Sunday, July 21, 2013

"When Nothing Else Matters" - From the Mind of the Writer

Welcome to the Innerside.  Today I am sharing the first short story I ever published.  I wrote it when I was 20 years of age.  I was supposed to turn in a short story for a fiction writing class, but nothing came to mind.  So, with a blank page and an equally blank mind, I was easily convinced to play basketball with some friends.  In the process of driving for a layup, someone stepped in front of me and hyper-extended my knee.  This was in the day when I was an avid comicbook collector (and reader).  Anyway, I was lying in my dorm room with my knee wrapped and propped up, and I said, "Here I am, twenty years old, and my days as a superhero are over."  I was just kidding, obviously, but my roommate leaned over and said, "Great idea; write it."

Here is the short story that came from that moment.  It's tongue in cheek satire with moments of heart-felt seriousness.  I hope you enjoy.  If you have time afterwards, let me know what you thought and what you might have changed.  Thanks.

When Nothing Else Matters
Mitchell S Karnes

            Here I am, twenty years old, and my days as a superhero are over.  I’ve just had knee replacement surgery after a horrible fight.  Well, I’m getting a little ahead of myself.  Let me go back to the beginning of my tale.
            I read comics.  I’ve read them ever since I was a kid, and like most kids, I fantasized about becoming a superhero.  I thought life would be easy for a superhero … you know what I mean?
            Was I ever wrong.  At least I was also lucky.  Not to be self-centered or anything, but God blessed me with numerous abilities, and while growing up I tried to use all of them.  I was on the swimming team until I thought gymnastics was more fun.  Gymnastics gave me the illusion of having superpowers, pulling off fantastic stunts while vanquishing my foes.  I know, I know.  Well, I said I read a lot of comics.  Anyway, the vault horse became the wall, separating me from my enemies.  I would charge it fearlessly as it attempted to hide the bad guys.  Then I would dive forward, plant my hands firmly upon the top of the wall, and tuck into a ball, so as to make a smaller target.  I would effortlessly flip over the imaginary wall and open out of my tuck in time to land feet first.  Of course, once I landed, my enemies had no choice but to surrender.
            I stayed with gymnastics for about two years, and then went on to play football, basketball and soccer, “like normal boys,” as my mom would say.  Throughout everything I did, one—well, two things played a big part.  The first was an uncommon dexterity, a catlike agility with a knack of always landing on my feet.  The other was luck.  If you ever wish for any gift, ask for luck – it makes up for everything else.
            I got older, but the desire to become a comic book hero never diminished.  In fact, it only got stronger.  Superheroes never got pushed around.  Well, at least they never let the bad guy get away with it.  Too many people just ignore what happens in the world until it affects them directly; that’s the problem with our society today.  Just the thought of apathy nauseates me.  I knew if I ever became a superhero, I’d make people think twice before committing a crime in my jurisdiction.  The criminals I caught wouldn’t dare attempt their evil deeds again.  I would make it safe to go outside at night.  The people on the side of the law would love me, while those who broke the law would learn to fear me.  I could do it all if I only had super powers.  I was so shallow…so naïve.  Of course that’s when I thought the powers made the hero.
            A few weeks before my seventeenth birthday, I rented an old movie about an out-of-work actor who got a job promoting a movie about a superhero.  I think it was called, Hero at Large.  After work one night, while still wearing the outfit, he foiled an attempted robbery.  Once he heard the reaction of the people, about the hope they now had, he decided to continue playing the hero.  That’s what really inspired me!  He was an ordinary guy who cared enough to sacrifice everything, just to give people hope and faith, something to inspire action.  It was then that I realized it was not the powers, but the man who made the hero.
            I began my vigilant workouts, not only for strength, but for agility and balance as well.  Balance and agility are just as important to a superhero in training.  I took a job as a night janitor for the local gymnastics club, so I could have access to all of their equipment.  I focused most of my time on the uneven bars and the vault horse.  I figured they would help the most.  Within a few months, I was an incredible tumbler, even if I do say so myself.  I also spent time in the kick-boxing room, where I practiced my fighting techniques on the heavy bags.  After about six months, I combined both my acrobatics and fighting techniques to become an unstoppable assault machine.  The only weapon I used, besides by body, was a sand-filled, leather blackjack.  I used it only at a distance, mostly on fleeing criminals.
            After nearly a full year of workout and planning, I was ready for action.  For the protection of my friends and family, I created a name and a costume to keep my identity a secret.  My sister, God rest her soul, designed and made my first outfit.  It was a skin tight, yet well insulated, black and blue one-piece costume, especially padded near the more precious areas.  It had enough stretch so as not to hinder my movements.  I know, good guys are supposed to wear white; well, not if they’re smart.  Of course I wore a matching mask.  What dummy can’t see that Clark Kent is really Superman?  I had a cape at first, but quickly learned that was a mistake.  While doing a routine vault, I got tangled up in it and suffered a mild concussion when my head hit the ground.  I also learned, by experience, that successive tumbling in a cape can quickly lead to strangulation, not to mention an abrupt introduction to the first solid object encountered.  So, the cape was out.  By the way, have you ever wondered what the cape was for?  I have.  Anyway, back to my story.  For my name, I began with “The Bruiser,” being black and blue and all, but it didn’t sound much like a hero.  The name carried too many negative connotations.  What was my purpose?  To defend the defenseless, so I naturally called myself, “Captain Defender.”  I know.  Well, I never said I had good taste.
            Unlike most superheroes you read about, I have a tendency to brag, so I wanted to tell a few trusted friends, but for the safety of the others, I told only my sister, Lynn.  You’d be surprised how difficult it is to keep that kind of secret.  Originally, I told my sister the outfit was for a costume party and I had the chance to win fifty bucks.  She had her doubts about the contest, but never questioned me openly.  Lynn taught me to do almost everything when I was little, which is why we were so close.  It was strange.  We shared a special bond; I could always confide in her.  Why didn’t I tell my parents?  My father had too many other things to worry about, and my mother already worried too much as it was.  She had these morbid dreams about my getting seriously hurt or dying in bad accidents. 
            Finally the time came for the much anticipated night patrolling.  Talk about boring, nothing ever happens in Carbondale.  It wasn’t until the end of my third week of patrolling that I finally got my chance to save someone.  At seven o’clock, when I finished supper, I went to my room and put my costume and blackjack in the gym bag.  I told my parents that I was going to work out before I cleaned the gym.  Living in the country made it easier to change into my outfit without being seen.  Parking my car about a mile from town, I changed my clothes and hid the car keys.  I didn’t even need a phone booth; they’re almost impossible to change in anyways…and nearly as impossible to find these days.
            I worked my way through the darker area of town as I headed for the university campus.  I hid behind bushes and in shadows as I patrolled my route.  I was crawling behind this retaining wall with a row of tall hedges in front of it when I heard a scream.  I nearly wet my pants.  But, being the hero I was, I quickly regrouped, scanned the area, and pinpointed the source of the problem.  Some guy had just nabbed this woman’s purse.  Remember what I said about luck?  This time mine was working overtime.  The man was running my way.  He even ran parallel with the hedges in front of me.  I calculated his speed and said a quick prayer.  Running towards the wall at an angle, I planted one foot on top of it and dove over the hedges.  Perfect!
            I landed right on top of my unsuspecting foe, sending us both tumbling to the sidewalk.  I rolled forward and hopped to my feet.  He didn’t get up as quickly.  As he shook his head and looked up to see what had hit him, he said hello to my foot and the world of unconsciousness.  Before I knew it, it was over.  My first attempt as a hero was a success.  What a rush!
            The lady, I think she was a professor, came over to me sheepishly, thanked me, and began to ask a barrage of questions.  I gave her the purse, instructed her to call the police, and told her my hero name.  As soon as I tied the robber’s arms behind his back, I left.
            The next morning the news was streaming over every local radio and television station.  The woman told the entire story – at least she told her version.  Get this:  she said, “A man stole my purse as I was walking to my car.  As he ran away, I screamed for help.  Out of nowhere, a man swooped down from the sky, tackling the thief and knocking him out.  When I went to get my purse,” she continued, “he kissed me and told me his name.  He calls himself the Champion.  He told me to call the police, and then he flew off.” 
            A kissing hero?  The Champion?  So much for “Captain Defender.”  Oh, yeah, and I just learned – I can fly.  People are never satisfied with the truth.  You want to know something else?  There were even some freaks who came forward that night to confess – as the Champion!  That really pissed me off.
            Months passed.  I graduated from high school and continued patrolling through the summer, when I wasn’t working.  I didn’t realize how big of a reputation I had made until I heard a national newscast.  The reporter said, “In the small Southern Illinois town of Carbondale, a superhero’s presence has been alleged.  If there really is such a hero, why doesn’t he go someplace where he’s really needed, like Chicago, New York, or Los Angeles?  The main question is,” the reporter taunted, “is there such a hero or is this another small town’s way of gaining some cheap publicity?  Is this hero for real, or do we have another Area 51, Lochness monster, or Bigfoot?  Champion, if you do exist, why not show yourself to some real competition?”  They couldn’t leave well enough alone.
            Near the end of the summer, Carbondale was introduced to some major league crime…kidnapping.  A rich man’s son was abducted at a crowded restaurant without any opposition.  The three men and their driver all got away without even the slightest challenge.  I decided that I would find them while the police waited for the ransom call.  I relied on every bit of instinct and luck I could muster.
            All of the old gangster movies I had ever seen were coming to mind.  I just prayed they had seen them and knew their prospective roles.  I went around the outskirts of town, checking every abandoned house and barn I could find, until Bingo!  Light was coming from a house on the old coal mine road.  I snuck around, checking everywhere, before I made my plan.  I looked in every window, counting only five people, four men and the boy.  Of the four men, one was watching a portable television, two were playing cards, and the one remaining man was pacing back and forth, checking his watch.  A plan was born.
            The old “draw one outside trick” was my first objective.  I climbed into a nearby sycamore tree, and dropped a big rock by the door.  Boy, were they suckers.  The one who was pacing earlier came out to investigate the noise.  He took a few steps outside, and then turned to walk back.  I jumped.  With both feet landing on his shoulders, I leaned forward and rolled into the house.  Getting up quickly, I let the blackjack fly, hitting a man with a gun right in the bridge of his nose.  I kicked the back of the chair as one of the two remaining men attempted to rise.  The blow knocked him face forward into the edge of the table.  He was out.  One left.
            He had a butterfly knife in his hand, and by the way he was flipping it around, I could tell he knew how to use it.  This was my first real face to face combat, my first true test.  I had lost any element of surprise.  I let him come, standing as confidently as I could, taking a pose of a true superhero with my hands in fists at my hips.  It actually worked.  If anything, I had fear on my side.  I could see it in his eyes.  He finally charged me.  As he did, I spun sideways and fell back, placing my feet on his kneecaps.  SNAP!  I had never heard anything like it.  It was sickening.  He was out of action.  I stood and raised my hands in the air.  Victory!  “Bang!”
            I spun around just in time to see a man falling toward me.  It was the one I had attacked with the blackjack.  I had forgotten all about him.  The kid didn’t; he shot him in the back of his head.  They had just untied boy, allowing him to use the bathroom when I came in.  We were even.
            Together we tied up the men and loaded them in the back of their minivan.  I drove them to the emergency room at the hospital, found the nearest police officer, said goodbye to the kid, and left with their car.  I abandoned it back at the house where I found it and took my own car home.  I called the police with additional details, such as the directions to the hideout.
            Summer was soon over and I was on my way to Nashville.  “Look out crime, here I come,” I thought as I headed down I-24.  I decided to go to an emerging music business school in Nashville, Tennessee to double major in music production and marketing.  This way I could accomplish two goals.  My parents couldn’t argue that Nashville wasn’t the closest place for music and music business, and I could also try The Champion out in a bigger city.  I know Nashville isn’t Chicago, New York or L.A., but to be perfectly honest, I wasn’t ready for those places quite yet.
            Before I tried anything in costume, I walked around, familiarizing myself with the city.  I noticed the flow of the crowds down Second Avenue and the Riverfront areas, as well as Broadway.  I learned the ins and outs of alleyways and where the major streets connected.  Then I spent several nights and weekends watching night court, studying the areas of highest concern.  About the fourth week I was there, I finally took action down on the Riverfront area.  It was a simple attempted mugging, but it was a good start for the Champion.  I quickly overpowered the young man and tied him up for the police.  Nashville wasn’t Carbondale by any stretch of the imagination.  Every night I patrolled after that led to an encounter of some kind.  I didn’t always apprehend all of the criminals I fought, but I always arrived to save the victim in the proverbial nick of time.  I got bruised and cut, but I was a good Champion; no, I was the best.  I fought and I fought hard.  I was getting quicker and stronger and more confident. 
            I lost count of the number of people I put in the hospital…or jail for that matter.  I still hear their taunts.  Some swear they’ll get me, that they’ll get even, but a few have thanked me for opening their eyes before it was too late.  I eventually earned the respect of the citizens of Nashville; they loved me.  If they didn’t, I’d probably be in jail myself.  According to the news reports, I carried an illegal weapon, and am what they call a vigilante.  That means I take the law into my own hands.  Somebody has to!  Anyway, even the press won’t mess with me now that my heroism has been established properly.  Of course you probably know what they say about pride and the fall.  I learned it the hard way.
            One Friday night I had just taken my date home.  It was then that my luck finally ran out.  I was driving back to the dorm when I saw three guys forcing a young dark haired woman into an alley.  I pulled into the next alley and got out.  Great!  I was so preoccupied with my date that I had left my outfit back in the dorm.  There wasn’t any choice.  The woman’s safety had to take precedence over my secret identity.  I thought if I made a head on attack, they would just think I was a concerned citizen, a Champion want-to-be.
            I charged into the alley just as one of the punks slapped her face.  Two held her.  As I gave the battle cry, they grabbed for their weapons.  I ran right through the first one before the echo of my cry faded into the darkness of the alley.  As I did, I racked him with my knee, as hard as I possibly could.  From my left, one charged, and I turned to face him.  He was somewhat surprised that I was ready to deal with him so quickly.  Putting both hands behind his head, I pulled down.  I rolled backwards and used his momentum to launch his body across the alley and into the brick wall.  His back landed flat like a dead fish on a table and he fell limply to the ground.
            As I hopped up to look for the third guy, I felt a sharp pain in my right kidney.  I lunged forward to escape the burning sensation.  I staggered to my feet and searched for the features in his shadowy face.  The light from the street behind me caught the side of his knife blade.  That was all I needed.  I kicked him in the gut and grabbed his wrist.  I brought the arm down to meet my upcoming knee, snapping the joint easily.  I felt pain suddenly fill my skull as a bullet grazed my head.  I spun awkwardly and grabbed my forehead.  “Bang!”  Another bullet hit my right knee, shattering the knee cap instantly.  The hollow point shredded the back of my leg.  I fell back into the alley trash can.  The joint on my right knee was gone, and my leg was useless.  As his friends ran out of the alley, the first one I had attacked, the one with the gun, walked up with a demented grin.  I knew right then he was sizing me up for the kill.  My hand luckily rested on the lid of a metal trash can.  I rolled and let it fly as hard as I could.  It struck him between the eyes, killing him instantly. 
            The woman rolled me over and asked, “Are you okay?”  She was beautiful.  With quivering lips and tear-filled eyes, she attended to my needs, wrapped her sweater around my bloody leg, and called for an ambulance.  “Hang on,” she pleaded.  My face and side were soaked with blood and my leg was bent sideways.  It was strange though; after the battle I felt no pain.  Numbness or shock took over.  I had done it without the outfit, without the persona.  “They’re on their way.  Your going to make it.”
            I smiled and added, “Never felt better.”   I found out later from a school mate that they had considered charging me with homicide, but thanks to the influence of the girl’s father, the charges were dismissed.  Can you believe it?  What a screwy society!
            I had the first surgery on my knee, and I woke to see my family, well, all but my sister.  She was raped and murdered on the same night as my last fight.  Why did I ever leave Carbondale?  I should have been there to save her, instead of wasting my time on perfect strangers, trying to prove I was someone they wanted me to be.
            The only person I was ever really close to was Lynn, and she was taken from me.  It isn’t fair!  Why couldn’t someone else have died instead?  Someone who deserved it?  I would have gladly traded my life for hers.  Why couldn’t I have died instead?  But no, I lay here helpless.  Two months of rehab and multiple surgeries!
            “Easy, Mr. Smith” the nurse said in a gentle voice.  “That’s quite a story.” 
            “It’s true,” I insisted.
            “I believe you,” she said, wiping the sweat from my head.  “Now get some sleep.  You’ll probably go home in the morning.”
            I awoke that next morning to the doctor’s prodding of my leg.  He looked at the screen of his smart pad and examined, once again, the MRI of my knee.  “It looks better this time, Mr. Smith, but you’ve got to give it time to heal.  You can’t walk on it again without support.”
            “But I’ve …”
            “No buts.”  The doctor sat on the side of the bed.  “You’re very lucky to be alive.  The bullet to your head only grazed your temple, and the knife wound to your kidney was clean and mendable.  But this leg.”  He shook his head.  “You won’t be able to walk again without the aid of crutches, a cane, or a walker.  You should feel blessed to have even that.”
            I turned away.  I didn’t want to hear it again.  He had said it all before.  What difference did it make anyway?  “Sure doc.”
            “Are you ready to go?  Miss Stephens has your wheelchair ready, and I believe your roommate is here to take you home.”  He handed me a prescription and patted me on my left leg.  “Now behave this time.”
            When I got back to the dorm, the guys had a party for me.  Even Charlotte, the woman I saved was there.  She was even more beautiful in the light.  After the party, she let me walk, or as I should say “roll,” her home.
            Back at the dorm, I lay on the bed and sorted out the events of the last three years.  I learned that life wasn’t like the movies; the good guys don’t always win.  I pulled a box from my closet and opened it.  There was my black and blue costume, neatly folded and untouched since the night before my date.  In the half lit closet, the outfit seemed to shimmer, to posses some sort of magic.  It made me think of Lynn.  I lump swelled in my throat, so I put it away.
            Several weeks later, after I had progressed to crutches and a cane, I braved the box once more.  It shimmered again, almost as if my sister were calling me to put it on, to trust its magic.  My muscles twitched as if they too needed to feel the fabric once again.  It was strange, once I had it on I felt stronger; even my leg felt better.  I slipped out of the window and down the fire escape.  I was actually walking without the cane!

            Subconsciously, I made the campus route of my patrol.  I was walking, and then I tried to run.  The pain soared and brought me face first to the ground.  After waiting for the sharp pain to subside, I got up, worked the joint and walked some more of the route.  As I left the campus and ventured off into a darkened neighborhood, I noticed some commotion to my left.  In an alley between two apartment buildings, a girl screamed, but her scream was quickly muffled.  I got there just as they were tearing her shirt.  I couldn’t believe my eyes; she looked just like Lynn.  I made my way to the entrance of the alley and stumbled.  My leg was too weak and gave out.  She tried to scream again as they ripped off her skirt, but one man held her mouth firmly shut.  “I’m coming, Lynn,” I cried.  I leaped from the shadows, hoping I could at least buy her enough time to escape.  

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