I believe I’ve passed the age of consciousness and righteous rage
I found that just surviving was a noble fight
I once believed in causes too
I had my pointless point of view
And life went on no matter who was wrong or right
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?!”
Ben hadn’t even cleared the tops of One Liberty Place when Tom’s voice came crashing into his mind. The bubble wavered a bit, but Ben was sort of expecting it so it wasn’t too much of a shock.
“Nice to see you, too,” Ben shot back.
“Do you even realize what you just did?!” Tom’s voice was accusing, scolding.
“I would have thought by now you’d understand that I’m doing things a little differently than you did,” Ben replied coolly, “or do I need to aim my kick a little lower next time?”
There was a silence then, but Ben knew the line was still open, so to speak. Finally, his brother spoke, composed and metered.
“I’m just worried about you and your wife. You–”
“Oh, bullshit!” Ben was still smiling and chipper, “That’s not why you busted into my head. I can’t read minds and even I know that.”
“Why do you think I called you, then?” Tom was beginning to get flustered.
Ha, he says it’s a “call.” How pompous! Ben thought to himself… only to realize that it wasn’t to himself anymore.
“You’re mad,” he began aloud, “You’re upset that someone isn’t doing things your way. You see, I’m starting to put pieces together, and I’m still thinking about what Dan and I talked about yesterday. You know, don’t you? Of course you do. You remember Greg?”
“And I bet you had some choice words for Dan when he snuffed him?”
Ben was about to think a few thoughts to himself about how Tom was usually one to make broad speeches and proclamations, but now he was sticking to one word at a time. He managed to catch himself, though, and muffled the thoughts before they entered his consciousness, tucking them away for later.
“Because I’m sure you’ve been in that situation before and, as always, you had some sort of wise lesson to teach him?”
“You should have gone for an owl costume,” Ben snickered, “and now, you’re upset with me because not only did I have to kill a bad man, just like Dan did, but I’m not ashamed of it. When a man threatens to kill you, Tom… when a man pulls the trigger on you…”
“But that doesn’t mean you–”
“Yes it does! It means I! I do! Because it’s my own fucking life, all right? Maybe I’m the only one in the whole world who doesn’t think you have all the answers, and maybe that means I’m all wrong, but I’d rather be wrong just to spite you than feel like I was on your fucking leash all the time. You sit there with powers like God, and you want to lecture me on how to use the powers I built for myself? Hey, here’s an idea: why didn’t you warn Lucy and I that Scoville was there, huh Mr. Omnipresent? If you can bust into my head whenever you want, why didn’t you help us then? Did you have to teach us a lesson? Were you curious to see what we’d do? Are we just another experiment so you can feel high and mighty and look down and judge us from on high, Mr. Suburban Buddha?”
There was a long silence then. Ben caught a thermal and winged toward Elizabethtown.
“What the hell happened to you, man? When I was a kid, you were the punker. The Gen X-er. You were the guy who cut school to hitch a ride to Seattle and chuck barricades at the police. You were the guy who was gonna set the world on fire and really change things. Now… now, you sit in your fucking fake-Tudor with your 2 cars and a picket fence, you detatch yourself from reality so you can be Mr. Above-It-All, and you think it’s okay to get out of the cape business and just sit there and judge everyone, but let me ask you… if you’re done with it, if you’re above it all, if you’re beyond my silly emotions or whatever… why are you still wearing the ring? Why are you still using it on me, on Dan? Do you use it on Melanie, too? Is she just another one of your experiments?”
“Ben, you can’t understand…”
“No, I think I understand pretty damn well. You love the idea of being the king, you love being powerful… but you don’t actually want the responsibility. You don’t actually want to feel like you have to help anyone. You did your time, right? Don’t you deserve a quiet retirement, didn’t you do enough? No! It’s never enough, and it’s a damn thankless job, but we keep doing it, because it’s the right thing to do. If you want to be selfish, and you want to say ‘I got mine, so fuck you’ and run off to the ‘burbs, then do us all a favor and give the ring to someone who can actually use it, and while you’re at it, get off your goddamn high horse!”
He was crying now, and he had to tear off his goggles to let the water out. Tom was still silent from his undisclosed location, but there was still that feeling of the connection being open. It was almost a sort of warmth.
“God dammit,” Ben hissed, “You used to be my hero. Please… just, please… tell me what happened to you. It seems like something happens to all of us that ruins us, it breaks us, so please… tell me what happened to you so I’m ready when it happens to me.”
The reply was surprisingly immediate.
“Her name was Tina Carmine.”
Tom’s voice was softer, and higher pitched, and it was then that Ben realized he had been pitching his voice down for telepathic communication, using his “hero voice” as Ben liked to call it.
“We were friends in high school, and into college. We probably would have gotten married, but neither one of us were ready to pull the trigger. We just both assumed it would happen eventually: we’d just look around, shrug, and say ‘why not?’ Her Dad was the police chief in Upper Marion, so she got a lot of shit from the other kids when Dad would bust them. We were kind of brought together by those idiots, although I doubt they’d ever know it.”
“I don’t ever remember hearing about her,” Ben interjected, “what happened?”
“Do you remember BrainBreaker?”
“Yeah,” Ben nodded, thinking back to his childhood comics, “Stupid name, awful costume… he wasn’t REAL, was he?”
The silence that followed told him everything.
“My God, I thought they’d made him up for the books! He was a goddamn cartoon character: too crazy, too sadistic…”
“He found out about Tina through her father,” Tom’s voice got very quiet, “It had nothing to do with me. By the time I got to her, he’d already… cut her open. Her brain… there wasn’t anything left. I snuffed out what little there was as a mercy… and then I snuffed him out.”
“Serves him right.”
“But it didn’t help anything, Ben. Tina was still gone.”
His voice was weak now, wavering.
“Dad didn’t give me the ring as a wedding present. I was the first to get one, it was a passing of the mantle. When I told Tina about it, she made me promise one thing: that I’d never use it on her. I only did once, and by that time…”
He heaved a juddering sigh.
“She didn’t do anything wrong. She was even supposed to be protected by her father, by the law. She didn’t even drink or smoke. Said she didn’t like the way they made her feel. And still, that happened to her… I had a bad few years, Ben. I killed a lot of people I probably shouldn’t have, I did a lot of things to men’s minds that I know I shouldn’t have, but I just felt like if I could do enough…”
“Then it would somehow even out, right?” Ben finished, remembering a similar thought he’d said to a psychiatrist.
“But it never would. Every night was the worst night, worse than the one before it, and after a while… you just decide there’s nothing you can do.”
Ben did his best to flatten out the bubble and slow his descent, off into a nondescript piece of land in Lancaster county. He’d found that, if he gave it a little more thought, he could change the shape of the bubble just a little. Circles were easy, he found, but having edges… that required holding a line.
“Melanie doesn’t know about this, does she?” Ben asked.
“And she never will.”
“No, she won’t… because it’s not my place to tell.”
Ben couldn’t remember the last time Tom had said that to him. He landed and rolled through the countryside as he sighed himself.
“So, you’re saying something’s going to come along and break me, just like it did you and Dan.”
“I hope it doesn’t.”
“And you’ve decided that, if the whole world is a giant shitpile, there’s no point in picking up the shovel anymore?”
“There’s no place to put it all, if we follow your analogy.”
“Are you saying we completely give up the fight?”
“You can fight in many different ways.”
“Well, I know I’m probably talking out of my ass, and I know I’ll probably be coming to you bawling like a baby someday… but what if, and I’m just thinking… what if I’m already broken? Y’know, the Recession, the jobs, getting shit on everywhere I go… maybe I started from the place you ended up.”
“Ben,” Tom’s voice was growing harsh again.
“I don’t want to cheapen what happened with you and Tina, I know, I know… but everything’s relative, y’know? You said it yourself that you don’t know what the worst is until it happens. Even you found that things got worse after Tina, because of Tina… so maybe I’m already there. I know it seems ridiculous, but you have to imagine: people like me and Luce, we worked so hard to keep our noses clean, because we were promised something good would happen. I don’t have to tell you to imagine what it’s like to spend your whole life hoping for something to start your life around and then have it taken away.”
“You have Lucy.”
“And you have Melanie, don’t you?”
Ben rolled to a stop in a usual place, an unplowable hollow next to an enormous, ancient oak. He deactivated the bubble and looked at the idyllic blue sky meeting the stunning green hills, all of it bathed in late morning sunlight.
“How about I tell you a secret, too?”
“By the way, are you doing this while at work?”
“Just finishing up.”
“You were saying?”
“Oh, yeah… well, only Lucy and I know this, so keep it under your beard, all right? You see, when I first met Lucy, she was not the love of my life.”
“And she knows this?”
“Yep. She actually had a boyfriend at the time, real wet noodle, y’know? But anyway, when we first started hanging out, it was just that: we were people that liked a lot of the same stuff and liked hanging out. I never felt like she was promised to me, or that it was inevitable. It just turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me. I actually stole her away from that dork, truth be told.”
“So…” Ben rolled his eyes at his brother’s impatient tone, “What I thought was promised to me was a life working my ass off at a job I loved and getting paid halfway decent for it. I never even figured I’d get married, unless it was to some shrew who’d divorce me in three years and take the money.”
“So when the job thing, everything I’d ever wanted, fell apart and it wasn’t my fault… well?”
“I can see where you’d think that.”
“Well, that’s some friggen progress, I guess. People like me and Lucy, we’ve got to do things differently. We see life differently from you, or Dan. We had different experiences, but pain, agony… that can be universal.”
He didn’t hear a response in the awkward silence that followed.
“Look, I’m gonna grab the Judge out of this culvert here and drive it into town, so you have about ten minutes if there’s anything else you wanna do inside my head.”
“No, I just wanted to see what you were thinking.”
“You don’t really need to talk to me to do that, do ya?” Ben replied, making a mental not to NOT think about developing some way to block unwanted psychic intrusions, but to definitely think about it later.
“Take care of yourself, Ben. Remember, I’m supposed to die before you do.”
“That was… oddly morbid. So, do we have to say goodbye like on the phone, or…?”
“I’ll be leaving now. But before I go, I’d just like to let you know that I have never used my powers on Melanie.”
The feeling was gone, and Ben knew he was now truly alone. A few hours later, Melanie came home to their split-level in the suburbs, finishing up her first shift job and rousing Tom from his slumber after his third shift one. As they talked and prepared dinner, Tom remarked to himself again that he had never used his powers on Melanie, but a small, insidious voice in the back of his mind added a quick note that he’d never needed to.
And as Tom watched Melanie grab the vinaigrette salad dressing, which Tom had gently suggested to her over the course of years until it had become her favorite, that same little voice remarked again that it sure was a good thing no one could read HIS thoughts, wasn’t it?