To Be A Hero
My alarm goes off. It’s an electronic one and it plays a little jingle to wake me up. It would sound nice enough on it’s own, but it’s painful to my ears that have associated the song with trudging out of bed in the morning. Eyelids closed, I lay still for a few seconds, listening to the soft but pushy piano music. It’s almost like a nagging mother trying not to be too aggressive; come on, son, it’s time to get up. I consider turning it off, but I know I’ll fall right back asleep if I do that. So, as fast as I can, I rip my blanket off and hop out of bed. I find that to be the most effective way to wake up quickly. Sure, I suffer from a head rush, but it’s worth it. I lean against the wall for support as my vision goes black and my mind turns to numb static, but I’m back to normal in a few seconds.
I quickly stretch then walk to the bathroom, turning on the sink. As I wait for the water to heat up, I look in the mirror. My black hair is a mess and partially covers my eyes, which I brush out of the way. I lean in closely, examining my eyebags. Damn. They’ve definitely gotten darker, which clashes with my bright green eyes. On the other end of the spectrum, my already pale skin has become even whiter. I really need to go outside more. Finally, the water has become hot and I splash it all over my face, which is the final step to wake up fully.
I take a shower, brush my teeth, and top it all off by putting on my school uniform. I head downstairs, seeing that my mother left a pot of coffee on the warmer. I pour a cup and make breakfast; scrambled eggs and sausage links. I’ve eaten the exact same thing for the past few months. It’s easy to make, cheap enough, and tastes decent for the amount of effort I put in. I sit down at the kitchen table, eating. While doing this, I stop chewing for a second and notice just how quiet it is in my house.
It was eighteen years ago, 1990. I had just been born a few weeks beforehand and was lying silently in my crib whilst my mother clutched a newspaper in her hands, reading the headline over and over again. “THE GREAT HERO WAR HAS CONCLUDED; ONE BILLION DEAD!” She was rocking back and forth, her long, brown hair uncombed and her skin as pale as a new moon. She nearly jumped out of her skin when there was a precise, loud knock. She tripped as she bolted to the door, immediately getting back up and throwing it open. Two men donned in military attire were standing there, grim looks on their faces. My mother seemed hopeful but was utterly defeated when she saw what was in their arms; a flower wreath with a picture of my father in the middle.
I was so young. Why do I remember this so vividly?
Once I finish eating, I put the plate and silverware I used in the sink and quickly rinse it off. I hoist my backpack up over my shoulders then check my watch. I have twenty minutes to get to school which is more than enough. I walk out the front door, locking it behind me and taking off on my bike. I pass by what feels like the exact same house dozens of times as I make my way through my suburb, saying “hello” to the occasional neighbor I don’t remember the name of or swerving out of the way of another student.
After the news, my mother barely moved for a long while. She just stared at the picture of my father, whispering stuff under her breath. I would cry because I was hungry or wanted attention, but she paid me no mind. She did feed me, of course, or else I wouldn’t be here today. It just felt...forced, for lack of a better word. My childhood years were pretty uneventful. I met friends, lost them, had various silly hobbies, played kickball, and learned cursive (which I haven’t used in years). Middle school is when I began to develop a sense of self. I didn’t like talking to other people that much; they were either boring or mean to me. As I watched them gather together and discuss the same things over and over again, all mindlessly agreeing with each other, I began to wonder if I was the insane one. Well, of course not. I was just a special kid, according to my mother. …Great.
The summer wind is going through my hair, reminding me that my final term at high school is coming to an end. I have finals next week, then...then what, actually? I suppose I should try and get an internship...maybe work as a guidance counselor at a summer camp? Wait, what? I know nothing about kids. They’d hate me. Um...I could always just get a job at a convenience store? Ack, no. The extra pocket change would be nice, but I would melt away if I had to sit in a store eight hours a day during the summer. I sigh, staring into the cloudless sky. So big and free...why can’t life reflect that endless freedom?
It was one of the last days of middle school. I was walking home when a kid on a scooter rode past me, hitting the back of my head with his palm. Hard. I dropped the sci-fi book I had been reading on the sidewalk then started rubbing the impact. I didn’t recognize the kid, so I yelled after him, asking him why he did that. He turned around, and that’s when I saw it; he had red eyes. He had a Gift, the supernatural powers that led to a billion people dying in the Great Hero War. Usually, I would look the other way. Everyone knows you don’t mess with a Gift. But I felt different that day. Heroes killed my dad. They ruined my mom’s life. Hell, they ruined my life. So I told that kid everything I had been penting up for the past fourteen years of my life. My pain, my anger, my desperation. After I stopped to catch my breath, I looked up to see that he was smiling. I was so angry I ran at him and punched him square in the face. I’m sure it didn’t hurt much as I’ve always been on the scrawnier side, but his pride was shattered. He slowly looked up, touching his cheek. Then his brow furrowed, and I saw his fist balling up.
He beat me so bad I didn’t get out of bed for a week.
Finally, I stop my bike in front of my school. The giant text reading “SADENBURG HIGH” looms down at me and a few dozen students making their way into the huge school building. I park my bike on a nearby rack, joining the crowd. As I make my way inside, a deafening boom rings from the sky above. Everybody, myself included, looks up at the source. A man with wings is soaring through the sky, doing flips and various tricks as he flies. It appears he’s just broken the sound barrier.
“Icarus?!” A student exclaims.
“What is he doing here?!” Another one shouts. Soon, the entire crowd is cheering his name. Everyone except me. I’m well aware of the scowl I have on my face, and I don’t particularly feel like doing anything about it. It’s not like anybody is looking at me; they’re staring at Icarus, the soaring savior.
As I see the hero weave about, all I can think about is clipping those damn wings.
A minute passes and the crowd begins to move again. The energy is still high, with all the students discussing what just occurred.
“Why was Icarus here?” A student asks.
“Who the hell cares? Icarus is in my top five favorite heroes! I hope I get to see him in action again...” Another responds wishfully. All I can think about is how lazily he was gliding through the air without a care in the world. I suppose that’s what life is when you’re born with something that just makes you better than 99% of the population. I have no idea why that made me so upset. After all, it’s not like heroes are anything new. They sprang up almost two decades ago all over the world, instantly becoming an integral part of society. It only took a year for all the world powers to realize how potent a hero was as a war weapon, and the “Great Hero War” started.
One billion people died. Heroes, civilians, soldiers. There was nothing “great” about it.
These gloomy thoughts linger until I sit down at my desk for class. I have history first thing in the morning which, in my opinion, should be illegal. My professor stands up, taking roll call. He makes his way through the twenty or so students sitting alongside me as usual, finally reaching my name.
“Spencer?” He asks, looking at me.
“Here.” I say flatly. I always wonder why they even say names if they’re looking at me. What, do you need confirmation it’s really me? Do you think I’m some sort of Spencer imposter? I ponder this and many more questions as I stare out the window, ignoring the lecture and watching the sky. It really is a gorgeous day.
Hours later, the bell rings. Finally, the day is over at three o’ clock on the dot. I’ve packed my things up in advance, so I get up and start to leave. As I exit the classroom, a voice rings out behind me.
“Dark. Could you stay a little bit?” My Hero Study teacher says. I grimace, then force a slight smile as I turn around. He called me by my last name, meaning it must be serious.
“Of course, Mr. Müller.” All the students desperately claw their way past me, eager to get out and talk to their friends or...whatever. Finally, it’s just me and Müller. He’s balding, and has very stiff features. He’s shuffling through a bunch of papers, eventually finding one titled “SPENCER DARK” at the top.
“Oh, don’t worry. You’re not in trouble.” He says, smiling. I suppose my expression must’ve revealed I was a bit nervous. Damn. I need to work on my poker face.
“That’s good to hear. Ahaha…” I laugh nervously.
“I was just curious what college you’re applying to. It says here you still haven’t done that.” He points to a section of the paper. It’s in fine print, so I can’t read it from where I’m standing but I nod my head regardless.
“That’s right. I haven’t chosen yet.” Müller sighs.
“Dark, your test scores were in the top ten percent this year. You also have personal recommendations from most of your teachers. Schools must be throwing scholarships at you left and right. Why haven’t you taken any of them up?” He cocks his head to the side a little.
“I, um...I’m just not sure what I want to do with my career.” I stutter out. I was really hoping I could just get a little more time to think about it before being put on the spot like this.
“With your logical skills, I would recommend getting an engineering degree. If you’re lucky, you could become a hero equipment specialist. Heroes are only becoming more and more relevant, you know. You could easily land a six digit salary with that.” His voice is soft, but every word is like a dagger in my chest. Work with heroes…? Is...is that all I can do?
“Y-Yes. That’s right. That’s what I was thinking.” I reluctantly reply.
“Good, good. Make our school proud, eh?” He reaches over, patting my arm. I smile awkwardly, thanking him for his time with a quick bow. I speed walk out of the classroom, feeling more depressed than I have all day. A hero engineer...I’ll make plenty of money, enough to let my mother retire from her office job. She’s always wanted to own a bakery. With a bit of saving, we could do it. ...That’s a nice thought. Even though I despise them, maybe working with heroes wouldn’t be-
“Yo, Spencer.” My train of thought is interrupted by a girl’s voice right next to me. It looks like she snuck up on me while I was walking out of school.
“Hey, Amber.” I look over at her. She’s shorter than me by about two inches, but that doesn’t mean much because I’m six foot. I guess she’s pretty tall for a girl. She has medium length red hair, which is a pretty rare color since the Great Hero War destroyed most of the western world as we knew it. She has amber colored eyes, which is pretty fitting considering her name. She walks with a “pep in her step”, as some would call it, and is wearing a slight, almost mischievous smile on her lips.
“You look like you’re dying. You good?” She asks.
“Yeah. Don’t worry about it.” I respond, knowing she will, in fact, worry about it. She rolls her eyes.
“Typical Spencer Dark. ‘Don’t worry about it. I’m so tall and mysterious.’” She giggles then looks at me, gauging my reaction. I don’t give her the satisfaction of annoyed eye contact. I know it doesn’t sound like it, but Amber is my...best friend, I suppose. Well, she has to be my best friend as she’s my only one. I met her in elementary school, where we were both outcasts. It turns out we only lived a block away from each other, so we were constantly hanging out.
However, as the years went on, she slowly learned how to adapt to social situations while I didn’t budge. Even though I refused to hang out with her newfound friend group, we were still close. I’d like to believe I’m her best friend, even though our lives aren’t nearly as intertwined as they used to be. We still talk after school and walk home together and meet up at least a few times a month. I’m a bit confused why she would want to talk to someone like me, as I know she has a reputation to uphold within the school hierarchy. She can’t be seen talking to a peasant like me, but I guess she just doesn’t care that much. How touching.
“So. You apply to a college yet?” She asks, tilting her head at me.
“No. Müller asked me that too earlier. To get out of the conversation, I told him I’d get a degree in engineering.”
“Hey, that isn’t the worst.” She side-eyes me. “You don’t sound too happy about it. What’s the catch?” I sigh. She always gets right down to the core of the conversation.
“I’d probably become a hero equipment specialist.” She frowns.
That’s something we both have in common; the hatred of heroes. Although I don’t think she shares the same level of hate for them as I do, we both still agree on it. Maybe it’s because we both lost our fathers to them in the Great Hero War. Mine died as a soldier, hers as a civilian. She lived in America, one of the central parts of the war. She and her mother were some of the lucky survivors that immigrated to Europe after the war ended.
“Well, that works out perfectly for your set of skills! You’ve always been the resourceful type. Do you remember when we were kids and how you’d always set up the most elaborate defenses in Capture the Flag using just sticks and bushes?” She looks up at the sky, remisching. I just sigh.
“First, you can’t compare how I did in a game to real life. Second, they were one-on-one matches. I’m not sure that counts.” She pushes me playfully, scoffing.
“Hell yes they counted! We put so much into those games! Passion! Love! Everything, dammit!”
“No need to get so worked up. Regardless, I’m not even sure if I want to become an engineer. I...I just feel like I should be doing something to make the world a better place.” Amber looks at me, one eyebrow raised.
“How the hell are you gonna do that?” There’s silence for a second, then she shakes her head. “Sorry, that was mean.” I wave a hand dismissively.
“No, you’re right. I need to stop whining and just do it.” We walk in silence for a few minutes until we stop at a crossroad.
“Oh, hey!” Amber turns to me, hands behind her back. “I was gonna see a movie with my friends later. Wanna tag along?” I look at her, confused.
“You know what I’ll say.” She crosses her arms, scowling.
“You don’t have to be such an ass about it, Dark.”
“O-Oh, I didn’t mean to be. I’m just a bit confused why you keep asking me to hang out with your friends. I’ve said no every time.” She rolls her eyes.
“Because you’re my friend, Spencer. Duh. Why do I even have to-ugh, you’re so annoying sometimes!”
“S-Sorry.” I run my hand through my hair, embarrassed.
“Well, whatever. It’s fine. Seriously.” She forces a smile, and a sharp pang of guilt shoots up my chest. “See ya, then.” She waves bye, going the other way. I stand still for a minute, watching as she disappears into the horizon. Then, once she’s turned a corner and is out of sight, I rap my fist on my head like it’s a door.
“Why was I such an ass about it?” I whisper to myself. It’s not like I was annoyed with her. As a matter of fact, I appreciate that she keeps asking me. It’s nice to know someone cares about me. So why was I so annoyed with her? Maybe I feel bad she has to hang around a loser like me? Maybe I just really, really hate her friends subconsciously or something. Maybe I’m just in a bad mood today. I ponder for a bit, then shake my head to clear my head of the metaphorical drops of thoughts. I check my watch; it’s almost four. I have time to study, so I decide to go to my favorite coffee shop downtown. Now that Amber’s gone, I begin riding my bike. My mind wanders.
Is working for heroes really my only option? And what if I don’t want to do that? I could always just work a nine-to-five office job, but...I don't want to do that. I don’t know what I want to do.
“Welcome in! What can I get for ya?” The barista asks, a wide smile on his face.
“Just a tall black coffee, please.”
“Sure thing.” The barista/owner of this small coffee joint calls back this order to his sole employee, who starts to hurriedly make my drink with all the wonderful modern beverage miracle machines back there. I sit down at my usual spot in the middle section of the room next to a large painting of a mountain landscape.
Is this really the end of my freedom? I get my degree and then...that’s it?
I sigh, reaching into my bag to grab my books.
After all...If you don’t have a Gift, you’re worthless.
The glass front of the shop is blown to pieces with a deafening boom, flipping my table and I to the ground. For a second, my world goes hazy. I hear screaming. Sharp pain. I open my mouth to yell, but nothing comes out. Is this real? What the hell is happening?
“Oy, oy! Calm down, people! I’m not ‘ere to hurt anyone. Not yet, at least! Ahahaha!” A rough voice with a cockney accent calls out through the shop. Finally, the ringing in my ear subsides and I peek out from behind my destroyed table, trying to make heads or tails of this unreal situation. Then, I see him.
“Do I really gotta explain meself? Just gimme all the money.” A giant, burly man wearing a construction helmet and overalls is towering over the barista, beckoning with his hand menacingly. Wait...hand? No, that’s not what it is. His hand is beige and resembles skin, yes, but it’s shaped like a giant drill. I grimace. This man has a mutation Gift, and a deadly one at that.
“Right, I oughta introduce myself ‘fore robbin’ ya blind. The name’s Hardhat! I’m a villain, ‘case that wasn’t obvious enough.” The man cackles at his own twisted joke, if you could even call it a laugh. It sounds like a giant, bloodthirsty dog on a chain barking at a passerby, begging them to take off his leash so he can maul the closest person. The barista is still paralyzed in fear.
“Oh, for cryin’-OPEN THE BLOODY REGISTER OR I’LL KILL EVERYONE IN THIS JOINT! I DON’T GOT ALL DAY, MATE!” Hardhat drives his drill-hand into the wall and snaps the barista out of his stupor and he opens the cash register and starts shoving money into a bag that the villain hands him. As he’s doing so, Hardhat looks around the shop. Everyone is staring at him, stricken by complete fear.
“Wut? Do I got sumthin on me face?” He laughs again. Then, I see movement. A man in his fifties or so stands up right in front of Hardhat.
“I-I-I’m not afraid of you! Look!” He points towards a medal of honor pinned to his shirt. “I used to kill v-villains like you all the time in the war!” Hardhat looms over the man.
“You did? That right?”
“Yeah. So, I’ll kill you too-” The man is interrupted as Hardhat drives his drill-hand through his face. As the drill whirs, blood and gore go everywhere. I can only watch as the drill burrows deeper and deeper into him. It feels like an eternity passes before Hardhat is satisfied, tossing the body with a hole for a face to the side.
“Anyone else?” He asks, a sinister smile on his face. This scene is all too familiar. A man with a Gift goes wild, and who can stop him? He’s a God in this world. A thousand people could all charge at him, and he’d still come out on top. There’s nothing anyone can do. Just...just give him the money, please! We’ll all die if you don’t! Please...we need a hero!!
“Stop it!” I shout, my voice hoarse. I’m pointing directly at Hardhat, my arm shaking with fear.
What...is this feeling?
Hardhat is facing me now, the smile on his face gone.
“Two people in one day, eh? Tha’s a record, methinks.”
If no heroes are going to save us...then I’ll fight!
“That look on your face is pissin’ me right off, boy.”
Suddenly, reality crashes down on me and I retract my arm.
WHAT THE HELL AM I DOING?!
“W-Wait! I, um, hold on...” I stutter out, putting my hands out in front of me as if to calm down a bull. Which isn’t so far from what’s happening, actually.
“Oh no no no. You should’ve thought about it before you got in my way, kid!” Hardhat begins whirring his bloodied drill-hand, charging at me. “Now DIE!” I can only watch as he charges at me. My feet are glued to the floor, and time slows down.
This is the end, isn’t it?
He’s ten feet away.
Why was I even born if I’m just going to be slaughtered like this?
Five feet away.
Maybe...this is the easy way out.
Right next to me. I close my eyes.
The drill goes through my stomach and my life is-
My eyes snap open and I desperately leap to the side, narrowly dodging the blow and landing on my stomach. Hardhat drives his drill into the painting of the mountain, getting stuck for a moment. While he’s getting it out, I slowly stand up, looking around and seeing what I can use to defend myself.
I refuse to die to a Gift!!
My lungs are on fire. My heart is on fire. My eyes are too. I’ve never been this pissed off in my life.
“You...you bastard! You were lucky enough to be born with a Gift, and this is how you use it! You...you piece of shit!” I scream out. I know my voice is cracking. It’s not heroic or inspiring at all. And I don’t care. Hardhat finally rips his drill out of the wall, staring me down.
“Nice dodge, kid. Playtime’s over, though!” He charges at me again, but I’m prepared this time. I quickly pick up a chair and throw it at his head, which disorients him enough to let me easily dodge out of harm’s way. He stumbles, recovering and violently flicking around towards me, gritting his teeth out of fury.
“Not s-so tough anymore, are you?!” I scream, an insane smile on my face. Maybe I should’ve kept my mouth shut, because he yells in anger.
“Shut your trap, you brraaaaaaattt!!” He stares at his right arm with a concentrated look, which starts to bulge with veins. His fingers disappear and his flesh begins to boil over, morphing into another drill.
“Dodge THIS!” He charges at me, holding his drill arms wide so I can’t dodge either left nor right. I can’t dodge up, obviously.
He lunges, mouth open in a guttural scream.
So that leaves…!!
I dive between his legs, landing on top of the corpse of the man he killed a moment ago. Hardhat lands, then stumbles and falls flat on his face. I knew it. Changing both arms to drills gives him more power but makes his weight completely unbalanced. As he gets up, which will take a while because he has no arms or hands, I desperately think of my next move. I don’t have time to run, nor can I fight him directly. So...what do I-
Why did that man stand up to Hardhat?
I remember now.
The badge of honor.
He was reaching for something on his waist.
I feel the man’s hips, knowing this is the only way I can win. And then I feel it. A gun. A revolver, to be exact. Civilians were banned from owning guns since the Great Hero War ended, but war veterans are a special exception. I pick up the bloodied gun, cocking the hammer back. Then, I hear movement behind me. I flip around, pointing the weapon at Hardhat, who is midair, about to pounce and kill me. I know how scared I must look.
If I pull this trigger...I know my life will never be the same again. As I stare into Hardhat’s bulging red eyes, I think back to the days when my mother would sit on the couch, rocking back and forth, saying my father’s name over and over again. Can you even understand how miserable you people have made my life?
I pull the trigger.
The gunshot rings out, and the world holds still for a moment. Hardhat lands on his feet, grabbing at the hole in his chest. I know that those with mutation Gifts are pretty durable, so I quickly stand up, cocking the hammer back and pulling the trigger again.
And again. But, this time, the gun just clicks, meaning it's empty. Hardhat tries to say something, but there are too many holes in his chest. Slowly, he falls to the ground, dead.
Ten seconds pass. Somebody begins clapping. Another joins in, and another, until everybody is clapping for me. I do a complete turn, looking at everyone applauding me. But none of them look happy; they look...scared. Of me? I look down and realize I’m soaked in blood. Snapping back to reality, I throw the gun on the ground, staring at my hands covered in blood. Did...did I do the right thing?
“Here! Please, hero! Take this!” The barista tosses the bag of money he was preparing for Hardhat to me. I grab it out of reflex, but...I don’t want this! Why is everyone staring at me like some kind of villain? I...I saved you! Why do you all look so afraid? Suddenly, I see a flash of movement in the corner of my eye. The applause stops. Hardhat has stood back up. He looks like a zombie, caked in blood and a look of despair on his face.
“K-Kill...youuu…” He murmurs, whirring his drill-hand. Before I can react, he drives his fist towards me.
“WATCH OUT!” A boy’s voice rings out, punching Hardhat square in the chest with insane strength. He flies into the wall. A second passes and he slumps to the ground, knocked out for good this time. The boy shakes his hand, blowing on it. “Owch. Thick skin, I guess.” He turns to me, smiling slightly. He has dark skin and toned muscles. His hair is wavy and completely black except for a rogue strand dyed lightning yellow resting above his forehead. And, most importantly...his eyes are shining red. We make eye contact, and this is when I realize that we’re almost exactly the same age. Despite looking tough, his facial features are still young and boyish.
“You save these people?” He gestures to everyone.
“Y-Yeah.” I stutter out, clutching the bag of money to my chest.
“It’s good you were here. No heroes or cops around because of a huge hostage situation a mile away. Well, ‘cept for me, of course. I’m Atlas, by the way.” He shoots out a hand. I don’t reciprocate, for two reasons. One, he’s a hero. Two, my hands are soaked in blood.
“I’m Spencer.” I say. Noticing he’s being left hanging, he retracts his hand and runs it through his hair in an attempt to be smooth about it.
“Cool. Nice to meet you, Spencer.”
“Yeah.” I nod. Right now, I...I just want to be left alone. I need to take in what just happened. I turn from Atlas, joining the crowd of people hurriedly walking out.
“I, um. Uh…” He reaches out towards me, trying to think of something to say. Once I’m gone, he whispers to himself while looking around the deserted coffee shop.
“Spencer...he didn’t have a Gift. How did he…?”
As I walk home, time slows down, stops, and speeds up. My eyes feel like they’re above me, like I’m watching myself from a third person perspective. I can feel and hear everything. My heartbeat is off-tempo and thunderously loud. Everything is grey and covered in static. Buildings tower over me, I hear police sirens in the distance, and-
Hot water hits my face and I’m awake. I’m in my shower, uniform still on. I stop for a minute, wondering how the hell I got here. Whatever...the water running over my face feels nice. I scrub my hands clean of the blood, watching it go down the drain. After I’m thoroughly cleaned, I step out. As I’m grabbing a towel, I look in the mirror.
I’m smiling. It’s a smirk so villainous I instantly put my hand over my mouth in shock. My eyes are bright red. Was I...crying on the way home? Then, something funny pops into my head. It’s so funny I start cackling, leaning over the sink to not collapse from laughter. My eyes are red and I’ve taken down a villain.
What’s the difference between me and a hero?
Chapter I: A Pointless Existence