By Robert D. Mattern
Late on Halloween night, Lumino took to the streets. With a yank, he tugged the string behind his head into a knot and his mask—a black figure eight—hugged his cheekbones and the bridge of his nose. He made the jump out of his bedroom window and shimmied down the branch—a feat he had been too afraid to manage just yesterday. But today was different. With his cape flowing behind him, he harnessed the strength of twelve suns and was armed with the goodwill of all the universe.
As he crept around the side of his house, he gripped the cape at its edges and gave it a quick swish. The cape was something of a marvel. A hood covered his head, and from there it billowed down to his ankle—dark and heavy. When he grabbed the corners and draped the fabric across the chest, the black cloaked him entirely. But if he stood, hands on his hips in his most heroic pose, a burst of yellow shown through the underside of his cape ready to blind any thief in the night.
This uniform was no fake. Just as the legend of Lumino had foretold, he had been chosen.
It was almost eleven-thirty and it was a Tuesday. The children had long since retreated home with their parents and the shift of wild teenagers who had taken their place were starting to dwindle on the streets of his neighborhood. Soon, it would no longer be Halloween. Soon, it would just be November.
His costume from earlier in the evening had been a fake. It had been a yellow Power Ranger costume with a Zorro cape tied around his neck—both unofficial, both made in China. He had tugged at the hem of his mother’s dress and had pointed at the Lumino costume behind the counter of the costume shop. His mother had relented for a moment, but upon seeing the price tag, had declined. He wore his makeshift costume with zeal, stretching the cape across his chest until there were creases and throwing it apart at the doorstep of each house to expose the wrinkled yellow chest of his costume. Each time he reached a door step, he heard his parents speak to each other with sharp, punctuated bursts. And each time he returned with a new piece of candy, they greeted him with wide, dishonest smiles.
After half a block of trick-or-treats, his father had left them behind with big, determined stomps. After a full block, his mother dried her cheeks and told him it was time to go home. He hung up his costume, brushed his teeth, went downstairs for a hug goodnight, and tucked himself into his bed.
But this was behind him. He ducked his head and ran as quickly as he could, arms tucked inward, with scurried little feet, taking cover between each house on his block.
When he reached the Johnstons’ yard, he paused for breath. With his uniform, his street seemed so small. In a short amount of time, he had traveled nearly the entire length of his trick-or-treat route. But beyond his neighborhood, the world seemed so big. The asphalt separating sidewalk from sidewalk was now a thin line, but it was a thin, straight line that extended outward toward infinity.
There was a rustle down the street from where he had come. A bush shook in two directions. Then, a figure, blurred by distance, knocked into a metal trashcan. The lid came off and its contents filled the street. Adventure.
He hugged his cape across his chest and sprinted down that infinite line.
“Stop!” he cried. “Stop! Stop!”
The figure looked in his direction, and then disappeared into the spaces between two houses.
When he got to the trash can, he shoved its contents back into the can, using the lid as a scooper, and being careful to practice the good hygiene his mom had taught him. “Don’t touch it,” his mother would always say, “you don’t know where it’s been.” Earlier that evening, after the package had sailed through the open air of his window, he had tackled it with the gloves from his Halloween costume. He had been careful as he pulled the twine from the paper package. Even after arranging the pieces of the uniform on the ground, he was hesitant to react with anything but caution. But when he found the business card among the wrapping debris, caution fell away and he processed what had happened. It was as he traced the golden outline of the light bulb that he accepted his destiny. The symbol of Lumino. He had been chosen, and it was his turn to take the mantle of his hero, the fearless hero of light.
With some effort, he pushed the trashcan back against the curb. And then he saw it. A deliberate mark spray-painted to a nearby tree. It was a light bulb. And underneath the light bulb was an arrow pointing down the street.
Lumino hugged his cape across his chest and looked around him. The people of his neighborhood had retired to their homes. Only a few people remained, tidying up their porches, cleaning spilled candy. Lumino pulled the business card from his pocket and examined the light bulb. It was a dead match for the one on the tree.
With a deep breath and ardent strides, he followed the arrow. There were other arrows drawn on the street. Most of them were done in chalk. No light bulbs, just yellow left arrows. He zigzagged back and forth across his street. He went up the street, and then he went down the street. He followed the invisible labyrinth created by arrows until finally, he found it. A small, indistinct arrow drawn at the base of a step leading to a walkway of a house on his street.
This arrow was not like the others. It was a reward for the attentive. It was no more than an inch wide on either side, and a wet thumb could easily rub it off, erasing its existence forever. Lumino took a steeled himself and strode up the walkway.
Before he could ring the doorbell, the door cracked open just a little bit. He couldn’t make out the person behind it, but he could tell that they were much taller than he was and that they, too, were wearing a mask.
“Lumino,” the person behind the door whispered. It was a woman’s voice, not unlike his mother’s.
He paused for a moment, and then threw back one shoulder of his cape so that a sliver of his yellow uniform showed. “That’s me,” he whispered, matching her tone.
“Prove it,” she said.
He dug through his pockets and produced the card—the one with the golden lightbub—and held it out. A hand emerged from the doorway to take it, and as the woman on the other side read it, Lumino placed both hands on his hips and announced, “There can only be one hero of light!”
The woman moved behind the door and pulled it open. “Come in,” she whispered. “Quickly.”
Lumino stared into empty doorway in front of him. He threw his cape behind him, and with as much majesty he could muster, he walked into the house.
The house was not unlike his own. There were bookshelves, a TV, and a kitchen. There was carpet, but this carpet was cleaner and did not smell like cats. Lumino noticed that this house on the whole much tidier. As if each object in the house was in place to say something, rather than to be used.
The woman had disappeared outside for a few seconds, but returned quickly and shut the door behind her. She was a tall woman, around his parents’ age. Her cowl was orange and allowed her long, brown hair to emerge from it and cascade past her shoulders. Her uniform was similar to Lumino’s, but red and without a cape. And in place of a light bulb, her chest showed a candle.
“Lumino, we need to get to work,” she said, turning one lock by hand and one lock by key. “This city is in danger, and we are the only ones who can stop it.”
She spoke slowly and in a high voice—the kind of voice his teacher at school used while she was giving out spelling tests.
“Sit down,” she said, motioning toward the sofa.
He made his way to the sofa, running his hands over the course fabric as he did. He stopped behind it. “Who are you?” he asked.
She laughed. It was a quick, shrill laugh. One that made him second-guess everything he knew. “I’m Flicker!” she said. “Don’t you know Flicker? Your trusted sidekick?”
He made frowned. “Flicker is a boy.”
“No, no, no, no,” she said, as she made her way past him and patted the area next to her on the sofa. “Sit down and I’ll explain.”
He rounded the sofa, still dragging his finger along it, before sitting down on the oversized arm and facing her.
“You’re the new Lumino, right?” she asked. “This is your first night as Lumino?”
“Right. Okay. They told me that’s what was happening. Anyway, I’m the new Flicker.”
He shook his head. “There aren’t new Flickers,” he said. “Flicker lives forever, so there doesn’t need to be new Flickers all of the time.”
She shrugged and batted her hair behind her shoulder. “I don’t know what to tell you Lumino. I got a package earlier this evening with this uniform and with a note. And do you know what that note said?”
“No,” he said.
“It told me that you,” she poked his knee, “were going to be knocking on my door tonight. Isn’t that amazing?”
“Did you knock over the trashcan?” he asked.
“The trashcan outside.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” She stood up and made her way to the kitchen and she drummed her fingers on the counter before opening the cabinet and grabbing some plates. “Listen,” she said. “We have a lot more to worry about than trashcans.” There was a basket of fruit on her counter and Lumino could see it from the sofa, were he remained. There were apples, bananas, and plums. Each one perfect, ripe color. He might have suspected they were fake, had she not pulled one of the shiny apples from the basket and started slicing. “Darkness,” she continued. “Dark forces are descending upon our city, Lumino. People need us. You know what Lumino and Flicker say to each other, right?”
“Light every dark corner,” Lumino said quietly. He slid off the couch. “I think I should go home.”
At the counter, Flicker was throwing slices of apples onto two small plates. “Are you kidding me, buddy?” she said. “You can’t go now!”
“My mom is going to wonder where I am.”
“Your mom?” Flicker asked. She stepped in front of Lumino and held out a small plate of apple slices. “You need a snack.”
Lumino opened his hands and gripped the plate. Flicker lingered for a moment and then retreated to the kitchen for the rest of the apple slices. Lumino held his plate in front of him and stood still. “I’m not hungry.”
“Listen, your mom…” Flicker started, plate in hand, “…I talked to your mom before you got her. I told her everything. I told her about what happened to us. She was very excited.” She took her seat once more on the sofa and patted beside her. “Come on. Sit.”
“I’m not hungry,” said Lumino again.
“Then save it for later. But a hero needs energy. A hero needs to eat.”
Lumino held on to his plate and walked along the bookshelf staring at the books. They were new books, big books with glossy jackets. More books than he had ever seen at a house.
“I know we’re new, but I know you know the drill. I’ve watched you. I know you’re an expert. I know you know everything there is to know about Lumino.”
At the edge of the bookshelf, there was another book. A shorter book. A fraction of the size of the others.
“Which means I know you know about all of the evil villains who are out to get us.”
With his plate in one hand, Lumino reached for the small book with his other hand. With a few small nudges from his index finger, he pulled it loose from the book shelf and held it by the spine. On the cover was a drawing of a small boy riding a dinosaur. There were indistinguishable crayon scribbles on the cover. Before he could pry it open, Flicker reached a hand over him, pulled the book from his hand and placed it on a high shelf, out of his reach.
“Lumino, pay attention,” she said. “We might have to go into hiding.”
“I don’t want these,” he said, handing her his apples. “I’m not hungry.”
“Okay,” she said. “It’s okay. You don’t have to eat them.” She took his plate. He looked at the door and without speaking, he took a big, soft step in its direction. She moved in front of him and got down on one knee so that they were eye level. “Listen, buddy,” she said. “I know it’s scary. Whoever said that being a hero was easy, huh?”
He stared at the door, and when she was in his way completely, he diverted his stare to the floor.
“Are you thirsty, buddy?” she asked.
“Okay,” she said. “I’ll get us a nice cold drink, and then we can sit down and plan out how we’re going to take down the bad guys. Does that sound nice?”
She brought out two glasses from the cupboard and poured them with lemonade from the refrigerator. As she did this, he walked along the rest of the wall. Frames adorned it. In the frames, there was a woman with long, brown hair and a man with dark brown eyes. There were older photos of these two alone. They were young and happy. As he walked along the wall, he noticed that the photos became newer and a small boy started to appear in the photos. A little boy, grinning wide. At his oldest, the little boy never looked older than Lumino.
He walked back over to Flicker as she mixed heaping spoonfuls of white into each glass. “Lemonade is always too sour for me,” she said. “I always need to add sugar. Do you ever add sugar to your lemonade?”
Lumino shook his head. “My mom doesn’t let me drink lemonade very often.”
“What?” she said. “What does she let you drink?”
“Milk and juice, mostly.”
“That’s good,” she said. “That’s what a growing boy should drink.” She took a deep breath, replaced the lid on the small container with the sugar, and pushed it aside. “We’ll treat ourselves this once. How does that sound?”
He took the glass from her. He made no expression and gave her no affirmation. Instead he gripped the glass, rubbing the condensation with his finger.
“It’s not every day you get to save the world. Right, buddy?” Flicker raised her glass to him. “Why don’t you take a sip and tell me how you like it?”
He looked down at the drink and then back up at her. “I know you’re not Flicker, Mrs. Hendricks.”
“What?” she said.
He pulled his mask off. “It’s me. It’s Derek. And I know you aren’t Flicker. There aren’t new Flickers. Flicker lives forever.”
The two of them stood in the kitchen motionless, neither looking the other in the eye. He set his glass on the table and grabbed her wrist.
“When my Aunt Sandy died, my mom got really sad,” he said. “Sometimes she would be sad, and other times she would want to play. She would want to play more than she ever did before.”
She set her lemonade back down on the counter and leaned against it.
Lumino picked his glass off the table. “When I’m sad, I like playing, too. Sometimes you have to play so you won’t be sad.” He started to bring his drink up to his lips, but Flicker reached over and caught the glass with her hand. It startled Lumino, and he dropped the glass. It broke very nearly into three clean pieces against the tiled floor. “I’m sorry!’ he cried.
But Flicker shook her head. “You should go now.”
“I can help,” he offered.
“No,” said Flicker. “You need to go home.”
She walked him to the door, unlocked both locks, and shut the door behind him before he could say goodbye. It was a cold walk home, and the length of his street ran on forever and ever.
He would get home and climb the tree to his room. He would take off the mask, wrap it back in its paper, and hide it under his bed. Maybe later he would be able to look at it again. Maybe one day he would be ready to face his destiny. But for now his destiny would have to occupy that abyss between the floor and his mattress.