Plain Girl

When I got home from school Dad was hunched over a jar of peanut butter at the kitchen counter. I hadn’t seen him in a while so I grabbed an apple and leaned in the doorway.

“Hi, honey,” he said, wiping his mouth. “How was school?”

I shrugged and bit into my apple.

His face was stubbled, his hair was a mess, and it looked like he hadn’t showered since the last time I saw him. When he’s onto something big he can be gone for days at a time, coming home just long enough to shower and stuff his face with whatever he could find in the cabinets. Mom didn’t like him going out and she wasn’t shy about telling him. He was too old, she said. He had a family to think about. I never said anything, but I kind of agreed. Sometimes I had nightmares about him leaving and not coming back. Still, I wasn’t as worried as Mom. A lot of girls like to think their dads are superheroes. Mine actually is.

So I should tell you that my dad’s the Sentinel. Like the Sentinel. It’s not like anybody knows his identity or anything, but try having a date over when your dad’s standing there—and I’m not even kidding, his head almost touches the ceiling—with his meaty fists crossed over his chest, cracking his knuckles every two seconds and grunting like a silverback gorilla.

So when I invited Scott Peters over I was kind of hoping that Dad wouldn’t even be in the same zip code. The thing is, I’d had a crush on Scott all year. He had this blue car that was so shiny you could see your reflection in it, and his hair. Sometimes in class he put his feet on his desk and leaned back, and his hair fell across his shoulders like a movie star’s.

“I invited a friend over tonight,” I said. “Hope that’s okay.”

“Of course it is,” Dad said. “Which friend? Laura?”

I cleared my throat. “Scott,” I said.

Dad paused with a spoonful of peanut butter halfway to his mouth. I could see his wheels turning, but I was his daughter and he loved me, and that meant leverage.

We held eyes. We’d played this game before and I was better at it. I cocked an eyebrow and took another bite of my apple. “And it would be so cool if you’d give us a little time to watch a movie and maybe study,” I said. “I know you’re really busy, anyway.”

“You mean leave you alone?” Dad said. “With a boy?”

“Don’t you trust me?” I said, batting my eyes. This was a trick he’d taught me when I was little. It was my most effective weapon against him.

He grunted something unintelligible and I knew I’d won. He brought the peanut butter the rest of the way to his mouth. It fell off his spoon and plopped on the counter.

Scott pulled up at six. Dad stayed just long enough to grill Scott with questions and glare at him a little. “I’ll be back in a couple hours,” he said. “If you need anything, just call.” He lingered at the door a moment. “I probably don’t have to tell you this, but don’t do anything crazy. And if you get hungry I left potato wedges in the—“

“Dad,” I said, crossing my arms.

“Okay, okay,” he said, shouldering a duffel bag. For a second I wondered where he was going, but the thought disappeared quickly. I had more important things to worry about.

I listened for his car before turning to Scott. “Guess it’s just you and me,” I said, leading him to the living room. To be honest, I was a little nervous. I’d been kind of seeing him for a week, but we hadn’t been alone yet.

I’m not dumb. I knew we were supposed to do things like hold hands and maybe kiss a little. I brushed my teeth twice before he came, but when I sat down I was wondering how many girls he’d kissed—like if he was a pro and I’d seem like an idiot because I’d only kissed Bobby Maori once, and that was last summer. Or if my breath suddenly got bad like it did sometimes in first period when I was still tired and I breathed with my mouth closed. I wondered if my boobs looked big enough, or if my wrists seemed fat.

I reached for the remote and he shifted in his seat and brushed my hand. It was so soft it could have been an accident, but he didn’t even seem to notice. “Thanks for inviting me over,” he said, inching closer until I could feel the heat of his body.

I started the movie and we sat for a long time with our legs grazing. He nudged closer until our hips touched, and then our arms. He took my hand and my heart almost exploded. Dimly, I heard the movie, but I couldn’t concentrate on it. I felt like all my senses had gathered into one spot so all I could hear, see, smell, touch, and taste was my hand in his.

He leaned into me. I turned and saw his face, and then his lips, and I leaned into him, too. Our lips met. I closed my eyes.

And the phone rang.

Dammit, I thought. I got up and stalked to the kitchen. “Hello?”

“Emily.” It was Dad. Leave it to him to mess up one of my dates when he wasn’t even home.

“Dad,” I huffed. “You said you were leaving me alone for a while.”

“Listen to me, Emily.” His voice sounded serious. It kind of made me nervous. “I need to talk to your mother.”

“She’s not home yet,” I said.

He paused for a long time. I knew he was still there because I could hear him breathing heavily like he did when he was thinking.

“Are you okay?” I said.

“I’ve been calling your mother, but she isn’t answering. Something’s come up.”

I heard a banging like a gunshot on Dad’s end and I jumped. “What was that?” I said. “Dad, what’s going on?”

He didn’t answer, and for a while all I could hear was his breathing. “Crap,” he finally said. “I’m out of time.”

“What is it?” I said. “What’s happening?”

“Emily, I need you to call your mother. Tell her I’m at 84 Oakwood Glen. She’ll understand.”

I searched for a pen. “What was the address again?”

“84 Oakwood Glen,” he said. “Do you need me to spell it?”

“I’m not ten, Dad.” Sometimes he treated me like a little girl. Whether he was in trouble or not, he could still be annoying.

“Okay, then. What are you going to do?”

I went over everything again before saying goodbye.

“And Emily,” he said before I hung up.

I resisted the urge to sigh loud enough so he’d know just how irritating he was being. “Yeah, Dad?” I looked in on Scott. Seeing him in the living room, I felt like it was Christmas morning, like he was a present waiting to be unwrapped. How weird is that?

“I love you,” Dad said.

It’s not like he never told me he loved me or anything, but the way he said it gave me the chills. It was like he was saying goodbye.

“I love you, too,” I said, stunned, and then he hung up.

I stared at the phone for a minute before trying Mom’s cell. She didn’t pick up, which wasn’t surprising. She was just as bad as Dad when she was working. I tried her a few more times, but she didn’t answer. Typical.

Well I gave it my best. I left her a message and went back to the living room. “What’d I miss?” I said, sitting beside Scott.

“I don’t know what you missed,” he said, taking me in his arms. “But I missed you.” It was the sweetest thing anybody had ever said to me.

We kissed for a long time, his hands searching my hips and then my sides, and slowly—so slowly—circling to my stomach and wandering up the edges of my shirt. But even though I was with Scott, I kept thinking of Dad. The way he said goodbye really bugged me, and I couldn’t get his voice out of my head. I tried to push it away, believe me, but it kept coming back.

I opened my lips just enough to feel Scott’s tongue dart into my mouth, but when I closed my eyes all I could see was Dad. I sighed and sat up.

“What is it?” Scott said. “What’s wrong?”

I’d never had anything to do with Dad’s crime fighting before, so it came as a surprise even to me when I said, “I need you to take me somewhere.”

84 Oakwood Glen was a large warehouse in the middle of nowhere, spackled with graffiti and shuttered by boards. A huge, empty parking lot of cracked asphalt surrounded it like a dark, rocky sea. Islands of grass shot through the cracks.

“What is this place?” Scott said, turning off the car.

I hadn’t given much thought to what I was going to tell him, but I knew it couldn’t be the truth. “I have a friend inside who needs something,” I said. Lame, I know, but it was the best I could come up with on short notice. I’ve never been much of a liar.

He seemed to believe me, though. “Then let’s go,” he said, stepping out of the car.

“No!” I said. “I mean, this friend, he’s shy, and he wouldn’t like it if someone he didn’t know came. Honestly, he probably doesn’t even want me here.”

“Okay,” Scott said, frowning. “So you want me to just sit here while you go in there?”

He had a point. The warehouse looked like it might be haunted, and the sun sat low on the horizon, turning the sky an eerie orangey-purple. It would be night soon and the place would be dark. I did not want to go in alone, but I couldn’t chance Scott finding out my dad’s identity, either. That would be worse than a million ghosts.

I forced myself to smile. “Thanks for understanding,” I said, kissing him on the cheek and leaving him with his mouth hanging open.

It wasn’t until I neared the warehouse that I started thinking about how dumb this was. I mean, Dad had asked for Mom, not me. What could I possibly do? The bravest thing I’d ever done was jump off a rope swing last summer, and I screamed the entire way down. And knowing Dad, literally anything could be waiting inside.

I stopped at the door and took a deep breath. Was I really going through with this? Dad probably didn’t even need my help. He was the Sentinel. He could handle anything.

But then I thought of the way his voice sounded on the phone and for some reason it made me think of Easter a long time ago, when I went to a giant party at my friend Jayla’s house. Her mom was crazy about stuff like that, so the whole yard—over an acre of land with a little pond and a stretch of trees bordering the lawn—was done up with giant rabbits in overalls, baby chicks with bowties, and giant golden eggs. There was even a cage with real rabbits in it. Everybody had come. Christy Schmidt was there, and Leah Burton. Pete Horowitz and Patrick Reilly and Samantha Orton, too. It seemed like my entire second-grade class had shown up to Jayla’s party. Our moms sat on Mrs. Douglas’ veranda drinking wine and watching us play.

It was all so magical. Mrs. Douglas had strewn colorful streamers around the entire yard, making everything cheerful and fun. I felt like I’d been transported to a mystical world where I could wave a wand and fly with fairies and play hide and seek with nymphs. For hours we played, until Mrs. Douglas came down and handed us golden and silver baskets brimming with Easter grass. It was time, she said, for the Easter egg hunt. The moment we’d been waiting for all day. And the best part, she said, was that you got to keep your eggs—chocolate and candy-coated treats—and the person who found the most would win a super secret prize. She lined us up next to the house and counted down from ten. By the time she got to one my heart was like a rabbit bounding in my chest. The air sparkled.

Go! She yelled. We were off, little bunnies foraging for colorful eggs amidst rocks and tall grass. I was never very athletic, so I watched as Pete, Jayla, and Christy sped to the eggs in plain sight and stuffed them in their baskets. Patrick bent over and found an egg hidden in a bush. After five minutes, Jayla skipped by me. She had four eggs in her basket. Christy had five. I didn’t have any.

I scoured the lawn but didn’t find a single egg. After ten minutes everybody’s baskets were filling up and I still hadn’t found any. Mrs. Douglas told us that we had five minutes left, then four. When she told us we had three minutes, I wandered to a patch of trees, sat on a rock, and cried. I didn’t understand why everyone seemed so good at finding eggs and I was so bad.

When we had one minute left I heard a rustling in the trees. I got up to investigate and found my dad waiting behind a pine tree with a finger to his lips. I didn’t know how he got there, but seeing him only made me cry harder. I ran to him and clasped tightly to his legs and told him everything.

“It’s okay,” he said, rubbing my back. He pointed out an egg in the crook of a tree, and another behind a stone. He scanned the yard quickly and pointed out egg after egg. I skipped over and collected them all. After depositing the last one in my basket I turned back to him with a huge grin, but he was gone.

Years later I found out that he’d come because he heard me crying. Out of everything else his super hearing picked up he’d recognized my voice, and he’d sprinted all the way from downtown to the west side. Six miles in under two minutes. He’d come, hands shaking with fear, ready to fight for me.

Now it was me who’d come for him. I eased the doorknob and entered a huge, dim room that smelled like basements and motor oil. The floor was concrete and the ceiling was a lattice of metal beams and ginormous pipes. Dim light filtered through filthy windows. I wrinkled my nose. Seriously, who would want to hang out here?

The room was filled with stacks of cobwebby pallets, and everything from rusted car parts to crumpled magazines littered the floor. I held my breath and tiptoed through a maze of pallets.

It was so quiet that I started thinking I’d come to the wrong place. As messy as the warehouse was, it looked like nobody had been here for years. When I started to turn back, though, I spotted something weird enough to make me pause. A humanlike thing crouched in the corner of the room, covered in jet-black flesh that gleamed here and there in the dim light. Every instinct screamed at me to run, but for some reason I didn’t. As I got closer I saw that the thing’s flesh was lumpy, like giant metal scales that rose into a perfectly normal head with hair exactly like… but no, that was impossible. I stepped over a pile of greasy clothes and skirted a stack of pallets. When I saw what it was I gasped.

The human-monster thing was my dad, and the black, metal flesh was the biggest chain I’d ever seen wrapped around his entire body. Was my dad really chained up? I blinked hard, but he was still there when I opened my eyes.

As I crept closer I saw that his face was covered in blood. This might sound crazy, but it was like my dad was somebody else entirely. His hair was gray and his skin was lined with wrinkles. The way he sat with his head down he looked old, and I’d never seen him like that.

I tried to be as quiet as a mouse, but score one for Emily Langston, I kicked a stack of those dumb pallets on the way. They teetered, and before I could catch them, they crashed to the ground. Dad’s head snapped up and his jaw dropped.

Emily,” he said. “Get out of here right now.”

I edged closer, pretending I hadn’t heard. “I don’t think anyone’s here,” I said.

He opened his mouth to say something, but somebody spoke up before he did.

“Nobody here but us.”

I spun around and bumped into the largest man I’d ever seen. I mean, my eyes were level with his belly button and his arms were as big around as my waist. He bent over me. “What do we have here?” he said. Even though his face was broad his eyes were set too close. His breath smelled like a liver and spinach sandwich.

Dad straightened in his chair, his chains clinking. “Tank,” he said, eyes narrowing. “No.”

“No, what?” Tank said, sneering. “You’re not in a position to order me around, and I think you know my policy on witnesses.” He drew his arm back, and before I realized what was happening he backhanded me and I went flying. I landed hard, the air exploding from my lungs.

I tried to get up, but a wave of nausea dragged me back down. I curled into a ball, coughing, and gasped air in ragged breaths.

Distantly I heard Dad cry out. His chains rattled and he called to me.

I’m fine, I tried to say, but my chest was so tight I couldn’t get the words out. Besides my face feeling like a bruised apple and my lungs feeling like a smushed watermelon, I felt great. Peachy.

Tank wheeled on me. “Still alive,” he muttered. “You’re a tough one, huh?” He lowered his head and stalked over like a bull.

Dad’s eyes went wide and he fought his chains like an animal. They jangled and clanked. He roared and pulled at them until they groaned, stretched, and finally snapped like a clap of thunder. Without pausing he rushed Tank, lacing his fists and clubbing him in the jaw. Tank crashed across the room, splintering through stacks of pallets and slamming into a support beam.

Dad knelt beside me. He checked my pulse and pinched my eyelids open to look at my pupils. “What were you thinking coming here?” he said. His jaw trembled.

“I wanted to help,” I said, coughing.

He put out a hand to cut me off. “You’re leaving. We’ll talk about this later.”

“I’m not a little girl,” I said, holding his eyes. “Don’t you trust me?”

“Of course I do,” he said. “But if you got hurt…”

Tank shook himself and with a snarl he shot up.

Dad got up and stood in front of me. “Stay behind me,” he said.

Tank lunged. They crashed into each other, Tank swinging his fists like sledgehammers. Dad blocked most of the blows, but Tank landed one and like lightning he was on top of Dad, pounding so hard that his head cracked the concrete.

Fighting a wave of nausea I willed myself up. I scoured the floor for some kind of weapon… for anything. A metal pipe lay beside a stack of nearby pallets, but I hesitated. Is this really me? I wondered. Maybe I was a little scared. I’m not what you’d call the fighting kind of girl.

As I stood dumbfounded, Tank drove Dad’s head right through the concrete and all my thoughts vanished. I hefted the pipe, its metal ringing against the concrete. Nobody hurts my dad.

“Get off him!” I yelled, sprinting over and swinging the pipe. It clanged against Tank’s ribs, but it didn’t even slow him down. I didn’t slow down, either. I swung again and again. I didn’t stop until he caught the pipe and threw it across the room.

“Wait your turn,” he said, scowling. “When I’m done with him, you’re next.”

“I’m not afraid of you,” I said, scowling right back.

Tank shoved me away with the flick of a wrist. I flew ten feet, tripping over an open paint can, slipping, and sprawling into a puddle of the ugliest forest green I’d ever seen. As if this day wasn’t bad enough. I got up, disgusted, and flicked paint off my jeans. I wanted to leave more than ever now, but then I saw Tank wrap his hands around my dad’s neck and something hardened inside of me. I understood then that love is more than a feeling that you have for another person. It’s also hatred for anyone who would hurt them.

Even with everything going on around me, I thought about that Easter again. Dad was gone for most of the day, and by the time he got back it was dark. He came in without a word and sat in the living room with the lights off. I wanted to tell him all about the egg hunt, so I ran and sat on his lap. I yammered on and on until I noticed how quiet he was being. When I looked up at him, I was stunned into silence. He looked sad. I didn’t know he got that way.

“What’s wrong?” I said.

He pulled me close. “Nothing,” he said, hugging me. “Nothing at all.”

I felt his tears slide down my chin. I never found out what happened to him that day.

I scanned the warehouse but came up with nothing. Besides the garbage scattered all over the floor, the place was empty. I couldn’t shake the feeling that the warehouse was more than it seemed, though. There had to be a reason that Dad had tracked Tank here.

Come on, Emily, I thought. What are you going to do?

I rushed around the warehouse, searching anxiously through stacks of dented boxes and long, maze-like aisles of pallets. I finally found my answer at the far end of the warehouse. A forklift lay like a napping lion in front of a set of bay doors. It looked new. If I was a betting girl, I’d say it worked. All I had to do was figure out how to drive it.

I hopped into the seat and searched around before finding the key in the ignition. I turned it and the forklift purred to life. A stick shift by the seat read “forward” and “reverse.” Seemed easy enough. I jerked the stick forward, gave it gas, and drove right into a wall. I reversed into a support beam and pulled forward again, knocking over a stack of those dumb pallets.

After a few awkward moments I started to get the hang of it. I rounded a row of pallets and saw Tank straight ahead. Giving the forklift gas, I steered a path right for him. Tank was bent over my dad when I slammed into him at full speed, knocking us in all directions.

The forklift veered and toppled, throwing me from the seat. Groaning, I got to my hands and knees. By the time I lurched to my feet I saw that my forklift trick had been enough to give Dad the upper hand. It wouldn’t last long, though. Tank was already fighting Dad off, and Dad seemed to be getting more tired by the second. I guess it takes more than a few tons of metal to stop a supervillain.

After today, let me tell you, I was leaving the hero-ing to Dad. My shirt was ruined, I was cut and bruised, and I don’t care how it sounds but I broke a nail. Call me girly, but nails take a long time to grow. They’re a commitment, is what I’m saying. Still, I was in this with Dad, and if he hadn’t quit yet, neither would I. What I needed to do was think outside the box. Dad was known for his ability to not just use his fists but his head. I needed to do that, too. In the corner, by the chair I’d found Dad in, his chain glimmered in the faint light. Most of it lay in shattered links, but a long segment rested unbroken beside the chair. I ran over, grabbed a link, and started dragging it. If you’ve never carried a chain before, by the way, the things are heavy. I put my entire body into it, jerking closer to Dad inch by inch.

By the time I reached him I was sweating and my arms burned. I was probably going to have blisters on my palms. Dad reached out and grabbed the chain, and in one fast motion he looped it around Tank and fastened it to the ground.

I think they call that irony. Get it? Iron-y?

With both hands freed, he struck Tank in the temple and Tank went limp. Dad rolled off of him, breathing heavily.

After a minute he got up. I’d never seen him lift cars, beat up ten guys at once, or take machine gun bullets and keep going. I knew he could do all that, but it had always seemed remote because to me he was just Dad. But as he stood over Tank with his chest out and his arms akimbo, I saw the superhero that everybody else saw when they looked at him. It’s funny when you think about the way you see people, especially those you see every day. Even though Dad looked the same as he had that afternoon, he also looked completely different. I wasn’t sure if he’d ever look the same again.

“Good job,” he said between breaths. In the distance I heard what sounded like a fleet of sirens.

“Sounds like your mom finally got our messages,” he said. “You should get out of here so I don’t have to explain why I needed my daughter to help me fight the most dangerous man on the East Coast.”

I thought about Scott and I got that feeling of excitement like a million ladybugs in my stomach. “Are you sure?” I said. “You don’t need anything else?”

“Go,” Dad said. “Get out of here and have a good time with Scott. But be back by ten.”

“Ten?” I said. “I’m sixteen, Dad. And I just saved your life.”

Dad shook his head and chuckled. “Eleven, then. Be back by eleven.”

“Eleven?” I said.

Dad glared at me.

“Eleven’s good,” I said.

That Easter I wanted Dad to read me a story before I went to bed. I needed him to read me a story. He still hadn’t moved from the living room, though, and Mom said he was too tired. But I was in second grade. What did I know? I insisted that he read to me or I wasn’t going to bed. I’d never go to bed again in my entire life.

Now I’m better at the game of wills than my dad, but I don’t hold a candle to my mom. She sat at the foot of my bed with Where the Wild Things Are opened on her lap, and she cocked an eyebrow at me that told me I’d never eat ice cream again. That was the kind of will Mom had. I folded my arms and pouted, knowing that I’d lost, but just as Mom began to read I heard Dad clomping up the stairs. He’d heard me pleading with mom. Of course he’d heard. He could hear whispered conversations from miles away. He could hear a cat sneaking up on him.

“It’s okay,” Dad said, coming in the room. “I’ll read to her.”

Mom got up and left us. Dad sat down and licked his thumb like he always did before he read. When he finished I asked him to read again, and then again. He inched his chair closer and read to me over and over again. I don’t remember how many times he read the book, but at some point he began making voices for Max. He rumbled and stomped through the room and he became the monsters. When he finished, he set the book down and smiled at me. I smiled back, feeling like I’d accomplished some big thing.

A squad of police cars screeched into the parking lot just as me and Scott pulled out of the warehouse. Once they were behind us the night was quiet in the way that only a summer night can be. The sun dipped below the horizon and the moon shone fat and white in the sky. Along the road the trees were heavy with leaves touched black by the night. Scott took my hand. We drove in silence, our fingers laced together, and the road stretched on like it would never end.

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