There are very few things I remember about childhood. The taste of mac' n' cheese with hotdog slices, summers at the community pool.
Zoe was my next-door neighbor. Her family moved into the neighborhood at the beginning of our fifth-grade year. She was tall for her age—almost five feet—had a pet iguana named “Ziggy”, and always wore the same pair of sandals that were designed to look like a couple of sharks eating her feet. But the most interesting thing about her is a certain ability that I still can’t explain to this day. All I know is that she could heal things. Literally. With just a single touch.
I was super intimidated by her at first—me being a stout four-foot-six—but it didn’t take us long to really hit it off. She liked the Avengers almost as much as I did, and she was one of the only people I knew that could quote more lines from Lord of the Rings than me.
I was infatuated with her. Call it puppy love, or a crush, but I couldn't get enough of her.
The first time I started to realize there was something different about her was this one time we were hanging out at the beach constructing Barad-dûr out of sand. A seagull fell from the sky and flopped down beside us, and I’ll lie and say I kept my composure. I remember it was really sick-looking, and it was limping—I think it was missing a leg. My plan was to chase it off and keep it from knocking our tower over, but Zoe, she went right to it and took it in her arms.
I don’t know what she did or how she did it, but it was just fine after that. She released the little flying rat, and it flew off into the sunset without a care in the world.
The rest of that day, Zoe seemed just a bit off. Just…tired. You know? I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but she went home that night without our usual after-dinner treehouse tag up.
And the beach wasn’t the only time I noticed something was different. One time our friend at school fell off the monkey bars and landed with all his weight on his left arm. I could have sworn I heard a snap, but after Zoe helped him up, he seemed just fine. Carried on the rest of recess as if nothing had happened.
Zoe went home early that day after being dismissed by the school nurse.
A scraped knee. Magically fine.
Bruised head, turned perfectly normal.
We went on a family camping trip to Catalina Island once, both our families. Our parents told us to stay within sight, but of course we disappeared as soon as they popped open the boxed wine. There was a cove I wanted to show her, one that I had discovered last time my mother had taken me here for a family reunion. It was pretty hard to get to, but the beach was covered with multi-colored polished sea glass.
This time around, the tide was pretty high, and I must have gotten hit by a rogue wave, because the next thing I knew I was on my back, looking up into Zoe’s panicked eyes. She had tears running down her face, though it could have been sea water. Her clothes were soaked, and her hair was clinging to her head and shoulders in thick clumps. After a sobbing exhale of relief, she slapped me in the face and stood up to walk away.
“What was that for?” I cried after her, thoroughly confused.
“You almost died!” she replied without looking back.
She explained to me how she watched the wave throw me into a boulder and knock me out, then suck me back out to sea. She managed to pull me out, but only after several minutes of fighting the turbulent water. By then I had stopped breathing.
In other words, it was nothing short of a miracle.
I wanted to ask how she knew CPR—secretly trying to ascertain if she had performed mouth-to-mouth on me—but before I could get the question out, she collapsed.
I tried calling for help, but we were too far away for anyone to hear. I also tried carrying her, but we didn’t get very far. I wasn’t exactly the strongest kid on the block. All I could do was lie next to her and try to keep her warm. I saw her chest moving, so I knew she was alive. Not that I could have done anything to help her otherwise.
She woke up a couple hours later, though she was still groggy, like I had gotten her up at two in the morning. That was when she told me everything.
It had all started with a simple papercut. When she was four, her mother had opened a letter a little too quickly, and Zoe thought it was really true that a kiss makes it all better. Turns out, it did. But there was a catch—healing someone meant depleting her own energy to do so. Quite a taxing demand, depending on the severity of the ailment.
Something like a hangnail meant a few minutes to catch her breath.
Something like drowning…well. We all know how that went.
I asked why she hadn’t told me sooner, and she answered saying she was worried I wouldn’t believe her or that I would think she was weird and not want to hang out with her anymore, which couldn’t have been further from the truth. On the contrary, this instantly elevated her to Avenger status in my mind. Nevertheless, she swore me to secrecy and made me promise never to tell another soul.
To this day, I’ve kept that promise.
A few years later we went our separate ways. Her dad was in the military, I think, and they had to move to Colorado. We lost touch for about ten years, but we eventually found each other on social media. She became a paramedic (surprise, surprise), and I was on the other side of the world studying North African culture, so we rarely crossed paths. Every now and then we’d be in the same city for work or whatnot and we’d tag up for lunch, but I had gotten married and she had a fiancé, so our rendezvous became less and less frequent over the years.
Then, one day, I got a call from her mom.
Zoe died while responding to a massive pileup on an icy freeway in Texas. A disaster the likes of which that county had never seen. The official report was that her heart gave out, but I knew the truth. With all those injuries in one place, all that suffering, the cries for help. There’s no way Zoe would be able to restrain herself.
So in one sense, I suppose her heart was the problem. But certainly not for its lack of fortitude.
She made me promise not to share her secret, and I owe her more than just my life, so I can’t break that trust she had in me. I’ll carry the truth about her abilities to the grave. It’s just a shame the world will never know of this invisible hero, this guardian angel that walked silently among them.
But should her story end up in an online forum for fiction, somewhere no one would actually believe it to be the truth…
Well, whoopsie-daisy, I guess.