Monday, March 16, 2009

A Nerd in Dreamland

For those unconvinced by my last post, I’ve decided to put up further evidence. The following short story has been rejected by every literary journal in Australia for lacking scenes of a tortured marriage on its last legs due to the heartbreak inflicted by the cruelty of life on the farm. Dad’s drunk, Mum walked into a door again and Uncle Hugo won’t stop touching me. However, things are looking up as I’ve moved into a grungy yet chic inner-city suburb and met this great girl. We’re going to try heroin together, but just this once.

Excuse me. Anyway, this is mostly about superheroes. Enjoy.


Cowards dies many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.

Once is enough.

It was approaching closing time at the Hall of Justice Bar and Grill. The Astounding Aero-Man gave the bar a cursory wipe with a dirty rag and, yawning, listened to the two elderly crime-fighters swap stories.
‘Flat out worst superhero I ever seen’, concluded the burly, grizzled ancient whose chest insignia proclaimed him to be Captain Invincible.
His drinking companion, a rake-thin scarecrow of a man wrapped in a tattered cape on which the label ‘Titan-O-Man’ could barely be discerned, snorted in disbelief.
‘No way, Cap’, he said, after a few chest-rattling coughs. ‘Do I need to remind you of the one and only Yellowbelly?’
Captain Invincible whooped in senile delight. ‘God-damn, T-Man! If you ain’t the rightest son-of-a-bitch I ever seen. Yellowbelly!’ He shook his head and sucked his teeth before letting a gob of mucus fly into the titanium spittoon, which promptly shattered. ‘Now there was one sorry excuse for a man.’
‘Last call, gentlemen’, interrupted The Astounding Aero-Man. Captain Invincible peered at him.
‘Ain’t you the Amazing Human Aeroplane?’
Aero-Man shrugged. ‘Something like that. Now, can I get you anything, old timer?’
‘Why are you tending bar in this dive? When I was your age, I’d just be gettin’ into my stride about this time. Can’t you hear the desperate cries of souls in distress lost in this remorseless jungle of a city?’ He gestured at the door. Silence hung heavy in the summer night. A cricket chirped. Somewhere in the distance, a reedy tenor started singing ‘On the Sunny Side of the Street.’
‘All right. Scotch and soda. You, T-Man?’
‘Vodka martini.’ Aero-Man nodded and started mixing drinks.
‘I tell you, T-Man, this generation has lost it. No-one has the fire, the passion for the job you used to see in our day. Why, when I was in my prime, I’d have been ashamed not to be imprisoned in Dr Destructo’s lair struggling to escape from a pair of anti-matter handcuffs before his task force of killer androids were dispatched to kidnap the United Nations Secretary General by now. And I would have won, too. An’ I tell you another thing…’
‘Your change, sir.’
Captain Invincible dug his nicotine-brown index finger into Aero-Man’s ribs, evincing a slight whimper. ‘Listen, young Aeroplane. You want to pull your act together. If you don’t get out there and use your powers for good – or evil, it don’t really matter – you’re going to go down in history as a non-entity. Or worse, you’ll end up a living joke – just like Yellowbelly.’
‘Yellowbelly? You’ll have to pardon me, gents, but I never heard of the man.’
‘That’s because you youngsters never listen to the wisdom of your elders. Now, listen up.’
The Astounding Aero-Man snuck a worried glance at the clock as the Captain began his tale.

Even in an age where (due to a statistically unlikely cluster of accidents involving atomic waste, solar radiation, untested chemical compounds and primitive genetic engineering techniques) supernatural powers were common, the boy who would become Yellowbelly was extraordinary.
A more than usually wilful and lazy child, all early attempts at parental discipline proved fruitless. Every time his father or mother raised their hand to the young lad, they found themselves confronting a mere tremor in the air. The boy would be discovered, seconds later, entire city blocks away.
At school, teachers would swear that they had marked him on the rolls as ‘present’ and had not seen him leave the class, yet as soon as they called upon him to demonstrate a math problem or conjugate a verb, he appeared to have vanished.
He refused to go in for sports or any other field where his abilities might be easily measured. Attempts to assess his talents with surprise visits from experts were foiled as he seemed to have extraordinary levels of perception in matters regarding his own welfare. His parents would whisper a plan, secure in the knowledge he was safely tucked away in his bedroom on the other side of the house, only to have him rush in and announce his opposition within a minute. Finally, in exasperation, they let him pursue his own course, which seemed largely to consist of eating hamburgers and sleeping until noon wherever possible.
Eventually at age eighteen, government scientists tracked him down and forced him to undergo testing as part of the Supernatural Powers Registration Act (1952). They were unable to discern any preternatural abilities in the young man, and it wasn’t until the compulsory psychological test that the mystery was unravelled.
The psychiatrist on duty found him a more than usually sullen and uncooperative subject, until the test moved on to probe his deepest fears and phobias. ‘At which point’, the report noted, ‘[subject] vanished from sight, re-appearing only to circle the room several times at speeds clocked at up to 240 mph, finally leaping from the fifth story window and landing, unharmed, on the concrete below. [Subject] was eventually retrieved at the airport, attempting to board an international flight wearing fake moustache and wig.’
The government shrinks were the first to figure it out. Yellowbelly’s powers were activated only by the apprehension of imminent danger. He was the world’s first, and only, Super-Coward.
When it was explained to him that his powers, if harnessed, could lead to a lucrative career, Yellowbelly (the label was applied by a junior psych major assigned to his file and it stuck) reluctantly agreed to give it a try. He was attached to the Extraordinary Eight as an intern. After a disastrous series of confrontations with assorted supervillians the (now) Extraordinary Six-and-a-half returned Yellowbelly to the government, intact but resolute in his determination to pursue a different line of work.
‘Confronting maniacal psychopaths armed with super-powers and ruthless henchmen?’, his exit report read. ‘F__k that. That sh_t’s dangerous.’
Evidence exists, however, that even as he pursued a series of low-status jobs, Yellowbelly never overcame the disappointment of his failure to succeed in the glamorous world of costumed crime-fighting. For years afterwards, superheroes throughout the city reported glimpses of a lonely figure clad in the uniform of a convenience store worker or fast food chef, loitering briefly around the sites of their fiercest battles before dissolving into a mere streak heading for the horizon.
The last attempt to harness Yellowbelly’s highly-honed but entirely self-preservation-centred powers for the forces of good came during the mighty Battle of All Heroes Against Evil-Omni-Man’s Forces of Doom, where he was chloroformed before being dropped from a helicopter in the midst of the invading army. It was hoped the fleeing Yellowbelly might be able to perform valuable reconnaissance work. However, his debrief yielded nothing more than the information that the Forces consisted of ‘a sh_t-load of f__king big bastards. Get me the f__k out of here!’, and he was summarily discharged.

‘So you see, kid?’, concluded Captain Invincible. ‘If you don’t make good use of your powers, you’re gonna end up as a human punch-line. It’s an awful thing to happen to anyone.’
‘What happened to Yellowbelly in the end?’ enquired the Astounding Aero-Man, interested despite himself.
A pensive mood suddenly struck the two veterans.
‘Oh- that was a sad story. See, after that debacle at the Battle of All Heroes, he finally became determined to face his fears. I mean, he was a laughing stock, it was pathetic. So he went through years of therapy and waited for his big chance. Finally, the Gobbler broke out of Darkfall Asylum, and Yellowbelly leapt into action. Put on the chicken costume and raced to Gobbler’s underground lair at the abandoned waterslide park.’
‘He had this mantra his shrink gave him’, interjected Titan-O-Man. ‘Kept telling himself “I am not afraid. I am not afraid. I am not afraid.” Over and over again.’
‘And- what happened?’
‘Turned out that those government shrinks were right. His fear was his power. So with no fear – well, basically you had a middle-aged man about forty pounds overweight with twenty years of experience in the snack-on-a-stick vending business up against an insane superhuman killing machine. The Gobbler made mincemeat of him. It was all over by the time T-Man and I – we were working together in those days – showed up on the scene.’ Captain Invincible shook his head sadly.
‘Bad business, that’, added Titan-O-Man. ‘But you know – they never found the body.’
‘Well, that’s ‘cause the Gobbler used to eat his victims, T-Man.’
‘True – but I don’t know – sometimes I think maybe, a last minute panic attack might have struck poor Yellowbelly – I thought as we arrived I saw something in the very edge of my vision – just a blur. It could have been…’
‘Not a chance. Guy was toast.’
‘Yeah. Maybe. I guess so.’
‘Closing time, gents.’
‘All right, all right. You need a lift, T-Man?’
‘Na. I’ll walk.’
‘See you at Dyn-O-Might’s retirement bash on Thursday?’
‘Yeah, probably.’

As Titan-O-Man walked home, he whistled a snatch of his half-forgotten theme song. The wind brought the sound of a distant scream. His bald head snapped back, before he saw a flash overhead as the Astounding Aero-Man sailed across the night sky. He smirked and gave a throaty laugh that turned into a raspy coughing fit. As he hacked and wheezed, propelling tiny droplets of saliva across the road with the force of bullets, he failed to notice the blur moving away from the scene of the distant crime, and his limited hearing couldn’t quite catch the old, once-familiar cry…

The legend of Yellowbelly lives on.

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