“And no one said anything?”
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.”
“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:
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.