Doctor Mighty noticed the malaise right around the time he captured Auntie Arctic in her lair in the back room freezer at a local Giant Eagle. Actually it was the fifth straight time he'd captured her in a Giant Eagle. Every time she escaped from the Institute, her first stop was the freezer of a grocery store -- never a Kroger, never a Big Bear, always a Giant Eagle. First it was the one in Plymouth. Then it was the one on Grant downtown. Then in Crestview.
This time, Mighty hadn't even bothered to decipher the clues that she was leaving at each of the tanning salons she destroyed with her freeze ray. He just went to the newest Giant Eagle, in Roosevelt, and confronted her and her two henchmen, Fahrenheit and Celsius. Rankine and Kelvin had died several months earlier in a freon accident.
"Doctor Mighty! You've cunningly tracked me to my lair!" Ms. Arctic cackled. "Get him, boys!" A fine sheen of ice crystals covered her skin, and he could see the blue veins in her neck as she screamed. She was a young aunt, trim in her tight blue leotard and matching cape. Her dark hair framed her sharp, pale face. If she had been a woman he'd met at a party or in the produce section during his off-hours, he might have been tempted to ask her out or at least talk to her. Alas, he mused, she wanted her henchmen to kill him, and that wasn't a good basis for any relationship.
F and C didn't have superpowers, so Doctor Mighty had to carefully adjust the strength of his punches as he laid them low. They bounced across the non-skid surface of the freezer and thwacked into a pile of frozen lima beans and corn: succotash with a side of henchman. Ms. Arctic he dispatched with his hair dryer. He'd figured that out a few months earlier, when Ms. Arctic had nearly speared him with a giant icicle, and only in desperation did his hand fall upon the bathroom appliance. If he'd latched onto his electric shaver, he'd have been dead.
"No!" screamed Ms. Arctic, as she shriveled up and fell to the ground. "You've foiled my plans to freeze all of Ohio . . . again!" Sweat burst out on her forehead, and she struggled to breathe.
Mighty didn't even bother to retort with witty banter. What did it matter when they would go through the whole maneuver again in six months? Hot enough for you? Evil fades before the warmth of justice, villain! My hair dryer of law will feather your bangs of evil! It was good form, he knew, but it all seemed so lame.
He dragged her to the Mightymobile and drove her to the Institute for the Criminally Insane.
"Thanks, Doctor Mighty!" cried Doctor Gestalt.
"Do you think you can keep an eye on her this time?" Mighty asked.
"Uh, sorry. We'll try. She's slippery. Like, um, ice." Even the layperson wanted to get in on the witty banter. Mighty could have reported him to the Guild, but he chose to ignore the illegal witticism.
"This is five times so far this year. Can't you use a . . . a . . . heat lamp or something in her cell?"
"That would be painful for her."
Doctor Mighty threw up his hands and drove back to his lair, the abandoned hospital in Mechlinberg. There he crashed on an old gurney instead of programming the crime computer. The computer watched for anomalies in the price of butter, disappearances of key scientists, their daughters, or their current top-secret projects, and fluctuations in the listing prices of local supervillain lairs. The correlated information shone a spotlight on the doings of the criminally insane. Villains were so . . . so predictable.
Doctor Mighty folded his fingers behind his head and shut his tired eyes. He should have been up and at his heroic duties. There were newspapers to be scanned and parole hearings to attend, and he needed to pick up a gift; the Violet Penumbra was taking a pension after forty years on the job. So much to do, yet he just didn't feel like doing anything.
Sometimes Curt wished he'd opted for a surgical mask to hide his face. But when his powers had manifested during his first year of medical school, he'd felt no need for an alter ego. He'd just started fighting crime in some scrubs he'd picked up at a used clothing store. A mask had seemed such a bother. It constrained his field of vision, messed up his hair, and made it hard to brag at the singles bar about his deeds.
Of course, once he started getting good at superheroing, he'd seen the benefit of being able to walk down the street and not be mobbed by autograph seekers and old ladies who wanted to describe their pancreas for him.
"I'm not a real doctor," he'd try to explain, but they'd always brush that aside. He wished he could help them. He wished he did know what to do about that goiter.
"I dropped out of medical school," he said. "I don't have a degree." But still they described the pain in their arm when they moved it just so.
"Then stop moving it like that," he said, and they laughed.
What always worked, though, was "Hark! I think I hear someone in peril!" And then he would sprint down the street until he was out of sight. No one knew he didn't have superhuman hearing. In the parlance of the Guild, his was a uni-power. Unlike the Dread Snark who could jump fifty feet from a standing position and turn invisible, Doctor Mighty only had superstrength. Multi-powers got much better endorsement deals and better matchups with villains.
Curt wasn't interested in endorsements or cage-matches with the Angry Motorist or the Sharper Shooter. In fact, he wasn't sure what he was interested in at all. It became such a bother going out that he started staying in all the time.
There were other superheroes on duty, heroes with multi-powers, heroes who enjoyed signing autographs and cutting ribbons. Let them handle the Split Infinitive and Dirty Dunkirk and Nuclear Winter. Then Curt could sleep in for once. Let Doctor Mighty take a break. He wasn't on call anymore.
"Don't you see?" said the Intern. "It's the Skinner Boxer's plan to get you to give up superheroing!"
"I don't think he has anything to do with it," Doctor Mighty said. Steve, dressed in burgundy scrubs, complete with booties over his shoes, had brought him a six-pack of KryptoLite and pizza. He'd had to shove a six-inch layer of debris off the operating table to find someplace to put the pizza.
"Sure you don't. It's all part of his mind game. Well, I'm here as your trusty sidekick to help you snap out of it, man! He shot you with his doldrum ray, Mighty."
"Steve, you're not my sidekick. I thought you had something going with Alligator Joe? You were Crocodile Kid, or something." Curt had gone through a few sidekicks early on; there'd been the Human Ambulance, who was as big as an ambulance, but had trouble keeping up; he would arrive, heaving, at the scene after the villain had been subdued. Once they'd had to call an ambulance for him. Then he'd tried out X-Ray Boy, but his vision only seemed to work through woman's clothing. The Defibrillator couldn't work near water or in the rain. Steve the Intern had no superpower at all; he was a pure sidekick, which meant Curt spent a lot of time freeing him from traps, pushing him out of the way of death rays, and explaining the villains' plots slowly and in small words.
Steve the Intern looked stricken. "Did you know he uses real alligators to fight crime? You at least don't throw dirty syringes or iron lungs at people. I thought we could team up again, you know."
"Listen, Steve. I really don't feel like fighting crime today. It's not a plot of Boxer or Sigma Freud. I'm just . . . tired."
Steve the Intern seemed ready to argue, then he said, "Yeah, yeah, I understand. I feel that way sometimes too." He pulled his cape back on, and adjusted the drape of it in the glass window of the abandoned operating theatre. "Have you talked to someone about it? You know, maybe someone at the Institute could help you . . . whatever."
"I don't need anyone at the Institute to help me out, Steve."
"Well, you get some vitamin C, and you'll feel better. And stop by the Guild some night, okay? Have a few beers and some laughs with the heroes."
"Maybe," Curt said, but he didn't really want to face any other superheroes.
Doctor Mighty rolled over, grabbed one of the KryptoLites, and popped it open in a spray of foam. Vitamin C was not called for in this case. He needed some vitamin beer.
Doctor Mighty took to wandering the halls of the abandoned hospital, putting on dark phantom airs and pulling rebar steel from the concrete walls and bending it into pretzels. He sent back the supervillain challenges he received through the Guild. He didn't bother programming the crime computer, but loaded an illegal copy of Tetris on it instead.
Curt found he could bend five bars at a time. Six was impossible, but five he could do every time. Loop, loop, twist, and he had a twenty pound pretzel.
Superstrength really was his only power, and he began to wonder if he could enhance it if he worked out. Maybe he could better himself as a superhero. It wasn't that he wanted to be a multi-power. He just wanted a change.
He started bending bars in the morning, five sets of eight pretzels, another three sets after lunch, and then five sets before dinner. He bench-pressed the X-ray machine. He drank a protein drink after every workout. It was good to have a routine. Doctor Mighty considered going after some more villains.
Then he realized that after a month he could still only bend five bars. His power was static, as is, unalterable. He was Doctor Mighty and no more.
He stopped working out, and just read comic books, played Tetris, and ordered pizza for every meal.
Doctor Mighty would have remained forever in the abandoned hospital if Auntie Arctic hadn't escaped from the Institute and managed to freeze his favorite pizza place. No one else would deliver to his lair.
He found her at the new Giant Eagle in Dublin, sitting in the refrigeration unit in the back room on a pallet of frozen strawberries, tossing bags of French-cut green beans into a box with amazing precision.
"Oh, hi," she said. "I was waiting for you to show up."
Doctor Mighty checked the ceiling and glanced behind a stack of chicken breasts, but the frozen food locker was empty except for the two of them. Auntie Arctic kicked the strawberries with the back of her booted heel in an arrhythmic pattern.
"Where are your henchmen?"
"I traded Celsius to the Copyright Infringer for a death ray. Fahrenheit retired, said the business wasn't for him anymore. Moved to Arizona for the weather."
"Yeah, hot, but no humidity."
Doctor Mighty stowed the hair dryer in his belt and sat on a pallet next to Ms. Arctic. She was looking sad, the icicles on her elbows dripping a bit, the frost on her cheeks a little bluer than usual.
"You seem down," he said.
"You don't seem yourself either," she said.
"No, I. . . ."
"Yeah, I know."
Curt found himself tapping his foot in time with Auntie Arctic's. He stopped his foot, worked up his courage, and said, "Hey, do you want to get some dinner before I take you back to the Institute for the Criminally Insane?"
She raised her eyebrows at him, then she smiled with blue lips, made bluer with cyan lip gloss.
"Yeah, sure. Can we get ice cream after?"
They got takeout and ate it in the Mightymobile, with the air conditioning cranked up on her side and the heat on on his.
"So, yeah, I did the whole career quiz thing, and my empathy was zero and my megalomania was like 100, so I went with supervillain," Auntie said around a mouthful of pad thai. "It was either that or homemaker. What about you?"
"I was in medical school . . . when the whole mess happened."
"Thus the name."
"Yeah. But it was just my first year, so I'm not really a doctor."
"Really. I always thought you were like an ER doctor when you weren't superheroing."
"No, I dropped out," Doctor Mighty said.
"Yeah? Radioactive scorpion? Blast of gamma rays? Glowing meteorite from another planet? Artifact of the Old Ones?"
"Well. . . ."
"Come on, give. I told you all about how Empress Evil's perfect heat sink from her freeze ray got lodged in my sternum."
"Yeah, well. It's not a very . . . flattering story."
"Like getting speared between the tits with a superconductive brick is. I thought we were sharing here. Just take me back to the Institute now, if that's the way you're gonna be."
"No. Sorry," he said. "I was drunk, okay. I don't even know how it happened."
"A bunch of us were out late the day after finals. We were drinking, then came back to the radiology lab. The last thing I remember is my buddy daring me to swallow the strontium-90 sample. Then I woke up strapped to the X-ray machine with it pointed at my . . . er . . . gonads."
"It was on?"
"They said they hadn't turned it on. It was a joke. But it had been on all night. As near as the scientists at the Superhero Origins Facility can figure, the Rolling Rock and the strontium were irradiated by the X rays and started emitting S rays that enhanced the fast-twitch muscle fibers in my body. I got superstrength."
"You do have nice biceps," she said, giving his arm a squeeze. "So. How are the . . . uh . . . the little Mighties."
"They're fine, actually. As far as I can tell."
"Well, that's good. So you dropped out of medical school to be a superhero."
"Yeah, everyone was real happy that it had happened to me."
"You know, the school. They played down the beer part, and made it seem like they had a world-class superhero generation program or something." He poked a dumpling with his plastic fork. "We never could figure out the exact sequence of events that created the superstrength. We went through a lot of mice and monkeys trying."
She laughed, a maniacal, overzealous cackle that he found endearing. He actually felt better for telling this supervillain his woes. Perhaps it was because she wasn't a mundane, who always thought it was the coolest thing to have a super talent, and she wasn't a fellow superhero, who always seemed so on top of their emotions. If anyone could understand him, it was a supervillain. Supervillains had flaws; they appreciated imperfections and could sympathize.
"So," Auntie said. "Maybe you could turn me in tomorrow."
Doctor Mighty caught her eye, and his cheeks turned mighty red when he realized what she meant.
"I, uh, sure."
They made love gently in a series of bizarre positions that limited the amount of time he was near her heat sink and kept all her parts away from his clenching fists when he orgasmed.
The next morning he dropped her off at the Institute. As the guards shackled her into a sauna jacket, they awkwardly stood together.
"Um," he said.
"Yeah," she said.
"I hope you get better."
"You know, maybe we could . . . team up if you switched sides," he said. "Or something."
As they were dragging her away, she turned and said, "You know, Mighty. You ever think you weren't really cracked up to be a superhero?"
"I know it sounds like a supervillain mind game," she said. "But maybe you need another career."
"Thanks for the fuck!"
"Thanks for not calling me frigid!" They dragged her around a corner.
Doctor Killdozer looked him up and down. "Perhaps you should join our superhero support group. Fraternizing is not a life-affirming action."
Doctor Mighty started attending Guild meetings again. He was glad he'd spent time talking with Auntie Arctic. He was even glad they'd spent the night together, though he hoped it wouldn't get out. There were bylaws that covered that. But talking with her had made him realize he spent too much time in the abandoned hospital. He made an effort to get out.
Guild meetings were weekly affairs at the Hall of Beer and Pretzels, more social than political. Sometimes they had seminars on the latest villain trickery or discussed some new tactics on making sure bystanders survived superbattles. Their Guild post had the smallest bystander death rate of any in the Midwest, just 713 so far that year. At the meetings, usually the heroes broke up into groups along age lines, and bragged about their latest battles. For the geriatric superheroes, meeting night was a chance to get out of the old folks' lair and talk about battles of yore.
"Once that Knee-High Nazi had me tied between four circus elephants, one on each arm and leg--" the Bomber was saying as Curt walked in.
"That's nothing. Evil Foo Ling Duck once hypnotized my sidekick to try to kill me with a poodle while I slept!"
Doctor Mighty walked past the geriatrics and tried to find Steve the Intern, but he didn't see his former sidekick anywhere. To hide his awkwardness, he ordered a Mxyzptlk at the bar.
He couldn't help but feel that the other heroes were looking askance at him, but he never caught anyone whispering, or laughing, or even looking, except for the Human Frog who looked everywhere all the time anyway.
He hoped it wasn't because he'd slept with Auntie Arctic. He knew that was against the bylaws, but he didn't think anyone had found out. Would she blab? he wondered. Was she one to screw and tell? What would a supervillain do? He'd always thought they were predictable, but now that he had a relationship with one. . . . Was it a relationship? No, it couldn't be.
Gaseous Jorge had married his sidekick Flatulent Flo and the Guild had snubbed them; the two had had to relocate. What would the Guild do if they knew about what he'd done? Jorge and Flo had been on the same side.
It was enough to make him reconsider visiting Ms. Arctic at the Institute. He decided he'd better cancel the flower order too.
"Back in the saddle, huh?" asked the Yippee Ki Yay Kid, from the stool two down from his. He twirled his lasso, whipped it around, and caught his beer.
"What do you mean?" Doctor Mighty said, searching for sexual innuendo in the greeting. He scrutinized the Kid's face under his wide-brimmed cowboy hat.
"You know. Back to fighting the bad guys instead of moping in your old mental asylum."
"It's an abandoned hospital, and I wasn't moping."
"So then you're up for a wrangle with some of the Squid's Tentaclemen who are roosted over at the docks?"
Doctor Mighty hated fighting the Tentaclemen. He always ended up with hickeys all over his arms and legs. But he would look like more of a moper if he said no.
"Yeah, I'll wrangle."
They found a clutch of Tentaclemen unloading smuggled boxes of counterfeit comic books on a wharf next to a rusted freighter of Albanian origin. The fake books were easily spotted by turning to page twelve where the Gallant Ghost was shown with his utility rope on his left hip instead of his right.
"Your exploitation of young comic readers across the city is over, Tentacleboys!" Mister Suds shouted, shaking the soapy canister on his back and pumping it up with the plunger at his hip. A spray of sudsy water splattered the Tentaclemen, and one landed on his back with a thud.
"Ow! You didn't have to shoot!" the downed Tentacleman shouted. "It's not like we have workers' comp!"
Captain Corporeal, not to be outdone on slogans, warped through a solid freight container and substantiated his fist just as it met the jaw of another henchman. "Copyright is sacred to a five-year-old, leech!"
Yippee lassoed two more with his rope and dragged them down the wharf. Curt, watching from the back, flinched when he heard a leg break. He shouldn't have come, he thought. He didn't like gang battles against henchmen. He poked his fingers in his ears as he saw the Screech advancing for his turn.
"Aaaaaaiiiiiieeeeeee!" the Screech yelled, and the henchmen who weren't roped, unconscious, or lying with thrown-out backs, clutched at their ears as their eardrums popped.
The four other heroes turned and looked at him. Curt shrugged and said, "I think you guys have it under control."
"Thanks," said the Tentacleman on his back. "We appreciate that."
"Hahahaha!" The Squid's laugh echoed along the wharf, and a heavy wire mesh fell from a loading crane.
"It's a trap!" cried the four superheroes. Doctor Mighty, because he had hung back, was the only one to escape as the net fell upon henchman and hero alike.
Blue fire raced across the wire mesh of the net; it was electrified. Curt backed away in shock as the heroes and henchmen jerked and twitched. The Screech's cry drowned out the screams of the others.
He ran from the smell of burning flesh, dodging down the narrow passages between the shipping containers. He rounded a corner, and there were two henchmen guarding a flashing device; colored wires protruded along its length, solid carbon dioxide sublimed into cold fog, and a giant digital clock, mounted at its base, counted down to zero. All the signs said doomsday device.
Doctor Mighty landed two punches, breaking the jaws of the henchmen and regretting it. He studied the doomsday device for a moment, then yanked out the most crucial and removable component. As expected, the clock paused, at two minutes and twenty-five seconds, which was rather high by Guild standards; he should have let it run down a little more.
Doctor Mighty glanced around the shipping container, and there was the Squid, tentacles waving in the sky, gracefully sailing to the ground on the crane's lowering hook. He was too far away to hear, but Curt was certain he was lecturing the downed heroes on his current scheme to take over the world.
Curt took the doomsday device part under his arm and ran down the aisle of shipping containers, trying to double around so that he could free the other heroes. As he neared the Squid, he heard snatches of his speech.
". . . totalitarian regime . . ."
". . . meritocratic syndicate . . ."
". . . Marx and Engel . . ."
At least the Screech had stopped screeching, though the Squid's lecture was almost worse.
"Bring in the doomsday device!" he cried, then paused, waiting. "Loyal henchmen, bring in the doomsday device!"
Mighty listened to his heavy tread as he walked down the wharf.
"Curse you, Doctor Mighty! What have you done to my doomsday device?"
Curt felt the retort bubbling up inside of him, but he clamped it down.
"Give it up, Doctor Mutty!" the Squid yelled. "My Tentacles are homing in on you even as we speak."
Doctor Mighty peered around the box he was hiding behind. No one. He had a clear line to the netted heroes, unconscious now.
"Here he is!"
A Tentacleman had snuck up on him from behind.
He kicked the sucker in the chest, cracking several ribs.
He dodged down a narrow passage toward the heroes and emerged in a cluster of henchmen. He was trapped!
"Not a step closer, or I crush the doomsday device!" he cried.
"No!" cried the Squid. "I worked years on that doomsday device. Where will I get another thousand myopic bumble bees?" His waving tentacles slurped at the air.
"Yes! Let the heroes go! Or I crush the device."
"I'm crushing it."
"Can't we come to some agreeable arrangement?"
"You and me, masters of the world. What do you say? We'll split it fifty-fifty. A partnership."
Mighty looked over at his unconscious brethren. He didn't really like them that much. And, really, were good and evil diametrically opposed? If you squashed the axis of morality to a micron, superheroes and supervillains ended up pretty close together.
"I don't know why I even ask, but still I ask. It's in the villain bylaws -- Hey, what did you say?"
"Okay. Fifty-fifty," said Doctor Mighty. "But we have to let these heroes go."
"Let me see your fingers."
Doctor Mighty put the doomsday device down and wiggled his fingers.
"Really?" asked the Squid. "You want to be my . . . partner?"
"Sure." He wasn't sure why he'd said yes, but he knew he was tired of being a hero. And the Squid was revolutionary if nothing else, and revolution was something the world needed.
The Squid wrapped a rubbery arm around Doctor Mighty's shoulder. "Excellent!" he said. "I've never had a partner before. I'm rather speechless."
"I don't want death and destruction," Doctor Mighty said. "I want social reform."
"Eggs and an omelette, don't you know. But I agree, I agree. We must discuss the works of Marx and Engel. I have some very interesting ideas I want to bounce off you, Doctor Mighty." The Squid paused. "That won't do. You'll need a new nom de guerre, of course. And new clothes." He tugged at the shoulders of Curt's hospital scrubs. "Practical, but not fashionable. As for a name, how about the Proctologist?"
"No. Too evil."
"The Fearsome Forceps?"
"Ah! The Sinister Surgeon!"
They took over all of Ohio and part of Indiana in a bloodless Socialist coup involving a grass roots campaign and mind control devices. Curt had talked the Squid out of using the cobalt bomb. The Squid handled the chortling and the brain wave devolver. The Sinister Surgeon made sure people didn't get hurt and kept the superheroes at bay. It was relatively easy if you knew how a hero thought; feed the crime computers bogus info, distract them with kidnapped governors, and suddenly you were living in the Socialist Buckeye Republic.
For a while, Sinister found the whole supervillain business fulfilling. Laws were easy to enact when the entire executive branch consisted of him and a cackling cephalopod. He was changing society. Forcefully and without democracy, true, but ultimately it was change; and change, he thought, for the better. And he was helping the farmers and small townsfolk, while royally annoying the big businesses.
Hardly anyone got killed.
It was a good three months; at first, he was so busy with one-, three-, and five-year plans that he didn't notice the depression. But then he started skipping the goose-stepping parades and the book-burnings. The plan to take over Michigan by provoking the extreme-right militias didn't seem as fun as it had a month before. The cloning vats held no charm. The three-hundred-foot marble statues of him and the Squid overlooking the Squidopolis capitol didn't gleam like they once had.
Something still wasn't right with him.
He wished he had someone to confide in, someone who understood the frustration of being a supervillain. He certainly couldn't confide in the Squid, who was alert for any sign of weakness. The common throng had no conception of his problems; all of them thought being a dictator was the end-all.
The Sinister Surgeon had just spent several hours micromanaging the winter food shipments through the Ohio Valley when he remembered other frozen foods.
He found Auntie Arctic in the gulag on Kelly's Island where they'd sent all the insane people. She was sitting by the window of the women's hut watching the birds skimming across the waves. A line of drool rolled off her lip. She was dressed in shorts and a T-shirt even though it was a crisp March day.
He pulled down his mask.
She looked at Sinister for a few moments, then blinked and smiled.
"Hi, Auntie." The cold seemed to roll off her in waves. "How are you?"
She didn't answer, and though he sat with her for half an hour, she didn't say anything more.
Back in the capital, Squidopolis, he signed an edict closing the gulags. Then he drugged the Squid's ink juice and shipped his body in a giant lobster cage to the Guild district office in Pittsburgh. He dropped his mask and surgical smock in a trash can and took a long vacation out west while their dictatorship was slowly toppled and Ohio reaffirmed its place in the Union.
"I thought it was you," the woman said. "So this is your secret identity."
Curt looked at the pregnant woman in the wheelchair. Her hair was black and straight instead of the blue-black ringlets he remembered. She had put on a few more pounds and her face was rosy.
"Gwen Ki Yay," she said with a smile. "Sorry, I didn't mean to blow your cover."
He rolled her into an examination room and took her blood pressure himself instead of letting a nurse do it. "I don't do that anymore."
"You lost your power too?" She reached out to squeeze his biceps.
"You don't freeze anymore?" he asked, surprised. He stuck a thermometer in her mouth. Ninety-eight point six.
She shrugged. "I found a doctor who said he could remove the brick. It's in my freezer now. We don't even have to plug it in."
"Where's your--?" he pointed to her belly. "Mrs. Ki Yay? You?"
"My husband is the Yippee Ki Yay Kid. He's parking the horse." She blushed. "He was real nice to me once Sinister Squidtopia collapsed."
"That's good," he said, his heart in his throat.
"Oh! Oh! Oh!" she said. Curt noted the time of the contraction.
"When was the last one?"
"Ten minutes, maybe? The Kid was writing it down. We were at a park doing tricks for the kids. I was a cow and he would lasso me."
"In your condition?"
"Well, I wasn't a running cow, more of an ambling cow." She laughed and rubbed both hands over her belly. "I'd rather be a supervillain sometimes than face what's coming."
"I think you'll be a fine mother," he said. "And the Kid will be a fine father."
"I'm worried that I won't know how to care for it. I've never really cared for anything at all."
"That's not true, and we both know it."
She wiped her fist across her face and looked at him.
"I remember seeing you on the island. Geez. I remember seeing a lot of things come up that beach. The Titanic. Jim Carrey. The USC Marching Band. But I remember seeing you too."
Curt didn't say anything.
"Howdy, Pard!" the Yippee Ki Yay Kid shouted. "How's the little lady doing, Doc?"
He squeezed Curt's hand and Curt squeezed back.
"Ow! That's some grip you have there, Pard! Say! Don't I know you from somewhere?"
Curt shrugged, and glanced at Gwen. She smiled and said, "He's an old friend I knew once. You're an intern here, aren't you?"
"Finally finishing up school, huh?"
"You can read me like a book."
"You have a good bedside manner."
"I figure it's where I can do the most good."
"Are you happy?"
"I, um--" he said, having never thought about it. "No happier than before, but a little wiser. I guess."
She smiled and then squeezed her eyes shut.
Curt checked his watch. "Six minutes. I think we better get you ready."
He hung around until their OB showed up, then he went back to his rounds. No one ever thought they'd be able to care for something as defenseless and needy as a baby, but it usually worked out. He figured the Ki Yays had a good shot at figuring it out. He silently wished them the best of luck.
"Doctor Curt! There's a boy who caught his head in the stair rail. The firemen brought the whole banister!"
He wasn't Doctor Mighty anymore. But sometimes it was still useful to have biceps of steel.
Copyright © 2004 Paul Melko
Paul Melko's fiction has appeared in such places as Realms of Fantasy, Talebones, and the Roc anthology Live Without a Net. Upcoming stories of his will be in Asimov's Science Fiction and Spider Magazine. He lives in central Ohio with his beautiful wife and reasonably well-behaved two children. For more on his work, see his website. To contact him, send him email at firstname.lastname@example.org.