Epic: A Superhero Novel
Part One: Impact
Eugene Marvin Pickett always wanted the life of a superhero. Perhaps when he died, he'd have that written on his tombstone. Because as Uncle Derek would say, the fleas came with the dog. Peter Parker lost his Uncle Ben. Batman lost his parents. Superman lost his whole frigging planet. All in all, only a certifiable mud-for-brains moron would choose this terrible life.
Eugene didn't even seem the type to like such sweaty pursuits. Eugene held doors open and never raised his voice to anyone. Minus the soul-crushing loneliness, he enjoyed his squeaky clean life and wouldn't have traded it for anything in the world. Well, perhaps just one thing. Like most overweight nerds who would end up living with his parents until the age of thirty, he had never done anything truly awesome. He had never fought the bad guy, saved the day and got the girl. He had never kicked ass in his whole life.
Of course, he read about people who kicked ass. People who descended into the belly of the beast and dispensed justice with uncommon coolness. Of course, he meant superheroes. He knew everything anyone could know about superheroes. Their origins, their strengths, their weaknesses. Everything. Eugene Pickett wanted so much to take part in that world. He wanted so much to fight the good fight. Of course, then the good fight came crashing down on his life like a sledgehammer and he realized why superheroes existed in comic books and not in the really real world.
The return from Uncle Derek's ranch each year left Eugene more spent than the year before. He didn't mean to imply that he didn't enjoy his time there. In fact, the opposite proved painfully obvious. On the Reese Ranch, Eugene could ride horses during the day. At night, he could lay out under the moon staring at the fullness of Northern Hemisphere constellations without the omnipresent light pollution of the big cities. Out there, he learned for himself why they called it God Country. For a short time, Eugene could forget the Eugene waiting for him back at home.
Every year in the last week of July, Eugene Pickett could feel the reminders of his true identity rising to the surface. Gene the Cowboy didn't exist outside Uncle Derek's guidance. Eugene the Nerd, on the other hand, didn't suffer from such a lack of ontological inertia. The Nerd would regain full control of his life as soon as the Cowboy hung up his lasso and boarded that lonesome Greyhound bus. He didn't matter how much he fought it. That life only thrived for two months out of the year. Those two months had ended.
The Greyhound bus, a fitting Grim Reaper for his time away from modern society, lurched into the station. The sign read: Ocean City, California. Eugene gathered his luggage. The two large suitcases contained everything he had brought with him along with a bunch of trinkets he had acquired during his stay. Aunt Sarah had given Eugene enough sweaters to last him through the remaining winters of his life. Uncle Derek had bestowed upon him his old sheriff badge.
Even as a roughneck on a dude ranch, Eugene teared up a bit when he received it. This really meant a lot to his uncle. If he had ever had a son, this tin symbol of justice would have belonged to him now. The touching moment solidified the unspoken bond between them. The Greyhound bus had come to take that all away. Soon, the memories of pleasant times would serve as body armor against the unpleasant ones that would follow them.
At the halfway point of the bus ride home, Eugene's rose-colored glasses would slip. He'd remember the legion of cuts, scrapes and bruises that defined country living. He'd remember the legendary cantankerousness of horses. He'd remember stumbling around in the dark from the constant lack of stable electricity. Despite this dose of reality, Eugene still preferred it to the life waiting for him at home.
The family arrived at the bus station to welcome him home. "Where's Dad?" Like some involuntary reflex, Eugene always asked that question. He knew the answer well quite. Maybe not the exact answer but he had given up on the possibility of his father making a guest appearance at the most important moments of his life. He put his job before his family. No one ever said so aloud but everyone knew it deep down. Who knew someone sworn to protect over a thousand federal inmates could so callously neglect his own flesh and blood? Bitter ironies like that gave Eugene's life a nice shiny coat of dark comedy.
Mom and Kyle looked on helplessly. Above all, Eugene hated seeing that look on their faces. Eugene didn't have the most developed ability to evoke emotions in others. He had one major crush in his life and he could never get her to love him in return. He had few friends. Wait, scratch that. He had no friends. He had fellow nerds who might sometimes hang out with him but even they regarded him as a bit of a freak. Still, he never had trouble in evoking pity. People just loved to pity poor Eugene Pickett.
He forced a smile. "I'm kidding, guys." Hopefully, that loosened up the mood. "I guess somebody's gotta keep the bad guys at Sienna behind bars." A skirmish of laughter broke among them. Kyle gave his little brother a bear hug. Kyle always spent the summer at football camp. From what Eugene knew about it, it made Hell look like an amusement park. But Kyle always seemed cheerful about everything even after eight weeks of coaches satiating their sadistic urges on high school football players.
Mom started on a speech Eugene had heard a dozen times in a dozen variations. It basically came down to covering for Dad, reassuring Eugene that he would have came if he had the time. Eugene had long since grown tired of hearing it but he bore the speech as patiently as possible. Mom needed this speech. In a way, she needed it more than he did.
Yeah, Eugene thought as he threw himself onto his bed. One more year to go. Eugene didn't know if that thought so much depressed him or made him happy. He supposed it could do both. His senior year would begin tomorrow. He had survived three years of Sorendale High. He had one left. Then he would enter college. There, his brain would give him a fighting chance against drunken frat boys and bicurious sluts who would enjoy humiliating a nineteen-year-old virgin.
He didn't exaggerate in describing his experiences at Sorendale High. When he said "survived," he meant survived. Not lived. Not thrived. Survived. He hadn't gone to any dances. He hadn't gone on any dates. He hadn't joined any after-school clubs. He had survived as best he could by keeping his head down and not drawing attention to himself.
The first day of class at Sorendale High did not disappoint Eugene Pickett. It lived up to the reputation of the three years that had preceded it. It sucked. Even the teachers, always glad to see their number one student alive and well, didn't make the experience any easier. If anything, they made him feel even more isolated. Fellow students only liked him when it came time to partner up. And, unfortunately, none of the teachers would assign any class projects for at least another month.
The worst part came when Serena Cortez walked into his Spanish class. It doesn't mean anything, Eugene reminded himself each time it happened. The way Serena Cortez looked at him always gave him thoughts. Stupid improbable egocentric thoughts but thoughts nonetheless. The third most popular girl in school, Serena Cortez practically ran the place. Captain of the cheerleading squad, the fact that she looked at anyone only meant she had eyes. Nothing more and nothing less.
Still, Eugene Pickett always imagined that he held a special place in her heart. Of course, every heterosexual male attending Sorendale High had such delusional fantasies. Psychologists even had a word for it. Erotomania. A Greek word which meant never gonna happen. Serena Cortez surely had herself a hundred overweight nerds just like him completely convinced that she had a crush on them for no good reason. More than anything, he didn't want to declare himself number one hundred and one.
All joking aside, if Eugene wanted to make a case for Serena Cortez harboring a secret love for him, he certainly could have a lot worse material to work with. Eugene Pickett had known Serena Cortez in that brief period before the popularity fairy waved her magic wand over her. She had moved to Sorendale a month into his freshman year. He had served as an ambassador. He showed her around and got her acquainted with the school.
It spoke volumes about his own social skills that a girl dressed like a drowned rat who barely spoke any English could adapt better than him. By Winter Break, she had the school eating out of the palm of her hand, her first friend all but forgotten. Eugene tried not to let bitterness cloud his judgment. Eugene would have acted the same way if he had the chance. But then again, that thought caused even more bitterness because he would never in a million years have that chance.
Eugene Pickett didn't lie when he said he liked his squeaky clean life. Taking the advice of the immortal Charlie Chaplin, Eugene tried not to live up close to his own life. He tried to see the comedy in it. Sure, he had no friends and no social life. Sure, the girl he had crushed on for three years had never given him a second thought. Sure, he would die alone. Still, at least, he had a lot of free time to spend with his closest friend, a giant redwood he affectionately named Old Annie.
"You know something, Annie, I envy you. A tree doesn't get fat. It just grows. Nobody makes fun of a redwood tree for getting too big. The other redwoods know your name. I bet they even look up to you. You actually belong out here." Old Annie had heard this speech a thousand times before. But redwoods had one advantage over humans. They could listen forever. He could drone on and on about any subject in the known universe and she would always listen to him.
"Sometimes, Annie, I think I should just forget about her. Me and her barely belong to the same species. I keep thinking one day we'll hook up or something but I should know better than that." Those last six words summed up the root cause of all Eugene's problems. He really should know better than that. He should know that his father would always put his job before his family. He should know that Serena Cortez would never see him any better than he saw himself. He should know that his social life would never benefit from the same intellect that earned him straight A's since kindergarten.
He should know a lot of things better than he did but he didn't. Eugene always had a bit of self-inflicted ignorance when it came to his hopes and dreams. He prayed for his father to take more interest in his life. He prayed for Serena Cortez to take any interest in his life. He prayed for anyone at his school to remember his name for more than a minute.
More than anything, he prayed for a reason. A reason to keep on going. A reason to not give up. A reason to believe again. If he had known how closely God listened to his prayers, he would have phrased them a bit more cautiously. Because, in less than a hour from now, that reason would fall out of the sky and everything about his meager existence would buckle under the impact.
Eugene Pickett didn't panic when the object appeared on the horizon. Amidst the palette of colors present at twilight, it barely stood out. But that changed simply by the way it moved. As it got closer and closer, the terrifying speed of its descent grew apparent to him. Its trajectory terminated a few yards from his location, shaking the earth as it crashed into Watcher's Woods.
Eugene readjusted his glasses as he pulled himself back up onto his branch. To this day, Eugene did not believe that he did not run away. An unexplained object had nearly sideswiped Old Annie and almost sent him falling to the ground at breakneck speed. Every common sense approach to the situation called for him to run for the hills and not look back. But something called to him. The voice reached out to him and begged him not to leave. Something inside Eugene could not resist its cry for help.
So instead of running away, Eugene ran towards the impact crater. Beside his obesity, Eugene had what his gym teacher called stout strength. Though the size of a grizzly bear, Eugene moved like one too. He could cover great distances with less fatigue than most guys his size. Some fat guys blamed their metabolism for their weight problem. Not Eugene. With a little effort, he'd have made one hell of an athlete. Eugene made no excuses for his weight problem. He just didn't give a damn.
At the moment, this stout strength paid off. The thing had crashed much further away than he had predicted. By the time he reached the site, he had almost ran out of breath. He propped himself up against a tree. Thoughts of getting in shape flitted through his mind as he looked up at the thing in front of him. The view took away what little breath he had left.
The thing looked like what everyone thought of when they thought of angels. It had wings. It had an unearthly glow. In fact, it seemed entirely made of glow as if someone had crafted light into the shape of a winged humanoid. But he could see something that confirmed its corporeal nature. Blood. Gallons of it gaping from a wound in its side.
Angels don't bleed. Eugene repeated that thought in his head, a silent mantra to maintain his grip on reality. Regardless of what he told himself, this angel did bleed. In fact, this angel would bleed to death before too long. It turned its head towards Eugene. Its voice sounded like a dozen voices speaking at once. It shook the air like the roar of thunder.
"Please, fear not. I need your help." Eugene couldn't even calculate the full implications of what the angel had just said. People prayed to angels. People called on angels for help. Not the other way around. The fact that an angel needed his help filled him with almost bottomless sense of dread and terror. "I must give you something." The angel clenched its teeth. "I cannot force it upon you. You must take it from me of your own free will." A white fire materialized inside its chest. "Take it. I beg of you."
Eugene Pickett stared at the white fire in the creature's chest. He didn't have much time to think over his decision. In any case, no one on Earth could help him make this choice. A dying angel needed his help in ways he didn't entirely understand. If the angel needed his consent, it obviously didn't need his informed consent. Eugene nodded his head and placed his right hand over its chest. "Thank you," it whispered as its body faded into oblivion, leaving the white fire behind in its wake.
A primal scream echoed through Watcher's Woods as the white fire illuminated the veins of his right arm. The burning light in his veins tore through flesh and bone with indiscriminate violence. Eugene could feel the light burning its way through his body. Then, it reached his heart. It stopped. Eugene couldn't describe it any other way. It just stopped. His heart stopped. Then, the light burst out from every inch of his body. He screamed one last time as the light tunneled its way into his brain.
Eugene Pickett didn't know how long he had remained unconscious. The darkness it produced gave him a sense of comfort. The dark never struck Eugene as particularly evil. Sure enough, evil things hid in the dark but the dark itself welcomed all comers. People like Eugene Pickett could reside in the dark free of the prejudices of the sighted world. In many ways, the light did nothing but disturb him. Its merciless probing laid bare the physical source of his deepest insecurities.
Eugene didn't want to wake up. In many ways, Eugene never wanted to wake up. In darkness, Eugene could dream of worlds he would never encounter and of places he would never reach. In darkness, Eugene could dream of Serena Cortez's love. In darkness, Eugene could dream of his father cheering him on during his finest moments. In darkness, Eugene could bask in the love and admiration of his fellow students. In the light, Eugene's precious dreams burned to death like witches at the stake.
Weakly opening his eyes, he stared at a curious sight. He had just witnessed a dying angel and thought that his journey into madness would end there. He should have known better. The creature now hovering above him looked like a manta ray. A translucent bluish-gray manta ray hovering five feet over his head. It darted about with a nervous energy in its movements.
"What happened here?" The voice of this creature also deviated from a normal voice but not in the way the angel's had. It sounded like a breeze of air doing its best impersonation of a human voice. It had a whistling quality to it. Nonetheless, it sounded quite angry. "What happened here? I will not repeat myself again." A note of tension hung in its manufactured voice.
"The angel ..." Eugene struggled to find the right words. "The angel asked me to take something." Eugene noticed what looked like eyes in the creature's form and turned his attention to them. "I said yes." The creature's form spasmed a bit. It obviously didn't like the sound of that. "Then, this burning light went inside of me. Next thing I know, I wake up and ... What the hell happened to me?"
The creature narrowed its eyes. "A poor choice of words, human. 'Hell' did not happened to you. Quite the opposite." The creature hovered about, searching for signs of its fallen friend. "Uriel, the last of the archangels, bestowed upon you its heart." The creature fixed his gaze on Eugene. "I serve as his attendant spirit. What you humans call a sylphid or an air elemental."
Eugene stood up and held out his right hand. "Go ahead." The creature stared ponderously at the offer of his hand. "I don't want it. I don't even understand the nature of 'it.' So, if you want it so badly, windbag, you can have it back." The flying thingy or sylphid rather seemed tempted by the offer. Then, as if snapped from a trance, he floated up and surveyed the treetops.
"Even if I could remove the heart, you would almost certainly die in the process. You do not want to die, do you?" The inherent malice of the question seemed lost on the creature. It really didn't know if Eugene Pickett wanted to die or not. Eugene shook his head. "Of course not. But that heart does have a purpose. And as long as it resides in you, you must serve that purpose."
Eugene had had enough of this freak show. The common sense approach to this situation had finally kicked out. Eugene would walk away. The creature blocked his passage. "Hey, hey, don't get me wrong. I don't think God's Lone Ranger shouldn't died like that either. But I have this thing called a life. It really needs me. So if you'll excuse me, Silver, I wish to go back to said life. Okay?" The creature he had not-so-affectionately named Silver moved to the side, apparently to let Eugene pass.
Then, Silver spoke. "But what life would you return to if this world has no one to protect it?" Those words stopped Eugene dead in his tracks. "God sent Uriel to Earth to seek vengeance on behalf of the Archangels. And everything he might have learned about their deaths went with his heart. And that heart went inside of you." Silver circled Eugene. "Without you, their deaths will go unavenged."
Eugene shrugged his shoulders. "I don't know anything about any of this. I can't help you. Period." Eugene stomped away into the forest. Last time he stopped to help a dying archangel. Eugene didn't know how else to respond to his offer. "Crap." Eugene could see the faint light of dawn emanating from the eastern sky. His mother must have died of a conniption fit by now.
When Eugene Pickett got home, he arrived to good news and bad news. Good news, his mother hadn't noticed his absence. Bad news, his mother hadn't noticed his absence. She must have picked up a shift at the clinic. When she got home, she didn't have the energy to check in on him. If something really bad had happened to him, God only knew how she would deal with it.
Taking off his shirt, Eugene noticed the blue cross over his sternum in the bathroom mirror. The symbol looked like a cross inside a circle. He had nothing to say about that. Perhaps, he always had that birthmark. Taking into account his reluctance to see himself naked, it seemed like a definite possibility. Still, something about the mark seemed raw like a fresh wound rather than an old scar.
Worse yet, its shape reminded him of the astrological symbol of Earth. That, in turn, reminded him that Uriel preceded over the planet Earth. That would mean he had an archangel's cattle brand on his chest. Eugene shook off the thought and took a quick shower. Knowing such obscure trivia only meant that he had way too much time on his hands.
Eugene tried to sneak as many hours of sleep as he could before school started. Nightmares of dying archangels and air elementals preaching doom greeted his uneasy sleep. Eugene grabbed the sides of his bed as a knock came at his door. "Come on, bro. Time to get up." Eugene rolled his eyes. Kyle loved to wake him up on the mornings he didn't have practice.
Mumbling some sort of a reply, Eugene rolled onto the floor and pulled himself up onto his feet. A naive part of him wanted to chalk the whole incident up to some isolation-induced hallucinations. But as he absently dipped his spoon into his cereal, he could see Silver forming, dissipating and reforming himself out of the corner of his eye. He seemed urgent about getting his attention.
Eugene Pickett spent the entire day at school desperately trying to pretend he couldn't see Silver floating outside every classroom. Who knew Eugene of all people would ever have a stalker? A stalker made of enchanted air, no less. As he pondered what effects a vacuum cleaner might have on him, Eugene realized that Silver had disappeared.
Every Tuesday after school, one could always find two people at the Sailor Diggs Cafe. One always sat in the center with an ever-growing entourage. The other sat alone in the far corner sipping his Blackbeard Cappuccino. Something had changed. The other had not come in yet. Eugene Pickett usually went to the Sailor Diggs Cafe for a chance to bask in the halo of Serena Cortez.
On that fateful Tuesday, Eugene had paid a visit to the Watcher's Woods. He searched for some sign of Uriel or Silver or anything besides a funny blue birthmark that would confirm or deny yesterday's events. Had he lost his mind? Or had an archangel really performed heart surgery on him? Eugene didn't know which answer he hated more.
As he scouted around the woods, a flurry of images flew through his mind. He could see men with AK-47s circling the patrons of the Sailor Diggs Cafe. In the center of the circle, Serena cried as the tallest man placed the rifle against her forehead. One pull of the trigger and Serena seized to exist. Eugene Pickett looked around to see the Watcher's Woods once again. Eugene grabbed the sides of his head. "What the hell just happened?" he asked to no one in particular.
"You had a flash," a voice replied. In seconds, a collection of air shimmered and took the shape of Silver's familiar manta ray form. "Angels do not possess a strictly linear perception of time. On occasion, you will see things that have not happened yet. What did you see?" Against his better judgment, Eugene explained what he had seen. "You do not have much time. Hop on."
The flexibility of his mind had come under fire repeatedly since yesterday. But something about the idea of riding Silver made sense. An air elemental could fly. Eugene could not. If he wanted to fly, he would have to ride an air elemental. Simple enough. Silver dipped underneath him and lifted him into the air. In minutes, they appeared in front of the Sailor Diggs Cafe.
Squad cars, emergency vehicles and news vans had gathered outside the front of the cafe. Eugene looked at the gold triskele spray-painted to the side of the building. Trinity Templars. Every city had its nuts. Ocean City had a certain species of nutcase indigenous only to its shores. The Trinity Templars, equal parts pamphleteers, evangelists and terrorists. They saw CIA fronts everywhere they looked and the Sailor Diggs Cafe next to the Silver Mines Mall had made their list of alleged fronts.
The media loved to point out that they never actually killed any of their hostages. Eugene Pickett knew for a fact that would change soon. Eugene couldn't let them do it. He had to do something. No sooner than he thought that, a silver lining of light appeared around his hands. The white light spread down his arms and across his chest. Eugene felt different. He felt stronger.
Silver hovered next to him. "Having the heart of an angel inside you does have its perks."
Eugene looked at his reflection in the window of a parked car. A strange silver material had wrapped around his now sinewy sleek frame. He could now see the blue sun cross stretched across his upper torso. He looked like a Catholic Spiderman. He also looked like he had a target painted on his chest. Eugene touched his face as a smile formed under his mask.
The initial input of his augmented senses crippled Eugene as he sorted through the barrage of stimuli. He focused on his ears. "I can hear them talking," Eugene said to Silver. "They want to kill a hostage." Eugene didn't know what came over him. He couldn't wait around outside while the love of his life got reduced to a red smear. His feet raced out in front of him. He leaped into the air.
Most people's image of angels came from Hallmark cards and Lifetime specials. The bias of seeing angels as babies with wings hadn't prepared Eugene for the awesome truth. Angels could kick ass. Dangerous men armed to the teeth fell like babes to his blows. He saw the tall one and wasted no time. But something happened the moment his fist shattered his ribcage.
A sinking feeling came over Eugene Pickett. He had just killed a man. His broken comrades would live to fight another day. But for the tall man, his journey had reached its end. Serena Cortez stared up at Eugene. For all his enhanced senses, he could not decipher the look on her face. Amazement? Gratitude? Horror? All of the above? Eugene heard the police. In fact, he could the voice of the police chief barking at the accompanying officers. Eugene called to Silver and rode off into the sky.
Silver let Eugene Pickett off on the top of the Ocean City First National Bank. Eugene shivered as the silver shell dissolved into thin air and his Bruce Lee body returned to its normal flabby physique. Eugene focused on Silver's eyes. "You win." Eugene looked over the edge. "I'll do it." He couldn't ignore what he had done. He had killed a man. Superheroes didn't make mistakes like that unless they had every intention of making amends for it. Gunshots echoed in Eugene's unaffected ears.
"I guess I have work to do," Eugene Pickett said as an envelope of white light swallowed him up. "Meet you on the way down." Eugene threw himself over the edge and Silver zoomed down to catch him. He floated in the air above three masked criminals and their overstuffed duffel bags, his arms crossed over his chest. "Excuse me, gentlemen. I don't believe those belong to you."
A rapid barrage of gunfire connected with his head and torso. The hot sting of pain threw him onto the ground. Three guns returned to their holsters. At that moment, Eugene sprung back onto his feet. "Just kidding." A shared look of terror came over them as Eugene beat them unconscious. A security guard came out with his gun drawn and looked at Eugene's pile of crooks. "Keep up the good work, officer." Eugene bowed politely before mounting the air elemental.
"Hi-yo, Silver, away!"
Eugene Pickett threw the old badge of Sheriff Derek Reese onto the pile of newspapers. During that week in August that year, nothing else happened. Ocean City buzzed about the "epic debut of the world's first superhero." Epic. Something about that word stuck with people. Before long, everyone had taken to calling Eugene Pickett's alter ego Epic.
He smiled. He massaged his jaw. He smiled a lot these days regardless of how much it hurt. Not entirely bulletproof, getting shot actually hurt. Though he had no marks to show for it, it would take him awhile to get reacquainted with solid foods. Eugene turned around too fast. He paused to rub his tender chest muscles. The less said about the shots he took the body, the better.
Despite the pain, Eugene had made his mark. One man died because of him. One woman lived because of him. Defusing a hostage situation and foiling a bank robbery in one afternoon had a funny way of pushing a person into the limelight. Nobody at school knew what to think of it all. Everyone had million questions for Serena Cortez, one of only five people to get a good look at Epic.
Even his father took note of Epic's debut. Thrilled didn't quite describe his opinion of a superpowered vigilante roaming the streets of Ocean City. Ambivalent worked much better. Eugene couldn't blame him. He didn't know what to think of it either and he lived it. Silver spent the nights on reconnaissance, searching for any clues to the circumstances surrounding Uriel's death. That fact hadn't quite set in until now. The last archangel had died and Eugene carried within himself the sole remnant of its life-force.
Eugene would surely miss these days before too long. Silver did not paint a pretty picture of the days to come. Ocean City had much worse threats than whackjob terrorists and trigger-happy bank robbers. A host of nightmares known only to humanity through folklore and divine revelations waited in the wings. Spoiling for a fight, they had chosen Ocean City as their battlefield.
TO BE CONTINUED ...