Was there anything better than being a superhero?
Max Malone didn’t think so.
First, you got to pick your own costume. Max had made a yellow spandex suit with blue trim to become Megamax. The skintight fabric showed off his bulging muscles, and the colors helped him stand out on the evening news. More importantly, the costume was miles away from Power Guy’s look. Red and blue? So boring. And that cape! What a laugh.
Second, you got choose your own name. Megamax! Max thought he’d pretty much nailed it. By god, he was mega! The planet was lucky to have him. Take his looks, for instance. That chiseled jawline. Those piercing blue eyes. He looked more a superhero than most of the other do-gooders in Liberty City.
Yes, life had changed since lightning struck him last year. Sure, he’d woken up afterwards feeling like dog crap, but all of that was forgotten once he discovered his new powers. Like the ability to fly! The strength of twenty men! Of all his new powers, mega-vision was his favorite. He could shoot red-hot beams from his eyes, or focus his vision like x-rays, warn people about cancers just under their skins. He could even scan the darkness of space, stop alien forces before they invaded the planet.
But mostly, he used it for watching girls.
Take the leggy blonde in the pink skirt on the corner of 57th and Main. She was making it difficult to concentrate on the robbery, currently in progress at the bank down the street. From his perch on the hotel rooftop, he was able to watch both situations. A few moments ago, the robbers had pulled out their guns and forced the customers onto the floor. So far, they hadn’t hurt anyone.
But then, the janitor.
One crook found her cowering behind a plant stand and pulled her out into the open. The poor girl started to sob, the sounds of which only escalated the tension.
“Sweet Jesus on a motorbike, do something!” a second robber shouted, prompting the first to shove the gun barrel into her mouth. This, of course, made her cry harder.
Megamax glanced at the blond again, sighed, and leapt from the rooftop.
Below, pedestrians below saw a bluish-yellow streak zipping down the avenue.
Megamax crashed through the bank window. Within seconds, he’d vaporized the guns and knocked the criminals unconscious. “How can we ever repay you?” the bank president asked while sirens wailed in the background.
Megamax offered up what he hoped would become his tagline. “All in a day’s work.”
The next hour was spent answering questions and signing autographs. Megamax did his duty, but kept an eye on the front door. Any minute now, the press would arrive, and she would be there: the reporter, Lola Nise. She’d ask for an interview, and he’d flash that boyish grin, tell her yes. Afterwards, there would be dinner, wine. The rest would all fall into place. She’d be his girlfriend then, not Power Guy’s, and that would be the end of that.
But the press never came. Probably another crisis had sprung up while he was dealing with the robbers. Damn. If there was trouble, you could bet Power Guy would be in the middle of it.
So, Megamax flexed his bulging biceps for the crowd one more time, waved politely as he lifted off into the sunset.
As soon as he was out of eyeshot, he zoomed back down again, slipping silently into the cracked ceiling of an abandoned warehouse. A moment later, Max Malone emerged through the front door, wearing a pair of fake eyeglasses and comfortably dressed in jeans and sweatshirt.
A quick stroll led him to the nearest bar, where he ordered a shot of tequila, then another. He became talkative with the other patrons, then annoying. Then super-annoying. One by one, they all left.
The bartender, a graying man with a limp, tried to slow him down. Max growled at him to “keep ‘em coming.”
At closing time, Max had no choice but to stagger home, where he took a leak in the bushes and puked on the front lawn. And, even though Megamax could bench press a Buick and outrace a 747, Max Malone passed out that night on his living room floor with one hand stuck down the front of his pants.
To his credit, he woke up thinking about orphans. He’d been one himself, so he knew the importance of helping children at their most vulnerable.
It was a full minute-and-a-half before he’d started fantasizing about Lola.
Both of these ideas, it turned out, figured very prominently into his day.
The morning hangover was brief, thanks to his powers, so he shook the images of Lola from his head and went to work in his workshop, which was conveniently located in the garage attached to his house. By noon, he’d repaired three refrigerators, fulfilling the weekly quota for his day job and clearing the afternoon for the toys. Megamax was scheduled to deliver them to the orphanage tomorrow morning, and, if all went well, Lola would cover the event. He could already see the headline: “Megamax Carves Out His Place in the Community.”
A portable TV kept him company as he rummaged through the lumber he’d been stockpiling for weeks.
He was getting the power saw down from a shelf when the front bell rang, so he ducked through the house to open the door. Outside, it was a crisp December morning. Whoever had rung had just disappeared around the corner. They were in a good mood too, whistling “Over the Rainbow” as they headed off down the sidewalk. A plastic container sat on his doormat, wrapped in a blue bow. The card tucked underneath read: “Thanks for the assist! — Mrs. Gibbons.”
Ah, the old lady who’d moved in down the street. Last week, she’d asked Max to help her find a misplaced ring. He’d gone over to help, noticing how spry she was for her age. She didn’t hesitate to get down on her hands and knees to help him search through the carpet. She kept the place clean, too. Not an item was out of place, and the apartment didn’t have that “old person” smell you sometimes found with other seniors. As sharp as she was, he made sure to wait until she wasn’t looking to lift up the couch, pulling the ring out from under it. “Beginner’s luck,” he’d laughed.
Well, he was glad the container was full of soup. He’d worked up a healthy appetite, what with the robbery and drinking. Not to mention the refrigerators and the toys.
He took the soup inside, spooned in a mouthful. The broth was hearty, with thick chunks of chicken, and noodles that melted on his tongue. It didn’t take him long to gulp it all down.
Then it was toy time.
He worked at mega-speed, cutting, gluing, and assembling the pieces into the shapes of trains, dolls, and horses.
It was mind-numbing work. Easy, actually. Eventually his thoughts drifted back to Lola.
Which is when he got the splinter.
Surprising, considering his mega-enhanced skin. Nevertheless, he held the finger up, saw a sliver of wood just beneath the surface.
He tried digging it out with his fingernails, his teeth, couldn’t. He fetched a needle out of his sewing kit – almost impossible to find under the swatches of yellow and blue spandex – and held the tip against his flesh. The needle wouldn’t go in, he knew. It would break first.
But it did go in.
He dug the splinter out, stared at the spot of blood forming there.
Invulnerable? Not any more.
He tried to levitate. Nothing. He couldn’t even get a good hover going.
Maybe it hadn’t been Mrs. Gibbons after all. He hadn’t thought to use his mega-vision earlier, checking out who’d actually left the package. It could have been any of his super villains, all of whom would love to see him suffer. Maybe one of them had learned his secret identity. But which one? The Viper was behind bars. Megamax had put him there only last month. One of his henchmen, maybe?
Or his other nemesis, Death on Stilts. Nobody had heard from him in awhile.
Perhaps it was someone he hadn’t even fought yet. Like that new chick everyone was talking about lately? What was the media calling her? Oh, right.
The Cleaning Lady.
What a dumb name for a villain. Even one who’d fought Power Guy to a standstill twice, and managed to get away each time. Still, she’d emerged as a dangerous and mysterious presence in Liberty City. She’d rubbed out five heroes in the short time she’d been around. It was terrible, what she’d done to poor Stretchy Man. They might never get him untangled.
But that was the city’s problem.
Right now, Max needed to focus on his own.
Which was: No powers meant no super-speed. If he didn’t get the toys to the orphanage, he’d get no chance at a meeting with the sexy reporter.
He kicked at one of the lumber piles, expecting it to explode into fragments, but it hardly budged.
More, it hurt like hell. His toe was probably already bruising.
A news bulletin interrupted the TV program. Max’s attention shifted to the face of the beautiful, auburn-haired woman making the special report.
“We’re here in the harbor, where another of the Cleaning Lady’s attempts to take over the city has been foiled by Liberty City’s greatest protector. I think I speak for citizens everywhere when I say ‘thank you,’ Power Guy. Anything you’d like to say?”
The camera swung to take in the muscular figure decked out in red and blue fabric. The face was impossibly handsome, the hair, perfectly-coiffed.
“Of course not,” he said. “All in a day’s work.”
There he goes, Max thought. Getting all the glory again. And worse, he was using Max’s tagline.
What did Lola see in him, anyway? What would Max have to do to get her attention?
In his heart, he knew: The toys.
He glanced at the lumber, then down at his useless, now-simply-human hands. Even without powers, he could hear the seconds on his watch ticking away. There would be no way to make it to the orphanage with the toys by morning.
Max stared through the mall doors, watched the throngs of Christmastime shoppers scurrying from store to store. Crowds had never been his thing. Especially during the holidays. Especially without the ability to fly. “Step one,” he said to his reflection, “Get the toys. Step two, get out.”
He headed into the mall, doing his best to avoid the clusters of excited children and slack-faced adults. It was loud in there, a cacophony of Christmas songs and idle chatter punctuated by childish shrieks and bursts of laughter. Max felt his blood pressure rising, but made his way to Happyland Toys, where a manic techno beat thumped over the speakers, drowning out the mall music,.
“Get the toys, get out,” Max muttered, before heading toward a sign hanging near the back of the store. Limited Edition Heroes for December, the sign read.
Ah, the famous L.E. label. Everyone knew this was the ultimate badge of honor for a superhero. Probably explained why the crowd was thickest here. Customers gathered around several glass cases, each containing action figures posed in epic battles. In one case, Warrior Woman clutched the villainous Jaguar by the throat. In another, the Bulk was body-slamming Monstar.
But the biggest buzz was around a large, elevated case in the center of all the others. Colorful spotlights flashed down on the scene, giving it an energetic, party-like vibe. Max nudged adults and children out of his way to get a better look.
It would have to be him.
The Power Guy toy struck a triumphant pose, hands on hips, red cape billowing from an air vent built into the case. Behind him, a plasticized Dr. Toxic was teleporting into view. Nearby, Rex Ruthless’s face peered down from the window of a model skyscraper, adding to the drama.
Max felt a jab against his foot, and looked down to see a woman in a mall smock. She was dabbing a mop under the velvet fabric near the edge of the platform. “Pardon me,” she said. “Juice spill.”
Max’s eyes narrowed. “Say, have we met?”
The woman kept her eyes on her work. “Doubt it.”
He pointed to the space under the platform, where boxes of toys were stacked, waiting to be sold. “So, any other supers down there? Maybe somebody they forgot to put out?”
“Just juice. Why?”
“I, ah, don’t see Megamax.”
She rinsed out her mop. “Don’t know that one, but all the good ones are here.”
Max’s eye twitched. “No,” he mumbled. “Not all.”
The woman leaned on the handle and pointed with her thumb. “Doesn’t matter. He’s the only one kids really care about. Ya’ see him on the news this morning? Him and that lady reporter. Quite a dish, eh?”
Max inhaled deeply. “Step one, get the toys,” he whispered. “Step two —”
It was no use.
Rage ignited a fire inside his chest and before he could stop, he found himself leaping over the velvet rope. He pummeled his fists into the case, shattering the glass and setting off an alarm. Oblivious, he yanked the toy out, held it inches from his nose to receive a full blast of mega heat-vision.
But the doll stared back with that same glib expression, reminding Max he had no powers.
He was still bashing Power Guy’s face into the floor when the security guards wrestled him down, pried the toy out of his bleeding hands while a crowd of sobbing children and terrified adults circled them.
The detective paced in front of the room-length mirror in the interrogation room, where a single bulb dangled over a cold, metal table, behind which Max found himself seated. “What’s your beef with Power Guy?” the detective asked. “Tell me again. And this time, none of this talk about splinters.”
“But it was the splinter,” Max said.
The detective slapped his own forehead. “For crying out loud…”
“I’m trying to explain it to you,” Max said. “You see, Megamax doesn’t get splinters.”
“Deliver me, Lord,” the detective said, talking to the mirror. He took a breath, exhaled, and turned to Max again. “So, what’s it like being a superhero?”
Max eased forward in his chair. “Wait, you know I’m a superhero?”
“Why, sure I do. I’m a detective, right?”
Max nodded. This was turning out easier than he’d thought.
“Dumbass!” the detective shouted. “Hello? That yellow suit under your clothes? Tell me what it’s for.”
“I told you already. Emergencies.”
A roar of laughter from behind the glass.
“The truth, Mr. Malone,” the detective said. “Start telling it.”
Max stood up and removed his eyeglasses. “I already told you, I’m Megamax!”
“You never see Power Guy with a crumply cape,” a woman’s voice said. A door inside the mirror opened, and Lola entered the room. “Just sayin’.”
“Try detaining him for three hours,” Max said, smoothing the fabric on his chest. “See how he looks then. Me and him are no different. Most days.”
“You know, there’s one way to find out if you are Megamax,” Lola said. She jumped onto the table and offered a hand to the detective, who, with considerable effort, joined her.
“Pick us up,” she said.
“Come on, big boy. Show mama what you’re made of.”
Max felt his face grow warm, but he squatted in front of the table. It didn’t budge. Worse, he thought he’d pulled a muscle.
“Figures,” she said, jumping down. “He’s not so super. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got real heroes with real powers to write about.”
The detective slid off the table as best he could. “Leaving so soon?”
“Been a busy day. The new girl in town took down three more capes today. Which leaves only Power Guy to defend Liberty City. And, word on the street is, she’s challenged him to “the duel to end all duels” later tonight. Don’t know about you, but I’ve had it with this Cleaning Lady. Got anything on her secret identity?”
“Shapeshifters,” she continued. “Such a pain in the ass. Anyway, keep ya’ posted.” She glanced back at Max one last time. “Megamax. Give us a break.”
She exited into the hallway, stepping around a sergeant, who was entering the interrogation room. “Whatcha got there?” he asked.
“Megamax,” the detective said, smirking.
“Wait, the guy who attacked the doll?”
“Yep. Catch of the day.”
“Man, we get all the weirdoes.”
“Got that right,” another female voice said from the hallway. Max was barely able to make out the gray-haired janitor pushing the broom before the door closed. She was stooped and wrinkled, but she was whistling pleasantly. Max thought she looked kind of familiar. Like he knew her from somewhere, but couldn’t quite put his finger on it.
Well, it would come to him.
Anyway, it looked like he’d have the next several days to think about it.
“Somewhere, over the rainbow,” Max sang along to the tune fading away softly down the hallway.
This story first appeared in Pages & Spine: Fiction Showcase 2019.
Edited by Marie Ginga
Robert Stahl is a former bartender who left his bottle opener behind to follow his dreams as a writer. Now the Dallas-based freakazoid writes advertising copy by day and fiction in the evenings. He loves to connect with others about the craft of fiction. Click the link to find his blog as well as links to some of his stories: robertestahl.com.