“I sense an awful strength within me.”
When I was seven I did not perform my first miracle.
On the tips of bare toes, arm stretched so far it hurt, I placed the final red brick. This was the top of my tower. I had more Legos, but I could only reach so high. I stepped back to see what I had created.
It should have been a moment of triumph. But looking at the little red block at the top of my tower I wanted it taller. It wasn’t even a want. I felt no desire. I simply sensed that I had, within me, the ability to make it taller.
Shadow spread across my bedroom. The lamps didn’t dim, the sun didn’t set, but it was like something around me pushed away the light. The windows were closed, but gusts of wind lifted papers off my desk. Crayon drawings and pages marked with my childish scrawl flapped around me. I heard popping and realized the noise came from my hands. Blue sparks leapt from my fingertips to the Lego tower, spiraling around it like climbing vines.
With the sparks from my fingers came the knowledge of my abilities. With a thought I could do anything, cause anything, create anything. I could reach any height. In my mind I saw a Lego tower to rival the architecture of Rome.
But what did it mean? I’d read Spiderman comics. Great power and great responsibility and all that. The word responsibility was synonymous with cleaning my room and feeding the dog.
The sparks faded, the wind died down, and the light returned to normal. I closed my fist and punched through the Lego tower. Bricks scattered across the floor. I dragged my bare foot through them. Their corners poked at my skin.
At the breakfast table the next morning I dumped milk over my Cheerios, spilling as much on the table as into the bowl. My mother didn’t seem to notice.
The sun shone in the window over the kitchen sink, giving everything a lemon glow. The cheap dinette set. The chairs with chrome legs. The bowl, the Cheerios within. I pulled a few out with my fingers.
“Use your spoon,” said my mother.
I ate the Cheerios.
“I’m a miracle worker,” I told her.
“I always knew you were special.”
“What miracles can you perform?”
My mother got up from the table and took her plate to the sink. “Why don’t you get your father to pay child support, then?”
“That’s not really how it works.”
I reached in again with my fingers and grabbed more Cheerios.
Without turning around, my mother said, “Use your spoon.”
A dead frog sprawled in the pan in front of me. Its skin was milky brown and spongy to the touch. My lab partner, Natalie, pinched her nose at the smell of the formaldehyde. There were tears in her eyes.
“Are you sad?” I asked.
“Sad and disgusted,” she said.
The teacher stood at the glossy whiteboard, sketching a crude frog shape in blue marker. For the organs he used red. The finished product looked more like a map of an obscure island than an amphibian. He talked, but I didn’t listen.
“I’ve always kind of liked frogs,” said Natalie.
I poked our dead frog with the metal probe, as if trying to wake it from a nap. I wanted its eyes to snap open. I wanted its tongue to flick out as it yawned away murky dreams. I wanted Natalie to remain innocent in her like of frogs. What more did she need to know than their hopping?
I pointed my finger at the dead frog. Sparks arced into the rubbery body, sending spasms through the muscles. Natalie screamed and ran out of the room. Everyone was looking at me, but I had stopped when she screamed, so all my classmates saw was a confused boy and a dead frog. I shrugged.
The teacher followed Natalie into the hall. My classmates turned their attention elsewhere. I felt pained that I had frightened Natalie, when I only wanted to make her happy. A miracle, I learned, has unforeseen consequences. I flicked the frog with my finger.
It did not respond.
I swallowed the last bite of my ham sandwich and slurped the last dribble of liquid from my juice box. The sides of the box caved as I kept sucking up the air inside. I released my mouth and the box puffed back into its original shape.
Natalie sat down beside me and set her tray on the table. Her lunch consisted of a rectangle of pizza and a carton of milk.
“I’m sorry about in biology,” she said.
I shrugged. “Everybody screams.”
“What were you doing?”
“I’m a miracle worker.”
“You were bringing the frog back to life?”
“I guess so.”
“What else can you do?”
Natalie picked up the pizza and took a bite. The cheese looked like the skin of the frog. She chewed thoughtfully then took another bite and chewed thoughtfully again. She put down the pizza.
“Can you make me feel love?” she asked.
I looked into her eyes but nothing happened.
“I guess not,” she said.
Her eyes were very blue and beautiful.
I tried to pick out the music above the other sounds of the party. People danced in the next room. It was easier to see the beat in their movements than to hear it. Everyone was coupled up, boy-girl, boy-girl. They ground against each other. They held their beers high, red plastic cups suspended above the grind.
One of the frat boys came in and pumped the keg and thumbed the tap. Air sputtered out but nothing else.
“The keg’s tapped out,” yelled the frat boy.
Someone cut off the music. Those without drinks started moving toward the door. As the crowd thinned I saw Natalie standing in the far corner, sipping quickly from her drink without quite chugging.
I hadn’t seen her since high school. I hadn’t talked to her since long before that. Her hair was longer. She was in the middle of a group girls urging her to drink faster. Very few people remained in the room where they had been dancing.
I lifted the keg. It was surprisingly light. I wanted the party to continue. For that to happen, I needed more beer. I closed my eyes and felt the metal grow warm as sparks bounced around the empty interior. The room darkened.
It felt like beer was pouring directly into my brain, a layer of bubbles foaming just below my scalp. I leaned forward and couldn’t stop the motion. My fingers slipped. The keg clanged against the floor.
I awoke to one of the frat boys shaking me, slapping me lightly on the cheek. I got up and rushed to the other room.
It was empty. Natalie was gone.
I sat at the counter in Mussolini’s Pizza eating a slice. The crust was thin and greasy, sagging like wet paper. With each bite the fog in my head cleared a little.
The owner of the shop looked me up and down. He was a thin man with a fat face. A thick white mustache filled the space between his nose and lip and then some. He placed his hands on the counter and leaned toward me, shaking loose a dusting of flour from his skin.
“You look like hell,” he said.
“I’m a miracle worker.”
“You got sauce on your face.” He gestured to his own cheek.
I looked down at my napkin, saturated with red-orange grease, and shrugged.
My apartment was small and overlooked the city. I could see all the beautiful architecture, but mostly I saw the ugly roofs. They were stained by water and washed out by the sun. Dirt and debris gathered in the corners. Once, in a nearby window, I saw a woman changing clothes who looked like Natalie. I called out her name, but the intervening space stopped the sound from reaching her. Or it was not Natalie.
Someone knocked on my door. Three quick knocks.
I cracked open the door. My landlady was outside. She filled up a large muumuu and the folds of her chin hung down over her chest. A smoldering cigarette dangled from between two of her beefy fingers.
“Rent,” she said.
“Is it that time already?”
“You owe me for six months.”
“Let me get that for you.”
I closed the door and walked to the middle of the room. Where could I find three thousand dollars? I scavenged $4.53 from my pocket. I checked the cushions of the couch, but found only stale Cheerios.
I cracked the door.
“Six months?” I asked.
“In my hand right now or you’re evicted.”
“Just a moment.”
I closed the door.
Sparks jumped from my fingers. All the money I needed and more was only a snap away. I pointed at my palm and imagined the crisp green bills sitting there. I imagined the look on my landlady’s face as I handed her the money.
But no, a miracle is not for proving other people wrong.
I lowered my hand.
I pulled my suitcase from the hall closet and packed some t-shirts and some jeans and underwear and socks. I opened the door. My landlady was leaning against the opposite wall puffing on her cigarette.
I exited the building without saying a word.
My feet were propped up on the suitcase under a table at a fast food restaurant. I bit into my burger and with my free hand I stacked ketchup packets on top of each other. I could only stack three or four before they tumbled over. A line of people stretched back from the counter and all the tables were full. In the back corner near the bathroom a baby was crying.
I finished the burger and started in on the fries. A young black man set his tray on the table and sat down in the seat opposite me. His bald head reflected the fluorescent lights. He had a double cheeseburger and a large fry and a drink I couldn’t identify through the cup. He gestured at my suitcase.
“Going somewhere?” he asked.
He unwrapped his burger and the paper made crinkly noises.
“I’m a miracle worker,” I said.
“What exactly does that mean?”
“Whatever, I guess.”
He held his burger in front of me. “Can you heat this up? It’s cold.”
“You better take it back to the counter,” I said.
The man shook his head and left the table.
I ate my fries and some of his and I was gone before he returned.
Everything around me was brown.
I woke up in a cardboard box in an alley under an awning. The air was chill. My head rested on a wad of newspaper. My toes poked out of holes in my shoes. My stomach rumbled.
I crawled out of the box into the alleyway and stretched myself as tall as possible. In the next box over Phil was waking up, too. He shuffled out and straightened his back and folded his knees under him and sat on his heels. Phil was old and his skin was milky brown, almost translucent.
“Mornin’” I said.
He grunted something that wasn’t language.
It hit me without warning. My guts convulsed. I doubled over and fell to one knee. Phil came over and patted me on the back, then he walked off down the alleyway and out onto sunny Flotsam Street beyond.
My insides would not unclench, as if someone had stuck a fork in me and was twisting everything around like spaghetti. I closed my eyes and breathed slowly until I could tolerate the pain.
I looked at my cardboard box.
I thought of a fine brick house with a kitchen and a refrigerator full of food. I thought of a dinette set with chrome legs. I thought of the cool touch of cutlery.
I looked at my cardboard box.
I pointed my finger. Sparks jumped to the cardboard. A gust of wind ripped through the alley, kicking up discarded newspaper an little bits of debris I couldn’t identify. My brick house was just a thought away, but I saw Phil’s box out of the corner of my eye. Then I thought of every box in the city. Every box in the world. And all my thoughts were packed away in boxes.
With a few last pops the sparks faded. I walked out of the alley clutching my stomach.
The line stretched out into the street. Men in holey sweatshirts and dirty jeans shuffled closer to the door one step at a time. Everywhere the faint scent of vinegar wafted through the cold air. I crossed the threshold into the warmth of the room.
Smiling volunteers ladled brown slop into Styrofoam bowls and handed one each to the disheveled men who walked by. Steam rose from the bowls. The scent of vinegar mixed with that of boiled meat.
Phil stood behind me in line. He mumbled gibberish to himself. The smiling volunteers filled my bowl. As they went to prepare Phil’s, the ladle dinged against the bottom of the empty pot.
“I’m afraid that’s all we’ve got,” said one smiling volunteer.
I pointed at Phil.
“Give mine to him,” I said.
“Are you sure?” asked the smiling volunteer. “You don’t look so good.”
“Don’t worry. I’m a miracle worker.”
“Oh, really? What can you do?”
“How about a refill?” she said, gesturing to the empty pot.
“I don’t think you understand.”
I left my place in line and walked back outside. I walked all the way to the heart of downtown, through traffic and past business people in expensive clothes chatting on cell phones. I walked by storefronts filled with electronics and appliances and toys. I walked quickly, like I was trying to get away from something.
My insides hurt worse.
I stopped beside a green-glass skyscraper, the tallest building in the city. My stomach caved in on itself. I sank back against the glass, smearing my filth across it. I slid to the ground. People stopped to look at me. A smiling volunteer asked if I was alright.
I saw Natalie in the crowd. She didn’t recognize me. Blue sparks flashed in front of my eyes, just a few of them then nothing. I had hoped that death was a miracle, but it was not.
Zach Powers lives and writes in Savannah, Georgia. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Caketrain, The Bitter Oleander, Opium Magazine, Quiddity, The Nervous Breakdown, Pindeldyboz, Paradigm Journal, PANK, and elsewhere. He is the founder and co-host of the literary performance Seersucker Live. He is a past winner of Literary Death Match, a reading event held in cities throughout the world. He leads the writers’ workshop at the Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home, where he also serves on the board of directors. His writing for television won an Emmy. Get to know him at ZachPowers.com.