn't smell like cat or piss, or both. His landlord was a thin man named Chuck who walked around with a cane but no limp. As far as Henry could tell, the cane existed solely for brandishing at deadbeat tenants.
During the day the Blue Wonder worked the counter of the station, ringing up Ho Hos and jerky and gas. At night, he made his rounds of the city, beginning and ending on the rooftop of his apartment building.
It turned out, without super hearing or X-ray vision, it's hard to find any crimes to foil. Screams carry a lot less far than you think, and the majority of violence occurs indoors. So the Blue Wonder bought a police scanner, binoculars, and a hearing aid. He looked a bit silly, a flying man in a blue diving suit, binoculars strapped to his belt, a headphone on one ear and a hearing aid in the other, but it got the job done.
His first collar was a car chase, a man in a Nova skidding down Third. The Blue Wonder took a shortcut as only a flying man can and laid one charged hand on the hood, blowing the sparkplugs.
He couldn't resist winking at the bemused thug before flying away.
The next night he stunned a couple of teenagers running out of his gas station with a bag full of cash and porn.
Sometimes he flew through the subway tunnels. He broke up a couple of drug deals that way, got shot at, and learned it was best never to land while fighting crime.
The news began soliciting stories of sightings from people. They ran sketches of the so-called "Blue Wonder." A black man in a track suit. An alien who shot lightning from his eyes. They put the drawings next to photographs of Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster.
Some people believed in the Blue Wonder; some people didn't.
Julie believed in the Blue Wonder. She talked about him every time she came into the gas station to buy her OJ. She did this once a week.
"It bothers me when they talk about him the same way they talk about Bigfoot, you know? Maybe Bigfoot's real, too."
She had one gray eye and one blue eye. She had too many freckles. Her hair was beautiful, though, and the Blue Wonder liked listening to her.
She came in closer and closer to Henry's quitting time each week, until their talks became wandering arguments, walks around the city where they debated music, comic books, and whether or not the world was worth saving.
"Apocalypse is just another word for revelation," Julie said. "Maybe it wouldn't be such a bad thing if the world ended. We might learn something."
The Blue Wonder never held her hand during these walks. He was pretty sure Julie wanted him to, though.
Julie lived in a small apartment at the end of an alley facing west. She named the alley "Sunrise Alley," because that's the kind of girl she was.
The first time she asked him in, the Blue Wonder declined.
"I have plans," he said.
"Oh, that's okay. Maybe next time."
But the next time he said no again, and the time after that, too. He got tired of hurting her, though, so the next time, he said yes.
Her apartment smelled like what Henry imagined a particularly clean rat farm might smell like. She had a wobbly coffee table stacked and stuffed with old New York Times and MAD magazines. On the far wall, there was a bookshelf topped with a stuffed Howard Zinn and an array of mischievous looking penguins.
She put on Abbey Road and went about making coffee.
"You'll stay for dinner?"
"I really shouldn't."
She frowned, then smiled. "I want to show you something."
She led him into the bedroom, which felt slightly smaller than a broom closet. It smelled like vanilla and cheese.
"Lie down," she said.
The Blue Wonder looked from her to the bed.
"You have to lie down or it won't look right."
Julie turned off the lights. The room glowed a pale violet. Not things in the room, the room itself.
"Special paint," Julie said, sliding into bed next to the Blue Wonder. "Neat, huh?"
"Why'd I have to get in bed?"
They both had their clothes on but the Blue Wonder's skin tingled anyway.
"I really have things to do," he said.
"Do you have a secret life I should know about?"
Her blue-gray eyes sparkled in the violet glow. He wanted to tell her everything. He kissed her instead.
She unbuttoned his shirt. He ran a hand through her autumn hair.
They stopped to breathe. Her lips were impossibly red.
"Are you okay?" he asked.
"I think so," she said. She touched her lips. "It tingles a bit."
"Me, too," he said. "Do you want to stop?"
"Tingly is good," she said. She pulled off her sweater.
They kissed some more. The Blue Wonder's heart churned. He pulled away.
"There was a girl," he said.
Julie unclasped her bra. "There's always a girl," she said.
"I don't want to hurt you," he said.
She bit his ear. "Tough," she said.
The Blue Wonder's heart ached. Julie's skin smoked. They made love despite the pain, or maybe because of it. Love's funny that way.
The Blue Wonder woke before sunrise. He forgot where he was, felt briefly terrified, and then saw Julie sleeping beside him, naked and tangled in the sheets as he was. Burns marked the places his lips had lingered longest. Her mouth, the side of her neck, the hollow between her breasts. Henry's skin was unharmed, except for the blossoming yellow-black bruise on his chest where she'd bit down as she came.
It hurt to look at her, a pain worse than flying.
He slipped gently from the covers and dressed. The room's violet glow dimmed as the sun rose on the opposite side of the building. He looked at the curve of Julie's shoulder, counted the freckles, and left.
Walking away in the long shadows of Sunrise Alley, he told himself it was better this way. Some people are meant to be alone. They have more important things to do than fall in love.
That was the first time the Blue Wonder's heart failed him.
The pain of flying worsened as the Blue Wonder got older. He had to fly lower, slower. Eventually purse thieves could outrun him.
After his failure in the alley, he hung up his Wonder suit, afraid of what would happen the next time his heart failed him when it mattered most. He called himself retired. Tried to go back to thinking of himself as plain old Henry Givens, son of a cotton farmer, owner of a gas station. He'd worked at the place so long that the previous owner, a brusque Guyanese man, had thought of Henry as a son and passed the place on to him upon his death.
Henry sold the place, left the city, and bought a house in the suburbs.
On September 11th, he watched the news like everyone else.
A few years later, the man who was once the Blue Wonder put on his topcoat and took a walk around his neighborhood. It was the first snow of the year and he wanted to be a part of it.
He was staring up at the sky when something small and determined struck his right side, just below the ribs, knocking him over.
A young girl, somewhere around eight or nine, looked down at him. Her hair was done up in braids, poorly.
Henry got up, brushed himself off. "That's all right, young lady. My name's Henry. What's yours?"
"Susan." Susan had a backpack slung over one shoulder.
"Where are you off to in such a hurry, Susan?"
"I'm running away."
"Oh. How do you think your parents feel about that?"
"I doubt they'll notice."
"That's horrible," Henry said.
The little girl shrugged and turned down the street.
"Do you mind if I run away with you?" Henry said.
"Okay, I guess," the girl said. "For a little while."
As they walked she told Henry about night crawlers and how long lightning bugs live in jars. "Not very long," she said.
They came to a small park in the center of the suburb. Susan sat on a bench and ate a sandwich. She offered half to Henry. He started to say no, but thought better of it. "Sure," he said. He sat down beside her.
When they both had finished, Susan pushed herself up and out onto the grass. She spun, her braids clicking.
"Can you do a cartwheel?" she said.
"I can," she said, and did. "I can also bend my thumbs backward and roll my tongue." All these things she showed him, and more, pirouetting and handstanding in the snow.
Henry started to cry.
"You okay, Henry? It's all right if you can't do anything special. Not everyone's as cool as me."
Henry smiled. He slipped a pair of gloves from his pocket and walked over beside her. "There is one thing I can do," he said. "But you have to trust me."
He held out his gloved hand. She leaned away, ready to run, then grabbed it. The air crackled. Her mussed hair got mussier. "Don't let go," Henry said. His heart hurt, but that was okay. He needed to fly slow anyway.
He took her over his gas station, skirted Sunrise Alley, and landed on his old rooftop.
They watched the snow as the city windows darkened. Then he took her back home, dropped her off in the park.
"Who are you, really?" she asked.
Henry floated a few feet off the ground, catching snow like a statue. His cheeks glistened. He smiled the kind of smile a mother smiles when she lies and says everything's going to be okay.
"I'm the Blue Wonder," he said, and then flew away into the night, leaving behind a small cloud of swirling, falling snow.