The lock was still on the bleached garage door when David arrived under piercing sun, but the wind was knocking a side door back against the wall in beat. He peered inside; there was no lantern anymore. He brought his hands into sweatpants pockets, and sighed when he found only a single key and a few bills inside.
After feeling along the clusters of dust on the floor, his fingertips arrived at a scratchy piece of wood. Once moved, a swell of smoke cascaded out, and David threw his head to the side and coughed.
From the pit, he could hear hyperventilating and could see a flickering white light deep down. A massive man with little hair was hanging onto the rock stairs with large fingers, flailing his legs behind him. With a hand over his mask to slap it back on, David scuffled to the stair’s top and grabbed each hand of Mr. Morality.
It took several grunts and heaves, but Mr. Morality could eventually roll over into the light from outside, where the crimson smoke flew out. He breathed against something in the back of his throat. David hovered over him; his face seemed to be shoved to the center, leaving a pale canvas of cheeks and forehead.
Mr. Morality finally opened his eyes. “Who- what are you!?”
“What happened here?
“Goddamn woman went crazy!” he choked out, cotton still in his throat. “First she keeps talkin’ to me, says she wants to know more about me, keeps interrupting, then she’s screaming about me never paying attention to her! I turn around for one moment and she- she- she buried my laptop! It was some kind of black goo! Then she’s gone, and all the doors are open and smoke’s comin’ from every room! And no fire!”
David gasped, “Did the kids escape?”
David supported his hand on the belly. “Your child labor. Did they get out in time.”
“I thought she did all the work. Got me the money, at any rate. Didn’t see nobody.”
The smoke had stopped. With a careful swivel, as Mr. Morality groaned, David got off his knees and shuffled down the steps until the hand in front of him reached something soft and burning.
With a yelp, he held his wrist and took a step up, letting his eyes adjust. A wall of stringy earth was at the stair’s bottom, emitting little vapors underneath that would quickly vanish. David put the back of his hand close; it still emitted a round heat.
A throaty scream came from above. Sprinting up the softening steps of earth, David saw Mr. Morality sitting up, with one hand clutching his bottom and the other holding a phone to the dark. Turning his head, David gasped; the wall away from Mr. Morality had dried dripping of deep, purple lettering.
A blue contact fell from Mr. Morality’s eye as he held his head and shuffled back into the wall shaking. He cried out as David started to approach the lettering, which was enough for David to grab his arm and back away from the source of the burnt steak smell.
Mr. Morality soon got up on his stained dress pants and hustled out the door, going only to a bare fence before David caught up with him.
“How do you remove a chip?”
David pulled out his photograph, held it straight in front, and then swallowed as he read its back.
“Why am I returning your mind-control chip to you? It works fine, but I realize-“
“Oh fuck you. I’m not here to listen to a speech.” The big man grabbed on to the fence in front of him each time he moved towards the street’s shade. “I don’t know anymore.”
“You invented it!” David lifted his mask for a moment to wipe away the sweat.
“That was college. Those information packets are trapped down there,” said Mr. Morality, with a quick itch on his side scratched.
David looked back at the squatting garage, then to Mr. Morality, who had turn to the jagged sidewalk at a brisk pace.
“Well, my employer needs one removed, and I’m not paying for that one!”
Mr. Morality froze stiff, grasping invisible balls with his fingers, then turned around pale. A pigeon continued to peck at the bare grass beside him. “Do you all look like that?”
“The golden skull masks? She told me that there’d be “meanies in black,” frequent buyers that kept complaining. Or maybe you were that other masked man.”
David itched at the edges of his plastic disguise, then sighed. “It’s an old Halloween mask, actually. There are some I’d rather not be recognized by. Look, I’ll… I won’t tell anybody about your business if you help me.”
“Look, I can’t. I gotta get back to my folks’ house. I should be on break anyway.”
“Look, it’s over! Finished! There’s nothing more to talk about here.” Mr. Morality nearly tripped on his turn back, but kept going at irregular intervals, reshifting his hoodie when not zipping or unzipping it. Birds jabbered and rustled dry green leaves above.
Mr. Morality revolved.
“You could at least get me directions to the library.”
“Well, my employer is looking for something, and he’s a low-tech guy.”
Mr. Morality hid his head as he rubbed his temples. “It’s not gonna work, you know. She told me each chip has safeguards.”
“Oh really?” David gave a silent grin. “Something tells me I get these chips better than you do.”
At the library checkout between two flags, David got a path to the other masked man from a flush-faced teen with a long ponytail. As he took taut steps away, she called to him. “I think he wants to be left alone,” she muttered before going back to her keyboard.
The moisture in his mask had begun to drip to his chin as an escalator pushed him to a grid glass ceiling. Once off, David walked past ten knotted shelves and a group of scampering children, then put his shoulder to a row and peered alongside.
The back of Cicada-Man’s head stretched to the ceiling, next to a tower of thick textbooks teetering alongside. He was alone on a row of desks. The other desk strips in between shelves were overflowing, some with books to chin, a couple staring at the goggled man with titled gaze. David’s lean caused the shelf to creak, and Cicada-Man shot his neck up to find David’s eyes.
Jetting his breath up to hold, David swiveled into a walk past the faded array of colors and dog-ears, spacing out each step in forced interval. He gave a quick glance through an empty section after the middle of the shelf; Cicada-Man’s scarlet eyes were following him. Once David could peer to the other side, however, the armored man was flipping through his book, muttering and letting spit fly irregularly.
David’s hand caressed the photograph beneath the sweats. He steadied his breath, straightened the mask, then stepped out.
Some of the gawkers at computers pointed at David for their friends. David stepped past the clicks and rustles, and Cicada-Man crashed his book shut before tossing it aside and standing for another, to which David scrunched behind a blue bin. He counted the breaths and felt his blood pump. Minutes after the new book had been slammed down and the others had started staring at David instead, he stood, then crept along the varnished wood to the blue pimple on the brown mask.
In the midst of turning the page, Cicada-Man ripped his body from the chair and latched onto David’s shoulders, pushing him down into the edge of the desk. “I was promised no more disturbances,” he snarled. “Have I wronged thee, ‘hero’?”
“Forgive me,” said David, his voice like a cough. “There’s something sticking to the back of your mask.”
Cicada-Man brought his hand around the metal ball, then froze, twitching his head to bring it closer to David’s. “Who are you?”
“I’ve been sent to help you. The government- The government wants you to achieve your dreams. Cleaning up your mask is a good place to start.”
With straining fingers, Cicada-Man finally pinched the blue ball and peeled it, threads still sticking to the magnet. Moments later, he pulled David’s body up and close.
“I am uncertain why I became so inclined to trust you moments ago, strange one,” said Cicada-Man. “Reveal your secrets, ere you be cast out as a malicious sorcerer.”
“No secret. When you can’t understand intention,” David then slipped up his mask and took in sharp breaths in between coughing out his gravel voice, “you can really- fall for- anything.”
Cicada-Man pushed David back, and held his arms out.
“David Tolkien! I admit we did not part on good terms, but I thought in that moment (though why, I cannot imagine) that you no longer-“
“Look, I need to tell you some things, ok? Just please, don’t run or be angry or anything.”
Cicada-Man put his hands on the itchy chair and leaned in.
“I… put a mind control chip on you. The evidence of the business I got it from was destroyed, but they gave it to me as an experiment of sorts. That blue thing removes your ability to perceive intent in some places,” said David, glancing at Atlas of Human Anatomy on top of the textbook pile. “I partially wanted to take a break, but it also had to do with your- homophobic beliefs.”
Cicada-Man opened his mouth and raised his head, but quickly shut and lowered it, looking up.
David slipped his photograph out and held it in front. “But I recently had a change of heart.
‘Why am I returning your mind-control chip to you? It works fine, but I realize that I’m approaching it the wrong way after all this time.
I don’t know why some people are homophobic, or racist, or any other evil. I don’t know why I took up this impossible challenge, or why I’m still around. And maybe that’s the reason.
We learn nothing without dialogue. I will talk with Cicada-Man about his stigmas, and we will learn from each other, though I hope to teach him more than he teaches me. We will both benefit from each other, and I will go nowhere without someone to challenge me.’”
When David looked up and quickly crumpled the photograph back, Cicada-Man was standing straight and smiling.
“I suppose I should be insulted,” he said, followed by a little laugh. “But I’m glad you acknowledged your mistakes.”
David smiled back, and then picked up the mask. “I fixed my first superhero failing too.”
“Actually, can you not use my real name? In front of these guys?”
Cicada-Man surveyed the enraptured audience and the timid ponytail intern on all sides. Seizing his head, “You mean you’ve been using your real name all this time?”
“Dav- my former apprentice, do you not see the foolishness of this? How your enemies could use this information against you!”
“Look, I didn’t need- we’re getting off topic. I want back in.”
Cicada-Man clasped his hands in front of him. A grey-haired, jittery man walked in and began whispering to a friend and pointing at the two heroes.
“I could not be so cruel as to deny you the chance to do good. However, the task beheld by superheroes is not flexible; it is likely sin will tempt you once again.”
David picked his head up. “Well, that’s where you’re wrong. I’m not going to charge in. I’ll start with two hours a day. We’ll meet at Union Station at noon. As time goes on, I’ll increase the amount of time I spend with you.”
“Look, after saving your livelihood, you could grant me at least this.”
“And whose-“Cicada-Man’s mouth hung open, then closed slowly and tightly. “You would dare blackmail me so?”
“I’m blackmailing you to help you,” David raised his arm and hand out. “I thought you were looking for apprentices. I’m curious about you and want to be me again. Either way, you’re keeping me around.”
Pinching together the skin of his forehead, Cicada-Man grunted and tapped a packed boot rapidly.
“You shouldn’t trust me,” offered David. “But I can fix that.”
Cicada-Man scrunched his hands and let out a yelp, bringing in more onlookers across the reflecting floor.
“Just as I return on my glorious quest, I must accept my own undoing! But I need not pray to understand that this is what Jesus would do. And you did return to rescue myself from denying the true path… very well. Unnamed One, we shall work together to save this world… or rather, you will work whenever you feel like it,” he grumbled. He took two steps forward and snatched David’s hand as David’s wilted hair was mirrored off of the polished goggles.
“Unnamed One.” David beamed. “Unnamed. Not a bad moniker, really.
The grey-haired man started a soft applause, and let out a ‘whoo!’ before blushing and stopping. The gatherings on the tables giggled at that.
Copyright (C) 2013 by Nick Edinger