Here's a new short story, all shiny and fresh from my brain parts. Enjoy!
We'd all had enough of superhero movies, and the wannabe superheroes they'd spawned, and the satires of superhero movies, and the anti-hero movies. We'd had enough of heroes.
Casting Ben Affleck (who’d already ruined one superhero movie) as Batman was really the final nail. The Batman-Superman movie was a disaster, and it put people off the whole notion of capes & tights altogether. Not even Joss Whedon was spared – after Batman-Superman, the Agents of Shield show fizzled, Avengers 2 was a box office bomb, and Robert Downey Jr. went back to rehab. Well, first he went back to hookers & coke. Then he went back to rehab.
The last “real” superhero, Phoenix Jones, was also dead, and the utter stupidity with which he chose to meet his end was just too juicy for the tabloids to pass up. What did he think would happen when he waltzed into a brawl between the Crips and Bloods? He got shot. A lot.
That was the trouble with superheroes. They were unrealistic - even the ones, like Batman, who didn't have any particular magical powers, just a lot of money and more hours in the day than anyone else in the Universe, so he could learn all the martial arts, ninja skills, design all the gear...it was exhausting to contemplate. And then when some asshole like Phoenix Jones tried to imitate Batman, he just ended up dead.
The real problem I had with superheroes was the notion that one person could put away more bad guys than could an entire police force. If Batman was such a god damned hero, why didn't he just throw all his money at the Gotham PD - outfit them with batarangs and body armor and high tech surveillance equipment? No, it had to be all about Bruce Wayne's ego, didn't it? I had a theory that superheroes came from a Nietzschean-Objectivist expression of the idiot strain of American radical individualism – the notion that I, and only I, can save you, and the government-funded police forces actually hired to do that job are incompetent buffoons.
Still, there I was, outside of a "secret warehouse" in the middle of the city, Intrepid Reporter Jimmy Smith, just out of journalism school, still wet behind the ears, and not just because of the rain. I had my tablet and stylus in hand, because Willamette Week had gotten a tip about a "new superhero" who had a base of operations here.
I knocked at a small door set into a larger rolling garage door. It opened, and a small man's face peeked out. "Yes?"
"Jimmy Smith with the Willamette Week. Here to interview," I checked my notes, "The Stumptown Savior." I winced at that.
"Just a sec." The small man's face retreated. The door closed. I waited.
After a minute, the door opened again. The small man ushered me inside. "It'll just be a minute," he said as he bade me follow him through a metal hallway bathed in fluorescent light. We went through a door into a dark space, obviously the main floor of the warehouse, where two Ikea leather sofas sat across from each other under one hanging light. It was all very dramatic.
"Sit," said the small man, pointing at one of the sofas. I sat. The small man hurried out of the room.
I drummed my fingers on my knees. I fidgeted. I fiddled with my phone.
Several minutes later, the small man returned, this time wearing a frankly ridiculous getup. Bright orange bike shorts, a black cycling jersey, a furry pink fedora, and motorcycle boots. Seriously?
"Seriously?" I actually said that out loud.
"Meet the Stumptown Savior," said the small man, and his voice reverberated around the room through some kind of electronic trickery.
I kind of blinked at him for a few minutes. The headline of my story was clear: “Nothing,” because this wasn’t a story. This was just another wacky dude trying to out-wacky the most self-consciously wacky city in America.
The Stumptown Savior sat across from me on the other couch. I decided that if he wanted to waste my time, then he was going to have to start telling me why. So I didn’t ask him any questions, at first. After a few minutes of weird silence, he started.
“You’re obviously wondering about this ridiculous getup.”
“But what you’re wondering more is why I call myself a superhero.”
I nodded again.
“It’s because I can do this.”
Quite suddenly, he wasn’t sitting in front of me anymore. He was across the room, standing in the corner.
I made a noise. I think it was something along the lines of: “Wha….huh?”
“Quantum teleportation.” His voice echoed around the space. A second later, he was back on the couch. I tried to gather my thoughts. I’d seen enough David Blaine street magic to know where this was going.
“Big fan of David Blaine, are you?” I asked.
He laughed, a weird tittering giggle that sounded like a small dog gargling a mouse he’d just caught.
“This isn’t stage magic, my friend. This is real teleportation.” He disappeared off the couch and came through the door through which I’d entered earlier.
“Ok, sit still for a minute.” He came back and sat on the couch, blinking at me.
“Would you at least get rid of the hat? It’s very distracting.” He took off his hat.
I still wasn’t prepared to believe the guy could teleport. And anyway, even if he could, if that was his only superpower, it wasn’t a very good one.
“Look, even if you could teleport, which you can’t, because that’s not possible, it’s still not a very good superpower, is it? I mean, what are you going to do to bad guys, say ‘Stop! Or I’ll…be somewhere else at you?’”
“You’d be surprised at how handy it is. For instance.” He grabbed my hand, and suddenly we were both standing across the room.
“Oh,” I said, and fainted.
I came to lying on the couch. The Stumptown Savior was mopping my brow with a wet cloth, and proffered a glass of ice water. I accepted it. I sat up and took a sip. It was exactly the scene you’re picturing from all the movies.
The quick nap had cleared my mind pretty successfully.
“So you can teleport, and not only that, you can take people with you.” The words as they came out of my mouth felt like they were scrawled into wet cheese, which is to say they didn’t make any sense at all.
“Yes,” said the Stumptown Savior.
At this point I had the presence of mind to turn on the video recording function of my tablet. I pointed it at him. “Do it again.” He nodded, vanished, and reappeared across the room. I jerked the tablet’s camera toward where he now was.
“Ok, now come back.” He did.
“Ok, now do it again, except this time, take the tablet with you while it’s recording.” He obliged. When he returned, I reviewed the footage. There wasn’t a period of blackness or anything – the background just changed suddenly.
“Huh.” That was the most intelligent thing I could think to say at that moment.
“So when did you-”
He grabbed my hand and we were suddenly standing on top of the Space Needle.
“Oh,” I said, and fainted again. Thankfully, he caught me, or that would have been a pretty permanent nap.
I came to in the observation lounge of the Space Needle. A paramedic was standing over me and I had an oxygen mask on my face.
“Heights,” the Stumptown Savior explained to the paramedic. “He should be fine now.”
“Ok, but maybe don’t go up the Space Needle if you’re that afraid of heights,” admonished the paramedic.
“I didn’t really have much of a choice,” I said, voice muffled by the mask. The paramedic took away the mask and cleared away his equipment. He really wanted to take me in for observation, but the Stumptown Savior persuaded him that I didn’t need it.
After a minute, I said, “So you can teleport, take people with you, and go really far.”
“Yes,” he said.
“Alright then.” I stood, with his help, and found a water fountain. I drank deep.
“You know I’ve never been up the Space Needle,” I said. “This is my first time.”
“Mine too,” he said. “This was just a whim. Needed to show you what I could do, you know?”
“So you can teleport, take people with you, go really far, and go places you’ve never been before.”
“Yes,” he said.
“Alright, so is this magic, or is this an incredible scientific breakthrough?”
“A little from column A, a little from column B.”
I walked over to the windows, overlooking the dreary Seattle skyline. The Stumptown Savior joined me at the windows.
“Tell me more about it,” I said.
“I will.” He grabbed my hand and I found myself back on the couch in his warehouse. I managed to remain conscious.
“That must’ve caused a stir,” I said. “Disappearing from the Space Needle like that.”
“Not as much as you’d think. People are focused on other things.”
“So tell me how this happened. How’d you get this…ability?”
“I was struck by lightning while I was standing way too close to a space-time rift.”
“No, but wouldn’t that be cool?” He smiled at me, a disquieting sight.
“The truth is much more mundane, I’m afraid. I was working on the particle accelerator at CERN, and I don’t really know how, but somehow I was blasted with a particle beam, and, Bob’s your uncle, I can teleport. Like, quantum entanglement, something. I still haven’t really figured it out.”
“Still a pretty decent superhero origin story,” I said. “How do you use it?”
“Mostly I patrol the streets, find people in trouble, and get them out of there. About all I can do, really. I’ve experimented with teleporting criminals directly into prison while they’re committing their crimes, but the police have no idea what to do with that, because the criminals haven’t gone through the proper procedures, had their Miranda rights read, you know, that sort of thing. Also, I’ve almost gotten knifed or shot a few times, and I’m not bulletproof.”
“Can’t you just teleport away from the path of the bullet?”
“I can’t do it that fast – by the time I could register the shot, it would already have shot me. I’m not Neo.”
“No, of course.”
“So you want to go out on patrol with me?”
“Yeah, but first – why the crazy getup?”
“Oh the hat was just for shits. You know. But the cycling gear is comfortable and easy to move in, and the motorcycle boots just look cool. I mean, don’t they?”
I nodded. “Sure. Maybe not with the cycling gear though…”
He chuckled. “Yeah maybe you’re right, but hey, we’re all a little eccentric, aren’t we?”
“Yeah, we are.”
“Come on then. My Spidey sense is tingling.”
“Careful where you use that – Marvel’s got a lot of copyright lawyers.”
“Are you one of them?”
He grabbed my hand. “Alright then. Off we go.”
It turned out his “Spidey sense” consisted of a police scanner app on his phone. We teleported outside and I managed to remain conscious again. He pulled his phone out of a pocket on his cycling jersey along with a pair of earbuds. He put one in his ear and handed one to me. I wasn’t super happy about sharing earbuds with someone – ew – but I gamely obliged. All was crackling and static, with the occasional burst of incoherent police code. After a minute, the Stumptown Savior said, “Let’s go.” Out of another pocket of his jersey, he produced two ski masks. He put one on and handed the other to me.
“Secret identity, you know,” he explained. I nodded and put the ski mask on.
“You can be my Robin,” he chuckled.
He grabbed my hand. I found myself looking out the window of a darkened office building looking down at an alley. I couldn’t really see anything happening in the alley.
“What’s the crime?”
“911 call was dead air,” he said, “but it was geolocated here. Something’s going down, probably a mugging victim throwing his phone in some bushes as the trouble started. Need to find it. Stay here.” He vanished.
I realized the real crime here might be me breaking into an office building, but I had to hope that wasn’t going to end up being a problem. I watched the alley. He appeared at one end of it and started to walk along, looking into shadows.
He must’ve seen something, because he sprinted out of view. Suddenly he was beside me. “Come,” he said, grabbed me, and we went. I blinked and was standing in the shadows at the end of another alley. In front of me, some poor guy was being menaced by a thug with a switchblade. Stumptown walked toward the thug.
“Hey,” said Stumptown.
The thug turned. “What do you want, freak?” Stumptown dived and grabbed the thug around the knees in a low tackle. The two of them disappeared. The victim gaped. Then he ran.
A few minutes later, Stumptown reappeared beside me. He was bleeding from a nasty slice across one shoulder. “Job hazard,” he said.
“Where’d you put the bad guy?”
“Dropped him off in front of the police station. Whether they do anything with him…I doubt it. But it got that victim off the hook.”
“I thought you normally teleported the victims.”
“Yeah, well, it depends – here I didn’t have clear access to the victim without going through the perp. I just do whatever’s easiest.”
I nodded. He grabbed me, and we teleported back to the warehouse. I was getting very good at remaining conscious.
“How many of those do you do a night?”
“As many as I can, you know? I’m just one guy. This is a big city.”
“You going to do any more tonight?”
“Probably not,” he said. He prodded his injured shoulder and winced. “This’ll need stitches, so I’m going to spend the rest of the night in the hospital. Thank god for good health insurance, right?”
“What’s your day job?”
“I’m a physics professor at Portland State. And shit, that reminds me, I’ve got a bunch of exams to grade. Looks like they’ll be late again. I’m developing a reputation, you know. Good thing I’m tenured.”
“I don’t know what to do with this footage, Smith.” It was my editor. I’d given him the tablet to review the teleportation footage, not at all sure how he’d react to it. He’d reacted with bafflement. That seemed about right.
“Put it on the website, maybe with a poll asking people if they think this guy’s for real,” I suggested.
My editor was an old Jewish guy from New York, balding, with a strong accent. When he spoke, his tongue darted around his mouth as if seeking escape, snaking to and fro, making a loud saliva noise. It unnerved me to no end.
“But it’s not real, right?”
I shook my head. “No boss – it’s all real. You may not believe me. And that’s completely fine. But last night I was on top of the damned Space Needle, and that wasn’t an illusion.”
“The Space Needle?” He rewound the footage again, his brow furrowed, hyperactive tongue inspecting all the nooks and crannies of his mouth and tasting the air.
After a minute, he said, “Take this down to our digital editing guys – see if they can figure out what’s going on with it. The story you’re spinning is a wild one, Smith. If you’re telling me this guy is more than just another dumbass Phoenix Jones, that this is really something out of a damned comic book, then…I don’t know. That’s a lot to wrap your head around.”
“I want to go out with him a few more nights before I write the article.”
“Sure. Also, go to the PSU website, see who this guy actually is. If he’s a professor there, we should be able to match up his picture.”
I nodded. “Yeah, but I’m pretty sure this guy wants his secret identity kept secret, right?”
“Then he shouldn’t have shown you his face, should he?” My editor handed me back the tablet and walked off.
It was a fair point. Why had the Stumptown Savior met me with his mask off? Was this all a kind of publicity stunt, a way to reveal himself to the world? Then why put on the ski mask when he was doing his superhero stuff? A lot of questions for tonight, I thought.
I sat down at my desk, straightened a pile of article drafts, threw them to the side. Those would wait. I opened my laptop and clicked open the web browser. I scanned the Portland State University website, looking at pictures of professors. There he was. Unmistakably. The guy’s name was Zack Anderson. Not exactly “Peter Parker” or “Clark Kent.”
I decided to crash one of his classes.
“So why did you want me to find you?” Professor Anderson’s lecture had been impenetrable to me, something about bosons or whatever, but I’d caught up with him afterwards and he’d agreed to go for a beer with me. He hadn’t been at all surprised to see me; in fact, he seemed to have been expecting me. For some reason, we’d ended up at Pizza Schmizza, which, yes, had a bar, but was mostly a pizza joint. Neither of us was eating pizza.
Professor Anderson sipped a locally brewed porter and thought for a second. “What I’m about to tell you is off the record.” I nodded. It was funny how people still thought that meant something.
He continued. “I want some of the credit, I suppose. Maybe I want to get paid. I mean, I’ve got a skill. It’s got to be worth something, right? If you reveal my identity, maybe the cops will hire me on as a special consultant. Maybe I’ll get some private security gigs. I don’t know. I want to monetize this. Call me selfish.”
I took a gulp of my own beer, a hoppy IPA with a bitter grapefruit bite. I pondered what this guy was saying. Actually, he was making more sense than any other superhero in history. Why did all of these guys with superhuman abilities do their thing for free? That was another thing that made no sense about comic books – the Nietzschean ideal of the Superman, sprinkled with the “only I can do this” radicalism of Ayn Rand, but working for the common good of humanity? No, this guy was clearly the most real superhero of them all – taking the idea to its logical extreme. Well, him and Deadpool, I supposed. It was at that moment that I realized that my cynical sociological analysis of superheroes was seriously compromised by the fact that I’d never actually read a comic book, and all of my knowledge came from movies, TV shows, and video games. Still, I thought I had a point, and that was enough for the moment.
“So essentially, instead of an article, you want me to write you an ad.”
He shook his head. “Not so crass as all that. I want you to write me an origin story, paint me as the lonely hero, get people interested in me. I’ll be all reluctant about it, and then we’ll see what happens.”
I drained my beer. It being early afternoon, I decided not to have another. Outside, the rain pattered against the restaurant window, reminding all of us that it was any of the months between September and June.
“Come to the warehouse tonight and patrol with me again. Get some good video, and then tomorrow write your article.”
“If I do that, it’ll come out in next week’s paper edition, but I can load the video footage onto the website today, give people a tease.”
The night’s patrol started slowly – even the criminals tend to cocoon a little bit at the start of the rainy season. The Stumptown Savior did manage to rescue an old lady from the path of an oncoming truck, although the shock of teleportation nearly killed her. Stumptown dropped her off at the local hospital and blinked back to where I was waiting for him.
“That’ll be a great bit of footage for the website,” I said, my voice muffled by the ski mask he still insisted we both wear. Honestly, I thought – ski masks?
“Don’t you worry the ski mask sends the wrong message?”
“What do you want me to do, get a Mexican wrestling mask and paint it fun colors? Come on now.”
“I’m just saying – I see a guy with a ski mask coming at me, I’m running the other way.”
“Yeah well…” He motioned me to follow him. We ducked into an alley and he checked his police scanner. He grabbed my hand and we blinked across the city. In front of us, a four story apartment building was engulfed in flames.
“Turn on the video,” he said. I pointed the tablet at him and then at the burning building. He teleported. I zoomed in on the building. He was gone for quite a while. I began to worry about him.
Then he was next to me, kneeling, coughing, carrying nothing at all. He was black with soot from head to toe, and his cycling jersey looked to have melted off of one of his arms, burning him quite badly.
“Dammit,” he spat. “Nobody in there.”
“You’d prefer there to have been someone in there?” I asked.
“Can’t be a rescue if you don’t rescue anyone,” he coughed.
“True,” I said. Wow.
“Ok, that’s it for tonight. Need a hot bath and some steam in my lungs.” He grabbed me and we shot back to the warehouse.
I had to decide how to approach the article. Did I respect the guy’s “off the record” comments from the pizza place, and do as he asked – paint him as a reluctant hero, just trying to do some good? Or expose him as the cynical self-promoting bastard he actually was?
Part of me wanted to wait and see how this played out, see if it was possible for the guy to parlay a superpower into a paying job without seeming like a total asshole in the process. I was convinced that people would find the notion of a paid superhero off-putting, because of the cultural associations of heroes with, well, heroism.
Then again, this guy was using me and my newspaper to craft a narrative for himself that, frankly, was a load of bollocks. Nothing new in the media world, true, but I didn’t like the taste of it.
After all, why bend over backwards for this guy when all he wanted to do was make a buck, to the point that he actually wanted for there to be people burning alive that he could rescue? That was what really clinched it for me. The way he sounded so disappointed that he hadn’t found a cowering child or mewling pet about to burn to death in that apartment building.
My editor came in to my office, noticed me with my “pondering” face on.
“What are you pondering?” he asked, tongue squirming around his gullet like a snake on fire.
I gave him a hard look. This was the moment I had to decide, because I knew that once I told my boss the truth about this guy, the jig would be up. My boss would insist that I write the truth, the whole truth, and make it as juicy as possible. Print media wasn’t dead, but it wasn’t terribly healthy either, and our free weekly had been more ads than articles for a while now just to keep the lights on. Sensationalism was guaranteed to get papers in people’s hands, and that would translate to increased ad revenue, especially if we put all the video on the website.
Including the video I’d taken of Stumptown at the burning apartment building. I had him saying, “Damn, nobody in there.” I had the whole exchange.
“Stumptown’s a fraud, boss. Sure, his power’s real, but all he really wants is to make money off of it.” I loaded up the video from the apartment building and handed the tablet over. My boss watched it.
“Ok, so…wow. That’s pretty damning. Actually annoyed that…” He handed the tablet back to me.
“Yeah. So he wants to use us to get publicity for himself, see if he can parlay his skills into a paying gig.”
“Oh he does, does he?”
I nodded. “That’s his whole thing. He told me he wants to ‘monetize’ this. His words.”
“Monetize being a superhero?”
My boss paced around my office for a few minutes. I think neither of us was sure where to go with this.
I checked the footage I’d taken from the first night’s patrol and put on the website. The poll was at 65% for “this is fake,” 22% for “this is real,” and 13% for “I don’t know, I just like to click on polls.” The comments below the video were the usual morass of “FIRST!!!!!!1!!!,” “This is shopped because of the pixels,” “[something offensive and irrelevant],” and “Hey that’s interesting, now look how you can make a zillion dollars and work at home!” Not helpful to deciding what to do with this, except that it showed that people were watching the video. Maybe it hadn’t gone viral, but it was at least the internet equivalent of a light cough.
“I’m writing the truth, boss.” I’d opened my mouth not sure of what was going to come out of it, but I knew I was right about what did.
“Go for it. Take this guy down.” He left my office.
My article laid it all out. The guy’s name, his superpower, even the supposedly “off the record” conversation we’d had at the pizza place. I pointed readers to the website, where I’d posted the video of Stumptown being pissed off he didn’t find any victims in the apartment building.
The uproar was immediate and confusing. A debate ensued – some of our city’s libertarian anarchists, the same ones I blamed every time I got a damned cavity after they’d defeated putting fluoride in the water because they were afraid of the government tainting their precious bodily fluids, applauded Stumptown’s entrepreneurial spirit, while being careful to denounce him for wishing harm on innocents. The leftist anarchists, the ones I blamed for the city’s parks being shut down constantly because they kept putting tents and homeless people in them, denounced him as a sellout and said other incoherent things. The sensible middle of the city wasn’t sure what to make of him. I think even the vegans had an opinion about his leather motorcycle boots. On point as usual.
Everyone, however, agreed he was an asshole.
But in the end, he got what he wanted. A private security firm hired him on as protection for a local hip hop artist. It paid so well that he quit his professor job. He eventually became a Bodyguard to the Stars, able to whisk celebrities out of the hassling arms of the paparazzi, or in some cases, whisk the paparazzi themselves out of there.
Obviously he lost the ski mask, the cycling outfit, and the motorcycle boots. Celebs don’t like their bodyguards dressed like that.
I never saw him again – I couldn’t tell if he was pissed about my article or pleased with it. After all, it had gotten him exactly what he wanted.
I don’t know why I ever expected anything else to happen.