Hero Without a Name
A single overhead light in the interior of the bus was on, shining on Mike’s notebook as he shaded his drawing with a pencil. Everyone else in the bus was asleep and Mike’s seat was the only point of light in the dark. There were some lights on the dashboard and the bus’ headlights tried to pierce the night, but they only showed the reflectors mounted in the road. Whether the bus was moving past them in endless repetition or it stood still while the reflectors moved the other way was impossible to tell. When Mike stopped drawing for a moment and looked up, it seemed he was in a space capsule traveling through the darkest part of the universe instead of in a Greyhound bus speeding through the desert on an empty Nevada highway.
Mike bent his head and started shading again. The drawing was about the best he had ever done. It could have been the cover of one of the comic books in his collection at home. It showed a superhero in flight, arm extended in the classic pose. The costume was his own design, all white with a star burst on the chest. It covered the figure completely, and the face mask didn’t even have holes for the eyes, making it impossible to know anything about the man inside.
Mike didn’t think a costume without eye holes would work, when he actually got one made. He couldn’t see through cloth. It just looked cool. He’d worry about the practical stuff when he could afford to get the costume.
Light washed through the bus interior from the rear. The headlights of a semi. The truck shifted into the left lane and passed the bus. It thundered by, filling the bus with its sound, and some of the sleeping riders shifted in their seats.
“My my,” Mrs. Albert said, “You draw very well.”
Mike looked to his left. He had talked to Mrs. Albert a little at the beginning of the trip. He didn’t mention that he was a superhero, though.
“Oh,” Mike said, a little embarrassed but happy to get the praise, “It’s nothing.”
“I like that movie,” Mrs. Albert said.
Mike didn’t know what she meant by that. “What?” he asked.
“It had that alien who fell in love with the human girl. It was Jeff Bridges.” Mrs. Albert pointed to the top of Mike’s drawing, where the name of the hero was carefully drawn and shaded in dramatic lettering, STARMAN. It was the name he planned to use when he hit L.A. and became famous. He had thought up the name about a year before and drawn it many times in his notebook, along with various poses of the hero that he would be someday. He had come to think of it as his secret name.
“It’s a superhero I thought up,” Mike said. “I never heard of a movie called that.”
“It’s not surprising you don’t know the movie,” Mrs. Albert said. “I guess it came out before you were born.” She shifted her shoulders and closed her eyes. “I better get some more sleep,” she said.
Mike stared out the window at the dark landscape as it moved past. Damn. He didn’t want people to see him and think of some old movie. Now he had to think of a new name.
The heavy curtains kept the motel room dark, but bright sunlight shone around the edges. Mike sat up in the bed and swung his legs over the side. There was a digital clock on the table by the bed that told him it was quarter after ten.
The bus had pulled in at almost midnight, and Mike had walked out onto the streets of Los Angeles. It was too dark to see if it looked like it did in all the movies. It was a lot bigger place than his home town, that was for sure.
After walking just one block, a huge clatter came from overhead. Mike ducked and looked up. A helicopter was flying low over the city. He hated to admit how much the sound had scared him. Before he got another block he saw two more helicopters in the sky, though further away.
He found himself on a major street, lined with stores. Hollywood Boulevard. That was a name he knew. On the sidewalk were the stars, with the names of the famous and once-famous. Mike hadn’t even known where in L.A. they were. He hadn’t expected to see them in his first minutes in his new home.
All the stores were locked up tight. Movie star faces were painted on the metal doors. A few people walked on the sidewalks, and two women stood together talking. They both wore very short skirts and frilly tops. Mike passed them, thinking there was something wrong with them, but he couldn’t quite figure out what. As he passed them he realized they were men in drag.
A motel sign was visible from one intersection. Mike walked towards it. He had to be careful with the little money he had. He couldn’t stay in a motel for long, but he needed something and he wasn’t willing to join the men he saw sleeping in doorways.
Sitting on the bed in the morning, feeling quite rested, Mike tried to decide what to do next. He had about an hour before he had to leave the motel. He had paid for it, he might as well use it. He stood and stretched, then picked up his backpack from a chair where he had tossed it.
Sitting again, Mike flicked on the TV with the remote on the bedside table, then took his notebook out of his backpack. He settled himself with his back against the headboard, and found a blank page in the notebook.
He had to come up with a name. He had been so sure that he would be “Starman” that he had never thought of any alternates. He started scribbling in the notebook.
The TV was running a commercial with an old actor talking about long distance service. Mike wrote: Starguy. Starburst. Stargazer. Those were terrible. He tried The Blaze. Lightman. Sunman. Blazer. He wasn’t an SUV. Starfury. Hmmm.
The TV switched to news. The anchors had put on their sincere faces to report something big that had happened during the night. Mike stopped writing and turned up the sound.
“...terrible fire at a residence hotel in Hollywood,” the female anchor said. She was a real babe. This was L.A. The TV station ran tape of the event.
“A huge explosion blasted windows and door frames all the way across Santa Monica Avenue,” the voice of the male anchor said over the tape, which showed a four story building with fire pouring out of every window.
The female anchor took up the narration. “A mother managed to hand her two small children to firefighters and get them to safety,” she said. The tape showed a woman sitting in a window, half out of it as smoke and flame billowed out around her. “But the woman couldn‘t hang on, and fell or jumped, falling four stories to her death.”
Mike stared at the images on the TV screen. They showed the woman clinging to her perch at the window. They didn’t show her falling, but they showed her handing her children to fire fighters, then waiting for help that would never get to her in time.
The tape changed from nighttime to daylight, and the camera was trained on a fire fighter who looked exhausted. “We don’t have ground ladders that can reach the fourth floor,” he said. “We were trying to get a ladder truck near her, but she fell before we made it. If she’d hung on another fifteen seconds we would have been there.”
“You don’t have ladders that reach the FOURTH FLOOR?” Mike shouted out loud. He stood up. His notebook fell to the floor, forgotten.
He should have been there. A woman saves her children but can’t save herself. She misses the ladder by fifteen seconds. He could have saved her. His light would have shone in the sky and all the fire fighters, police, spectators, and TV crews would have looked up and said, “What is that?” as he got closer they would have seen the shape of a man, seemingly made of light, descending from the sky. He would have taken the woman from her window and delivered her to safety on the ground.
He had been calling himself a superhero for a year and a half and never had a chance to save anyone. Then on his first night in his new city he blew it by falling asleep.
Mike threw the pencil in his hand down as hard as he could. It shattered on the carpeted floor. He should have been there. Some superhero he was.
And if he had been there, it would have all been on camera. It would have been a perfect start to his career.
Not that he could have known it would happen. Still, he kept thinking that if he’d watched a little TV he might have seen it and been able to do something.
He resolved to never miss a chance to save a life again.
His next chance came later that day. Mike was trying to find someplace to stay that he could afford. He had walked for hours, checking out motels that had a weekly rate, and places that advertised “Singles” in the newspaper. A Single was just a room, sometimes with a small kitchen, sometimes without. Every place said they were full. A few had given him a form to fill out, and the form always asked about his employment. If he had to have a job before he could get a place to live, he was in trouble.
Mike’s thoughts were on his aching feet, not on superheroing, when he decided to go into a taco joint and get some lunch. He was grateful to sit down at a table with his burrito and take a load off.
The food was pretty good. He knew his Mexican food, it was big in his home town too. It was wonderfully greasy.
A small black and white TV was on the counter. It had a coat hanger for an antenna, and the picture kept getting all fuzzy, then coming back.
“...suspended high above a downtown street,” the TV said. “The window washer has been holding on for about forty five minutes, but if help doesn’t come soon...”
Mike didn’t notice the news report until he was done with his burrito. Only when he went to put his trash in the trash can did he pay attention to the television.
Then he realized that Starman, or whatever his name was, was on deck.
Hurrying out of the taco place, Mike looked around for someplace he wouldn’t be seen. He found an alley, and stood right next to a garage, hoping no stray pair of eyes in this city of millions would notice him. He reached under his shirt and touched the medallion, or amulet, or metal thing, that he had found in the desert near his home town. He thought it might be alien, but he didn’t know.
He had kept the thing in a drawer at home for months, but when he happened to touch it to his chest one day, it had glowed and fixed itself into his skin, becoming a permanent part of his flesh. It wasn’t painful, but it felt strange, like pent up energy was waiting to be unleashed.
When he figured out how to unleash that energy, a superhero was born. Though there wasn’t any superheroing to do in his home town, so when he saved some money he got on a bus and headed for L.A.
He touched the medallion and thought about his light flashing on, and it did. Suddenly he was filled with power. He could see more clearly, and for long distances. He could fly. He knew, from the one night he had flown over town back home, that people saw a human figure of dazzling white light in the sky. He had been seen by dozens of people that night, and no one recognized him. That’s why he could get away with not having a costume.
He shot up into the air above Los Angeles. The city stretched out for as far as he could see. Most of it was houses and low apartment buildings. It was not too different than the town he grew up in, except that it went on forever. He could see a line of hills not too far away, and thousands of houses clung to the sides of the hills, many with no visible means of support.
The question was, where was downtown? The only thing the TV had said about where the window washer was holding on for dear life was that it was downtown. And the image was of a skyscraper.
In a city that looked like an extended suburb, downtown had to be that cluster of tall buildings Mike could see in the distance. Or that other cluster of tall buildings he could see in a completely different direction.
Great. His first superheroic act and he didn’t know where to go.
He decided to ask for directions. A helicopter with a TV station logo was clattering through the sky. He headed straight for it. He could see an astonished cameraman and pilot staring at him. Then the cameraman thought to bring his camera up and point it at Mike.
Pulling up next to the helicopter and matching its speed, Mike asked, “Hey, do you guys know where downtown is?” Then he realized how stupid he must sound. Of course they knew.
“Are you a superhero?” the cameraman shouted, shouting his own stupid question over the roar of the chopper blades. The pilot raised a hand to shade his eyes against Mike’s light.
“Duh,” Mike said.
“What’s your name?”
“Uh, look, um, citizen,” Mike said, trying to sound older and more like a hero. “This is a matter of life and death. Where is that window washer who needs help?”
“On Third Street,” the cameraman said, and pointed towards the closer group of skyscrapers.
“Thanks. Gotta go.”
Once he knew the area to look for, finding the actual site where the window washer was hanging on for his life wasn’t too hard. There were several more news helicopters circling around the area, and a police chopper as well. Mike saw the man clutching the ropes of his collapsed window washing platform about twenty stories off the ground.
Mike went into superhero flight pose. One arm extended, feet together. He had to look good for all those cameras. He swooped down towards the dangling man.
Then he pulled up in astonishment, and hung in the air. He stared as openly as the helicopter crew had stared at him.
A woman was running up the side of the building, as easily as if she was on a jogging path in a park. She was wearing a superheroic costume, but it didn’t cover her head or face. Her long dark hair fell straight down behind her, obeying the laws of gravity that she so effortlessly ignored.
She arrived next to the window washer and paused. She looked straight at Mike. “You must be new in town,” she said with a slight Hispanic accent.
“Er, hi,” Mike choked out. “I’m...” Damn, he didn’t have a name to tell her.
“WILL ONE OF YOU PLEASE RESCUE ME?” the window washer shouted. The woman scooped up the man, turned, and ran down the sheer glass and steel face of the building the same way she had come up.
Mike was left with no one to rescue and no reason to be there. Then he thought of something. “Where were you last night at that hotel?” he shouted after the woman. She was out of ear shot and didn’t respond.
The shops along Hollywood Boulevard often had TVs in the windows, and all the TVs were showing the new superhero in town. Mike went into one electronics store so he could hear.
The anchors were having a lot of fun with the story. From the tape taken by the cameraman he had asked for directions, in which he sounded like a kid, to the footage that showed his heroic rescue being stolen from him, the TV people were highly amused. At least the light hid who he was.
Later Mike found himself in front of the Chinese Theater, the famous Hollywood landmark with all the handprints and footprints of the stars. The sidewalk was packed with tourists, many of them Japanese. They bent over to have their picture taken with their favorite star’s foot prints, they milled about and looked at maps and talked to actors wearing costumes of famous stars and, yes, superheroes.
He had to figure out how to improve his image after this bad start. He thought briefly about packing it in and going home, but that didn’t last long. The size and excitement of L.A. called to him even more than when he was just imagining it. He was where he belonged.
A Japanese family tried to get around another group of tourists by going closer to the curb. Their eight year old girl had no space to walk in, so she stepped off the curb into the street for a moment.
Mike could see a bright red trolley bus, coming back from a tour of Hollywood, approaching behind the girl. He got to her just a tiny bit faster than a normal human could have, picked her up and got her back on the curb.
The bus pulled to a stop and started disgorging tourists. The girl turned to look, but Mike had faded into the crowd.
It was a little thing. He wasn’t even sure if the bus would have hit her, but he felt like he had done his first official act as a superhero.
Now he just had to come up with a name.