When 7-year old Zachary Payne asked the Make-A-Wish Foundation to reach into the depths of hell and pull out a raging, red-faced demon to help him fight his T-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia, they did.
Zachary, diagnosed in August 2009 with a type of cancer that forms immature white cells in the blood and bone marrow at a horrific rate, wasn't interested in traveling to Disneyland or meeting a professional baseball hero. He wanted Hellboy, the supernatural infant-turned-enemy-of-evil in filmmaker Guillermo del Toro's movie of the same name, based on Mike Mignola's acclaimed Dark Horse Comics series.
"At the end, they fight with big swords and Hellboy wins, even though he loses his sword and has to fight with his rock fist," says Zachary, who lives in Concord.
Sitting next to his mother Erin and buttressed by his two older sisters, who hover like secondary guardians, Zachary is tiny, but invincible.
"I wanted Hellboy to win because he was fighting for the crown," he adds.
Zachary's own battle, largely conducted in an institution he abhors (the hospital), by a doctor he and his family cherish and rely on (pediatric oncologist Dr. Steven K. Bergstrom, at Kaiser Permanent Medical Center-Oakland) is ongoing.
"He has about six more months of spinal taps with spinal chemo, nightly chemo pills, antibiotics every weekend and steroids one week every month," his mother says. "I'll feel great when I no longer have to give him medicine,
The worst for a young boy is when he is neutropenic, a condition that renders him vulnerable to infectious disease and forces him indoors for days.
"I get lots of beads of courage for that," Zachary announces, sending a sister to retrieve the (too many) beaded chains he has created during hospitalizations.
"The beads mean things like blood transfusions, no hair, surgery to put my port in," he explains. "I think the black ones are for needle sticks."
He swings the loaded necklaces, whipping them faster and faster, until terrifying purple surgical representations and painful spinal tap symbols disappear into a blur of color.
Zachary is supported by an extended family, including parents, siblings, great-aunts and grandparents.
"My Grandpa gives me Legos for every hospital visit, because it's uncomfortable," he says.
It took months for him to design his Make-A Wish request.
"He just asked, 'Can I just ask them for the cancer to be gone?'" his mother says.
"They can't get rid of it, because no one can get rid of it," Zachary interjects, before modifying his statement. "Who can get rid of it? Me. I'm using my family, and pills, and food, like fruit, fried rice, Panda Express mandarin chicken, pizza and broccoli."
His family laughs, recalling a period where 2 a.m. meant demands for SpaghettiOs and broccoli ("steroids make him crave salt," his mother explains), and a recent week that included three trips to his favorite local restaurant.
In-N-Out hamburgers and ketchupy fries were on the menu when Zachary traveled to Southern California to have lunch with Hellboy. Actor Ron Perlman, who plays the character in the film, spent four hours being made-up, preparing to make the boy's wish come true.
"He was like on TV, but just in real life," Zachary remembers. "And his teeth fell out, right on the table, when we were eating!"
The memory sends him into delicious laughter and answering questions for an hour causes him to leap off the couch to race after the family cat. It's suddenly easy to imagine him -- red faced and powerful -- after the makeup artists turned him into a mini-Hellboy.
His mother says the experience was initially difficult because her son is used to being told what to do. With his typical days carrying the weight of life-or-death actions directed by adults, choosing everything on his own was unfamiliar.
The San Francisco chapter of Make-A-Wish organized the trip, sending Zachary, his sisters and his parents for an afternoon with Perlman and including rides on the new Transformer roller coaster.
"The doctors say he should be completely clear when we are through," Erin Payne says. She hopes that telling her son's story will increase awareness about his condition and understanding of why he misses school or what causes him to suffer mood swings.
On this feel-good day, there's no evidence of pain. He's at home, with colorful gum, a black Lego warplane to construct and the powerful, mighty memory of becoming Hellboy, who fights the good fight, and wins.