The phone woke me up. That pissed me off. I admit it’s not all that heard to piss me off, these days, what with the bullshit job and the emotional problems and the world’s persistent refusal to recognize my mediocre and insipid genius. Still, a phone call at 6:30 in the morning on a weekend would rub me the wrong way even if my life didn’t suck. Even if it wasn’t him calling. The “superhero theme” ringtone I’d assigned my older brother wasn’t funny that early in the morning, it turned out. The brass was just piercing. I made a mental note to change his ringtone to soothing ocean sounds. He never really got the joke anyway. As usual.
There wasn’t any question of my not answering. I don’t answer, he flies over and “checks” on me. I grabbed the phone off the bedside table.
“What?” Yeah, I was a little brusque with him. It never penetrates. I don’t know why I bother trying to needle that invulnerable skin of his.
“Hey, Dennis, what’s going on?”
“It’s Oh-fucking-dark-thirty is what’s going on, William.” I laid the snide on thick saying his name. “Call me back in about, um, next month.”
“Put the coffee on. I’ll be over in a few.”
“What? No. I need to sleep, Bill. I’m going back to bed.”
“I’ll be over in ten. We need to talk.”
Six thirty two Saturday morning and the weekend already sucked.
“Is this about the hospital thing, Bill? Because I’m fine. The meds are working and you don’t need to check on me anymore. In fact, the docs say it’s better if you don’t.”
“This isn’t about that. It’s not about you.”
Of course it isn’t, I thought to myself. It’s never about me. “Fine,” I said. “I’m out of cream and sugar. Pick some up on your way over.”
“Can’t,” he said. “I’m in uniform.”
That got my attention. He never came around here in his work clothes. That old confidentiality issue: it still meant something to him, even though there wasn’t anything to hide from anyone anymore. This was something big, I realized. “Okay, I’m up,” I said. “See you when you get here.”
It isn’t that hard to explain the problems I have with my brother. At their root lies the classic conflict: overachieving older sibling with the inevitable narcissistic streak; sensitive younger sibling growing up in his shadow, the usual worship of his older brother slowly crusting over into the usual resentment, and from there into the usual sheer hatred at around puberty. There’s another layer atop that, too. Mom and Pop had tried for years to have a kid. Just as they were about to give up, they met baby Bill. They adopted him: the son they’d dreamed of for twenty years of barren marriage! They went through all the usual joys: Bill’s first words, Bill’s first steps, Bill’s first day of school. They were a happy little family. And that happiness must have unlocked something in either Mom or Pop that had been sealed up tight, because the impossible happened. They got what the doctors had told them to stop hoping for. Somewhere around the time Bill turned seven, Mom got pregnant. I came into the world after the usual interval. I spent the next two decades in my older brother’s shadow, and he spent that time resenting every speck of attention and affection Mom and Pop gave their “real,” non-adopted son.
So on top of the classic birth order issue add the vagaries of adoption, along with the facts that I was completely unanticipated, that my family had already felt just complete as hell without me in it, and that my arrival threw a monkey wrench into what had been a pretty tidy little arrangement for the three of them. With that kind of setup for long-term sibling rivalry, I’m almost tempted to say it would have been just as bad between us even if Mom and Pop had adopted Bill the normal way.
But of course they didn’t. Unless, that is, your definition of a normal adoption includes a spaceship crash-landing into a barn, setting it ablaze, with the infant inside the pod subsequently busting his way out and rescuing the 210-pound owner of said barn by picking him up with one hand and carrying him out through a wall of flame. “His diaper wasn’t even singed,” Pop said after that, at least once a day for the next thirty years. Somehow, what Pop took away from that entire incident was amazement at Bill’s flame-retardant baby clothing.
I have this little game I play to amuse myself. Every time I start up with a new shrink — and that happens with some frequency — I just casually, about thirty minutes into our first session, let fly with a hint as to just who the older brother is I have all these issues with. I watch as the wheels turn in their heads. “Client Dennis Starling’s brother Bill? William Starling…” and then the shrink’s pen stops moving and the shrink’s jaw comes just slightly open and I say “oh, haven’t I mentioned that I’m Megaman’s little brother? I never remember which one of you doctors I’ve told about that.” And then I watch as a gleam of hero worship catches in their eye, and I keep watching as that gleam dulls with the realization that they cannot tell a goddamn soul what they’ve just learned. Megaman may have had his cover blown, but doctor-patient confidentiality is still the law of the land.
It’s a pathetic little game, I admit. But it shifts the balance of power in my favor a little. When you have a life like mine, you take any power-shifting you can get.
I took the pot of coffee out onto the porch, put it on the little redwood table. I put a couple of mugs next to the pot, filled one with black coffee, sat back on the bench and blew on the hot coffee as the sun came up. I’d gotten more than halfway through the cup when Bill showed up, still in uniform.
“What took you so long?”
“You sounded like you needed a minute, so I orbited a couple times. Coffee still hot?”
I waved at the pot as if to say “it’s right there, why don’t you see for yourself whether it’s still hot what with your vast powers of perception far beyond those of mortal humans and all.” He grunted and poured himself a cup. He sat back on the bench, took a sip, recoiled. “Gaack, Dennis. This is sludge.”
“It’s dark roast made at the proper strength, Bill. If you’d grow a pair, you might learn to like actual coffee as opposed to the weak donut shop crap you drink. And anyway, you could have stopped at the store for cream if you hadn’t decided to show up in your leotard.”
“First off it’s a goddamn ablative garment, Dennis, not a leotard. Secondly, fuck you. Thirdly,”
I interrupted him. “Thirdly how about you tell me why you got me out of bed before dawn on a fucking Saturday, Megaman?”
His mouth hung open mid-insult for a beat, then shut. He looked at me hard, hard enough that I wondered for a few seconds if he was scanning me for brain tumors, despite my having asked him politely several times not to do that anymore. But his eyes slid off mine, down and over to the mug in his hands, and his jaw worked a little bit, no words coming out as he watched the steam rise off the dark roast.
After a long minute he raised the mug to his lips, took another sip. He swallowed. He grimaced. He leaned back against the clapboard and looked out across the porch rail, across the lawn, out to whatever impossibly distant land made up his horizon. He sighed.
“I came to tell you goodbye,” he said, finally. “I came to say goodbye, Dennis.”
I didn’t quite know what to say for a while. A crow flew past the porch, landed with a rough croak in my neighbor’s Jake’s crabapple tree. It began to eat the blossoms. Jake’s curtains drew aside, and I saw his face peer through the window at the crow. He glanced over at Bill and me, then glanced away again.
People in this town are like that. They notice what’s going on, but once they’ve noticed they don’t pry. It’s why I’m here. After the Great Unmasking, when Bill “came out of the phone booth” as the Man of Titanium, he and I had some long talks about my well-being. We came up with what seemed like a good idea: I’d move to a burg small enough that all my neighbors could know who I was, but not so small that some arch-nemesis could lure us all into the same room somehow. That’d be a first line of defense, at any rate, in case something happened to me while Bill was distracted diverting a tsunami off Madagascar or something.
I was afraid at first that it’d be claustrophobic. I grew up in a small town, you know? There was a reason I left for the city: the anonymity there was comforting as hell. No one cared who I was. No one cared who I was related to. It was almost like being normal there, for a minute. But, you know, after Mom and Pop… well, Bill and I didn’t really have our heads screwed on straight for a while after they died. My moving out to the sticks might have been an overreaction. By the time we realized that the wind had gone out of those arch-nemeses’ metaphorical sails I’d grown to like it here, grown to appreciate the quiet, the being able to step off my porch and see stars at night. Hell, I grew to appreciate having a porch, even though — occasionally — it became less of a porch and more of a stage on which my brother would — occasionally — put on a one-man show. Like right now.
“What do you mean ‘goodbye’? Are you holing up at The Redoubt for a while?” As you know, Bob, Megaman maintained a secure laboratory and retreat for years, deep within Mount Augustus in Australia’s Outback. There was hell to pay when he got found out during The Great Unmasking, what with the National Parks and the indigenous people there upset about his tunnelling The Redoubt into the solid rock. Sacred land, a national heritage despoiled for private use, the whole thing. He hadn’t been back since, and I asked knowing damn well that wasn’t where he was heading.
And as I suspected, he shook his head. “I’m not going to The Redoubt. I’m…” He stopped mid-sentence.
“I don’t like where this is headed,” I said.
“We’ve both known it was coming. We’ve both known for a while.” Bill’s voice was steadier, more determined. It wasn’t the leaving he was nervous about; it was telling me. For him, the hard part was over. He thought.
“You know,” I said, “for a superhero you’re really kind of a fucking drama queen.”
He didn’t rise to the bait. “So what am I supposed to do instead?”
I was pissed off. Sometimes I express that in unhelpful ways. I know it’s not constructive. I’m working on it. “I don’t know, Bill; maybe you could not run away from home?”
“Dennis, listen. I don’t expect you to be thrilled about this…”
“Heh. Perceptive of you.”
“Seriously, just listen to me for a…”
The anger grew past the point where I could dress it up as sarcasm.
“You’re leaving Earth. What is there to listen to? You’re already gone. Mom and Pop and now you. It’s gonna be just me, alone, on the whole planet, with nobody else.”
“Yeah. Welcome to my world.”
He could always make it about him.
“You’re not the one that’s alone here, Dennis. You’ve got seven billion fellow members of your species here to hang out with. Who the hell do I have?”
“Humans love you.”
“No!” His whole body tensed, a spasm sudden enough I worried he’d crush the coffee cup in his hand. He spit out the words like they were bullets he’d caught in his teeth. “No, they don’t. They worship me. Love means you want to know someone. Spend time with them. Talk to them. Listen to them. Humans? You don’t love me. I mean, you know. You love me…”
It was my turn to flinch. I really didn’t think he knew. I kept it hidden well enough. Or maybe he was smart enough to see the snark, the sniping for what it was. Or maybe he could read the patterns in the synapses firing in my limbic system. It was weird, regardless, and it took me by surprise, the first time either of us had ever said anything remotely like that to the other, and he just up and said it without hours of talking to the chair in Gestalt therapy, without a drop of Chivas.
“Yeah,” I said, finally. “Yeah.”
He swallowed, hard. “Yeah.”
“I honestly don’t see what’s wrong with being worshipped, though. I could use some of that.”
“No, you couldn’t. Worship isn’t love. It’s more like hatred. People worship you, they expect things in return for that worship. Handholding. I got a piece of hate mail from a nice old lady in Chicago yesterday. She was pissed off that I wouldn’t come paint the gradeschool where she teaches. Because, you know, it’s too hard to get the people who’re supposed to take care of that kinda thing to pay the taxes, pass the budget, hire the crew. Did she think I wanted to say “no”? Yes, I could have had the place painted in 45 seconds. Yes, it would have kept little kids from eating old lead paint chips. It fucking broke my heart to say “no.”
“There are a lot of schools in the world.”
“Schools, orphanages, hospitals. I’ve shown you my email. ‘Megaman, please dig us a canal.’ ‘Megaman, drive off our locusts.’ ‘Megaman, we need an iceberg from Antarctica.’ All stuff I’d love to do. All stuff they could be doing themselves. And I don’t do it, because, hello? Triage? There’s always a volcano set to incinerate a town, a dam about to burst, a meteor heading this way…”
“Bill, I get it. I’m grateful for everything you’ve done. You don’t need the hyperbole, the meteors…”
“Not hyperbole. Two last month. Six in the last year and a half. You know, I don’t put out a press release every single time I pull humanity’s ass out of the fire.”
“Huh. That’s, um, a lot of meteors.”
“Comet last year, too. Five klicks in diameter. Would’ve been an extinction-level impact for sure. I stuck it in a crater at the Moon’s South Pole. There’s enough water there to support a colony the size of Manhattan now. Not that they’ll get around to building one if I stay here.”
“So, Megaman, yet again you’ve foiled my brilliant plan to change the subject.”
“I’ve infantilized an entire fucking species in the last thirty years, Dennis. When’s the last time a big dam went up? Not that I wouldn’t be doing you all a favor to take out Hoover and Aswan. When’s the last time you people went to the moon? What have you all accomplished since I’ve been here? The Internet. A way to keep everyone glued to their seats watching videos of me diverting streams of lava and punching tsunamis.”
“So where would you go instead? What would you do?”
“I don’t know. Anywhere. Maybe I’ll just go to Jupiter for a couple months and sleep it all off. Then head for the galactic core. You know, I’ve never been there? I’ve been studying the dynamics of Saturn’s rings, interactions of billions of bodies in the same gravity field, and the math is beautiful. I’d sure love to see if my ideas hold up when we’re talking millions of huge stars rather than ice and gravel. Or…”
I felt it well up in me, the emptiness I knew I’d feel once he’d gone, after a life full of more of the same. He was alone in the world, sure enough, but so was I; being Megaman’s Little Brother might not have sucked quite as hard as being the Real Deal, but at least he got the respect of the planet. It might have been curdled, rancid respect, frosted over with a global petulance by an entitled human species, but it was more than I got.
“Or you could stay.”
“Dennis.” He sighed, shook his head.
“I’m serious. You have a huge responsibility here and you’re just running away from it.” Anger rose in me to keep the emptiness company. My voice shook. “Yeah, yeah, you didn’t ask to crash-land here and you didn’t ask to be a thousand times stronger than us because of the sunspots and you didn’t ask for this and it’s all so unfair.”
“But what about you,” he mock-whined.
I stood up, fists clenched. “Damn straight what about me! You think this doesn’t all land on me? You think I don’t hear from most of the people whose emails you don’t answer? ‘I just wondered if you could get a message to your brother for me’ and ‘why hasn’t Megaman answered the phone’ and ‘I’ve attached a 700-megabyte prospectus of our refugee camp irrigation project for you to download and then forward to Megaman on your fucking dialup’?”
He looked surprised. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“What would you have done?”
He didn’t have an answer.
“What happens when you leave, Bill? All those people call me first. ‘When is Megaman coming back?’ ‘How do we get ahold of Megaman?’ A building catches fire or a landslide buries a town or they notice a meteor that you’re not there to bunt off toward Pluto, what happens then?
“You leave,” I said, “and I get to play military bereavement officer to the whole goddamn world, like I’m knocking on every door on the planet with the “regret to inform you” telegram. ‘I’m sorry that your babies are doomed, ma’am. No, I don’t have a forwarding address. No, I don’t have any superpowers of my own. He was adopted.’”
Bill stared at me, astonished. He hadn’t thought of any of this, of course. “So what am I supposed to do?”
“You could start by facing up to things. What’s stopping you from, I don’t know, retiring? Give a speech to the world about hard choices, all of us pulling our weight, teaching a man to fish, you know? You could put us on notice. No more twenty-four-seven housecall service. You could set up the Megaman Foundation and accept applications for world-saving projects to be fulfilled during business hours.”
“You’d all be furious.”
“Yeah, we might start worshiping you less. Feature, not bug.”
“So I have a question,” Bill said. “How would that not be just doing for you what you’re telling me to stop doing for everyone else? Staying around so that I can keep you safe from your demons? Keeping myself here so that you don’t have to face your own loneliness?”
“Yeah, it’s too bad Mom and Pop aren’t still around, Bill. You’d be off the hook for that one.”
That was a low blow, and I regretted it almost as soon as the words left my stupid mouth. Was it survivor’s guilt again? I’d done a lot of work with the shrinks since the fire. I’d thought I was done with wishing I’d died instead, wishing that Bill had decided to rescue our parents first. It was Voltor that set the trap, not Bill; Voltor who’d lined the warehouse with Ionite to strip Bill’s powers, not Bill. I didn’t blame Bill, I’d thought. Not anymore. Not since I stopped hearing Mom’s screams every time I closed my eyes. I’d thought.
Risking the screams, I closed my eyes. Nothing: just silence and my brother’s breathing. “I’m an asshole.”
“Yeah,” said Bill. “Me too.”
“I don’t want you to go,” I said.
There was a breeze, and it made a thin rattling sound in the crabapple’s leaves. It was starting to get warm. Eyes still closed, I listened as the crow croaked its way toward the tree again, smiled despite myself at the soft chuff of its wingbeats. For a moment I felt it: me, alone, on a whole planet, with nobody else. It was terrifying and beautiful. Mostly terrifying.
I cleared my throat. It was harder than I expected.
“Will you ever come back?’
“I don’t know. I’d need a reason.”
“You love me.” I actually said it out loud.
There was a long silence.
It was hard to tell — he said it very quietly, almost a whisper, hardly audible over the crabapple leaves — but I thought I heard him say “yeah.” And then there was another sound, heartbreakingly familiar, the high-pitched whistle, rising in tone and ending in a muffled “whomp,” the sound of friction between the air and a goddamn ablative garment moving at a quarter the speed of light, streaking up out of the Earth’s atmosphere and away. And then silence again, and the crow, and the leaves.
After a long time I opened my eyes.