Captain America’s Missing Fingers

by Molly Olguín

Dad was deployed a month before Danny turned eleven, which made for a pretty rotten birthday. Normally, we had a party with family and friends from Danny’s class and a piñata in the yard, but this year it was just the three of us huddled around the computer, where Dad’s image shone and crackled. We were all being weird, except for Dad. Mom had been weird since Dad left, meaner than she used to be, but grabbing us into awkward hugs we did our best to squirm out of. She spent most of Danny’s birthday prompting him to hold the presents up to the camera so Dad could see them. Danny opened his presents sullenly, even though they were extra good that year. “You like that one?” Dad kept asking him, in stilted bursts. “It’s awesome,” Danny kept answering, in a bored voice I knew was making Mom mad.

I didn’t do much but glare at Dad’s chin. He’d had a black beard my whole life, and now it was gone, revealing a weak stranger’s jaw. It filled me with a discomfort so hot and anxious it was almost rage. “Your chin looks naked,” I told Dad, for the fifth time since presents started.

Danny threw a bit of crumpled-up wrapping paper at me, and Mom sighed. She didn’t tell him to knock it off, maybe because it was his birthday, probably because I really was being obnoxious. I knew I was. I couldn’t help myself—no one would tell me what was really going on. I knew there was a war, I knew being deployed meant Dad was going to the Middle East, and I knew it meant he’d be gone for Danny’s birthday and Halloween and Thanksgiving and Christmas but maybe home for my birthday. I knew he had to shave his beard because no soldiers have beards. But I didn’t know what it meant, and the frustration made me mean. “Your chin looks like a butt,” I said, doubling down.

“Okay,” Dad laughed, the connection stuttering briefly. “It’s a long time to sit still, I know. Carla? Want to bring out the last present?”

“I want to,” Mom said, and went over to the closet. The final present turned out to be a huge wooden crate that I immediately identified as being from the olden days, with age-blackened nails and a faded 7-UP logo stamped on the side. It looked like a treasure chest from a movie. Mom set it down on the floor beside Danny with a thud, and I felt a stir of envy before he even opened it.

“This is Captain America,” Dad told us proudly, as Danny slid back the crate’s wooden lid and revealed stacks and stacks of comic books. The crate was filled almost to the brim with thin, glistening volumes. I leaned over to get a better look, resting my hands on the brim, and Danny slapped me away. “Most of them were mine when I was your age. Uncle Brad and I collected ‘em for years. You’ll love it.”

“I love Captain America,” I said impulsively, although I didn’t really know who Captain America was. Mom’s mouth twitched, and Dad laughed.

I went and stood behind Danny, looking just over his shoulder as he rifled through thin book after thin book, glossy new ones next to real old ten-page twenty-five-cent ones, with faded colors and small words. They smelled like old paper, which I really did love. I would tear off discreet strips from the corners of paperback books sometimes and chew on them, just because. “Now, you know, some of these might be worth something,” Dad continued. “I’m gonna make you a deal, Dan—if you ever decide to sell them, you can, but you gotta give your old man half. Sound good?”

“Sounds good,” Danny said, and for the first time in the whole birthday, he sounded sincere. He lifted a book out of the box, and a mean stab of longing went through me. It was cheap and bright, like candy transformed into a book. Captain America, easily identifiable by the star and stripes on his suit, was waving an American flag, while a bunch of men in uniform pointed guns at him. A speech bubble emerging from one soldier’s mouth said, “You’re too late, captain! You’ll never defeat OUR Army.” A little box at the bottom of the cover read: War is Hell. I tried to reach out and touch it, but Danny immediately yanked it out of my reach.

“If you just want to read them,” Dad was saying to Danny, “then they’re yours, bud, for as long as you want.”

“Danny doesn’t like reading,” I said, which was true, even if he gave me a poisonous look for saying it. “I’m the reader, in case you forgot.”

“I know you’re my bookworm,” Dad said, so gently that I almost forgot he was talking out of a stranger’s face. “But you might be a little young for these books, Ava.”

“Maybe Dan will let you borrow them when you’re older,” Mom added, and peered into the crate herself.

“They’re comic books,” I protested, my heart pounding with the injustice. All adults ever wanted you to do was read, and when you wanted to read something important—something that might explain what no one would explain to you—they refused. “How can I be too young for comic books?”

“This totally has adult content,” Danny said smugly, and Mom reached down to take the book away from him.

“It’s a war story,” Dad admitted. “Nothing Dan can’t handle, but probably too much for someone who’s only eight and a half.”

Mom didn’t make a comment about the book, but her mouth got very thin, and she dropped it into the crate instead of giving it back to Danny. “Maybe when you’re eleven,” she told me.

“I want to read them now,” I said, impassioned. “Not when I’m eleven. That’s stupid.”

“Watch how you talk to your mother,” Dad said with a crackle of static.

“Don’t tell me what to do,” I snapped. “You’re not even here.” I regretted saying it instantly. I didn’t look at Mom, but Danny’s face was red, and I knew if we’d been alone he would have yelled at me.

“Hey,” Dad said. “Hey, Ava, look at me.” He was using the tone of voice that meant I had to trust him, no matter what—the one he used when I climbed too far up a tree and he had to help me get down. I looked at him. “I know I’m not there,” he said seriously, leaning close to the camera, “but nothing’s changed, okay? I’m still your dad. You’re still my girl, and Danny’s still my guy. Everything’s the same. Promise.” It wasn’t what he said that helped, just the way he said it, bedrock sure.

“Okay,” I said. Dad smiled at me. Mom smiled too, and they started talking about Grandpa’s nursing home.

Danny didn’t smile. He looked right at me and dropped the last comic back into the crate, sliding the wooden lid shut.

It’s one thing to tell a kid she can’t read a book. It’s another thing to stop a kid from finding a crate full of books hidden somewhere in her house. The first chance I got, I snuck into Danny’s room and performed a search. It took about thirty seconds. He’d just shoved the box under his bed, like an idiot. I took my time flipping through the stacks, finding the book that looked the brightest, the bloodiest, the best. My hands were shaking a little, partially from nerves and partially from excitement. I didn’t know why I was so hungry for Captain America. It’s not like I didn’t have access to violent stuff if I wanted it, because obviously I had an eleven-year-old brother. But there was something about the wooden box from the past, the colorful, patriotic
stuff inside. It felt like if I could only devour it, quick and entire, I would get it, all the things everyone wasn’t telling me.

Captain America bared his teeth at me from the cover of the book I ended up picking. His nose was bleeding, and he looked both glad and hard. His enormous hand was clenched into a fist, and a red streak of violence indicated that he’d just punched a Nazi on the jaw. The Nazi was caught in the act of falling backwards, his face twisted
with agony. The summary read: “Sent back to 1944 with the assassin Elektra Natchios, can Captain America accept his mission and… KILL HITLER?” I opened it and started reading. Captain America was crawling on his belly, in the middle of a field at night. “We’re close, Elektra,” he whispered over his shoulder, and I saw that he had a girl with him, also crawling. She had long black hair and brown eyes, and years of keeping an eye out for Barbie dolls and princesses that might make good Halloween costumes made me realize: she looked like me. Unease twisted in my gut. I didn’t think I’d find any version of myself in the book.

“Get out of my room,” Danny said from the doorway, startling me out of the book. “Those are valuable. You’re not supposed to touch them.”

“I can if I want,” I said, and crumpled the flimsy book in my hands, just to make Danny angry. It worked: he charged right at me, and I shrieked and dodged, hurling myself toward the bedroom door. The tips of Danny’s fingers just barely brushed my hair.

“What’s going on up there?” Mom called from downstairs. She sounded distracted.

“Danny hit me!” I yelled, my fingers wrapping around the doorframe.

“No I didn’t,” Danny yelled back, and then he did hit me, hard.

We were grounded for two weeks, and our first act of penance was going to visit Grandpa. We hated visiting Grandpa. He lived half an hour away by city bus, at St Paul’s Assisted Living by the Sea. His rooms were on the fourth floor, and he had three windows, all of which overlooked the Purina factory next door, which meant that he lived in the foulest-smelling place in the world. It reeked of steaming dog food, and it left these gross tendrils of gooey ground beef smell in your nose for hours after. St Paul’s by the Sea also smelled of Windex and Purell, and every so often you got a strong whiff of pee.

We rode the bus for almost thirteen stops, changing once. Finally, it pulled up in front of St Paul’s by the Sea, and we dragged our shirts up to cover our noses and got off. We breathed in through the fabric until we got inside the glass doors and Mom slapped our hands away, yanking our shirts back into place. We checked in at the front desk, rode the elevator up to the third floor, and tried not to gag as we walked down the hall to Grandpa’s rooms.

Grandpa looked the same as the last time I saw him: brown and pot-bellied, liver spots creeping down from his white hairline, a mole that looked like a coffee bean bulging at the corner of his left eye. He was wearing a short-sleeved dress shirt carefully buttoned up over blue pajama pants, his vein-y feet tucked into thin slippers. He also had only two fingers on his right hand, which I already knew but always had to confirm.

“Well,” he said, eyes widening, coffee bean twitching, “if it isn’t my favorite grandchildren.” He spoke with a lisp,and slightly exaggerated each word to make up for it.

“You can’t say that anymore, Dad,” Mom replied, speaking louder than normal. “Bianca had her baby, remember?”

“Who says I don’t remember?” Grandpa asked, giving us a wink.

Then his eyes widened. “What happened to her eye?” he asked, looking at me.

“She got punched,” Danny said flatly, and Grandpa said, “Ah.”

“Why don’t we all sit?” Mom asked, and settled herself down in the visitor’s chair. Danny went for the little couch by the door. I didn’t want to sit next to Danny, so I sort of squatted by the bookshelf.

Mom asked Grandpa how he was feeling. Grandpa told her he was doing just great. Mom told Danny to tell Grandpa about school, and Danny told Grandpa that school was good. I looked out the window, over Grandpa’s head. The dog food factory rose up behind him, all concrete blocks and metal spires, smoke wheezing up from a chimney, some men in blue suits scurrying around below. Behind the dog
food factory, pale and smoggy on the horizon, I could see the ocean.

“How does it feel to be eleven?” Grandpa asked Danny.

“Fine,” Danny said. “Where’s the bathroom?”

Mom started objecting, but Grandpa just pointed to the next room with his right hand, his lone forefinger and thumb making an accidental gun. “Go west, young man,” he said. “You can’t miss it. So,” he said, finally turning to me. I dragged my eyes up from his missing fingers. “What should we talk about?”

I could hear Danny gagging in the bathroom. “Do you know my dad’s in a war right now,” I said, and Mom exhaled sharply, said something to Grandpa in rapid Spanish.

Grandpa said something back, shaking his head. “I do know,” he said, and smiled at me. “Do you know I was in a war, too?”

I stared at him. “No.”

“Two wars, actually,” he said, and gave me an expectant look. “Do you want to hear a war story?”

Mom sighed. “Yeah,” I said, immediately.

Grandpa smiled, first at Mom, then at me. “So, okay,” he said. “This is the story of how I lost the three fingers on my right hand. You sure you want to hear it?”

“Yes,” I said, grateful and relieved. Grandpa had been in a war—two wars—and knew better than anybody else what that meant, what happened when wars and soldiers were in your life. “I do.”

The story went like this: when my grandfather was a soldier in World War II, he was very, very hungry. They didn’t feed soldiers very well, you know. He ate disgusting things. Gruel, and thin crackers that you couldn’t call bread. Cold tomato paste, straight from the can. Lard licked off the edge of a plastic knife. He would go to bed and dream about real food. Burgers. Burritos. Hot dogs. Enchiladas, greasy with
cheese, spotted with little flecks of black olive. But above all else, he craved ice cream. It was hot in the South Pacific, very hot, and he dreamed about creamy, cold vanilla, frozen chocolate, ached for icy strawberries as though they would save his life. He would wake up in the middle of the night mid-swallow and realize he’d been gulping at the air.

And so when armistice had been declared, he went to Tokyo Bay with the rest of the American troops and met up with his brother Rafael, who was in the Navy. The Navy had spoiled Tío Rafa rotten because they had wanted for nothing during the hard years of the war: they ate swordfish for dinner, slept in beds every night, got free screenings of all the Paramount films on deck. And deep in the bowels
of Tío Rafa’s ship, they had a freezer full of ice cream, really and truly.

Rafa, Grandpa said. My fat, spoiled brother. As you love me, you will get me to that freezer.

So Tío Rafa rowed Grandpa out to the ship in the dead of night, stole him aboard, and steered him downstairs to the metal wheel of the freezer. Go in, Steve, he said, grinning, and handed Grandpa a spoon. I’ll come get you in the morning, okay?

Grandpa opened the door, spoon trembling in his fist, and inside there were vast tubs of all thirty-two flavors and then some, flavors he’d never even heard of. Strawberry, chocolate, rocky road, vanilla, tutti frutti, pistachio, coffee-caramel, rum-raisin, every flavor you ever dreamed about, baby girl. “So I ate,” Grandpa said, closing his eyes like he was in church. “And I ate and ate and ate and ate until I couldn’t feel my tongue, or my nose, or my fingers. I was consumed by greed. I was so happy to have something sweet and cold and good that I forgot about everything but ice cream. I forgot all about the war and all about my body.”

Tío Rafa went looking for him seven hours later and found Grandpa still eating, even though his teeth were chattering together and his face was completely blue. His fingers, clenched around the spoon, had turned black, and he couldn’t unbend them no matter how hard he tried.

“So that’s how it happened,” Grandpa finished up, holding out his right hand so I could see the white scars left in the empty space. “Frostbite. They froze clean off.”

“Yeah, right,” Danny said. He’d come out of the bathroom in the middle of the story, but Grandpa never looked away from me.

“This little girl knows I’m telling the truth,” Grandpa said. “And I don’t eat ice cream anymore, do I? Carla, do I eat ice cream anymore?”

“You don’t eat ice cream, Dad,” Mom confirmed, and her voice came out kind of soft.

“What does that have to do with anything,” Danny said with an eye roll.

“Shut up, Danny,” I said, thinking about those black, curled up fingers with a shiver.

Danny was moody after we left St. Paul’s and ignored me for most of the afternoon. He made a big deal of reading Captain America issues in the living room until he got bored and tossed them onto the floor, like he didn’t even care if they got messed up. Eventually, we went outside and got in a dirt-clod fight, only then Danny hit me with a super hard clump of dirt and I couldn’t stop myself from crying about it, which meant he was mad at me all through dinner, too.

It wasn’t until we went to bed that I really got a chance to think about the ice cream story, and then I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It wasn’t a scary story, but it scared me a little anyway—I hadn’t really ever considered that getting what you want might hurt you.

I tried to imagine Dad lying in the dirt somewhere, eating tomato paste out of a can, dying for ice cream. Wanting it so much that his strange, bare jaw would chew at the air in his sleep, trying to gulp down a phantom milkshake. Wanting it so much that he’d forget to care about his body, forget to keep himself safe, be starving so badly for something cold and sweet that he’d start falling apart.

This scared me badly enough that I couldn’t stay lying down in the dark anymore, so I got up and carefully crept out of my room to the hall closet, where I knew Mom kept a flashlight for brownouts. I meant to take it back to my room to read, but the thought of reading any of the books in my room suddenly made me sick. It wasn’t that my books seemed bad—I loved all of them—it was that they seemed paltry next to the remembered sound of Grandpa’s voice, his wide brown eyes, the coffee bean twitching with emphasis. It seemed suddenly obvious that the only thing that might possibly keep me from thinking about frozen fingers shattering off was Captain America. I knew it was dumb, even at the time, but I really felt like reading Captain America was the brave thing to do—the faithful thing to do, somehow, as if by continuing to imagine the deeper truths of Dad’s new life, I might be able to share it with him. And if Captain America would keep me from thinking too much more about Grandpa’s fingers turning blue and snapping off, that was just a bonus.

I put the flashlight back and walked down the hall to Danny’s room on tiptoe. The lights were off. The door was already cracked, so I just pushed it open the tiniest bit more and slipped inside. Danny was a big lump on the bed, facing the wall. He looked asleep. I crept over to the bed on my hands and knees, quiet as a mouse, and then Danny let out a soft miserable noise into his pillow, and I realized he was awake.

I must have made a sound, because Danny jerked up in bed. Even with just the streetlight coming in from the window, I could see that his face was wet with tears. For a second we just stared at each other, and then Danny bared his teeth and swung at me. I let out a mostly
silent scream and rolled under the bed, away from Danny’s scrabbling arms. “I’m gonna kill you,” he hissed, leaning over the side of the bed and trying futilely to grab me. “I’m gonna kill the crap out of you.”

“You can’t even get me,” I said, wedging myself between the Captain America crate and the wall. “You’re too fat to fit.”

“Shut up,” he said in a harsh whisper. “I don’t want Mom to come in.”

“Why?” I asked, but I quieted down. “Because you’re crying?”

Danny punched the mattress right above my head. “Because if she comes in, she’ll start crying,” he said fiercely. “Do you want that? You want to make Mom feel worse?”

I didn’t know what to say to that. Obviously I knew Mom was sad a lot of the time now, but it hadn’t occurred to me to feel responsible for her sadness. I felt a little bit guilty, but mostly angry at Danny—either for telling me at all, or for not telling me sooner. I couldn’t work out which. Instead of replying, I kicked the underside of the mattress and hurt my foot on the box spring. Danny snorted, but didn’t ask me again. The blankets rustled, and I could tell he was lying back down. I wriggled around a little bit too, getting comfortable. I put my hand in the Captain America crate and drew out a comic, even though it was too dark to read, just because I could.

“What are you even doing in here?” Danny asked after a while.

“I kept thinking about Grandpa’s fingers,” I admitted.

Danny laughed. “Oh my god. You know he made that up, right?”

“No, he didn’t,” I said, almost forgetting to whisper. I’d been scared by the story just a minute ago, but now I felt almost protective of it. I’d been scared for a reason. I didn’t want it to be for nothing.

“He made it up because he didn’t think you could handle what actually happened,” Danny said carelessly. “And obviously you can’t, if the ice cream freaked you out.”

“I can handle it,” I said, even though I could feel my heart beating so fast at the hollow of my throat that I had to hug the Captain America book close to my chest to distract myself. It was slick and flexible, and the edges dug into my ribs, but it was better than nothing. “And it doesn’t matter, because he didn’t make it up.”

“He did,” Danny said, and repositioned himself on the bed. His hand hung off the edge, dark against the gray light of the room. “He lied to you because he thinks you’re a stupid girl they don’t have to tell the truth to. Bet if I asked him, he’d tell me something totally different.”

“How much would you bet?” I demanded. “I’ll bet you anything.”

“You don’t mean anything,” Danny said.

“I do,” I insisted. “Try me. If he told me the truth, you have to give me—ten Captain America books.”

“Okay, Ava,” Danny said, after a pause. “If I win, you have to stop asking questions about the war. And stay out of my stuff,” he added. “Deal?”

I swallowed, but I didn’t want to back down. I wanted to trust Grandpa. But even more than that, I wanted to know if I could, wanted to know if I could ever imagine my way into Dad’s life, or if it was always going to be lies and stupid stuff about the national good and the right thing to do and nothing about the danger I could feel was threatening him, threatening all of us. “Deal,” I said, and my voice came out hoarse.

Danny kicked a blanket off the bed, and I wrapped myself up in it, still cradling Captain America close. “Danny,” I remembered to ask, just before I fell asleep. “How come you were crying?”

Danny turned over, and the bed creaked above me. “Why do you think,” he said, and he sounded very tired.

We decided to do it on Wednesday, when Mom taught classes all afternoon at the YMCA, and we were supposed to play in the children’s gym until six. We couldn’t just wait and go next Sunday because Mom’s presence would skew the results, and anyway, Danny had to ask Grandpa for a story when I wasn’t there. Lucky for us, all the instructors and counselors at the Y knew us, so when I said I wanted to go read in the children’s room and Danny said he wanted to go play basketball with the older kids, they let us go without a fuss. We walked right out the front door and then all the way down to the bus stop, careful not to look like we were doing anything wrong.

Danny and I didn’t talk on the bus. I had a book with me, and I’d insisted that Danny bring ten Captain Americas with him, in case I won. He flipped through Captain America volume #5, and I caught another glimpse of Elektra and her blue-black hair. “I like her,” I told
him, although I wasn’t sure if I did.

“She’s a bad role model,” Danny said, and flicked the comic away from me.

The sun got lower quicker than I thought it would. Twelve stops, one change, eight quarters and two transfer tickets later, the familiar stench of St Paul’s by the Sea rose in the air.

Danny went straight to Grandpa’s room; I hung back, watching from around the corner. Danny knocked, and after nothing happened, he knocked again, for longer. Finally the door opened.

“Hi Grandpa,” Danny said.

I peeked around the corner. Grandpa looked different from last week. It was only four o’clock in the afternoon, but he looked like he’d been sleeping, maybe, his white hair sticking out to one side, the pajama shirt he was wearing buttoned all wrong. “Well!” Grandpa said. “Who are you looking for?”

“You,” Danny said, looking over his shoulder at me. I ducked out of sight, furious. “You’re my grandpa.”

“Me!” Grandpa exclaimed, and even without looking I could tell he was confused, but trying to sound like he wasn’t. “You’d better come in.”

“I want you to tell me a story,” Danny said loudly, not stepping forward.

Grandpa brightened. “Careful what you ask for! It’s hard to get me to quit.” His lisp was stronger than usual.

“I just wanted to ask,” Danny said. “What happened to your missing fingers?”

“Oh, that’s a long story,” Grandpa said, wavering a little. “I think I’m going to go sit down. Who are you here for?”

“I’m here for you,” Danny repeated, and followed Grandpa inside, the door closing slowly behind him. I ran up and grabbed the handle at the last second, just before it latched shut. Carefully I pulled it back a little, so I could still hear what happened inside the room.

Grandpa was already talking, apparently assured that whoever Danny was, he wanted to listen.

“Well, mijo, it was a long time ago,” Grandpa was saying, “and I was a young man then. But the story goes like this: during the war I was very, very lonely. Every night, I’d dream of a woman with hair like the night and eyes like stars, and every morning I’d wake up next to a GI. Only then one day I found her, really and truly, doing laundry in
a village. The most beautiful woman I’d ever seen.”

A heavy weight settled into my belly. I wanted to leave then and there, but Danny kept going. “A woman? When you were in the South Pacific?”

“I was stationed in the South Pacific,” Grandpa repeated, “and she was an island girl, like in the show. Her hair was black as midnight and long enough to reach her hips. It took me a long time to catch her, but when I did, I was the luckiest bastard in the Pacific. I wanted to marry her, you know.”

“But—” Danny’s voice unexpectedly wobbled a little. “But you were engaged to Grandma during the war. Right? Mom used to talk about your letters.”

“Who, Gloria?” For the first time, Grandpa didn’t sound confused. He sounded fond. “Oh, I loved Gloria very much. But you don’t think about love when you’re at war, not like that. You can’t think about the future, because you don’t know if you’ll have one. You think only about today, and maybe tomorrow.”

“So you just forgot about her?” Danny asked. I felt like throwing up. I didn’t want to know this.

“It’s not that you forget,” Grandpa said distantly. “Something just turns in you, and it doesn’t matter the same way. When you see so many things—bad things—all you can bear thinking about is something sweet. The sweetness in front of you. You lose sight of everything else. Her hair was smooth as silk in your hands, and she was young. Nineteen. I was with her when they hit us, and one minute my hand was in hers, and the next I couldn’t feel her hand anymore. And when I looked down, half of my hand was gone. And I was one of the lucky ones.”

My arm suddenly felt weird and heavy, and I realized my hand was trembling a little on the doorknob.

“But what about the girl?” Danny said, and his voice cracked all the way this time. “What happened to the girl?”

“Mijo,” Grandpa said, not unkindly, “there are things not meant for you to know.”

I let the door click all the way shut and scrambled away from it, running back down the hall to the elevator. I didn’t want to be here. I didn’t want to care about the stupid story, or Grandpa, or any stupid promises. I realized I was crying a little bit, and that made me angry— I wasn’t sad, I was angry. There were things not meant for us to know, and that wasn’t fair, not when those things were shaping my family, had almost blotted Mom and Danny and me out of existence, were blotting Dad out of existence right now.

But I didn’t want to know, I realized miserably. I already wished I didn’t know about the island girl and her nighttime hair, her hand in Grandpa’s suddenly vanishing. I didn’t want to know if Dad’s hand was in someone else’s hand right now. I didn’t want to know if he was putting us aside.

By the time Danny caught up with me, on the steps outside St Paul’s, I was hugging my own chest and struggling to swallow around the lump in my throat. He looked sick and frightened, which is why I couldn’t pull myself together.

“What if we don’t matter,” I found myself sobbing, even though I’d meant to say I guess you win. “What if Dad comes back and something is turned in him, what if he gets blown up. What if we don’t even exist for him right now.” The way I couldn’t make Dad exist for me, not when he was living some strange new life with his strange new face and the world I couldn’t make come into focus around him.

Danny grabbed my shoulders, hung onto me hard enough to bruise. “We’ll be okay,” he said firmly, but his eyes were wide and red. “It doesn’t matter.”

“It does matter,” I choked out, relieved to finally be saying it to somebody. “It’s Dad, it’s Mom, it’s our whole family, of course it matters. I don’t even know if I can stay me with everything else changing,” I said, discovering as I said it that this is what I’d been afraid of all along. Who would I be if everything were different, and the world reshaped itself?

Danny looked as though I’d punched him. “Shut up,” he said, his face bright red. “You’re you, okay, you’ll always be you. I know who you are.”

“But I don’t know,” I said, desperate to make him understand.

“What if the person I become doesn’t love books, or swimming, or Captain America, or you, or D-dad, or Mom?”

“You’d still be my sister,” Danny insisted. He pulled me over to the curb, and we both sat down. “Look,” he said, and pulled Captain America volume #5 out of his bag. He ripped it in half. “You’re still Ava,” he said, and pushed the ripped half of the book into my hands.

I stopped crying for long enough to look down at the strip he’d given me. Captain America was kissing Elektra, his blue-gloved hands tangled in her midnight hair.

“We’re still us,” Danny said fiercely, and tore his half of the book into quarters. “Even if everything else falls apart.”

“You’re still Danny,” I agreed, like we were sealing another promise, like I was promising to keep my brother even if I kept nothing else, for the rest of my life. I ripped Elektra’s kissed mouth out of the book and dropped it to the sidewalk. I crumpled up Captain America’s blond hair and blue eyes from the page and tossed him into the gutter, and Danny ripped page after page into pieces. I found a panel that was just Elektra herself, all alone, and I ripped that little bright scrap up and put it in my mouth, let it rest on my tongue like the wafers at church. Danny didn’t ask why I’d done it, but pulled out another book and started tearing into that one, too. We sat there in the street for a long time, passing the ragged books back and forth between us, and we tore Captain America to tiny shreds.