Extract from To be a Hero
A Hero′s Tale 

“Stop,” the young woman yelled and walked over to the scene of the action. The teenaged boy who was circled by bullies smiled at her gratefully. 

“If you have to pick on someone smaller than you, to validate your self-worth,” she continued, “you might want to reconsider your life choices.” 

One young man spat on the floor and the others glared at her but eventually they left. The only one to remain was the bullied boy.

“Are you alright?” the woman asked.

“Yeah, fine.”

“Does this happen a lot?”

The boy gathered the stack of books he was holding against his chest. “I guess.”

The woman hesitated, before she asked, “Do you ever try to do something about it?”

“Don′t tell me you′re going to give me highhanded advice like other adults,” the boy said through clenched teeth. “Are you going to tell me I′m a coward, too? I know I′m not a hero. I—”

“I disagree,” the woman interrupted him.

“What?” the boy sputtered.

“I said I disagree,” the woman enunciated clearly. “I think you′re very much capable of being a hero.”

“You don′t know me,” the boy replied. “Besides, even if I wanted to be one, it′s not like there′s a handbook.”

“I can′t give you a handbook on how to become a hero but I can give you a few pointers, lessons I learned.” She smiled, “When you pretend you′re a hero, you tend to think your adventures are like those in a story. But life doesn′t follow the dramatic structure of a play; try as you might to fit it into such. Sometimes you think if your life were a film, you′d fall asleep and other times you feel like you′re drowning in subplots.”

The woman beckoned for him to sit next to her on a nearby park bench. “Let me tell you a little story to demonstrate my point.”

Reluctantly, the boy sat next to her. She took his silence as curiosity and continued, “Perhaps I should introduce myself first. My name is Valerie and when I was your age, I guess I was a lot like you. I had my head stuck in a book most of the time and I was bullied, too.”

“Are you going to tell me to wait for it to get better?” The boy sounded as if he had heard the advice too often to find hope in it.

The woman shook her head. “While other teenagers snuck out for parties, I sat at home, hoping for one of my favourite fictional characters to knock on my window and sweep me away for an adventure like Peter Pan.”

“That would be a little creepy if it happened,” the boy said.

She chuckled. “I suppose it would be. That′s why I′m happy I met my hero in a completely different situation.”

“Hero?” the boy repeated, disbelieving but curious.

“You may doubt what I′m gong to tell you, think it′s a mere legend, immortalized by its tellers. But I know it was real because I was there. I was part of it.” And so she continued her tale, “I′ve always loved stories about heroes but I had never considered becoming one myself. Heroes are the stuff of legends. In stories they′re heroic, selfless and brave people. But in real life? Is there such a thing as a hero in real life?”


Seven Years Earlier


Hero’s Calling

Lesson #1

Sometimes a hero’s calling is obvious and other time it’s hidden; either way, to be a hero means to recognize it as such.

“There′s been another sighting, Valerie,” Sophie announced, and she threw the local newspaper on the desk before me.

I looked up from Beowulf. “Huh?”

“I said there′s something real to read, better than those dusty tomes you′re addicted to.”

I ignored her comment since it was a conversation we had almost every day. “What unbelievable news do you have?”

“Your Shadow Man has been seen again.”

“Really?” I slowly leaned forward to pick up the newspaper. If I showed her my bubbling excitement, she′d only tease me again.

Indeed, in the bottom corner of the page there was a picture with the caption: The Shadow strikes again. It showed a figure half-covered in shadows, making it clear how it had gotten its name. From what I was able to tell the person was dressed in a long black coat, although, it was impossible to deduce any definite conclusions from a picture of such poor quality. I glanced at the short text. The Shadow, our town′s self-proclaimed hero, was sighted last night.

“Do stop fangirling, will you,” Sophie chastised me. “It′s embarrassing.”

I folded the newspaper and put it in my schoolbag. “I think it′s very brave of whoever he or she is.”

“You think a girl would dress up like this? I certainly have better things to do than run around like a childish boy who′s compensating this way for never being allowed to dress up as Batman on Halloween.”

I was saved from having to enter into yet another discussion about my choice of reading material by the bell, since Sophie and I had different afternoon classes. For the next period, I found it difficult to keep my mind from wandering back to the newspaper article.

I loved stories about heroes. Hence, I had a rather large collection of legends, myths, and comic books. How often had I dreamed of meeting a hero like those in my stories in real life? I had always considered my life to be too boring and unimportant. However, I desperately hoped one day it would turn into an epic adventure. Therefore, it was hardly surprising I found Shadow fascinating. I couldn′t decide whether I was jealous of Shadow or whether I wanted to meet whoever he or she was. What would a hero want with a plain, old bookworm like me anyway? I was grateful when the bell rang the last time and I was free to go home. The school was eerily empty. I couldn′t remember the last time I had to wait for the bus alone. Voices drifted from around the corner. I inadvertently released a sigh of relief, but held my breath again when I realized who it was.

“Well, well, who do we have here?” said the leader of the school′s gang of bullies, when they caught sight of me.

I clutched Beowulf closer to my chest as if it would make the Anglo-Saxon hero come alive. I looked at my shoes and ran anti-bullying protocol number one: ignore them. Being bullied was one thing but being so clearly outnumbered made me feel like I should run away.

“Looks like she′s scared,” one of the bullies whose name I didn′t know jeered.

I swallowed my pride and kept silent again. Maybe, if they got bored, they′d leave me alone. 

“I hate rich kids,” another one growled. He was one of those boys who wore fake designer clothes because he thought it made him look cool.

I resented the comment. Apart from such an overgeneralization being unfair, I wasn′t rich. Sure, my family wasn′t poor either, but I was the kind of person who preferred spending their money on books than on extravagant brands. So surely I was no competition for whatever they were trying to prove with their ostentatious fake jewellery?

“You reckon she′s got a lot of money on her?” one of the girls spoke up for the first time.

Alarm bells went off inside my head. I didn′t think ignoring them would work any longer. In the past I had heard rumours about them becoming violent. Violent, as in more violent than being shoved into a locker or tripped up, as frequently happened to me. My stomach felt queasy, although I had never heard them be accused of stealing. I straightened my back and slowly edged backwards. I may not have been the most athletic person, but I hoped if I ran away they′d lose interest. Unfortunately, my movement caught their attention. I whirled around and saw my path was blocked on this side, too. They had me cornered.

“What you gonna do, bookworm?” another one of the girls grinned maliciously, revealing her tongue piercing. She nodded at the book in my arms, “Quote Shakespeare at us?”

Based on an admittedly foolish knee-jerk reaction, I shot back. “Beowulf obviously wasn′t written by Shakespeare, since it′s an Anglo-Saxon legend.”

They stared at me with blank faces for a moment, before one of the boys said grimly, “I hate rich kids so much.”

I decided not to explain to them that sophistication wasn′t necessarily synonymous with wealth. Instead, I contemplated whether I was able to bring myself to use one of my favourite books as a weapon.

They closed the circle around me. I started to feel genuinely scared. Even if I managed to fight one or two of them off.

“Hey,” someone yelled.

I automatically turned to look and saw Shadow, the very Shadow, who had been mentioned in the article I had read today, standing on a low brick wall.

“It′s not Halloween yet, idiot,” one of the boys remarked and spat on the floor.

Shadow jumped down from the low brick wall and approached them. “Congratulations, you′ve learned to use a calendar.”

I was now probably one of the few people who had seen Shadow outside of … well, the shadows. Despite the still potentially dangerous situation I took a moment to consider his appearance. Judging from his body shape I assumed Shadow was male. His voice was rough as if he had a sore throat. I wondered whether it was part of his act or if he was so set on keeping his identity secret he risked ruining his voice. He was taller than I had imagined and wore a long black coat, a black bandana to cover his hair, and a black Venetian mask.

My thoughts were pulled back to the present situation, when Shadow spoke again. “Now as fun as this has been, let her go.”

“And if we don′t?” the leader of the bullies asked. “What are you going to do about it, huh?”

“Yeah,” one of his minions chimed in. “What are you going to do, loser?”

“What a pansy. I bet he wears a mask because he′s so damn ugly,” one of the girls jeered and enticed the group to laugh cruelly. One of them started. Then they were all chanting together, “Ugly pansy.”

“Shut up,” I yelled at the top of my voice, surprising everyone around me as much as myself.

The bullies stopped chanting and turned on me. Their leader looked at me with hatred and spat, “What did you just say?”

Very smart, Valerie, I thought to myself, make them aware they′ve still got you trapped in a circle. However, with all of them staring at me, there was only one thing I could do: carry on.

“I said shut up.” No one was more startled by how decidedly confident I sounded than me. “Your chanting is childish. There′s finally someone who′s not afraid to stand up for what is right and is committed to doing good. How pathetic are you to think you have to make fun of him? At least he′s trying to achieve something worthwhile, as opposed to you idiots.”

The bullies around me were stunned into silence. I supposed it was now or never. With a tight grip on Beowulf, I broke out into a run. Since they hadn′t expected my sudden escape attempt, I easily batted two bullies out of the way with my book.

“Run,” I yelled at Shadow as I passed him.

I didn′t dare look back. The bullies yelled, as they broke free from their stupor and followed me, shouting obscenities. For his own good, I hoped Shadow was running as well. By the time I rounded the first corner, I was reminded why I was not on any of the school′s sports teams and why sprinters didn′t wear rucksacks full of books.

Someone gripped my arm and I yelped in panic. Before I caught a glimpse of who it was, I was pulled into a hedgerow. I tumbled to the ground and immediately scrambled to my feet. Again. When I turned around I found myself very grateful to be facing a now-familiar mask.

Taking a moment to catch my breath, I looked around. We were in the nearby park, where my primary school teachers used to take us on hot spring days. Quick footsteps beat against the asphalt. I held my breath. It must be them. It was maddening to remain motionless, when all I wanted was to run home. I wanted to curl up with a cup of tea and a good book and forget any of this ever happened. Although, this meant I′d forget about Shadow. I glanced at him again. He was peeking through a small hole in the hedgerow.

“They′re gone,” he said, a little out of breath himself.

“Good,” I nodded. In my mind I went through the map of the city. If we left the park, it wasn′t too far to the town centre. Even if the bullies caught up with us there, they couldn′t harm us in front of so many people. “We should leave, though, before they come back. Come on, this way.”

He followed my quick pace toward the exit of the park and walked next to me in silence. Those were the downsides of being a bookworm like me. Although I was under an adrenaline rush, I struggled to find a conversation starter.

We reached an alleyway, which led to one of the streets lined with shops, when Shadow stopped in his tracks.

“What is it?” I asked nervously. “Are they back? We need to get amongst a big crowd. Then we′re safe.”

He shook his head. “I can′t go any further. I have to remain in the shadows.”

“Why?” I asked. “Why do you insist on hiding yourself?”

“That′s the point, isn′t it?” he said in his purposefully raspy voice. “I′m not trying to be a modern-day hero because I want to be noticed. I′m doing it for myself and the people I help.”

“I see.” 

Admittedly, while I understood his reasoning, I felt a little disappointed. For ten minutes I had felt like I mattered and as if life was an adventure. I didn′t want to go back to being boring. I had tasted excitement, I wanted more. I plucked up my courage, took a deep breath and said, “Maybe we will meet again?”

“Usually I only keep the company of other heroes.”

“Of course,” I said, trying to hide how much his comment hurt.

“Oh no,” he groaned. “I didn′t mean it like that. Sorry, I′m not particularly good with social situations. I guess it′s one of the reasons why I run around wearing a mask.”

“What did you mean?” I asked, my hopes rising and dreams soaring again.

“I think you′re hero material.” He ran his hand over his head. “I mean, you certainly have the guts. Thanks, by the way, for standing up for me.”

“While we′re on the topic, thank you.” I hesitated for a moment, before I added. “Do you really think I′m hero material? I′m clumsy and shy and…”

“Who says I′m not clumsy and shy, too? It′s the power of wearing a costume. You get to be the person you never dared to be. Think about it.”

“I certainly will.”

“Well, I have to go now. I have things to do. You know, stuff.” He cleared his throat but his voice was still raspy. “Um, bye.”

“See you,” I said as he hastily made his way into one of the empty streets and around the corner.

Leaves rustled behind me and I jumped. It was only a squirrel, but I hurried toward the town centre, nevertheless. When I was lost in my thoughts like this, I wanted to meet the bullying gang even less.

As I stood in front of the city hall, waiting for the next bus to arrive, I thought about Shadow′s suggestion. Was I hero material? It was ironic that I never quite managed to stand up for myself, but became a fierce lioness when others were threatened. At least the latter was a heroic quality. But did I have what great heroes were made of?

On the ride home I thought about all kinds of heroes, fictional and historical, and compared them to me. I wasn′t of royal birth, at least not that I knew. I didn′t have supernatural powers. I wasn′t an orphan with a mysterious past, thank Odysseus. I knew not the first thing about fighting. I didn′t possess any of the qualities heroes traditionally did. However, Shadow was right about one thing. He said I had the passion to be a hero. And I did. I genuinely wanted to do good and help people. In stories people often became heroes because they were extraordinary people who were put into exceptional situations. What if an ordinary person became a hero simply because they chose to be one?

The bus stopped and I walked home. My thoughts were occupied with homework for the next hours, until it was time for dinner. Fortunately, Grandpa was coming over to eat with us. Such a constellation should make for some interesting dinner conversation.

“Valerie, how many times do I have to tell you? No comic books on the table.” I saved it, before Mum put a pot on top of it. “Why do you read such rubbish? You′re eighteen years old, technically an adult. Why don′t you read something more academic?”

I refrained from correcting her. I was still seventeen years old, so technically I still had a grace period of seven months as a child and I intended to live those seven months to the fullest. Though it wasn′t like I had the intention of giving up on my inner child the moment I turned eighteen either.

“I finished Beowulf today,” I replied. “The annotated Old English version, too. How′s that for academic reading?”

“Excellent,” Grandpa smiled. “How did you like it?”

“No wonder she behaves this way, considering you′re her role model,” Mum scowled at him.

Grandpa and I kept silent through the rest of dinner. Afterwards though, when Mum had banned us for not washing the dishes properly and Dad had moved on to the living room to watch TV, we continued our discussion about Beowulf.

“I′ve brought you another book.” Grandpa pulled a slim volume with tattered pages out of his pocket. “It′s a special edition which is no longer in print. My favourite professor when I was still a student made his own translation of the Iliad. It was quite heavily criticized for being so different but I′m sure you know the story well enough to make up your own mind about that.”

“Awesome, I can′t wait to start reading,” I said and put it away. “I brought you the newest comics I finished.”

I handed Grandpa the stack of comics I kept between my schoolbooks. He stored them in his briefcase.

“That reminds me. I′ve found something else which is highly fascinating.” Grandpa handed me a newspaper clipping. The article was from the newspaper geared to senior citizens but I instantly recognized the subject matter. “It′s rather peculiar news but brilliant.”

“I know,” I responded excitedly and I retrieved the newspaper article I had nicked from Sophie when she wasn′t looking. I doubted she′d miss it.

Grandpa and I exchanged newspaper articles. His had a small picture of Shadow, although it was out of focus and cut off. Apparently, I′d need to explain the elderly editors how the formatting programs worked when I did another internship at their office next summer. A short text in large letters underneath read: The self-proclaimed hero has been spotted again. Authorities react amused.

So no new information but it was still exciting. My eyes slid over the words again. Self-proclaimed he might be, but that didn′t matter, did it? Shadow was a proper hero, like in one of my stories. No one knew who he was and he made a point of doing good deeds. Underneath the mask he probably was a normal person like any other. But then again, many of my favourite comic-book heroes were.

“So it′s true,” Grandpa said quietly. “I had feared old Cuthbert had misunderstood something. His eyes aren′t the best anymore but he loves his job. Bless him.”

“It′s true,” I assured him and after a quick glance down the hallway to make sure my parents weren′t listening in on us, I added in a whisper. “I know it′s true for a fact because I saw him today.”

“You did?” His eyes shone with excitement. “Well, what are you waiting for, young lady? I′m not getting any younger. Tell me more.”

“I had an uncomfortable encounter with some bullies and Shadow stood up for me. Then I stood up for him and we ran away from them.”

Grandpa gave me a grave look. “Do you have problems with these bullies often?”

“No, not really. It was the first time they actively picked on me in a group. But if they try again I′ll make sure to carry a hardcover book so I have something with which I can defend myself.”

“If you do, you′ll let me know, okay?”

“Of course. You”re my mentor. I tell you everything.”

“Good,” he said. “Did you talk to Shadow any more?”

“We talked a little but I didn′t learn anything about him.”

“Still, fantastic,” Grandpa said, “absolutely brilliant.”

“He did say, though, he thought I was hero material.”

“Of course you are,” Grandpa replied as if it was the most obvious fact in the world. “You′ve certainly read enough stories to know the theory.”

“What exactly are you saying, Grandpa?”

“I wish I was half a century younger. I wouldn′t wait around. I′d go out there and look for Shadow and ask him for advice on your hero costume – as I expect you′ll be doing.”

“I never said—”

Grandpa raised an eyebrow. I had to smile. He knew me better than I knew myself. He had a good point. What stopped me from at least trying to find Shadow?

“If you can′t admit you′d like to do so because of your own curiosity, do it to humour an old man, so I′ll have a good story to listen to.”

I grinned in response but my grin fell, when Mum walked past us. Grandpa and I hid the newspaper articles behind our backs.

“What are you standing in the hallway for?”

“Nothing,” Grandpa replied automatically.

“Discussing the current situation of economy since you said I should concentrate more on grown-up things,” I replied, much more suave than Grandpa.

“I was telling her about discounted cash flow.”

“Very well then,” she said and vanished into the living room.

“Do you think she bought it?” Grandpa asked.

“I highly doubt it. But at least she doesn′t care enough to ask questions,” I said. “What′s discounted cash flow?”

“I have no idea but Robert from the golf club brags about knowing everything about it all the time. Since your mother doesn′t know either, it hardly matters. I should get home now. I′m looking forward to hearing about your adventures.”

Instead of watching telly with my parents, I opted to go up to my room. I sat on the window-ledge with a book on my lap. My thoughts, however, were on the newspaper clippings.

I wished I had the courage to don a mask and pretend I was a hero myself. I shuddered to imagine how my parents would react if I told them about my wish. They were annoyed enough by my love for tales of heroes. If I let my life be consumed by one, they′d take away my books. But even if my parents would be incredibly mad at me, I was sure I′d always have Grandpa on my side.

There was only one way to find out. I mustered my reflection in the windowpane. I brushed aside my ginger curls to reveal the smile on my face. Maybe it was my teenaged intuition to do exactly the thing that would annoy my parents the most or maybe I was just tired of waiting. In this moment I decided I wanted to take Grandpa′s advice, not to humour him but for my own benefit. I had dreamed for such a long of being a hero, it was time I became one. But I didn′t want to do it alone. First, I was going to find Shadow. 

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