Ten Realities of a Retired Hero

Sep 20 2014


The air is chilly high up on top of the skyscraper, biting, whipping my hair into a swarm of stinging insects pricking at my eyes, hooking their way down the pores of my exposed skin. The chill of the concrete seeps into the palms of my hands, the seat of my pants, against the backs of my legs.

The cold leaches into my muscles, infusing my bones, crawling molecule by molecule into my organs, turning each of them one by one by one to ice.

A solid block of ice, clear and shimmering, soaked through with a million shades of colors. Blues, greens, reds, yellows, colors still yet unnamed, still not yet witnessed by another human.


The lights of the city below blink in and out, drowning out the stars in the sky, each light intimately familiar, its location already long-ago inscribed to my internal map.

Each light encompassing their own drama playing out in that moment, a million and one stories conjured in my mind, birthed of memories no less vivid for being true.

A film noir strip running, ceaseless, behind my eyes.

The depths of depravity in the name of love, pride, glory, power, money, and happiness people become mired in. They don’t inspire happy thoughts and I grow weary and dreary and sad.


The faded beige paint from the wooden walls of the small house peel off in large elegant curls into a small yellowing yard, more weeds than grass. Spider webs linger in dust-swallowed crannies.

I don’t physically see the home. I’m too high up and the home is too small, hidden away in a little corner of a too-large city. But I know it’s there, can picture it in eye-watering sharpness. Which is really all that matters.

Weekdays, it stands empty, worn and lackluster on a worn and lackluster street.

At night, oh, at night, though, the house transforms into a home. Warm light spills out onto the cracked concrete sidewalks, along with the mingled voices of an active happy family.

On my way to or back from saving the city, I used to lean against their rickety wooden fence, listened as cries of a fussy baby changed into the murmur of childish voices punctuated by bright laughter, the low rumble of conversation lulling me, caressing me. Cacophonous music lessons, running feet, the staccato bark of an overly excited dog woven into a soundtrack of their lives.

I know the children have all grown by now, gone to start their own families. But, very rarely, I still walk by in the evening, soaking up the warmth of that light spilling into the darkness, listening to the murmurings of love pouring out.

Closing my eyes, I’d picture myself knocking on their door, of them inviting me to dinner, imagining myself sitting at the old scarred wooden dinner table I’d glimpsed through their yellow-curtained window.


There’s no singles scene for those who list “saving the world” as an occupation. There were only a few of us at any one time anyways, desperate to stop the downward spiral of crime in the city, spread so thin, weeks, even months could pass before our paths crossed.

When we did meet up by accident or coincidence, it was usually in the middle of preventing someone from doing something heinous. Not quite the time to strike up a chat about whether we both enjoyed long walks on the beach or puppies or rainbows.

In the real world, we didn’t know each other’s identities and weren’t inclined to share. We could walk past each other on the street and not even know it.

A normal relationship with a normal person seemed even more unlikely. Gratuitous sex did not a relationship make. I could pretend as much as I wanted, and I pretended a lot in my twenties, but sex did not equal love. Even if the words passed through our lips like prayers.

I’d reached out a few times for the real deal, but relationships didn’t last through my random disappearances off doing things I couldn’t talk about, always showing up later the worse for wear. No one wants to marry someone like that.

By the time I retired, I was so screwed up with what I had seen and done and faced, I’d found no one willing to put up with my screaming nightmares, my dark moods, my paranoia and restlessness.

I kicked my legs out, frowning out in the night. If it was just the nightmares and the way I twitched at every odd noise, I probably could’ve found someone.


Maybe not.


The day after I graduated from high school, my parents gave me two hand-me-down suitcases and $350, before politely asking me to move out. They’d fulfilled their duties. Now, it was my turn to fulfill mine.

I’d checked into a local motel at $49 a night with cable TV, A/C, and free continental breakfast. That night, I’d pulled on a mask purchased for $0.99 from the drugstore next door and come home the next morning, with a black eye, a tweaked wrist, my first criminal in jail, and a check for a thousand dollars, the reward for capturing said criminal.

Change the world, one defeated bad guy at a time, and get paid for it. God, the painful naivete of youth.

Other career paths might’ve stretched out in front of me when I took that first step out of my childhood home, but that first check burned them all away.

In high school, I was the quiet invisible kid in the corner. Not doing well like those smart kids with Ivy League stars in their eyes or the athletic ones with their team spirit and scholarships, but not one of those crazy-eyed problem kids either.

Just average in every way.

Average looks.

Average height.

Average weight.

Average hair and average eyes.

Not particularly bright, not particularly good at pretty much everything. All I had was zeal, coupled with a teenager’s nonchalance about being alive.

And I could fight.

When I looked in the mirror on my first day of retirement, I discovered I’d stayed pretty much the same person I was in high school.

Average looks.

Average height.

Average weight.

Average hair and eyes.

Not particularly bright, not particularly good at pretty much everything. But I’d lost that zeal, let that spark of living bleed out somewhere in a back-alley. Middle-aged, scarred both outside and in, and I didn’t want to fight anymore.

Too bad I didn’t know how to do anything else. I had enough money for a lifetime if I lived within reason. But I also had too much time to think, to remember, to dream horrible what-if scenarios, so I took a job in a sleek clanking factory that smelled of oil and sweat, mind-numbing repetition of the highest degree, no coherent thoughts those hours from punch-in to punch-out, just blank focus on moving my hands in tune to the gears shifting all around me.

Wonder if my parents ever thought of me. If they’d be proud of the man I’d become.


Every morning, I used to awaken to the possibility that I may not awaken the next day. It hadn’t mattered. My life was small payment in service of my beloved city.

Then one day, I awoke and realized I didn’t give a shit anymore.

Was a life still a sacrifice if no one even cared?

No matter how many times I saved the city from nefarious deeds, the very next day, the city would need saving all over again. New criminals looking to stake out their territory. Old criminals, out on parole, looking to keep their territory, and I’d have to catch them all over again. No matter how many robberies I’d stop, I’d turn the corner and witness another robbery in progress. No matter how much effort I put in, my city worsened, never improved.

No wonder Utopia was named so, a perfect place that didn’t exist.

The worst part? I couldn’t save everyone. I wouldn’t be strong enough or fast enough or lucky enough.

Or simply not get there in time.

And a new face joined the host already haunting my dreams.

Gut-wrenching letters mingled with my fan mail, from grieving parents, siblings, friends, children asking and asking and asking.

“Why didn’t you save my father?”

“Why did you save him and not my daughter?”

“Why did my brother get hurt because of you?”

An unceasing chorus of why’s I had no answers for.

Maybe someone else did, but they’d never gotten around to telling me.


I’m sure there are other lonely broken anonymous souls in this teeming city retired from fighting crime, hanging up their masks and capes for the hope of a normal life. Other people haunted by the darkness and the dark nature of others.

Somewhere, maybe, there’s someone else sitting in the dark like I am, thinking the same things as me.

It’s too bad I don’t know them. It would’ve been nice to sit side-by-side in the silence, two people who understand each other like only other ex-heroes can.


The sky is lightening, the palest pinks and orange watercolors tinting the sky. I uncurl myself to a standing position atop the small ledge I’d perched on, joints cracking, creaking, stiff from the chill and too much past abuse. My toes curling in beat-up tennis shoes, I spread my arms, feeling the wind whistling over and under them, raising them higher and higher.

For a precious fleeting second once a day, I’m at peace.

I imagine letting go, relaxing my muscles just enough to fall too-far forward.

Would falling feel like floating, weightless, formless?

Would it feel like flying, like those comic book superheroes I’d modeled myself after so many years ago?

Would I die before I hit the ground?

Would I be smiling?

No one who’d discover my broken body below would recognize me without my mask. They would only see the unknown mild-mannered me, one of faceless millions living in the city.

I give my whole life to save the people in this city, and not one person knows it’s me.

Just my mask.

It’s gone now, the mask, shredded fabric in some trash dump outside the city, buried under other people’s leavings.

Maybe if I still had it, a few would still remember some dim striking figure tucked away in the recesses of their memories. Something nostalgic, from those rose-colored glory days carefully cleaned of marring stains.

Fuck nostalgia.


I lean forward, tilting slightly, staring at the dusky shadows the skyscrapers throw on the ground below. So easy.

I tilt more, the wind pushing behind me, urging me forward. My heart hammers triple-time in my chest, thrumming just underneath my skin, adrenaline surging through my veins, looking for an outlet, and my stomach squeeze-twists in anticipation.

I’m never sure if it’s cowardice or the last vestiges of hope that always keeps me from taking that final step. Heroes, even middle-aged past-their-prime ex-heroes, aren’t supposed to be scared, but I’m not quite sure what exactly I’m hopeful for.

That maybe something better is just around that corner, even though that corner stays just out of reach, no matter how long I’ve staggered in its direction? Even though I don’t know what “better” means anymore.

I turn away from the edge, trudging back to the staircase.


In a few hours, I’ll be at work again, a breakfast of whisky and barely-salvageable leftovers warming my gut.

When night falls, I’ll find myself here again.


Copyright 2014 Christina Tang-Bernas

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