Sisyphus Shrugs

Sirens blared in the distance, echoing through the city’s concrete hallways. The dusky burn of a building fire glowed among the serrated skyline of the city, a thick pillar of smoke spewing into the evening air. I flew fast, darting between lampposts and tree branches that loomed above the street. I turned to look behind, still flying ahead, the rushing air at my back. Sparky, my partner-in-crime fighting, was lagging behind, sliding along on the powerlines. Thin, white ribbons of electricity expectorated from his heels as he tried to keep up.

“You good back there?” I called.

Sparky threw his hand forward, a thumb sticking out of his fist.

“I’ll rush ahead!” I spun around and pulled a shockwave with my heels as I took off, sucking up leaves and loose newspaper pages in my wake.

The building fronts became a blur of concrete and glass, and in moments I was above a cadre of fire and rescue vehicles, face-to-face with a gluttonous blaze smothering an old brick apartment building. I heard cheers beneath me, “Samson! Samson!” the people shouted. Their hands danced in wave, their collective voice drowning out the growl of the fire. I made a quick nod to the crowd, and then focused on the building’s third floor, where people crowding around a window cried for help.

I surmised how to get them out. A green delivery truck parked on the adjacent street, in front of a bodega, would have to do. I swooped down, clenching my black-gloved hands around the truck’s front end. I tipped it upward, the contents in the back spilling onto the street, sidewalk, and the hood of a beat up Volkswagen bug. A mixture of laughs and cheers erupted from the peanut gallery watching from the streets. A small explosion quieted them. A transformer on the powerlines next to the burning building burst. As if on cue, Sparky arrived.

“Blown transformer? My kind of party!” Sparky said, dropping onto the street. He leaned to and fro over a powerline that fell onto the curb, dancing sporadically and spewing shards of light about. Sparky looked like a snake charmer.

I knew Sparky could handle it. I lifted the delivery truck over my shoulder, and flew to the building’s third floor. I yelled at the people at the window to get back, and then shoved the delivery truck’s back end over the window. Bricks dribbled out of the building on either side of the truck.

“Get in the truck! Hurry!” I yelled.

I watched through the windshield, counting as the people piled in. With everyone aboard, I yanked the truck from the bricks of the wall. A backdraft grew from the hole, a mass of fire belching forth. I turned the truck away, and the fire quickly crawled over my shoulder and back. Gasps escaped from the crowd’s mouths, but I weathered the heat until it subsided seconds later. I set the truck down outside of the barricade the police had made.

“Sparky? Everything under control on your end?” I blew out a small fire that nibbled on the hem of my orange cape.

“Oh yeah, just fine,” he said, his grip tight on the chaotic head of the powerline. He put his free palm over the mouth of the line, smothering the sparks. “Just need someone to cut the power to this line.”

A firefighter confirmed the request, muttering into his radio.

“Samson! Think you can help us with the fire here?” Another firefighter asked, fumbling with an entangled ivory hose.

“Sure thing.” I saluted. Not like it was his job or anything.

I floated back up over the street, cheers from the crowd rising as I did. Fire was the only resident left, mostly relegated to the third floor, but reaching to the others through the shoddy construction and aging wood. I opened my mouth wide, inhaling. Hot air raced past my tongue and into my lungs, nearly bursting. The crowd had fallen silent waiting for the superhuman feat they would witness next. I shot the air with tornadic force over the face of the building. Loose bricks flew into the smoldering rooms and the flames shrank, overcome by my hurricane breath. My superhuman exhalation fizzled out into a sigh that no one else saw, let alone heard over the thunderous cheers that followed as the last embers cooled.

I looked to Sparky. The powerline in his hands had stopped, and he gave me another thumbs up. The people I had assisted in escaping the building were helped out of the back of the truck by officials. Being handed oxygen masks and the like, they were in safer hands now. I felt bad about using a delivery truck in such a way, but I’m sure the Godot’s Delivery that emblazoned the side of the truck would get a boost in business, thanks to their part in the rescue.

“Looks like our work here is done, Spark. Let’s fly,” I said.

“Right behind you, Sam.”

I darted into the sky, and the cheers of the crowd subsided, muffled by the wind in my ears.

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Sparky and I rested on the roof of a building a few blocks away. The danger was over now, the firefighters would put out any remnants of the blaze, rescue personnel would see to the injured. I glanced down, the wind blowing the hem of my cape into my legs, the scorched, blackened edge scraped against my ankle. My costumer hates it when I ruin the cape.

Another day, another save. It doesn’t hold as much weight as it used to, though. Maybe I’ve done it too much, dull to the sense of pride it used to give. Perhaps it’s the people who seem so ungrateful these days, as if they almost expect me to swoop in and save them.

“Hey, Sparky,” I turned to the boy. “D’you think…the citizenry has become less responsible?”

“How d’you mean?” Sparky pushed the goggles over his eyes up to his brow, revealing the young Indian boy beneath the guise. His homemade costume was put together well, but it still showed. Sparky, a science enthusiast, had been given powers over electricity from a malfunctioning experiment, and the first thing he thought to do was become a superhero. If only others zapped by irradiated potatoes could have that ambition, or even his love, for science.

His feet dangled over the edge of the building’s roof. It was moments like that I wondered what his parents would think about what we do. Hell, what would my parents think?

“There’s been a lot of trouble lately, don’t you think?” I said.

“Eh…it ebbs and flows,” Sparky answered. Sometimes he sounds too smart for his age.

“You think? We’ve been quite busy.” I crossed my arms, catching a glimpse of myself in the windows of an office building across the street. A simple, silver suit and orange cape. People always used to cheer seeing the ‘Silver Bullet’ weaving through the streets, flying off to save the day. Feels like I’m doing that a lot more nowadays.

“I’m beginning to wonder if people are becoming more irresponsible…like…’oh, it’s okay, if it catches fire Samson will save us’ y’know?”

Sparky turned his head up to me. He shot me a look of equal parts annoyance and lethargy.

“Sorry – ‘If it catches fire Samson and Sparky will save us’,” I continued.

“Haven’t really noticed, sorry Sam.” Sparky shrugged. “I’m still happy to help.”

“Oh I am too, but I just wonder. The world can’t be going to pot this easily, can it?”

“Bad things happen, and we just happen to be there to help. Of course it feels like there’s lots of trouble, trouble is our job. You’re a scientist right? It’s a skewed sample, y’know?”

“Heh, I guess so.” I glanced off toward the fire from before. The smoke was but a ribbon dancing in the sky now. A majority of the sirens had even stopped, although some remained.

“Well, I should be getting home – gotta history test tomorrow.” Sparky stood up, pulling his goggles down over his eyes. “I’ll catch up with you over the weekend.”

We said our goodbyes, and Sparky jumped down from the roof. He landed on some powerlines, his feet flashing on contact with the wires. Sparky leaned forward, and began sliding down the lines, heading away from the city as sharp strings of blue electricity flowed behind him.

“Skewed sample, huh?” I pondered on Sparky’s words.

It’s true, we do throw ourselves headlong into danger, it’s become a responsibility. Yet, why do I feel so unfulfilled? Drained? I’m not tired, I don’t get tired. But I am tired. How many people can I yank from death’s hand and not be thanked for my trouble? And not that weirdo in the hood who calls himself Death. People will say ‘thank you,’ but…do they really mean it? Or is it some kneejerk response?

I heard the concrete of the roof buckle behind me. I turned sharply, my cape wrapping around my form. A very fit looking man rose from a crouch, standing in the middle of a small circle of cracks.

“Adam! To what do I owe the pleasure? Nothing happening uptown tonight?”

Adam Prime, as he was called, was strange. Vain. Not quite as superhuman as me, he wore a skin-tight suit, made of ultrathin tear-resistant fibers. With a symbol of the Vitruvian man on its chest, the suit reached all the way up to Adam’s head, his eyes covered by lenses, but it curiously stopped at his hairline. He had a fifty dollar haircut blooming out of his disguise, the sandy blonde locks perfectly gelled and coiffed. His suit left little to the imagination. Very little. A fig leaf would have hidden more.

“Oh, silly Samson, uptown is always happening.” The man flashed a blindingly white smile, walking forward with a confident stride. “Still with the cape? Get with the times, my friend.”

“Sorry Adam. I figure if I leave it on long enough, it’ll be fashionable again.”

Adam let a wry chuckle escape his most definitely glossed lips. “So, how goes the night, Sam? Looks like things got a little hot?” Adam lifted my cape up, running a finger across the sooty boarder of it.

“Nothing we couldn’t handle.”

“Of course.” Adam hopped effortlessly onto the ledge next to me. “So hey, I was on my way to Abernathy Park – Cyborganizer shot off some warning to my blog.” Adam brought up his smartphone to access his blog messages. Wherever that thing was kept, I never wanted to know.

“Something about ‘turning all organic matter into machine,’ yadda yadda yadda…”

He swiped lower on the page.

“…‘it’s time for the world to know my greatness’…bleh…yadda…ah, ‘nothing will stop me this time. Just thought you’d like a heads up on your inevitable doom, oh Paragon of Man’.”

I chuckled.

“Hey, you’re a college man, yeah?” Adam whispered. “What’s a ‘paragon’ again?” Adam asked, as if he had forgotten, instead of never heard.

“A standard for everything to aspire to.”

“Right.” Adam nodded his head furiously in a short burst. “I don’t know why this guy keeps challenging me, but…yeah! Wanna come punch some robots with me?”

“Could do. I’ll meet you there.”

Adam turned and made sure I saw the grin on his face before he leaned backwards and fell off the edge of the roof. He gave a casual salute with two fingers popping forward from his coifed plumage, and sank into the soft light of the streets below. The night had settled in, the streetlights’ orange glow pushing back against the night’s sky. Yet, there was still more danger to overcome. I took off again, and listlessly headed for the park.

By the time I arrived, a brave news chopper had begun circling the grand park that sat at the heart of the city, the cameraman inside recording the ensuing battle on the ground. Adam stood amidst the wreckage of twisted metal limbs, the clockwork innards of eviscerated robotic henchmen laid out on the green grass. Adam caught a robot’s striking arm from above with one hand, and then chopped it in half at the waist with his other. Noticing the chopper, he flashed his trademark (it really was) grin, while the robot in his hand fell to pieces.

Adam was always willing to be on camera during a crisis, or stick around after one. He lived for the limelight, the fame. Loved flashing that smile of his. He also didn’t like capes; I think he was jealous that I could actually fly, and all he could to was jump really high. Capes looked best when you could fly.

While Adam was busy making love to the camera, another wave of robotic henchman had gathered behind him. I shot down to the ground and landed on a tin man at the front of the group. It crumpled like aluminum under my feet.

“Careful there, Adam – getting hit in the back isn’t all that glamorous.”

“Ah, thanks Sammy.” Adam bowed.

Adam’s gratitude got me thinking again.

“Can I ask you something, Adam?” I began, punching so hard through one robot’s chest the pressure hit three behind it.

“Go for it, big guy.” Adam tore a robot’s head from its metal collar as he flipped over it to avoid its attack.

“When was the last time someone…” I stopped a robot’s arm, grabbed it, and threw it into two other machines. “…genuinely thanked you for, y’know, saving them?”

Adam’s leg sliced through an encircling group of robots.

“Well…” Adam thought.

“And not some cape-chaser you took back to your hideout and screwed,” I added.

Adam’s face uncurled from amorous remembrance to disappointed perplexity.

“Uuuuuuh…”

“I see.”

“No no no…” Adam waved his hands. “I’m pretty sure it’s happened. Just remembering this bank teller the other night.”

Adam threw an uppercut into an encroaching robot, and it shattered into a brilliant array of metal shining in the news chopper’s spotlight.

“Ah! The reporters are always there to get people started on the gratitude train.”

“Y’think?” I asked.

“Oh, of course! Reporters gather everyone around, I get to tell them about how I saved the day, clapping, cheering…” Adam trailed off.

“But ever any ‘thank yous’?”

“Cheering isn’t a ‘thank you’?”

A hulking, metal behemoth lumbered onto the scene, its feet displacing grass and earth as it trotted forward. Humanoid in shape, it struck an aggressive pose as it loomed over Adam and me. The hard skin of the body was so reflective, you could see yourself in it, and I wondered how much time Cyborganizer spent cleaning it.

“Again you attempt to stop the next step in evolution!” A tinny voice blared from an unseen loudspeaker somewhere on the massive robot’s form. “My new War Machine will make short work of you this time!”

“Hey, c’mon now. We’re having a conversation!” Adam opened his arms wide, and brushed the remains of a robot away with his foot.

The War Machine’s burly, metallic arms swooped in, one hook for each of us. Adam and I simultaneously caught the fists headed our way with an open palm. The robotic hands crumpled against our immovable strength. As the wrists gave out, the War Machine pulled the arms back and jumped yards away. The mouth of the machine split open at the jawline, and a six-barrelled gatling gun “tongue” stuck out. I slid in front of Adam as the machine spat a lead raspberry our way. A flurry a bullets bounced off my body and tore through the edges of my cape, but Adam remained unscathed.

“He still prefer to think of himself as the ‘heart of a machine’?” I asked over the ricocheting rounds.

“Probably! Dude’s too poetic, goes over my head,” Adam responded. Both of his hands hovered inches from his hair.

I rushed forward with my iconic speed, bullets still bouncing off my shoulders as I closed the distance with the War Machine. I leapt up, my hand sliding through the machine’s chest with the ease of a needle through soft flesh. I peeled back the chest plate, where Cyborganizer rested, plugged into the machine’s electronic veins. A bald, lanky man with gray, plastic-looking skin, the Cyborganizer was so gaunt he almost looked like a metal skeleton. He chirped in distress when my hand grabbed him by the collar of his vest made of electrical cords. I yanked him from his harness and threw him towards Adam, who punched him so hard the villain flew back and slammed into the now-empty chassis of the machine. I reached into the chest cavity and tore a handful of cords from within. Adam landed to my side and took the cords to spiral them around Cyborganizer.

“Now you just stay there quietly and wait for the authorities. Your motherboard must be so disappointed in you,” said Adam as he tightened the cords around the villain’s torso.

“Save your puns; I don’t think he’s conscious.” I said.

Adam waved a dismissive hand in my face.

“So, cheering. Isn’t that all just platitudes, though? Someone causes trouble, you swoop in-”

Adam shot me a dirty look.

“Sorry…you jump in, save the day, everyone cheers for you.”

“What do you expect, a parade?”

“I don’t know,” I answered, as I glanced into the reflective surface of a large plate of the War Machine’s body. “Maybe just a little respect.”

“Respect? What makes you think we don’t get respect?” Adam had begun teasing his hair with his gloved fingers. “We have their love and adoration.”

“I don’t think that’s quite the same. So much seems to happen on any given day, and for what…?”

I stopped when I noticed Adam cycling through a handful of his signature poses in the derelict machine’s reflective body. He tried to make his transitions smooth and nonchalant, but it was easy to see what he was up to as he held his practiced stances with far too much effort. The subtle muscle flexing certainly made it obvious.

“…forget it,” I muttered.

Adam slapped me on the back.

“Look Sam, we do what others can’t. It’s fortunate that people like us exist in the world, right? We’re the good guys, yay us! What does it matter if we get real gratitude?”

“I was just-”

“-I think you’ve gotta figure out why exactly you’re doing this hero thing, Sam. For gratitude? For the greater good?” Adam let his questions linger. “Let that rattle around in the ol’ braincase for a bit, Sammy. I can handle things here, you can take off if you want. I’ll see you around.”

“Thanks.” I gave a half-hearted salute and took again to the skies.

I couldn’t help myself from hanging on Adam’s words. What was it all for? I glanced over the city, subconsciously flying towards the scene of the burning building from earlier, before I touched down on a rooftop in the financial district. The smoke had subsided, the sirens silent. From up here, it was as if nothing had ever happened, and perhaps down below, in the streets, everyone else figured it hadn’t either. I couldn’t even remember what I had done, in particular. There’s very little difference in all the times I’ve saved some poor saps who got trapped inside a burning building. It’s like being on auto-pilot. There’s more excitement when some mad scientist builds a doomsday device.

“What kind of life am I leading when that’s the highlight of my day…?” I thought aloud.

“When what is?”

My gaze darted around, the rooftop was empty. No one to claim the soft voice that answered my question to myself. A thin blue mist lapped at my feet, slowly crawling up my legs. I held out my arms as it moved up my torso, two whips wrapping about the back of my neck. I felt a weight in my hands as the mist formed into a shapely figure.

“Hey there, Sammy.” The voice had a body now.

“Always with these entrances, Aquaria?” It was hard to hide a smile.

Aquaria. Aquaria was…complicated. We all called her the Lady in the Lake, because she was so mysterious. I’m fairly close to her, and I still don’t know how she gained her water-based powers.

“Always worth it to see that smile.” She slid her finger down the bridge of my nose.

I let her down, and she stretched. She had said before that turning into mist made her body feel stiff and constricted. A good stretch was the best remedy.

“We could’ve used your help earlier, big fire in an apartment building.”

Aquaria turned, water whipped behind her when she placed her fists on her hips. She also had a great cape, it fell from her shoulders like a waterfall, the hem a bubbling white boarder of mist that brushed the ground.

“Sorry, couldn’t get away from normy work. So…what was it you were thinking about?”

She quickly changed the subject. Aquaria usually avoided extended conversation about her alter ego’s life. I couldn’t blame her, but in some ways the hero’s life was just as boring as the “normy life.”

“Ah, nothing.”

“Oh yeah? The scientist-turned-super hero has ‘nothing’ thoughts? I always figured you for too much thinking.”

My shoulders sank. She was right, there was little reason to hide it. I recalled my earlier conversations.

“Do you feel as though…people are more irresponsible because we’re around to save them?”

Aquaria glided down to perch on the edge of the roof, the azure glisten of her skin reflecting the streetlights far below.

“Hrm…never really thought about it. Why do you ask?” She turned her head up to me.

“Just wondering.” I shrugged, my cape dancing ever-so-slightly. “It’s become such a formality, it feels. Gratitude seems empty.”

“You think no one gives you heartfelt thanks?”

“It’s not even in thanking me for what we do, but…there’s saving the city from villains, but there’s also a lot more minuscule problems, people being careless. Like just a few weeks ago, Sparky traced another fire we put out back to an overloaded socket.”

“And you think an overloaded power outlet is someone’s way of…what? Disrespect? I bet the ol’ Quicksilver Citadel’s supercomputer is overloading a plug or two.”

Disrespect. It sounded wrong to even consider, but there it was, the word I hadn’t known I was avoiding all night. It was one thing to feel a lack of respect, it was another to feel like people went out of their way to disrespect. I felt disrespected by the city I poured my superhuman being into. I could lift a car off a man, but I couldn’t bear the weight of the city’s problems like I used to.

“Maybe it is. It’s just not right. I do a lot of good in this city, but something has to give. I…well, we deserve more respect. Why bother with this stuff otherwise?”

“You think?” Aquaria was good at listening, getting other people to open up. I was never quite sure how she did it. Her fluid nature must have carried over into her conversational skills, weaving through topics carved through the landscape by others, arriving at an ocean of greater truth.

“Don’t you?” I reprised with a question of my own.

“I’m indifferent to the idea, I think.” Aquaria shrugged, the sound of shifting water whispered from her shoulders when they dropped back to relax.

How does she do it? I repeated my question aloud. Her shoulders popped again.

“What are you in this for, Sammy? I seem to remember you telling me that when the experiment changed you, you had a moral obligation to use your powers for good, the same way you had wanted your science to. D’that all change?” Aquaria crossed her legs, propping her interlocked fingers on her raised knee.

I bent down to sit beside her.

“No, I don’t think so.” That may have been a lie. “I want to help people.”

“Then why all the talk of feeling unappreciated? Is it predicated on the people respecting you?”

“I…no, I don’t care about that.” Another lie, I was stacking them up higher than Adam Prime’s penthouse headquarters.

“Oh yeah? Then why the trouble, it should be simple right?”

“Well no, I…I do want to help people, but…”

“Do you really want to? Or is it that moral obligation you feel?” she shot the question fast.

“I…hrm…”

“Aaah. There it is.”

“There what is?”

“Why you’re so conflicted right now.”

“What? That I’m mixing up a desire for people to take care of themselves with my own obligations?”

“Something like that. You wanna do good, and that’s commendable, but c’mon Sammy, it’s not a terrible thing to feel like people should do a better job taking care of themselves. We’re not their mothers.”

“Definitely not.”

Was that really it? Had I been struggling between my own foolish morality and simply wanting the people to take care of themselves a little better?

“So say it – say how you really feel.” She urged me with a soft elbow in my bicep. “You’re not gonna turn into some villain by saying it.”

I took a deep breath, and the words blew out of my mouth like machine gun fire.

“I’m happy to help, but they need to take care of themselves, too.”

Aquaria clapped, her hands made a wet slapping sound. I watched her reflection in the office windows across the street.

“So you gonna be okay?” she asked.

“In time, I think,” I muttered.

“Y’know, part of the reason why I’m late to a lot of the smallfry parties…” Aquaria leaned in close with a hand cupped to the side of her lips. “…is because I’d just rather not deal with mundane stuff like muggings and building fires. Might as well leave those for the police, or…well, you.”

She giggled, it was the greatest song I’d heard in a while. It was so fleeting, but the memory stayed long after.

“Oh, thanks for throwing me a bone.” I could feel the corner of my mouth tugging upwards.

It was hard to control my smile around Aquaria – she was my one weakness. By no means was my alter ego some shut-in nerd, but Aquaria had this unique power where she made you feel, with such sincerity, that you were all that mattered. Over time I had begun to feel that it was a power she only revealed to me. Aquaria and I talked for much longer, about books we were reading, films we wanted to see, even how Sparky was doing as my partner. Sometime during the night, sirens marked the start of more trouble. Instinctively, my body tensed, ready to shoot up off into the sky.

“You gonna get this one?” Aquaria asked.

I paused, watching our reflections in the office building windows across the street. Aquaria and I had become so close to each other in the course of our conversation, our shoulders were very nearly touching, our capes intertwining in a light breeze.

“No. I think I’ll let someone else handle it for now.”

I lifted my arm up, setting it gently onto Aquaria’s shoulder. The tenseness of my body just flushed away, and I was swimming in contentment when her head tilted onto my shoulder.

“So, I know you’re not too keen on revealing your alter ego, but…would you like go out after you’re done with, uh, normy work?”

“Oh?” Aquaria’s lip curled with a coquettish grin.

“Promise I won’t tell a soul.”

“What about the city?”

“City will be fine. I think it’s about time I let Sparky take care of things on his own. I’m sure he’ll be happy to hear it.”

“Givin’ the kid the keys to the citadel?” Aquaria giggled.

“He’s responsible enough.” I nodded.

Another cacophony of sirens crept through the streets following an explosion. Aquaria shot up and stretched, then set her fists on her hips.

“Wanna check this one out?” she asked. “Explosions are promising.”

I looked her in the eyes, and after a moment spent contemplating, her eyebrows raised along with the corners of her lips.

“Yes…” I said sheepishly.

Aquaria held out her hands. I took them, and she pulled me up.

“Baby steps, Sam.”

“Explosions are baby steps?”

“You’re a super hero – the ratio of danger-to-priority goes backwards.” Aquaria melted into a cloud of blue between my fingers. “Race you there!”

The cloud blew off the rooftop and into the night. I walked off the ledge and followed her. I’d follow her anywhere.

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