The Superhero Way

by T.S. McAdams



Captain Superfriend is not a superhero. He’s part of the RLSH (Real Life Super Hero) movement. He wears a Halloween Superman costume and Zorro mask, helps people find lost cats, and calls 9-1-1 on a cellphone when there’s trouble. His website reveals his “secret” identity and links to a “sister site” for his real estate agency. Both sites mention that the Chamber of Commerce, or maybe it was the Lions Club, gave him a commendation, not for fighting crime, but for his “community spirit.” And probably for being twenty-something and one of the Valley’s top realtors. He shouldn’t have been out after dark in any neighborhood I patrol, sucking in his stomach so it wouldn’t hang over his belt, handing out flyers for an LAPD community outreach picnic.

Crouched in the shadow of a rooftop air-conditioning unit, I saw it coming before the Captain noticed the four guys in wifebeaters and saggy jeans—maybe gang members, maybe not, but lightweights either way. I’d been hoping they’d rob the dry cleaners under my feet, or maybe assault a customer, but I’d pretty much resigned myself to a wasted night. Then the Captain rounded the corner, and I started stretching and warming up, as much as I could without leaving my shadow, even before the kid with a soul patch sprouting through acne like pink bubble wrap yelled, “Check it out! It’s Superfag!”

No one heard me hit the ground, feet absorbing the impact without strain. Beach muscles are well and good—the Captain should have worked on his—but I have priorities a bodybuilder never thinks of, none more important than the feet: Pilates Reformer is crucial to my training. Still unnoticed, I let things develop a little. That’s how it’s done: you have to let them earn their beating or you lose the moral high ground. Once they had him down and were kicking him, not even that hard, I stepped out of the shadows and said, “The weight of your sins betrays you. Face the judgment of Osiris.” That was Eric’s shtick, and it’s not as impressive when I do it, mostly because I can’t fly, so I don’t say it floating four feet off the ground. I’m a little tired of saying it, really. After ten years, almost, I’d rather switch to, “You’re a criminal and I’m going to kick your ass,” but it’s a legacy: I’m Osiris, and there’s no one else to do it.

Soul Patch nominated himself to handle villainous banter, and he opened with, “What the fuck?” He had a badly drawn skull tattooed on his neck, or it might have been Edvard Munch’s The Scream, or maybe he told the guy with the needle, “Give me a mean potato.” Sweaty pimples glistened like fish eggs, and I didn’t want to touch him, but that’s why I wear the gloves. I made his gargoyle face my piñata, and candy teeth skittered on the pavement. Right away, Captain Real Estate yelled, “No! Don’t hurt them! It’s not the superhero way!” Lying on his back on the sidewalk, holding his ribs and crying a little, trying to tell me about the “superhero way”! I probably didn’t bother much with choreography. I don’t remember. It was like being in the shower rehearsing another argument with Don about why our comics store shouldn’t carry fucking Simpsons action figures and forgetting whether I’ve washed my hair. By the time the bad guys limped away, I had a whole speech worked out.

Because that’s exactly the superhero way. A superhero represents something incompatible with Captain Superfriend’s red polyester boot tops with the elastic straps that loop under his real shoes. Even my costume—charcoal gray hood and cloak, verdigris-green mask, head-to-toe custom spandex, and neoprene—would be ridiculous if I stood in the street giving lectures, letting people laugh at my tights. Contrary to reputation, Americans have no talent for idolatry. They can appreciate the idea of a superhero, and the sound of breaking bones will keep them focused for a few moments; then you have to disappear before the snickering begins. You can be less brutal if you’re Eric holding an SUV above your head, but he would still throw the car without a thought for the noncombatant who parked it at the curb. In a world where parents negotiate with toddlers, I used to think Eric should be more sensitive to the niceties. Now I know the golden age is not coming back until we learn to respect superheroes again.

I was ready to explain some of this to the Captain when Isis stepped out of the drugstore across the street. “You’re done here, right?”

“Were you shopping dressed like that?” Isis is Felicia Page in a costume a lot like mine, but mostly gold and without the Kevlar panels, because she’s too vain to cover her tits. She also keeps two-dozen small, ankh-handled knives, darts really, in a sort of bandolier that wraps around her hips and thighs in a vaguely fetishy way. They’re smeared with a paralyzing formula she may have learned from Eric, though she says it was revealed to her in a dream. Felicia is a brown belt in Hapkido (only a green belt in Eric’s time), and accurate with her darts if the target will hold still—not exactly Avengers-level skills. I let her sidekick for me because she’s the only one left with an actual superpower. I never tell Felicia when I’m going patrolling, or where, but when I find action, she often shows up. She’s also waited at places I didn’t go, but always places I thought about going, and she always witnesses a crime, which she may or may not take on alone.

When she told me she also has visions of the past, I said most people call those memories. She said, “No, Junior, not the way things turned out—the way they might have been.” She had a vision where we let Eric have that girl, and the girl became Isis, and Felicia and I got together. I almost said the last part could still happen, but I was in uniform at the time, and Osiris is never pathetic. Even when Eric died, leering at a tawny adolescent, oblivious to the dismay of his team, he was never pathetic.

Captain Superfriend was nothing but pathetic. He sprawled across a grimy constellation of used chewing gum like a sad connect-the-dots activity.

Felicia said, “I felt like you needed me.”

I said, “For them? Either you’re slipping, or you think I am.”

“I felt like you might need me to hold you back.”

“What the hell does that mean? Anyway, it’s over.”

Felicia shrugged, golden boobs filling the brackets of her crossed arms. Of course, her expression was hidden by her mask. I turned back to Captain Superfriend, trying to reassemble my speech, but it all rose up in me somehow, and I pulled his mask off and hit him. I drove my fist into his eye, crunching infraorbital bones, and told him, “There are no more superheroes, asshole!”

*   *   *

The Captain Superfriend thing happened maybe two hours after my little sister’s wedding. That’s not an excuse. Osiris doesn’t need excuses.

I was a groomsman, adjusting a rented cummerbund along with Lance and two firemen buddies in a choir room next to the chapel. Firemen, I learned, are always in each other’s weddings, and these two veterans knew a lot of honeymoon jokes about Lance having sex with my sister. After they told all they knew, some twice, Lance said, “Hey, maybe Seth doesn’t want to hear this shit!” Then they talked about feces. While one was on the toilet, the others would pound the door and say, “Pinch it off! You’re not the only one who has to take a dump!” When he opened the door, they would fan their noses, saying, “Oh my God! You need to lay off the firehouse chili! Jesus Christ!” The deity was fervently invoked to witness the smell of shit, but downplayed during the ceremony, when the minister mostly told anecdotes about Lance and Theresa. I knew the minister a little: he was the funny kid in my high school who said “in Jesus’ name we pray” after the pledge of allegiance. He said it at the wedding, when he had to, with an identical smirk in his voice.

After the ceremony, I sat at the family table, and Lance’s father tried to draw me out about the comics business, but I don’t like to talk about comics with people who don’t read them. Then Lance and his best man questioned me about the Olympics. That’s the cover I use with my family: I’m training for the decathlon. This explains why I almost never have time for family events, and why the co-owner of a comic book store has this physique. I always knew they must be repeating this story to friends, but I don’t usually have to meet them. Lance and Nolan asked about qualifying competitions, why I didn’t compete last time around, what coaches thought about my prospects at thirty-four—questions pointed enough to let me know they knew I was lying, without publicly calling me out. I had to change the subject by asking Lance what it’s like to be a fireman, and his stories made me realize he saves more people, prevents more injuries and more property loss, than I ever will lurking on rooftops. That’s not really the point—not the whole point—but that would be hard to explain to Lance’s family and fans.

I should have taken Felicia. Only one year older than me, Felicia designs her own clothing and owns three boutiques that sell it. Like Bruce Wayne with an hourglass figure, she would have impressed everyone at the table, and she would have nudged me ironically when the maid of honor said, “Lance is like a superhero! Seth, you should sell a comic book about Lance!” Then I wouldn’t have been on a rooftop last night, hoping to run into her, when my training log said I should be home asleep. I don’t know what Felicia would have said if I asked her to my sister’s wedding. What she ended up saying after I hit Captain Superfriend was, “Nice work, Luthor. You finally took out Superman. Better leave this to me. You go home and practice your evil laugh.”

*   *   *

Aside from the Eric years, most of my operations have always started out like the Captain Superfriend rescue. I can’t fly, after all, and Spider-Man himself couldn’t swing from building to building in the San Fernando Valley, which is basically two stories high. I used to lie in wait dressed in gray goggles and a homemade black outfit with splashes of dark yellow, like my urine after supplements, imitating the coloration of the cordulegaster dorsalis or Pacific spiketail. If evildoers appeared, the Dragonfly would fall on them like a real dragonfly on mosquitoes. If not, they were safe from me for another two weeks, which is why Batman is the most unrealistic superhero. With Superman, you have to accept that yellow star radiation confers inexplicable powers, but the rest pretty much follows. Batman requires believing Bruce Wayne can find enough hours to practice his skills, meet extensive social obligations, and patrol Gotham City every night. Impossible: even with no social life and doing less than my share at the store, I’m so busy training in judo, Muay Thai, CrossFit, parkour, qigong, and Dynamic Tension, I barely cape up twice a month.

That’s not to say I wouldn’t make adjustments to Superman’s random list of powers. I’m no theologian, but all the important powers could be manifestations of an incredibly powerful, short-range telekinesis. He levitates himself to fly. He moves his own limbs mentally for super-strength. Invulnerability is his mind holding every molecule in place, preventing any physical trauma. The various forms of super-vision require a separate theory, and I would consider dropping them, but the thing that really bothers me is freeze-breath. I guess it’s no less plausible than heat-vision, when you think about it, but regulars at the store all agree, freeze-breath is the one power that makes a Superman story ridiculous.

I’m not sure whether I thought this up before or after meeting Eric Metternich, but those were his powers, too: flight, super-strength, near-invulnerability if he had a chance to brace himself. And the force-projection thing, which also fits my theory. He used that on me the night we met, which played out like a classic Spider-Man team-up, with the other hero thinking at first that Spider-Man is a bad guy. I was in my Dragonfly costume on the roof of Partytime Liquor, as likely a place as any to attract the serial robbers I’d read about in the Daily News. Eric was Osiris, streaking along at twice the height of a tall palm tree, in a white costume with sea-green accents, and he suddenly altered course in a dive toward my rooftop. I don’t know how he spotted me. I never could determine whether Eric had any super-senses. His dive took him below the roofline so he could swoop back up and hang in the sky, white cape billowing as perfectly as his long, white hair. When I became Osiris, Felicia would add a mask and hood, and swap out the white for gray; it spoils the regal effect but suits the way I operate.

Osiris gestured with one hand, and the Dragonfly was lifted and tossed by an invisible wave. Stepping onto the roof, Osiris pronounced, “Face the judgment—” But the Dragonfly knew how to fall, how to bounce back, how to scythe Osiris’s feet out from under him with one leg while striking a terrifically focused blow to his chest. The sweep had little effect, since a levitating hero holds his place regardless of footing, but the strike caught Osiris by surprise and spun his body halfway around, and Eric used his right arm sparingly for several days. Osiris was ready for the next blow, and somehow the Dragonfly sensed it; he didn’t throw the kick that would have broken his shin. Osiris raised one eyebrow as the Dragonfly uncocked his leg and lowered his foot to the ground. The Dragonfly may have thought this expression condescending, noticing and resenting, even then, Osiris’ attitude toward the ordinary mortals he protected more as a hobby than as a moral imperative, as someone else might tend an ant farm. It takes time to understand that real superheroes are different.

I had barely planted my foot when Isis emerged from the store below and called, “He’s not a bad guy, you know.”

Osiris smiled. “Would you say his costume suggests a falcon?”

“Not really. I can fix that.” So Felicia made me my first professional costume, which was dark brown with bronze, and I became Horus, and it lasted thirty-two months. I still have the Horus costume hanging in my closet. And I have Eric’s Osiris costume, tacked up on the back wall of the closet, and his skull on the shelf above. Felicia had a vision that Eric’s skull was missing, and she had a golden mask made, like King Tut’s, and put in Eric’s coffin to replace it; but the vision didn’t tell her who took the skull. I guess it’s sort of an altar, since I burn candles sometimes and sacrificed a parakeet once, which only led to harrowing dreams.

I also took a moment to examine Eric’s body when we stripped the costume from it, not for any weird reason, but because I’d always wondered whether Eric was human. I couldn’t tell. His skin was pale and flawless, with maybe a smudge of bruising where a dozen bullets struck his torso. If I say he could have been sculpted from marble, it’s a necessary cliché that communicates nothing, really, except the message of every necessary cliché—that there is nothing to communicate about the sublime, and we must abide the mystery. His phallus wasn’t gold, as in the myth, but it was bigger than mine.

No, I was not sexually interested in Eric. I don’t know whether there was anything like that between him and Felicia. No, I’ve never slept with Felicia. Yes, I am a virgin. This has nothing to do with anything.

*   *   *

We lost Eric on a mission against a supervillain called Squadron. He wasn’t the only supervillain around in Eric’s day, either. There don’t seem to be any now. Squadron’s thing, his power, was that he was one mind operating dozens of bodies. Really, he was a cult leader who conditioned followers with hypnotherapy, meditation, synchronized swimming, and Shotokan karate. They all wore drab olive spandex and half masks, and all grew matching beards, and it was something how they all moved and vocalized in unison, not communicating, yet never in each other’s way, so that six different kicks would come simultaneously at six different levels, from six different directions, “Kiai!” No way to block or dodge them all.

They were kidnappers and had to be stopped, but as Horus, I gave each henchman his moment. Only Squadron himself had a gun; Osiris handled that, bullets rebounding from his chest until he waved his hand and dashed Squadron against a wall, leaving the unarmed mob to me, aside from those Isis put down with darts. I would punch someone in the face, see the next man open to exactly the same move, and pass it up for the sake of variety, ducking his punch and catching his arm to throw him halfway across Squadron’s warehouse lair with an exaggerated seoi-nage technique. Then, realizing I could drop the next two with quick elbows, I would opt instead for acrobatic spinning kicks, leaving me no time to prepare for a flying five-man takedown. The outcome was inevitable, and there was no audience, not even security cameras, but the villains and Horus gave the performance everything they had. Then Osiris, Isis, and Horus raced up the stairs and broke down a door to save the commissioner’s daughter, and everything went to hell.

It was an undistinguished office with no supervillain pretensions, only the fake bamboo plant and cheap desk that foreshadow calisthenic penetration in a certain genre of porn. The girl was thirteen, at most, but already developed, which is supposedly caused by hormones in the water supply. She had been tied to a chair, but we found her standing with her back against the wall, clutching the paperweight she had used to knock out the guard: impressive, but not a superhero audition. Felicia was as stunned as I was when Eric said, “Look at this young lioness! Isis, I think you will be making another costume!” Eric had the angular features seen in profile on Roman coins, and he looked at the girl the way he used to look at Felicia, the way Ming the Merciless looked at Dale Arden in vintage Flash Gordon strips. I felt myself adopting the stance of Batman in the seventies, when Dennis O’Neil restored his edge, turning Robin’s super-scoutmaster into the Dark Knight again.

Felicia said, “She’s just a kid.”

Eric said, “Old enough to marry in Old Egypt. We’ll call her Sekhmet.”

A voice, a thought faster than voice, said don’t do it, he didn’t mean that how it sounded, I can still pull this kick. But my shin hit his neck in an almost horizontal trajectory, separating C4 and C5 with a crisp, wet sound, like stepping on an eyeball or a testicle, which I was not expecting. The girl looked at us for a moment after Eric fell, and then held up the paperweight and said, “I’m walking out of here.” The paperweight was a cast-iron hippopotamus. The girl had sun-bleached hair and should have been walking through seagrass, holding a longboard over her head or maybe leading a horse, in a glossy advertisement for cable pullovers and high-rise twill pants. Eric looked undamaged, as though the hippo were kryptonite and he would recover once the girl carried it from the room, but he didn’t move as her footsteps descended the stairs.

Felicia was in shock, I guess, expressionless as she stripped the body. She told me, “Don’t just stand there. This is not a peep show. Osiris has to take her home.” I put on Eric’s costume, and it wasn’t damp like the one I peeled off. Eric hadn’t been jumping around. It clung to my sweaty torso and thighs, defiled. There was no other way. I wore the whole Osiris costume, but I kept my Horus mask.

I found the girl sitting on the curb outside. She had no idea which way to go, or whether the abandoned Sun Valley industrial park was ten miles from home or a thousand, so she let me drive her home in my Chevy Impala.

She said, “Who are you supposed to be?”

I said, “Osiris.”

She said, “I thought you flew.”

I said, “Not always.”

Felicia’s vision didn’t show whether Sekhmet would have been happy with Eric, only that she would have looked good in a lioness costume and had the potential for a sort of berserker rage that could almost qualify as a superpower. The girl didn’t say any more on the drive home, just kept the iron hippopotamus ready in her lap.

*   *   *

Felicia called the store this morning, and I knew it was about the Captain Superfriend incident last night. I had wanted to call her, but I wasn’t going to. I was at the old computer we use for inventory, surrounded by Spider-Man and Captain America bobbleheads, because I’ve got to let Don win sometimes. Felicia told me to bring up the Captain Superfriend website.

It was more or less gone: no “Meet the Captain,” no list of community events, no link to Delta Realty, just one embedded video. When I clicked it, I saw the Captain in a white and green outfit. A black eye spread across the left side of his face, from his eyebrow to well below his cheekbone, as if he were made up to play an angry Dalmatian on a children’s television show.

“That looks kind of like Eric’s Osiris costume.”

“It’s the original,” Felicia told me. “Before I redesigned it.”

“False Osiris!” said the Captain. “You are unworthy of that uniform!” Captain Americas nodded agreement. Spider-Men reserved judgment, remembering they are not real and I am as good as it gets anymore.

I said, “Where did he get that?”

Felicia said, “Eric had a son.”

The Captain said, “I, Horus, will take it from you!”

“What the fuck? I’m Horus!”

“Not for eight years now.”

The Captain said, “Meet me in the same place, at moonrise, if you dare!”

“Fuck that! Horus is my name!”

Felicia said, “If you want to be Horus again, maybe we need a new Osiris.”

The Captain made scary Dalmatian faces into the camera for five more seconds, and the video ended. I tried to remember his last name. Didn’t it used to be on his site? You’d think I’d have noticed if it was Metternich. Felicia said, “Do you think about Eric? About what you—what happened to him?” I said, all the time. I got carried away and told her about my closet. She said, “You took Eric’s head? What, for a trophy? You are fucked up.” She broke the connection before I could explain. Maybe she didn’t, though: maybe she went through a canyon. She always loses reception on Coldwater, driving back from her Beverly Hills store. I should probably call her back.

Right now, I’m behind the dry cleaners, crouching in the shadow of a dumpster, watching the Captain wander the roof in an old Osiris costume and cape. Wrapped in my own Osiris cape, I’m not so much hidden as passing for a trash bag, my outline broken by sunflowers. Not the big ones with edible seeds: the smaller, branching yellow flowers common at the sides of roads are called sunflowers too. They were sacred to the Incas. Behind me is the Tujunga Wash, a major tributary to the Los Angeles River. A hundred years ago, the Los Angeles flooded like a lesser Nile, filling the basin with marshes like those that sheltered Child Horus; now, tributary and trunk are concrete channels, mostly dry, and sunflowers get by on sour liquid that drips from the trash.

I don’t hear catcalls from the street, which means no one has noticed him yet. He’s too ridiculous to be Eric’s son, and I decide not to meet him. Then the Captain tires of pacing, holds his hands out to brace against invisible parallel bars, and levitates maybe eighteen inches off the roof. My reflexes are strategic choices, acquired through hours of drill, but I don’t choose my actions now, any more than a desert toad, buried and dormant through the dry season, stops to consider his options before scrabbling from his burrow at the first sounds of rain. In five yards, I build enough speed to run straight up the wall.

He drifts toward me and a bit higher, until his fists, clenched at his sides, are even with my eyes. “You’re not Osiris.”

“I worked with him. I was Horus. When did you learn to fly?”

“I know all about that, murderer!” The Captain’s broad gesture is not the way Eric did it, but the power is the same, a wave that lifts and tosses me from the roof. What would the toad make of this? Emerging into a flash flood, tumbled on a rocky streambed, would he regret digging out? Wish for drought again? Not if he had trained like Dragonfly-Horus-Osiris. I fall eight yards to pavement and roll to my feet as though warming up on a judo mat. The man floating down from the roof doesn’t seem impressed, but a rut of teens stops to pay the tribute of narration.

“He’s not even hurt!”

“Dude’s flying!”

“Motherfuckers are mutants or something!”

“Check her out! Damn!”

Isis steps from the dry cleaners as the Captain touches down and rebounds a few inches, like a helium balloon that isn’t quite spent the day after the party. She slides a dart from a loop at her thigh, and I try to signal no, that’s not necessary, it probably won’t even work, I’ve got this, and I see what you were thinking, maybe he could be like Eric, we could be what we were. I can’t get all that into a hand gesture, but it doesn’t matter, because she’s aiming at me.

I can dodge anything Isis can throw, but I’m dizzy, the same as when I’m upside down too long for core work, and I unhook the gravity boots and drop to my feet again, and blood rushes from my head. The blade slides along Kevlar at my chest and doesn’t have enough momentum left to penetrate my inner arm. Felicia knows all the unprotected spots, though, and she’ll hit one soon if I don’t move. It shouldn’t hurt much, compared to some of the injuries I’ve had. I wonder what Felicia will do, what expression will be on her face, when the drug takes effect and I collapse. She lifts a dart above her head, and maybe I shouldn’t be watching what this does to her chest, but the Captain stares at her too; it’s no reason to change sides. She says, “I don’t know if I can do it.”

The Captain moves toward Felicia, treading air a bit with his hands. Eric never had to do that. The Captain hasn’t even mastered the implacable expression proper to a superhero. With his discolored eye, he looks like an artless kabuki actor hoisted on a chūnori wire, vogueing his response to a lover’s betrayal or a mother’s rejection. “I knew you might turn on me.” He hits Felicia with the back of his hand, bouncing her off a window with the slogan “No Starch, No Wrinkles, No Problem!” She lands on her hands and knees, gets up slowly, and takes a defensive stance.

Felicia tells the Captain, “I’m not turning on you, Julian.”

“I wanted to believe you. But how could an ordinary man defeat Osiris without help?” The Captain settles in front of Felicia and raises his right hand, preparing a telekinetic attack. “At least I know why he let down his guard. I can’t blame myself, if he fell for it too.”

I throw the deicide kick, and his cervical vertebrae make that chiropractic sound, the sound that my sister’s husband makes dismembering champagne lobster, and the Captain doesn’t fall gracefully like Eric did; the body lying on the sidewalk couldn’t be anything but a corpse. Felicia doesn’t say anything. She’s all right, but she looks tired. I’m tired. All my life I’ve trained for this, never thinking of personal gain. At least two people are filming with cell phones, and I know how this is going to look on YouTube, me standing over a dead guy in a prototype of my costume, intoning “Face the judgment of Osiris,” but I can’t consider that. It’s a legacy. I’m Osiris, and there’s no one else.”



T.S. McAdams lives with his wife, son, and bullmastiffs in the San Fernando Valley, where he is not working on a screenplay. His short fiction has appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Madcap Review, Santa Monica Review, and Pembroke, and he has work forthcoming in Sierra Nevada Review and Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet.

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