All characters are the property of DC Comics and Warner Brothers, except for the janitor, who belongs to the author.
Mr. Terrific briefed us.
"Elongated Man and Zatanna will take down the giant robot. Gear, Static, and er...The Janitor...are on crowd control. You three will stay in contact with your teammates and me regularly. As in every ten minutes, check in. You will not, I repeat, not, try to engage the giant robot. Leave that to your senior teammates. I'll want a full report on the mission afterwards, so pay attention to what's going on around you. Zatanna and E-man will also be turning in a mission report and part of that includes evaluating each of you."
"Uh...excuse me...I hate to interrupt..." Elongated Man tapped Mr. Terrific on the shoulder. "Giant robot tearing up Metropolis?"
Mr. Terrific waved him back. "Yeah, I know. He's the new guy, okay? I have to brief him."
"Nice to meet you." Elongated Man shook my hand. He didn't wear a mask and he looked like someone I'd go bowling with on Thursday nights. "Relax. You've seen one giant robot tearing up a major metropolitan area, you've seen them all."
Zatanna made a small noise of disgust. "At least it's not a giant slug creature like last time." She twitched her shoulders. She was pretty. Not gorgeous-pretty like Hawkgirl or Wonder Woman. More girl-next-door pretty, which was odd because she also didn't look like any girl I'd ever lived next door to, but that was mostly due to her costume.
We clustered into a transport chamber.
"You use these? But we're on Earth," I said. "In Metropolis."
"It's the fastest way to get there," said Zatanna.
"Sure," said Elongated Man. "What are you going to do? Take the bus?"
"Don't be a wise-ass." Zatanna smacked him lightly on the arm.
Mr. Terrific hit a switch, and we ended up on a broad avenue downtown, with screaming, running people all around us.
The ground shook. Three blocks away loomed an orange structure that it took me a second to register was not a building, because it moved.
I looked up. Kept looking up. Looked up more until my neck started to hurt. Crap, it was a big robot. A big orange robot. I wondered who had sent it, but that didn't seem to be a concern for my teammates at the moment, what with the crowd screaming and yelling and stampeding.
Zatanna and Elongated Man started running towards the robot. A man tripped and fell almost at my feet so I knelt and helped him up. He shot me a grateful look that dissolved into puzzlement before he ran on.
Static, Gear. Where were they? I turned, giving myself a mental shake. Had to keep an eye on the kids, even though they knew way more than I did about heroing, and I knew they'd been in the field before, protecting their own city. When you're a Dad, instinct is louder than reason.
Static had electrified an overturned car, moving it out of the way of the fleeing crowd. Gear was zipping around using his jetpack, steering people away from the worst of the debris. He pressed something at his wrist, and his amplified voice told the crowd to head for 12th Street, and not to panic.
Don't panic. The ground shook again.
Zatanna stopped, her black-and-white clad form looking much too small in front of the orange monstrosity. She pointed her wand and shouted something unintelligible. Bright flares of light went off around the thing's big metal head. It faltered, its sensors blinded. Elongated Man grabbed Zatanna around her waist and stretched himself up until they were both perched on the giant's shoulder. Zatanna did something with her wand again. Sparks flew out of the robot's neck, and then a ragged metal shape shot out of its chest like a bullet in reverse.
It must have been some kind of control center, because the robot began to sway and the vivid light died out of its visor-shaped eyes. Zatanna leapt, Elongated Man caught her, stretching himself to the ground and depositing her safely on the sidewalk.
With a lumbering, deafening creak, the robot toppled and crashed, taking several lamp posts, a truck, a newsstand, and part of a building's stone facade with it.
The thud when it landed almost knocked me off my feet. A cloud of debris rose into the air. No one was beneath it. The crowd had all gotten out in time. The street was deserted now except for us.
"Nice work, guys," Zatanna materialized out of the clouds of dust, her tuxedo jacket smudged with white. She sounded a bit breathless, like my wife after a workout. Endorphins. I stared at her. It was like she thought that had been fun.
Gear smiled at her worshipfully and his voice scratched a little when he said "Thanks."
Elongated Man turned to me. "Congratulations."
I blinked, and rubbed dust from my chin. "For what?"
"On not getting injured your first mission out."
He touched his communicator. "We need a cleanup team to sector 127-B."
"How did The Janitor do?" I heard Mr. Terrific ask.
"He's in one piece."
"Good," said the voice over the comm. "Put him on cleanup. I'm sending down a team."
Well, at least I knew how to do that. There was a lot of debris, not all of it too heavy for me to shift. I could take care of all the dust.
Maybe they'd even let me use a broom instead of my mind.
"Elongated Man out." He turned back to us. "Gear, Static, you stay with The Janitor."
"Where are you going?" Zatanna demanded as he walked away.
"You're going for ice cream, aren't you?"
"I'll tell Sue. That's right, she's onto you. She told us about your cholesterol problem."
"Aw, c'mon Zatanna..."
"Get frozen yogurt."
"Yogurt!" He made a disgusted noise.
Their voices faded as they walked away down the street, as if it was an ordinary day and said street wasn't broken and covered in rubble. There wasn't a sunset, they just vanished into the haze of dust.
It was an open secret that Elongated Man was married. Now I remembered meeting his wife once—she was among the very few civilian visitors allowed into the Metro Tower. Nice woman.
How did he manage the strains this life put on a marriage? Not seeing his wife for weeks at a time. Knowing she was at home worrying about him, knowing each mission might be the last. Or him worrying about her. Maybe my wife and his could form some kind of a "Superhero Spouses" support group. Or wait, maybe not. That could kind of blow the whole secret identity thing.
We were an hour into the cleanup process when Mr. Terrific's voice sounded in my ear.
"Janitor, Static, Gear. Change of plans. Get over to 7th and Siegel. Batman's signal just went out mid-transmission and we don't know why. Clayface was spotted in Metropolis about half an hour ago and Batman went to investigate. Reconnaissance only. Do not engage Clayface. I repeat, do not..."
"Yeah, we know," said Static. "'Do not engage Clayface.'"
"How are we going to get there?" I asked. My head throbbed slightly. I'd shifted a lot of debris while techs in hardhats dismantled the robot, piece by piece, lifting it away by helicopter to some unknown location.
"Like this." Static snapped open his collapsible air-surfing disk, sent a charge into it, and hopped on board.
Gear grabbed me under the armpits. "Hope you aren't afraid of heights," he said, as we rose off the ground.
I closed my eyes.
Most of the crowd had already fled by the time we arrived, although there was a small cluster of gawkers. Reporters too, I assumed, because flashbulbs popped. All I could see for several seconds were fuzzy red spots. I blinked and the spots cleared enough that I could make out a massive, lumpy dark shape in the middle of the cleared intersections. It was like a parody of a person, with legs, arms, shoulders, head, all grotesquely proportioned.
Cars honked from all directions. Two cops lay on the street, face down and still. Gear ran to one of them and checked for a pulse.
Static went to the other one and knelt. "He's okay too, just out cold." He stood up and looked around. "Where's Batman?"
"I can't see him." Gear slowly stood up and walked over to stand with Static, as if he felt safer that way.
Clayface seemed to be grappling with something in his arms. He twisted, his back to me. I moved closer.
There. Just sticking out as if a torn bit of cloth had stuck to his leg, was a patch of black. Except that wasn't a torn bit of black cloth. That was part of a cape.
Batman was fighting. You could see it as the clay bulged and Clayface had to keep reflowing his shape to contain him. I caught a glimpse of a boot before it vanished beneath the suffocating ripple of dark clay.
The struggles seemed to grow less frequent, slower, more sluggish. The bit of cape got sucked under, leaving no trace.
I tried to imagine a world without Batman and it was like a world without Superman.
Vaguely, as if they were at the end of a long tunnel, I heard Static and Gear shout at me as I started to walk towards Clayface. Probably they were reminding me not to engage.
Clay was a lot like mud, which was a lot like dirt. Right?
I got right up behind him and put my hands on the massive back. Through my open-fingered gloves, I felt the clay, soft and malleable like normal clay, except it also rippled, almost like touching the moving scales of a snake, only warmer.
The monster's head turned. The broad, featureless face—the wide mouth, the blank eyes, saw me. It opened its mouth and roared, hard enough to ruffle my hair.
Funny, the things you think about. Like, I should have had that second piece of lemon meringue pie last night, I should have called my wife before the mission, I should have turned off the closet light in my quarters.
Gear and Static were still screaming at me.
I blocked them out, concentrating.
The look of menace on the huge head melted with comic swiftness from fury to confusion to realization to alarm. He oozed sideways and began to spread while a soft throb started in my left temple. I bit my lip, and Clayface started to break apart into separate clumps.
Like the tide retreating, the clay flowed away to reveal what it had covered. Batman slumped forward to the street, covered in clay, free. His shoulders heaved as he retched.
My whole head started to throb, with a sharp pain between my eyes. There were little wriggling blobs of clay all over the street now and it took all my effort to keep them separate.
Static and Gear ran up past me, but then Static pulled Gear to a stop before he could go to Batman. They stood and watched as the retching slowed and finally the broad shoulders stopped heaving.
The dark-cowled man got to his feet. He only staggered the first step before his body snapped into control. Except for the patches of clay stuck to his cape and cowl, he moved like he hadn't just nearly been suffocated.
"You weren't supposed to engage," he said as he stalked past us.
Mr. Terrific gave me a seven minute lecture on following orders.
Then he shook my hand.
I was covered in dust from the robot and clay from Clayface. The stuff was in my hair. Gross. It was a relief when I finally got alone in my quarters and into a hot shower.
The water beat down on my shoulders and into my ears with a soothing rush. My fingers were starting to prune from the shower, but I wasn't ready to get out yet. My head still hurt and I still felt dirty. I reached for more shampoo, as if massaging the stuff into my scalp would help line up my thoughts.
Batman saved my life once. Guess this was karmic balance. If so, why did everything feel so lopsided?
I shut off the water. With a towel pressed to my face, I had the sudden urge to giggle. According to the kinds of stories I'd read on the Justice League fan websites, since I'd just saved Batman, I now had to die. Or no, wait, I had to die while saving Batman, which I'd failed to do, which meant I still had a chance to fling myself between Hawkgirl and a laser blast so I could die decorously in her arms...
All things being equal, I'd rather live, thanks.
The bathroom mirror was fogged over. I didn't bother to wipe a spot clear to look myself in the eye. It would just be the same face, the same eyes, the same hair. Looking for an outward sign of how different I felt was pointless.
Be All That You Can Be, that's what it said on the poster at the recruitment station where I'd filled out my Army application. That had been a choice and at the time I'd believed fully in the slogan. I've learned a lot since I was eighteen.
At Justice League headquarters there should have been a poster in the administrative office: Try To Be All That You Never Thought You Could Be and Hope No One Notices You're Faking It.
Towel wrapped around my waist, I sat on my bed, and rubbed my hair vigorously with my fingers to dry it. Tiny water droplets flew everywhere.
I saved Batman. From freakin' Clayface.
Nope, definitely not the same thing as remembering to put up the CAUTION: WET FLOOR sign.
Gear and Static were no help. The next day they kept staring at me, and didn't keep up their chatter like usual. I wanted to shake them both until their teeth rattled.
At least no one else was acting weird...much. The superhero gossip chain had its limits. For that, I was relieved, not just for my own sake, but for his. Imagine being Batman and having your life saved by The Janitor. The guy had a rep to maintain, after all.
Just because I wanted to know, I went online and prowled the news websites, search engines, blogs, and Justice League sites. There were rumors in the blogosphere that a new, untrained superhero had saved Batman's life.
Whatever became of the pictures the photographer took, I never found out. He was probably from The Daily Planet, which covered the giant robot as a page one headline, but had no mentioned of Clayface.
We went to Green Lantern's class and as usual, I got tossed to the mat about half a dozen times.
"Pathetic. Absolutely pathetic, people!"
At least he didn't make the entire class drop and do forty like last time.
Heroes began to pick themselves and limp towards the door while Green Lantern kept berating us cheerfully. "Saddest bunch of superheroes I ever saw. My Great-Aunt Sally could gain world domination going up against the likes of you."
A shadow appeared at the door and Batman appeared, enfolded in his cape. He and Green Lantern nodded silent greetings to each other.
As I limped towards the door, Batman held out a gauntleted hand.
I stopped, turned, and looked behind me. No one there.
"Me?" I turned back.
Static and Gear shot me a curious look, but missed my telegraphed plea to linger. Green Lantern was the last to leave. Batman and I were alone. Oh God. Was he going to try to thank me? Could this situation be more awkward? Aliens attacking would have been perfect. Klaxons going off. Or perhaps the floor could just open up and swallow me. If he thanked me, what could I say back? You're welcome? Just doing my job?
He must know, of course. He was Batman. He must know that I was a fake who was scared to death and had no idea what I was doing when I shifted Clayface.
Maybe I moved quick enough, I could get past him and...
"You're too hesitant."
"You're afraid to hurt your opponent, so at the last second, you pull back just a hair. It's throwing off your balance and reducing the power of your strike."
"Stop pulling your punches. These are your friends, but one day it will be an enemy. You need to be able to fight."
"Oh." I hesitated. "CanIaskyouaquestion?" I said it real fast before I could lose my nerve or he could leave.
"What." There was a warning there. This was a guy who hated to be asked questions.
"Is it weird when you're back in your...other life? Whoever you are when you aren't doing this? I feel like when I go on leave this weekend, I won't be comfortable in my own skin anymore, even if I'm not still wearing this." I tugged on the stretchy sleeve of my costume and it snapped back into place.
"Are you sorry you were given your powers?"
"No...yes...it's hard to say. They don't fit me. I miss my old job. It's not like I wasn't helping people there. I was good at it. I'm not any good at this. Maybe I was helping more than I am now. I can't stand the idea of this HQ being less than one hundred percent safe and clean. I did what I did so all of you—" I waved my hand vaguely "—can do what you do."
He tilted his head to one side.
"What?" I asked.
"You just reminded me of someone I know." His lips twitched. Was that a smile? It was gone so fast.
"Uh...so, my question is how do all of you cope with going back and forth between lives?"
"Learn to be a good actor."
I sneezed and when I opened my eyes, he was gone. I didn't even see his shadow retreating.
He hadn't given me a chance to thank him for the fighting advice. It took me a few moments to realize he hadn't wanted me to, and that he had just thanked me in a way designed to cause me the least embarrassment.
Maybe he was human under that cape and body armor after all.
My powers started to fade gradually. It was little enough that I was still sent on a few more missions, always crowd control. I perfected the art of shouting reassurances to a panicked crowd, of herding people away from danger, finding the safest routes.
The doctors took notes on their clipboards and murmured anxiously to each other. It got to where I could shift sand but not marbles.
Mr. Terrific put me on monitor duty. No more missions.
Still, there was this one time I saved the world.
It was the middle of the night—shortly after oh-two-hundred hours to be precise—and I was on watch. It was a busy time. Most of the heroes were out on missions. Crisis on multiple continents, earthquakes, Gorilla Grodd, a suicide bombing, a wildfire, and a hostage situation. That was just the first hour of my watch.
A signal beeped. Off-world threat. I pressed a key and brought up a satellite image. It was a meteor, on a trajectory that would likely strike somewhere on the eastern seaboard. It was a big meteor. Not only would it likely take out several cities, it would cause tidal waves and devastation halfway across the world.
So I did what I had to do.
I got on the comm and called Mr. Terrific.
He called Superman, Supergirl, Green Lantern, Captain Atom, NASA, NORAD, and the U.S. military.
They got the meteor broken up into smaller chunks, and then the supers and Green Lantern towed the pieces into deep space.
A few weeks later, I turned in my I.D. card and my uniform, because my powers were almost gone. No one asked me to leave, but I hated being dead weight.
Hitchens grumbled a little when I returned to take his place but not too much. I had the feeling the job had turned out to be more difficult that he'd thought.
"Back to normal, huh?" Flash intercepted me as I left the admin exit interview.
"Relatively speaking," I said.
"Are you sorry?" He pulled out a chocolate bar, broke off a square, and held it out to me.
"About not being a cape anymore? Not really." I waved the chocolate away.
He shrugged, popped the square into his mouth. "How's your family?"
"Great," I said. "I'm just heading home now."
"You're lucky," he said.
A few nights later I was home with my feet up on the coffee table, reading the paper while my wife and the girls watched a sitcom on TV. The doorbell rang.
"I'll get it."
It was probably Hitchens or someone else from my crew, wanting to go over a few things before I got back to work the next week. Why they didn't just call instead of showing up on my doorstep seemed odd, though, but then so much had been odd lately.
I opened the door, letting a shot of cool air into the warm house. There was a stranger on our front porch. He was very tall with an angular face, dressed in a trenchcoat and fedora, like someone out of an old movie.
"Can I help you?" I said, keeping the door open only halfway.
The angular features flickered green and melted into another shape for a second before returning to human.
"How are you this evening? How is your family?"
"Good. They're...good. What are you...would you like to come in?"
"Thank you," he intoned.
He followed me into the living room, his stiff dignity out of place in the cluttered, people and noise-filled room. The smell of dinner—roast chicken—lingered in the air.
"Honey, I'd like you to meet...uh...Mr. Jones. He's a...um..."
"A colleague," said Mr. Jones, with a calm smile.
My wife turned off to the TV and dislodged herself from the couch to shake his hand. "I'm sorry the place isn't more presentable, we've just..."
"Please, it is all right." He held up a slender hand.
"Girls, this is Mr. Jones."
"Hi," said my teenager brightly. I knew the look on her face. She looked just like my wife when she did that. She knew something was up and was trying to figure out if Mr. Jones was a colleague from the janitorial side or the superheroing.
"Let's go into the kitchen where we can talk privately," I said.
"It was nice meeting all of you."
Something sad flickered over his features as he looked at my daughters, and my youngest smiled at him shyly.
The kitchen was a zone of peace that evening, in the wake of dinner preparations. The sound of the TV resumed, muffled from down the hall, and the refrigerator hummed softly.
"Would you like anything to eat? We have plenty of leftovers..."
"Do you have any...Oreos?"
The way he was dressed, I'd expected him to ask for something harder, whatever Sam Spade might drink.
I put a lot of Oreos onto a plate and poured two glasses of milk. We sat across from each other. He picked up a cookie, separated it, licked out the cream filling, then dunked one of the cookie halves into the milk.
Now where did a Martian learn to do that?
"You left the League, right?" I reached for a cookie and dunked it whole into my milk.
"Um...what are you doing here in my kitchen, eating Oreos?"
He glanced at me before taking another cookie. "We have a lot in common, you and I."
My cookie stayed too long in the milk and grew soggy. "We do?"
"Both of us are trying to figure out how to live as something different."
I abandoned the cookie and let it sink to the bottom of the glass. "You're a superhero trying to live among ordinary mortals. I'm an ordinary mortal who tried to live among superheroes?"
"Yes." He paused. "I am finding it difficult. As I imagine you did. You resigned and are now going back to your old job, correct?"
"I'm just not cut out for all of that. Being a hero. The costume, the mask, not getting to see my family, the worry, the sheer terror...not just that I might get hurt but the responsibility. If I screw up, other people die."
"That could be said of your regular job."
"But I know how to do my regular job."
"You could learn to be a hero."
"It doesn't matter." I pressed my finger to the plate, picking up a few crumbs. "My powers are gone."
"If they hadn't gone, would you have resigned from the League anyway?"
"Probably." I licked the crumbs from my finger. "Like I said, I don't think I was cut out to be a hero."
"Tell me." He sat back and spread his arms. "What sort of a human do you think I make?"
"Hm. A little stiff. But otherwise...you seem like a good kind of human."
"Maybe you were a good kind of hero." He wiped his mouth fastidiously with a napkin. "Perhaps you'd like to talk about what happened to you."
"If you want to listen." I reached for another cookie. "I've got some questions."
We sat there with our cookies and milk, talking. Sometimes the girls would come in and interrupt us, wanting a snack, or more likely, just curious about my visitor. After a while, my wife got the second package of Oreos from the cabinet.
That's how we spent the evening, me and the Martian, in my kitchen, just two normal guys.