GenExt – Gut Check

The rest of the meal passed with general good feeling and backslapping for the eldest Graf boy, but through it all Ben could not bring himself to put on a sufficiently happy face. A thousand thoughts raced through his mind, and none of them good. What did this mean for the future of Nevermind? What did it mean about Tom’s own future? He saw his brother chortling with a surprisingly animated version of his father, and both of them seemed… unnatural. Bob was suddenly effusive, and so was Tom, a far cry from his usual stoicism. Something about Tom’s happiness was too sudden, too beaming, unlike anything Ben had ever seen.
But, he countered his own line of thinking, doesn’t Tom have all right in the world to be that happy? He’s got a steady job, and so does his wife, and they live in this quaint suburban paradise, yes… it would only make sense that the baby would come next, wouldn’t it? Yet something about this seemed off; there was a desperation in Tom’s smile. This wasn’t the Tom that had joined, and not quelled, the WTO riots in Seattle. This wasn’t the Tom that psychokinetically held back an exploding truck of fertilizer in Oklahoma City. This wasn’t the Tom that had pushed himself to the limits to locate fragments of psychic energy at Ground Zero, working undercover to connect families to bodies, keepsakes or, in some cases, particularly noteworthy piles of ash. This Tom… who was this Tom?
And it was then Ben caught a glint in the warm dining room light from Tom’s ring, and it occurred to him that his brother may have heard every single word of that. After his parents had left, Ben knew there was no doubt whatsoever that he had. The ladies were in the kitchen, chatting and cleaning up, leaving the three brothers at a tense stand-off in the living room. Bob & Clare had barely cleared the driveway before Tom rounded on his youngest brother, hitting him a glare so dark it made Ben take a few steps back.
“You were very rude tonight,” Tom said slowly. Ben quailed under his older brother’s stare, but something inside him kept his eyes fixed on Tom’s piercing blue eyes. Abruptly, as if he had felt he made his point, Tom’s stare relented, and again Ben saw that fear that had so irked him before. It gave him a nervous, shaking strength that caused words to leap from him, uncontrollably.
“Well, you know… you were pretty rude yourself. It’s not like you didn’t know I’d just lost my job on account of bullshit, and it’s not like you didn’t know I’ve been having a completely horrible week. I know when you’re inside my head, Tom, I can feel it. I know you know I was going completely nuts this week… but you decided to ignore it. Instead of helping me, you decided to pretend like it wasn’t even there. And you throw this party, and you smile and drink in all of this attention, all the while knowing that I’m dying inside. You take your perfect little life and you don’t even try to hide that you’re rubbing it in my face, because I know it makes you feel good.
Dan, feeling odd in the role of peacemaker, tried his best.
“Tom, did you know?”
Tom didn’t answer. Ben kept going.
“Look, I know you guys were poor before I was born. Like, dirt poor. I know the government shut down the supers, and they seized all of Ultro’s assets, and you guys had to make do on a farm in the 80s, and I know that sucked… but for God’s sake! You’ve got the house in the suburbs, and the beige car, and all the trimmings and trappings… Christ, it’s a shocker you didn’t have the baby sooner. I mean, that’s the next step in the equation, right? And that’s how you’re living your life now, Tom, right? Just living it out like a normal person, right by the book? I think you, of all people should know that no one in this family will ever be considered normal. In fact, if I remember correctly you and Dan got bullied a lot for that, right? Yeah: you were poor, and your clothes looked like crap, so the other kids picked on you. So now, you’ve got the clothes and the house and the car, and now you’re the one picking on me. Interesting how that works. Tell me, Tom… how does it feel to become everything you used to hate?”
Tom took a step forward and put the stare back on, but by now it was too late.
“Don’t even think that’s gonna work on me now, big brother. I’m not the scared little boy you can intimidate into silence anymore. I’m not the fat little bundle of nerves I used to be, and you know what? Back then I idolized you. I wanted to be like you. You used to be the coolest goddamn guy on the planet… now you’re… you’re fucking Ward Cleaver, man! What the hell happened to you? This is pathetic!”
“People change, Ben. C’mon…”
“This isn’t about that, Dan!” Ben’s voice shot up an octave, “this isn’t change. This is hiding, Tom. You’re hiding out here in this bungalow, you’re hiding at the factory with your worshippers, and you’re hiding here now with this kid, aren’t you? You just wanna be normal, well fuck you, you can’t be!
All your friends at the factory who drink in every word you say like it’s gospel, like you’re some damn suburban Buddha. The dropouts and burnouts you work with who idolize you, because you seem to smart to them, don’t you? I bet you don’t even have to control their minds to make them like you, do you? I bet it’s easy enough to manipulate them without the ring… but maybe… maybe it’s not your factory pals… maybe it’s someone else?”
“Ben, Jesus!” Dan was visibly shaking, “Stop it!”
“Do you use the ring on Melanie, Tom? Do you use the ring to make sure she doesn’t run away? Is this whole little life you’ve created a part of the ring, Tom? I mean, you keep saying you wanna quit, you keep saying it’s too hard… but I never see you take the ring off, Tom. I think you like using it, when it suits you. Tell me, Tom, when does it suit you? Does it suit you with Melanie–”
That’s enough!” Tom cried, and a wave of psychic energy sent Ben flying across the room and sprawling on the floor. There was an awful silence then, as the ladies in the kitchen finally heard the conversation spill over and were too afraid to move. The silence was finally broken as Ben got to his feet, ignoring the pain, and laughing.
“Yeah, that’s what I thought. Deep down, you can’t handle it if someone starts asking questions, can you? You’ve had this power so long, you’re so used to everyone agreeing with you, so when someone doesn’t, they’re rude and you bully them, huh? Is that it?”
“Ben, I don’t want to hurt you,” Tom threatened.
“Well, maybe I want you to.”
“Oh, God no…” Dan murmured, shrinking into a chair.
“Is that what you really want, Ben?” Tom straightened up slightly, showing off a wickedly powerful, wiry frame underneath a t shirt.
“Yeah… maybe it is. Maybe I want to have my outside match the inside, so I look as shitty as I feel.”
Ben knew he’d never win a fight with his older brother, especially with the rings on. Ben was getting better at resisting, but there’s still no way he’d even land a blow without Tom knowing about it.
“If that’s the way you want it,” Tom said, cracking his knuckles.
“No rings, though.”
“What?”
Ben cracked a desperate smile.
“C’mon, I heard all the time about the scraps you and Dan used to get in. I was always too big as a kid, and I idolized you guys too much to take a swing at you back then… so, let’s do this.”
He took off his titanium ring and set it on a side table. Tom did the same with his gold plated one. They both adopted a fighting stance, but Ben quickly interrupted.
“Wait, hold on… are we gonna have rules for this?”
Tom straightened up, his fertile mind running through possibilities.
“I figured it would be a rather standard set—”
Without warning, Ben planted his right foot and drove his left, full force, into Tom’s stomach. Caught off guard, Tom collapsed to the floor, whereupon Ben immediately clapped on a blood choke.
“Here are the rules, Tom,” he hissed into his brother’s ear, as Tom gasped for breath, “these are the rules I have to play by, every goddamn day. These are the rules I’m stuck with, because lazy people like you, hiding people like you, didn’t stop things before the whole country went down the crapper, and now people like me are stuck fighting for the scraps. We can’t afford to play by your rules, brother, we can’t play it cool like you always do, because we weren’t as lucky as you were… so we don’t play by any rules. You broke all the rules, and now you have to deal with it… how do you like that?”
Tom didn’t respond. He couldn’t. Dan finally had to pull them apart, and with his ring on he could hold them both at arms length, appalled.
What the fuck is wrong with you?!” he shouted at Ben as Tom coughed back to life. Ben snarled at him like a wounded animal.
I just couldn’t take it, Dan! I couldn’t take it anymore! I work my ass off and get nothing, while he just lays back and has everything fall in his fucking lap! It’s not fair, Dan!”
“Life isn’t fair, Ben! For God’s sake, look who you’re talking to!”
That seemed to calm Ben down enough, but it was about then they noticed Tom had coughed up a little blood.
“Oh, shit,” Dan hissed, “Fuck! We… we’d better get him to a hospital. Ben, I’ll load him in your car. You tell the girls we’re leaving!”
In a flash, Ben was alone in the living room. Regret began to set in, but it was fighting inside his mind with a sense of righteous fury that made a very convincing case. In the midst of all this came Lucy’s voice through the mental fog.
“Honey! What’s going on! Is everyone okay?”
Regret won out, and Ben lied.
“Everything’s fine, hon. We’re just going to go… talk. Maybe have a drink. We’ll be back soon, okay?”
“…Okay…”
“Okay.”
Both of the ladies voice their support, Lucy a little less assuredly. Ben bounded into the driveway and sped off toward the hospital.
“Is he okay, Dan?” he couldn’t stop himself from asking.
“I dunno. That was a pretty good kick you gave him. Might have ruptured something.”
“Hurts like hell,” came a weak voice from the backseat of the Dodge. Ben immediately took his eyes off the road and turned around.
“Tom? Shit, I’m sorry, I…”
“Shut up,” Tom muttered, “and keep your eyes on the road. I can’t steer the car for you. No ring.”
“Aw, shit, mine’s gone, too!” Ben moaned as they turned toward the hospital, “Tom, I’m really-”
“I said shut up!” Tom growled, obviously in pain, “It’s how you felt. Don’t apologize for it.”
They checked him in to the emergency room and waited. Ben, the adreanaline now gone, was beside himself with worry.
“I can’t believe I just did that.”
“Me either,” Dan muttered, “Over thirty years, and I couldn’t ever knock him down.”
“It was cowardly,” Ben gritted his teeth, “I cheated.”
“Hey, read your Sun Tzu,” Dan offered, “cheating doesn’t have just one definition.”
“God, I just can’t believe…”
Ben hung his head in his hands among the old copies of Time and Taste of Home.
“To be perfectly honest,” Dan said quietly, “I think it’s been long overdue. I could just never figure out a way to get that damn ring off him before.”
Ben looked up at him, surprised.
“Oh, yeah,” Dan heaved a sigh, “We fought a lot. And I mean we as in Nevermind and the Traveller. Bet that never made it into the comics. The worst one was, oh… Sophomore year of college for me. Got dumped by a girl, found out she was cheating on me… oddly enough, it was with one of my villains.”
“Wait…” Ben’s mind lit up, “That one actually did make it into the comics.”
“Of course it did,” Dan sighed, “but I bet they didn’t put in how I mauled the fucker.”
“You… you killed him?
“Oh yeah. It wasn’t even hard, either. Luckily, when the guy who stole your girlfriend is threatening to blow up Manhattan… you get some leeway with how you deal with the situation.”
“I thought you guys didn’t kill.”
“Don’t believe everything you read,” Dan’s voice grew hard and bitter, “It was after that… I dunno, I guess I wasn’t satisfied. I was raging in this, well, this guy’s lair, and I caused some nasty damage. Did you know New York has a bunch of old abandoned subway lines? I found a few. Finally, Tom had to, well… he had to put me down, sorta. He got into my head, and he showed me a guy that had killed one of his girlfriends, back when I was in high school. She was collateral damage, but still… Tom went after him, snuffed him out like a candle… but as the guy was fading, Tom saw what was in his mind… and there wasn’t much, y’know? The guy wasn’t really all there, and what was there…”
Dan sniffed a little and brushed away a tear.
“Well, Tom realized there had to be a better way… and that’s when he shut down. That’s when the mask really went on, if you know what I’m saying.”
God,” Ben moaned, “in this business, I can barely tell what the masks are anymore.”
A short, pretty young nurse came up to them and asked them to follow.
“So,” she spoke in a very frank manner as the Graf boys followed her bobbing blonde ponytail, “Tom tells me you guys got a little too much into a backyard football game, huh?”
The knot in Ben’s stomach felt like it had finally overtightened, and burst. It felt better, but not good.
“Yep,” Dan flashed the newsman smile, “Ol’ Banjo here got him good.”
“I bet,” the nurse mused, “He’s a bit of a brick.”
“Back in the day, they woulda called him…”
Dan looked over at his brother with a smug grin.
“A Big Six.”
Ben covertly flipped him the bird as the nurse kept walking.
“Huh. Never heard of that one. Anyway, he’s got a nasty footprint on his shirt…”
“He was blocking a punt!” Ben blurted out too quickly. The nurse sighed a bit as they turned down another corridor. Clearly, she did not care about anything but the patient’s health. She was business, all five feet of her.
“Uh-huh. Anyway, it’s nothing serious, but we’d like to keep him over night to make sure it doesn’t get worse.”
“I’ll call the girls, then,” Dan began, but Ben cut him off quickly and offered to do it. Dan gave his brother a skeptical, sideways glance, but they had reached the hospital bed before he had a chance to go further.
“Here he is. Need anything, just hit the button.”
She stood still for a moment, a pillar of strength in Penn State scrubs, waiting for any further questions.
Christ, you three all look alike.”
And then she was gone. Dan and Ben both approached the bed, where Tom looked as comfortable as he could.
“What did you tell Melanie?” he asked.
“I said we were going out for a drink,” Ben said after a sigh.
“Oh, you shit.” Dan glared at him.
“It’s all right,” Tom interjected, “I don’t want to make a big deal out of this, either. Mel would go apeshit if she knew I was fighting again.”
There was something about the way he said “fighting” that lead Ben to believe it meant more than just fraternal combat. Then, with a start, he finally realized that Tom couldn’t read his thoughts. It was surprisingly liberating.
“Still, Tom. I feel…”
Ben honestly didn’t know what to put next. There was an awkward silence before Dan volunteered a word.
“Well, it sounds like you guys have some things to talk about. I’ll leave you to it. Meanwhile, I think I’m going to go hit on that nurse…”
“Uhhh…” Ben still couldn’t put words together as Dan turned to leave, alarmingly more like his old self than he had been in months.
“Oh! That reminds me,” Dan said, quickly turning back around, “Did one of the nurses look like my psycho ex-wife?”
“You’re just seeing things,” Tom grumbled, “Just go.”
He left with a peculiar spring in his step, and Ben wondered aloud.
“What the hell…”
“Dan always does better when he has something to preoccupy his thoughts,” Tom muttered, “Blondes are a safe bet.”
There was another awkward silence as Ben tried to summon the courage to speak. There was still a war going on inside his mind: on one side, regret and guilt over losing his temper. It was first grade all over again, and he was the biggest kid on the playground fighting back against tiny bullies. His mother’s words still ringing in his ears: You have to be careful. Don’t fight them. You’re bigger than them. You’ll hurt them. You have to find another way.
On the other side was the rage that seemed to fuel him. It’s what inspired him to craft the ring, it’s what gave him power, made him feel like he had a purpose and was succeeding in the world… and the world, that world that wanted so badly to break him just for trying to fight back, trying to find another way to get ahead other than being a cheat or a liar… and he wanted to win that fight. He didn’t mind busting a few heads if it meant finally getting the life that the world was trying to keep from him… but was that really the only way?
“Tom, I–”
He was cut off by shock as all of the lights in the hospital went off, quickly replaced by emergency lights and generator power. Almost immediately, the hospital PA system came on, and a shrieking, familiar laughter made a cacophonous noise throughout the entire building. Both Ben and Tom made ready to fight, but then with dismay they felt the staggering emptiness on their ring fingers.
“HOW WONDERFUL TO RUN INTO YOU THREE HERE TONIGHT! I THINK I’LL TAKE THIS OCCASION TO LOCK DOWN THE HOSPITAL AND… HAVE MY WAY WITH THE INHABITANTS!”
The laughter pealed out again, and Ben gritted his teeth against the shrieking sound. Suddenly, her voice descended into a husky sotto voce, and it became clear she was enjoying the situation.
“Nevermind, Blue Traveller, and dear, dear Baby Brother… I’ll kill one person in this hospital every eight minutes… FIND ME IF YOU CAN!”

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