Rising just shy of sixty feet into the air, the Burger Tower's plastic sign was the tallest structure in all of Abigail, Colorado. Milton Shirley could see the entire town from this vantage. He stood watch for hours at a time, his blue cape flapping behind him in the lazy summer breeze. He saw Mr. Philips getting his morning paper in his bathrobe, six miles away. He saw Jayne Finch go into Barb's Beauty Salon, then heard her ask for a wash and a color. He saw Drew Peters, Dave Mills, and Mayor Theodore Bynes walking together outside the courthouse, all clad in sharp looking suits and shiny shoes. Milton imagined all the fine citizens of his beloved home town seeing him in the distance, a tiny blue spec standing atop the Burger Tower sign, and feeling just a little safer.
“Why are you up there?” Milton heard a voice ask from below.
Milton looked down and saw little Barry Thompson, sitting on his BMX at the edge of Burger Tower's parking lot. Barry was twelve now, but Milton remembered when he was born. He was a cute baby, but he cried often and was exceptionally loud. He was especially bad at town functions like the Abigail Watermelon Eating Contest in mid-June and the Abigail Folk and Bluegrass Festival in early September. Milton loved every single one of the 739 citizens of Abigail, including Barry, but he would be lying if he did not admit that the boy's incessant squealing and whining as an infant, coupled with Milton's super hearing, made loving him a bit of a challenge.
“Someone has to protect the fine citizens of this great town, Barry,” said Milton.
“Isn't that what the police are for?” asked Barry.
“Yes, and a fine job they do. I am happy and proud to assist them in any way I can.”
“When was the last time you stopped anyone from committing a crime?”
“There's more to being a hero than just crime fighting, Barry. There's also conflict resolution, search and rescue, standing as a symbol for truth and justice--”
“--Yeah,” Barry said, “But when was the last time you did any of that?”
“It's not polite to interrupt, Barry. I know your mother, Dianne, and your father, Edward, taught you better than that.”
“You don't do anything but stand on that sign and freak everybody out,” said Barry.
“Who rescued that man who drove over the railing and into Sherman's Gorge?”
“Who flew over and caught his car before it crashed into the bottom of the ravine?”
“But that was, like, three years ago.”
“I'm sure the driver of that car appreciates those three extra years he got to live, thanks to my heroic feats.”
“The only reason he went over the gorge in the first place was because he was probably distracted by you standing on that sign.”
“That's quite a bit of speculation on your part, Barry.”
“Why don't you just move to LA or New York? Isn't that where all the super heroes go?”
“Well, those places are really expensive to live, especially if I want to be a hero there. Besides, I love it here. This town is perfect. Why would I ever leave?”
“Sounds to me like you're just scared,” said Barry. “Like maybe you're afraid that you're not good enough to make it in a real city.”
Milton chuckled. “Well,” he said, “We will see what you have to say the next time you're in trouble and need my help. Now, if you'll excuse me, duty calls.”
Milton leapt off the Burger Tower sign and flew south-east, towards the faint sound of an elderly woman calling out for help. Milton made it widely known to all the citizens of Abigail that if they ever needed assistance, they need only call out, “Help me, Justice Defender!” and in less than one minute, Milton would be by their side. He could fly over 1,000 mph, which means he could completely traverse the entire length of the county in less than one minute. He had promised Mayor Bynes that he would not break the sound barrier anymore, though, since it tended to startle some of the residents.
Milton glided down and landed softly onto the hardwood wrap around deck that Mr. Lancaster had built twenty summers ago, before he died of a heart attack last April. Mrs. Lancaster was there, knitting a sweater on her rocking chair.
“How can I help you, Mrs. Lancaster?”
“Yes, Milton,” she said, “Thank God you've come. I don't know where else to turn. I need you to help me with those pesky neighbors of mine.”
“What seems to be the trouble?”
“Take a look. They're having some crazy barn-burner over there.”
Milton looked at the neighbor's house across the street. He used his X-ray vision to peer through the walls. He saw three couples hanging out in the living room and adjoined kitchen. They were drinking beer and listening to the Red Hot Chili Peppers. By The Way, if Milton wasn't mistaken.
“They seem to be just hanging out with a few of their friends,” said Milton.
“Look at all those cars on the street. And you should see their recycling bin on Monday morning. It's practically toppling over with beer bottles. I swear, it's like Sodom and Gomorrah over there.”
“Mrs. Lancaster, don't you think that's a bit of an exaggeration?”
“My husband and I bought this house forty-five years ago because we thought this neighborhood was peaceful. You've got to talk to them, Milton. They won't listen to me. And the police won't do anything, either. Sherif Roberts laughed at me when I called him about it.”
Although Mrs. Lancaster could be difficult at times, Milton regarded her as a sweet lady who had been dealt a hard life. She was a widow with no children, few friends, and most of her family had either died or fallen out of contact with her years ago. Milton was the only person in her life who ever voluntarily spoke to her on a regular basis.
“That's just terrible, Mrs. Lancaster,” said Milton. “Let me see what I can do for you.”
Milton crossed the street and knocked on the neighbor's door. It was the Peterson residence. They were new to town, having moved less than three months prior, so Milton knew less about them than he did the rest of Abigail's citizens, whom he regarded as extensions of his own family.
The husband, Tyler, answered the door. He was a tall guy, about thirty-years-old, with long blond hair and a large square chin. He wore orange framed sunglasses and a white tank-top that showed off his bulky suntanned shoulders and biceps. Milton thought that to the outside observer, Tyler's physique made him look like more of a super hero than Milton ever could.
This was the first time Milton had met Tyler Peterson face-to-face, though he had been watching and listening to him from a distance since they moved to Abigail. From what Milton could piece together from overheard conversations between Tyler and his new co-workers in the past few months, he was a former software developer from Los Angeles, but he and his wife recently decided to start a family and they didn't want to raise a child in a huge Mega-City, so they packed up and moved to Abigail, Colorado. He took a job managing the town's sole internet provider, Speedtel, and she sold homemade jewelry on the Internet.
Milton also knew that Tyler had begun having an affair with the Speedtel receptionist, an attractive girl named Bailey Willis, who was in Milton's graduating high school class ten years ago. Armed with this relatively minimal amount of information, Milton proceeded with caution.
“Yes?” said Tyler.
“Mr. Peterson. We haven't met yet, but you may have heard of me.”
“Oh, yeah. You're the, uh, local super hero dude. Captain Justice or..?”
“Justice Defender. Yes. That's me.”
“That's great!” said Tyler, then hollered into the kitchen, “Laura, that super hero dude is here! Come on in. You want a drink? Laura, get Justice Defender a beer, will you?
“Thank you. I'd love to come in, but I'm afraid I shouldn't drink while I'm on duty.”
Laura approached Milton with a Corona. “I was wondering when we were going to meet you,” said Laura. “We see you all the time standing on that burger sign.”
“Thank you. Thank you very much, but I'm afraid that I'm actually here on official business.”
“What's up?” asked Tyler.
“Well, one of your neighbors has complained about your party.”
Tyler and Laura looked at each other. Their mood changed instantly. Tyler frowned and set his beer down hard on an end table, spilling a few drops. “You've got to be kidding me,” he said. “That chick just doesn't let up.”
“I don't want to name names,” said Milton.
“Oh, you don't have to,” said Laura. “We know exactly who it is. It's that old bat across the street.”
“What's her problem anyway? A few of our friends from LA are staying with us for a couple weeks. The music isn't even that loud.”
“No, I think she's more upset about the amount of cars on the street,” said Milton.
“Oh, my god,” said Laura. “She's insane.”
“Well, that's why I'm here, to help you all find a compromise to resolve this conflict.”
“I've got your compromise right here,” said Tyler. “You go tell that old bag to get a life of her own.”
“Or hurry up and die,” muttered Laura.
Tyler laughed and repeated his wife's sentiment in a louder, unashamed voice.
“Okay, Mr. and Mrs. Peterson, I know you don't want to wish death on anyone right now. Go ahead and take that back.”
“Take it back?” asked Laura. “No. I'm in my house. I can say whatever I want. That woman has done nothing but make our lives hell since we moved here. She's just a nasty old bitch. For all I care, she can just fuck off and die.”
“Amen!” said Tyler, picking up his beer and taking a long enthusiastic gulp.
“Obviously you guys have had a few. I know you don't really mean that.”
Tyler looked at Milton. “What's that supposed to mean?” he asked.
“I'm just saying, you seem like nice folks. I think if you weren't impaired right now, you probably wouldn't say something like that.”
Tyler nodded and turned his anger into a friendly grin. He took a step closer to Milton.
“You're right. I should drink less. I'm gonna get started on that right now.”
Tyler dumped the rest of his beer on Milton's head.
Laura and the other couples all exploded with laughter. Milton wiped the beer out of his eyes. It didn't sting a bit. Not physically, anyway. Milton's body was impervious to most pain, but his ego was a different story. He saw the two other men doubled over in the kitchen, practically falling to their knees from laughing so hard. The two women on the couch were laughing so much that their mascara started to run.
“How dare you come into my house and tell me how to act?” asked Tyler. “Who the hell do you think you are?”
“I'm just doing my job, sir.”
“Your job? I'm sorry, but are you getting paid for this? Do you write 'Super Hero and Parking Monitor' on your 1099?”
Milton shook his head.
“You're nothing but a loser who prances around in a cheap Halloween costume. You're nobody.”
Milton's super senses allowed him to watch Tyler's fight-or-flight response unfold in vivid detail. He saw through Tyler's abdomen, to the adrenal glands resting just above his kidneys, releasing torrents of epinephrine into his bloodstream as his digestive tract halted to provide more energy to his extremities. He watched the muscles in Tyler's arms tighten beneath his skin. Tyler's breathing increased, his heart accelerated, his pupils dilated, and his fists clenched. It certainly appeared that Tyler was leaning more towards “fight,” rather than “flight.”
Milton sighed. Some days, being a super hero was the most rewarding thing he could imagine doing with his life. Other days – most days, to be honest – it was dull, demeaning, and infuriating.
Milton wanted to fight Tyler. He wanted to show everyone in that house exactly what he was capable of doing, but this was not an option. He had made a promise, and Milton Shirley always kept his promises.
“I'm sorry to have offended you, Mr. Peterson,” said Milton. “I hope you can forgive me. I'll be going now.”
“Yeah. Fuck off, Captain Douche Bag,” said Laura.
Milton stepped out of the house and closed the front door gently. He heard the deadbolt lock as he crossed the street back over to Mrs. Lancaster's deck, who was still knitting on her rocking chair.
“What'd they say?”
“Well,” said Milton, “Basically, they said that it's their house and they're not breaking any laws by having company over. And I'm sorry, Mrs. Lancaster, but I have to admit, they have a point.”
“Why do you smell like beer? Were you drinking, Milton?”
“No. No, ma'am.”
“Then why do I smell beer on you?”
Milton reluctantly explained how Mr. Peterson didn't appreciate a comment he had made and dumped a bottle of beer on his head. Mrs. Lancaster huffed and began rocking back and forth, gaining momentum to stand up.
“No, Mrs. Lancaster. It's okay. It's just a little beer. It's not a big deal.”
“Baloney!” she said, grabbing her walker and standing with great effort. “After everything you've done for this town, they need to respect you. Help me down the stairs.”
Milton helped Mrs. Lancaster down the steps and across the street, trying to talk her out of going the whole way. She knocked on their door hard enough to crack her brittle knuckles. Laura answered and immediately began laughing when she saw who it was.
“Is she your grandma or something?” Laura asked, then called for her husband, “Babe, come see who it is.”
Tyler came to the door and joined his wife in laughing at Milton and Mrs. Lancaster.
“You've got to be kidding me, bro. Please, tell me you're kidding.”
“I think you owe Justice Defender an apology,” said Mrs. Lancaster.
Milton stayed quiet, partially because he was so humiliated, but also because he genuinely would have enjoyed hearing that apology.
“Well?” asked Mrs. Lancaster.
“Well, what?” asked Tyler. “He's lucky he got off that easy.”
“Oh, reeeaaally? You think so, huh? You think you can hurt Justice Defender? I would love to see you try.”
“Mrs. Lancaster, please, there's no need for this to get violent,” said Milton.
“I dare you to hit him as hard as you can,” said Mrs. Lancaster. “Right in the face. I dare you.”
“Okay, let's get you back home now,” said Milton.
“Yeah, go climb back into the cold grave you came from,” said Tyler.
Mrs. Lancaster tried to slap Tyler across his face, but she couldn't reach passed her walker. “Come here, you!” she shrieked, bearing at him a decade of neglected yellow and black teeth.
“Yo, get that crazy bitch off my property.” said Tyler.
“Okay, Mrs. Lancaster. Let's go now.”
“Milton is a good boy,” she said, “He's a good boy.”
“Milton? Ha! Of course his name's Milton. That's so perfect.”
Tyler slammed the door. Mrs. Lancaster leaned backwards, resting her back against Milton's chest. Her eyes glazed and she muttered “He's a good boy.” Then she shook her head and grumbled a soft, urgent plea, which Milton, even with his super hearing, couldn't decipher.
“What was that, Mrs. Lancaster?” Milton asked.
Her jaw hung open like a broken hinge. He saw her eyes drift to the back of her head like wayward wanderers. Again, a single word fell out of her mouth.
“Pills,” she said.
Mrs. Lancaster collapsed into Milton's arms. She was unconscious. Milton carried her over to the lawn, calling out to the Petersons,“Help! Hey! Help! Something's wrong, please!”
There was no response. Milton tried to wake her up, frantically asking, “Which pills? Where are they? Which ones?”
Again, no response. Milton laid Mrs. Lancaster down gently on the grass and then ran across the street, bursting straight through her front door, reducing it to splinters. He then ran through the house, looking for the pills. He found six prescriptions in the medicine cabinet, but had no idea which one she needed. He gathered them up, then ran back to the Peterson's house.
When Milton got back to Mrs. Lancaster, the door was open and Tyler Peterson was standing above her, looking confused and vaguely frightened.
“What happened?” he asked.
“Call an ambulance!” shouted Milton. “And bring me some water!”
Tyler disappeared back into the house and Milton got down on his hands and knees, cradling Mrs. Lancaster in his lap. “Wake up. Come on. Wake up, Mrs. Lancaster. Which pills do you need?”
Laura Peterson came outside with a glass of water and stood over them. “Why don't you just fly her to the hospital?” she asked.
“She's too frail,” said Milton. “Wake up, ma'am. Please wake up.”
Mrs. Lancaster opened her eyes and looked at Milton.
“Which pills do you need?” he asked.
She reached out for his right hand. He was holding three bottles between his fingers on each hand. He dropped all the pills in his left hand and pointed to the ones in his right. “Which one is it? This one? This one?”
She couldn't speak. She shook her head.
“None of these? Is it still in the house? I'll be right back.”
Milton started to get up, but Mrs. Lancaster held his hand as tight as she could.
“I'll be right back,” he repeated.
Mrs. Lancaster shook her head again. She pulled his hand up to cradle her chin. She closed her eyes and her lips curled into something like a smile.
“It's okay,” she said, “It's okay. Just hold me.”
Milton held Mrs. Lancaster as she slipped away. He looked through her home-knitted sweater, through her cotton brassier, her skin, and her ribcage. He watched as her muscles relaxed and her heart slowed. He heard her breathing become even more labored and shallow.
Tyler came back outside. “The ambulance is on its way,” he said.
“I know,” said Milton. “I can hear them. They aren't going to make it.”
It was a hot, cloudless day in early June. Milton leaned over Mrs. Lancaster to shade her from the harsh sun. He whispered to her that he was sorry. Tomorrow, when news spread around Abigail that old Mrs. Lancaster had passed away, everyone would do what they were supposed to do. They would say how sad it was, but then conclude that she was seventy-six years old, after all, and this was to be expected. As much as Milton loved the people of Abigail, and all people for that matter, he knew that they had the luxury of not knowing what he knew, of not seeing what he saw.
Milton watched Mrs. Lancaster's body shut down, piece by piece. He felt her skin cool. He watched her heart stop. A few seconds later, he smelled her bowels release. Then, a few minutes after that, just as the ambulance turned onto their street, Milton saw the last glimmer of electricity flicker across in her brain, then go completely dark.
She was gone.
The population of Abigail, Colorado was reduced to 738.
After the paramedics loaded Mrs. Lancaster's body into the ambulance, they drove away, wailing their siren and barreling towards the hospital, as if something could still be done. Milton wiped the tears away from his eyes. He didn't bother to look back at the Petersons. He assumed that they must have felt the appropriate amount of guilt and shame for wishing death on the woman only a few short moments before it actually happened on their very lawn.
Milton was wrong in this assumption.
“Well, at least that's over,” Laura whispered to her husband, under her breath.
“Yeah,” agreed Tyler.
They said it faintly, barely audible for normal people, even at close range. Milton was used to hearing people saying things – often horrible things – when they thought no one was listening. Milton felt guilty for invading so many people's privacy, albeit unintentionally. He also felt that it was wrong for him to judge them. In most circumstances, Milton tried to understand the horrible things people said and did to one another and made it a rule to never interfere in any way with their personal lives.
This rule, however, Milton did occasionally break in moments of great stress.
Milton turned around and marched back towards the couple. He stood just a few feet away from where Mrs. Lancaster had died.
“There's something you two should know,” Milton said, then turned to Laura. “Tyler has been having sex with a girl at his work named Bailey Willis.”
“What?!” said Laura.
“It's true. Also, she's gorgeous and they've done everything,” Milton Added.
“This guy's crazy!” said Tyler, turning to his wife and throwing his hands up.
“And you should know,” Milton continued, addressing Tyler. “Bailey Willis has genital herpes. She got them Junior year of high school from a guy named Kevin Driscoll.”
“Oh, God, Tyler. Please tell me this isn't true.”
“Whoa, you can't listen to him. He couldn't even possibly know all that even if it were true, which it's totally not.”
“I saw the whole thing happen,” said Milton, then began walking away. He got to the end of their driveway, then turned back around.
“Besides,” he added, “Abigail is a small town. Everybody knows about Bailey Willis.”
Milton flew into the sky.