I am a freak
I am a hero
My life is my hell
All of these 'heroes' strutting about in their brightly colored costumes, like peacocks showing plumage
-- and just as showy with those powers, flying above the clouds, blowing fire, smashing concrete blocks to rubble. Yeah, whatever goods our neighborhood superheroes can flash, however they come by them, they usually make for a good show. No, not mine, though. All I could do was absorb. Pain, injury, sickness, whatever ails you, a few moment's contact with me and it ceased to be your burden. And became mine.
That was my power, my claim to fame. I took your injury and replaced it with my own health.
Oh, I healed up much faster than a normal man. Used to be a broken bone would set up in a few hours, took me mere days to fight off a case of full blown AIDS
. Hell, I once absorbed most of the injuries of a guy who's been trapped and crushed in a burning car.... the absorption itself was several painful hourlong sessions spread out over three days, and it took over three weeks for me to grow all that flesh and skin back, but I undertook it only a week after overcoming syphilis
, a nasty flu
, an ankle sprain
, and some pretty advanced arthritis
No, I'm no fountain of youth
-- I mean, sure, I could extend someone's life by warding off diseases, but not by stopping the aging process. And my powers hadn't delayed my own getting on in years -- and as I crossed into the late fifties, I found myself slowing down considerably, taking longer to absorb, longer to heal. Still, if someone's hurt pretty bad or infected incurably, I'd be the one to call. Maybe it's the adrenaline
at work, but I've found I can still pull out a lightning quick absorption in a dire emergency
, when it seems like everything has faded from thought but the dire need to heal immediately. But I do pay for it later.
Despite all that was given to me, I'd never managed to make any luck out of life. You'd think a healing power would be worth a lot of money or make you wildly popular, but I discovered too late that it was the wrong kind of popularity, sometimes the wrong kind of money, and that sometimes those with whom you were popular were simply the ones aiming to get your
money. So here I was, once a hero of sorts, reduced to a beat up-looking, broke old pissant from the wrong neighborhood, trying to eke out a little bit of good in a rotten world.
And then I met Richard Wrenwroth. Or, rather, he arranged to meet me.
Oh, I'd heard of Wrenwroth before -- I mean, who hadn't? Self-made billionaire with a half dozen charities under his name, involved in every kind of business enterprise. Held dozens of political types in his deep pockets. Had me ushered to his estate on the edge of the city, his black-suited employees guiding me through the hallways of a vast, labyrinthine compound, leading to a large and ornate office, there to plead his case.
"It's my wife, Mr. Johnston -- may I call you Alton?" Wrenwroth asked in a deep and beguiling voice, wringing his smoothly manicured hands, "my darling Olivia. She's fallen into a coma and the doctors, they can find nothing, no reason for such a malady." Would I try and help? he wished to know, offhandedly suggesting that he would consider the favor priceless. And of course I would.
But what I hadn't told him -- hadn't told anybody, ever actually, is that sometimes, during the absorption of damage to the brain, I got flashes of knowledge. Information. Painful memories, like fragments stabbing into my own brain, sometimes things even the victim
I was healing had buried deeply or long forgotten. You see, my healing powers were never especially focused beyond gross anatomical limitations; if the person had both a cut and burn on his arm, I couldn't pick just one to heal, they would both come along. And so it was with brains, a blood clot in the cerebellum gets no distinguishment from a psychological dysfunction brought on by childhood beatings. I tried mightily to avoid it, the sensation being as unpleasant or more than any physical pain I took upon myself. And it was one area where my 'treatment' seemed much less effective anyway. But, well, there it was.
They brought me down to the room where they were keeping Olivia -- a miniature hospital suite set up in the depths of Wrenwroth's mansion. Beautiful was a word that might have been invented to describe her. Like a porcelain doll, laying there with her eyes closed, breathing shallowly. I'd never had any formal medical training, but in my line of work I'd seen enough from the inside to get a sense of what was wrong -- but here there was nothing apparent. No wound, no bruise, nothing I would take as odd coloration. Something internal, then, a hemorrhage of some kind. A chair had been placed beside the bed for me. I sat, leaned in, placed both hands on her head, one on her forehead and the other on her crown. I began the absorption.
I started slowly, gingerly, at the outer edges of her cranium
moving slowly across and around the folds of her brain, looking for the site of the damage. And then I hit it. I began a very careful pattern of absorption, taking just a bit of the injury into my own brain, and letting my own system attack it. There was a knot of sorts, and when I touched it, the flood of memories was in an instant overwhelming, more than I'd ever experienced before.
One rose to the surface, a recent one, the last one before the coma. Olivia was terrified. There was Wrenwroth, with a syringe in hand, moving menacingly towards her, promising that the substance therein would cause her to give some piece of information she was holding back. No words, simply a sentiment. One of Wrenwroth's henchmen -- one of the very men who now stood in the room overseeing my healing procedure -- grabbed her from behind, pinning one arm behind her back, while tightly gripping the wrist of her other hand to hold it out, extended, palm up, exposing the delicate vein in the bend of the elbow. She cried out as the needle went in--
My eyes darted to her arm; an IV line now occupied the spot. Clever concealment. I tried to steer her memories towards something I could use-- flashes of locations-- she had a favorite place....
"Did she have a favorite place?" the words popped out of me.
"What?" Wrenwroth was surprised that I had spoken. "Why?"
"It might help the healing -- speed things up significantly," I lied. Thinking fast, I came up with a plausible line of explanation. I gently pushed open her eyelids; her eyes were pinpoints, directed unmovingly towards the ceiling. "Her eyes and ears are working-- she can see and hear things in a sort of abstract sense-- but nothing is registering with her, nothing is connecting with her mind to make her wake up, snap back to reality. But being in a place she really connects with, that could help force those pathways of consciousness back open." It sounded good to me. After all, nobody, not even I, knew quite surely how my powers worked. I figured Wrenwroth had gotten himself into this situation through a failure of patience. I appealed to that. "Could mean getting this done in hours instead of--" I shrugged, trying to seem nonchalant, "days. Weeks."
"Fine." Wrenwroth pursed his lips. "I'll make the arrangements. We'll go tomorrow."
The vehicle -- essentially a large van -- wended its way up the mountain road, towards the glen where Olivia had played as a child. A broad field with a steep dropoff at one end and a crystalline lake below. I was exhausted, having continued the healing process all through the night, and all along this journey. When we reached the glen, the four men Wrenwroth had brought carried the bed to a central spot where the sun shone down and the breeze caressed the daisies in the grass.
The chair was set beside the bed; I returned to my previous position, hands on her head, attending to the healing of her mind. I opened her eyes; her pupils had returned to normalcy, but stared straight ahead. "Three hours," I tried to sound sure of myself. "Maybe four."
Wrenwroth nodded curtly. His men stood by -- for a while, but as the minutes ticked by slowly and uneventfully, their attention flagged. At some point, one of them went to the van to grab a bite, and another heard a sound in the nearby woods, all of them momentarily turning their attention to it. As a group, they took a step in that direction--
"RUN!!" I shouted. Olivia leapt from the bed and dashed towards the dropoff, and I followed, but quickly arched to the left, running towards the woods. I glanced back for a moment. Wrenwroth's men were frozen with confusion. They had guns but dared not shoot either of us without understanding what was going on; after a moment, they chased. I saw as Olivia plummeted over the edge of the dropoff.
I didn't get far. Didn't expect to, I guess. They dragged me back to the van, lashed me to the chair, and Wrenwroth laid a few backhands across my face for good measure.
There was a pause as two of Wrenwroth's men returned to report that there was no sign of Olivia. I knew that would be the case; I had fully healed the damage to her brain -- actually a relatively insubstantial amount -- overnight; the rest was for show. And her favorite place, after all, was not the glen itself, but the intricate system of caves which found their narrow entrance at the foot of that dropoff. Caves she had explored in length and depth as a child, and through which, even now, she could wend her way through in the darkness, which she feared less than Wrenwroth. He, on the other hand, now turned his full attention to me.
"Where," Wrenwroth sneered, "is my wife
I stared back contemptuously.
Wrenwroth stepped back and, with a typical egotistical flourish, pulled a pistol from the holster concealed beneath his jacket, and pointed it at my head. "Have you ever wondered how it feels to know that you are about to die?" The question slithered mockingly from his lips, with the ritual vigour of one who had uttered the same sentiment for most every person he'd executed.
"You know, I've finally figured you out," I managed to cough. "All this time I've been trying to figure out what's wrong with you, but now I've got it."
"Oh really," Wrenwroth responded, "and what's that."
"Nothing is wrong with you. You are
the wrong. You are a disease. And I'll tell you something else, if I wasn't chained to this chair, I'd love nothing more than to put my hands on your neck and squeeze that disease until it's dead."
Wrenwroth paused for a moment. Come on, into my trap, Wrenwroth, you son of a bitch, into.... my....
And he fell for it. He holstered his weapon. "Normally I don't like to get my hands dirty. But you've convinced me to make an exception."
And his hands went to my throat. Powerful hands, crushing force, but I had to keep focus. Must.... keep.... focus.... Keep.... achhhhg.... I'd only ever used my hands to absorb, but had felt things come in through a brush on the shoulder, a pat on the back. Maybe skin to skin contact was all it took? Focus. I absorb diseases. Wrenwroth was
A tingling, then a rush of energy -- was it working? Or was my brain having its last spasm before death?
I became dimly aware that I was still contemplating my gambit
. My eyes fluttered open. Everything was blurry, out of focus, slowly coming around. I was still in that black van. Lying on the floor, Wrenwroth's guard's peering down at me. I knew I must have failed. They reached toward me -- I couldn't move, my body numbly refused to respond to my commands, and then the guards.... pulled me to my feet. Gingerly, without any hint of roughness. And I became dimly aware that there was a figure to my right. I turned to look, and there I was, looking at myself, still tied to the chair, bloody, battered, bruised.
Are you okay, Mr. Wrenwroth, sir? One guard asked. He was looking at me. Speaking to me
. His mouth was moving. His voice seemed distant, as though he were calling down a long and blurry tunnel. My surroundings still half spun.
I looked back at myself, tied to the chair. Only it wasn't me. It was simply my body -- now occupied by someone else. I'd done it, I had absorbed Wrenwroth completely, and in his place, where the sickness had filled his mind, I had substituted something healthier --myself. I had completely switched bodies with the disease.
Wrenwroth, trapped in my old body, was trying to gasp out an explanation, but he couldn't get a word out through that freshly crushed larynx. What irony!! It wouldn't have mattered. What words could he possibly have used to convince those guards that he, and not the familiarly dapper, finely suited man across from him, was their master? Still, no sense taking chances. I spun as sternly as I could to face the nearest guard. "Well?" I sputtered with an excitement that would surely be mistaken for Wrenwroth's arrogant impatience, "shoot him!!"
Wrenwroth's eyes, mine own mere minutes ago, widened in the most absolute of terror, the terror of an entire carefully-crafted world coming down on him. And just before the guard pulled the trigger, I stared into the mind of the man who had cold-bloodedly executed so many, and snarled, "In case you ever wondered, this
is how it feels."
I turned and stepped out of the back of the van, walking away, being careful not to flinch as several sharp bursts of the staccato of gunfire erupted behind me. I didn't bother to issue any further "instructions." I imagined that disposing of a body would be a typical day's work for these henchmen.
"Stay here," I instructed the men, as gathered strength and stability, and wandered slowly down to the cliff's edge where Olivia had disappeared, her memories guiding me.
Later that afternoon, I wondered, as I strolled nonchalantly toward Wrenwroth's office -- my office, now, I supposed -- whether my powers had been transferred along with my mind into this elegant new body. I would have to be careful in finding out, lest I trigger any suspicion, but I doubted that any of Wrenwroth's mooks would be sharp enough to do the math. I wandered by what looked like a breakroom, and noticed another guard, sitting at a table, holding his head. I marched in, "you, what's all this about?"
He jumped to his feet, "Sorry Mr. Wrenwroth, I-- I just have this headache--"
"Headache?" I bellowed incredulously, "we'll see about that." I put my hand on his collar and jerked him forward, glaring enragedly in his face. He did have a headache, though not a migraine or anything serious. Probably simply a lack of sleep. I drew it into my own mind, from which it quickly faded. He looked positively confused. "As I suspected," I glared, "all in your head." I narrowed my eyes to angry slits and tried to sound menacing. "Get back to work."
"Yes sir, Mr. Wrenwroth!!" and off he scurried.
I kept a stone face until I got into 'my' office, and then threw back my head and laughed. Here I was, yesterday a squat, broke pissant from the wrong neighborhood trying to do a little bit of good in a rotten world. And today, a handsome, immensely wealthy, powerful figure, with the ability to do an immense amount of good in a world that maybe, just maybe, wouldn't turn out to be so rotten after all.
Dedicated to Jet-Poop and Zephronias as inspirations in equal measure.