Kind of Like a Superhero
It's a cloudy evening, and the autumn breeze makes Kendall shiver. He reminds Katie to zip up her coat. She passes him the colorful metal lunchbox she carries in her gloved hand and obeys, because big brothers always know best. Kendall sees her struggle for a moment. The fabric of her striped mittens slips over the zipper and snags between the teeth. He's about to kneel and help her, but Katie is determined. Eventually she solves the problem herself, and snuggles deep into her warm shield against the wind. Kendall hands over the lunchbox, and she accepts it halfheartedly.
"What's the matter?" Kendall asks, because he knows his little sister well enough to sense when she's troubled.
"Mmm," Katie hums under her breath. It's code for, 'I don't want to talk about it,' and 'I don't want to talk about it' means something's wrong.
He lets it go for now, though, because he knows if it's something important she'll tell him eventually, and if it's not, she'll forget about it by dinner time.
The siblings continue walking down the sidewalk. Kendall has his backpack on his shoulders and his hockey bag clenched in his right hand. He thinks about all the things he has to do tonight. Hockey practice with Logan, James, Carlos and the rest of the team has worn him out, and his shoulder aches from a particular rough check against the boards. Mom will be home from work to make dinner, but Kendall always helps her put away the dishes. It makes him feel important, like he's really helping out. Then Mrs. Knight calls him a sweetheart and puts her hand on Kendall's cheek, which is his favorite form of affection.
After dinner it's homework time. Homework is fairly time-consuming, but it's not too bad. Except for math. Logan is always enlisted to assist with fractions, because denominators and probabilities are tough. Even though Kendall has enough trouble concentrating already, Katie sometimes requires his help with her work, too, so Kendall ends up bouncing back and forth.
On weekends he relaxes and hangs out with his three friends. Sometimes Mom takes him and Katie somewhere special and the three spend the day as a family. But then Monday comes around, and the same tedious cycle is repeated: school, hockey, pick Katie up from the babysitter's, dinner, homework, bed. The babysitter's house is only a block down from the middle school, so as Kendall ambles home he grabs his sister on the way. Katie doesn't seem to mind the sitter's too much—although she resents the term babysitter, because, after all, she is six years old and not a baby—and usually chatters the entire walk home about the paintings she drew or the snacks she ate or the games she played, and Kendall nods and tells her that's great and he's glad she had fun.
He's still thinking about the work he has to do and how he's going to pretend his shoulder doesn't hurt while he's around Mrs. Knight, when Katie suddenly blurts out a surprising question: "How come we don't have a dad?"
He's caught off guard, and nearly freezes in his tracks. Kendall blinks a couple times and looks down at Katie, who's wrapped comfortably in her pink coat and still gripping her lunchbox loosely with her fingers. She keeps her eyes straight ahead.
"You know why," Kendall responds after a moment.
"I know why, but…," Katie starts. She finally looks up at her big brother. "But why?"
He gazes sadly into her soft chocolate eyes, just barely visible from the matching brown bangs that hang over her face. He shrugs his shoulders lightly. "Bad things just happen, I guess."
Katie seems satisfied for the moment, and Kendall unconsciously grabs his sister's hand as the two cross the street. He makes sure to double check for cars—left, right, behind. Her gloved hand feels warm and small in his. She doesn't let go when the two are once again to the safety of the sidewalk, but Kendall doesn't mind.
In Kendall's other hand, the hockey bag becomes heavier. He's suddenly a little uncomfortable. The moment is slightly overwhelming—his injured shoulder nags at him, the bag becomes a brick of lead, the backpack on his shoulders feels as though it wants to pull him to the ground, and the fact that Katie is still holding his hand makes him think he shouldn't be feeling this way.
He always knew one day Katie would ask him about Dad. He just figured he had a little more time. He wasn't sure why she suddenly began to wonder. Maybe something had happened at school, or at the babysitter's. Maybe she saw something on TV, or read something in a book. Maybe it just seemed odd that every other kid had a set of parents except for her.
"What do they do?" Katie asks.
Kendall sighs. "I don't know," he says dismissively. He changes his mind when he realizes he just lied to his baby sister. Because he does know. He had a dad for six years, until he was the same age Katie is now. He remembers his dad, and he misses his dad, but he's never had to talk about his dad. He's unsure of how to explain. "They're just… dads," Kendall offers, then adds for clarity, "Like moms, only not."
"But I don't… I don't get it," Katie grumbles, obviously becoming frustrated. She squeezes his hand tighter and scrunches up her face in that way she does when she isn't being understood. "What's a daddy do?"
Kendall bites on his lower lip, thinking. He's seen on TV that dads take their sons to baseball games and help them work on cars and teach them how to drive. He's seen dads dance with their daughters and warn them about boys and interrogate an unsuspecting date on prom night. But Kendall's dad never had a chance to do any of those things.
"Well, I guess they do a bunch of stuff," he says, slowly. Katie looks up at him in curiosity; a breeze whips her short hair around her head. He smiles softly and remembers all the things Dad did. "Like, teach you how to skate," Kendall explains, because without Dad, Kendall would never have made the team.
"They play catch with you and tell you stories at night." His throat gets a little tight. "Sometimes they help you with stuff, like your homework or tying your shoes. You get to ride on their shoulders if you get tired of walking, or maybe just for fun." He pauses and swallows down the unexpected emotion in his voice. "They're kind of like superheroes."
Katie stops walking, and she narrows her eyes in thought. "But, Kendall, you do all those things."
He releases his hold on her hand. He places his hockey bag on the ground because he can't lift it a moment longer. He only reflects for a moment before he realizes Katie is right. Dad and Mom always told him to take care of his baby sister. Kendall swore from the moment he first held her—a tiny pink bundle unscathed by the world outside—that he'd take care of her, no matter what happened.
He takes care of Katie just as much as Mom. If Mom ever has to work late, he cooks mac'n'cheese and PBJs. He reads Katie stories if Mom is ever too tired. He sings to her if she can't sleep. He gave her the nightlight in his room, even though he still misses it sometimes.
But he's not Dad. He could never be Dad. He's just Kendall, and he happens to have more responsibility than most twelve-year-olds.
As he prepares to answer his sister, he inhales shakily. But he'll smile when he looks at her, because if he did anything else she may sense his uneasiness.
"Maybe," he ultimately tells his sister. He kneels in front of her so the two are eye-level and playfully tugs on a lock of her hair, lighting a tiny smile on the corner of her lips. "But I'm not a dad, Katie. I'm your big brother."
"But you help me with stuff and you're my superhero," she says matter-of-factly. She tugs on his jacket—code for she wants him to stand and continue walking. So Kendall does, grabbing his hockey bag once more. Again Katie takes his hand, and again the two continue down the final block home.
His heart flutters nervously in his chest as Katie continues her assault of questions. "Did our daddy love me?"
And then, instead of fluttering, his heart plummets to his feet and he almost feels like crying. His mouth opens a bit in his bewilderment. Immediately the bag is dropped and he halts once more. Katie looks confused as Kendall places both calloused hands on her shoulders. "Of course he did," he says with all sincerity. "He loved us more than anything."
"Do you?" she wonders innocently.
"Do I what?" Because that can't be what she's asking.
He lowers his head and stares at the sidewalk, only for a few seconds. When he takes a calming breath and looks back up, her head is cocked cutely to the side and those big doe eyes are shimmering inquisitively. Katie's eyes almost defeat him, but he won't go down without a fight. "Why would you ask me that?" Kendall whispers dejectedly.
Katie shrugs nonchalantly. "Cause you said daddies are superheroes, and you're a superhero but not a daddy," she reasoned. "So if our daddy loved me, does that mean you do too?"
"You're my baby sister, of course I do. You shouldn't…" He pinches the bridge of his nose and quickly rubs at his eyes. "You shouldn't have to ask me that. You should just know."
"I was just checking."
She pulls on his jacket yet again, and this time when Kendall lifts the hockey bag it's a little lighter. They don't cross another street, but she takes his hand anyway.
He remembers the short time when they were a complete family: Mom, Dad, Kendall and baby Katie. It didn't seem right that as soon as one family member came, another one left. Kendall wonders if he'd be doing the same things he does now if Dad were here. He wonders if he'd still tuck Katie in at night, or pick her up from the babysitter's house, teach her how to catch a ball, limit the amount of time she spends watching FOX.
When the two approach their house, Kendall sees Mom's car pull into the driveway and remembers dinner.
"You need any help with your homework tonight?"
"Yeah," replies Katie, "but it's math." She pauses, then smirks. "Maybe we should call Logan."
It's a good idea, and he smirks along with her before Katie lets go of his hand to skip over to Mom. He figures big brothers can't have all the answers; otherwise they'd be superheroes.