My friend Harry loved super-heroes.
With hindsight I should have seen it for the obsession it was, instead of figuring he was just a nerd like me. At the age of six he could tell you – to the panel, mind you – which edition of Amazing Yarns featured the introduction of Gamma Man. Or who really killed Mystic Maggie. Or provide a full rundown of the failing group dynamics that led to the disbanding of Solar Squad Seven. By nine he was sneaking to his desk after curfew and sewing goggles onto his mom’s shower cap, and throughout High School it was lunchtime meets in the Physics room (away from scornful Jock eyes) to pour over the Latest Unbelievable Instalment of – You get the picture . . .
It was only after leaving his teens that the passion started to slew a little towards plain-old weird. I mean, what twenty-four-year old is still jacking off to Mega-Woman in his parent’s house when even uber-nerds (myself included) are out partying? We remained friends though, and, after a while, he even seemed to outgrow it.
To be honest, the day he got a job at the same advertising firm as me, I thought that was the end of it. My only defence for what followed is that my judgement has never been all that good.
The trigger was workplace bullying.
Harry had joined the Sales team, which meant the floor above mine, but we’d often meet for lunch in the staff restaurant. It was a pretty cool company to work for: Flexi-time, free lunches and a decent level of employees. Predominantly young, primed with the confidence and mild disdain that comes with that first Big pay-check. A few real assholes, of course, there always are. One of these was Matt, a twenty-something exec with great teeth and an awful personality. He’d only been with the company three years and rumour had it there was a degree of nepotism involved among the upper echelons, his father perhaps, or grandfather. Either way, he was a smug little shit. He was also Harry’s boss.
I walked into the restaurant that day to find Matt and a couple of his friends standing beside the table where Harry and I usually held lunch. Harry was seated, staring down. Matt and company were laughing. Matt was a gym-toned, Armani-wearing six footer, Harry was fat, wearing a turtleneck sweater and glasses. It was High School all over again.
“What’s up?” I sat, nodding to Harry, who merely adjusted his glasses a little and continued to stare at the table. His face was red and full of resentment.
Matt said, “What’s your take on the latest Marvel tent-pole, Theo? Does it give you shivers?”
Matt’s entourage cackled.
I frowned. “What’re you talking about, Matt?”
“Well, I was just having a private conversation about how sad these super-hero movies are getting and how the cash-cow kids are still lapping them up. I think our new Data Manager misinterpreted and figured I was heaping praise . . . He explained that he was getting shivers, then he did the Truffle Shuffle!” He mimed a mocking shudder then departed, his way paved with laughter from the surrounding tables.
Harry glowered after him.
“And that was?” I said. People were staring. I felt for Harry. In terms of office politics, he had yet to find his clique.
“He’s younger than me,” Henry whispered. His chubby face was flushed, petulant.
“Well, let it go,” I said. “Asshole’s are asshole’s, and dicks are dicks and thus it shall always be.”
That broke a smile. The phrase had been our mantra as kids. We’d thought it hilarious then, but that had weakened a little with age – now it was just a code to prove that we were still friends. “If I had real super-powers,” he said, and socked his fist into his palm.
I nodded. “If you had real super-powers I’d learn hypnotism and mine you for every cent.”
That did the trick. His face lit up and he laughed. Then he said, “I got the new Aqua Lord if you wanna borrow it? It’s in my drawer.”
I shook my head. “You bring comics to work.”
“Yeah, I just wanted -”
“Don’t let Matt find out; he’ll find several ways to fire you.”
Harry shrugged, though he winced a little too. “Anyway, I brought it in for you. There’s something I need to show you.”
“What?” I frowned, surprised by his use of the word ‘need,’ meanwhile imagining some generic new villain, or climactic battle between two erstwhile super-partners, or an alien invasion.
A cryptic smile, and, “Meet me after work,” was his only reply.
As it turns out, I was so frazzled dealing with all the meetings, and phone-calls and irate texts from my on-off girlfriend, that by the time seven o’clock rolled around I’d completely forgotten about meeting Harry. I’d probably have just jumped in a cab and gone home if he hadn’t been waiting for me outside the main entrance and screamed my name at the top of his lungs. I left the ground. “Jesus! What the hell’s wrong with you?”
He was beaming. “Scared you.”
Rubbing my ear: “Don’t get weird.” I paused. “Weirder.”
He thrust something into my hands. “Check it out.”
I found myself looking at an impossibly thin, and impossibly big-breasted Amazonian woman firing lasers from her eyes into a swarm of killer robots and shrugged.
Harry stabbed a finger. “The advert.”
My eyes drifted to the bottom left corner, where a small box filled with text covered one of the robot’s faces. I read:
Men and woman of courage and supreme moral standing,
The Earth faces a terrifying threat and Your government needs volunteers for a secret new initiative to aid in its defence!
If there’s a hero in your heart, we can build a better body around it!
Only true heroes need apply.
Below this, an email address.
Harry was jubilant. “I’m going to contact it.”
“This is what you needed to show me?”
I thrust the comic back into his hands. “It’s just an updated version of those Charles Atlas ad’s . . . In seven days you can be a hero like me!”
He grinned, impressed with the reference. “I know, imagine it!”
“What’d I just tell you about being weird?”
“I want to see what happens.”
“What happens is some foreign dude mines your credit-card details.” I put my hand on his shoulder. “Come on, you astoundingly weird and gullible idiot, let’s go get a beer!”
He deposited the comic into his bag with a smile, but something in his eyes told me this wasn’t over.