Excerpt from an Ongoing Project
The following is an excerpt from a spec-fic novel I started earlier this year. For obvious reasons, I've been too busy to work on it lately. The initial source of inspiration for the project was the ubiquity of superhero movies. The second, like most spec-fic, was a simple what-if: What if people really did start exhibiting super powers? How would this affect society? What resulted is equal parts silly and serious, a story about kids who have "abilities," the parents who now have to live with them, and the Hogwartsian school which is created to educate them.
The title of the project is Id, Ego, Superhero.
Introduction – Rise of the Superhero
Who is our hero? The boy called Proof was born Prufrock King in the early hours of March 11th, 1991. His parents were Allan and Moira King, two English students who met while Allan was an undergrad at the University of Virginia and Moira was his TA. The class was English Lit 340: T.S. Eliot and discussion group was every Tuesday at six o’clock. Moira was youngish for a Ph.D. student and pretty and brilliant, and Allan though barely twenty-one had mature eyes and tastes and a way of asking insightful questions neither he nor Moira had the answers to. And so though Moira made an effort to distribute her attention evenly among the six to ten students (of twelve) who regularly attended discussion group, she soon found herself looking forward to seeing Allan sitting in the near-back of the room, a distance not so far as to slip from her didactical orbit but not so close she could pretend the number of times she looked his way was mere coincidence. Making matters worse, Allan’s attendance was spotty and Moira was always a little too disappointed not to see him sitting in his customary spot. When she confronted him about this he must have sensed her disproportionate disappointment because he asked cheekily if she would like to grab brunch with him that weekend, as though brunch were the sort of thing a Ph.D. student did but not a twenty-one year old third-year English major.
Brunch at Pigeon Hole (Moira’s suggestion) was at 1 p.m., which amused Moira because 1 p.m. was afternoon. After brunch, they took a trip to the Starbucks down the street and then a walk around grounds, down the Lawn, past the amphitheater, onto Jefferson Park Avenue and all the way to Moira’s one bedroom apartment where she invited him in to talk a little more. They talked and then had afternoon sex as only young people can have afternoon sex and ordered pizza and drank cheap Virginia wine and talked about Eliot and family and friends and Tolstoy who they both wanted to read but hadn’t because who had the time for Russian doorstops when there was so much to tackle in the Anglo tradition.
And that was how it started. The beginnings of their left-leaning, intellectual family. Three years later they were married and had moved north as all UVA students seem to do, opting against the clutter and high rent of New York City in exchange for the urban sprawl and high rent of Northern Virginia. Allan was in a dual degree doctoral program in Education and Public Policy at Georgetown and Moira was supposed to be finishing her dissertation but was instead busy missing her period and realizing she was pregnant, which was not part of the plan. The plan was to wait a few more years, until after Allan had completed his dissertation and found a job at an education think tank or lobby or something befitting their DC-near location. But they still loved each other and they loved Eliot and so when the OB/GYN said “It’s a boy!” they both already knew his name.
Proof inherited his parents’ love of books; by nature or nurture, he didn’t have the opportunity not to. His earliest memories were of being read to before bed, being told it was time to sleep now and he could hear the rest tomorrow night, and wishing he knew how to read so he might sneak in a few more pages under the glow of his Batman nightlight. He would learn to read at four years old, an astonishing age Moira’s mom-friends always told her. Her Ph.D.-friends were less impressed. Theirs was a tightly guarded world of ideas on pages, scholarly articles, and dissertations further along than Moira’s and whenever Moira broached the subject of marriage or “real life” there was always the staunch defense of “student loans.”
“I’ve got loans to think about,” they’d say, as though Moira and Allan didn’t, as though a total of six figures worth of some bank’s money weren’t rolling around in usurious ether accumulating interest the way a three year-old collects dirt and germs and expenses. “Think of when he’s gotta go to college,” they’d often remark and Moira would wave her hand and say: “I’m sure they’ll pass some law to sort it out.” And besides, Allan would get a lucrative job after he finished his Ph.D. There had already been preliminary emails and the scheduling of a few lunches. Things looked good. Things were potentially shaky but credit was flowing. It was the nineties after all.
The nineties would always have a special place in Proof’s heart. In the nineties, he had a happy mom and dad (so far as he knew); he had his toys, his Power Rangers-themed birthday parties which were always attended by all his classmates, playdates whenever he wanted them, more TV shows than he knew what to do with, an abundance of cheap, artificially sweetened snacks which, to a four or five year old, are as addictive as crack cocaine, so really he had an unlimited supply of crack cocaine (something his father would have liked). America was a good place, everyone had a job and a house and shares in a dot com. We were moving out, to big houses in pleasant suburbs, and moving up, to middle and in some cases upper management. The Soviet Union was gone. We’d won the Gulf War. Terrorism wasn’t really a thing.
Most of all, Proof loved the nineties because in the nineties he had books. As many books as he wanted, his father promised, so long as he finished the one he was reading, which he always did. He preferred the books be his own, that he could store them his bookshelf, a little memorial to his literacy, but he loved the library also. This was a place of free books, so how could he dislike it? And his love of the library was what sent him and Mackenzie Powers there to return the books their fifth grade class had checked out the week prior. They walked down from the Red Pod in relative silence because they were not yet old enough to grasp the inherent awkwardness of not talking and entered the library at eleven o’clock on Tuesday, September the 11th, 2001 in what Proof would later mark as not only his Moment but also the end of the nineties. It hadn’t been Y2K or watching the “ball drop” for the first time. It had been the very instant he and Mackenzie had seen Mrs. Davenport, the assistant librarian, bawling in her chair and Mrs. Broussard, the head librarian, consoling her. “Maybe he wasn’t there. Maybe it didn’t hit his part of the building.”
There was a memorial service for Mr. Davenport who most of the students and faculty had never met but were obligated to grieve for anyway. During the memorial service, twelve more students, mostly sixth graders, reported Moments, although they like Proof did not yet know what a Moment was (in 2001, only a handful of people in the country did). The forever-changed students went home and some fell into deep sleeps for days; others threw into uncontrollable temper tantrums, breaking fragile items, throwing toys at walls and windows; and some, like Proof, simply did not speak for entire months.
Proof was the first in his school to have his Moment. He went home after seeing Mrs. Davenport crying and sat down with his books and began reading as news of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon trickled in. His parents were mortified and called their parents, their relatives, their friends. CNN was on all the time. News anchors projected steely concern which the public could not help but watch in record numbers. The President was presidential and inspiring.
But Proof was in another world. His parents tried to talk to him about what had happened and when that failed took him to a shrink who spoke in false tones and used trickery to try to get Proof to open up (which he did not). There was nothing wrong with him, the shrink concluded. “Sometimes kids go through things.” He prescribed a pill that might help but didn’t and just as Allan and Moira were beginning to lose hope, there was for the first time in weeks a segment on CNN not related to 9/11.
They called them “Moments,” events which caused sudden personality shifts in boys and girls generally aged twelve to seventeen. After 9/11 there had been a spate of Moments, of ordinarily well-behaved boys morphing into raging little monsters, of typically precocious girls staring at walls for hours on end, of standard, disinterested teens who obsessively walked in circles when no one was looking. The strange, perhaps coincidental occurrence of 9/11 and the uptick in Moments was instant news. Thousands of parents who had for months toiled in relative obscurity were given voice by television surrogates. Allan and Moira thought this was good. Someone would do something about it now, would help their boy.
A day did not go by that a psychiatrist or child “expert” or policy official or ordinary teacher or “regular” mom did not appear on a talk show, special report, or press conference advancing solutions to the behavioral abnormalities induced by Moments. Some thought the answer lay in determining the root cause of the Moment, the precise variable that had “flipped the switch.” Still others believed Moments were genetic malfunctions, a kind of power surge in the DNA’s outer circuitry called the epigenome. There were mystical explanations proposed by religious leaders and there were government conspiracy theories posed by men who looked unreliable and high. The University of Virginia (since Virginia was the state with the highest incidence of Moments) announced the formation of a special department to research Moments. The department was to be composed of psychologists, geneticists, chemists, philosophers, linguists, and all manner of fields in what the president of the university deemed her generation’s “greatest confluence of thinkers.”
Ultimately, none of them had the answers and no one cared. The behavioral abnormalities simply began to stop, as though taken care of all on their own; reports of this were mentioned briefly in between new reports about Al Qaeda and the Taliban and an invasion of Afghanistan. Proof started speaking again by Thanksgiving and could never explain why he had stopped. It was as though the whole period of silence were put up behind display glass. He could look in and observe what had gone on but he could never put himself back there, could never again know what it was like. The thoughts, feelings, and reasons of that time were as visible yet distant as the Homo sapiens idaltu exhibit at the Museum of Natural History.
Three months later strange reports began to emerge, first on tabloids and blogs but then picked up by the major news outlets and eventually culminating in a lionizing TIME Magazine cover story. The reports revolved around a soldier in the Middle East, one Otto Denbrough, who after being awarded the Medal of Honor had refused to be shipped home in fanfare and instead stayed fighting alongside his unit outside Kabul. While all this was honorable it wasn’t exactly generational news. Except for the small detail that Denbrough’s Medal of Honor had been awarded posthumously. Except for the minor quibble that he had been declared deceased by a medical examiner in Kabul at 3:05 a.m. on July the 4th, 2002.
“The blast,” the medical examiner explained on 60 Minutes, “left Mr. Roland’s body severely dismembered.” This was a gentle way of saying his bits had been blown apart so bad an open casket was not an option. And yet, less than a week later Otto Denbrough returned to his unit as though nothing had happened, as incapable of understanding his resurrection as Proof was of understanding his Moment.
The stunning revelation, which came the summer before Proof was to enter seventh grade, was that Otto Denbrough had been one of the many teens to experience a Moment. (When he was seventeen, not long before enlisting in the marines, he’d jumped off the roof of his high school, breaking both of his legs. Like all the others, Otto couldn’t explain why he’d done what he did; he was just thankful his Moment had not proven as behaviorally regular as most.) This, coupled with the patriotic date of his resurrection, made Otto Denbrough a national hero of the kind America had not seen in a long, long time.
As the nation, and possibly the world, fixed its attention on Otto Denbrough, the man who had returned from the dead, similarly superhuman feats were reported and confirmed every day. A Missouri teen who could walk through walls; a Virginia youth who could fly; the Maryland Mind-Reader; a California boy who could lift a subcompact car over his head. All of them were in their teens and all of them had, like Denbrough, experienced Moments.
Proof was aware of these changes, watched as many of the kids in his school dropped out to see specialists, overheard his mom speaking with other moms about moms they knew whose children had exhibited potential “abilities” like Denbrough’s. Allan and Moira didn’t want their son to face that kind of pressure and were a united front when Proof asked to be tested like all his friends at school.
“I had a Moment,” he told them. “I’m just like Roloron.”
Roloron was the moniker Otto Denbrough had adopted six months after the TIME Magazine cover story. The business-savvy had flocked to Denbrough, informing him that if he didn’t trademark a name, someone would make money off him eventually, so better he than they, right? And so even as Otto Denbrough continued to brave dangerous missions for the United States government, missions which would never previously have been undertaken by mortal men, a team of private investors and advisers began creating, trademarking, and marketing Roloron®.
“You don’t want that kind of life,” Allan told his son, his left-leaning mistrust of the government’s military preoccupations inflamed by Otto Denbrough’s blatantly corporate turn. “Trust me.”
“Your father is right,” Moira agreed despite secretly harboring a desire to brag to the other moms about Proof’s abilities. “What they’re doing to Mr. Denbrough is inhumane.”
Inhumane, Proof thought, encountering the word for the first time. It was a word his parents used often. All that was bad in the world could be explained as inhumane, as though it were not historically human to be destructive, greedy, xenophobic, bigoted, racist, prideful, vengeful, murderous, ignorant. Proof recognized at this early stage that the problem of evil for his upper middle-class, well-educated parents was not much of a problem at all. It was distant, faraway, Middle Eastern, chimerical, and when it was closer it was palliated by the self, seated in solvable problems at home, in imperialism, white superiority, white privilege, the intractable barrier of economic class.
For whatever reason, evil was immediate for Proof. It clung to him like a bad aftertaste. He wanted to be a hero like Roloron because the world needed heroes like Roloron. Otherwise, who would fight the villains of the world? Who would beat the terrorists? Who would catch bin Laden? Who would crush the Taliban? The world was in crisis; Proof and everyone had watched it play out on TV as the Twin Towers burned and then crumbled; he had seen it in the form of the gaping hole in the Pentagon which wasn’t far from his home. The crisis was not a question of humanity. This he knew intuitively; this he believed despite his parents’ sanctimonious musings.
Even at that young age, Proof was ready to rebel. At ten, he was victim to the feverish emotions of boys and girls several years older than him. But he wouldn’t have to rebel, because as time wore on and new, trademarked superheroes emerged, in Afghanistan and then Iraq, and soon in the homeland, Allan and Moira realized they were fighting a losing battle. All their friends had kids who were tested for abilities and almost everyone knew (or knew someone who knew) a handful of boys and girls who could at least perform party tricks like bending a spoon with their mind. Proof showed no obvious supernatural tendencies but he did seem different from his peers.
Allan and Moira lay in bed one night discussing the matter. Proof was twelve now and more insistent than ever that he be tested. Another trademarked hero had emerged from the fighting in the Middle East. They called this one Protolex®. Supposedly he possessed superhuman strength.
“What is happening to the world,” Allan sighed as the CNN report played on their bedroom TV.
“Proof will want to be like this one now,” Moira said.
“Who was it last week? Alatol?”
“Sounds like an artificial sweetener.”
Moira laughed. Allan’s wit had a wonderful way of catching her off guard and the residual thought of a superhero artificial sugar eked an aftershock of laughs out of her. Allan rolled over and kissed her on the cheek. It was a not uncommon moment of tenderness for the young parents.
“We can’t keep him from testing,” Moira said finally, dimming the happy mood. “He had a Moment. If he develops abilities, will we want to deal with that alone?”
Allan rolled back to his side of the bed, feeling that a barrier had been erected between them. His wife, the brilliant, older TA who had once seemed so impressive was now a litany of bad ideas. If Proof tested positive, what next? The government still hadn’t decided how these “changed” individuals would be handled but Allan had a feeling it would not be humane. They’d be treated like cattle: commodities. He could already see it in their names, the dry, prescription drug-like monikers of Roloron, Alsatol, Protolex. You didn’t want heroes who reflected certain cultures, traditions, or races. You wanted them empty, neutral, palatable. The government, the marketing teams crowding like Parisian pigeons around a fallen baguette, wanted a pill the public could and would swallow easily.
“It’s the new normal,” Moira said conclusively.
“I don’t like it.”
“Neither do I.”
“The family on the other side of the neighborhood, what’re they called?”
“No not them. The people who hosted the Christmas party last year.”
“The Shipmans,” Allan repeated. “I ran into the father at Home Depot last weekend. Their daughter had a Moment too. She’s only a grade above Proof and they pulled her out of school after she tested positive. They’re worried her ability might cause harm to the other students. Do we want Proof being pulled from school? Do we want to marginalize him like that? I want him to grow up normal. To play football and basketball and make friends. I don’t want him to be a superhero.”
“And it’s only a matter of time before the government really steps in. Sure, they’ll probably never get the marketers out of the picture, but these kids will be raised in labs. They’ll be used as soldiers or spies or whatever is useful for national security.”
“Allan, they can’t. The public would never allow it.”
“Tell that to the Japanese at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”
Moira sighed and rubbed her head. She had a headache coming on. She’d had a lot of those lately.
“Once upon a time you would have agreed with me.”
“I do agree with you. But you’re not here. You don’t see him every day, watching the TV, staring at his laptop for hours trying to get more news about ‘supers.’ Imagine when you were a kid, if Batman had stepped off the pages of a comic book. You’d be just like Proof. You can’t deny him his dream.”
They were both losing steam now. Neither of them liked to argue and the CNN report had ended; the ensuing panel of experts had voiced their varied opinions. It was late and a work night and there wasn’t enough time or energy to bicker anymore, even if this was a serious matter. So, Allan relented. This was not retreat but unconditional surrender. He was tired and a part of him just wanted to be left alone to sleep anyway.
“Fine,” he said, already convincing himself that his ideas were more conspiracy than anything else. “Let him get tested. I hope I’m wrong. I really do.”
Moira smiled and this time it was she who crossed the demilitarized zone for a kiss. Allan eased one arm around her and with the other flipped his lamp off. It was dark and they fell into the fast but deep sleep of thirty-something adults plunging into middle age.
Two weeks later Proof was tested for abilities. The tests in those days were crude and imprecise but rarely incorrect. He tested positive but just barely so. Not enough to be pulled from school or warrant government attention. The psychiatrist had described the test results as indicative of the kind of gifted boy who would have stood out in the old world but not the new.
Meaning, he was not a superhero and never would be.