The Sign-Writer’s Brother

Fly By Night Chapter 2

Max Merton pulled up to the curb outside Jim’s Place early on Monday morning and shut off the engine of his 20-year-old pickup truck, which seemed to heave a rattling sigh as it came to rest. Poor thing was almost as old as Max was. He was fond of it, rust and all; it had been with him since he’d started his business three years ago. Esther said they should replace it, that it gave the business a bad image, but she was always saying things like that.

Besides, Max got most of his work done between 4 AM and 8 AM, when there was hardly anyone around to see, anyways. Today he’d be finished even earlier than usual: it was only 5:15 and he was more than halfway through his daily rounds. There’d been a rash of vandalism the previous night, with dozens of cafés, bars, and restaurants reporting smashed doors, broken windows, and damaged equipment. Many of them had decided to stay closed for a few days while they made repairs, and they didn’t need Max to come by until they opened again.

It meant lost income for Max, but that was okay. The business had been doing pretty well for the past few months, so he could afford it. Esther was worried, as usual, but Max knew it tended to work out in the end. All he could do in the meantime was write the signs at the places that were still open, and hope the vandals didn’t come back.

Max stepped out of his truck as a police car glided smoothly past, its driver alertly scanning the street and sidewalks. Good, thought Max. A few more of those would probably be useful. The sight of the police always reassured Max; they’d really helped him out a few times in the past. He gave half a salute as the patrol car continued up Johnson Street.

Flipping through the order sheets Esther had prepared for him, Max sauntered up to the large window and peered into Jim’s Place. A few lights were on in the back, where the early morning kitchen staff would be at work prepping ingredients for breakfast and getting the baking started. Sometimes one or two of them would come out and watch Max work, if they caught him. They didn’t always notice when he was there, though, due to his unpredictable schedule. He did his rounds in a slightly different order every day, so that people in different parts of the city could watch him after the sun came up. He enjoyed entertaining the small crowds that sometimes gathered while he was working.

The order sheet for Jim’s Place said they wanted the usual, which was the restaurant’s name in block letters above a plate of bacon and eggs, and the daily specials listed down the side. Jim’s didn’t usually go for anything too fancy.

The remnants of yesterday’s sign were still faintly visible. Max’s signs lasted about 24 hours, which meant that when he was ahead of schedule, like today, he could often just trace over the previous day’s work. The daily specials menu was different today, though, so he’d have to erase that part.

Max pulled a stepladder out of the back of the truck and set it up beneath the window. He perched on the top step and reached to the top of the window, then extended one finger, placed it over the barely visible red outline of the J, and began to draw. Glowing red light spilled out of his finger as he passed it through the air, and the letters took form, hovering just in front of the window.

When the name was complete, he put the ladder away and began to outline the plate, in glowing blue, with red bacon and white-and-yellow eggs. Satisfied with his tracing, he passed the palm of his hand over the white text of yesterday’s specials, erasing them. Then he began to write out the list of menu items and prices, copying them out from the order sheet.

Intent on his work, Max failed to notice the sound of someone approaching him from behind.

“Hi Max.” The voice was soft, smooth, instantly recognizable, and, to Max, chilling.

Willing it not to be who he thought it was, Max slowly turned. A man with short,slick hair, a long face, and bloodshot eyes was standing beside Max’s truck, wearing a cheap grey suit that looked like it had been slept in, and more than once, for that matter.

“Happy to see me?” said the man, taking two steps closer. “No, of course not.”

“What do you want?” said Max.

“What makes you think I want something? Maybe I just came to say hello to my little brother. After all, we haven’t seen each other in what, four years?”

“Please, Caleb, I’m working right now,” said Max, trying to keep the tremor out of his voice.

“I can see that,” sneered Caleb, walking up to the window and passing his hand through the glowing letters, which flickered but held their brightness. “Drawing your signs. Aren’t you special.”

“Please,” Max pleaded, shrinking away. “I won’t call the cops. Forget the restraining order. What do you need? Food? Money? A place to sleep?”

At the mention of sleep, Caleb whirled on Max, his bloodshot eyes flashing. “HA!” he barked. “You think I’m that stupid!? You think I’ll just lay down in bed and close my eyes? And as soon as the sun’s up all you have to do is fling open the blinds, and you’ve got me. HA!

“I don’t even know what you’re talking about!”

“You’ve always thought you were better than me, just because I was a normal. You and Esther, what a team,” Caleb hissed, eyes burning red. “Well guess what, little brother: I’m not normal anymore.”

Caleb leapt into the air. He didn’t come down.

With a reckless laugh, he dove towards Max’s truck, lifted it by its front bumper, and flung it down the street. With a terrific crunch it bounced once on its roof and skidded twenty feet, gouging the pavement with a shower of sparks.

Max sank down against the brick wall of Jim’s Place, and peed his pants.

Grinning hideously, Caleb landed in front of Max, then reached down and grabbed him by the neck. “You’ve always thought you were so special. So very, very special,” Caleb spat. “But you aren’t special. You’re nothing. And after I’m done with you, Esther’s going to see that’s she’s nothing, either.”

“Sh-sh-she’s gone,” Max choked out. “She moved away!”

Caleb laughed. “Nice try, little brother, but it won’t work. See, I already know she’s still here in Victoria. I saw her on Saturday.” He looked up at the window where the fresh Jim’s Place sign was glowing. “She was in this very restaurant, in fact. Just dumb luck that I spotted her. I was scouting around for your signs, so I’d know where to go looking for you.

“See, I couldn’t just break through your front door. It was a smart move, you and Esther living together. Tougher to get each of you alone that way. So it sure was helpful of you to go out working alone this early in the morning, when the sun’s still down and your big sister is all the way on the other side of the city.

“I knew if I tracked down all your signs, all I’d have to do is cycle through them until I found you working on one. You got lucky yesterday, and we missed each other somehow, but I knew I’d come across you eventually, especially since I was narrowing the field a bit as I went.” Caleb grinned. “I’m sure you’ve guessed how already, but allow me to demonstrate.”

Caleb lifted Max and slammed him through the Jim’s Place window. Waving his hand irritably and ineffectually at the drawing of bacon and eggs, which continued to glow in mid-air, Caleb hovered into the restaurant and picked Max up by the neck again.

Two of the Jim’s Place employees rushed out of the kitchen to see what had happened. Caleb flung a chair at them, and they scurried out of the way, shrieking.

“Well, we’d better go,” said Caleb, gripping Max a little tighter. “I’m not done with you yet, but the sun will be up soon, and that would spoil all my plans, wouldn’t it? Don’t worry, though. It’s always nighttime somewhere.”

Max blacked out.

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12 thoughts on “The Sign-Writer’s Brother

    • I honestly feel like, if superpowers were real, there would be a lot more things like this, and less super strength and lasers and flying. Why are comic book powers pretty much all combat-oriented? :)

      • Because, unfortunately, a series about Jubilee just wouldn’t be all that interesting.

        We get to see all of the super-powered mutants and heroes and such because they’re the ones that have the story come to them.

        The reason your story is so intriguing (to me, at least) is because it revolves around more mundane powers and the effective application of them. Max uses his to supplement his income, while Walter probably enjoys seeing people fall and fall hard once their power-trip high disappears. Shawn Scott was hired for his unique abilities, and the underground contacts he has for his.

        I’m reminded somewhat of Heroes, except dialed back a couple of notches, and with much more interesting characters.

        • Good points, all around.

          I guess what I’m getting at is that comic book superheroes pretty much only have one type of conflict to deal with, which is to say violence (and the protection of their secret identity, I guess, and occasionally some side romance, but mostly violence). Plus they go out looking for that violence, and use their own violence to stop it, most of the time.

          Why can’t characters with special powers experience the kind of conflicts that exist in other genres? That’s what I’m trying to do a bit, here. Of course, there’s some violence going on, as well, because that’s often a particularly compelling form of conflict, in terms of entertainment, but I definitely don’t want to fall into the trap of “villain wants to kill people; use your powers to fight him and make him stop.”

          Thanks for the thoughts!

  1. I feel (fear?) that the other part of “comic book superheroes pretty much only have one type of conflict to deal with” is that the medium in which we devour superhero material (comic books) serves to sell more comic books, and welcome new readers into the fold with minimal backstory. They suffer from Star Trek syndrome, where every new story starts off from the same basic premise, and any character development doesn’t have to be hearkened back to.

    Spider Man will always be Peter Parker, will always work for the Daily Bugle, under Perry White, with (in some form) Mary Jane. He’s a flat character, who is known for witty one-liners and fighting bad guys, and being the only one to get good shots of [himself] fighting the bad guys.

    Wolverine is always going to have a shady past, adamantium claws, a gruff exterior, and regeneration. He’s an interesting character to read, but at the end of the story, he’s still going to be Wolverine, nothing gained, shady past still out of reach.

    Spider Man can only /be/ Spider Man, and Wolverine can only /be/ Wolverine. If Spidey took up cocaine, it would be a habit broken in the next major arc because multiple people write him and a coke addition would drastically change his character. Wolverine couldn’t retire and become a logger (intentional movie reference) because then his “story” would just end. There would be no more Wolverine to speak of, because there would be no way to write interesting stories about him.

    What you are doing here, with Special People, is fantastic because you /can/ tell a story where someone, for example, succumbs to an addiction (Caleb: power, Kevin Cox’s eventual girlfriend: bacon) while still keeping that character relevant to the overall story you are telling. You’re in a wonderful place, being able to reveal the characters you want to, and their influence on the world, without forcing them to don capes and Fight Evil, and still keep them interesting.

      • You’ve definitely thought this through! I hope I’m able to make use of some of the advantages you mentioned. I definitely intend to have these characters develop over time, though I’ll be introducing plenty of new faces along the way, too.

        I’m not writing a superhero comic book, that’s for sure. Special People is meant to be special!

  2. My thought as to why superheros exist in most such settings is because any other application of superpowers tends to completely destroy the structure of society, which is hard to write.

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