Superhero (ret.), by Chris Doerner
The scream echoed across dilapidated brownstones and sounded a lot closer than the usual sounds of the poor, desperate people Arthur inured himself to on his evening constitutional to retrieve his paper. A red lacquered cane clicked slowly over garbage-strewn sidewalks. For more times than he could remember in the last twenty years, Arthur toyed with the idea of moving. Florida beckoned to him as it had thousands of other seniors. Or California. Arthur even heard some of his old cronies had formed their own production company in LA.
Another scream, this time louder and more desperate. Arthur paused, then clutched his paper tightly under his arm. He continued picking his way around broken sections of sidewalk. After the last hip surgery he had to be careful that he didn’t get off balance. He certainly didn’t want to spend another three months recovering from a fall he could have avoided.
After the third scream echoed through the street, a few curtains fluttered anemically from behind the windows of Arthur’s neighbors. Most of them were also seniors and as the neighborhood became more dangerous they withdrew into the defense of seclusion. Most wouldn’t even venture outside. Arthur stubbornly refused to relinquish to the thugs that hunted his streets his evening walk to purchase a paper. That walk reminded him of his youth, and his power to keep his neighborhood safe. But no longer. Too many years had robbed Arthur of the one thing the criminal element hadn’t been able to steal.
The elderly man weaved his way to the middle of the block where his own fortress of solitude still stood. Although there was a rubble strewn lot on one side of his rowhome and an abandoned property on the other, his particular home was spacious and well maintained. Arthur was meticulous about his own standards even if those around him refused to keep up their own.
Arthur caught the sound of a hoarse croak only dimly resembling a scream. He recognized it as a woman’s and close. He put on an additional burst of speed and came around past the lot. Arthur sighed deeply. Four men had a woman trapped right outside his own house. The twenty-something woman was splayed on a pile of gravel while one of the men dumped the contents of her purse on the ground. Two were taking turns trying to get her to scream again.
The senior switched his cane from left to right hand and took a tentative step forward on the loose gravel. Four heads whipped around.
“Keep movin’ old man. You don’t see nothin.”
“You’ll see something when I pull my dick out.” laughed a second.
He turned around and undid his studded belt.
Arthur clutched his cane in a death grip.
“Help me”– the woman’s eyes pleaded.
“Move on–or die”. From the leader. The menace was palpable.
Arthur exhaled as if he were under water. And backed off into the shadows around the edge of the lot.
“Crazy old bastard. I shoulda fucked him up.”.
The four turned their attention back to their intended victim. One already had his pants down. The woman shut her eyes and clenched herself as tightly as possible. Before anything more serious could happen a reddish blur flashed among and around them, scattering criminals like leaves. Two were tossed into the side of the rowhome and two were thrown almost as far as the street. One of the thugs regained his feet in a moment and shouted to the others in recognition and amazement.
“It’s the Crimson Avenger!”
“The Crimson Avenger- the guy in the comic book.”
“Dickhead– this is that old fart and he just bought himself a shitload of trouble.”
Arthur’s arthritic joints almost refused to function. Force of habit had made him don and wear the Rayo-weave costume under his street clothes every day for close to 35 years, but it had been 15 since he last used the Power. The mask shifted around and got in his eyes. His outfit hung loose, powerful muscles now gone weak and flaccid. How did he used to fight in this thing?
“Well don’t just stand there like some pussies, get him.” From the leader.
The Crimson Avenger’s first kick came in low and glanced off one of the men’s thighs. His elbow smash was more effective. The would-be rapist’s nose exploded in a bloody squash. He whirled through two others and stood between the men and the prone woman. Three angry gang members quickly regrouped and closed on the lone man in the red costume. The one Arthur dropped picked himself up, blowing blood and snot out of one nostril. He kept repeating, “I’m gonna kill him.”
A semi circle formed around the legend. He tensed and almost missed the rush when all four moved again. With the speed of thought, the Avenger reacted. Breaths hissed in when the hero sailed over their heads in his trademark Crimson Rainbow. Yet the four were only slowed. Too many years in crack-backed hallucinations deadened any amazement. One thug jumped like he was slamming a basketball and connected with the bottom half of the Avenger’s legs. The ex-superhero crashed to the ground amidst the gang. Flashbulbs of light and pain went off when he hit the ground.
Agony spiked him to the pavement. And a sudden recollection as his breath sobbed in of…
Dr. Tuttleman’s lab was located on the backside end of the military base in a secluded area, half-embedded into an earthen embankment. The good doctor may have been a genius when involved in his own top-secret work but was always lackadaisical in other areas, particularly about security. Tuttleman figured that was mostly what the military was there for, to guard things. And to pay for his experiments. So there was no concern for security or protocol when Arthur the doughboy showed up. He was a regular fixture at the installation anyway, a lowly private riding in on his bike to deliver sandwiches to the MP’s and occasionally cleaning up around the lab after Tuttleman’s experiments were over. Thus it was that Arthur stepped into the lab seconds before the Doctor’s experiment went haywire. Arthur and his six-sandwich delivery were exposed to sunlight augmented through industrial magnets. The searing light was incredible. His clothes crisped off. Lightning arced off and through the magnets, the lunches, Arthur’s entire body. He was flung into a wall and fell among some chemicals stored nearby. The bolt of sunlight bobbed and weaved as if it was a living creature, and seemed to seek Arthur out. It tore through chemical containers in its dizzy search. A scream ripped itself from Arthur’s throat as noxious chemicals burst over him and the lab fell to pieces around him.
Two quick kicks cracked ribs in his side. The Avenger rolled away from studded boots and entangled someone. A leather-jacketed thug went down and a red-gloved hand blurred into the man’s throat. He gurgled wetly and didn’t move again. Even from the ground, the older man was not totally helpless. Power trilled and welled up from somewhere deep inside the hero. It started as a small bubble of force that grew larger with distance. The bubble began to whirl, although only Arthur could see that. A slight breeze picked up and intensified, blowing trash and paper around the lot. As the wind increased it began to glow with a reddish tint and wandered over to the thugs. It wasn’t the glow of force from his youth but was enough to stagger the three still standing and kept them pinned back against the alley walls. Arthur spared a moment to glance at the girl.
“You all right?”
A timid nod yes.
Arthur wheezed, “If you get a chance to get passed them, move out and call the police. Keep moving. Don’t want them to grab you again.”
The girl’s pretty face twisted in pain, but whispered an assent. Arthur turned away from her, torqued his own body and snapped a hip back into place. He crawled upright and squared himself. His arm was numb and tingly to his fingers. Before he could move he felt something snap at the base of his head.
Dr. Tuttleman’s experimental misfire had turned Arthur’s skin a brilliant shade of scarlet. He rested comfortably, or rather comfortably enough, in the Barracks hospital while the good doctor poked and prodded the young man. Except for the sunburned skin color and a feeling like he’d run very fast in a long race, he seemed to be fine. But despite all the tests the military doctors could muster and the reassurances by those same doctors that he would recover with no side effects; he couldn’t shake the feeling that something was there. Inside him. Something fluttered and tickled in his chest and moved when he tried to track it down. Occasionally
Arthur felt it course its way along the length of his legs and arms. At times he felt he could hold it. Like he was actually holding something in his hands. Like invisible bricks, but lighter somehow.
Arthur staggered from an unexpected right hook coming in from his blind side. Stars popped in and out of his vision and twirled around like a tornado. He had the odd feeling of a piece of cold iron being pressed hard to the side of his face from the last haymaker. An instinctive backhand caught the youngest looking thug as he was coming in for a second shot. Arthur’s mask shifted again and partially blinded both eyes. His consciousness reeled as he fought to stay on his feet.
“I won’t leave you C.A.”, Mighty Maiden protested. “They’re too many still standing and your powers are almost gone. If we can hold here, Black Fang will be back with reinforcements.”
The Crimson Avenger and Mighty Maid were pinned down behind some heavy equipment and warehouse machinery, as the buzz and hiss of bronze bolts of energy arced over their heads.
“There’s no time. Black Fang won’t get back here before Skull makes his escape. What about Star Kid?”
“I saw him disappear into the warehouse right before it blew. I—I don’t think he made it out.”
Mighty Maid’s eyes welled up with the sudden realization of The Star Kid’s final fate.
“I don’t care how long it takes, I will put the Naked Skull behind bars if it’s the last thing I do. His army of death-ray assassins ends today.”
Through gritted teeth and pain and loss, the Crimson Avenger caught his breath and rose to his feet. The young hero’s steely-blue eyes bore in on Mighty Maid’s hazel ones.
Both heroes whipped around from their makeshift protection and flung themselves at the hundred black uniformed henchmen of the Skull’s.
Arthur dropped to his knees from a hit to the gut with a length of pipe. A follow up blow to his back cracked through his kidney armor to cut him deeply near the base of his spine. An incredibly fast rear kicked caught the shortest of the thug’s right in the crotch. Arthur’s follow through
completed the arc and brought a heel right up and under the kid’s chin. Teeth erupted from his mouth in a bloody spray as he was thrown onto his back. The kid’s improvised weapon left his hand while he was still airborne and his head bounced hard on the rocks when he landed. A second thug’s body lay still at the back of the lot. And two were down.
Two were down and hundreds of others were firing in any and all directions.
“What is going on here?” asked The Britain.
“What do you mean?”. The Crimson Avenger had made his way to the British Superhero’s side during a lull in the fighting.
“They have set their own homes and shops on fire. They keep firing at the Fire Department and the Police. Don’t they know those departments are here to help?”
“I can’t say as I blame them. They’ve been holed up in ghettos or sitting out on a dirt poor farm since the two of us were kids.”
The Avenger ducked a ricochet.
“Over two hundred years of slavery.” He continued, “Lynching. Racism. That’ll make a man angry enough. Without help. They just want to vote and live like the rest of us.”
“They should get a haircut. Did you see the one with the enormous Afro and Tommygun?” From the Brit.
“It’s not the one with the Afro I’m worried about– it’s the Chaos Brothers Foos gas. Someone obviously released enough into this crowd to set them all off. They could not have picked a better area to inflame hatreds than right here in Detroit. They’re going insane.”
The Britain yelped as concrete shards from a second and closer ricochet. “I should have stayed in England.”
That shit just took out Jimmy!” Cried one of the last of the two toughs. “I’m gonna cut him into pieces.”
He pulled out a large vicious-looking knife and held it overhand as he launched himself at the old man in the red costume. The Avenger took it on one of his bracers and tried to turn it. He was a little slow and the knife caught on a spot of cracked dryrot in the leather. Ice cold pain tickled his arm as it slid in. A quick turn and block of his other arm wasn’t enough to keep the thug from hitting the hero twice in the face, breaking off part of the Avenger’s cowl. Arthur twisted on his bad hip again, grunted in fearsome pain and threw the thug off. He pulled the knife out of his forearm and tossed it into the shadows. In an instant the younger man was on him once more, trying to pummel Arthur through his broken body armor. The man continued to scream incoherently at him, and Arthur was able to discern that Jimmy was apparently this gang-banger’s younger brother. The older boy’s fists were too fast for the hero to stop. One strike after another caught him squarely in the face.
Mighty Maid, the only woman he might have had a life with, bleeding herself out in his arms. Doctor Deadly’s single retrovirus victim. Arthur kept on holding her until she was nothing more than a porous bloody sponge in a superhero costume.
The Philly Freedom cut in half by a hail of Mac 10 and hollow points by heroin dealers that weren’t old enough to drive.
Back Fang retiring to head one of the prestigious all black universities down South.
The Avenger’s eyes opened widely at the sudden calm between punches and kicks. Fuzzy vision fixated on the broken end of his lacquered cane erupting from the center of his assailant’s chest. The thug swayed and tried to remove it with rubbery hands that refused to function. His eyes rolled up and he vomited blood all over himself. His body fell to the side and revealed the woman Arthur had told to run away. Arthur couldn’t quite make out what she was saying; all he could hear was an industrial whine blasting behind both ears. She was shouting something and he was still trying to decipher what it was, when he felt the hot pain of something large and hard slide very deep into his back. Arthur half-turned and saw the leader of the gang pull another knife.
Acid flashed up into his throat and all his muscles cramped vise-tight. His body continued to turn, finished a pirouette and collapsed to the knees. The woman stepped around the hero and placed herself between the two. She brandished the bloodied half of the Avenger’s cane and dared him to come at her.
The leader still had his knife. And a longer reach. The wiry woman steeled herself for his charge, determined to make him pay dearly to get to the fallen hero. With the last of his energy but mostly through sheer force of will, Arthur powered up a small vortex, reached forward with his hand and plucked the knife from the leader’s fist. It launched itself far into the next lot. The girl rushed forward at the same time and rained down blow after blow onto the man’s head and upraised arms. Even through his deafened ears, Arthur could hear the girl’s primal screams. The leader cowered down for a few moments and then launched himself in the other direction, as far away from the insane woman as he could get. She started to follow him. Slowed, then stopped and turned back toward the aged hero. As she closed, Arthur’s head fell backward and hit the asphalt.
The Crimson Avenger lay broken and bleeding a few feet from his own door. The young woman tried to turn him over but didn’t have the strength left to do more than get the hero onto his side. Blood was leaking in a steady stream from a dozen wounds and his breathing was labored.
“What can I do?” Asked the woman.
“Probably nothing” answered the Avenger huskily. “They caught me pretty good a few times there.”
She motioned to remove his broken cowl. He fought her weakly.
“Don’t you know superhero’s never reveal their secret identities?” the man commented.
The woman grimaced a bit but finally managed to pull back the mask.
“Can you breathe a little better now?”
“A little.” Siren’s could be heard off in the distance.
“For saving me. W-we both knew what would have happened if you hadn’t come along when you did.” She was beginning to shiver as shock stole over her.
The Avenger mumbled lowly and started to drift off. His blood continued to slowly trickle and pool beneath his costume. Suddenly he started.
“What’s your name?
“Katrina. But everybody calls me Kate.”
“Who are you? Those guys recognized you. And what you could do.”
Arthur closed his eyes for a moment and took a deep ragged breath.
“I’m just an old man. That probably lived a little to long for his own taste.”
Katie put Arthur’s head on her lap. He groaned softly and continued to bleed all over her. The siren was very close now. He whispered lowly in her ear and then trailed off. His ragged breathing slowed. Stopped. Kate performed mouth-to-mouth and tried to get him breathing again. She started in on CPR. Nothing. Her eyes welled with tears. The Crimson Avenger was dead. From saving her. After a moment, she gathered herself and then moved to fulfill the Avenger’s last wish.
As the ambulance pulled up next to Arthur’s home, Katie finally broke down. Still sobbing, she stood up to meet the Paramedics. Directed them to where Arthur lay. He was redressed in his street-wear. Standard white shirt, bow tie and tweed jacket. She had balled up the costume and hidden it in her large, now-empty purse. Three of the thugs were killed, she explained, when the old man had come to her rescue. The fourth had run off.
A burly police lieutenant was a little puzzled.
“One old man took on these three here?” He pointed to where they lay.
Katie nodded yes.
“Must have been one tough old bastard.”
“He was a hero. No. A Superhero. Old school style.”
“Sounds like.” The lieutenant took out his card and gave it to her. “I know the ambulance will be taking you to the hospital to give you the once over, but could you come down to the precinct tomorrow to give us a statement?”
A little wearily, Katie said she would. It was mostly Arthur’s blood that was still on her lips, hands and clothes anyway. She was only shaken up and not really injured. As the paramedics assisted her into the ambulance, Katie spared one more glance at the blanket-draped hero. Then she glanced at her hands. Most of her body but especially her lips and hands felt a mighty tingling sensation. Katie closed her hand and made a fist. She opened it quickly and saw pop of color. For a moment it felt like she had something in her hand. Something tangible. Something powerful. Then she half smiled. And as the EMTs closed the ambulance doors she spotted the reflection of a crimson-tinged rainbow outlined through the windows.
Chris Doerner has been at different times in his life, a consultant for folks with disabilities, a free-lance videographer, an Indie film producer and most recently, an antiques and collectibles auctioneer. He vowed two years ago to return to creative writing and has been hacking away at it ever since.
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Tags: action, chris doerner, death, superheroes