"Well, I'm currently trapped in one of Dr. Nefario's death traps..."
"Really? Are you safe?"
"Well, you know, Doc, safe is a relative thing in my profession, but I have you on the headset, and I'm picking the lock on these handcuffs as we're talking. I think I'll be fine, the piranhas are still 5 or 6 feet below me."
"All right, but isn't our conversation going to distract you?" I asked. "I know you're upset, but wouldn't you rather call back at another time?"
"I'd really like to talk about it, Doc. I always find talking to you clears my mind and makes me more effective. I may need to go if the henchmen come back, though."
"All right, as long as you're sure you're acting appropriately in your current environment. I trust you to make that decision. So how did this trigger your feelings of resentment?"
"Well, the thing is, it's kind of funny, but this is the exact same death trap Dr. Nefario had us in -- Bruce and me, I mean -- God, it must have been eighteen years ago. I was really just a kid. I was scared, frankly, and I suggested that when we got out, we should make a run for it, you know, go back to base and regroup. And he just laughed at me, you know, 'don't worry, little fella, we'll be out of this in a jiffy!' And I clammed right up. I had to run along after him and fight off the lesser henchmen while he captured Dr. Nefario, and I'd just had enough, you know? I was scared and I wanted to go home and curl up with a good book. It was a school night, too, that was also typical. Other guys were going to parties and on dates and I was slugging it out with men in rubber suits."
"And you didn't feel you had any choice in the matter."
"Not really. I mean, it's not like he would have forced me to stay, but it was so important to me to have his approval, and he was so stingy with it."
There was a clanging sound.
"What was that?" I asked. "Do you have to go?"
"No, that was just me crawling into the ventilation system, I got the handcuffs off."
"I'm relieved. Go on."
"That was the only time I felt I got any approval, you know, if I took out several henchmen on my own, then occasionally, and I mean occasionally, I'd hear 'Good hit.' Or that post-combat glow, you know, with groaning, injured criminals lying around us, sometimes then he'd put a hand on my shoulder and grin at me. The rest of time he was so demanding and repressed."
"I'm glad you're telling me these feelings."
I could hear Hannah in the other room, getting ready for bed. She'd be taking off her stockings now. Thirty years of marriage, and I still wanted to be in there watching her take off her stockings.
"Dick, I find it striking that you're in such a similar situation today as you were then. Did you go out tonight to win Bruce's approval as well?"
"I don't know. No, I don't think so. I do feel like I have to stop Dr. Nefario. I know we've talked about this and maybe my sense of personal obligation is exaggerated, but..." he sighed. "Also, I enjoy my work. So much of law enforcement is bureaucratic drudgery, I feel really privileged to occupy the niche I do."
"When you used to go out crimefighting -- is that the right word, crimefighting?"
"Did anyone else ever come along with you and Bruce?"
"Sometimes. He had some friends, you know, other celebrities. You'd recognize the names."
"What about other helpers? Did anyone ever apply for your job, as it were?"
"Sure, we got tons of letters, some even from gymnasts and prizefighters and so on, but he always laughed them off."
"Dick, I think you know how much I appreciate the difficult aspects of your young adulthood, and the ways it was exceptional, and I want to emphasize that the feelings of resentment you have about it are perfectly appropriate and understandable. At the same time, I want to offer you a different perspective."
"You spoke about how Bruce was stingy with approval. Now, he's a very unusual character, very suited to the job he has, possibly less suited to other jobs -- like being an adoptive father. You might want to consider that he had other ways of communicating approval -- maybe ways that weren't effective at the time, but if you go back and look at them, approval was there."
"Well, considering how picky he was with who he took along, didn't those very invitations to come crimefighting on a school night express a lot of approval?"
There was a long silence. I wondered if I'd pushed too far. "Dick?" I asked.
"Sorry, Doc, I just had to reprogram this access lock. I'm at Dr. Nefario's command center, so I'll have to go in a few seconds."
"I guess you're right, Doc. I mean, I know Bruce picked me to train, he took me in, he must have been proud of me. But I don't feel it. It's like he was... proud of himself for picking such a great ward. But he didn't..." He sniffed and then stopped. I couldn't even hear him breathing.
"He didn't what?"
"I wonder if Dr. Nefario's goons have glue guns?" he said hoarsely. "I didn't pack any anti-glue tonight."
"Dick, what were you just going to say? He didn't what?"
"I could make some anti-glue out of a gas mask filter and some super solvent..."
"But I only brought one gas mask."
"Dick, what were you going to say?"
"You said, Bruce was proud of himself for picking such a great ward, but he didn't... what?"
"Yes. Please go on."
"That was stupid anyway."
I squeezed my eyes shut and massaged the bridge of my nose with my thumb and forefinger. "Dick, didn't you say you were going to have to go in a few seconds?"
"Yeah. I guess." He sounded like a sullen teenager.
"So do we need to wrap this up?"
I could sense him shrugging. "Whatever. I don't even feel like going in there."
"But Dick... aren't they going to find you?"
"No, they're all busy with the Shrink Ray."
"The Shrink Ray?"
"Yeah, Dr. Nefario is going to shrink the city, put it in a bottle, and auction it off online."
I felt myself squeezing the cell phone tighter. "Well... don't you need to stop him?"
"You were the one who said my personal sense of responsibility is exaggerated. Someone will handle it. There's no shortage of us."
I took a deep breath. Somehow, I was not being effective in this situation. I was finding Dick childish. I wasn't giving him the empathy he needed and deserved. I took another deep breath.
"You okay, Doc? You're breathing heavily."
"Dick, I don't think what you were going to say was stupid. I think it's very important. That's what makes it so hard to say. As long as you can't say what you feel about Bruce, it owns you. Once you say it, you begin to own it."
"He didn't love me," Dick said, and burst out crying.
The door to the bedroom opened and Hannah said, "This is your last chance, Gabe Goodman. I'm turning out the light."
I stabbed the mute button with my thumb. "Hannah, please! I've told you never to interrupt me when I'm on the phone with a client!"
"Oh of course, I forgot, the clients always come first."
"This particular client is in a life-or-death situation!"
Hannah looked tired. "When are they not, Gabe? When are they not?" She went into the bedroom and shut the door softly.
"Doc," Dick said hoarsely, "it sounds like you've got to go."
I looked down at the phone display. It appeared I'd missed the mute button. I lowered my forehead into the palm of my hand. Now I felt like crying. "Never mind, Dick. Please go on."
"No, Doc, you listen to me. That was your wife, right?"
"Yes, that was my wife."
"Well it doesn't sound like she's so happy about your clients calling you in the middle of the night."
"Dick, please, that's between me and Mrs. Goodman. Let's move on."
"No, let's not move on! Why should you let me break up your marriage, Doc? The work always comes first, is that it?"
"Dick -- "
"You're just like Bruce!"
"Did the work always come first with Bruce?"
"It sure as hell did! It came before everything! It came first and last, and I just couldn't take that anymore, and that's why I left, Doc! That's why! I wanted a more balanced life!"
To my astonishment, we were getting somewhere. "Do you feel guilty about leaving Bruce?"
He paused. "Yeah." He sounded surprised. "Yeah, I guess I do."
"Let's talk about that."
"No, Doc, let's not talk about that, because in a minute you and your cell phone are going to be really small and then your voice will be really high-pitched and tinny and it'll be hard to take you seriously as a therapist."
I cleared my throat. "All right."
"Doc, do you love your wife?"
I was surprised to find tears in my eyes. "I do, Dick, I really do."
"Then you go do something about that, and I'll handle Dr. Nefario. See you on Friday."
"Goodbye, Dick. Be careful."
I stayed on the line for a minute, listening to the Bang! and Kapow! sounds, and then I hung up and went into the bedroom. Hannah was reading.
"I'm a stubborn bastard, Hannah," I said.
"Yes, you are." She put her book down. "I'm sorry I interrupted your call. I just don't know how to get through to you anymore."
I sat at the edge of the bed. "Hannah, I love you."
She blinked. Her face softened, but she shook her head. "I love you too, Gabe. But we've got problems."
I took her hands in mine. "What do you say we go away next weekend? Just the two of us. I'll leave my cell phone here, and tell my clients that."
She shrugged. "It's a start."
We were still normal-sized. Our voices weren't high-pitched and tinny. I leaned down and kissed her on the forehead. She smirked at me.
"There are people with bigger problems," I said. My intention was to reassure her, or perhaps myself.
She yanked her hands out from mine. "I'm sure there are! But that doesn't change the size of ours! Jesus, Gabe, there you go again!"
I started to cry. Despite my recognition of its therapeutic value, I don't in fact cry myself all that often. I put my face in my hands. Hannah pulled me into her embrace. "Oh, come on," she said.
"I don't want to lose you," I sobbed. "I'm a lousy husband."
"Yes, sometimes," she said. "But you're a great therapist."
"No, I'm a lousy therapist too! That was a fiasco. I almost got us all shrunk."
"Cut it out!" Hannah said. "What are you talking about? Look at all the issues these people have -- the body image issues, the megalomania, the post-traumatic stress -- the childhoods they had, for God's sake! These are hard clients, Gabe. They're all teetering on the border of nuts to begin with, and then they get mind-swapped or kidnapped by robots every month. Half of them can't have sex without worrying about burning or crushing someone to death. They're lonely and scared and everyone expects them to act confident all the time. You hold them together, Gabe, and that means you hold this city together. Listen to me. I'm proud of you. You're my hero."
I cried harder. I cried for a while. Hannah's body was soft and warm against mine. Finally I stopped and Hannah wiped my cheeks and nose with a Kleenex.
"You want my theory?" she asked. Her eyes twinkled. "I think you spend so much time with your clients because their lives are so full of action."
"Maybe," I sniffled.
"So I think you need some more action yourself. Get in bed, Gabe Goodman. And leave the light on."
I was happy to comply.
lives with his wife and small daughter in Basel, Switzerland, where he
writes software and science fiction, poems and essays. He is a graduate of
the 2001 Clarion West Writers Workshop. Look for his work at
Strange Horizons and
Vestal Review, and in The
Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and Asimov's Science Fiction.