An aging superhero is asked for one more sacrifice for a world he feels so little faith in.
Not Your Keeper
The masses gathered outside of the apartment building. Down below, the crowd on the sidewalk and in the street, looked up at his window, chanting his name and holding up signs that pleaded for his intervention once more. He stared back, looking down at the tiny figures through the dirty window.
The day was bright and sunny, a perfect summer morning with just the right amount of breeze to balance the summer heat. If not for the crowds of frantic and afraid people, the blue sky and sunshine could have set the stage for a beautiful song or poem.
The apartment above the crowd was dark and cool. He couldn’t be in the sunlight without protection, which seemed so absurd, even to him, considering his power and abilities. A joke only the divine could have formulated.
Some light filtered through the room from the television. On the screen, a network news anchor tried to keep his composure while updating viewers about the incoming threat. Cameras cut to satellite images of an immense, blob-like entity hurling through space toward them. Months before, the world witnessed the light of Venus disappear and scientists confirmed the entity had somehow absorbed it. The entire planet. Now it was headed toward Earth with unfathomable speed and scientists estimated it would be upon them in less than an hour.
“They need you,” a voice declared from behind him. The statement was firm, but calm, with even the slightest consoling quality. “You know that.”
“What’s the point?” he asked, not expecting a satisfactory answer.
“There is no other option. You know that as well.”
He looked up at the bright blue sky and let his mind be distracted briefly with discerning pleasant shapes from puffy white clouds. Such little time spent on such little pleasures like looking at the clouds. For him, there was always a calling, always a need to save, or fix.
“Even if I did, it’s too big. Too strong. I couldn’t defeat it and survive.”
She knew that to be true and at that moment remembered a lesson her father offered when she was eleven years old and had gotten in trouble for punching a boy in the nose at school. The man acknowledged she was tough, but warned there is always someone tougher.
“Then what, do nothing?”
He turned to face her. For the first time, she could see the gray in his hair, and the wrinkles under his eyes. Vulnerabilities from the enduring. For the first time, she felt sympathy for him and out of everything she had experienced leading up to that interaction, it had made her feel most afraid.
He tightened the belt on his robe and walked over to a shelf filled with books and touched the spines until finding one, pulled it from its resting place and cracked it open with his back to her.
“And even if I did, what then? I have done this for more than sixty years, and for what? There is still suffering. You elect leaders who prey on your fears and prejudices. You create borders, expecting me to choose sides, when your real problems are global. You claim God, and resent me as if I am trying to be a God. You are a world of hate and separatists, and no matter what I do, you will still be fractured.”
It was a perfect soliloquy. She wondered if he had rehearsed it, because it truly did paint a picture that was hard to argue. She wouldn’t have blamed him if he did rehearse it. Important thoughts should take time to bake. It would have been refreshing when spur of the moment rhetoric is launched from the hip without any care for the implications. Vile and hateful things spewed into the ether.
Yet there was no time to debate whether or not the world was worth saving. Her mother’s voice emerged from the memories that waited for purpose, a celebrated peace activist who overshadowed any accomplishment her daughter could offer. ‘There are many who choose to haggle over the sociopolitical implications, I choose action.’ She wished she could speak so confidently at that moment.
“If you do nothing, then everything is lost.”
He tore a page from the binding, closed the book and returned it to the shelf. Thoughts of former battles, people he saved, destruction and redemption, then the hearings and attempts to use his weakness of the sun against him to eliminate the risk, all flooded his mind as if the dam had broken and he was being washed away with no ability or will to fight back. He was a freak. His differences made him necessary and feared in one breath and he was so tired of trying to make their lives better when their nature was only to create more suffering.
“I am done. It’s over. There will be no more using me to save yourselves. From now on, you will need to find another way to survive. Who knows, maybe you will finally work together, with no other option.”
He undid the belt on his robe and let it fall to the floor. Shirtless, in only pajama bottoms, his flabby gut falling over the waistband, she couldn’t help but get the contrast between the perfect Adonis sculpture of her childhood comic books and the very real body of a superhero. He looked so normal, like a suburban husband and father on a lazy Sunday trying to forget the stresses and anxieties of trying to be a good husband and father.
He walked over to the window and smashed the glass with his fist, the fragments falling twenty-four floors to the pavement below, scattering the crowd beneath.
She glanced at the wall where his suit hung, the one that protected him from the sun’s rays and she was confused by the moment, him standing at the broken window with the sun shining in, and the suit still in its place on the wall.
He looked down at the tiny manifestations and felt how small and insignificant the world was. Just a speck on the bigger universe. Ants scurrying before being trampled and he could fly away without a scratch. Leave them to deal with their own mortality. Their vane leaders, the insistence on moral superiority, one god over the other, one nation suppressing another. And he could finally be free.
Ten minutes until impact. The phone in her pocket vibrated. They wanted answers, they wanted to know what she had accomplished, if anything. Would their world collapse or would the being they had so callously determined was not one of them rescue the world from pending disaster? She didn’t answer. What could she say? What could she tell them that they didn’t comprehend already about the world, about themselves, about their intentions?
His knees were bent as if to lift something heavy. He looked to the sky, the bright blue, and the puffy clouds and thoughts of the children that sent him letters. Thousands of letters from those he inspired, those he actually saved, those who longed for a better world and hoped he could deliver it.
The sun burned his skin. She watched the steam rise from the pores and dissipate into the cold, dark air. He was exposed in a way she couldn’t have imagined him ever have being and yet there he was, in front of her, superhuman strength wasting from what normal human beings would deem a mere sunburn.
He burned. The sun seared the skin the way meat would on a grill. And he accepted it. She saw it in his eyes, an utter acceptance of the sun that cast its rays the way it did every day. Except this time the skin curdled like sour milk. Knees were bent and flexed, ready.
He loosened the fist of his left hand and drop a crinkled piece of paper onto the window sill and in one effortless movement, with knees bent, he blasted into the atmosphere with such force that windows to either side of the apartment shattered and sent more glass showering to the street below.
She saw the paper drop in the corner of her eye. A seemingly insignificant action in the midst of a superhuman demonstration and a pending doom. Still, she couldn’t take her eyes off of the paper crinkled into a ball as it bounced on the window sill. She tried to remember what it was her father said about tiny, insignificant moments?
She watched him, in seconds, become a dot in the sky, for seconds, then he could not be seen at all by the naked eye in the bright blue with the white puffy clouds creating figures of the imagination. He was gone. All that was left was a streak in the atmosphere, white, a path to the heavens.
The sun burned the surface of his skin, which turned to hot ash and fell back to the earth in soft gray flakes as he climbed higher into the atmosphere. As ash was swept away, the inner flesh began to glow. A chemical reaction. An amalgamation superior to a nuclear reaction. A power fusion of cells reacting to the infiltrating of the suns rays.
He soared higher. Pain flooded in. He could feel his flesh cooking as if he were forced into a microwave and left to spin on the carrousel. Every cell responding to the glowing fusion, the body becoming formless as he climbed higher and higher into the atmosphere and approaching the great space and beyond. Within reach, the blob-like entity hurled toward with no comprehension that anything stood between its ultimate destination. Its only will, its only purpose, to feed and continue feeding until there was nothing left to consume, and to move on to the next feeding.
At once, the cells, now fused into one incomprehensible projectile, began to spread out like the wings of a Phoenix, then explode with a cosmic force toward space, consuming the blob-like entity in its wake, turning it instantly to mere particles.
She walked over to the window sill and retrieved the crumpled piece of paper. A torn page from a children’s picture book and instantly when her eyes fell upon it, she knew it was The Giving Tree, a story about a boy and an apple tree. The tree gives to the boy, nourishment, safety, until there is nothing left to give.
The phone in her pocket vibrated again and the intrusion elicited a smile soaked with tears. Blurred eyes looked up at the puffy clouds that seemed to separate in a way that invited interpretation. She ignored the vibration, and the crowds below that sang his name aloud. She searched the bright blue nothing and knew they were safe once more.