Tag Archives: generationextant

Dêem-me café, vou escrever!

“And no one said anything?”
“Nope.”
Dan Graf completely broke down into roiling laughter, thumping his fist on the homemade kitchen table and making several beer bottles in the vicinity leap into the air. Thankfully, or perhaps not, the bottles were empty and instead clattered harmlessly to the inlaid ceramic top. With a sigh, Tom rolled his eyes and snapped his fingers, using telekinesis to immediately right the bottles. In the middle of it all, Bob Graf looked on with pride at his three boys: all of them, now firmly ensconced in their separate lives yet, at the request of his youngest son Ben, all four of them were spending a Friday night around the kitchen table on the Graf farmhouse. In what was becoming a regular thing, the ladies of the family had headed out to a local watering hole for their “Help! I married a Graf!” support group. Now that he was regularly making the rounds as a hero like his father and brothers had, Ben wanted to touch base with the men formerly known as Ultro, Nevermind, and the Blue Traveller.
“They were all on their phones,” Ben shrugged, “business as usual. If I came to work naked, they probably wouldn’t notice.”
“Well, you’d have to wear shoes, though,” Dan cackled before dissolving into giggles again. He had consumed at least twice as many beers as the others round the table had.
“Truthfully,” Tom said in his usual softness and strength, “that was a really stupid thing you did, Ben.”
“I know, I know,” Ben waved off an oncoming lecture with wild arms. His mind was beginning to fog up as well.
“I just felt like I had to say something. I can’t tell Lucy, and you guys are busy with your own lives. Hell, Dad, I was half worried that telling you I’d entered the ‘family business’ would make you go crazy or something.”
Bob laughed softly to himself, readjusting the straps on his ever-present overalls.
“My only regret is that I didn’t have anything to give you, son.”
“Oh, you gave me enough,” Ben replied, smiling with ruddy cheeks, “Every one of those Ultro #1’s I sell keeps my hobby afloat for another six months. And if you and Mom had never developed the forcefield technology, I could never do THIS!”
He activated the pale green light around his body and drilled his forehead into the table as hard as he could. Again the bottles fell, and again Tom righted them with a sigh. Ben reared up with a laugh, showing no ill effects.
“Pretty cool, huh?” he grinned, allowing the field to dissipate, “it’s only defensive though, really… I haven’t found a way to weaponize it.”
“Yeah, pretty cool, son,” Bob said, incredulously, “glad I could give you that, I suppose.”
“That’s not the best thing you gave me, Dad, and you know it.”
“I do?”
“You brought me into this family. I mean… we’re superheroes! How awesome is that? Dad, I read about you punching out a genetically-altered super-clone of Khomeni.”
“…It was the 70s,” Bob replied with a shrug.
“And Dan, Tom… I grew up hearing about you guys. Football team, baseball, track, basketball… both graduated at the top of your classes, tons of friends, and then… I find out that all those comics I read in high school… Nevermind infiltrating terrorist cells to stop the World Trade Center bombing, Blue Traveller busting through the wall of Saddam’s compound, the two of you teaming up to stop the Olympic bomber in Sydney… it was all true! I mean, how many kids think their Dads and their brothers are heroes, and how many can prove it?”
“There are a lot of heroes made everyday–” Tom began, but Ben was ready.
“Oh, don’t feed me one of those lines! I’ve been hearing that crap all my life, and because of it I’ve spent twenty-five years trying to figure out how I’m worse than everyone else. Yes, there are fire fighters and policemen and regular guys who do amazing things… but you guys are more than regular guys!”
“Anyone else, Ben,” Bob began slowly, putting down his beer, “Anyone else in our situation would do the same.”
“I don’t know, Dad,” Ben shook his head, “I’ve seen a lot of selfish people. You guys did what you did, and now I’m doing what I’m doing, simply because we know we have to. That’s all. No money, no comic book deals, nothing. We do it because we think it’s the right thing to do. Look at me, I’ve been doing it for a few months now, and all I can find are a couple of ‘oddly enough’ stories online and not one shred of major coverage.”
“You’ll get that soon enough,” Dan mused, picking up his beer, “As soon as they can figure out how to turn it into a moneymaker of a story on the 6 o’clock.”
“But that’s the thing: I don’t want to be a moneymaker. I don’t want to have my own brand of soda… sorry, Dad.”
“It was the 70s.”
“I’m sneaking out of my apartment in the middle of the night, putting myself at risk, and for what? Hell, I don’t even know sometimes. It seems like there’s five new thugs and rapists for every one I lay on the steps of the police station. But I keep feeling it, it’s like a fire inside: keep going, keep going. I know for a fact that not everyone has that, Tom.”
“You can’t really know, until you put people in that kind of situation…”
Ben stood up in protest.
“Could you please just take something and run with it, Tom? Just once? You used to say all kinds of awesome things, radical things… you made it sound like you were going to change the world. You probably could have, with all your power, but now… you’re so afraid to make a decision.”
Tom remained silent, but fixed his youngest brother with a piercing glare that Ben was forced to break first.
“Whatever. All I know is this: for hundreds, thousands of years, people have agreed on what makes one person or another better in one thing or another. If a guy is a fast runner, he’s a better runner than a slow one. If a guy can lift a two rocks, that makes him better than a guy who can only lift one. If a guy knows more than another guy, he’s considered smarter… so what the hell happened? All of a sudden, everyone’s special, everyone’s OK just the way they are. Well, I don’t buy it. I made a force-field generator out of my wedding ring and a bunch of scraps. Tom, you could control minds, and Dan, you could put a whole in the world if you tried hard enough. I don’t care what anyone says… that makes us better. And that makes you better, Dad, because you gave us these powers, but you also gave us the desire to use them in the right way, no matter what any person, or any government, or any religion says. I just can’t let the gifts I’ve been given go to waste and let people suffer… and know none of you could, either, back then…”
There was a long, aching pause as Ben surveyed the small, homey table. Tom was still glaring, but silent. Bob was avoiding his gaze, seemingly interested in the floor, and Dad had his head hung low, forehead resting on his crossed forearms, possibly asleep.
“I just… don’t get it,” Ben said softly, overcome with a hundred emotions at once, “It just doesn’t make sense.”
Finally, it was Dan who broke the silence. His voice was much quieter, less jovial than Ben had ever heard it.
“Are you really indestructible?”
Ben looked down at him, shocked and surprised.
“Well, I haven’t had anyone break my shield yet. I even had a few guys run me down with their car. I bent that old Caddy up something fierce.”
“Have you gone up against anything, I dunno, stronger than that?”
Ben allowed himself a wolfish grin.
“If you’re suggesting what I think you’re suggesting… let’s go try it out in the backyard.”
Dan’s head popped up, sharing his brother’s tipsy grin. Like gleeful children, the two brothers exited the house. As soon as they had gone, Tom turned to his father, his face still icy.
“I don’t like what he’s doing, Dad.”
“He’s young, Tom,” Bob said softly, almost pleadingly, “and he’s idealistic. You were the same way, once.”
Tom had no answer for that, and soon any words they would have said were drowned out by what sounded like successive thunderclaps emanating from the backyard, one after the other: BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM. When they finally stopped, Tom and Bob both listened through an open window for the aftermath. After a few moments of heavy breathing, Dan finally spoke.
“That… was AWESOME! I haven’t had a workout like that in years! Little brother… you, me, every Friday night! What do you say, come on!”
“Uh… I think our wives might object to that, Dan.”
“Oh, yeah…” the wind seem to go right out of his sails then, “right…”
Ben decided he’d rather cheer him up again.
“Want to go for another round?”
“You know it!” Dan replied with gusto, but before he could Bob had bounded out the front door with a voice as big as all outdoors.
Would you two twerps stop it?! I don’t want to have to explain to the neighbors what all that noise was, goddammit! Your mother probably heard it seven miles away in town, and if one of you screws up the other’s face, I’m gonna hear about it! Knock it off!”
Dan and Ben both hung their shoulders, feigning woe and innocence when, in reality, both were trying their best to stifle laughter.
“C’mon, Dad…” Ben said, his voice shaking with mirth, “Wanna give it a go? I bet you still got it…”
“I got work in the morning, phone jockey,” Bob shot back in a cocky voice, “no can do.”
“You’re in a good mood, Dad.”
“Yeah…” Bob finally cracked a wide smile, “I am. Now knock it off. I don’t want your mother giving me the business when she gets home.”
They all went back inside and finished their beers. By this time, Dan had clearly had a little too much.
“So, I’m fighting Madame Carnage in DC,” Bob began, now a bit past his own limit, “she was planning to set off a nuke in the Washington Monument… I wonder if the architects knew how much that thing would piss feminists off… anyway, the worst part was that, halfway through the fight, the good Madame’s costume didn’t hold up its end of the bargain, so to speak.”
“No way,” Tom said. Even he was getting interested in the old war stories.
“Yeah! That’s one that didn’t make it into the comics!” Bob chortled, “So here I am, trying to hold her at bay while defusing a nuke. She just kept coming at me, so I kept shooting psionic blasts at her, targeting her… y’know…”
He made a vague gesture to the area of the Madame’s costume that had been the issue.
“Bustier?” Ben offered.
“Yeah, that’s the thing. I just kept, well, popping it off. So much for female empowerment. Saved me enough time to put the nuke out, at least. I tell ya, the cans on that one… just don’t tell your mother I told you this story.”
“Our lips are sealed, Dad,” Ben laughed, “Although it makes me look at some of those old comics a little differently.”
“Our villains were a little less… colorful,” Tom noted, “Seems like once the Wall fell, the country turned in on itself and really bred some choice freaks. I fought guys named Gore, and BlackBlood, and the Death-Machine… they all wore spikes and bandoliers and carried uzis instead of ray guns. When I had to get inside their heads, it was almost too much… but at the very least I could stun parts of their minds, like new-age trepanation… it all seemed so much easier when I read Dad’s commie-buster books. Back then, it wasn’t your neighbor you were fighting.”
“What about Dan?” Ben asked, “How did he handle the change?”
“Are you kidding?” Tom cocked an eyebrow, “He had the easy job: smash in, smash out. Mom even built him armor to keep him safe, he’d often run in so fast he’d really mess himself up the next morning… especially if there was a girl involved. I swear, he got more phone numbers…”
All three looked over at the sleeping Dan, snoring softly and surrounded by a veritable Colosseum of beers.
“I never pictured him as a heavy drinker,” Ben thought out loud.
“It’s more than that,” Tom noted, “He’s drinking to forget something, to mask some kind of pain. What you did for him, out in the backyard…”
He nodded in Ben’s direction.
“It probably helped him blow off some steam.”
“How do you know that’s the case?” Ben asked, “Did you read his mind?”
“No,” Tom shook his head and nursed his final beer, “He got pretty good at blocking me after a while. Even if I looked, he’s got it hidden from me. I know what he’s doing because I was there, once.”
“You were?” Ben seemed taken aback, “I don’t remember that.”
“It was right after I first started the job,” he gestured to his ring, “I was drinking two beers just to get out of bed in the morning. I was going through my days more and more wasted: everything I heard in people’s minds, everything I saw on the streets… I ended up hurting a couple of crooks pretty bad, and I went to counseling… that’s where I found Melanie.”
“I had no idea!” Ben said in an awed gasp, “Dad, did you know about this?”
“Only after the fact, son,” Bob’s face fell, “And I think I apologized to Tom for about two years straight, for what I did to him… it’s just, I knew Dan would never be able to handle the psychic powers.”
“I know, Dad…” Tom replied, gazing somewhat oddly at his father, “but you know I can read your mind like a book, and you’re still hiding something from me.”
The two Grafs engaged in a staredown, a battle of wits, until Bob finally caved with a massive sigh.
“All right, all right… but Dan promised me not to tell, so don’t you two breathe a word of this to anyone.”
They all looked again to the inebriated Graf brother, then back to the Patriarch.
“And don’t tell your mother.”
They all nodded.
“Dan came to speak to me the other day,” Bob began, “said that he’d been having some trouble with Gina.”
“What kind of trouble?” Ben asked.
“I really shouldn’t say.”
In a trice, Bob was back to his usual self: meek, quiet, all bombast of his former self vanished. Ben tried to get his father to open up a few more times, but to no avail. Finally, Tom suggested they all bed down for the night.
“But our wives aren’t home!” Ben argued, hoping the evening hadn’t sputtered to an end.
“All your rooms are still like they used to be,” Bob grunted as he hefted Dan’s form over his shouder, “they’ll find us.”
“What if something happens?” Ben glanced at the clock and noted the time. He was starting to worry.
“Shouldn’t we wait up for them?”
“They’re grown women, Ben,” Tom drained the unfinished beers over the sink, “they’ll be fine.”
The three of them cleaned up the kitchen as best they could before heading upstairs. Dan was laid into bed still asleep in a room still decorated like it had been over ten years ago. Tom laid down in his room that hadn’t changed in almost fifteen. Finally, Ben said good night to his father and lay alone in his old bed, looking at his old ceiling. He couldn’t sleep. He was reminded of his childhood, where he used to lay in bed nearly sick with the knowledge that someday, everyone he knew and loved would die. As he sat and thought, he began to wonder if he was doing the right thing. Maybe he shouldn’t be working outside of the law. Maybe he could go and be a policeman, or run for office, or maybe just volunteer. Maybe there was something really wrong with him, a desire to always put things right, a hatred of not being able to control everything, or everyone. After all, he was basically indestructible… what was to keep him from simply marching up the steps to the White House and demanding everything be done his way? He had good ideas, he knew what needed to be done to turn the country around… surely, with all the abilities he had been given, he could make the world a better place… couldn’t he?
It was at that moment he heard a noise downstairs. A small, innocuous noise, a slight bump in the night.
“Must be Putz,” he muttered to himself, “or maybe the ladies are home.”
When he heard the glass shatter, he couldn’t dissuade himself any longer. He met Tom and his father at the landing before going downstairs.
“Careful,” Bob warned, holding them back, “don’t go charging in. Ben, make a shield. Can you fit us in?”
“You’ll have to maintain physical contact with me.”
With two hands on either shoulder, Ben made his way downstairs emitting pale green protective light. Except for a very frightened looking tabby cat, the house was completely deserted.
“Every other mind in the vicinity is asleep, or an animal,” said Tom after a quick sweep of the house. Upon re-entering the kitchen, they found the shattered window and the bundle that had broken it. Tom knelt down to untie the twine around the bundle, which was found to contain three driver’s licenses, and three bundles of keys. The paper it was wrapped in contained a note, signed only with a skull and crossbones:

Ultro:

Your son was unwise in his choice of venue. Now I have your wives. Meet me once more… you know the place… for old time’s sake.

Bugger Bognor

Ben knew where to go. Almost everyone did, really. It’s fairly common knowledge in any city where the places are you “don’t want to go” and Ben headed straight for them. He thought to himself as he walked down the street, bathed in streetlights, that it always seemed like people knew where the drug deals were happening, and where the pimps were, and the muggers, and so on… yet no one ever did anything. Even the police could rarely get a handle on them, so most just turned away and tried to pretend like it wasn’t there. For most of his life, Ben had felt a sting every time he’d seen the empty buildings, the bullies on the street corners pushing smack, the hopeless men and women down on their luck, pushing shopping carts and trying to avoid the bullies… he’d always wanted to do something about it, to make the world a better place in the hopes of maybe rescuing one or two of them from squalor. Just one or two, and it would be worth it: all the failures in the labs, all the pie in the sky ideas, all of the people telling him to give it up and mocking him when he didn’t…
He looked down at the ring. It turned out that titanium was such a perfect conductor, he’d used it for the brainwave sensor on his temple as well. And to think, he’d groaned when Lucy suggested getting titanium for its long lasting qualities. He’d always been so afraid because it was so light, afraid he’d lose it, but it wasn’t light anymore. He was always acutely aware of the weight now, and what it meant. It meant he finally had a way to help these people out, to make the world just a little better.
He heard a scream and bolted down an alley in time to see a man trying in vain to fend off a mugger. The mugger threw him to the ground and stood triumphantly over his quarry, smiling through yellowed teeth.
“Think I’ll have that jacket off you, too. Looks real nice.”
Ben felt that familiar fire kindle deep in his core as he approached the scene, taking absolutely no care to do so silently. He was nearly upon him when the bleary-eyed vagrant turned to see him in full costume.
“Man, I must be fucked up,” the man chortled, “Ain’t no way I’m seein’ this.”
“No…” the victim muttered, almost forgetting his situation, “I’m seeing it, too.”
“Who the hell are you, pal?”
Looking back, Ben knew the words sounded awful, cheesy, but at the time it all came tumbling out of him, born from over twenty years of being told to hold back, keep quiet, and be the “better man.”
“Who am I? I’m the one who’s going to hold you responsible. I’m the one who’s going to tell you and all the other scum in this city that you are wrong. I’m a man you can’t beat, or kill, or intimidate, and that ought to shake you right down to your core.”
The man snarled and charged at Ben, brandishing a knife with a chipped blade. He made to stab Ben straight through the heart, but the pale green light protected him, and sent the knife spinning off into a pile of trash. Ben couldn’t help but crack an arrogant half-smile.
“To put it plainly, I’m better than you, and I’m here to teach you a lesson.”
It was almost too easy at first: fists, feet, nothing caused him any harm as long as he kept his concentration. The pale green light protected him from all assault and, as he soon realized, it allowed for a small amount of offensive capabilities. Being hard light, the field didn’t add power, but it allowed for a certain amount of “push” to be implemented on punches, kicks, or shoves. After nearly exhausting himself with punch after punch, Ben finally decided that simply hurling the malcontent into a nearby brick wall was much more effective. Finally, the man skidding to a halt near a dumpster and didn’t get up. Ben retrieved the victim’s belongings and returned them.
“Is he… dead?”
“Shouldn’t be,” Ben replied, “he was breathing when I left him.”
“Damn it,” the victim hissed, looking up at the costumed man, “He knows who I am, he’s going to come and get me, now! Damn it! Thanks a lot, weirdo!”
The man beat a hasty retreat into the night, leaving Ben feeling rather confused. As he sat there pondering, he didn’t notice the scuffle coming from behind him until a familiar voice crept into his head.
Behind you.
Ben turned around and activated the field just in time to block another desperate attempt by the mugger. The knife again flew off, useless, and the fire inside Ben took over. He landed blow after blow to the man’s abdomen and face, with the force field protecting his fists from the assault. Finally, the man was a bloody mess, and Ben heard the voice again.
That’s enough, brother.
“I don’t need a Peanut Gallery!” Ben growled to no one in particular as he hauled the unconscious vagrant upright and over his shoulder, “At least tell me where the nearest police station is. This guy’s high as a kite.”
Tom didn’t say anything, but suddenly Ben knew that there was a station within a few blocks. He shifted his burden and almost gagged at the smells that came from it. By the time he made it back home that night, Lucy was completely unconscious. As he crawled into bed, he felt her stir and heard her gentle voice murmur in the still air of the night.
“Hi, honey,” she said dreamily, half-awake, “Did you have a good time at the gym?”
Ben thought about his “workout” and gave a sigh.
“I’ve got a long way to go.”
Lucy reached out slowly and squeezed her husband’s growing bicep.
“Rawr,” she giggled a little, “I’d say you’re doing just fine, Beefcake.”
He held her then, and kissed her until she fell back to a full sleep. Surprisingly, his sleep was untroubled, despite the difficulties of his first night’s heroism. There was something about her smiling face, her drowsy expression and her silliness… he felt like the Lucy he met at 4AM was the true Lucy, unbound by convention or even manners. It was this Lucy he always wanted to see more of his wife at her most primal, basically human, without anything to guide or guard her actions. He held her close as he slept, and slept soundly. The sleep was enough to get him out of bed in a mere three hours for work, which he arrived at on time, as usual. He took a two hour nap at his desk in the early afternoon, something he’d grown accustomed to since visiting the late night gym. His resolutions and call numbers were still above average, and his reviews were still sparkling, if you disregarded the shoe conversation. In fact, shaving two hours off his day actually served to make his work challenging and, for the short term at least, it should make things at the office a little more interesting.
At the end of his shift, Ben stood up and looked out over the office: a veritable sea of asterisks, pod-style structures six desks to each. His had five empty spaces, and was hardly used, but that didn’t stop him from taking the desk he hadn’t been assigned and his supervisors being none the wiser. After all, they only paid attention when you called for help. He noted, quite bitterly, that the asterisk-pods reminded him of the asterisks on the contract he had signed which had made him come to work in a blizzard after being quoted in orientation that weather often closed the facility. He’d called the morning of the snowstorm, only to be informed flatly by the receptionist that they “never closed for the weather.” He let out a heavy sigh, arms akimbo, and spoke to the office at large.
“I just figured I’d let you all know that, uh, well… I’m a superhero now. Yeah. I fight crime. That’s what I do. So, if any of you, uh, see some crime or want some crime to be fought… buzz me at my desk, I guess… extension 620. Okay?”
Not a head moved, not a body shifted. No eye strayed from their computer screens. Ben heaved another sigh.
“Okay.”
He picked up the few belongings he took with him everyday from desk to desk and headed home.

Saat kaç?

It was a few hours after Ben and Lucy had left, and the moon was shining high in the sky, easily visible through a narrow basement window in the old farmhouse. In the basement, Dan Graf sat on an old bench press set, slumped over his knees, both hands running through his immaculately trimmed anchorman haircut. He glanced out of the window, his face reflected pale in the already reflected light. He remembered, as a child, being able to see so many stars that it made his head spin. Now, as the city crept ever closer to his little piece of the world, it became harder and harder to even see the moon at night, let alone the stars. Yet down here, in an unlit basement, he could still see it.
The moon: Dan remembered a time he had to put on a spacesuit and boarded the space shuttle, all to stop The Celestial Giants from enacting their plan to send the moon crashing down somewhere in the vicinity of Belgium. The Giants, who were actually a diabolical consortium of businessmen, hadn’t expected the Blue Traveller to travel somewhere he’d never gone before, and it was there he’d melted his feet to the nose of the space shuttle and used his ring to hold back the moon. Finally, with a boost from the ship’s engines, Dan found the strength to push back against gravity and bring the moon back to its proper orbit. He dislocated both shoulders and blew a rotator cuff, along with a nasty hernia… but the world was safe.
He glanced down at his hands. One of the fingers was permanently crooked following a knockout punch he’d thrown on a Skinhead who threw on a metal helmet and called himself “88.” He remembered a line from a movie he didn’t even like, something about good, strong hands, and he looked at the ring. Diamond and steel, strong, yet dazzling, eternally locked in battle. With a sigh, he leaned back and brushed some dust off the bench press bar. The station paid for his gym now, he rarely used this old thing anymore. With a grunt, Dan knocked off ten quick reps of over 1,000 pounds apiece, wincing a little in his right shoulder as he sat back up. Stupid moon. He looked at his hands again, this time focusing on his ring. He glared at it like he was in a Jane Austen book: he loved it, but yet he couldn’t stand it. With an angry huff, he pulled the ring off and set it nearby, on a rickety, half-varnished coffee table. He laid back down, breathing heavily, feeling the adrenaline start to charge in his veins. With trembling fingers, he grabbed at the dusty bar again and, with one deep exhalation, he held tight and lifted with all his might.
The bar wiggled, but did not raise.
Dan’s body fell limp against the musty, padded cushion on the weight bench, his breath wheezing weakly in short bursts. He tried again, and again, and again, each time getting more and more frustrated and finally bellowing his rage until the windows shook… but still the bar refused to rise. He finally collapsed, dripping with sweat. A few minutes he heard the light turn on and Gina walked carefully down the stairs in slippers and a robe. Her eyes were wide, frightened as she saw her husband there panting, assuming he had been next to her in bed. Her entire body trembled as she stood on the last old, wooden step.
“Daniel… are you all right?”
Dan took a few more deep breaths, his mind racing. He tried, he really did try to keep the world safe. He warned, he informed, he told of the dangers and the evils in the world, and most importantly he covered each and every single triumph over them. He told the people what they needed to know to survive in what was becoming a horrible world. They had taken away his right to protect them with his body, and he had found another way. From reporter to weekend lead to finally anchor, he was a voice that could reach people, tell people… but what do they want see? Missing college students, dogs on skateboards, celebrity foibles… he could never protect them this way… not really.
“I’m… all right,” he sat up, forcing a smile, “I was just trying to pump a little iron, y’know…”
He made an admittedly impressive bicep muscle, still grinning.
“Boo-yah.”
“Honey, it’s 2AM.”
“But did you see my little brother?” he thought fast and recovered, “The little spud’s starting to get to the gym. Soon, he’ll be turning me into a mashed potato! I gotta keep up.”
“Please, Dan…” Gina sighed, her voice and eyes pleading, “come to bed. You’re scaring me with all that noise.”
“Da,” he nodded, suddenly very grave and with a ridiculous Russkie accent, “Is a manly noise I make, Sasha, but I scare all the little Pushkis. Come! We go to sleeping bed!”
He leapt up and slung his thing wife over his shoulders, both of them laughing as they mounted the stairs. Dan noticed the ring was still sitting on the table in the basement, but he decided to get it tomorrow. Besides, he thought as he readjusted his wife across his shoulders, he’s still got it.

***

“How much longer are we going to have to do this?”
“You only have a few visits left, Ben.”
“Hah,” Ben snorted, “That’s unless you brand me as a complete wackaloon and throw away the key!”
“You seem in good spirits today,” Dr. Dalton smiled a bit as he addressed the young man, “Did something happen?”
“I got some stuff off my chest,” Ben enjoyed a tight-lipped smile, “Oh, and did I tell you? I got in touch with Putterman’s family.”
“Really?” the doctor’s eyebrows shot up at this, “That’s impressive.”
“Aw, gee. Thanks Doc, I didn’t know you cared.”
“And what was the response?”
“It was from his sister,” Ben shrugged, “The usual ‘we miss him every day’ stuff, but I could tell she meant it. It felt good, though, to finally tell someone, so I’m feeling pretty… I dunno, light?”
“That’s very, very good, Ben. Can I ask you a question, though?”
“You already did.”
“The reason you were made to come here… the fight in the hotel room… how do you feel about that?”
“Ah,” Ben nodded sagely, “Full Circle. Very nice.”
“And?”
“Well, it’s like this. Lucy picked me up from work a few days ago and she played me this song. It was called ‘Angry Young Man.’ I’d heard it a couple of times before, but I never really knew what it was. Bloopy arena rock junk like that just wasn’t allowed in the house I grew up in, y’know? Anyway, she told me that the song reminded her of me, so I listened to it a bit. The lyrics were pretty good, especially from what I’ve heard from these guys. She asked me what I thought after it was over. I asked her, ‘do you think I’m an Angry Young Man?’ She said yes. I asked her if she knew why. She rolled her eyes a little and said yes. She’s probably heard more of my ranting than anyone else. Still, I couldn’t bring myself to apologize, or to say I’ll change, or to say I was doing something wrong. Instead, I just turned to her and said ‘Someone has to be angry.'”
“And you believe that?” Dr. Dalton asked, blinking over his glasses.
“Hell yes  I do!” Ben ejaculated the words and nearly lost his balance on the couch, “I mean, so much of this world is just royally screwed up, and here’s me: I’m young, I’m fairly strong, and I’ve got ideas and abilities to fix these things. Yet, anywhere I go, I’m told to shut up, go away, or stop bumming people out. I shit you not, I’ve literally been called a ‘downer’ just for asking people’s opinions. Apparently, everything is fine and we should keep staring at the TV or at the computer screen, living blissfully in our little worlds until Armageddon, and then we can throw up our hands and say why-oh-why didn’t anyone do anything. Me? I’d rather get pissed off and get something done. I don’t care if you don’t like it, and I don’t care if it’s insulting or offensive. It needs to get done.”
There was a long silence then as Ben stared down the doctor, all the while convinced a straitjacket was one harried phone call away. Finally, Dalton spoke.
“And you believe you are properly equipped to get these things done?”
“At least I’m trying.”
“Have you been finding an outlet for this energy like I told you?”
Ben’s mind raced through so many memories: the ring, the forcefields, the door-slammed mugger, the homeless man…
“I’ve been finding little ways, yeah.”
“Well,” the doctor uncrossed his legs and made to stand up. He delicately placed his small glasses into his breast pocket and bade Ben stand up as well.
“I think you might want to start doing more of it.”
He gave Ben a queer look then, a look that almost said “I know what you’re doing, but I’m not going to stop you.” Ben was convinced he had no idea… how could he? Still, they shook hands and smiled, and after Ben left Dr. Dalton could hear “Angry Young Man” blaring out of the speakers of the Judge Intrepid as Ben left the parking lot. The doctor gave a sigh and made a few more notes in his book.
“I like that band…”
Ben was already a million miles away, though, tearing down the street to a the tune of a V6 engine in glorious duet with a cheesy rock single. Earlier in the week he had put it all together: a blue spandex bodysuit through mail order wasn’t enough to cover his still sizable paunch and overall lack of proper physique, but it still offered the proper freedom in movement. For his own sake, he’d augmented his embarrasment with the addition of a pair of cut-off jeans, a white t-shirt,  and an old green flannel, all of which had been ripped and torn through years of wear as to offer little to no resistance to body movement. Finally, he’d done away with the “skullcap” design that Nevermind had used, instead choosing to let his shaggy brown hair sprout from the top like a shock of wheat, while the rest of his face was obscured enough by a modified mask. This allowed freedom of the nose and mouth for breathing and talking, but obscured the rest of his face, reaching far enough up the side of his head to facilitate the field generation controller, attached firmly to his temple. Finally, a pair of athletic shoes with good traction and a pair of gloves with good grip. During one of the nights Lucy was out with her sisters-in-law, Ben tried the whole thing out, standing in front of a mirror. He let out a sigh.
“I think… I look sufficiently ridiculous.”
It wasn’t The Traveller’s protective armor, and it wasn’t Nevermind’s full enclosure, but it would have to do. One thing he was sure of was that no one would recognize him, a whirling dervish of tattered clothing and dancing hair. Sufficiently ridiculous, indeed, but for someone who’s only power was protection, a little ridiculousness could serve to distract opponents.
He thought back to the comics he’d read as a youth: Nevermind’s midnight-hued outfit cut a wiry and lithe figure, with an ancient symbol scrawled in silver on his forehead, near the placement of the supposed “third eye.” The Blue Traveller, conversely, was a blocky silhouette in thick, metal plates that jutted out at odd angles, making him a bulky and dangerous looking counterpart in royal blue and mustard yellow. The armor (most likely designed by Mom, Ben thought) served not only to intimidate, but to protect his super-strong, but not invulnerable brother from the crushing stresses of superheroing.
Together, both in hues of blue but so different to look at, they had protected the world Ben had grown up in, just like their father had done before. They had been outlaws, pursued by the law for their altruistic means, and when Nevermind retired, the Traveller had no choice but to follow suit. Dan had depended on Tom’s mind just as much as Tom had depending on Dan’s muscles, and by themselves neither would have lasted long. Instead, now, Dan still tried to make a difference, while Tom…
Tom…
Ben didn’t really know about Tom anymore.
And what does that mean?
The sound of another voice in the room caused Ben to whirl around, ring at the ready, surrounded by pale green protective light. He searched each corner of his small apartment thoroughly until the voice returned, seemingly exasperated.
Ben, what are you doing?
It was then Ben realized that the voice he was hearing was not in the apartment, but in his own head.
“Tom?” he said out loud, hoping his voice sounded any good inside his own head.
Who else would it be?
Tom’s voice sounded very good.
“Well, sorry. I guess I’m not all that good at identifying my brother’s disembodied voice!”
You don’t actually have to speak, you know. I can hear you either way.
“Don’t remind me,” Ben grumbled, “and I like it this way. Just how long have you been snooping around inside my head?”
Just tonight, Tom started. He must have sensed his brother’s skeptical expression because he immediately followed up.
You have my word, Ben. Give me some credit, I do have some moral standards.
“I never said you didn’t,” Ben grunted, tugging off his mask. He began dismantling his costume piece by piece, placing it in the false bottom he’d created for his sock drawer.
“There,” he said, satisfied, “now you have to deal with the knowledge that I’m in my underwear.”
Your costume is… interesting.
“Well, I don’t have the runner’s physique you did,” Ben’s words were harsh, sarcastic, “besides, Lucy’s been bugging me to throw out those old clothes, anyway. Figure I can get some use out of ’em, still.”
He sat onto his bed, sinking into the pillowtop and looking up at the ceiling fan. It was the most comfortable place to look for a rather uncomfortable conversation.
“So, I take it I’m in for a lecture?”
I don’t lecture.
“Oh, you totally do,” Mike rolled his eyes, “How did you find out about this, then, if your morals keep you from spying on people’s heads?”
Mom told me that you had been asking a lot of questions. She said she showed you the equipment, and you seemed very… excited.
“So, naturally, that gave you the right to snoop inside my head.”
I rarely use my powers anymore…
“Of course you don’t,” Ben’s sarcasm was nearly manifest.
Hey. Trying omnipresence sometime, tell me how you like it.
“I can’t,” Ben seethed, “I didn’t get a magic ring.”
Why are you so angry right now?
“Why?” Ben’s words exploded in an empty room, “I’ll tell you why. Because you’re going to barge into my brain right now and tell me to stop doing what I’m thinking of doing. Tonight, I’m going to dress up in this ridiculous outfit and go see if I can find some muggers, or rapists, or guys trying to knock over a liquor store. I’m going to try and stop them as best as I can. I might, and I might not, hopefully my ring will protect me enough so I don’t get shot or something, but even if I do get shot, at least I know I’ll get shot doing something, which is a hell of a lot more than I can say about you, Tom!”
Ben was panting now with frustration, sweat running down his body in rivulets.
Are you done?
“Oh, shut up.”
There was another long pause while Ben felt his face burning.
“…Fine. Yeah, I’m done.”
Why do you think I gave all of this up?
“Because you wanted to protect your family. Just like Dan.”
Hh, I wish it was that obvious.  I was tired, Ben. Tired of knowing everything, seeing everything before it happened. I was just so tired of being everywhere for everyone… I don’t know how Dad did it.
“Allow me to bust out the tiny violin.”
I just couldn’t keep doing it. It would have killed me. Every day, hearing millions of people in distress that I knew I couldn’t save, hearing the thoughts of villain after villain while I battled them, realizing that the world that gave me these powers also created such monsters, such pain…
“Yeah, and you could have fixed all their problems in a jiffy. I read your books, I saw the newspaper clippings. I saw when you united all of humanity’s minds with your own to counteract the Thought-Mongers of Ixryon. That ring from Dad and what you already had in your brain from Mom… you could have made everyone perfect and happy with a wave of your hand… but you didn’t.
I’m not God, Ben.
“I didn’t ask you to be,” Ben retorted, “you truly could have made the world a better place… how many people could say that?”
It’s not my place to enact things like that. I promised myself I wouldn’t be a despot. If I created a perfect world, I’d have to maintain it. Humanity as it is can’t tolerate perfection, it will make problems, it will make strife, it–
“Tom, for the love of God,” Ben’s head sank into his hands, “could you spare me the high-handed philosophy for five goddamn minutes? That’s what gets you by, doesn’t it? That’s how you cope with it all? You just think it all away. Sure, the world’s a mess, people are horrible, but if you think hard enough, you can excuse anything!”
You can’t understand what it was like, Ben. I had to…
“Damn it, Tom! At least Dan’s still trying, you… you just gave up! You go and you work at a factory, you go out of your way to hide your intelligence and make yourself look strong; while Dan, Dan goes and tries to convince everyone he’s intelligent enough. But you still bust out philosophy and policy at the drop of a hat, because you know you’re smart, and Dan still likes to bench press Dad’s tractors when he thinks no one’s looking. Don’t you see? You two tried your whole lives not to be like one another… but you’ll never escape it. You’re brothers, you grew up together… you need each other.”
I don’t see how that’s relevant.
“Damn it, Tom,” Ben shook his head, “You two were my heroes when I was kid, you know that? I used to read the comics, I’d see Nevermind, I’d see the Traveller… but you two were my heroes, not them.”
He stood up from the bed and, for the first time since he’d heard his brother’s voice that evening… possibly the first time in his life, he was no longer ashamed or afraid to speak to his older brother.
“I’ve got to do something. I’m going out there tonight, and I’m going to do something. If you want to join me, go ahead, and if you want to stop me… I guess you can do that, too. You always were the strongest.  So, unless you’re going to try to talk me out of something or rewrite my brain, I suggest you go back to work. You’re at work now, right? Third shift?”
……..yes.
“And you’re still doing this in the middle of it all. God, man… Why did you give up?”
You just couldn’t understand.
“Maybe I’ll go steal your ring and try to, sometime.”
I couldn’t let you do that.
“Then I guess this is good night?”
…I suppose.
“Good night then, Tom,” Ben said taking out his costume again, “Say hi to Melanie for me. And take care… I mean that.”
Ben waited for a long while, but never heard a response. With a shrug, he pulled the mask back on, let his hair jut out of the top and, under the cover of night, sneaked away from a sleepy suburban apartment building and headed into the city, itching for a fight.

Van Halen!

The next day, Ben was hauling his stiff and sore self back into the newly-christened Judge Intrepid, going directly home from work to pick up Lucy. They had a dinner date set in Harrisburg, and it would be a fair drive for the both of them to get in just when Dan was getting off work from the six o’clock news. Ben, desperate to be on time, had fairly pushed a frustrated Lucy out the door with her shoes half on. Ben shifted into drive and left the parking lot of their apartment as his wife angrily pulled her shoe on.
“I’m sorry, honey,” Ben said, turning left into the street, “Traffic was a nightmare getting back from work, and I really don’t want to be late.”
“We’re just having dinner with your brother,” she glowered, “It can wait for a few minutes.”
“I know my brother usually likes to be on time.”
“And I suppose it doesn’t matter what I think?”
Ben got quiet then and kept driving. It was always a touchy subject, his family. Ben had spent his entire time growing up knowing that there was something inherently different about the Grafs, and that knowledge was not lost on the people in town, as well. Soon after their entrance into school, it became an incident of great importance and seemingly unending ridicule if a Graf ever made a mistake. The three boys reacted in different ways: Tom would withdraw and get quiet, Dan would get loud and fight, and Ben would often cry hot tears of frustration, cursing himself for his failure. And yet, they still maintained good grades,  excelled in sports, and succeeded in other extra-curriculars. It was a point of pride for the family, and for Ben, but if he talked about it too often Lucy would grin and start humming Deustchland Uber Alles. Still, Ben thought as they drove, shouldn’t I want to be on time?
He turned on the radio to a local news station to break some of the awkward silence. The station jabbered on: war here, poverty there, death everywhere… it was all so desensitizing after a while. In the back of his mind, Ben wished that there would come in some little “lighter side” story at the end of the program, about a local homeless man who claimed he was assaulted by a mysterious green light. There was no such report, but Ben began to think… what would happen if those reports did start showing up?
“Can I put on some music?” Lucy asked, “They’re repeating the news.”
He turned to his wife, ready to grant such a simple request… but there was something special in her eyes, in the way she looked at him. No one should have ever looked at someone else like that just to ask to change the radio dial. There was something else there, something Ben was beginning to realize little by little. Whenever they’d have a disagreement, or an argument, or an all out fight, there would be a period of silence that was usually proportional to the size of the argument. Eventually, though, Lucy would say something simple, seemingly meaningless, but she would finally say it, and her eyes would do the rest. They’d be soft and blue, gentle, and would seem to say “I’m sorry.” After that, it was as if the disagreement had been a distant memory. This was, of course, a drastic difference from the way Ben had grown up, where the words “I’m sorry” came out of his mouth so often than eventually Claire had to out and out tell him that it didn’t cut it anymore. Ben allowed himself a smile then as they headed down I-76. Little by little, they were figuring each other out.
Dan and his wife lived in an eighty-year-old former farmhouse on the outskirts of Harrisburg. Dan had mentioned before how they were “bravely fighting off urban sprawl,” and he meant it: the house looked like a plain, dependable mule among show ponies. They rang the doorbell and Gina answered, the picture of domesticity in a well-worn and floured apron. Her slender form was decked out in simple clothes that would no doubt be changed by the time dinner started, and her long, brown hair was in a messy ponytail.
“Oh, goodness!” she stammered, ushering them in, “I’m so sorry, the place is an absolute mess!”
Ben gave the immaculate house a once-over and met Lucy’s skeptical gaze in the middle. THIS was a mess?
“I’m sorry I look like this,” she apologized again, fiddling in vain for her apron strings, “I was just finishing up the cake. I really didn’t expect you two to get here right at seven…”
Ben smiled sheepishly and felt Lucy’s eyes burning into the back of his head. So, maybe Dan wasn’t as punctual as he used to be.
“I take it Dan’s running late, then?” Ben asked. He began to pull off his light jacket.
“Oh, of course,” Gina threw out a pout that would have seemed laughable, but it became apparently she was genuine, “there’s always that one more story to write, or something…”
Her gentle voice trailed off, but both Ben and Lucy saw that she was a little melancholic about it.
“Oh, I shouldn’t be bothering you with all of that nonsense!” she blustered, taking Lucy’s coat, “why don’t you join me in the kitchen, Lucy? I could use some help with the hors d’oeuvres.”
Lucy had enough time to turn to Ben and mouth “hors d’oeuvres?” in shock before Gina seized her wrist and pulled her away.
“Oh, Ben!”
Gina suddenly remembered something and stopped short. Lucy, being of a more womanly shape, nearly knocked her flat when she bumped into her.
“You don’t like diet sodas and stuff, right?”
“Er, can’t say as I do, Gina…”
He’d always felt so strange, calling them by their first names. It had been “Dan’s girlfriend” and “Tom’s girlfriend” for so long.
“I’m so sorry, but that’s all we have…” Gina produced her purse and began rummaging through it worriedly, “Oh, darn it! I don’t have any cash.”
“Don’t worry, Gina,” Ben shrugged his jacket back on and turned for the door, “You two have some fun together for a bit. I passed a store on the way in, I’ll go pick up some Coke or something.”
“Are you sure? I’m sorry–”
Ben held up a hand to keep Gina from apologizing again.
“I’ll be fine,” he said with a smile, “you girls go… I don’t know, paint each other’s nails or something.”
“Ha ha,” Lucy replied drily, and shooed him out the door. In a few minutes he was at a local grocery, perusing the soda aisle and facing down a formidable array of brightly colored bottles. Toward the end of the aisle, however, there was something that seemed even more formidable: a tall man in a long, black coat and handsome Homburg hat also appeared to be shopping. To say that the height of the man, along with his apparel, was intimidating would have been an understatement… until he turned around. With relief, Ben found himself looking into the merry blue eyes of his brother Dan, shining out over a dark blue scarf and his ever-present thin mustache.
“Hey, little brother,” Dan kept on grinning, “Fancy meeting you here.”
“How did you know I’d be here, Dan?”
“I called Gina to ask if I should pick anything up, and she mentioned you came down here. I figured I’d cut you off at the pass and we could have a little ‘guy time.'”
Ben scoffed a little at that. They were in the middle of a supermarket, how can that result in ‘guy time?’
“Also,” Dan added, his face threatening to crack from all the smiling, “Gina probably would have killed me if I let you pay for your own sodas.”
“But I’m the only one drinking them.”
“You know how she is.”
“I guess,” Ben replied, a little befuddled. He scratched his head as Dan turned back to admiring sodas.
“Are you just not going to say anything about this?”
“About what?” Dan asked, looking back to see his brother looking supremely skeptical. Ben responded by gesturing up and down at Dan’s attire.
“About this!”
“What, the jacket?”
“The jacket, the hat, the scarf…” Ben shook his head, “does Orson Welles know you raided his closet?”
“Hey,” Dan adopted some mock bravado, “I make my money looking good. Gotta keep the money flowin’ in.”
He tugged on his lapels and pulled a cocky face. Ben rolled his eyes and Dan broke into laughter again.
“No, but seriously,” he readjusted the scarf around his neck, “I’ve got to dress good for work. I figure, as long as they’re making me wear a suit and tie, why not take it the all the way, right? I figure it serves two purposes: shows people I’m serious about work, and shows upper management that I think it’s ridiculous I gotta be a fashion plate for them.”
“Too bad they didn’t specify which fashion…” Ben shot back with no shortage of sarcasm.
“Hey, I make this look good,” Dan grinned, “I am six o’clock in the Harrisburg area, little brother.”
“Little brother,” Ben sniggered, “I’m almost twice your size.”
“You should probably lay off the soda, then,” his brother commented, “really, the zero stuff’s not bad.”
“I just don’t like putting all those chemicals in my body.”
“Good thing Dad never gave you a ring then.”
That started a long pause, during which the two brothers pretended to be interested in soda. They cut an odd figure, one in a black overcoat and the other in a simple windbreaker. Still, there was something in their eyes, something in the way they stood, that would have told anyone in the store that they were brothers.
“Do you miss it, Dan?”
“Eh, not really,” he slipped his hands into the deep pockets of his coat. Ben turned to his brother and steeled his nerve for what he was about to say next.
“I… I refuse to believe that.”
Growing up, Ben had revered his brothers as something just short of Gods. Tom was the brilliant, creative soul who always seemed to say just the right thing at just the right moment, and Dan was the charming, dependable extrovert with a string of beautiful blonde girlfriends. Ben often thought growing up that he might have been adopted when he looked in the mirror every morning: thickly built, dull brown hair, little discernible charm and even less people in his company. His brothers had been two different kinds of teenage superstars, with Dan’s gregarious courage and Tom’s intellectual intensity, and Ben couldn’t remember a weekend where the old farm house hadn’t had one or several friends of his brothers over, an expanded pantheon for him to worship. When he made it to high school, the house suddenly felt silent. With his brothers gone, there were very few people around on the weekends, very few friends. It seemed, in Ben’s mind at least, that the magic had been spent with the first two sons. Now, just like with the rings, there was nothing left for him.
“Excuse me?” Dan turned to him, still smiling.
“Look at you, man!” Ben’s words almost exploded out of him, “You look like Errol Flynn at a movie premiere!”
“I’ll take that as a compliment, Ben,” Dan continued laughing, but seemed a little nervous, “but do you mind taking the volume down a bit?”
“Sorry,” Ben let out a sigh, “It’s just… you used to be… you were the Blue Traveler! You used to juggle taxi cabs for fun, you could punch through a bunker… you headbutted as asteroid once, for crying out loud!”
“And boy, did I have a headache after that,” he chuckled again, grabbing one of the bottles, “does this one sound okay?”
“And there’s always that! You’re always laughing, always joking, always changing the subject! It’s like… you’re scared to talk about it!”
“I am in hiding…”
“But not from your family. We’re the ones you’re supposed to be able to talk to. You don’t need to put on this ‘mild-mannered-reporter’ schtick and pretend like life’s a big party all the time… we want to hear what’s going on. We can handle it.”
The smile began to fade from Dan’s face as Ben continued, building up a fine head of steam.
“I know how I feel when I watch the news at night, and I know it must eat at you to have to sit there and report it, to not be able to do anything like you used to. I know you smile and laugh and goof around because you’re hiding something. I could always tell when things got bad, really bad when you were in high school, because you’d try to make jokes. I remember you being crushed time and time again, and looking so broken, but still trying to find some fun in it. I see that same smile almost every night when you have to read about a world that is happier with rapists and murders wandering streets than they were with superhumans protecting them. You can’t stand here, dressed like that, doing what you do every day and tell me you don’t miss it. Sure, they don’t let you punch through buildings anymore, but I’m sure somehow you feel like you can still make that impact if you just say it enough times in enough broadcasts. Deep down, you know it’s not enough, you know it’ll never be enough, because people can just change the channel and watch that home video show and forget how bad the world is. You and your message are just the push of a button away from a cartoon shot in the nuts… I refuse to believe you don’t miss the time when you could actually make a difference.”
There was another long pause then, during which Ben gently took the 2 liter bottle out of Dan’s hand and put it back on the shelf, exchanging it for a different brand.
“Lucy likes this one better,” he muttered awkwardly. The two of them shuffled to the checkout line and left the store. Once they returned to Dan’s house, everything was smiles and sunshine with the news anchor, that papier-mache smile Ben had seen all too often. Still, he played along after a beseeching look from Lucy, and the four found themselves enjoying a lovely dinner and drinks afterward. At one point, the two ladies left for a refill, and Dan looked deep into the swirling ice cubes that were left in his glass.
“You know…”
His voice was different this time. It was lower, less chipper, less happy-go-lucky. For the first time, Ben got a real feeling of world-weariness from his younger older brother, something he had always sensed but never really seen.
“You know how strong I was…” he glanced at the ring on his opposite hand, “How strong I am… but the comics always left out one little part of it.”
“What was that?” Ben asked, himself enraptured with his own ice cubes.
“The ring gave me power,” Dan replied with a sigh, “but that was it. It made me strong, made me powerful… but I wasn’t indestructible. I was just me with the knob turned all the way up. Sure, I could dead-lift an apartment building… but I could still throw out my back doing it. I could rip the doors off a car, but I’d be sore as hell the next day. I often wonder if Dad had the same problem, or if something was lost in the transfer. Either way, you’re right… I do miss it. I miss being the Traveler more than anything… but I sure as hell don’t miss the day after.”
Ben snorted into his ice cubes, allowing one into his mouth to crush between his teeth.
“So, in issue #7, when you punched open that water main…”
Dan winced at the memory.
“Broke my hand in two places.”
“Damn.”
The two shared a chuckle as the ladies re-entered. Gina and Lucy shared a smile as they sat back down, thinking they had done a great job of getting the brothers together for an evening to talk. In their minds, this was a great opportunity for Ben and Dan to let off some steam and relieve some stress through commiseration, but in reality the idea of “stress relief” was only beginning to form in their minds. By the time they were finished, it would change everyone’s lives, their wives included, in ways they never would have thought possible. As Lucy and Ben waved goodbye, Ben had decided not to tell Dan about his own experiments with his ring, and the pale green forcefields he had been able to create. Rather, Ben had other plans in mind before revealing his new-found abilities. When he returned home, he found a text message waiting for him from Dan.
“Feel free to talk any time, ok little bro?”
Ben smiled as he tapped in a response.
“What about Tom?”
After a few minutes, his phone buzzed with a new message.
“Only if you’re crazy.”
As Ben put his ring on the bedside table and settled into bed with his wife, he thought about that message Dan had sent him. He looked up at the bedroom ceiling and asked himself, Am I crazy? After a few moments, he heard his own voice call back in his head, a little sheepishly:
Well, it said, you are currently seeing a shrink… and you’ve started talking to yourself.

Kratistos

“Honey,” Lucy said one night while they were washing the dishes, “can I ask you a question?”
“Sure,” Ben smiled as he dried a plate, “Shoot.”
“Why haven’t you been wearing your ring to bed?”
It caught Ben completely off guard like a right cross to the jaw. He hadn’t even notice Lucy was awake when he’d been taking off the ring to sleep. Had she been awake to see, or hear… other things he’d been doing late at night?
“Oh, that,” Ben chuckled nervously, “here I figured you’d ask about my Peruvian mistress.”
“Very funny, Banjo,” she replied, not amused in the slightest. Ben shimmied over and pinched her bottom, grinning.
“Oh, come on honey pie. You know there’s no one else but you.”
“Of course there isn’t,” Lucy said as she picked another plate out of the dishwater, “because you’re a terrible liar and I’d have already castrated you for it.”
“That’s why I love ya,” Ben laughed, “so trusting.”
There were a few more minutes of silence before she spoke again.
“You didn’t answer me about the ring.”
Ben didn’t say anything, but she could read the “dammit!” in his posture. His mind raced as he nervously fidgeted a plate around a floursack towel. What would he tell her? he thought. Should he just go ahead and be honest, saying “hey honey, I used some of my mother’s top secret technology from the 1970s to turn my ring into a force field generator so I can be a superhero like my brothers, but it’s rigged up to my brainwaves so I have to take it off when I sleep or I might throw you across the room if I have a nightmare?” She’d never buy it. It was true he was a terrible liar, but some things seemed beyond even lies.
“I’ve been reading stuff,” he shrugged in a non-committal fashion, “Stuff about people banging their rings into bedposts at night, breaking things, breaking fingers… one guy got his pinched around his finger real bad when he knocked it on something, they had to cut the ring off.”
“Ah,” she responded, and reached for the silverware.
“You know how I toss and turn at night, honey,”
“Tell me about it,” she rolled her eyes, “I ate your elbow again last night.”
“Exactly,” Ben started running with it, “And I’d hate to punch you or something in the middle of the night. I mean, would people really believe it if…”
He trailed off there, hoping she would finish it and hoping that maybe, just maybe, she could read his mind and explain what he was really feeling.
“If people saw me with a shiner or a swelled up face?” she responded. Ben felt the air go out of him, but he was still happy the situation had been resolved. Lucy dried off her hands and used one of them to cup around her husband’s face, her eyes shining in the pale fluorescent light over the sink.
“You think too much, hon,” she gave him a gentle, but passionate kiss, “but if you didn’t, it wouldn’t be you.”
“Thanks… I think?”
“Come on,” She yanked the towel off his shoulder and waved him into the small living room, “it’s almost seven.”
“Oh, you mean time for the ridiculously overblown and highly unrealistic cop drama?”
“Shut it,” she stuck out her tongue, “I like it.”
“Meh,” he grunted, flopping down next to her on the couch and looking with dismay at his ever-expanding belly.
“Hey hon,” he muttered as a commercial for something they didn’t need came on, “Would you mind if I went to that twenty-four hour gym at night? I’d like to get back into some kind of shape.”
“Round is a shape,” she replied absentmindedly.
“I meant it, Luce,” he pulled her face away from the TV and stared her down, “I’d like my kids to remember me as something other than a big ball of lard.”
“You’ve got some time before we need to worry about that!” she replied, laughing.
“But if I start now…”
“Fine,” she grunted with a little frustration, “just take your cell phone with you, all right?”
“I don’t want you staying up worrying about me,” he kept the conversation going as the show came back on, “I’ll be fine, I just… you’ve seen what happens when we go to bed at the same time, at least most nights.”
“You wiggle your foot so damn hard I think I’m gonna be seasick,” she replied quickly.
“I still have a lot of pent-up energy after a day at work. All I do is sit,” he glanced down at his belly again, “I know you’re tired after work, but I’m not, and I still want to do something at night.”
“Then go!” she rolled her eyes again, “jeez, I’ll be fine. I’ll just take a Melatonin and I’ll be fine.”
They watched for a few more minutes as a cop interrogated a subject in a patently illegal manner.
“I wish you wouldn’t take pills to fall asleep.”
“It’s a supplement.”
“It’s a pill, Luce.”
“Would you rather I stayed up all night?”
“I wish I knew how to get you to relax!”
“My job is very stressful,” she replied,  little terse, “that’s all.”
“Then I hope I can get a better one. So you can quit.”
Lucy gave a grunt and went back to watching the show. A commercial came on advertising the next step in human progress: a smartphone.
“Oh, come on,” Ben whined, “Is that really how they are going to sell that? Is this really what we do now? We went to the moon once, didn’t we? Is the best we can really do now is just make smaller and smaller phones that are barely even phones to begin with?”
“Do you ever stop complaining?” Lucy growled.
“Not while there’s still plenty to be fixed,” Ben responded. He tried his best to reconcile, leaning his head onto his wife’s shoulder and purring like a kitten. With a sigh, Lucy cracked a small smile and scratched idly at his scalp as the cop drama came to an end. Ben wondered to himself how they could portray things like rape and brutal murder at seven o’clock at night… but he kept his thoughts to himself. Later that night, the two of them crawled into bed together.
“I’ll start going to the gym tomorrow night, then.”
“Okay, sweetie,” Lucy yawned, one foot in dreamland, “you do that.”
Twenty minutes later, it was the same old story Ben had been suffering for years: tightness in his chest, difficulty breathing. His left foot wobbled back and forth as if trying to shake off a hideous spider. He held both hands above him, folded across the back of his head. Not doing that would have caused his heart to race. He had laid there, his mind racing as always. Was he really going to do it? Getting in shape would be the first step towards actually doing it. Going out there, helping people, doing the right thing… but then he thought about the man who broke into his hotel room, or the mugger and the car door… and he realized he’d already taken that step. There was no turning back now, he had only to prepare for the next steps he was going to take.
He got up. Lucy didn’t stir, thanks to a melatonin pill. He went into the living room and fired up the laptop, sitting in his underwear on an unseasonably warm autumn night. Ben had stayed up a few nights before crawling through the internet for anything, anyone who might confirm the existence of supers from way back when, but found nothing. After weeks of searching, it was finally a few old alternative newspapers his mother had passed to him that gave him the answers. She’d disguised them as packing material for a few things she’d sent over: mostly old comic books and a few other things Ben had left behind in his room when he’d moved out. They were what you’d expect from a small-run, independent newspapers in the 1970s: low budget, low production, with small windows of lucidity between articles that seemed best exhibited on apocalyptic sandwich boards. Ben unfolded one of the sheets and read to himself, something about a crazy freshman rep from Ohio who had pushed for top secret anti-super legislation following the Santa Barbara riot. After the legislation passed, the representative seemed to disappear from History entirely, and there was more than one website wondering if the man had ever really existed to begin with.
None of the information in these crumpled up, poorly- xeroxed papers seemed to match with what Ben had dug up from newspapers and magazines. Something didn’t quite add up here, that was plain to see, but Ben knew there really wasn’t any point in digging deeper. These squirreled away pamphlets were apparently all that remained of a society that once accepted superhuman protectors as their own. Ben himself had never actually thought comic book men like Ultro had existed, and he had been openly mocked at school for supporting Nevermind and the Blue Traveller. Just a hoax, everyone had said, just mentally unstable maniacs in silly outfits, no such thing as superpowers. There had been a cover-up the lies of which maniacs only dream about, but there was no way to blow it open. Not without jeopardizing everything he’d already made and was planning to make with Lucy, here and now. Again, Ben was reminded of the time when his father had told him his secret, and he understood more than ever why he was given all of this knowledge only after his marriage. But still, Ben thought as he balled the papers back up and jammed them back into the box… shouldn’t someone do something?
He started at the gym the next day, spending the first week breaking himself and shambling painfully to his car at just past midnight. Luckily, the gym did a good job of flaunting its 24-hour policy, and as such promised good security for its patrons. Still, no system was perfect and at a rapidly cooling 1AM sometime in the second week, Ben was approached.
“Got any change, man?”
“No,” he replied, trying not to make his voice sound as weary as he felt.
“Come on, man,” the vagrant continued, “I just want a cup of coffee.”
“All I’ve got is plastic.”
“Then let’s go to the ATM around the corner, man. Just a cup of coffee, man.”
“I don’t think so.”
He continued walking, but the other man didn’t stop.
“So you can haul your rich ass into the gym, but you can give me some change for coffee? You think you’re better than me or somethin? You think you can spend all that money on your gym membership while guys like me starve?! I got six kids at home, man! I got a grandma who’s sick!”
“Then why don’t you get home and take care of them?”
Ben felt something break in his heart. He just didn’t care anymore, and it reflected in his voice which, although no longer weary, was cold and disaffected.
“Oh, fuck you, man!”
The vagrant gave Ben a push and, startled, he stumbled into the side of his car. He lay there for a moment, waiting. Would it be the cock of a gun? The slick opening of a switchblade? Maybe the scrape of a crowbar on the pavement? He heard nothing, so he turned round. The man had his face screwed up tight, trying to look tough. Ben noted to himself how much the man resembled a child being denied its favorite toy, and pouting.
“What, you gonna turn me into the cops now, rich man? You gonna get the guard from your high-class gym membership to come and rough me up, huh?”
“I’m not going to do anything of the sort,” Ben replied, reaching into his pocket for his keys, “I’m going to get in my car and drive away. If you have a problem with that, I really don’t care. If you truly have children and a grandmother to take care of, which I doubt, I suggest you go to them. If you try to bother me again, I won’t be held responsible for what I do.”
“Fuck you, rich man!” the man hissed through missing teeth, and lunged for Ben. Rather than fear, which is what he felt he should do, Ben instead felt that fire built up within him in a flash, as if it had been doused in gasoline. The fire had been becoming more and more frequent inside him, but never once did he fear it, or flee from it. Instead, the flareup caused his ring to react, surrounding him in a force field that, upon being struck, sent the vagrant flying into the air in the other direction, landing in a heap amongst a pile of refuse. As he saw the green light fade from around him, Ben also felt the fight go out of him. His inner fire had been chilled so far that it felt as if the tongues of flame had frozen in place, and he found himself crying in the middle of the darkened street. He cried for the man whose life was not what he had wanted it, he cried for those six children and the grandmother, even if they didn’t exist. He cried for himself, because all he could do was protect and not act. He had nearly emptied the last of his own checking account to get the membership taken care of, after all. Finally, he cried for the world, a world where this happens, a world where people like him and his father and his brothers were told not to be exceptional, not to help men like this vagrant, but instead to hide themselves. When the harsh realities of the world were displayed, they were to shake their heads and go back to drinking their morning coffee, and nothing else.
Ben couldn’t do it any longer. He’d known it for a long time, but there on that dimly lit street he made a promise to every God he knew and several he didn’t, that he would do something about it. He turned back to his car, his arms still burning as he glanced at the trunk lid. “Intrepid,” it read. He found it very apropos, but something was missing. Before he could stop himself, Ben opened the trunk and his emergency toolbox, taking out a rusted old claw hammer that had been his father’s long before he had been born. He hefted the hammer and, after closing the trunk, he took the claw to the metal letters attached to the trunk, spelling out the car’s brand. With a few swift shots, the hammer dislodged a few of the cheap pieces of metal, leaving only the word “JUDGE” spelled out over the word “INTREPID.”
Ben’s arms now screamed for a reprieve. He drove home and slept soundly, and the next day at work he answered six calls instead of his usual twenty. Let them keep paying me, he thought with a bitter laugh, I’ll do my job tomorrow… if I feel like it. Right now, I’ve got more important work to do.

Citater fra

A few days later…
“So, there’s this idea I’ve been kicking around lately,”
Ben sat on the couch at Dr. Dalton’s office, mentally playing through the events of the past few days as he talked.
“There’s this word you hear all the time: special. You know what I’m talking about?”
Dr. Dalton looked down over the edge of his glasses skeptically.
“Possibly.”
“I remember it right about the time I was finishing up elementary school: there was that stupid dinosaur on TV who waddled around telling everyone they were special in their own way…”
In his mind, Ben was thinking back to the morning after Allentown. He’d stolen away, down into the Ultro-Cave (as he had taken to calling it) and began dismantling the archaic panoramic plasma waveform hard light field generator his mother had created nearly forty years ago and decades before its time. He worked all through the day while his mother took Lucy out for a day of distraction in the surrounding towns and countryside. His father only came down once, at what Ben supposed was late afternoon or early evening. Their eyes met for a moment, they shared a nod, and Bob left him alone.
“This damned dinosaur, he makes everyone think they are special. Now, I got some dork at work who hands me a cup of apple juice on Halloween. Is that supposed to make me feel special? Is that supposed to placate me?”
With every question, Ben remembered the hammering and grinding and even welding that went into the work. His mother had laid the foundations on the research, but the equipment was so old… but one quick trip to a RadioShack helped bridge the gap. Thanks to modern technology, you didn’t need an entire console to create those protective force-fields; you could shrink it all down into something tiny. Computers never dreamed of in the 1970s were now confined to the palm of one’s hand, televisions were now paper thin, and Ben Graf was able to harness the power of his mother’s invention into…
“I just don’t get it,” he muttered, fingering with the titanium ring on his left hand, “There are ways. There are ways that have come to be accepted by the general populace to say that one person is better than another at a given task. IQ. The Olympics. To some people, it’s the only reason they go to church. And yet, if you bring up these widely accepted ideas, bordering on truths, you get told you need to stop being so rude, so arrogant. Sit down and shut up, that’s what they say, when you dare bring into attention that they may have done something wrong, and you know they did because you have a higher aptitude in the given area than they do. I mean, I know no one wants to be told that they did something wrong… but it seems like everything’s turning to a world where everyone is right all the time.”
“And that upsets you, Ben?”
“Well, yes!” Ben scratched nervously at the side of his head as he lay, “I’m not trying to be Ayn Rand or anything, but at what point can the people who are unequivocally exceptional, by the standards our society has set and not my own, when can those people be allowed to be exceptional? When can we be given credit, instead of being forced to not make waves?”
“You’re asking for credit, then? For all the things you’ve done?”
“Hell no!” Ben snorted, “I haven’t done anything… but I could. And if I want to do something, if I want to make a difference, do I have to keep looking over my shoulder to make sure I’m not doing too much, or stepping on someone’s toes? I’ve spent my entire life holding back because I was smarter, or I was better at something or other… and I don’t know what to do anymore.”
“Well,” Dalton leaned forward, smiling a little, “I did say you need to find a healthy release for all of this energy, and simply thinking about it is only going to give you headaches.”
“I know, I know…” Ben groaned, clapping both hands over his eyes. He just wanted someone to say it was okay, but in the back of his mind there was a mocking voice telling him that there was no one that could do it but himself. His mind was whisked away again to the near past: late night after late night, with Lucy sound asleep, sliding out from under the covers and heading into the cramped living room. Practicing, practicing, practicing… the most difficult part was creating the brainwave relay, a small chip attached to his temple with masking tape to focus the energy and project the field. Invisible energy traveled from his brain to his hand, and covered a plastic cup sitting on the dining room table. Ben reached out with his right hand and tried to touch it, but found that it was impossible. The cup was protected. He set the cup down and walked into the kitchen where, as silently as possible, he drew a butcher knife from the block. He held it high and awkwardly with his right hand, concentrated with all his might. As he brought the knife down, he fought hard to dispel the fear: what if it didn’t work? What if he lost his left hand, his best hand? What would Lucy say? Lucy…
He was reminded of that hotel room, and of that mugger, and of the fifty other crimes he saw being committed every morning as he drove to work. He had to protect Lucy, his family, everyone. This had to work, or he couldn’t protect them. The knife ricocheted off his bare wrist with such force that it flew from his sweaty hand and somersaulted back behind him, landing in the face of a cabinet with a quivering thud. It took Ben three good tugs to free the knife, and following that he marveled to see that the blade had bent around the force-field. Metal had bent, steel had bent, all because he had willed it.
He smiled in the darkness of the kitchen, and quickly hid the knife in the kitchen garbage bin. Tomorrow, he’d replace it. He smiled the whole night through, right through a night of the most wonderful dreams.
“What if the things I want to do could be… dangerous?”
“That will be your decision,” the doctor nodded, leaning back in his chair, “although I might suggest against anything strictly suicidal.”
The doctor glanced at his watch.
“We’re almost done, Ben. Is there anything else you’d like to talk about?”
“Nah…” Ben shook his head, fingering the ring again, “I think I’m good for today.”
“Are you going to work on finding a release for all of this frustration?”
He spun the ring idly round on his finger, looking at it and at nothing simultaneously. His eyes were still out of focus when he heard himself respond, seeming far, far away.
“Yeah, I think I will.”
The ring didn’t spin like it used to. Then again, it used to be much, much lighter.
“We do still have time, Ben,” Dalton put his notes aside, “I’d hate to feel like I was cheating you. Perhaps we could talk about something not quite so heavy?”
“What, small talk with my shrink?”
“Sometimes the very unimportant things can make a difference.”
“Reminds me of how I met my wife,” Ben sat up a little, smiling now.
“Would you like to talk about it?”
“Maybe later,” Ben stretch and rose to his feet, “but it wouldn’t hurt me to get going a little early. Lucy and I will be meeting up with my brother and his wife for dinner. I’m trying to get back in touch with my brothers, now that all the wedding hoopla is over.”
“Oh,” Dalton said with a little surprise if he, too, rose to his feet, “Very good then. I’m glad to see you strengthening relationships with your brothers. That is a very good use of your time, and you might find some of those answers you’ve been looking for.”
Ben just kept on smiling as he shook hands with the doctor, and left the office.

The Gala

After shuffling through the door, burdened by a massive box of old comic books, Ben had thrown himself into what he thought had been the fiction of his childhood. Suddenly all the stories were new again, there was a fresh perspective on everything. Sensationalized as they were, he still thrilled at the fantastically fraudulent covers where Ultro leapt over the Atlantic ocean to deliver a roundhouse punch to Leonid Brezhnev, or stood proudly with a ragtag group of soldiers as Ho Chi Minh himself bled in terror. Other stories, however, seemed to hit a bit closer to home. As a child, he’d always found issue #342, “Funeral for a Friend,” to be a bizarre departure from the usually garish fantasy adventures, but reading it now Ben got the feeling that there was something much more important going on between ink and paper. Against all warnings from the rest of his family, he asked his father about it one Friday night.
“I got in good with one of the writers. He was a good guy, it’s a shame we lost him.”
“Did he die?”
“Nah, he just went and got a real job.”
They were sitting at the small kitchen table in the old farmhouse, enjoying one of Bob’s indulgent favorites: cotto salami on white bread with thick sliced cheddar cheese, mustard, and plenty of ketchup. Fearing for her husband’s long-term health, Claire had begun to curtail the amount of fatty, mysterious lunchmeats present in the refrigerator. Fortunately, she had been invited out with Lucy, Gina and Melanie at the weekly “support group,” and the men were alone in the big, white house.
“It was one of the issues that got him fired, actually,” Bob murmured around a bite of sandwich, “But he pushed for it. Said that comics needed to push the envelope or they’d never be anything more than dime-store junk.”
“What’s he doing now?”
“Banker or something. Y’know… respectable.”
“Hunh,” Ben replied and took a bite. He’d known some less than respectable bankers in his time. There was a bit of silence then as Ben played with the small glass of milk he’d been given with his sandwich: it had been some time, and the milk was now warm. Ben never did enjoy warm milk.
“So…” he finally got up the nerve to ask, “whose funeral was it?”
“It was a guy I did some work with in Chicago back in the day. He taught high school band, and he could make a trumpet sound like the voice of an angel, let me tell you… of course, he also could amplify that sound to drive through six feet of reinforced concrete. The papers called him Ultrasonic, but I always knew him as Rymer.”
“First or last name?”
“Dunno, that’s all anyone called him. Shame what happened, so young.”
“I just re-read the book in one of the collected volumes,” Ben steeled himself and downed the room-temperature milk, “It’s really powerful stuff.”
“He deserved it,” Bob replied, his eyes gaining a bit of a far-off look, “Good man… we lost so many good men, too. Wars and battles, disease and freak accidents, pan-galactic scourges and domestic terrorists… and sometimes our bodies would just quit on us. Thirty, forty, forty-five years old and dropping dead, it was like we weren’t supposed to be able to do what we did, like it burned all the cells out of our body. Here I am, pushin’ sixty…”
“If it’s any consolation,” Ben reached over and patted his father on his broad, muscular shoulder, “I’m glad you’re still here. It’ll be nice for my kids to know their grandfather… in the future, of course.”
He added that last bit hastily, so as not to cause any suspicion or misunderstanding. Bob didn’t seem to notice, he still looked slightly lost.
“That was the one thing I was really good at, y’know? I had the power, I had the ability, and the world was crying out to be saved. I could save them, and I did. And I was good at it.”
He blinked a little and looked down at his son, who was now regarding his father with a bit of worry.
“It was my mother, your grandmother, that was going to turn me in. Said she was worried about me, that they’d start hunting us down or something. There was a senator from Virginia, or West Virginia, or something… Friedman. He was pushing really hard for a registration on supers, they said he helped develop some of the technology to take it out of us. After everything that happened in the 60s and the 70s, I suppose I wasn’t too trusting of the government, so I had your mother… take care of it.”
“What ever happened to this Friedman guy?”
“As soon as the witch hunt was over, they voted him out,” Bob waved a dismissive hand, “Disappeared like all those zealots eventually do… good riddance.”
Ben wasn’t used to hearing such harsh words from his father. He had always seemed so relaxed, so happy-go-lucky… it must have been the salami, he thought sarcastically to himself.
“I know your mother was glad to have me around and, believe me, I wouldn’t trade you kids for anything. It’s just…”
He saw the corner of his father’s eye twitch ever so slightly as he seemed to look up and over the head of his son, boring into the floral wallpaper.
“I never did understand why they wanted to do it. Don’t people want to be saved? Don’t you want to have someone looking out for you? So what if the guy next door can lift a Buick over his head, or shoot lasers out of his eyes, what makes you think there’s some reason to call the government on him? Some people are smarter than others, some people stronger, some people crazier, but they’ve got a right to be that way. Why didn’t we get that right, huh? I just never got that.”
“They were scared of you, Dad,” Ben said softly, “they didn’t know what to do, and they panicked. They didn’t realize what it would do to you, or MachMan, or any of you… they feared you.”
“They shouldn’t be afraid of me,” Bob said, his voice nearly breaking with sadness, “I’m just a regular guy.”
There was something in that last sentence that did not sit well with Ben. He began to feel that fire down in the pit of his stomach again, like he had felt in the hotel room, like he had felt when he punched the gas of his Dodge and hit that mugger with the door… what was wrong with the world, where a man like Ultro, a true hero, had been reduced to this? Why did he have to hide and pretend and neuter his powers, powers that could have served for a greater good? There were troops in Iraq, Afghanistan, and who knows where else that could benefit from this, but because some people were scared, thousands will die. Maybe millions.
Why?
“Dad, I… I can’t believe that.”
“It’s true. I’m not any better than anyone else.”
“That’s not true, Dad. Normal, regular guys didn’t use to save the world on a daily basis.”
“Use to, son.”
“So, just because they made you be normal doesn’t mean you have to be normal! Look at our whole family, Dad! Are any of us normal? It’s not a question of how much you can lift or how fast you can run, there’s more to it than that.”
Bob looked up at him with pleading eyes, but Ben was going too fast to stop now.
“Didn’t all of your boys do really well in school? We were in sports, in music, Dan and I did theater, Tom had a band… we read more, we talked more, we just plain DID more… don’t you think that makes us different? Haven’t you been out with some of the other families around here, Dad? Haven’t you noticed how they don’t quite act like we do? I remember you and Tom getting into it almost every night at dinner over politics, or religion, or philosophy… when was the last time you talked philosophy with the local farmers, Dad? Huh? When?”
Ben was standing now, looking down at his Dad who had practically slumped at the table. His breath was coming in heavy gasps, and he was a little surprised at the position he had found himself in. It was always taken as fact that Bob could, at any given moment, whip the tar out of his sons if he ever decided to. But here he stood, the baby boy now towering over his sad looking father, seeing the world in tinges of red. Ben immediately felt the rage subside as he slumped back into the chair, terrified of becoming the bully he’d always learned to avoid. He looked at the now empty glass of milk, wishing for all the world that it was full again, and ice cold. Finally, his father looked up again.
“I think we did something wrong with you boys,” his voice was level, but still worried, “we raised you to be good, honest, hardworking men in a world full of horrible people. They take advantage of you, but you all feel like you have to be the good guys, because that’s what we taught you.”
He stood up from the chair and took the dishes over to the sink. They fell into an old sink with a clatter as he spoke again.
“Do you remember when you tried out for wrestling, Banjo?”
“I’d rather not,” Ben said with a snigger, “I don’t remember ever being closer to eating my own ankles.”
“That’s all you remember?” Bob said with a little chuckle, reaching into the fridge and pulling out two Rolling Rocks, “And I thought you had the good memory.”
“I’ve got a good enough memory to remember I don’t like Rolling Rock,” Ben shot back with a smirk, “You’ve got a Yuengling in there, I hope?”
“Bock.”
“That’s my brand.”
Bob pulled out a third bottle and gave his son one, keeping the two pale ales for himself.
“So what’s this about my ridiculously brief career as an elementary school wrestler?” Ben asked, taking a pull, “All I remember is losing, and losing hard to a kid one third my size.”
“Heh,” Bob scoffed and opened his own beer, “You know what I remember? I remember that scrawny little pissant trying like hell to knock you down, but he couldn’t move you. He was some from hotshot wrestling family in town and you, being the weird little kid you were, knew that. You took a fall like SD Jones and let that kid cover you up. He wasn’t going to knock you over, not without a wrecking ball.”
“But why in the hell would I do that?” Ben asked, relishing in the ability to now use words like “hell” in front of his parents.
“You probably felt bad for the little wiener,” again, Ben was shocked to see a different side to his father, “That’s why I said we raised you boys wrong. Can you remember what your mother and I used to tell you about getting in fights? You used to get in a lot of fights when you were little, you know.”
“I remember a few. I had a hell of a temper.”
“And what did we always tell you?”
Ben smiled wolfishly over his beer bottle.
“You’ve got to be careful, Ben. You’re bigger than the other boys. You don’t want to hurt them.”
“Not just bigger,” Bob had finished the Rolling Rock with alarming speed and moved on to another, “But smarter. Remember when Dan chewed out his high school history teacher?”
“It was the guy’s fault,” Ben protested, “He couldn’t pronounce ‘Copernicus,’ for crying out loud.”
“Or the stories Tom used to write in his English classes? Damn crazy things, weren’t they?”
“I often wonder what his teachers thought about those.”
“They didn’t have a thought, the clueless fucks!”
The two dissolved into laughter and beer, spending the rest of the night sharing stories like Tom’s many head injuries growing up on the farm, Ben’s faked eighth-grade science project (which had heretofore never been revealed), and Dan’s habit of taking longer and longer to change after coming home from school, leading Bob to send the boy out one day to do his chores in nothing but his underwear. By the time the girls got home, Bob and Ben were snoring brilliantly on the sofa and loveseat, respectively, while Billy Joel’s Allentown blared from the stereo on repeat.
“Sheesh,” Lucy remarked as she set about trying to wake Ben, “I didn’t think I’d be the sober one tonight.”
“I still wouldn’t give you that much,” Claire noted as Lucy flopped onto the loveseat, still on top of her husband, “why don’t you two stay here tonight? We’ve got a spare room, though I don’t think you’ll be getting Banjo up there tonight.”
“I can’t,” Lucy wailed, “I have work tomorrow.”
“Yeah, you told me about that,” Claire rose from trying to rouse Bob and stood before her daughter-in-law, arms akimbo.
“How many days have you worked in a row, Lucy?”
“I dunno.”
“How many?”
“…a lot.”
“Is it more than five?”
“…yeah.”
“Then you park that little ass on the loveseat, girl,”  Claire said in a very no-nonsense tone, “You’re part of this family now, so expect to be treated like one!”
“But–!”
“No buts!” Claire was obviously enjoying herself now, “I know your family are a bunch of big to-do’s down in Lancaster, but all you gotta do in this family is show some common sense. Remind me, who do you work for at the courthouse?”
“Well, I’m a liaison for the Historical Society…”
“Tom still in charge there?”
“Who?!”
“Dr. Ryan?”
“Uh… yeah…”
“I’ll call him tomorrow. You’ll be fine.”
“A…are you sure?!”
“I developed most of the preservation equipment in the prints and paintings gallery,” she said with a small smirk, “he owes me.”
“I, uh…”
The night of Appletinis and other Bomb-Pop flavored drinks was starting to take its toll on Lucy. Within five minutes, any kind of protest she could have drummed up was ultimately drowned out by a sleep that was one part alcohol and five parts overworking. Claire surveyed the scene in front of her like some feudal warlord, bodies strewn in her midst. She inhaled deeply and let out a very satisfied sigh.
“Ah. My work here is done.”
Any thoughts of superiority, however, were quickly cut short by a violent reaction in her midsection caused by one too many Old Fashioneds.
“Ugh,” she grumbled, not remember the last time she’d even been out for a drink, “I’d better take a bucket to bed.”

Brony

“Your job is frustrating, no doubt,” doctor Dalton noted, “Tell me, how did you wind up there?”
“Well, when Putterman died, I didn’t have much choice,” Ben shrugged from his position on a sofa, “No one else would give my research the time of day, and I had to pay the bills. I’d been doing odd jobs when that one came across: the pay is good, but the drive’s a bitch and, well, you just heard pretty much everything I hate about the place.”
“You feel unfulfilled?”
“That’s a good way of putting it,” Ben replied with a sarcastic smile. There was a small pause there. Dalton was hoping he would keep talking, but he didn’t.
“Would you mind if we talked a bit more about your… mentor, Ben?”
“Who, Putz? I guess,” Ben rolled his eyes, “I’ve pretty much told you everything, though.”
“He was your supervisor, your main influence in both research and practical implications, but his work was discredited not long after your graduation and he killed himself.”
“That’s the long and short of it.”
“How did you feel around him?”
“I don’t know,” Ben shrugged, “Like I belonged, I guess. Like there was someone out there who liked all the same stuff I did, who wanted to work right on the edge of everything and either make the biggest discoveries or turn up bust… but at least we would have tried.”
“And you don’t feel like that now? At your present job?”
“Are you kidding?” Ben snorted, “I routinely goof off for half an hour at a time. I broke their internet filter about a month into working there, so I can pretty much just goof off most of the time if I want to. No one seems to notice as long as I don’t make too much noise. Of course once in a while they have to search for something I’m doing wrong to make themselves seem relevant.”
“You’re very bitter, Ben,” Dalton tapped a pen to his lower lip, “Have you always been that way?”
“Pretty much,” he laughed, “I got in big trouble back in elementary school for saying that all the cute girls were dumb and the brainy ones weren’t much to look at.”
“Oh, my.”
“Yeah!” Ben kept on sniggering.
“In elementary school?”
“Yup. I can clearly remember watching a boy and girl sharing their bubblegum because, y’know, they were dating… what a crock when you’re ten, right? Anyway, I can remember watching them and saying to myself ‘he doesn’t deserve her.’ I was ten! TEN! Can you believe that?”
“Well, you did have two older brothers, right?”
“Yep.”
“And did they often talk down to you? Treat you like a child?”
Ben thought for a while on that.
“Nah, I can’t really remember them doing that. I remember once, I was playing SNES football and Dan sat down next to me. He started talking for, like, half an hour about how you shouldn’t give a girl diamonds in high school. I was, like, twelve at the time, but I guess I took his advice. I never had an official girlfriend all through high school.”
“Official?”
“A lot of romantic abortions, if you’ll pardon the term.”
“Understood. Your family is close, then?”
“I guess. I mean, we talk. I call my family a lot, I text them, I like to keep in touch. They are people that understand me, we all seem to be on the same wavelength when it comes to religion, or politics, or stuff like that. I can talk to them about pretty much anything. It’s always nice to have a chat with them and know I’m not the only crazy one, y’know? Instead, I guess we’re a whole crazy family.”
“And what about your wife?”
“I want to involve her in my family, but she seems scared of them, sometimes. Can you believe that?”
“I can.”
“Really?” Ben sat up a bit, “Why?”
“If you are any indication, Ben,” Dalton leaned forward in his chair, “Your family are very intense people.”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“Nothing,” Dalton sat back again, “nothing, really. It just doesn’t set well with a lot of people around here. There’s a certain type of culture in this area, you see…”
“White Anglo Saxon Protestant?” Ben snickered.
“That’s one way of putting it,” Dalton tried badly to hide a smile, “Your family probably doesn’t have a lot of local friends, I’m assuming.”
“Not really, now that I think about it,” Ben pursed his lips, “that’s weird, now, I guess… I guess most of the folks down in Lancaster aren’t used to my Mom’s Gypsy blood.”
“You never mentioned that before, Ben,” Dalton noted, “Your mother was a gypsy?”
“Not anymore, but her family was.”
“I see…”
“Does that really mean anything?” Ben sat up again, fixing the doctor with a scrutinizing glare.
“It could.”
“Bullshit.”
Doctor Dalton actually laughed then, and it took a bit to quiet everything down.
“Hrm, sorry,” he said, still smiling, “I don’t usually get that. Anyway, I’d like to ask you a question, if I may.”
“That’s what you’re getting paid for.”
“I’m guessing you don’t have many friends, either.”
“Got it in one,” Ben’s voice was thick with snark, “But that’s not a question.”
“Quite,” Dalton nodded, “Do you consider friends to be like family to you?”
“I’m not quite sure what you mean, Doc.”
“Do you keep your few friends very close? Are they like brothers and sisters?”
“I suppose so… but most of my friends are my brothers and sisters.”
“Sisters-in-law, I suppose?”
“Technically,” Ben replied, “but we don’t like to think of them like that… at least, I don’t.”
“How about Professor Putterman? Was he like family?”
“Well, he would have made a pretty good crazy uncle. There’s always a crazy uncle, y’know? My craziest would probably be my Uncle Joe. He speaks in an English accent, and no one really knows why. Yeah, I’d say Putz would have made a good crazy uncle.”
“Does his death still upset you?”
“That’s a pretty dumb question to ask,” Ben lowered his eyebrows with scrutiny, “I usually don’t go a few days without thinking about it.”
“And what do you think about?”
“Oh, how he did it, what happened, what it looked like, sounded like… gruesome, I know, but I… I feel like I should know. He never had any kids… I guess I felt kind of like his son at times… I just wish I could have known what was going on in his head, why he did it. He always seemed so confident, especially when we’d argue back and forth. He voted for Bush… twice! We used to argue for hours… and it was great.”
“Have you made any contact since the death?”
Ben was quiet for a long time. His breathing labored a little.
“No. I kept telling myself it would have been too long after to write a letter, or make a phone call. I don’t even know where he’s buried. I still want to see it, though… I’d like a sense of closure.”
“You said you felt like Putterman’s son… were you as close with your father as the rest of your family?”
“Nope. Dad was always pretty distant. He always seemed preoccupied, he was always running late… it was hard to count on him. I talked to my Mom a couple of days ago, and I think I might know why he was, now…”
“May I ask?”
“I don’t think I can talk about that. Not right now.”
“Understood. If Putterman felt like a father, do you feel you’ll repeat your ‘father’s’ mistakes?”
“You mean…?”
Ben mimed putting a gun to his head.
“Perhaps,” Dalton replied.
“It is a little worrisome, I’ll admit,” Ben put his hand down, immediately regretting the pantomime, “I mean, I’m probably feeling the same things he did, and I know I get the urge every once in a while… the world just seems to screwed up, is there anything I can do about it?”
“I don’t know… can you?”
Ben turned and looked Dalton squarely in the eye. The doctor raised both of his eyebrows, and Ben smiled.
“I think we’re about done for the day, Ben. I’ll see you next week, my secretary will see you out as always.”
“I won’t be going anywhere quite yet,” Ben said as he approached the door. The doctor held it open for him as he walked into the lobby.
“My car’s in the shop, so my wife’s coming by to pick me up.”
“Your wife…” Dalton mused, “You don’t talk about her much during our sessions.
“I come here to talk to you about my problems,” Ben said drily, opening the door, “And she’s not one of ’em.”
“Oh?”
“She’s perfect.”
Ben gave him a massive grin and closed the door. About five minutes later, he was in the car with Lucy, heading to a local body shop.
“So, how did it go?”
“He’s not as big of a wiener as I originally would have thought.”
“I guess for you, that’s a recommendation.”
“You got it, toots.”
“So, seeing as how we’re bankrupting ourselves to fix the car you so lovingly crashed into a concrete pylon at a gas station last night,” she turned to him with an overly large smile on her face, “Why don’t we go out for dinner as well?”
“Actually, hon, I have to run to my parents’ house quick tonight… HONEY! RED LIGHT!”
The little Hyundai screeched to a halt five feet past the crosswalk and, with an angry snuffle, Lucy slammed it in reverse and crept backwards. There was a tense silence for a few moments before Ben sighed, heavily.
“Okay, that’s the ‘I’m angry’ face I’m getting from you right now, what’s up?”
“I ask you if you want to go out for a nice meal,” her words were said as tightly as the grip she had on the steering wheel, “And you bring up your parents again. How many times is that, THIS WEEK, that you’re going out to see them, huh?”
“I didn’t realize–”
Of course you didn’t!” Lucy shook the steering wheel a little, expressing her frustration and then finally seeming to collapse with her forehead between her hands.
“There are times it’s like you’re in a different world, Ben. You’re so distant sometimes, so distracted. I’m supposed to be here for you, I’m supposed to fill that need for companionship, I’m supposed to be your new family. Sometimes I feel like you’d rather be at home with your parents than out with me. Your wife.
The light turned green, and the Hyundai eased forward.
“Jesus, Luce,” Ben shook his head, “If that was bothering you so much, why didn’t you say so?”
“Because you always look so happy with your family,” she replied, “but when you’re at home all you do is complain about work and bitch at the TV and sometimes, if I’m lucky, you’ll crawl into bed and kiss me goodnight. We’re barely into our marriage, Ben, and I need to know… is this how it’s going to be?”
He could hear her voice starting to quaver, and saw the area around her eyes redden. He reached over and took her right hand off the steering wheel, holding it tightly.
“I am so, so sorry. I really had no idea…”
“I know you didn’t.”
She took her other hand off the steering wheel to wipe away a tear, and the car began to veer. Thankfully, she caught the wheel in time, but it didn’t stop Ben from experiencing a moment of panic.
“It’s just… it’s just a little hard to deal with, sometimes.”
Ben turned away from his wife and looked hard out of the window. They drove past the gas station last night where Ben said he’d damaged the door on his car, but the pit of his stomach churned as he knew it was a lie. Still, who could he tell about it? The exhilarating feel of mashing the gas pedal, the adrenaline rush of bearing down on the mugger, the satisfaction of timing everything just right… the satisfying, sickening thud his body had made with the metal of the door. It had been like a Symphony. He remembered bringing the car to a halt, and watching the middle aged woman retrieve her purse from the man, now lying on the ground in agony. She had waved to him, and promptly spat on the mugger.
They both went their separate ways. No one had called an ambulance.
“You sh0uldn’t have to deal with it,” he replied, still looking out the window. No darkly-clad lump of humanity on the street, no police tape. He must have survived.
Pity?
They pulled into the body shop, and Ben sidled up to the counter.
“98 Intrepid, Dark Blue?”
An unkempt, but kindly tossed him his keys. Surprised, Ben bobbled them and had to pick them up.
“Don’t I have to pay?”
The man leaned over the counter and whispered. His breath, surprisingly, was minty fresh behind a bedraggled beard.
“That was my wife you saved last night, kid. It’s on the house.”
He gave a wink and shooed Ben out of the shop. He found his car behind the shop, shining in the late afternoon sun. He pulled it round front and parked, walking back over to his wife and beckoning her to roll down the window.
“Well, how much did they gouge you?”
“It was very reasonable,” he replied flatly.
“Uh-huh,” she smirked, “I’ll believe that when I see the bill.”
Any further comments she had planned were stifled when Ben leaned through the window and gave her a short, but passionate kiss. When their faces parted, he looked deep into his wife’s beautiful eyes and whispered intensely.
“Don’t ever think I don’t value you. If it wasn’t for you, I’d be dead– no, don’t roll your eyes, I mean it. I’m sorry for the way I act, and the way I’ve been acting. Lucy, with you in my life, everything close to me is perfect. My job sucks, yes, but I come home to you and when my home is perfect, that means I can focus on a bigger picture. I never have to worry about you, but I know now that I need to focus on you more. Just understand, please understand, that it’s because of you that I feel like I could take on the world, because at the end of the day, I know you’re always there. Okay?”
She nodded dumbly, her eyes still sparkling with surprise and joy.
“Let’s go out to that steakhouse I know you like. I’ll cut out of work early tomorrow and go get that stuff from my parents, okay?”
“Can you do that?” she whispered, a smile creeping onto her face.
“Dunno,” he grinned back, “but I might as well try.”
“Okay,” her grin broke now, and she nodded happily, “I’ll meet you at Charlie Brown’s.”
“See you there,” Ben winked. He went to leave, but then stuck his head back into the window abruptly.
“Oh, and honey? If I come home with a box full of old comic books and start lurking around eBay… just go with it, okay?”
“Don’t I always?” she smiled back.
“I love you,” Ben said in an awed tone of voice, shaking his head as if he couldn’t believe his luck. In all actual fact, he couldn’t.
“I love you, too.

Cheddarwurst

“Hey, Ma?”
Ben was heading back up the ladder out of the garage cave when he noticed a “do not enter” sign on what appeared to be a blank wall.
“What’s with this? Someone’s idea of a joke?”
“Not exactly,” his mother called down, halfway up the ladder already, “Move over and I’ll show you.”
Claire descended the ladder again, stepping off the top of the refrigerator and onto the landing. She knelt down on the wooden landing and a sharp crack issued from her back. She stopped halfway to the landing and winced.
“Ben, honey… can you reach under there? There should be a switch tucked into the woodwork. I’m… not going to chance it on this knee.”
It was a curious feeling that washed over Ben as he watched his Mother slowly rise to her feet, rubbing the side of her knee. He’d never really thought about it before, but his mother was in her Fifties now. She’d spent nearly thirty years working beside Dad on the farm, that work was bound to take its toll. Still, he could remember playing  softball and basketball with his family, parents included, all through childhood. Around the time he entered Junior High, there was less time to play with Mom and Dad, and by high school the idea was almost laughable. Still, he’s always taken it for granted that Mom and Dad were always, well, Mom and Dad, and if he had decided to hang that basketball hoop over the garage again, they’d be game for a shootaround. But now, seeing his Mother like this, it was finally starting to show him that his Mother was getting… old.
“You okay, Ma?” he asked, a little shaken.
“Got kicked by a heifer a few months back,” Claire smiled around the nagging sensation, “I keep forgetting about that, though…”
“Well, at least you can eat her if she gives you too much trouble,” Ben grinned as he knelt down and began searching under the landing for the switch, “You couldn’t do that with us kids when we were too much of a handful.”
“As far as you know,” he heard Claire reply above his head, “poor Billy.”
Ben popped his head back up over the landing and shared a smile with his Mother before flipping the switch. In an instant there was another, different sound of whirring machinery and a section of the back wall slid away. Claire descended the stairs and entered the blackness. He heard her hand slap around for a few moments on bare concrete before it found purchase, punching an old industrial button-style light switch. The entire cave was now  filled with a cacophony of humming brought on by several antiquated fluorescent lights that buzzed to life in the new room. Ben took a few steps inside and was surprised to find it a rather small room, holding only what seemed to be an old NASA control panel and a massive metal structure only a few yards away.
“Okay,” Ben put both hands in his pockets and took a look around, more than a little confused, “so we’ve got something bought from Dr. No’s garage sale and a giant Faraday Cage?”
“Not exactly,” Claire replied.
“If this is a Panic Room, it’s the worst one I’ve ever seen,” Ben laughed at his own joke, “I mean, I know people were paranoid during the Cold War, but this is ridiculous.”
“Ben,” Claire blew a few cobwebs off the console and beckoned her son to come closer, “Come take a look at this.”
“Is this where we hold the world ransom?” Ben was feeling in better spirits, and was starting to more readily accept the fantastic as real. It had been unbelievable, at first, but now it seemed to make sense, and almost seemed comforting.
“It’s nice to see you taking this in stride,” Claire said as she punched an enormous power switch. Another, louder hum filled the room now, and as Ben approached the console he could hear a cyclical noise emanating from the console. Something in there seemed to be spinning.
“Do you know what this is?” she asked, gesturing to the myriad of buttons and switches. Ben looked over each of them in turn.
“Containment matrix… field generator… hard light constructor… plasma manipulator…”
The more he read out loud, the wider and wider his eyes got, until he finally stared back up at this Mother with a saucer-wide expression.
“Ma… this…”
“Yes?” Claire grinned.
“This… does this work?”
“It had to.”
“But this…” Ben started running his fingers over each of the controls on the console, every atom of his being wishing to switch and flick and press them into oblivion, as if they controlled some wonderful drug in his system.
“This is what I spent two years researching in college! This is in the first draft of my thesis! This is…this is a panoramic…”
“A panoramic plasma waveform hard light field generator,” his mother answered for him, smiling proudly, “Where do you think Putz got some of his ideas, anyway?”
“I don’t believe this!” Ben marveled, “When did you make it?”
“About 1974,” she replied.
“Good grief,” Ben shook his head, “This stuff was just imagination, even when I was in school. Putterman tried for years to get something like this to work, said he had trouble getting the right plasma cores for proper construction.”
“Well, honey,” Claire reached over and flipped the power switch off. The machine let out a low moan as everything began to slow back down, making the machine sound almost lonely.
“Most people don’t have a superhero for a husband. I was able to gain access to a few things Professor Putterman wasn’t.”
The console was finally starting to get quiet enough that the fluorescent lights reigned over silence again.
“It was the damndest thing, though,” Claire chuckled, “Never could make it any quieter. I’m glad we only used it once or twice, or that humming would have driven me nuts.”
“What did you use it for, anyway?” Ben asked, “Does it have anything to do with that cage?”
“It has everything to do with that cage, “Claire jerked her head in the direction of the metal mesh column, “Ben, that was how we extracted your father’s powers into the two rings.”
“That makes sense, then,” Ben nodded, “All the concrete, the bunker feeling of this whole place… I bet handling that much power was more than a little dangerous. I’m guessing you used that console to create a rudimentary force field, then?”
“Absolutely,” Claire replied, “Mighty Menorah worked for the Pentagon, and he got me the blueprints on the fly for the cage. The government set up bunkers all over the country, in complete confidentiality, for heroes to hand in their capes. A bunch of ’em got government jobs like my brother, the only problem was…”
“Yeah?” Ben was currently admiring the cage as his mother continued.
“Superpowers are, for lack of a better word, bonded to the ‘soul.’ When you went to remove supermen and women of their powers, it was like cleaving off parts of their soul. My brother got off lucky: he developed a few nervous disorders, but nothing major. But then there were those like MachMan… he used to be the fastest man on the planet, but the process broke his back. He never used his legs again. MiniMite was stuck at ten centimeters tall for the rest of her life, so she spent her career checking for flaws or breaks on experimental government aircraft. Whirlpool didn’t know she was pregnant when she went in, and she ended up losing the baby.”
“So why did Dad choose to do it this way?” Ben reached out to touch the cage and got a nasty static shock. He recoiled, shaking his hand and grimacing.
“The government had so many regulations and rules they wanted all the heroes to follow, and your father wasn’t quite sure he was ready to quit quite yet. He liked the idea of the rings because, if he had to, he could still do it. It hurt him something awful, though. This wasn’t just splitting his soul into two parts, but three: one for him and two for each of the rings. He wasn’t all that interested in letting the government take custody of his powers, either. I used the forcefield to protect myself, as he almost brought this entire complex down on our heads more than once. I can still remember him screaming, bolting him down so he wouldn’t destroy the cage, drugging him up as much as I dared, and it still wasn’t enough. At one point, I had to pull so much power to the cage that it drained the field. Your father let out a blast of energy that threw me across the room, and I hit the wall hard enough to knock me out for a day or two. When I came to, your father wouldn’t stop crying, and my back hasn’t been right since.”
Ben flashed back to almost an hour ago, when he saw him Mom rub her knee but heard the crack come from her back. How had he never noticed that before?
“We always tried to keep all of this from you kids,” Claire grunted as she rubbed at her lower back, “We didn’t want any of you to worry. There were a few times: Rodney King, Desert Storm… your father begged for me to give him the rings. I told him no, and he understood, but he used to be so passionate, so loud… something in that process was taken from him, and there are days I feel like that feeling of something missing got passed onto you boys.”
They left the room and closed the moving wall, once again in the main room of the bunker. Ben turned to his mother and asked a question that had burned within him for some time.
“Ma, can I talk to Dan and Tom about this?”
Claire sighed and sat down on the bottom step leading down from the landing.
“You can try, but none of them really like to talk about it anymore.”
“How ’bout Dad?”
“I wouldn’t.”
Her response was immediate and direct, almost surprisingly so.
“It hurts him to think about those days, now… he barely ever comes down here anymore.”
“Well,” Ben ran a hand through his hair, more than a little nervous with the serious turn things had taken, “Is there anything else you want to tell me?”
“No,” Claire shook her head, “No, I think that’s about it. Does that help, Ben?”
“Yeah, it does. A lot.”
Ben looked up at the hole they’d entered through. He could tell it was night outside now; he wondered how long they’d been down here. He’d better get home, too, Lucy was no doubt waiting for him.
“Look, Ma, I’d better get…”
“I know, I know. Go ahead and let yourself out. I think I’m going to stay down here a while.”
She looked up at him, and he finally began to notice the various lines and wrinkles that were on his mother’s face. He didn’t like it.
“It’s been forever since I cleaned down here, anyway.”
“You sure you’ll be all right down here?”
“I’ll be fine… I’ll be fine”
Ben climbed the stairs leading to the landing and the ladder, and stopped at the bottom rung.
“You know, Ma… all that technology is downright archaic. I bet, if we could get some cash together, we could shrink it down, I bet. Pretty substantially, too.”
“Huh, yeah,” Claire gave a hard laugh, but a smile was finally returning to her face, “But then what would I do with all my punch cards?”
They shared one more laugh and Ben mounted the ladder. He made sure to give Putz a rub behind the ears on his way out, and to wave to his father. Bob Graf was in the process of making himself a sandwich by the kitchen window, spoiling his dinner completely. By the time Ben was halfway home, his stomach finally clocked that he hadn’t had much more to eat than a can of soda and some toast at breakfast time. By the time he returned home to a comfortable, if cramped apartment, Lucy was snoring softly, curled up on the couch. Ben leaned down and gave her a soft kiss on the cheek. She woke up soon after.
“Hey, honey,” she smiled, rubbing her eyes and getting mascara everywhere in the process, “you just get home?”
“Yeah, sorry,” Ben shrugged, “You know how my family gets when they’re talking. How was the support group?”
“We’re thinking this will become a regular thing,” she beamed back before bounding off the couch to wrap her husband in a massive hug. As she did, she noticed a woeful paperboard boat behind Ben’s back on the dining room table, still smeared with a few telltale gobs of ketchup.
“Benjamin, what is that?” she asked, arms akimbo. Ben threw up his palms in defense.
“It’s nothing, I just… I needed gas on the way home, and they had a special on these sausage things, and I hadn’t eaten all night, and I knew you’d be out and about, so I just grabbed one.”
Lucy sidled up close and regarded him with squinted, judging eyes.
“And you didn’t get me one?”
Ben responded by kissing her full on the lips with such force that his wife squealed with a mixture of surprise and glee. When he finally released her, Lucy took a moment to catch her breath.
“Wow!” she giggled, twirling some of her hair busily around one finger, “What brought that on?”
Ben lifted his wife into a Fireman’s carry, which only made her squeal again and continue giggling.
“I’m happy, Luce. I’m just… really happy.”
His good mood continued to work the next day. He was at one of the many desks he rotated between when his supervisor interrupted him in the middle of a customer service call.
“I’m sorry, can you hold? Yes, thank you.”
Ben pressed the button and spun his chair round. The boss was a well-fed, but not obese man in a Hawaiian shirt and Dockers. He spoke with the practiced friendliness of years’ experience in customer service.
“Hello there, Ben.”
“Hi, Mr. Wallace.”
“I just wanted to let you know that,” he steepled his short fingers, “we were supposed to have a meeting, you and I, about five minutes ago in room 441A. Just your standard productivity meeting for the last month… you know how it goes.”
“Yup, I know Mr. Wallace. However, I sent an email to the scheduling chief to let you know that I wouldn’t be in that day. In fact, I came back to work early from my honeymoon because of some complications. I’m not even technically scheduled to work.”
“Are you sure, Ben, because…”
“Just a sec.”
Ben felt bad quieting his superior, but he spun back around and left a pleasant message for the person on the other end of the line before transferring him to another rep. After that, he pulled open his email and began to open up several emails between him and the scheduling chief, confirming his story.
“Ohh!” Mr. Wallace adjusted his small glasses and peered at the monitor, “I didn’t know you were getting married!”
“I mentioned it on my application,” Ben tried not to grit his teeth, “I made sure to take the time off months before I even had to, just so everyone would know.”
“Oh, well I’ll see if I can get the President of the Sunshine Fund to give you a little something. Still…since you’re here…”
Thirty seconds later, Ben found himself in room 441A.
“Well, you’re doing very well, Ben. Very well. You only started working here?”
“You interviewed me,” Ben was struggling to keep his voice level, “it was only a few months ago.”
“Oh… well, your hair was shorter then. Anyway, I’m seeing a few little, niggling, tiny things we should probably review.”
Ben spent the next fifteen minutes being told and re-clarified and re-re-clarified on things such as leaving a word off the title of a report, not giving the proper greeting to a customer, and not having his shirt tucked in at all times. At one point, Ben was able to glance at his performance and customer satisfaction numbers as the supervisor was shuffling between computer windows. He was well above the mean average for a regular employee, let alone a new one. After a few more forced pleasantries, Ben rose to leave, but Mr. Wallace had one more thing to say.
“Ben, I heard from some of the people in the office that you don’t like wearing shoes.”
“What?”
“There have been… reports of you not wearing shoes at your desk.”
“Okay, maybe once or twice. I had an itch, I think. Is this a problem?”
“Well… it could be a fire hazard.”
Ben’s face fell.
“Not wearing shoes.”
“If there was an emergency, your stocking feet might get stepped on.”
“I wouldn’t exactly stop running.”
“Still…” Mr. Wallace dragged the ending of the word out into a sibilant hiss, “we’d appreciate it if you wore shoes. It is part of the dress code after all… like tucking your shirt in.”
Ben swallowed fifteen angry retorts and nodded.
“Understood.”
He exited 441A and went back to his desk for the day, passing several women wearing flip flops and several men with untucked shirts. He picked up another call immediately when he sat down.
“Thank you for calling the Help Center, Mr. Johanssen. How can I help you? Uh-huh… yes… okay… ah, right! Have you made sure the device is in the on position? The power switch is a little tricky to locate, you just have to…uh-huh…yep… turn that on and let it boot up. Could you hold for just one moment? Thanks.”
Ben put the man on hold and let out an anguished squeal, whipping off his headset and microphone and miming performing hara-kiri with it. Afterwards, he took one long, calming breath and picked up the call.
“Mr. Johanssen? Yes, is it up now? All right, sounds good. Well, I’m going to go ahead and close this ticket, but if there are any more problems… any kind of problem, don’t hesitate to ask, okay. Okay. Thanks. Goodbye.”
He hung up the call and cried.

Putz

That garage was always a joke: small, and cramped, with the walls lined with everything from rakes to hoses to grubhoes to the old basketball hoop that used to sit bolted into the cheap siding over the rickety twin doors. Above Claire’s modest Nissan and Bob’s sturdy old Chevrolet pickup, there was a veritable time capsule of the Graf boys’ childhood: a disassembled trampoline, summer water toys long since past their use, and box after box of antiquated sports equipment. All in all, it was a sad, but functional little building on a cracked slab of concrete, overshadowed by the large, beautiful farmhouse that stood not thirty yards away. At one point, an insurance agent had refused to cover the house if they left the garage standing, for fear a swift breeze might pick up the building and send it crashing into the side of the house. If only he’d seen the interior of the garage, he’d known it was far too weighed down to go anywhere.
“Geez, Ma,” Ben said as he entered and skirted around an old barrel full of cracked and fading baseball bats, “Aren’t you ever going to clean this place out?”
“Are you kidding?” Claire replied, heading to the back of the building that housed the refrigerator Ben remembered from the kitchen of his childhood, “Now that all you kids are out and starting families, your father and I are far too old and feeble to possibly clean this out.”
“That hug didn’t feel old and feeble.”
“Well then,” Claire pulled open the door on the old Sears special, “Consider it my first step to becoming that crazy old lady who hoards old copies of Newsweek or something.”
“You’ll need more cats for that,” Ben replied with a roll of his eyes. As if on cue, an enormous tabby cat padded into the garage, meowing anxiously.
“Putz!” Claire exclaimed. The cat immediately picked up fluffy, tufted ears at the sound of his name. With alarming speed, he waddled swiftly across the concrete slab and began animatedly rubbing against Claire’s ankles, purring loudly enough that Ben heard him across the breadth of the building.
“I can’t believe you’re still looking after that butterball,” Ben regarded the cat curiously, “and he’s keeping pretty well, by the look of it.”
The cat was now rolled over on its back, allowing Claire to rub its ample belly.
“Well, he’s sure not the bag of bones that wandered in here three years ago,” Claire noted, poking the cat’s belly with a grin. The cat sprung playfully into attack mode, kicking at her hand and play-biting clear to her wrist, never once breaking the skin.
“And I can’t believe you still call him that.”
Ben found his arms crossing in front of his chest automatically, and he didn’t like it.
“What, Putz?”
“Short for Putterman?” Ben raised his eyebrows, “As in Scott Putterman, my old professor?”
“He was a good man, Banjo,” the cat finally released Claire’s hand and set about licking himself instead, “A damn good man. I know you wanted to do something for him when he… passed away.”
“And so we did gave him the highest honor we could think of,” Ben sniggered, “naming a cat after him.”
“You had other cats named Ringo and Janis,” Claire shrugged, “it was a fair tribute.”
“Feels weird.”
“Why?”
“Because,” Ben finally resolved to jam his hands in his pockets, “Because it makes me remember.”
“You shouldn’t forget.”
“Maybe I should, Ma,” Ben sighed, walking over to the fridge and taking the soda she offered. The sun’s last rays were just shooting through a maple tree in the backyard, streaming deep, gold patterns into the garage from a purple and reddening sky.
“Maybe I should. Maybe I should just forget all those big, stupid ideas I have and go get some soul-sucking, middle management job and just… give up. I mean, it’s good for millions of people, so why isn’t it good enough for me? Why do I feel like I’m someone special, huh? Why do I feel like I have to somehow change the world at my job when so many others have to punch the clock?”
Claire let him talk, and when it looked like he would come up for air, she smiled and offered a response. Putz had now taken up residence on top of the refrigerator, casting a baleful eye down on the two humans who were not paying him enough attention.
“Ben, I’m going to say this only because  it’s true, and I’m a scientist. When a scientists says something is true, you have to believe it, okay?”
“Okay…”
“Ben…”
She put an arm on her son’s shoulder, a good seven inches higher than hers.
“You are special.”
“Thank you, Barney the Dinosaur.”
“Figures,” Claire said dismissively, cracking open her can of soda, “Mom says something and you all shrug and say ‘pffft, that’s just Mom.’ I’m sure if your father said this, you’d be mooning over the whole thing, right?”
“Moooom…” Ben began to whine, but Claire cut him off.
“Do you want another soda?”
Ben’s head snapped forward quickly, utterly confused by the non-sequitur. He glanced down at the can in his hand which, puzzlingly, hadn’t even been opened yet.
“Um,” Ben’s face was screwed tight in mounting confusion, “No, Ma, I–”
“I think you want another soda.”
She opened the fridge again, reaching far inside, all the way to the back. She moved aside a garish can of Ultro Soda, complete with antiquated pop-top, and pressed what looked to be a small, white button recessed into the white material of the fridge interior. In an instant, there was a loud hissing noise, and Putz bolted from the top of the appliance to parts unknown with a terrified yowl. Meanwhile, the refrigerator began to slowly lower itself into the floor via hydraulic lift, leaving a square hole in the concrete floor. A ladder lead down into an antechamber that was slowly filling with light, courtesy of motion sensors. Claire handed her soda to Ben and mounted the ladder, quickly disappearing into the floor until only her head appeared above ground.
“Well?” she said with a grin, “Aren’t you coming?”
Ben’s head spun around with lightning speed, checking to see if the coast was clear, or for some sign that he had, in fact, gone insane. All he saw was the bric-a-brac of his childhood days and the frightened face of a fat tabby peeking gingerly through the nearby window. He held both hands to his temples and tried to calm his breathing, which had accelerated to a fevered pace in only a few short minutes. His head was pounding, he felt as if his brain might turn to liquid waste at any moment. He had seen his brother perform feats of amazing strength, and he had heard the voice of his other brother inside his own mind, but now, standing on the edge, right before that descent, he began to falter. Maybe it was all a joke. Maybe this was all a strange dream and he’d wake up back in high school, or college, or on the day of his wedding again. Ben had always accepted that there were masked vigilantes who protected humanity beyond the power of the law, but when it came to his own family being those behind the masks, he couldn’t stop the world from spinning. There was a war raging inside his head: one side fought for the entrenched reality, the continuation of life as it was. There was no telling what lay beyond. There were so many risks, so many worries, so many problems that could happen if he simply climbed down that ladder… how could he possibly do it? On the other hand, there was the desire to descend: it felt intoxicating, electrifying, as powerful as the night he had proposed to Lucy. There was a feeling of power, of control, of destiny, and it was unavoidable. In his mind’s eye, Ben saw a great collection of men, each resembling him, arguing on the floor of some psychological senate. The radicals would not be put down, no matter how many counter-arguments the logicals could muster. It was always go, go, go. Make it happen. Make it happen now. Ben took a deep breath, and descended the ladder.
It was exactly what he had expected. Or, at least, what the comics had always shown. It was another simple room, much like the garage that they had just exited. One wall still held the newspaper clippings, magazine articles, and other press for Ultro and his sons, all encased behind sealed glass above a work bench. On the opposite wall from the ladder, there were three immaculate glass cases holding costumes for each of the family heroes, and the third wall was covered in padding and reinforced due to the several punching bags and training equipment placed before it. The decor was plain, bomb-shelter gray, the lights hard and fluorescent. After roughly ten feet,  he reached the end of the ladder, he stepped off onto a landing and took a few more steps down a small flight of stairs. As soon as he reached another concrete floor, the hiss began again and there was a whirr of machinery as the refrigerator slowly raised itself back into the garage.
“I know it’s not what you were expecting,” Claire said, pulling out a couple of folding chairs from the near corner. She was setting them up when Ben made his way over, walking gingerly, unsure of every footstep. As he helped her set up a simple folding card table, he made his movements slow and deliberate, as if afraid that one move too many would bring this entire fantasy come to life crashing down around his ears.
“The comics made it look really snazzy,” Claire laughed, setting her soda down on the table, “All bells and whistles. Really, all Bob ever needed was a police scanner and a decent TV reception.”
She gestured to the workbench, where an antiquated black and white TV sat.
“Bet the thing doesn’t even work anymore,” she said with a bit of melancholy, “with the digital changeover and all.”
She turned back to her son, who was still utterly shell-shocked.
“You boys never change,” she grinned, reaching over to pop the top on his soda, “Tom and Dan did the same thing, I guess it’s a lot to handle. Lord knows it took my years to get used to it, but I married the guy. That comes with the territory.”
Ben jumped when the soda crackled open, and immediately began to furiously rub at his eyes.
“Sorry, Ma,” he grumbled, “I’m feeling really tired all of a sudden.”
“You’ve had a bit of a busy day,” she replied with a smile.
“Aaah,” Ben groaned and reached for the can, “I can probably give you a thousand people who had a worse day than me today. All I did was go to work, go to a shrink, and drive out here. I’m sure a couple of kids in the Sudan would gladly trade with me.”
“It’s all relative,” Claire offered, “If you’re feeling like it’s the worst day of your life, then in your eyes, it is.”
Ben laughed at he took a drink.
“You just summed up my entire school career, more or less.”
Claire attempted to change the subject as the lights buzzed overhead.
“So, what did you and the doctor talk about?”
“Mostly about how crazy I am,” Ben cocked a sarcastic smile, “apparently it’s not OK to want to kill yourself.”
There was silence then. A harsh silence. Claire’s face had gone from gentle and understanding to hard and worried. She pushed her can of soda aside.
“Ben… you still feel like that?”
“Almost every day.”
He took another drink and noticed his mother was looking worried.
“Ma… don’t get upset. I don’t want you to worry.”
“I’m not really worried about you,” Claire said, standing up from the table, “Not right now. You’ve got your wife, and I know you’ll be all right. I see you two together, and I know you’ll be all right. There’s just… there’s something about the men in this family.”
“What are you talking about?” Ben stood up and followed her as she headed to the far end of the room. She turned back to him and shrugged.
“I suppose it would be best to start at the beginning.”
She made a left turn and walked down the length of the workbench, passing under decades of collected history. She walked slowly, like she was giving a museum tour, but Ben didn’t have any desire to read the various clippings and covers… at least, not right now.
“They aren’t really sure how it happened. Some have theories that tie it into the beginnings of the Atomic Age, or increased industrialization, or even aliens, but sometime after the Second Wold War the first superhumans started to be born. Some were gifted from birth, but your father’s powers didn’t  activate until he was eighteen. He was in Middletown looking for work, and he saw a woman about to be run down by an out of control car. He pushed the woman out of the way, and the car hit him, wrapping around him like a phone pole. Turns out the man was drunk as a skunk at 4 in the afternoon; your father tore the door off the car without even trying and pulled him out into the street so fast he popped the guy’s shoulder out… not that the guy would have noticed. Your father told me that they had some words there, right in the middle of the street, but the man was still unconscious when he heard him. Bob said he was so angry, and he couldn’t figure out why. He felt like his entire body was on fire, he told me. He went to kick the tire of the guy’s car out of anger and punted it two blocks south, taking the marquee off a local movie theater. When he heard the sirens, he knew he had to get out of there fast, and he told me he felt something inside him that just made him want to go, so he did. He took off running and was in Armstrong County before he ran out of breath. It took him another two minutes to run back home, and it was about then that he realized something had happened.”
She stopped underneath a framed oil painting of Ultro, all purple and green and yellow, posing behind the American flag.
“The whole ‘Ultro’ thing didn’t start til a few years later. Bob started hearing reports of other guys like him all along the eastern seaboard, made himself a costume and went to join. He got his name off a faded billboard he saw one day in Pittsburgh. They put together the Commonwealth here in Pennsylvania, which wound up being an arm of the MetroDefenders, based out of New York.”
They passed under a mock up of the cover of MetroDefenders #1, where Ultro helped the likes of LaserStar, Jack Wonder, and the Yankee Clipper defeat and insurgent Communist plot to kill Bobby Kennedy. Ben remembered that as a prized collector’s item, as it was published only two months before Kennedy was gunned down in the kitchen at the Ambassador.
“It was about 1972 when the government came calling: Captain Blast invited some of the CIA to a Met meeting, where the suits finally came to the supermen to ask for help in Vietnam. By this time, the entire situation had gotten so ugly that the whole group was split down the middle on whether or not to aid the government. Stinger and Gadfly had lost friends at Kent State, and StrongHawk had already served during the Tet Offensive. Your father cast the deciding vote, it turned out, saying no. Luckily, he’d been kept out of the draft, but only because his father, your Grampa Donald, had had a stroke in 1969 and needed Bob to mind the farm.”
Ben noticed that his mother seemed to be continuing at a very methodical pace. He assumed she had told this story twice before. She had nearly reached the end of the workbench, now.
“The Met broke up. Some of them went to help, but they weren’t enough. Those who opposed either fled the country or went underground. Your father still kept at it until about ’74, when the police gunned down RipTide in Santa Barbara. It was the first time one of them had been killed by the law, and the riots lasted for days. It was about that time Bob found me at Dartmouth. He said he’d heard about some of the superhuman research I’d been doing from my half-brother, Mighty Menorah. He volunteered in full confidentiality, as it was no secret that I’d been a supporter of metahuman rights and their mission. It was during that time that we started dating and fell in love, and we were able to transfer his powers into the rings that Dan and Tom have.”
Ben looked up this time to see blurry photos of Nevermind the the Blue Traveler, almost caught by an amateur photographer in Central park. Next to it was an old, worn Polaroid of a hero dressed in blue and white, complete with a tallit and kippah.
“And that’s about all, I suppose,” Claire shrugged, “Your brothers did a little work in the 90s and early 2000s, but I’m sure they can tell you more about that.”
“Why won’t Dad tell me any of this?” Ben asked, now taking time to scan the case fully, “Why am I hearing this all from you, instead?”
Claire heaved a heavy sigh and brushed a bit of graying hair out of her eyes.
“Like I said, there’s something about the men in this family. After your Dad gave up being a vigilante, he had trouble. A lot of trouble. He’d push himself too hard, get hurt, and keep working on the farm even when he didn’t need to. He just wouldn’t stop. I tied him to the radiator once when he damn near broke his neck and, even without his powers, he almost pulled the thing out of the wall. I asked him once, after he fell asleep and nearly put a tractor down a sinkhole, if he had a death wish. He never answered me. I didn’t push the issue til I saw your brother Tom go through his rough patch, right at the end of high school. Had trouble with friends, really started to question a lot of the world. He finally told me four years ago that he thought about suicide during that time.”
That idea seemed to strike Ben like a thunderbolt. Tom, the calm, collected, controlled one… what would have done that to him?
“Dan was a little different,” Claire continued, “He was always with the girls, always trying to find that one perfect one, always trying to make everything perfect for the girl and himself. He had so many girls break his heart, and that’s when he had his hard times: a little later than Tom, but they were still there. Ever wonder why your brother keeps in such good shape?”
“I figured he had to look good on camera.”
“He’s feels like he has to do something, Ben,” Claire clenched one of her hands into a fist, “All of you men, you all feel such a sense of duty, like you’ll be a failure if you don’t save the world every day, or at least…”
Do something,” Ben smiled at his mother, a sad little smile. He walked forward and hugged his mother gently to his wide frame.
“Thanks, Ma,” he said quietly, “I really needed to hear this.”
“Do you feel better, son?”
Ben looked past his mother’s shoulder to the far end of the room, where Ultro, Nevermind, and the Blue Traveler all stood, vacant, empty costumes under flood lights, empty boots waiting to be filled.
“Yeah, Ma. I do.”

The Doctor Is In

“Benjamin? Please, come in.”
He walked into a well-appointed, wood-paneled office. There was no shortage of overstuffed furniture to accent the overstuffed bookshelves that lined the walls. Behind the desk was a man with a young and kind face that belied his graying temples and half-moon spectacles, currently finishing up a page in a book. He got to the end of a line diligently and put down his reading pointer, closing the book with a soft fluff of old paper and worn leather.
“Have a seat, Benjamin.”
“It’s Ben.”
The young man dourly walked over and sat in an armchair. The doctor stood up and moved over to the opposite chair, sitting down neatly and crossing one leg over the other.
“I’m Dr. Peter Dalton, Ben. Welcome to my office.”
“Thank you,” Ben replied, trying to be as civil as possible.
“You know why you’re here?”
“It’s a standard procedure when someone goes through something labeled traumatic,” Ben said flatly, “The judge and the cops asked me to do this.”
“You sound like you don’t want to be here,” Dalton said with a tiny bit of whimsy. It couldn’t have been more obvious.
“Ben, you said it was ‘labeled’ traumatic. Why did you use that word?”
“Because they labeled it.”
“You didn’t?”
“No.”
“You didn’t think it was trauamtic?”
Ben took a moment, then, mulling it over and drumming his fingers incessantly on his thighs.
“No. Can’t say as I do.”
“Well, that’s interesting,” Dalton’s voice was still sweet and level, but he now sounded generally surprised, “I know I would consider an encounter with an armed robber to be a little… worrisome. Can you remember how you felt when it happened?”
“If I go along with your dog and pony show,” Ben sighed, “Will you tell everyone I’m okay?”
“Well, that depends on whether or not I like your performance.”
Ben, who had been voiding eye contact the entire time, finally looked over at the doctor, who was smiling gently, his teeth just barely showing.
“Hh,” Ben scoffed, “all right, then.”
“All right then,” Dalton echoed happily, “Tell me about that night.”
“To be honest, I don’t remember much. I remember seeing the guy, and then… I guess I just kinda went on auto pilot. I just thought about all the bad things that guy could do, would do, and I didn’t want him to do it, simple enough. After that,  I remember running into him and hitting the ground, but after that I really don’t remember much.”
“That’s perfectly normal,” Dalton said, steepling his fingers, “that’s perfectly normal.”
Ben eyed him skeptically.
“Is it perfectly normal, then, that when I think about it, I start to feel really warm?”
“Warm how?”
“Like someone wrapped my insides in a big old fleece blanket. It’s almost an immediate warm, but it’s not hot, not like fire or anything. It’s like the campfire at the end of the night: a really comfortable, low warm, and it feels, well… good. If I think about it at work, I get warm and comfortable and then, the next thing I know, five minutes have passed and I don’t know where they go… but I feel good.”
“Do you not like being at work?” the doctor asked.
“Does anyone?” Ben snorted a half-laughing reply, “Dude, I work in a call center. I spend all day calling people who have the IQ of tap water and try to walk them through fixing complicated machinery. Would you like to do that?”
“Frankly? No.”
Dalton smiled again. It was unnerving, how often he smiled.
“But, that’s why I went into medicine, I suppose. Did you go to college, Ben?”
“I’m sure you’ve got some file… somewhere,” Ben waved his arm dismissively, “that says I did.”
“And I’m going to assume you didn’t go to college to do the job you’re doing?”
“Hell no.”
Dalton chuckled a little at that.
“I didn’t think so. So what did–”
“–What did I go to college for?”
The doctor did not seem to mind being cut off.
“Yes, what did you go to college for?”
“Well, I was an idiot,” Ben cracked his knuckles agitatedly, wincing when he realized some were still bruised, “I went and got a science degree, but not one of those nice, lucrative ones that everyone’s hiring for, no, I had to follow my passions. What did my passions get me? Ten dollars an hour telling people how to fix cash registers. Looking back, I really should have cut the idealism crap and just gotten a degree that would make money.”
“You feel like you don’t have enough, then?”
“Sometimes I don’t think I’ll ever have enough,” Ben muttered, “Rent, food expenses, cars breaking down, wanting to get a pet, wanting to have kids, bills, bills, bills, bills…”
“I see.”
“You see, huh?” Ben leaned forward in the chair, looking Dalton square in the eye. This time, it was his turn to grin.
“Okay then, doc… tell me what I’m doing wrong. Tell me what’s wrong with me. Tell me why I can’t keep friends. Tell me why I can’t get hired at a decent job. Tell me why my two older brothers are handsome, dashing men and I’m an overgrown gnome. Tell me why my father is universally beloved and I always get the feeling someone’s trying to screw me over. Tell me why I can’t stop biting my nails. Tell me why, doctor, I see the pathetic slobs I went to college with, and they’re still pathetic, but they have a nicer car than I am, a nicer house, and a nice pile of debt to go along with it… but I still feel like a failure. Tell me, Dr. Peter Dalton, just what exactly is wrong with me?”
There was a long silence then as Peter looked him up and down. Ben was beginning to get red in the face, and his breath was coming in haggard gasps. Every time the doctor’s gaze would match his, Ben would bring a finger to his lips and, seeming without knowing, start biting at the flesh around his nails.
“Stop that,” the doctor said. His voice was still low, but suddenly firm and commanding. Ben did as he was told.
“How do you shrinks do that?” Ben asked with a humorous kind of alarm.
“We go to school, and we learn how.”
He stood up from his chair then, and smoothed out the pleats in his khakis.
“And I’m going to ask that you do the same. Ben, I think you’re feeling particularly frustrated right now…”
“Yeah, you could say that.”
“Let me finish, Ben.”
“…Sorry.”
“I think you need to find something that will help you express yourself. You feel unfulfilled, so I am suggesting, as your court-ordered therapist, that you go out and have some fun. Enjoy yourself. Don’t  worry yourself too much with getting the job and the house and the… wife?”
“Yes, wife.”
“I have to ask.”
“I guess,” Ben shrugged, “So you want me to do something that makes use of my useless degree, huh?”
“Well, now, I don’t think it’s useless. What’s the degree in?”
“Extranormal Physics and Applied Future Sciences.”
Dr. Dalton was dead quiet for a few moments.
“I’m not sure I’ve heard of that one.”
“I made it myself,” Ben muttered, sheepishly, “One of my professors told me I shouldn’t be worrying about how things work now, but how they could work in the future. Then, he went and got himself discredited and I couldn’t find a job anywhere. Apparently, a body in motion stays in motion until it loses all its networking abilities.”
“Oh, my,” the doctor tapped a perfectly manicured fingernail to his front teeth, “well, is there any way you can talk to him again, perhaps in pursuit of your new fulfillment.”
“Not very likely, Doc,” Ben’s eyes seemed to glass over at this point, like a dark cloud had fell over his face. Dalton tried to stop him before he said it, but it all happened to fast.
“He’s dead. Suicide not long after the discrediting, and guess what? I was always supposed to succeed him. Ha. Ha. Ha.”
Dalton’s eyes flitted quickly to the clock. Time was running out, but he sat back down and asked. He had to.
“Do you think about suicide, Ben?”
Ben shook his head and sighed again. He forced a smile, but his eyes were still wet.
“About once a day, usually.”
“Does your wife know?”
“That’s not exactly something you get into during the first month of marriage.”
“Understood, but… she knows you have had… difficulty?”
“She reads me like a book, so, yeah,” his eyes shifted to the ground, “but I don’t know if she knows how bad it gets.”
“And you don’t tell her.”
“She’d blame herself, and I couldn’t have that. I just… no. I love her, and I want her to be happy, which is why I don’t bring up the really spooky stuff.”
“Can you tell me?”
“Do I have a choice, Mr. Court Order?”
Ben’s voice was thick with sarcasm. Dr. Dalton reached out and put a hand on Ben’s knee, something which made Ben immediately uncomfortable.
“You always have a choice here.”
“Then I choose,” Ben shifted the weight on his leg and Dalton’s hand slid off, “to do that.”
“Understood.”
“I suppose the big question is ‘why,” right?” Ben settled back into the chair, which he was grudgingly finding comfortable, “I don’t seem to have any reason to, right?”
“If you think there’s a reason, that’s what matters,” the doctor responded, “We’re dealing with something completely inside you, now.”
“Well, it’s not a big, flashy thing,” Ben explained, “Not like when I was in high school and it was that desperate desire to shut up all of your raging hormones. It’s like a dull ache, now: I’ll come home, and sit on the couch, and just… be there, not doing anything, not accomplishing anything. I’m becoming just like all the other worthless people who do the Nine to Five, watch crappy TV, chat about pointless crap… it’s a one way ticket to Ray Bradbury town, know what I mean?”
“I believe so.”
“And there are times I think that, by just blowing my brains out or OD-ing or something… maybe I could make a statement. You know, like burn myself alive in a church, or hang myself in my old professor’s office, or leave a big, fat payout for my wife by making it look like an accident… it gets to the point where killing myself would be the one thing I have control over, my one way to make an impact and be remembered… but then I realize that, even if I did, I’d probably be forgotten in a few generations, maybe only one. People like Kitty Genovese or Lawrence Oates, or even Hemingway… they get forgotten. I know it’s selfish, but I want to be remembered in a thousand years. I want to know I had some impact. I don’t know where I go when I die and, if it’s nowhere, I at least want to make sure I did something right.
There was another pregnant pause. Ben saw Dalton’s eyes flick to the clock again.
“Are we almost out of time?”
“Yes, Ben,” Dalton smiled again, “I was planning on missing my daughter’s piano recital, if you still needed to talk.”
“Hell no,” Ben said, standing up briskly from the chair and heading to the door, “I have too many memories of my Dad being too busy to come to my stuff. I don’t wanna do that to your kid.”
“I appreciate that,” Dalton opened the door for Ben, “shall we continue this in our next session?”
Ben stopped in his tracks and made to protest, but there was something so frustratingly disarming in the way he was smiling. Ben had always known something wasn’t right, he always knew he was different… maybe this guy could do something about it.
“…sure.”
“I’ll have my secretary call you for our next appointment. Until then… you stay out of trouble.”
“Uh-huh…” Ben murmured as the doctor shut the door and he wandered out of the now empty office and to his dilapidated Hyundai. He called Lucy as soon as he got in the car. She picked up, still at work.
“Hey, honey! How’d it go?”
“Well, I’m not out of the woods, yet.”
“Awww…”
“How about you? Are they making you do this, too?”
“I’m meeting with a counselor, standard thing. I’m just lucky he’s right down the hall.”
“Uh huh,” Ben made a right turn, a little distracted, “Hon, when do you get off work tonight?”
“I still got a few hours, why?”
“I promised my Mom I’d pay her a visit after the honeymoon, and with everything that happened.”
“Go ahead,” Lucy sounded a little exasperated, “I had plans for tonight, anyway.”
“Oh, really?” Ben switched on his turn signal and swung into the right lane, “And what are you up to tonight?”
“I’m attending the ‘Help, I married a Graf Boy!’ support group.”
“…Are you serious?”
He was answered by gales of hearty laughter on the other end of the phone.
“Basically, we’re going to go out and drink and talk about our crazy husbands. Don’t wait up, sweetie!”
“Ugh…”
He finished the conversation as he headed onto I-76. As he got closer and closer to the sleepy countryside where his wedding had been held, he felt a strange feeling start to creep into his veins. It was a sort of tingling, crackling excitement like he had never felt before. The madness of the past month had very nearly blotted it out of his memory, but now it roared back like a hurricane.
Ultro, clad in purple and yellow, head to toe, a mountain of muscle and lightning quick, hero of a thousand stories. Years later, the news first caught sight of Nervermind, the World’s Smartest Man, with a black and green costume that seemed to blend into the shadows, making it easy to lie in wait and unleash a devastating psychic attack. After a few years on his own, he was suddenly joined by the Blue Traveler, a seemingly endlessly powerful man encased in bright blue, futuristic looking armor, able to withstand anything from a pistol to an RPG. The two were a perfect thunder and lightning effect, strength of body and strength of mind, and between the two of them they managed to clean up most of the eastern seaboard in a matter of years… and they were his family.
But then, he remembered getting older, into high school, and so many things seemed to change. Suddenly, there was a thing called the Internet, and it was so full of people, angry people, people who hated the idea of men like Nevermind and the Blue Traveler, who hated men outside of law and order restoring both. They railed against the entire community of vigilantes, they called for another act of culling and legal action similar to the 1980s. There hadn’t been visible heroes for nearly twenty years when Nevermind finally showed up and, with legislation being drawn up in the first half of 2005, the two quietly disappeared. So many questions were raised, online petitions were drawn up, but no one ever knew why America’s two best-known heroes finally caved to the pressure.
“Wouldn’t they be surprised to know,” Ben muttered to himself as he pulled into the beginning of a long, country driveway, “that the legislation probably had no factor in their retirement.”
Ben’s hands were nearly shaking as he reached for the doorbell, hands that had nearly been bitten to bleeding on the drive over. His mother, however, had seen him coming, and she threw open the door and threw herself forward simultaneously, launching her short form at her son with a massive hug.
“Oh, I’m so happy to see you, son,” she nearly sobbed and hugged him tighter, “when you called and told us what happened, I wanted to drive down there, but your father, he said you were a grown man now, so we just had to wait, but it’s so good to see you’re all right! We were all so worried!”
“Even Dad?” Ben cocked a suspicious eyebrow.
“Well, he told me he was,” Claire Graf furrowed her eyebrows, “why, what did he say to you?”
“He told me to watch for swelling in my knuckles, and he thought I acted foolishly.”
“That’s rich, coming from him,” Claire snickered, “And I bet a dollar to a doughnut that’s why you’re here to talk, isn’t it?”
Ben took a deep breath. He felt as nervous giving an answer as he had when he said “I do,” waiting for thirty agnonizing seconds before Lucy finally responded. His eyes bolted around, seemingly of their own accord, as if worried someone was monitoring their conversation. Finally. He swallowed hard, and nodded.
“Don’t worry, son,” Claire said with a smile, “your brothers were just as worried as you are. It’s a lot to get over.”
She said that as she turned to go back inside, but all Ben could do was turn around those last three words in his head, all the time responding in his mind:
“But what if I don’t want to get over it?”
“Well, don’t spend all day standing on the porch,” Claire called from inside the house. She called a few more times, but Ben was still lost in thought. Finally, she resorted to desperate measures.
“Benjamin! Please, come in!”

Honeymoon

Ben and Lucy had a simple honeymoon: they couldn’t afford anything extravagant, and both had to be back to work in less than a week.

Still, the two had nearly a week of fun strolling through the late summer wonder of Washington, DC. Lucy, fresh off a history degree, was eager to take Ben to each and every point of interest, from the haggard bronze faces of the Korean War memorial to the Library of Congress. Of course, after three days of running about the nation’s capital, Ben was becoming less and less impressed.

“Yep, those sure are a lot of books, honey.”

“Ben!” she whirled on him, flustered, “These aren’t just books! These are some of the most important books that have ever been on American soil! The Declaration of Independence is here, for crying out loud!”

“That’s something, Luce, really,” Ben sighed, hunting out a bench to sit on, “but I can’t exactly get my dithers up when I’m about to pass out. Can’t we just…relax for a while?”

“Well, I suppose so…”

Lucy pouted a bit and sat next to him. Ben hadn’t been quite the same since the wedding. Lucy, naturally, had begun to blame herself.

“Ben… is everything all right?”

“Yeah, yeah, it’s just…” he filled his barrel chest with air a let it out with a tremendous whoosh, “I want to be able to spend some time with you, hon.”

She nuzzled into the cradle of his neck, laughing softly.

“You know, you’re starting to sound like your Dad, a little…”

“I do not,” Ben adopted a sour face but was too tired to do anything else.

“You totally do,” Lucy replied, grinning, “Every time you spend any time with your family, you start with the ‘dithers’ and the ‘shoot’ and the…”

She was cut short by a massive rumbling issuing from her husband’s belly. Her proximity to the thing made it sound positively frightening. She straightened up and looked directly into Ben’s eyes, blue on blue.

“Is someone hungry?” her grin grew even wider.

“I could eat.”

“You always say that.”

“I could always eat.”

“Jerk,” she gave him a light tap on the shoulder, which only elicited another growl. Lucy leaped back with a squeak of mock terror.

“Let’s go get you a burger before that thing eats me!”

“Actually, I was wondering if we could head to Ben’s Chili Bowl. They’re supposed to be a legend around here.”

“Oh, really? Ben? You want to go to… Ben’s?”

“Oh, don’t be a snit!” Ben laughed, grabbing his wife in a soft headlock and playfully rubbing the top of her head. She gave a real squeak of dismay this time as her hair soon began to resemble a rat’s nest. Ben had no shortage of laughter while Lucy tried to straighten out her hair, and the two eventually left arm-in-arm, off for a half-smoke at a local institution. Unfortunately, they did not see the sinister figure who saw them leave the library, and followed them to the restaurant, and finally to their reasonably-priced hotel. The man ran a filthy finger over a shabby, uneven mess of a beard that did little to hide yellow teeth and blackened gums. It was an easy pick: newlyweds, on their honeymoon, probably sporting a good amount of cash, fresh of wedding presents and well-wishers. They were practically flaunting it just by being there.

“Are you sure, Luce? First floor?”

“Why? What’s wrong with that?”

“I dunno…” Ben shouldered his bag as they headed down the hall, “just gives me a weird feeling. I mean, we’re not back in the country; someone could bust right into the window, or if there was a riot or something… DC’s a nine out of ten for violent crime statistics.”

“Grief,” Lucy rolled her eyes and took her bag back from her husband, who had automatically shouldered the load, “Good thing I married you, or you would have worried yourself to death. Besides, I didn’t hear you complaining down at that chili bowl place, that was a rough neighborhood, sort of…”

“Yeah, but…”

“And I lived in a first floor dorm for three years. I don’t recall you worrying too much about that when you were climbing out at 2AM.”

“That was Seton Hall. It wasn’t exactly the ghetto…”

“It was in Jersey.”

Ben let the suitcase slump on his back as he sighed… but he knew she was right. It was one of the main reasons he married her. The only problem, of course, was trying to protect a woman who firmly believed that there was nothing to protect her from. There was so much in the world, he’d often thought, so much danger, so much trouble, so much, for the lack of a better word… evil in the world. His mind was flooded again with the gaily colored images he’d followed as a child, often echoed in more muted hues on the television screen or, sometimes, the nightly news: brightly-colored costumed heroes striking down evil, beating back the forces of darkness, but never asking for a thank you, never sticking around for the adulation or the notoriety. His father, his brothers, all of them had taken up the fight, but stopped… why?

“Ben…”

Her voice came from behind her, and it wasn’t until then he realized that he’d kept walking a good five doors past their own hotel room. He gave a nervous little chuckle and backtracked, opening the door.

“Sorry.”

“Ben, what is with you?” Lucy asked as they walked into the room, “I mean, you were never Captain Rational to begin with, but lately you seem really gone.”

Ben set down his load and flopped onto the oversized bed. Lucy joined him, still fixing him with a stare.

“I know you,” she said.

“It’s a lot to take in,” Ben spoke the half-truth, “I was used to having things set out for me: school, college, family… it always seemed like Tom and Dan went first, and laid out a foundation but now, now I really do feel like I’m on my own now, like I’m a real grownup, and I’m finally starting to feel all these pressures.”

“And you didn’t before?”

“Are you kidding me?” he snorted, “I had a few bills, rent. Work a couple part time jobs, keep enough coins in my pocket to buy the occasional Big Mac, or frozen pizza, or whatever… my decisions only affected me. If I showed up late to work, it’d be my ass. I could get fired, I’d find something new. I could run away to Vanuatu and paint pictures of frogs or something, and I know my family would have supported me. Now… I’m the one who has to give support. I’m the one who has to be in charge of someone other than my own stupid self. Everything I do now has to take you into account. Do I buy this Big Mac? Well, what if Lucy gets hurt? What if I get hurt? What if we have to fix a car? What if we have a kid? It gets to the point where I’m looking over every hamburger I bought during college and chewing myself out for it, because it could have saved that much more…and–”

He was silenced as Lucy put her hand over his mouth.

“Honey?”

He nodded in comprehension.

“Shut up.”

He smiled, and they held each other. He had been ridiculous, he had decided; worrying about such things only days after their wedding. It was almost selfish, wasn’t it? Only worrying about his past, or what he would do in the future. Maybe Lucy had it right, maybe he shouldn’t get so caught up in things he had no control over.

“We should get room service,” he said suddenly. His wife’s head came up in surprise.

“But that’s stupid expensive,” she responded, “It’s like… twelve Big Macs, or something.”

“I don’t care,” he said with a smile, “we deserve something nice, don’t we? Besides, I don’t think I could go for a full dinner after the half-smoke. What d’you say, babe?”

He looked down at her and smiled. She smiled back, glad to see him happy again. He did get those fits sometimes. They grazed for the rest of the evening, Lucy giving into Ben’s wishes that they just spend a night in one place, relaxing instead of seeing yet another monument lit up at night.

“They don’t look that much different in the daytime.”

Finally, at about ten o’clock, Lucy began to nod off. Early, but then again she’d done a lot more walking and moving than she usually had at the office. He was starting to feel the effects as well and, as he switched off the light and fell into slumber, he resolved to get more active in the moments he wasn’t trapped behind a desk.

About an hour later, the window to their first-floor hotel room seemed to glide open of its own accord, allowing for the entry of a gloved hand, which opened it the rest of the way. The hand was followed by another, which hefted a thin and bent-looking body silently through the now open window. As the thief slowly made his way across the room, he took stock of his surroundings, as he’s done a thousand times before. It was just as he expected: middle-to-lower class couple on their honeymoon, still dragging a few new items in tow, items that would probably net a bit on resale… but that wasn’t where his focus was. On a chair by the desk was draped a pair of jeans, and sitting nearby was a small, green purse. As the thief had expected, the couple hadn’t been thinking clearly: no money belts, no hidden funds, just straight cash in the pockets of purse and pants. The thief was laughing on the inside as he began to collect the cash. Hundreds, maybe a thousand, enough to get him what he needed; the out-of-towners were always good for a score… just as he’d expected.

What he hadn’t expected, however, was that Benjamin Joseph Graf was a very light sleeper. The tiny gust of wind, kissed with the first crispness of autumn, had woken him, and now he was looking at a man currently relieving him of everything in his wallet. Ben slid out of bed without a sound, thanks to the noise of the street not far from the open window, and surveyed the thin man. Thin, but probably dangerous; possibly a knife, possibly a gun. Luckily looking the other way, going through Lucy’s purse…

Lucy!

She was lying there, next to him, fast asleep. She’d always been a heavy sleeper, sometimes she didn’t even hear him crawl through her dorm room window back at college. Sometimes he’d done it, and she was still asleep, and he’d be thunderstruck by her face in the moonlight, so beautiful… Lucy. He had to protect Lucy. This wasn’t going to happen to them, not tonight. He was going to keep this evil out of Lucy’s life, out of their life, even if he had to sweep every last petty thug from every street in every city in America. This wasn’t going to be the world they would live in. He hadn’t been given what his brothers were given, but he felt a fire burn inside him that terrified and delighted him at the same time, a fire that felt like power. Not now. Not ever.

It had been a few years, but Ben had still remembered how to bring a man down. He squared his shoulders and sprung like a panther, flying across the room with a speed he never knew he had, his veins on fire and his eyes seeing only red. He let loose with a scream unlike anything he’d ever made on the football field, and the thief turned around just in time to catch one of Ben’s heavy shoulders directly in his abdomen, driving the man backwards. Never leave your feet, Ben remembered, and kept plowing forward, feeling the man’s narrow back strike the edge of the table and hearing a sickening crack issue from the chest. Probably broke a few of his ribs, Ben thought.

Good.

The two of them tumbled to the floor along with the table, Ben quickly gaining the upper hand over the stunned robber. He hadn’t thrown a punch since the second grade, but he suddenly found himself raining blows down into the robber’s dirty face, feeling skin and muscle give way to hard bone as he punched over, and over, and over…

BEN!” Lucy’s scream arced over the sound of the robber wailing in agony as his orbital bone shattered. Ben put another fist into the thief’s face, feeling what could only be described as pleasure as she shockwave juddered from the broken face up his adrenaline-drugged arm.

“Ben! STOP!

He turned around and looked back at her, momentarily, and his face was like the Devil.

No!

He drove more and more punches into the man’s face until it was hardly recognizable. What few teeth were left in the robber’s mouth had been punched out, his eyes were swelling shut, but one hand still held a filthy box cutter, seemingly ready to strike but paralyzed by the pain. Finally, the hand went limp, and Lucy had the strength of mind to pick up the rusty thing with a hand-towel and toss it away. The commotion brought security guards sooner and police later, who radioed for an ambulance. The newlyweds were sitting on the floor, in a corner of their hotel room, huddled next to each other and shivering despite the seasonable warmth. Ben’s hands and arms were still covered with blood, but Lucy had managed to wipe most of his from his face. A police man came over and squatted down next to them, lighting up a cigarette and offering it to each of them in turn. Lucy turned it away immediately, but Ben agonized.

He had never wanted a cigarette more in his life.

Lucy shooed the cigarette way from her husband, and, shrugging, the officer took a puff and began to take the statement. Ben was able to relate everything, up until he had hit the floor. Lucy took over from what she saw, and the policeman closed his notebook with a sigh.

“Look… you’re a lucky man right now, Mr. Graf.”

“Absolutely,” Lucy interrupted him with a quavering voice, “That man could have killed him!”

“I’m not talking about that,” the cop jerked a thumb back at the gurney that was just leaving the room, “You’re damn lucky that guy had a rap sheet a mile wide and three previous stabbings under his belt. Your husband, ma’am, damn near killed that man, scum or not. A few more punches and he woulda been facing manslaughter charges. As it is, the guy’s such a piece of shit that no two-bit lawyer in the country would bother defending him but, as I said…”

He knocked the ashes off his camel and onto the floor.

“You got lucky.”

The policeman stood back up, an audible pop coming from both knees.

“You might have to talk to a judge, plead your case. You’ll get off scot free, I don’t doubt that… but you still technically broke the law tonight, kid.”

He looked down at Ben, eyes still wide, fists still clenched tight around drying blood, white on red. The cop beckoned for the paramedics to have a look at him, pulling Lucy aside as they went to clean him off.

“Mrs. Graf, I am also going to suggest in my report that your husband undergo a bit of counseling. It’s standard procedure in this sort of situation and, well… I bet you both will need it.”

“Officer… will my husband be all right? I mean… will he go to jail?”

The policeman looked over his shoulder, watching the paramedics do their best to get a response.

“I can’t imagine he would, ma’am,” he replied, “but I think the two of you might want to cancel the rest of your honeymoon.”

Wedding Night

He lay in bed that night, his wedding night. His wife was curled into him, sleeping soundly, but Ben Graf lay awake, hands behind his head, staring at the ceiling. Finally, all the madness and excitement had faded away, but instead of finding himself drained and begging for slumber, he was instead filled with a new kind of excitement.

His Dad was Ultro, the Man of Now, the savior of countless lives and rescuer of the world from almost certain destruction too many times to count. His brothers had been Nevermind, the World’s Smartest Man, and the Blue Traveler, the World’s Strongest. There was a box in the closet of his old bedroom that was filled to the brim with comics depicting the exploits of the men he now knew were his brothers, along with cheap reprints of the ones involving his father. He had lived by those books. He had discussed them, analyzed them, gone to conventions to meet them, all the while never knowing. He had read the books so many times that the originals had faded away to scraps of useless paper; he had new copies sealed away in plastic, now. He had planned for them to pay his retirement in a few decades, priceless relics he would show his children with pride… but until now, he didn’t know why.

Ben got out of bed, making sure to affectionately stroke at his wife’s strawberry blonde hair, and lull her back into peaceful slumber. He rummaged quietly through his suitcase in the hotel suite until he found his father’s present. He carried it over to the window and pushed aside one of the veritcal blinds, allowing a small sliver of light to wash over the cover. Get ready, his father’s representation bellowed. Ben looked down at his own naked body: flabby, unused, pathetic looking compared to his brothers and his father. They had worked hard: his father in the field, his oldest brother in the factory, and his younger older brother in the gym, all to keep up the physique necessary to do what they had to do. He had not: all through high school, and college, and beyond, he had allowed his mind to flourish, but his body to constantly be in a state of decay. Even now, when he sat in a cube for eight hours a day, he could feel his body going soft, falling apart. What little muscle he had gained was swiftly turning to flaccid waste. His father and his brothers had done what they had been asked to do, and what had he done? Gotten a useless degree in an obscure science and condemned himself to a string of endlessly unfulfilling jobs.

He had often wondered, as a child and even now as an adult, whether there was something… odd about his family. They did not drink to excess, or use drugs, or abuse anything stronger than a cup of coffee. Ben spent most of high school being asked what he did on a Friday night if he didn’t go get drunk. His family appreciated the work of John Denver and Pavarotti equally, were voracious readers, thinkers, idealists, while the rest of the world around them delved into celebrity scandals and neighborhood gossip. There was even a time, at fifteen years of age, that Ben realized his family was the only one in town that drank tea. He wanted to believe that they weren’t just square pegs in the round hole of the American zeitgeist. He wanted to know that they weren’t just different because they thought and read and felt and believed, he wanted them to be something else. Aliens, maybe, or some kind of genetic experiment run by the government. There had to be something, it couldn’t just be normal humanity. They couldn’t be normal humans. If they were normal, and they seemed so very, very normal… then what did that make everyone else?

Ben remembered a time his mother and father had invited the entire family out for a dinner. They said they had a big surprise for everyone. Ben actually remembered thinking, at twenty-two years of age, that maybe this would be it. Maybe the mothership would come and bring them home. Maybe the government would implement stage two of the project. Maybe… maybe something that would make him feel like less of a freak for having the audacity to think. He felt completely out of splace, four or five decades behind… perhaps his entire family were time travelers, forever locked in the ethic and ideals of Eisenhower’s America? Yes, that had to be it! Then, Ben could remember it plainly: it was a cold, February night. The entire family drove to the top of the highest hill in the county, and when they got there… nothing. The plan had be to let the family all launch off some professional fireworks, a favor from one of Mom’s clients, but something fell through. Ben couldn’t help but be crushed, even at Perkin’s later. It was wonderful to see his family all together again. They talked, they listened, they had a relationship that Ben would not know outside of his family until his marriage, but still… something was missing.

They were so… strange.

Well, he thought, looking down at the comic again, now you know why. You finally have that explanation. How do you feel, Benjamin Joseph? Does it make everything better? Does it give you the enlightenment you’ve always craved? Does it finally answer all the questions your spirit has been dying to ask, all these years? Does a comic book and two feats of superhuman skill finally sate your desire? Do you know now why your family is different, and are you finally satisfied?

He looked down at the comic again. No matter what the odds, no matter what would happen, the likes of Ultro and Nevermind and the Blue Traveler would do what was right, help those who needed help, and save the day. And yet, there was no Ultro, no Nevermind, No Traveler anymore. Why?

“Am I satisfied…” he repeated to himself as he looked out the fifth floor window into a harshly lit parking lot. He placed the comic on the table in the suite and looked down at the titanium ring in his hand. It was so light, the titanium, almost as if it wasn’t there. He hadn’t wanted something really heavy, something to feel odd or unnatural. He wondered, then, how his brothers rings felt: if they were heavy, if they were a burden. The ring still felt new on his finger, even though it was light, it still rubbed on his finger like he had never felt before. The presence of that ring gave him such happiness, such bliss, and as he looked at his sleeping angel of a wife he couldn’t imagine anything more wonderful… but then he glanced back at the ring and was filled with that hot anger he had felt before. It was just a ring. Just metal. It was a symbol, and nothing else. This ring didn’t allow him to leap over buildings or scan the brains of alien life forms. This ring did not give him the ability to be something greater than he was, it was a sign that he had found something greater than he was. But still, still… that fire burned in his stomach and he clenched his fist tighter and tighter, feeling the metal touch flesh. This ring tells me I’ll never accomplish what my brothers did, what my father did… this ring is too light. It’s a ring that doesn’t weigh me down when I type at that keyboard in my cube in my office, where no one cares who I am or what I do or if I even die. I’ll never be anything with this ring, I know I’ll never be able to live up to what I expect of myself: as a husband, as a father, as a man, NOTHING!

He slammed a fist against the window with an loud THUNK. The glass didn’t break. There was no way it could have. Ben felt the tears rolling hot down his face as he kept clenching and reclenching his fist. His father had given him knowledge, but no power. What good is the knowledge when the ring is so light? What good is the knowledge that you are exceptional, from a exceptional people, when you are given no power? How can he go back to his diploma and his theories knowing that his brothers and his father did what really mattered? What good is he going to do where he is right now? How can he face his wife and be her new husband knowing such knowledge, but unable to make good on any of it? How can he take action like they did and make the most of what he was given, what he is, with nothing but weightless knowledge?

“No,” he muttered, causing his wife to stir in her bed, “I’m not satisfied. Not yet.”

“Honey?” she called from the bed, her eyes lidded in half-conscious, “Are you all right?”

He turned to her and quickly wiped away the tears.

“I’m all right, darling. Just… couldn’t sleep, is all.”

“Well then,” she murmured, “Get that sexy butt of yours back in bed I’ll tire you out.”

She punctuated this with a lackluster pawing of the air and a comical “growl.” Ben immediately found himself laughing, like he always did where his wife was concerned. She always managed to bring him back from the brink. As he crawled back into bed, he put together a plan and, as he sunk into a lover’s embrace, he promised himself that he would always do right by her. He would make sure that she would be proud of him.

The next morning, due to tradition, Ben found himself at the house of Adrian and Martha Pendleton, the in-laws. As they opened gift after gift in an expansive living room that gew more and more crowded, Ben took a brief moment to speak with his mother Claire.

“Hey, Ma. Can I speak with you, maybe, after we get back from the honeymoon?”

“Can I guess what this is about?”

Claire Graf was as old as her husband, but had spent her life in a laboratory instead of in a field (or crimefighting) and as such looked nearly ten years his junior. Her hair, cut short in a very businesslike manner, was a shining, silvery gray with raven traces of her former color peeking out from underneath. Her bright blue eyes sparkled at her youngest son as she asked this question. The blue eyes were indicative of her family’s genealogy as Roma, and added a fair bit of confusion to her husband’s seemingly Aryan or Nordic appearance. Each of the three sons had gained darker hair as a result, with Tom’s nearly black, Dan’s a pleasant brown, and Ben’s the closest to his fathers in a sort of medium umber. It was this peculiar look of Claire, along with her surprising place as a top scientist in the 1970s, that had made her quite the topic of conversation in Bob Graf’s conservative family. Given her other actions during those turbulent years, they were often proven right to worry.

“I think you can,” Ben returned the smile before another box was thrust into his lap by his mother in law, which turned out to be a blender. After a few more hours of presents and a light lunch, the three brothers found themselves together again in the dining room. As usual, conversation flew hard and fast: family, politics, movies, religion, philosophy, video games, history, sports, and many others. All three brothers had the gift of friendly, but pertinent discourse, courtesy of their folksy father and activist mother. Even Tom, a usually quiet and taciturn man, would find himself opened up to his family and felt free to share any ideas or, more often, mediate between his two hot-headed brothers. One room away, Lucy found herself a seat next to Gina, Dan’s wife, and Melanie, who was Tom’s. Melanie wasted no time in pouring Lucy another Mimosa.

“You’re gonna need this,” she said with no undue seriousness, “Once the Graf boys get talking, it’s either get out the encyclopedias, get confused, or get another drink.”

“I dunno,” Gina said softly, as always, “I think it’s nice that they’re so close as brothers.”

“Yeah, until they start throwing headlocks on each other,” Melanie snorted, “But it’s not like it ain’t their own fault, y’know. I know Tom’s a surly bugger, and Dan will tell anyone exactly what he thinks about ’em if you give him two seconds.”

“I always appreciate his honesty…” Gina gave a little squeak of protest.

“And as far as Banjo goes…”

“Wait, wait!” Lucy nearly spat Mimosa all over the Pendleton’s living room berber, “What did you call him?!”

“I’m not surprised he never told you,” Melanie grinned and took another drink, “That was Bob’s idea, calling him that. Ben-Joe, geddit? That’s what Pa Graf used to call him back in the day.”

“Oh, my God!” Lucy giggled, “I can’t wait to get him on that one!”

Finally, the conversation had wound down a bit between the brothers. Dan grabbed a barbecued cocktail wiener and made it disappear.

“So,” Dan grinned, “I bet you got a lot of questions.”

“Yeah, I do,” Ben nodded, “but now ain’t the time. When I get back from my honeymoon, you’d better believe I’m coming for you both. That is, of course, if you’re not out there, you know…”

“Making the world safe for democracy?” Dan offered, “Nah, we both got out of the business years ago, right after Tom had his first kid.”

All of the merriment seemed to be sucked out of the room, along with the oxygen. Ben could not believe his ears. He shook his head several times, so hard he gave himself a headache. He stared down both of his brothers, his voice a mixture of disbelief and indignation.

“You… you quit?!”

“As you said before,” Tom’s eyebrows lowered themselves over deep set eyes, “This is not the time to discuss it.”

“You can’t be serious!” Ben paid him no heed, “You guys, after all that, you just…”

“NOW IS NOT THE TIME,” Tom’s disembodied voice crashed inside Ben’s head like a platter on a marble floor. Ben put a hand to his temple in momentary pain, his headache now worsened.

“Hey! Dick move,” Dan puffed out his narrow chest, “You know you can just go messing with people’s heads like…”

Tom fixed him with a glare and, from the transformation on Dan’s face, Ben realized that Dan, too, had been silenced. Mercifully, Lucy showed up to save the day.

“Heyyy there, Banjo!” she hooted with laughter, draping her arms over his broad shoulders and smiling with pure bliss. Her grin receded, however, when she saw her new husband nursing his temple.

“Oh, honey,” her voice automatically dripped with concern, “Are you all right?”

Ben shot a quick glare at his eldest brother, then promptly relieved his wife of her still mostly full Mimosa. He glared at Tom again and swallowed, hard.

“Yeah,” he gasped, allowing “Yeah, I’m okay. Anyway, don’t you and Tom have to be getting out of here, pretty soon?”

He couldn’t help but have his voice sound harder than he wanted to show. Dan looked nervously at his watch and agreed.

“Shucks, yeah… I gotta do the six o’clock tonight, we should get going. Gina!”

“Yeah?”

“We should boogie. I got the six tonight.”

“But it only takes an hour to get to Harrisburg,” his wife sounded confused, “and it’s only one o’clock, and–”

“Yeah, well…” Dan’s eyes flitted between Ben and Tom, “I forgot to do something. So sorry, Ben, er… keep in touch, all right?”

He shook his brother’s hand awkwardly, and nodded to his older brother. They made a quick round of goodbyes and left, making everyone feel rather unpleasant.

“Is everything all right?” Bob shuffled up to Ben, now back in his customary overalls, “Dan left pretty quick.”

“Everything’s fine, Dad,” Ben looked him right in the face, “Given the circumstances.”

Bob saw the same frustration he’d seen twice before. He knew it would cause trouble, telling his sons on their wedding days, but he had to give them the choice and make it stick, make it frustrating. He had promised himself that much. With a sad look in his eye, he turned back into the living room and began to play with his grandson, John. Everyone soon forgot the troubles at the sight of the massive Bob wrestling about with the ten year old. Tom, however, was still just as stonefaced. He said only one additional word to his younger brother before he and Melanie left. Melanie did the apologizing for him.

“I know he can be a real pickle sometimes. Comes with the territory, I suppose.”

“Yeah…” Ben said distractedly, taking the word territory to extremes with his own imagination, “Take it easy, all right?”

“You too, kid.”

Finally, it was time for Bob and Claire to leave.

“Don’t worry, honey,” Claire gave her son one of her patented vice like hugs, “It’ll get better. I promise.”

“It’s already better, love,” Bob said, “Dan and Tom started swingin’ fists at Dan’s wedding, remember?”

“I was trying to forget,” Claire said with a moan.

“I always wondered about that,” Ben smiled at the both of them, “then again, those two were always fighting, it seemed like.”

Bob went to shake his son’s hand, and pulled him in close.

“You shoulda seen the fight they got into after they took out Travesty and his bio-detonator. That part didn’t make it into the books, I can tell you!”

He released his son and they pumped hands energetically up and down. Ben felt odd, shaking his father’s hand like this, like an adult, and equal. He’d never felt that way and, as Claire wrapped Lucy in a hug, he still felt he hadn’t.

“Have a good one, son,” Bob smiled, “we’ll be seeing you, I’m sure.”

Ben gave him a smile that looked more vicious than friendly.

“You sure will, Dad.”

A new beginning

It was just like any other wedding day in the average upper-middle-class area of a major city. In a modest backyard, two tiny tents had been erected, separated by two groups of roughly fifteen chairs that were themselves separated by a spotless white thing the groom had learned just that morning was called a “runner.” The groom himself was finishing up in one of the tents, as he was forbidden from entering the house. He was average height, with a stocky build that had seen high school football, but not much athletics after that. He closed a gold-colored vest around a belly that expanding, much to his chagrin. All that time at the office, eight hours a day in a chair… he really needed to start eating better. He was finishing up with the cufflinks when he heard the flap to the tent ruffle in the crisp, early-autumn air.

“Hey, Dad. What’s up?”

His dad was Robert Graf, a man beloved by the community but otherwise rather unimportant. A simple hobby farmer who had managed his money well and had served a few terms on the school board, Robert was a gentle soul known to never lose his temper. The son, one Benjamin Joseph Graf, could count easily on one hand the number of times he had heard either of his parents yell. Robert entered the tent meekly, as always, his massive, powerful frame ducking through the tent opening. Robert tipped the scales past three hundred pounds now, but in his prime all six foot six of him had been solid muscle, honed from years of work on the farm and a stubborn streak that his wife Claire would often describe as several miles wide. Still, there was such a folksy charm to the man who was rarely seen out of overalls, now shuffling about in an uncomfortable tuxedo, fumbling with a manilla letter envelope in his thick and calloused hands. He ran one hand through his short, wavy blonde hair that was just beginning to show streaks of gray.

“Hi there, uh, son,” the big man was obviously uncomfortable, which was unlike him, “how are you holding up?”

“Fine, Dad,” Ben furrowed his brow in confusion, “I’m not the one currently being trussed up like a Thanksgiving turkey in there.

He jerked a thumb in the direction of the house. His Dad gave a little nervous laugh.

“Yeah, I remember my wedding,” he smiled then, broadly, “I gave up a lot of stuff to be with your mother… but I haven’t regretted it.”

“I should think not,” it was Ben’s turn to chuckle nervously, “Is there… something you wanted to tell me?”

“Er, well…”

“Would it have anything to do with the envelope you’re holding?”

Bob looked down, and was seemed shocked to find it still there.

“Oh! Oh, right, right,” Bob chuckled and ran a hand through his hair again, “Sorry… I guess it’s all the excitement of the day.”

“You’re not one to get excited about things like this,” Ben shook his head and chuckled, “Is everything all right?”

Bob heaved a heavy sigh that made his now expansive stomach shift up and down.

“I have something to give you.”

“Okay,” Ben was more worried than before and now a little confused, “This is getting a little weird, Pop.”

“I’m sorry,” Bob shook his head, “This is just… I know it’s a big day for you. I did this for your brothers, too, but I had trouble giving them this on their wedding days, too. If it wasn’t for your mother, I’d probably never have told any of you.”

He slowly opened the manila envelope and took out what looked like a magazine. He handed it to Ben, who turned it over to scrutinize the cover.

“What is this, a comic book? Wait…”

His eyes popped open as he finally began looking the cover up and down. It pictured a muscular man, clad head to toe in a form-fitting purple uniform that was accented occasionally with bits of yellow. The cover showed him laying waste to an entire Rogues’ Gallery of colorful villains, standing proud among a pile of vanquished foes. Above the costumed man, a jagged word bubble proclaimed his battle cry:

“Get ready for Ultro! The Man of Now… the Man of WOW!”

Ben’s eyes were still wide when he put the comic down, regarding his Dad with shock… but he didn’t even know the half of it, yet.

“Dad… is this an Ultro #1? April 1972? This is worth, like, $20,000! They only made like a hundred of these!”

“And they were special order only, I know,” Bob put both hands in his pockets and looked about ready to scuff his polished shoe on the dirt and say “shucks.”

“So how in the hell did you get one?”

“Well…” Bob never was a man to make a fuss, “The mayor gave it to me.”

“They mayor gave you one?”

“More than one.”

“How many?”

“About… five… or ten.”

Ben folded his arms and scowled. He wasn’t buying it.

“And why would a mayor… which mayor, by the way?”

“Cincinnati.”

“Oh, of course. Cincinnati,” Ben rolled his eyes, “So why would the mayor of Cincinnati give you roughly $100,000 worth of comic books?”

“Um, well… you see…”

“Come on, Dad,” Ben tried to coax as gently as possible, but credulity was thin at best, “You and I both know that you barely made it down to the King of Prussia Mall, let alone all the way to Cincinnati. Just tell me where you got this. I mean, is this some kind of wedding present because, I gotta tell you, I’m gonna hock it. I mean, Lucy and I are gonna need a little cash to get started.”

“You can hock it, I don’t care,” Bob’s head hung a little, “Like I said, I got more. I feel bad, really… both your brothers got, um, better gifts. This was the best I could give you.”

This was your best?” Ben waved the mylar covered book about, “Dad, are you sure you’re feeling all right?”

“It’s funny,” Bob gave a sad little chuckle, “Dan was the same way when I told him. Tom, though… he took it pretty well. It was like he always knew.”

“Knew what?!” Ben bellowed. Thankfully, there was no one nearby to hear it… but the priest.

“Is everything all right in there, gentlemen?”

“Everything’s fine, Father,” Bob called back through the flimsy white tent wall, “I’m just having a bit of a talk with my son, is all.”

“I see, I see,” the priest’s strong, but gentle voice belied his advanced age, “Is the young man nervous?”

“In a way, father. We’ll need to not be disturbed for a bit, is that all right?”

“Of course, of course.”

“Wait… why does the priest think I’ll be nervous?”

“Hush.”

After a few more minutes of silence, Bob checked outside quick to make sure everyone else was still busy either in the house preparing, or in the front yard doing a meet and greet. It was the kind where cousins who hadn’t seen each other in years pretended that they hadn’t been trying to avoid one another, and everyone tried to avoid that one uncle… there was always that one uncle.

“Dad, is this some kind of prank to get me to worry less about the wedding? Because I’m okay, honest.”

“Sorry, son. It’s not a prank. The truth is…”

He shuffled a few steps forward and placed both his hard working hands on his son’s shoulders. He fixed Ben with a stare, bright blue eyes to bright blue eyes.

“I used to be a superhero. That…” he gestured to the comic, “That was me. I was Ultro.”

Ben’s eyes were not so serious. They were flat, deadpan, and seemingly quite irritated.

“Nice one, Dad. I never knew you had it in you. Real prankster, you are.”

“No, son!” Bob protested, looking quite upset himself, “I’m telling the truth! I really was!”

“Who was what now?”

Dan Graf had popped his head into the tent unexpectedly. Now nearing thirty, Dan was tall and thin, but not without some muscle. He had an infectious laugh and a smile that seemed to measure in acreage, framed by the elegant, pencil moustache he always wore as Harrisburg’s number one source of evening news. He had inherited his father’s fun-loving personality, but he had inherited a few of the more radical traits from, well, that one uncle.

“Well,” he spoke, still appearing as a disembodied head in the tent flap, “Isn’t this one of those adorable family moments. And me without my camera.”

He entered the tent (without being invited, of course) and approached both his Dad and baby brother.

“So! Did you tell him yet, Pop?”

“I’m trying to,” Bob shrugged hopelessly. Dan sauntered over to his brother and threw a comradely arm around Ben’s shoulder.

“Well, you gotta admit, it was a lot easier to convince Tom and me, when you gave us the rings.”

He thrust out his left hand in front of Ben’s nose, displaying what had always seemed to be a normal wedding ring.

“See? It’s spring steel with a diamond caught in the middle. It’s like the steel is always trying to CRUSH the diamond, but it never will!”

He made this pronouncement like a monologue before those arena rock songs he used to blast from his beat up GMC Jimmy. Ben still regarded him skeptically.

“So? What do the rings do?”

“Well, for one thing… they can do this!”

He gave a quick shuffling sidestep and, with one fluid motion, lifted Bob bodily with one hand and Ben with the other, without a modicum of effort. There wasn’t even a wrinkle in his tux as he hefted close to six hundred pounds. From his perch now six feet off the ground, Ben finally began to realize that something was up.

“Wow.”

“That’s all you can say?” Dan hooted with laughter, “Pop couldn’t shut me up for weeks afterwards, man!”

He set them back down, still laughing. Ben readjusted his tie and swallowed hard.

“So, what you’re trying to say is… you’ve got super strength.”

“But not invulnerability,” his brother pouted a bit, “Anything over a couple tons and I could throw out my back.”

“And Tom,” Ben ignored his brother and spoke directly to his father, “he’s got a ring, too?”

“Yes, he does,” Bob nodded, “He was given mental strength, psionic powers: telekinesis, mind control, telepathy.”

Ben was surprised at how serious his father suddenly sounded. He wasn’t sure he’d ever heard him sound like that.

“So, Pop,” Dan kept on grinning, ruining the formerly serious mood, “Are you gonna give Junior his ring now?”

Bob answered with a swift cuff to the back of Dan’s head.

“Owww!”

“Do I get a ring?” Ben couldn’t hide the excitement and anticipation in his voice.

“I’m sorry, son,” Bob’s features fell again, “I gave up my powers soon after I married your mother. She was able to find a way to remove my powers and place them into these two rings, and so we decided we would have two children…”

“Buuut then…” Dan piped up again, “Years later… Mom came into the kitchen one day with a butcher knife and a bottle of Materna Meds, and, whoopsie, guess what happened?”

“…Me?”

“I wouldn’t trade you for anything, son,” Bob smiled, “But I’m sorry… those comics are all I can give you. The money and the knowledge should help you… I hope…”

“That’s all right, Dad,” Ben smirked, patting his rotund middle, “I wouldn’t have looked good in spandex, anyway.”

Ahem.

A voice seemed to come from nowhere, yet everywhere at once.

You’ve told Ben, right?”

Though the voice was a bit distorted, Ben recognized it as his brother Tom: deep, level, belying his short and wiry frame. His mother had always described it as Gregory Peck coming out of Fran Tarkenton.

“Yes, Tom,” Bob rolled his eyes a little, “Although I’m sure you could have mind scanned him to find that out.”

I wanted to make a proper introduction. Anyway, the wedding party is almost ready. They should be heading out soon. I suggest you all get ready.”

In all of the fuss, Ben had forgotten that he was getting married. The rest of the day was positively a blur, spent with the woman he loved on the happiest day of his life, but still that niggling thought ate at the back of his mind. His Dad, Ultro.

He had managed to corner his Dad in the corner of the banquet hall during one of the girls-only dances.

“The Man of Now…The Man of Wow?” Ben laughed a little, “Seriously, who thought of that one?”

“It was the Seventies,” Bob replied with an innocent shrug.

“So, did Tom and Dan do any, y’know, crimefighting?”

“You should know that, son,” Bob had a little smile on his creased features, “You read their comic books growing up.”

“Y-you mean…” He spun around quick, watching the two of them with their own wives, “Nevermind and the Blue Traveler? That was…”

“Why do you think they were so hard to reach after college?” Bob raised his eyebrows.

“This… this is just too much,” Ben put two fingers to his temple and rubbed, “why now, Dad? Why not years ago, why not ten years from now, huh?”

“I told myself I would tell my sons on their wedding day, so they would have to make the same decision I had made. I was lucky enough that I met your mother at the lab, but I wanted your lives to be normal, I wanted you to have the chance of a normal life.”

“And they still chose to fight?”

“For a while,” Bob followed Ben’s gaze to the table: the tall, gregarious Dan with his mousey wife, and the short, bearded Tom with equally short, but more boisterous woman, “but, well… life happened. And, you have to admit, things are going along okay without the heroes.”

“If by that you mean the world hasn’t exploded yet,” Ben responded bitterly. That bitterness seemed to well up in him, the more he looked at his brothers, but it fell away when his new bride and her maid of honor bounded upon him, billowy dresses leaving a trail of upturned chairs in their wakes.

“Come on, honey!” the new Lucy Graf giggled, dragging her husband by the arm, “No being a wallflower at your own wedding!”

Ben tried his best to mouth we’ll talk later to his Dad as he was lead away. Bob simply smiled. Lucy dragged him over to the table with his brothers, demanding photos with the now six Graf children.

“Pictures, pictures!” the maid of honor shrieked over the din of the music, “All three of you brothers, together, come on!”

There was a blinding flash. Ben was still blinking spots out of his eyes.

“Come on! Smile, Tom!”

Another flash.

“Strike a sexy pose!” the maid shouted like a circus lion tamer.

“No, Dan… that’s not sexy.”

“Thanks, wifey. Love you, too!”

“Okay, okay, now…” the maid had had a little to drink, and it was obvious, “You guys, you three guys, you should, like… you should, like, put your rings  in the middle, you know… like they’re almost touching!”

“Like they are superheroes or something!” Lucy shouted giddily.

“Yeah, totally!” the maid answered, “Superheroes! Come on, guys… do it!”

Surprisingly, even Dan was hesitant at this. With a massive smile that broke open his own goatee, Ben was the first to put his titanium ring-clad fist into the middle.

“Like we’re superheroes,” he regarded both of his brothers with a knowing look. Dan returned a knowing smile and put his in, and Tom grudgingly did the same with his gold ring.

Another flash. The instant was frozen in time, forever… until the maid of honor drunkenly wiped her memory card two hours afterward.