Superheroes Anonymous (AMDF, Year Two): Chapter 3

Chapter 3

“Secret of the Tropica Hardcore

March had come once again, but not to Jimmy’s comfort. News of a survivor had reached his ears shortly after the news of an arriving killer had poisoned them, and now he was forced to juggle his thoughts. Risen Ordinary versus human alter ego. Only one was threatened, but both were affected. Composure was a difficult balancing act on this otherwise cloudy morning. In his daze, he wasn’t sure how he was doing.

“Come on,” said the gruff voice with the English accent, a few feet from his ear. “Fisherman Steve’s been reviewing this tape for the last four weeks and he’s ready to show us what he’s found. This is big. Biggest news of the year, in fact. Don’t flake out on us now.”

Jimmy snapped to attention. Yes, his feet had stopped moving. But not for long. Focus was returning. Faster than a pounding heartbeat. They had to move. Now.

Cannonball City’s multifloored structures floated by at a parade’s pace as the superhero caravan moved along its busy streets. With the Pig Rocker, the hotheaded Brit whose heart growled like a motorcycle engine, taking the lead, Jimmy thought they’d clear city limits within a matter of minutes, especially given the urgency in which the Pig Rocker had busted the doors at Smack Burgers open. Yet, for the hurry that the Risen Ordinaries had displayed rushing out of the diner, they traversed the streets at a crawling speed. With shadows of towers creeping over their heads, and each shade of darkness hiding any number of surprises, he wished he could light a fire under their butts.

Jimmy wanted to ride the Cannonball City Transport, the official bus line of the Cannonball Strip, not just through the city, but all the way to Sandy Smack Island, hoping to duck under open windows and hug his knees under the spotted polyurethane cushions. But the Pig Rocker wouldn’t have it. One missed turn at the Highway Fork and they would’ve been off to Primex and beyond, miles away from their intended target. At least by foot, according to the Pig Rocker’s reasoning, they couldn’t screw anything up.

Jimmy Knightly, a former tennis star moonlighting as Powerstick Man, Cannonball City’s newest superhero-in-training, disagreed with the Pig Rocker’s demand. Not that he had a problem with walking or anything—he had, after all, overcome his ankle injury from the previous year despite his increasingly demanding walking schedule—but he did have a problem with making himself a target. It wasn’t something he liked adding to his daily agenda. He had made himself one anyway when he trained on the beaches with Plummet Man, learning that infernal spoon martial art—something he was sure he’d never master—but that was a requirement, like the trials he used to partake in at tennis camps so many years ago. If he wanted the grade, he had to risk the blade.

Most people at first glance would’ve noticed the black circle insignia stitched to his chest and the letter “P” emblazoned in the middle. It was etched in the snug fitting, almost to the point of indecency, white spandex that he wore from neck to boot. But in blinding themselves from the splendor of his hardened chest, they would have failed to recognize the bloody bull’s eye on the back of his head. It was woven into his chemically blond hair, right in that perfect spot where a bullet could’ve caused the greatest damage—a bullet from the one man he feared, the man who had driven him to the island in the first place, the man that authorities in southern California had once dubbed “The Spotless Cowboy.”

None of the other Risen Ordinaries knew of his situation. And he wasn’t sure if it was in their best interest for him to share. While they all displayed might in their own special way, none of them revealed an ability to take a bullet for him. And even if they could all take a bullet for him, the Spotless Cowboy would make certain to have at least one more available for Jimmy. He thought it was better to keep them out of the crossfire. In fact, he wasn’t so sure it was wise for him to be traveling with them at all.

“You guys sure you need me?” he asked.

He stopped in front of the tax office, and the other superheroes crowded around a streetlight to consider the question. Four faces stared back, some searching for an answer while others evaluated his sense of priority. The Pig Rocker folded his arms over his chest while Plummet Man, Jimmy’s trainer, nodded. The women, Cherry Chicklet and Miss Honeysweet, cupped their hands over their hips and were thin-lipped as they mulled over his response. The Pig Rocker scratched his face.

“You got other pressing engagements, mate?”

“Not necessarily. It’s just I don’t feel any particular connection to the survivor you think you found, and I’m not sure if—”

“What’s gotten into you?” Plummet Man asked. “We’re not asking you to fight anyone. We’re just taking you on a nice walk along a beach. A kid can do this. Stop being so afraid of shadows.”

“Yeah, I’m not afraid of—”

“I think our friend’s ego may be in danger,” Miss Honeysweet said, her eyes turning away. “This may be my own fault.”

“Oh blimey,” the Pig Rocker said. “You’re as bad as he is, sweetie. This isn’t poetic justice getting the best of him. Powerstick Man, mate, do what your American friends do and suck it up.”

“I’m not afraid of walking on the beach,” Jimmy said. “Just wanted to clear that up.”

The Pig Rocker stepped away from the streetlight. The others followed. Jimmy stood frozen.

“Get it in gear, mate. Plummet Man may issue you an end-of-year demerit if you don’t start walking. Won’t help you toward your superhero rank.”

***

It took them a couple of hours, but Jimmy and the others made it to the Highway Fork without getting shot. The path was scariest in the slums, as every window was grimy and every resident had a twitchy eye. But, at the same time, Jimmy felt relieved passing through there, as it was the only place in Cannonball City that probably would’ve returned fire should the Spotless Cowboy materialize from an alley with a heated AK-47 blazing from his hand. The Cannonball Outskirts, on the other hand, didn’t offer such luxury, as the growing forest of sabal palms, low-lying ferns, and mahogany trees and papayas could neither fight, nor prevent the cover his assailant needed to become a surprise.

The road was quiet along the Highway Fork. Birds sang atop Divi-divi trees lining the highway shoulder and a brisk wind blew in from the nearby ocean, trying to knock the already bent trees over. The Pig Rocker strummed air guitar as he walked, humming under his breath, while Cherry Chicklet played with her flaming red hair and Miss Honeysweet stopped on occasion to whistle at the local wildlife. Jimmy traveled about fifty feet behind them.

Plummet Man also kept a fair distance from the others, apparently thinking of matters unseen. His eyelids were half closed and his thumbs twirled as he swung them past his hips. When the fork turned south, Plummet Man stuck to the coast.

Jimmy maintained focus on the tops of cliffs, watching for movements from behind each boulder. A five-foot green lizard, known locally as a “man-eating iguana,” one of the many varieties of displaced, scientifically screwed-up creatures running amok on the island, was perched on a rock, swatting a bug out of the air with its tongue. A hidden camera swiveled on a tree trunk a few feet next to it. The Spotless Cowboy wasn’t crouching behind any of them.

About half a mile before reaching the water taxi station, where the road swung east and the beach continued south, Jimmy popped a spring in his step and moved toward the water’s edge to catch up with Plummet Man.

“I’m trying not to get you guys killed,” he said, just above a whisper.

For the first time since leaving Cannonball City, he noticed a cramp in his side. And, his feet were strained from the stiffness of his boots. Walking along the beach did him no favors, and he could only imagine what similar problems the others were experiencing, except for the Pig Rocker who probably needed a heart before he could feel pain. But he was certain they would enjoy pain more than they’d enjoy death.

Plummet Man’s cheeks welled as his eyes narrowed from behind his blue visor. “What are you talking about?”

“I’m not acting weird for the sake of acting weird. I don’t want to freak the others out, so this is between you and me. But someone’s after me.”

Plummet Man stopped. A puff of sand leapt from his toes. Jimmy almost ran into him. Then he flipped open his visor and stared at him. His face was really familiar, as if he had seen, or even spoken to his alter ego once or twice before, but a streak of blue paint beneath his eyes prevented Jimmy from placing his finger exactly on where or with whom. As a rule, Risen Ordinaries didn’t share their true identities with one another, or with anyone, in case a murderous opponent came to seek information regarding how to catch the hero asleep in his bed.

“Why would that freak out the others? They’re Risen Ordinaries. They can handle it. And frankly, I’m surprised it freaks you out. The type of training you’re receiving means you can handle it, too. Assuming you follow my commands.”

Jimmy searched his mind for an answer. Telling him plainly who was after him would’ve meant nothing if Plummet Man didn’t understand the context. And since Jimmy had only met the man three times, each under heightened conditions, and had forgotten almost every detail about his face except for those golden eyes, he didn’t really know how to describe him. He winged it.

“You know why Cloak Combustion went down so easily?” Jimmy hoped his point had a strong surface to cling to.

“Because you threw him out of a third floor window.”

“Because he could only concentrate on one person. If he’s too busy bickering with his teammate over fighting policy to give his opponent a fair look, he can be stopped. But we still had to take great caution against him.”

“Of course. When focused, he’s a living flamethrower. You don’t take caution, you lose your skin.”

“Well, the Spotless Cowboy doesn’t get distracted. And he doesn’t limit himself to mono e mono battles. And he doesn’t leave behind survivors if he can help it. He’s basically a tank. Or a virus.”

Plummet Man smirked.

“And that’s who’s after you?”

“Yeah.”

“And you think the Risen Ordinaries are freaked out about him?”

“You should be. I am.”

A short distance ahead, the Pig Rocker stared over his shoulder. The two women kept on walking.

“Oi,” he shouted. “You blokes coming or what?”

Plummet Man gestured him to wait.

“What does he look like?”

“I don’t remember.”

“But you say we need to take caution?”

“Only when I’m around. You can live free when I’m not. He’s only coming for me.”

Plummet Man stroked his plump belly.

“And you don’t know where he’s hiding?”

“Obviously not. I’m not even sure he’s on the island yet. I just know he’s coming. Well, no. I have reason to believe he’s coming. I think.” Jimmy shook his head. “Look, what’s important is this. He doesn’t leave behind survivors if he can help it. If he does show up, he’s going to cause us lots of pain.”

Plummet Man glanced at the gleaming white beach toward the water taxi station. The yellow speedboat ferrying travelers to Sandy Smack Island was already docked and waiting. The Pig Rocker and the women were heading for it.

“You’re not giving me a fair option here. The Peacemakers want me to train you. I find that difficult if I’m supposed to keep my distance.”

“I can defer my candidacy. I can return home and wait for him as a citizen. There’s no need for you to get involved.”

“And get yourself killed in secret? Demo Man won’t go for that. He wants more heroes and you’re the only one to step up this year.”

“You’ve got Stacklash and Rapid Pestilence. They can be your trainees.”

“They’re not heroes. They don’t have what it takes to become heroes. They’re unpredictable, reckless, and hate authority. The Pig Rocker had an awful time getting them to even wear the costumes. We can’t rely on either of them to pick up your slack. We need you.”

Jimmy felt the tension in his chest rise.

“I’ll get you killed.” If anything was going to get through Plummet Man’s skull, it was that. Or a bullet if the Spotless Cowboy was watching.

“We’re Risen Ordinaries. We’ll take that risk.”

Plummet Man walked away. Apparently, he was done arguing.

Jimmy glanced up at the cliffs again. The man-eating iguana had already left its perch and a bird had taken its place. The camera in the tree swiveled toward the water taxi station. The Spotless Cowboy was nowhere in sight.

“Fine,” Jimmy said under his breath. “If you wind up in a coffin on my account, your zombie better not rise up and yell at me.”

***

In a clubhouse near the center of Sandy Smack Island, a group of superheroes and dignitaries converged around some viewing equipment in the south side of the room. The equipment on display was old, but functional—probably imported from the last decade. The television screen had three green burn marks in each corner and a slight flicker racing down its face. A buzzing sound droned from the speaker, and an old VHS contraption suffered under its weight. A widescreen television with Blu-Ray player and 7.1-channel surround sound sat in the alcoves of an entertainment center a few feet behind the junk. An argument had been raised earlier about using it, but the consensus was that it was too modern to handle their current need. Other amenities like a serving counter next to the viewing area and some mysterious object under a dusty blanket in the octagonal recessed floor where the meeting sofas converged in the middle of the room rounded out the building’s décor.

The videocassette inside the VHS player whirred and crunched as the old television screen came to life. Then, onscreen, the image of a ship’s sundeck emerged with passengers from different backgrounds wandering about its wooden floor. They were dressed as though they had nothing but secondhand threads to their names. Their hands were empty and their faces were lined. The women had frazzled hair and sagging cheeks. The men were too busy walking hunchbacked to worry about their female companions’ diminished beauty. It seemed that none of them knew which way was up.

The ship itself was in better condition than its passengers were. Despite the slight distortion of the flickering television, anyone could see that the floor was polished, free of chips and scratches. Regardless of the spotty burn marks, anyone could tell that the ship’s walls were coated with fresh velvet paint and adorned with hand-stitched curtains. The pool glistened of navy blue and a fiery orange from the reflection of dusk. Floor plants were lush and blemish-free. And the deck chairs were absent of lingering seagull droppings. Everything about the Tropica Hardcore seemed dreamy from its royal design to its aimless passengers. It almost looked like a real cruise.

Beyond the railing overlooking the ocean, a small landmass resembling Sandy Smack Island rolled into view. Torches were lit around its perimeter and a large crowd gathered near the southern beach with streamers, buffet tables, and large quantities of food taking up plots. None of the residents seemed interested in the ship.

Then a white powerboat darted from out of nowhere and raced across the sea toward the island. It came from either the south or the east. A bald man with military clothes piloted the vessel. He crouched over the steering wheel as though he were guarding it from something.

“We must be hitting magic hour,” Fisherman Steve said. He was sitting on a stool, leaning toward the television with great interest.

Everyone diverted his attention from the television just long enough to read his face. The bespectacled man known as Dr. Robert Smack fixed his focus on him just a little longer.

“You never told me you were right there in its wake. What were you doing there?”

“Coming home.”

Dr. Smack held his gaze a moment longer, then returned his sight to the television.

“This troubles me.”

“Not more than I, sir. I was there when—”

It was too late. A flash of light overtook the screen. The polished deck shook, then splintered, then erupted like an earthquake. Every passenger between the viewpoint area and the swimming pool fell to his knees. Fisherman Steve was still onscreen, though getting smaller. He looked back. Then he punched the throttle.

Another tremor rocked the ship. Those still standing began to scramble, searching in vain for stable footing. A fissure raced along the deck floor toward the pool, then through the pool, and then past it into the recreational area. The pool’s waterline plummeted until it vanished beneath the concrete.

Then the first explosion came, ripping the tennis court apart. In a chain reaction, another one came, and another, each one drawing closer to the screen than the first. The remains of the pool erupted in a concrete shower. Wooden fragments once belonging to the floor sprayed panicking passengers in the face. Then something dark and circular zipped across the screen.

“Pause it,” Fisherman Steve said.

The VCR’s operator, a surfer everyone in the room referred to as Landon, who was hooked up to a portable respirator, reached around his oxygen line and hit the pause button. Whatever dark thing it was that flashed by on-screen, it was gone now.

“Rewind it.”

The surfer did as he was told. The player squealed as the television displayed the last few seconds of tape in reverse. The dark object returned to the screen.

“There,” Fisherman Steve said.

The screen paused and everyone leaned in. A black, circular blur froze just to the right of the center. It looked like it was trying to jump over the ship.

“What is it?” Dr. Smack asked.

Fisherman Steve squinted. It seemed his face was betraying knowledge he already knew. His lips were sneering, as if he’d seen an old enemy at work. He must’ve known what he saw.

“Hard to tell at this point. But I think it was my fault.”

“Looks like a plate,” Landon said through his oxygen mask. Everyone in the room stared at him.

“You’re joking,” the Pig Rocker said. “If that’s a plate, then I’m a bloody ogre.”

“Not far from the truth,” Cherry Chicklet said.

Dr. Smack adjusted his glasses. “It’s clearly something that doesn’t belong. Hit play.”

Landon pushed the play button. The screen resumed and the black orb continued its journey across the recreational deck, over the railing, and out of sight.

Farther out to sea, the onscreen version of Fisherman Steve craned his neck to the left, approximately where the mysterious object would’ve landed. He was about halfway between the ship and the island. In the distance beyond, the residents of Sandy Smack Island gathered around the shore, staring at the ship as it ripped apart.

“Oi,” the Pig Rocker said. “You must’ve seen the thing. You were looking right bloody at it.”

“I was,” Fisherman Steve said, in a reverie. “It splashed down not far from me. Flew a great distance to get that far. Took a hell of a lot of power from whatever launched it to plop it there. Probably broke through the border storm with ease.”

“And you didn’t see what it was?” Cherry Chicklet asked.

Fisherman Steve covered his eyes with his palms.

“No, I saw it. I remember hearing it whistle before it splashed down. It was fast, really fast. It was a blur then, too. Almost missed it completely. But I think I know what it was.”

Everyone stared at him. Even the quiet British man standing in the corner of the room watching everything past his pointed nose and folded arms. The letter “D” on his chest stood for Demo Man.

“We’ve been sitting on this question for a year,” Demo Man said. “What was it?”

Fisherman Steve stared at the screen as the onscreen version of himself shrank into the horizon and disappeared onto the island’s western shore next to a mansion.

“I think it was a cannonball. And I think it was aimed at me.”

The room went silent. Landon paused the tape. Everyone diverted focus to random locations around the room. No one seemed to know what to say; though, it seemed everyone knew they were all thinking the same thing.

Jimmy had been silent the whole day, still lost within the horror of his own life’s turnaround. And it seemed that the sight of a cannonball zipping in an arc over the deck of the Tropica Hardcore should’ve been enough to cause a stir in his mind, as it no doubt rocked the foundation of everyone else’s thoughts. But it didn’t hit him with equal impact. At best, he thought the sight of such a thing was odd. For Jimmy Knightly, former tennis star and current superhero trainee, the lingering shadow of a murderous stalker was more disturbing.

“Can we skip to the survivor part?” he asked. Everyone returned focus to a common spot: on him. “I mean, we already know the ship sank. Just get on with it. Good Lord.”

“Have you no sensitivity, love?” Miss Honeysweet asked. “Hundreds of people died that night.”

“I can see that. Why are we watching it? Are we that sick?”

Everyone’s jaw dropped. Dr. Smack seemed to be the only one in control of his face. Either they really found Jimmy insensitive, or—

“Powerstick Man has a point,” Dr. Smack said. “We don’t need to relive the grisly part. Fast forward, Landon.”

Landon did as he was told. His floppy blond hair fell into his eyes. And he was struggling for breath, clutching his mask tightly. Jimmy didn’t know why he was so out of shape.

A static line jumped all over the screen as the events of destruction unfolded at a rapid pace, including one instance where a cannonball exploded like a bomb about ten feet above the deck. Everyone in the room tried to conceal his or her horror, but most could not avoid having mouths agape. A few moments later, the tape crackled.

“Stop.” Fisherman Steve pointed at the screen. “He’s coming.”

Landon released the fast forward. Everything played out in real time. Then it slowed down without the need for a control button. It was like watching a ballet of destruction. Umbrellas launched into the sky. Crates rode pillars of fire out from the deck fissures and plummeted into the sea. And all passengers had already fallen from the world.

All but one.

A skinny man of indeterminable height crept into view, wildly looking around him as bodies dropped through the cracks. His eyes were widened in those instances where he looked toward the screen. His dark hair stood on end, like he’d just been shocked. And his lips trembled; though, his mouth failed to open. He was wearing a silver jacket with a cloud on his back.

The velvet wall collapsed behind him; yet, he was no longer fazed. The blood trickling from his cheeks and the vacancy in his eyes proved that the damage was already done. Even if the plaster overtook him, buried him, suffocated him, it seemed it wouldn’t have affected him any differently. He trudged across the deck, scuffing his feet along the fissure, walking under a black orb triple-volley—all three aflame—that soared across the deck, as if life no longer mattered.

Then he vanished.

And then, nearly fifty feet away, on the other side of the drained pool, he reappeared.

No time had passed.

Everyone around the television leaned in.

“What just happened?” Plummet Man asked. “Did the tape skip?”

“No, I don’t think so,” Fisherman Steve said. “I had to check that myself. That was in real time, I think.”

No one could speak. Not even Demo Man, the father of superheroes.

The man on television “skipped” again, this time reappearing at the edge of a railing. Then he leaped overboard.

Fisherman Steve left his seat, approached the television, and stopped the tape.

“The camera was destroyed a couple minutes later. So that’s the end of the video.”

When Fisherman Steve ejected the tape, a hush fell over the clubhouse. The Risen Ordinaries could neither speak nor move.

“I found a piece of driftwood and a pair of footprints that weren’t mine on South Island a few days later, but whoever made those prints were long gone by then.” He patted the tape against his palm. “I’m sure it was him. He survived the fall.”

Still, no one knew what to say. Everyone stared at the screen, oblivious to the fact that there was nothing left on it, save for static. Only Jimmy seemed distracted enough with other things to let the spectacle of what they had just seen mesmerize him.

“So did he teleport?” he asked. “Is that possible?”

His voice snapped someone out his trance.

“Not by our hand,” Demo Man said. “And I don’t think it’s teleportation.”

“What is it then?”

Demo Man broke his fixture on the television. He looked at Jimmy. “I heard you know how to find the Mythical Creature.”

Jimmy froze. The father of superheroes was treading on a dangerous change of subject.

“Where did you hear that?”

The others found an escape from their reverie. They all changed their focus to him, as well. Most of them already knew that was truth.

“I need you to see him. Take the video to him and let him see this for himself. And make sure the Trafalgar Square sees it, too. He can tell us what we really saw.”

Fisherman Steve passed him the video. Jimmy held it like it was trying to saw his hand off.

“Maybe you can try the Creature Signal again,” Jimmy said. “Or put an ad in the Cannonball City Times. Maybe he’ll respond.”

“You and I both know that won’t happen,” Demo Man said.

“Okay, then send the Pig Rocker. He’ll do it. I’ll bet he’d love to scour the countryside for a big talking lizard.”

Dr. Smack lowered his glasses.

“Why are you avoiding the responsibility?”

Jimmy felt all eyes on him. On further scrutiny he noticed that all eyes were on him.

“I’m not avoiding responsibility. Gosh, such accusations. I mean, why would anyone?—for what reason would?—”

“He’s been acting strange all day,” the Pig Rocker said.

“Who says I’m acting strange? Maybe the rest of you are acting strange. Maybe I’m normal and the rest of you are off your rockers. I do laundry like the rest of you, though I never know how any of us are supposed to find the time.” Jimmy sniffed his shirt. It smelled like wet dog. “Good God I need more time. Or at least another uniform. Why the hell do we only get one uniform? It’s only our daily work.”

“What are you talking about?” the Pig Rocker said. “We all get seven uniforms. You mean to say you’ve got just the one?”

Jimmy shook his head. “Of course. God. I’m not acting strange. I’m not crazy. You dumped Gina Sunderkiss last week. That’s crazy. She’s rich. You’re not. Dumbass.”

Jimmy stared at Demo Man and laughed. “I’m not acting strange.”

A hush filled the room. As the only one in the room who knew the truth, Plummet Man turned away and headed for the door. It must’ve been his way of staying out of the conversation.

Then Cherry Chicklet stepped forward and folded her arms.

“I think I know what’s going on,” she said. “Don’t think I didn’t notice.”

Jimmy inched backward.

“Notice what?”

“I saw you spinning your eyes when we left the city. I saw the look of fear in you when we traveled the mountain road. Something’s got you spooked.”

Jimmy flattened his back against the cedar-plated wall. A beach landscape painting over his shoulder jiggled upon impact. He punched his fists against his hips, nearly knocking his deodorant out of his holster.

“Is this true?” Demo Man asked.

“Of course not. That’s ridiculous. According to this suit you gave me, nothing can spook me. Preposterous.”

Cherry Chicklet shook her head. “You don’t spend a year training with Evening Star and not pick up on a few things about the human character. You’re spooked.”

“Am not.”

Demo Man leaned forward and stiffened his cheeks.

“Powerstick Man, tell us. What’s got you spooked?”

Jimmy shrugged. He knew the company he shared would not back down from any fight easily, not even the one he might bring to their doorsteps. Resisting the question would only delay their pending tasks. But still, if he could keep it out of their business….

“It’s nothing really,” he said.

“Does it have to do with the Mythical Creature?”

“Not hardly.”

“Then what’s the problem?”

“There’s no problem. I’m not—there’s no problem. I just really like it here. I’d love to stay right here, in this Team Shelter, in this beautiful room on this awesome island, and never, ever leave. What’s so problematic about that? I can keep my suit clean. I can watch action movies on Blu-Ray and learn from them. I can—”

“He’s scared to be outside,” Miss Honeysweet said, snapping her fingers. It seemed she was getting closer to the truth. “What is that—um—agoraphobia?”

Jimmy laughed. “Scared to be—I mean really—” He reached over to Demo Man and grabbed him by the collar. “Please don’t make me go out there. You have no idea what’s waiting.”

Demo Man pried Jimmy’s fingers off his neckline and brushed out the wrinkles.

“Nail on the head,” he said.

He locked eyes with Jimmy. Jimmy felt caught in a tractor beam.

“Why are you scared to go outside?”

“I’m not scared,” Jimmy said. “I’m just—well, terrified is all.” He looked at Miss Honeysweet. “And I don’t have agoraphobia.”

He looked back to Demo Man for help. Demo Man reached for his shoulder.

“It’s just sunshine out there,” said the reassuring father of superheroes, a man who trusted his subordinates to become the epitome of steel. “And I made certain the buildings wouldn’t fall on anyone in passing. And no one’s going to take a potshot at a random superhero.”

“Don’t be so sure about that last one.” Jimmy turned away and stared at the rest of the group. “No one’s gonna take any shots at them.”

“I understand you’re confused about this lifestyle. Even after six months it still makes little sense to you. And you think that by donning the Powerstick suit everyone’s out to get you. But it doesn’t work that way—”

“Unless you’re Diamond Lash or the Edge Master,” interrupted the Pig Rocker. “Or the Mythical Creature. Or even Junkyard Bob to an extent.”

Demo Man sighed. “We got it, Pig Rocker. Rare cases.”

“Forty percent of our staff is not so rare.”

Demo Man waved him off and returned his focus toward Jimmy. “Is that what’s bothering you?”

“Just forget it,” Jimmy said. “I’ll take the freakin’ tape. Just give me some peace. And know that if I die between here and there, my blood’s on your hands.”

A hush fell over the room again. A gust of wind blew in through the living room from an open window. Then the floorboards under the carpet creaked.

“Fair enough,” Demo Man said. “Go find him as soon as possible.”

“Right. Just don’t watch your monitors for me. The Creature won’t want you following me.”

Demo Man signaled Jimmy toward the front door.

“The rest of us will start looking for the survivor. Now get going. We all have so much work to do.”

The stuff that keeps me awake at night.

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