The Sidekick by E.P. Henderson
T-Man is real strict about masks in the Lair. “Always keep it on, Kid, inside and out. Any room there’s a window, people can see you. There’s a lot more capes about than you think.” Blah blah blah thinks the Chromium Kid, flipping the bird at the windowless door. Luckily T-Man doesn’t have X-Ray vision or anything or he would be so screwed.
He does sometimes seem to have eyes in the back of his head, or psychic powers maybe, but the Kid knows it’s only because T-Man is an expert noticer of things, especially things the Kid is thinking about trying to get away with, like sneaking out or trying to get served in one of the bars they’re always breaking up fights at in the bad part of town.
T-Man says the Kid has to work on his observation, that one day he’ll need those kick-ass noticing skills in a crisis, as if. It’s one of his big obsessions he’s constantly droning on about. The Kid has heard it like eighty times in that talk on Road Safety or pedophilia or whatever that T-Man gives in schools. He always finishes off with his perky little rhyme: he used to think it was cool but now it’s just embarrassing, like a Principal trying to freestyle or something.
“Some people call it intuition,” he says in that big rich voice of his, like hot buttered confidence, “but all it is, isperception, plus deduction. So if you’re in a tough position, trust your intuition!” Flash of strobe-white teeth. Double thumbs up, which makes the Kid want to die in a flash of superheated plasma. Then and only then, at last, they can leave the stage.
The Kid has no idea why he always has to tag along to these things: all he ever does is stand in the back, waving and grinning and wishing he could play with his phone like every other teenager in the damn room. But that’s the point of being a sidekick, he guesses: you’re back-up. If the shit hits the fan and the main man goes down, it’s your turn buddy, and you better be ready. T-Man is always cliché-bombing the Kid about last resorts and bucks stopping and stepping up to plates: he’s worse than Al the super, who at least has the excuse of being like eighty. Old people are meant to be boring. Superheroes are not.
Being homeschooled hasn’t exactly increased his love of the masked life, either. If he went to high school like any other teenager; if he was a normal kid, not the Chromium Kid, he’d have hundreds of friends to moan about T-Man to. They wouldn’t understand exactly what he has to put up with, cause they’d all have real parents, but T-Man is the closest thing the Kid has to a dad, and he certainly acts like the most paranoid, tightassed father since God. He was pretty sure his high school friends would be able to relate, if he’d been allowed to have any. If he’d been allowed to go to high school. It looks so cool on TV: all that flirting by the lockers and drinking under the bleachers. Rescuing idiots who jump off buildings and holding up collapsing tunnels is just dumb by comparison. What are they, counsellors? Girders? T-Man might have the strength of titanium, but in the Kid’s opinion he doesn’t have the sense he was born with.
But obviously, he can never, ever tell T-Man that.
The Kid slopes down to the super’s closet sometimes to pass the time of day with Al, and maybe bitch a little about the boss, and Al always sighs and says he’ll understand better when he’s older. That T-Man has a lot of responsibility on his shoulders, not just for the Kid but for everybody in the city, and that’s a tough rap. The old guy’s not so bad, despite his tendency to crap on about the good old days; he’s kind of like the grandfather the Kid never knew, all solemn wisdom and goodhumor; crinkled dark eyes topped by a thick sweep of bone-white hair. He looks like a movie star from way back, like Paul Newman maybe; T-Man and the Kid used to watch those old buddy movies with Robert Redford and him: The Sting, Butch Cassidy and all, back when the Kid was really a kid and T-Man was … well, T-Man.
Al’s little room is full of all kinds of hero junk: it’s like a memorabilia stand made out with a shrine. Masks are hung on hooks all up the walls, like a New Orleans mardi-gras stall: at least T-Man will always have a spare. There’s even a couple capes from defeated foes (they’re not villains, T-Man is careful to tell the Kid every time they foil somebody, they’re foes:give a dog a bad name, and all.) Al lets him wear them sometimes, when T-Man is in the control room, geeking out over some oscilloscope that can tell what you had for breakfast or whatever with his costumed buddies.
That said, there are some pretty cool things about being a sidekick, and kicking ass is definitely number one on the list. And really, that’s the Kid’s problem, squatting right at the heart of why he is feeling so pissed off right now, after that stupid mission they just got back from. The lack of really good smackdown fights has been getting to him for a while, and tonight was pretty much the final straw.
It’s not that he and T-Man are starved of opportunities to hand villains (sorry, foes) their sorry asses on a silver platter, oh no. The Kid would understand if they’d just beaten all the major bad guys and scared off the rest and there was just no real supercrime left to fight. But that’s not the case at all. There’s plenty of evil ass around, but T-Man seems more into kissing it than kicking it these days, and that’s why the Chromium Kid is splayed on his bed, listening to Onyx and Gravediggaz and biting his nails in frustration.
Used to be the T-phone would flash, they’d fly off and next thing the criminals knew, they were wallpaper. Even when he was an actual kid he’d been able to help out – tripping a henchman or restraining a fleeing accomplice while T-Man beat the crap out of some guy with bad dress sense and a worse attitude. But slowly, almost imperceptibly, everything had changed. The smackdowns had got lighter and less frequent, till the Kid wondered if maybe he’d walked into a PG-13 movie. T-Man started delivering little homilies, like the ones he usually saved for the end of a school visit, to the helpless and defeated foe, instead of giving him one more uppercut for good measure, or at least exiting on a pun.
Lately, he’s taken to spouting New Age crap about karma and understanding equalling forgiveness, and how there’s help available for the villains (sorry, foes – no, fuck it, villains) if they just have the courage to reach out. Answering people’s cries for help is no fun now the boss insists that every kidnapping , arson attack and bank robbery is a cry for help by the perpetrator.
The Kid grabs a throwing star from the pile by the bed and thunks it viciously into the far wall, bisecting a pinup of Go Girl! Jeez, who does T-Man think he is, Gandhi? The big guy has gone from walking the walk to talking the talk in a few years, and the Kid just doesn’t understand. And though he would never admit it, even to himself, this scares him.
He sits up and musses his hair with a fractious hand, the movement reflected fleetingly in a window. The Kid’s room is up at the top of the Lair, with a skylight drinking in the stars and windows all the way around. On clear nights like this, he can see the T-light if it shines from anywhere in the city. He slouches off the bed and walks to the glass. A young man approaches him; glowering, hunched, his ragged cut-offs and oversize t-shirt saying all too clearly, I may be forced to wear Lycra in public, but I don’t have to like it. The young man’s hair is a bronzey brown, his eyes are dark and wide. He has a classically handsome, high-cheekboned face marred only by the occasional outbreak of pimples – one thing the mask is good for, at least.
The Kid stares into himself, angling his head like a curious animal. He has absolutely no idea where he came from; who his parents were or what he might one day become. He has no pattern for adulthood; all he has is T-Man. A superhero who won’t fight. A Man of Titanium with a midlife crisis. The Kid’s so angry at T-Man he could punch him, and the worst thing is, he knows T-Man wouldn’t hit him back. He used to be the coolest guy in the world and now he’s just a sad, soft oldpussy.
The Kid forms the juicy word with his lips; a pouting hiss. T-Man doesn’t approve of swearing or language derogatory to women. Well, tough titty. The young man beyond the black glass smirks. If he had that kind of power … well, he wouldn’t be all live and let live when it came to foes, that’s for sure. The Kid winces as he remembers today. For a little while it had been like old times again, the thrill so sharp it sang in his bones, the impact, the adrenalin, a real bust-up with a gang of drug-traffickers. He’d been working on a line even as he and T were lifting that steel girder to roundhouse the pack of them; something about “addiction is a disease, yeah, and here’s the cure!” – or maybe just a quick pun, like “Steelyourselves, boys!” The girder was light in his hands (T-Man always took most of the weight, they had it worked out so it looked like both of them did it though, it was a balance thing). He’d been feeling on top of the world, another victory for truth, justice and all that –
And then T-Man had just … dropped it. Let his huge hands fall to his sides, shook his head, his jaw tight and pale under the mask. Said, “I can’t do it. I just can’t do it, Kid.”
He’d stood open-mouthed, like the baby the candy got stolen from. He was so shocked it took him a second to drop his end of the girder, and in that moment he saw something in T-Man’s eyes he’d never had a word for before. Something like tiredness, something like sadness. What he’d got used to seeing in the eyes of foes since he was old enough to hand them over to the cops. Defeat.
He tries out the word in the window’s black mirror, looks up to watch his lips shape it, then jumps half out of his skin as he sees the figure standing behind him, touching distance.
“What the fu, ha, Jesus Christ you scared the shit outta me!”
The Kid whips around, heart punching, staggering into a battle crouch; his body’s ready well before his brain catches up. T-Man just stands there, still in full uniform, mask impassive, bulging arms folded.
“I keep telling you to work on your observation, don’t I?”
The Kid rolls his eyes, sags onto the bed, dislodging a sliding slew of comic-books. He’s crushing them and he doesn’t care. He’ll flatten them out and sign them later.
“What do you want?”
T-Man smiles, ignoring the Kid’s question. “What else do I tell you to do when you’re near a window?”
For God’s sake! The Kid makes a disgusted noise in his throat. There’s nobody spying on them, nobody knows or cares where the Lair is. Why the hell should he wear a mask in his own damn bedroom? Why is T-Man such an ass these days? What the hell is wrong with him?
“Put it on, Kid.” His rich voice is serious, now. But what’s he gonna do, make him?
“Why?” The Kid hears the whine in his voice and hates it. But right now he hates T-Man more. T-Man just stays there, motionless: it’s a Mexican standoff with masks.
Then he sighs. It’s a gut-deep sound, thick with melancholy. Then he sits down wearily on the bed, the brass creaking under his weight, and pats the rumpled space next to him. The Kid watches through narrowed eyes, doesn’t move.
“I guess you’ve been wondering,” says T-Man, “what’s going on, right?”
The Kid nods. He feels tears creeping up his throat like ants and forces them back down.
“Did you ever wonder how old I am, Kid?”
The Kid shakes his head. Why would he wonder a dumb thing like that? It’s not like it matters. T-Man is T-Man, always has been, always will.
Maybe he is psychic? Or maybe he’s using that famous intuition. That’s the problem, the Kid suddenly realises, of not wearing a mask: it means people can read your face.
“I’m pretty old, Kid,” says T-Man conversationally, reaching up to scratch the back of his head, “pretty old and pretty tired. I guess you figured that out today.”
And now it’s panic, blind panic, surging through the Kid’s chest, wanting out in a scream or a sob or something. “No …” he says, and his voice wows weirdly and whatever it is T-Man’s going to say next he doesn’t want to hear it because he knows with sick certainty it’s going to change everything.
“I didn’t want to have to do this so soon,” says T-Man over the waves of blood thudding in the Kid’s ears, “but I think it’s time. I think you’re ready.”
The Kid shakes his head, hard. He’s not ready. He’s never been ready. Here’s a question: what the hell is a sidekick with nobody to stand beside?
T-Man, in a gesture of infinite weariness and relief, removes his mask and lays it on the bed between them. He lifts his head and looks the Kid full in the face. The Kid has never seen him without his mask, and now he knows why.
T-Man’s hair is a bronzey brown flecked with grey, his eyes are dark and wide. He has a classically handsome, high-cheekboned face; lived-in, kind, worried, tired.
“It’s not what you think,” he says, smiling sadly. “Don’t call me Dad, OK?”
The Kid isn’t about to say anything. He’s not sure he can remember how. But he remembers home-school Biology and he’s pretty sure this is impossible. There is a tentative knock on the open door and Al enters, and for the first time the Kid realises what T-Man will look like when he’s an old man and all the bronzey-brown has turned to bone-white. One glance at T-Man’s face and Al nods ruefully.
“The Talk, huh? Seems to happen earlier every generation. Still, it’s time you had a little downtime. Kid’s ready, I reckon. Lifted a girder all on your own today, didja? That’s pretty impressive for seventeen. Don’t reckon I could’ve done that, not even back in my glory days.” He crinkles his dark eyes at the Kid, pride glittering in them.
T-Man turns to the Kid. “Now, what do you know,” he says gently, “about clones?”
© E.P.Henderson 2013
E. P. Henderson started writing stories about five years ago, stopped for ages, and (thanks to evening classes), has just started again. Stories are forthcoming in MTM and Error 404, and have been read live by the Liars' League in London, Hong Kong and now New York. She is a Londoner by adoption rather than by birth and is working on a novel.
The Sidekick was read by Seth James for the Heroes & Villains Show on 1st May 2013