I was young and working below my potential. I think It’s hard for that not to be the case - for most people anyway. My friend got me the job. He read poetry at a café I hung around at. He said it was quiet, a good place to think, easy work, no real hierarchy, just make sure the place is clean when they open the doors in the morning. If it takes an hour, or 10 hours, the pay was the same. It typically took about four hours. He talked me into it. I wasn’t looking for this sort of work, but he talked me into it.
I just cleaned up. After the machines were shut off, after all the other people were gone. It was just me and sometimes a mop, mostly I just straightened things. I waited to be accused of stealing something important. I never did, but I’d be the person they would have blamed if something went missing. In four years I never spoke to a soul. I just made sure things were where they belonged, I made sure the trash cans were emptied. I did an ok job at it. Nobody complained. I would occasionally do a half ass job and sleep on the roof. I figured out how to get up onto the roof. It was quiet and cold and whatever the roof was coated with was rocky and bumpy and left impressions in my back.
I was horribly sad and lonely. It takes a while to get used to that. To get used to being the sort of person who’s just sad and lonely, even when there’s people around. Even when everyone knows your name. Even when people are clapping you on the back. Even when people are afraid of you and second guess your motives. Even when people wonder where you’ve gone, or when people find you, and come to your door and ask why you won’t come out of the house.
I was on the roof. I fell asleep. The building caught fire. It wasn’t my fault. They blamed me, afterwards, but it wasn’t my fault. I didn’t start any fire. It was something electrical and – just one of those things. It’s just one of those things.
It all went to rubble. I was on the roof. I woke up after the fire. I was under, or in, I suppose, the rest of the building. It was cold and dark and uncomfortable. I thought I was dead. I thought that’s what death was. I thought I was in whatever death was. It was perfect black and there were no sounds apart from those that I created. But then I could see. Light red. Kind of an electric pink. It came from everywhere. I would never understand it. But, I wasn’t thinking then. With the light – something I thought was part of death – I could see enough to see that I was pinned under a large grey slab of concrete. It obscured my legs and I imagined them crushed. I couldn’t move. I was afraid. I screamed and lashed out.
There’d been amazing things lately. Dawn of the Atomic Age. It was raining monsters. Men could fly. Men were on the moon. Men awoke deep and terrible horrors from the ocean, and then we fought against them. Men lept from tall buildings and rent tanks apart and launched German tank men into the depths of the Atlantic ocean. They were lots of things to lots of people, and now, suddenly, me too.
I lashed out and the rubble flew everywhere. I hurt a few firefighters. They were putting out the smoldering holes of chemical green flames that were still flickering underneath the collapse. And then there was flying, flaming debris. And then I crawled out from under it all. I burned in a chemical fire and fell 3 stories. I was unharmed. I cannot be harmed.
They sprayed me with the hose. I crackled with pink light. Some of the water boiled off, some of it touched me but most didn’t. Most of it was destroyed or diverted. It is something that I would have to get used to. I immediately wished I’d died instead. It was my first thought. I knew immediately what I was. I knew I was now one of the people they’d expect to tear tanks apart and track down murderers. My clothes were torn and I was crackling pink energy from my hands and the firefighters were too frightened to speak and I am standing reborn and powerful and I am sad and I am lonely and I haven’t even the slightest idea of what had happened.
I would learn this much: The chemical fire changed me. I do not know how. No one would learn how. That’s how these things go. I can deduce that it happened before the fall, because I would be dead if it hadn’t. I can jump straight up about sixty feet. I have not encountered anything which I cannot pick up and carry. I have carried the cross town bus across town when it broke down. I can produce a small electric charge. I can see for miles. I cannot be harmed. I cannot be harmed. I cannot be harmed.
When this is the case, vagaries in your moral code show themselves in ways you do not expect. Life on this planet is a function of death on this planet. You need to eat. You have to buy food. You need to drink. You have to pay for water. You need shelter. You need to rent a small apartment that you barely afford. Everything costs money. You must work. I cannot be harmed. It breaks things down. This was apparent almost immediately. I walked home from the fire. They said I should stay. I decided it would be best to go to my apartment, and go to sleep. I should call my mother. I should tell her I am safe. I should tell her that I am glowing pink electricity. I should tell her that I am leaving footprints in the sidewalk. I should tell her that I leaned against a post and it broke in half. I should ask for her advice even though she does not have these problems. Even though there are only eleven or so other people on earth that might have these problems. She is a kind woman and loves me. She tells me to be careful, to get a good night’s sleep – that it will work itself out. It will probably just go away. But I crush the phone accidentally. I go next door to use Mr. Alan’s phone. He apologized and looked afraid. I do not know why he apologized. He said “Oh I’m so sorry” and tried to block my way. But I needed to call. I needed to speak with her. So I removed his door and I handed it to him and apologized too. I regret that, but I wasn’t in my right mind just yet. I would make it up to him later.
I decided not to leave my apartment for a month. I took Mr. Allan’s phone. I suspended receiver from a rag when I used it, so that I would not crush it. I spoke to my mother every day. My rent came due and went unpaid. It was not important. Also, I had no money. I had no job – it had burned down and killed me. One month turned into several. I had groceries delivered. I ran a bill. This also went unpaid. I decided that I had no reason to leave, except for food. And that I could take that. I could go and take it. I was owed something. I did not ask to be this. I did not ask for chemicals to be made for their war. I did not ask to be burned in them. If I am now an accident. If I must endure their accident forever, then I do not need to participate.
I was young.
I left my apartment. I was as unsure of what I was about to do as what I’d been red hot certain of the night before. It didn’t matter though. None of it mattered. I was different now. I could not be harmed. It removed the weight of decisions. It clouded up morals. None of it mattered.
First national bank is a small stretch of sidewalk footprints away. I walked behind the counter and they screamed and hit the alarm. I was quiet. Melancholic, really. I opened the drawers and filled up a sack. There were no endorphins. There was no excitement. I left. The police were late. I gave everyone a regretful, eyebrows raised ‘what can you do’ smile as I walked through the door.
I stopped at the grocer and paid my bill.
The police came around a corner when I arrived back home. “Freeze!” and all that. I went upstairs and went to sleep. When I woke up they were still there. When they saw me moving the announced “We have the building surrounded.” I didn’t expect this. I didn’t think I’d have to explain it. But I did. So I jumped out the window. When I landed, lock kneed and bolt upright, I only cleared out a small patch of sidewalk under my feet, it shattered, but not much. I am not very heavy. They shot at me. I let off a pink light, and the bullets were deflected or destroyed. Sometimes they crumbled to dust, sometimes hot liquid, sometimes they froze and shattered, one turned to gas. It smelled terrible. I let them finish.
“I’m keeping the money. When I run out, I will take more. I will not take more than I need. I’m not going to hurt anyone. I would like to be left alone now. Please go home.” I jumped back up and swung through my window. They went and got bigger guns. A rifle man on a nearby building shot me while I slept. I found out about it in the morning when I stepped on the slug. I turned up my television so I could hear it over the sirens, over their scrambling.
There are protocols for bank robberies. There are even protocols for someone like me who tears a building down, or holds the world to ransom. I don’t want that. I just want to be left alone. It went on for far longer than I’d anticipated. They sat outside for a week before I went downstairs again. I thought jumping out the window would have made my point, but it didn’t. So I went downstairs and sat on the stairs. They aimed at me again. They yelled questions and demands. I sat. I watched them speak into black boxes and call other people for answers. Maybe their mothers. Someone must know what to do. I sat on the stairs for three days. Not speaking. Just waiting. One man, a sergeant I think, came out from behind the cars. He had his gun holstered. He walked slowly and cautiously and talked a lot about not doing anything dangerous. He was nervous but brave.
“I’m not doing anything.” He said.
“What do you want?”
“I want you to go away.”
“We can’t do that. There are laws. You broke the law.”
“You can’t arrest me. You have to know that.”
“Yeah, we’re starting to get the picture.”
“You tried to kill me. You shot me while I was sleeping.”
“That wasn’t me.”
“It doesn’t matter. Just go away.”
“Give us the money.”
“It doesn’t belong to you.”
“It doesn’t belong to you either.” I was young.
“It belongs to someone.”
“I’ll give it back if you go away. But I’m just going to take more when I need it.”
“I’ll have to see what my boss says.”
Another week passed. I just let them mill around outside. I had enough food to last a little while longer. I didn’t get hungry very often. Eventually, a man in very tight clothes and a party mask woke me up early in the morning. He was hovering. He cleared his throat until I stirred. He looked like he was anxious to punch me. They always seem so anxious to punch you. I said hello. He said hello. I was groggy, but managed “Coffee?” and he did.
I made coffee. I’d been drinking out of a cast iron pan. It was bent, but didn’t break. I made the effort and delicate and used regular mugs for my guest. It was awkward. I’m not good with people. Becoming very strong can either make you very confident or very uncomfortable. This masked man was the former, I am certainly the latter.
“What are you plans?” he asked.
It’s why they sent him. They want him to make sure I’m not going to kill everyone, or that I’m not building a bomb up here. I’ve seen him on television. People think he’s from outer space. He’s got a new jersey accent. He’s some nobody - like me. Got struck by lightning, won the lottery, had a weird day. But he ran with it. Good for him, I guess. It seems silly to me. It always seemed so silly to me.
“I don’t have any plans. I might need to go shopping tomorrow. They won’t let the delivery guy through anymore. I’m almost out of food.”
“That’s it. Yes. That’s it.” There was a moment where he stared at me. He didn’t believe me. He wanted to punch me. “Look. What’s your name?” I said.
“I am The Avenger.”
“Right. Good. See, my name is Tom, Mr. Avenger. My name is Tom and I’m from Indiana and I moved here about six years ago after my parents died. I thought it would be nice to be by the ocean. I had a job and there was a fire, Mr. Avenger. And then I woke up like this.” My hand flashed on cue – he tensed and almost punched me. “I’ve been drinking out of that pan over there because it doesn’t shatter when I touch it. I took that money because I needed it. Because I’m out of money and I can’t work like this. I break everything I touch. I stole that money and I bought cereal and coffee with it. I paid my rent. I never hurt anyone in my whole life. And I won’t, if I can help it. I like to read the newspaper when I’m not in it. I root for the home team. You know? I’m not – I’m not crazy. I’m just like this now. That’s all. I just want to try to forget this happened. But my life got taken away, and then they blamed me for it and so I took something for myself. Kind of rude, I guess, but there it is.”
“The money. The bank wants the money back.”
“Ok. If it means everyone goes away – they can have it back. But I don’t know what to do, after that. I’m not going to jail, if they sent you here to take me there, I’ll walk right out the second you leave. You’ll spend your whole life collecting me from this apartment and driving me back to jail. And that’s ok by me. I’ll be nice about it. But I’m pretty sure it’s not going to do anybody any good.”
There is a moment.
He drank his coffee and I looked at his mask through the steam. It looked like felt. He stared at me. I think he still wanted to punch me. I’d have let him. It wouldn’t have mattered.
But he didn’t. He made a point of vanishing. I blinked and he was gone. The curtains flapped where he flew out. If he’d beaten on his chest with his fists and stomped his feet it would have been the same display. Just “I’m bigger than you.”
He left the money. He told the police to leave me be. That I’d been through a lot – which was true, and it was nice of someone to finally say it. But, looking back over his shoulder a bit, he said he’d be keeping an eye on me. I learned later in life that his name was Reggie. Got mutated when his science whiz little brother made some mistakes in the basement. He dressed up and tipped over tanks. He had a massive heart attack when he was 45 years old. If it came to it, I could have beaten him in a fight.
The police left me alone. I eventually found work. Occasionally the mayor would call about something super heroic. The lobstermen were invading the city, or some other nonsense. But I don’t like killing things. If they came near enough, I’d lend a hand. But that never happens. Reggie was enough. The police would occasionally ask for help on a case. But I would remind them that I wasn’t a detective. I couldn’t locate missing kids or find stolen jewels. It was ludicrous. Instead, I broke ships. The war wrapped up quicker than anyone expected - thanks Reggie - and the big destroyers came home en masse and I was cheaper than dynamite. It was fun. I think they were tracking it. Recording me. I spent some time being paranoid about that. I don’t know how paranoid, but it made me nervous for about a year before I came to the conclusion that it didn’t mean much. They weren’t any threat. If they were watching me punch holes through iron and steel, or walk on the bottom of the bay and jump through ships like a balding torpedo, then so be it. I used to bow when they sank.
I did that for a while. I knocked things over or apart to pay the rent, so I didn’t have to hit the bank again. After Reggie died, it would have been the easiest thing in the world. But people mostly forgot about me and I wasn’t looking to get involved again.
There are still folks like Reggie. They’re a nuisance. Reggie at least had some sense. I think his kid brother helped him with those things too. Mike, I think. I only met him once. At the beach. He introduced himself. He was wearing a watch that was almost comically over-sized. I imagine it was full of ‘secret’ gizmos to talk to, or summon, Reggie.
My mother was wrong. I grew old inside of whatever this is. I haven’t gotten less strong but I have arthritis. Whatever the pink junk is. That’s what’s strong. I’m still just me in here. When I realized that I panicked. I was trapped inside something that barely let me eat. I punched myself, threw myself down, tried to use it to break it. I did it for an hour. I had enough sense to do it away from everyone, but I altered the coastline. They were angry with me. I explained and they pretended to understand. “I’m stuck inside of this. I have no idea how to get out of it. I haven’t touched anyone in fifteen years.” I didn’t elaborate. But I made it make sense. It made them think I was a pervert. It’s easy to be honest when you cannot be harmed. You’re still mostly just afraid of yourself. It was at the police station. I always went to them when I needed to talk after that first week. I tried to only speak to them once every few years.
I am seventy three years old. It is another series of misfortunes that my health has sustained through this process. Doctors can’t get to me either, after all. I live in the building across the street from the one I’d started in. Better view. I made out OK with the business. I’m retired. I could still do it, but there aren’t any more ships. I was good.
Two weeks ago I tripped and ripped through the floor of the bus when I put my arms out to catch myself. I’d have broken my hip, probably, or done some other damage to myself if I were normal, but I’m not, so I fell through the floor and into the street and the bus went up and over me and spread lit gasoline all over the street. People got hurt. None too bad. Nobody even seemed too mad. There’s more than enough pity for me, it turns out. Bright pink old man burning a hole in the sidewalk, sitting in the fire he started because his old limbs aren’t quick enough to catch him when the bus lurches.
One of the new kids picked me up. Dunked me in the ocean. One of his friends put out the bus fire. He set me on the beach and spoke to me slowly like I was deaf but he was still stupid. Told me I needed to be careful. I told him to take me home or to just go away. He tensed, said something about responsibility and wanted to punch me. I laughed and then he got embarrassed and left. I was ten miles from home.
I spent a part of the night on the side of the road. It turns on when it’s cold and keeps me warm. The cops saw me and gave me a lift around 2am. I apologized for the commotion, but they weren’t angry with me. They understood, I think.
When I got home I went to the roof to look at everything. I have spent all of my time very carefully trying not to destroy everything I get my hands on. But it happens anyway. It is dark before it occurs to me that I have no idea how high I can jump, or how far. I could leave this building in rubble beneath me and maybe hit the middle of the ocean. Maybe I’d make it the whole way across. But it’d be all rubble beneath me.