Better Angels: Soul-Catcher in the Rye

We are proud to present “Soul-Catcher in the Rye,” a short story for Better Angels, as our ‘thank you’ to supporters of the Better Angels fundraiser at Kickstarter. Better Angels, the roleplaying game of supervillainy, is now available in PDF and will be shipping soon in a full-color hardcover.

Soul-Catcher in the Rye

By Greg Stolze, © 2012

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you probably want to know is where I was born and what my lousy childhood was like and all that Tom Riddle Voldemort kind of crap. The origin story. How I wound up standing on a table in a high school cafeteria screaming “Bloodskull the Soul-Catcher craves your innocent blood!” but honestly, I don’t feel like it right now. D’Nice thinks we should split up and all I’ve done all morning is lie in bed re-reading my old Tom Strong trades. Haven’t even wanted to tug one out in the shower.

I guess it all started when Ryan Wouk killed himself. I mean, it’s always a big hairy thing when a teenager dies. All kinds of parental hand-wringing and stuffy op-eds on the local news. If Ryan had been a loser like me, I don’t know, maybe there’d be some kind of big social media push and they’d find some ‘cyber-bully’ to pin it on, but Ryan wasn’t a loser. He was one of those ‘world-on-a-plate’ kinds of guys, got good grades and sang in the show choir and played that thing with the sticks. Lacrosse. The game we stole from the Indians. Native Americans, I mean.

He was good-looking. I mean, I don’t swing for that team, not that there’s anything wrong with that preference. I’m not a Chik-Fil-A diner, is what I’m saying. But you’d have to be blind to miss Ryan’s tousled honey-colored hair and even white teeth and perfectly proportioned jock body. Even if I hadn’t ever looked at him, I’d have known from observing the way the girls all got giggly and fluttery when he walked by and said something friendly and nice to them.

Because get this: Ryan was always friendly and nice. Didn’t matter who you were. Grimy underfed poor kid? He’d fist-bump you in gym class after a rare soccer goal. Asshole no-neck bully? Ryan would talk those guys down from picking on the slender and asthmatic. One time, in art class, he even said something I was sketching was ‘epic.’

It was a picture of Malagdun.

# # #

So, yeah, Malagdun’s my demon. Malagdun the Iniquitous, Catcher of Souls, Archduke of the Seventh Circle of Hell. That’s what he says anyhow. He could be lying. He says all kinds of stuff.

My thinking is, if he’s an Archduke (which, according to Wikipedia, is only three or four levels under a king), he’d have more of the mind control powers or super-intellect. But all he can do is beat people. I figure he was the equivalent of a tank in their hell-war. He’s always trying to get me to act like a douchebag to people but he’s not even smart.

He’s what makes me a supervillain. I’m kind of obligated. As long as the two of us are together (and I think I’m stuck with him; it’s… complicated) there’s the risk that he’s going to turn into the balrog from Fellowship of the Ring. For real, he can do that, he says it was ‘probably based on him.’ Sure, Malagdun. I bet you and Peter Jackson are tight peeps. But unless I want him to become fifteen feet tall and covered in fire, I need to stay on his good side.

He did it once, just pulled his fire-hulk routine when we were on a college visit. Yeah. My older sister was checking out this school, really nice, not a huge science-fictiony learning city the way all those huge state schools are. It was little and had ivy on everything and you’d turn a corner and there’d be an old statue. Not trying to look old without putting up with the business of being old, but real oldness — the features weathering off and mildew on the base. Genuine, you know? And I was thinking how great it would be to go there, I’d been keeping Malagdun down, hadn’t talked to him in a while, hadn’t put on the armor and done… you know, anything. I was thinking I might have actually moved on. As if demonic possession is a phase, like your voice changing or bad acne. I was thinking I was over it and could get my grades together, maybe save up from a summer job, even take a year off after graduation to work, live at home, stick everything in the bank. I was thinking all that stuff.

Then came the boom.

We were on our way to the library, I think, I can’t remember. One second I’m slouching along behind the family, half-thinking about how I might meet some college girl with a funky hairdo and a cropped army jacket like I saw at a gig on the river front one time. Next second? BAM. I’m eye to eye with the second floor and everything looks red.

I hath returnéd, mortal. Didst miss my sage counsel and hale friendship?

No one else heard that one. Malagdun spoke only in my head, which is good, because I’d be blushing all the time if people heard his crazy olde tyme Englande verb tenses and weird emphasis on words like “returned.” I just said “Auugh!” because I was surprised, and frustrated, but when you’ve got lungs the size of sleeping bags, I guess that’s a lot more intense. So, yeah, some windows broke.

Thou hast neglected thy immortal counselor, and our separation woundeth me. Mine effort was great, but I have forgéd a plan, to gird thy life and mine own ageless span.

I turned and ran. No way did I want my parents and sister at ground zero for a Malagdun hissy fit.

“Screw you, you giant douche!” I shouted. I’ve never gotten the hang of talking to him inside my head, and I don’t really want to. I mean, what if he started reading my mind?

Ah, it gladdens my heart to hear you make such jolly sport with me, much as you make mock with your friend Jeffrey and do call him ‘fag’ and ‘retard.’ I know that thou in insults thus do cloak thy warm regard.

“I mean it, man!”

…and then the campus security officers arrived and I decided to armor up. Even without Malagdun being huge and burning (and, at this point, I should mention that I’d managed to leave singed footprints all across the quad, and students were running and screaming, even though classes weren’t even in session yet), I can put this kind of grody shell around myself. It looks like snot but will stop a bullet. Of course, it also smells raunchy and leaves a slime trail and, as it turns out, that goo is flammable. So now I was running across campus with these, what, seven- or ten-foot strides, spattering burning residue on everything.

That’s what those campus security dudes saw, a fifteen foot mucus-man, on fire, running at them. They didn’t have guns or anything, they were campus security. So they turned tail, and Malagdun laughed, and then I tripped over a bench, pretty much exploding it.

Ah, what merry japes we share! Let us carve yon comely buxom maiden’s parts in four, that we may delight in her cries and those of her lusty paramour!

“No way, jerk!”

Thou toyest with me. For too long I abided in darkness while you ignoréd me — me, who has always been thy helpmeet for vengeance and what thou callst ‘the lulz.’

See, the thing is, I had a really lousy time freshman year, and Malagdun and I sort of… acted out a little bit.

“I’m done with you!”

But I am nowhere near spent in my commerce with thee.

“Leave me alone! Turn off the fire, let it go!”


The cops showed up then, so I started running again. More fiery splatter, of course. Couple of gunshots in the back, but nothing I really felt.

“Look, how about if I… you know my family is on campus, right?”

Ah yes, thy dam and patriarch and ruddy-cheeked sister Justine. The amusement that I take from them is particularly keen.

“Leave them alone!”

I try, but when I wit not thy movements, how am I to know the time for a manifestation is inopportune?

By this point the SWAT team had showed up and I was climbing the side of the big main building. Did you ever climb on a cardboard box when you were a kid? How it holds you up mostly but also crumples and tears beneath you? That’s what it felt like getting to the top.

“Fine, I’ll talk to you more, will that help? Will that be okay?”

‘Tis all I desire, for the nonce. Oh, and that thou cast down the sign of that crucifiéd fool.

The building had, like, a little bell tower on top with a cross on the top, so I yanked that off and threw it into a cop car. That satisfied him. He let me turn back into me, I dropped through a hole in the roof and put off the shell and then hid until the cops showed up. Mom and dad made a huge deal out of me running off.

# # #

That’s how “Bloodskull” came out of retirement. I made a deal with Malagdun that I’d talk to him at least once a day and that we’d periodically… wreak havoc. At least I didn’t have to put on a leotard — the gunky coating took care of ‘costuming.’ I robbed a liquor store, just like old times, and I skull-baked a couple of cop cars when they got too close. (I can sort of… make my skull fly out of my face, wreathed in fire and blood, to bite stuff. I mean, it’s not like my brainpan really leaves, because my head doesn’t fall in, but, I guess it looks like my head gives birth to this bloody, fiery cranium that flies around clacking its teeth and lighting stuff on fire. People freak out. I mean, I know I would, right?)

For a while it was pretty good, or at least all right. I had a summer job doing custodial and stock stuff at this big clothing discounter, and that’s where I met D’Nice. She had super-short hair and a labret and one time when we had to pick up a bunch of dresses when a rack collapsed, my arm brushed against hers and her skin was the smoothest thing I’d ever, ever touched.

What was fun with D’Nice was that I finally had a chance to be generous. See, I’d grabbed a pile of twenties out of those robberies (by summer’s end, I’d also knocked over a donut shop and a tanning salon) so I could take her out for coffee and pick up the tab without it being any kind of thing, and when a new horror movie came out I could get us opening night tickets and popcorn. She must have thought I was spending my salary, which was OK, and she paid sometimes. In fact, once we started necking in those horror movies she insisted on splitting all the bills. Fifty-fifty, straight down the middle.

So I guess what I’m trying to say is, D’Nice is the coolest person I’ve ever met. Except she thought Bloodskull was really great.

You would figure I’d then be really in, right? I’d reveal that I was the guy she admired (because she figured it was this big social rebellion fight-the-power scene after I started getting beat on by this superhero, Captain Stars, which was a big thing I don’t really want to get into) and the lip-locking would escalate to the next level, right? Except that to show it to her and prove it, I’d have to have Malagdun around, and no. I was not going to let him see her, talk about her, or know she existed.

# # #

Ryan Wouk killed himself in his car. Duct-taped a hose to the exhaust and piped it into the cab. Actually, it was a truck. Steve Rossiter, his was the car. Steve was on the honor roll, his dad owned an auto dealership, and he killed himself just two weeks after Ryan. No note from either one. This was after school started up again, we were maybe two or three months into my junior year and I wasn’t seeing so much of D’Nice because she went to North while I went to West. But it turned out she knew Steve Rossiter because they competed against each other at forensics — like, debate and stuff.

“Hey Malagdun,” I said, pulling into traffic. That’s when I usually talked to him, when I was alone in the car.

I perpetually attend, esteeméd host and friend.

“So, are Steve and Ryan in Hell now?”

I lack, at this moment, the resources to check. He sounded amused. Prick.

“No, but it’s the rule, right? You kill yourself, you get on the Hell express?”

To reject the gift of life itself is a spiteful insult to its Lord, he said, and if a thought could be a giggle, that one almost was.

“Yeah, but why is life such a great gift? Sometimes, life sucks. I mean, those guys must’ve been pretty unhappy to… do it, right?”

Indisputably so. But be not so quick to despise life when thou hast no taste of the alternatives.

“What do they always say? ‘Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem’?”

That doth sound like an epigram to find favor with the wags and ‘pop psychologists’ of thy world. But if I may, what say’st thou to a fire-soakéd rampage through the downtown?

“Give it a rest, Malagdun, I’m on the way to work.”

But a proximate brush with deadly danger would surely give thy townfolkly brethren a keener appreciation for life! If ’tis not so, I misjudge human perversity.

“Tuesday night, okay? We’ll go out and… we’ll do something Tuesday.”

# # #

I tried to keep Fridays and Saturdays for D’Nice, but sometimes one or the other of us wound up working. I think our manager didn’t like it that we were paired up. I don’t know if there was any spite involved in that, or if it was just that she figured two people dating would goof off and make lovey eyes at each other instead of swabbing out the toilets and checking the dressing rooms.

Tuesday, I drove about a half-hour down the highway to another town on the river, one where they legalized riverboat gambling. Though, after all the negotiation, the ‘boat’ wound up being permanently moored in a concrete ditch, it never actually went anywhere. I’d decided I was going to rip it off because Malagdun had been really restless since we beat on Captain Stars. (Again, not a thing I’m proud of or want to talk about much. We had to team up with Multi-Beast from way out in Portland, she’s a real sickie and it turned into a hostage situation; you can read about it in the papers. Not Bloodskull’s finest hour. Even D’Nice stopped talking about what a cool anti-authoritarian he was after that. I said I’d told her so, which, in retrospect, wasn’t smart at all.)

Anyhow. The boat. I beslimed myself and swam out in the ditch-water, which was even dirtier than me (although I was leaving a slick on the surface) and when I got to the boat I fire-skulled a hole in the side and climbed through. I figured I’d come out in a hallway, having looked at the little map-diagram they had posted, but I must have misjudged because I wound up in a women’s restroom. This woman, not really old, more like school-principal aged, had been drying her hands right by the wall I blew up, so she kind of caught on fire. Malagdun was pleased as punch at that, let me tell you. She was running around, her skirt in flames, while I was squeezing painfully through the hole in the wall. Screaming, of course. She was, I mean. Totally hysterical, couldn’t figure out that the door opened inward, so I had to grab her and, like, try and dunk her in the toilet to put out the flames. But she was heavy and really freaking out, so what I did was, I blew up one of the crappers so that the water was all over the floor, threw her in the puddle, then smashed another one for good measure.

Thou shouldst have let the beldame burn! A torch to light thy way to victory, and her screams an ode triumphal!

“Hey, shut up!

And, even though I’d been speaking to Malagdun, the old woman clamped her lips shut with a whimper. Small mercies.

A couple of people with name tags and comfy shoes opened the door just as I was coming out. They shrieked and fled, so I followed them.

“Right, you all know who I am. Make with the money and no one else gets hurt.” But nobody was paying attention, everyone was stampeding towards the doors and I saw some jerk with an Affliction t-shirt elbow a tiny woman aside in the crush to get out.

Hey assholes, freeze!

People are so stupid! They were too scared of me to do what I said, is that it? I mean, how is that even a survival trait?

Affliction-shirt grabbed another woman by the hair and hauled her back out of the way, and how is it that he never managed to do violence on any of the dudes in front of him, hm?

I didn’t really think it through.

I fire-skulled him.

Now, in retrospect, that was too much, but what else could I do? Wade in there to punch him? I’m not a strong puncher when I’m not fifteen feet tall, and if I’d done that, I would have gone through the roof, literally through the roof, and everything would have gotten even crazier. More people hurt, more damage… even if I’d gone forward without growing, it just would have made people more crazy and panicky and there’d have been more tramplings.

“Now freeze!” I repeated, and they did. Except for the people who’d caught fire or freaked out when the dead guy splashed them.

“You there, blackjack dealer! Grab that guy and roll him, smother the flames, c’mon! Yes, you, act right or I will blow you up.

That got some action. And people started to bawl and plead and it sounded like livestock.

Shut up!

I won’t lie, it’s nice to have people pay attention, but the situation was in no way worth it.

“Bring me the money, dammit! And the rest of you, proceed in a slow and orderly fashion towards the exits. I see anyone pushing or jumping the queue, I will get mad and you don’t want more of that!

I could hear sirens out front, but people were coming forward with money and I had a canvas duffel bag for them to put it in while I got up on the boat’s deck and saw all the cops surrounding it, even a police-boat on the river and a helicopter. What a scene. But a couple of skull-missiles at the boat and the chopper brushed them back, and the police sniper bullets didn’t really do much to me.

Slay them, my comrade! Slay them all! Let me garb thee in flame and glory, while thy bloodlust finds utter satisfaction!

Pipe down!

But it was just as bad when he did. There I was, all alone against a whole police department, and I knew it would just get worse the longer I waited. I needed to get to a crowd, and there was one conveniently hustling rapidly away, the same gamblers I’d driven out of the boat.

A salvo of burning head-bones halted them and drove back the cops while I ran down the ramp from boat to shore. It was through a hail of bullets, of course, but that’s par for the course. A few lucky shots actually bruised me, one on the throat and one right on the inside hinge of my hip and thigh. The crowd tried to flee, but I had them pinned against the shore and, true to form, they started leaping into the water (or pushing each other into it, same thing). A few more bolts of chattering cranial flame stopped the cops from forming a cordon around them, and I plowed into the crowd, got into the water with them, and turned off my disguise.

I’d hoped they would simply let poor innocent victims go, but they’d figured out that one of us had to be the bad guy. (I’d dropped the canvas bag in the water, and this tall woman with bobbed hair pulled it out. They hustled her off alone, for ‘enhanced interrogation,’ I’m sure.)

Wouldst thou slip the bonds of these blue-clad buffoons? Malagdun asked.

“You know I would,” I muttered.

You need but ask my assistance and I shalt instruct thee in the craft of evasion.

“You can do that?” I was pretending to talk into my phone.

I need thy plea for aid. He sounded unusually serious. They hadn’t gotten my name yet, but it was only a matter of time, and I guess Malagdun didn’t want me outed as Bloodskull any more than I did.

“Please help me,” I whispered.

Attend thee, then. Affix thy gaze upon yon bleach-blonde waif in the peach-coloréd tunic. Her spirit is nigh unto the breaking point.

She didn’t look that freaked out to me. I mean, all of us were pretty shaken, and being told we were suspects certainly wasn’t cheering anyone up. But just then, she started shaking and then weeping and then screaming, really raw loud howling about how she just wanted to go home, couldn’t they leave her alone, couldn’t they see she wasn’t any kind of supervillain…

Three cops closed in on her, blankets in hand. To ‘comfort’ her, I guess.

With gentle step, move along the fence, to where the uncut weeds rise tall.

I did.

Wait, and slowly crouch.

Again, I obeyed. On his advice, I stayed there, down behind the grass against the fence, for a half hour, while the victims/suspects were herded into a paddy wagon and driven off. He made me wait another half hour before slipping under the fence and walking back to my car. By that time, it was full-on dark.

Mom was really pissed when I got home late. I said I’d been at the library, and that my phone had fallen out of my pocket in the car. I don’t think she bought it.

# # #

Jessica Nock was the third kid at my high school to kill herself with carbon monoxide. She left a note. Well, actually, she left a thing on her blog, and I read a screencap after her parents took it down. She didn’t talk about Ryan or Steve, but she did mention Bloodskull and how random and crazy the world was. She was another smart kid, National Honor Society and student council and she mentioned how all she ever did was try and try and keep everything under control, but how it never worked and everything just got worse and worse. She said her parents and family shouldn’t blame themselves, that the only one to blame was her for being too weak to hack it.

I knew Jessica from back in junior high. Well, not so much ‘knew’ her as, ‘had a huge crush on her after she sat next to me in math class in adorable little skirts and tank tops.’ We never really talked or anything. I hadn’t known she was at risk.

“You ever think about killing yourself?” I asked D’Nice.

“What?!?” she pulled away from me and glared. We’d gone to see one of those fake-handheld horror movies, and on the drive home we’d pulled over to sit in the back of her truck and look at the stars. “What’re you saying, you think I’m some kind of weak-ass, easy-way-out bitch-chump?”

“Don’t get mad! Jeez, I just wondered.”

“I would never do that. My life gets hard, I take it out on my problems, not on myself.”

“Good attitude,” I said, pulling myself back over to her.

“You’re damn skippy,” she grumbled.

I kissed her, and we kissed each other for a bit, and I put my hand on her stomach under her shirt and moved it up, but she shoved it back down again. Then she held my hand, to make it more okay.

“It’s three kids now,” I told her.

“Yeah, I heard about that. You’re not thinking about doing anything that dumb, are you?”

“No! Hey, I got everything to live for.” Another kiss, another hand shift-and-shove.

“Why d’you suppose they did it?” she said, after a while, looking up at the sky.


# # #

After I dropped her off, I asked Malagdun the same thing.

Humans are easily led, he told me. What one doth, soon others follow, howe’er fool the deed, if the first doer hath good teeth and shiny hair.

“Man, what?”

If thy leader hath the right tone of voice, and a goodly posture, and if he be fair of feature, than men shall march to his tune, even unto the grave.

“So you’re saying Steve and Jessica did it just because Ryan did? That’s stupid.”

Permit me to refine my disputation, that it might meet the lofty standards of thy scholarship. He sounded real sarcastic there. I say not that they did it because young goodman Ryan did. Yet I dare suggest that, had he not led them, they would live still.

“No, that doesn’t make any sense.” Though of course, it didn’t make any sense that three otherwise successful kids would all decide to top themselves.

Melancholy Ryan was a leader, and once he took to hand his fell deed, others lookéd upon permission to think their fell thoughts. How many are tempted, knowing that those they enviéd were, themselves, at the utmost point of dejection?

# # #

Malagdun was right. I still think he’s stupid about a lot of stuff, but I guess it makes sense that he’d be on the ball about human weakness.

In psych class, we had to do presentations, and Anitra Vyassarian did one about suicide epidemics. She’d read about them in some Malcolm Gladwell book, said that if one popular guy kills himself, others are likely to follow along — just like if one popular guy puts his hat on backwards, or starts listening to Maroon 5, people go along with that.

People were mean to Anitra, too! Everyone acted like she’d taken a huge dump on the graves of Ryan, Jessica and Steve, just for trying to explain. It wasn’t the guys so much as the girls, y’know? All that snide catty lunchroom stuff that would go over a dude’s head. I mean, for all I know they’re picking on me like that all the time and I’ve just never caught on. But a smart kid like Anitra… I saw her run to the bathroom crying after getting worked over by Lindsay Shaw, which is messed up because I know for a fact Lindsay picked on Jessica like Jessica was a scab on her pimple.

And it turned out that the guy in the Affliction shirt was named Rusty Stobel. Father of two. No one else died from the boat thing, but the lady in the bathroom had second-degree burns, as did four people who were standing next to Rusty when I did him. Five people sustained minor injuries trying to get through the exits and one guy had a cardiac infarction.

Malagdun was happy as puppy with a chew toy.

What brave exploit awaits us next, boon companion and comrade-in-arms?

“I thought we could lay low for a while,” I muttered at the steering wheel.

Hm, it is misfortunate indeed that thy nom-de-guerre of ‘Bloodskull’ has become so fervid an object of inquiry by the gendarmerie.

“Sometimes I don’t even know what language you’re speaking.”

’Tis naméd ‘English.’

“Not any English I ever learned.”

Indeed. He thought it real snotty, as if he’d just won an argument and sounded good doing it.

I kept my mouth shut, hoping he was done talking.

A thought occurs.

“You sure you don’t mean ‘occurés’?”

The vanity of thine age is such that one name, one path to adoration, is insufficient. Yes?

“What are you talking about?”

Consider the inaptly naméd ‘Madonna’ who hath transforméd herself from pop-spewing child-harlot to strident environmental matriarch.

“Sorry Malagdun, I don’t follow Madonna.”

Then reflect thou upon the career of one Johnny Depp, whose “21 Jump Street” was the veriest piffle afore he sought more serious fare in “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.”

“I had no idea you were so into modern culture.”

I had a life before thee.

“…ohhhhkay, but what does this have to do with me? With you and me?”

‘Bloodskull’ is the name given to us when thou don mine iniquitous armor. But were thee to discard it, and act instead with my native fire and grandeur…

“Nuh uh. No. Not happening. Nice try though.”

What source can there be for thy resistance? Surely thou beareth no grudge from my jest amidst the iviéd halls of that academy?

“Your ‘jest’ did $4 million dollars worth of damage.”

The love of money is the root of all evil.

“You just want me to have to ask you. You think I don’t know who controls those powers? You want me to be on the hook to you whenever I want to do super stuff, which I don’t even like anymore, and you’ll probably switch them off in the middle of… everything. For the lulz.”

More wounding than the blades of angels are unkind words from a friend.

I said nothing. I was hoping he was done, that he was gone again. Dormant.

This time, if ’tis thy wish, we could… be a ‘good guy.’

“I call shenanigans. You don’t have it in you to be anything good.”

Remember, ’tis thee who sayeth so. I try to chart a middle way, yet ’tis thee who speaketh ‘nay.’

# # #

The year was turning really dark. Not just the middle of winter with the snowfall and days when the sky looked like wet white cardboard. The whole school was crummy. The clowns still made jokes, but they were either half-assed or just mean. The teams were all sucking. The glee club shut down.

The only people thriving were the bullies, and even they… I don’t know. It had this element of desperation? I mean, it was always mean, but before the suicides, it seemed like they were partially enjoying themselves, and that they got off on the attention from the other kids. But that winter, it got private and nasty. The thing Ortega’s guys did to Clark Harris when they got him in the bio lab… I mean, Ortega got arrested and went to juvie, and no one said he didn’t deserve it. Clark got taken out of school and no one ever heard anything from him again.

Things were rough between me and D’Nice too. Malagdun was being a real pest, so I needed a lot of ‘alone time’ to talk to him and, at least once a week, a chance to do something wrong. (I tore apart an ATM with his super-strength and giant size, but he only let me do that once. Said I was getting greedy and lazy and that he was more interested in bloodlust, like with Ryan Stobel. Man, I got so sick of hearing that name.)

I finally got some peace and quiet when I tracked down Koestler and Johnstone, the jerks who backed up Ortega and got off with slaps on the wrist because no one could prove it was them in the lab. I kept my bones in my body for that one, just put on the muck and beat them down with a ball bat, first Koestler when he was out walking his big stupid dog (which took one bite of the slime-armor, then threw up and ran off) and then Johnstone in the back room of the fast food joint where he worked.

D’Nice confronted me after that. Wanted to know where I was the Wednesday night that the two of them got beaten up.

“I was at home, I guess. What.”

“You weren’t either,” she said, squinting and poking me in the chest. “When you didn’t answer your cell I called your land line there and your mom said you went out to Denny’s with Jeffrey.”

“Well gee, D’Nice, I guess I went out to Denny’s with Jeffrey then. Why ask questions when you already know the answers?”

“…Except I called Jeffrey too and he said he hadn’t seen you.” Another chest-poke. I used to find that a lot cuter.

“All right, I guess I wasn’t at Denny’s. You think I was with someone else? Do you really think I could manage that? That I’m so cute that I have girls dangling off me and can hide them one from another? Jesus.”

“No, I don’t, I think you’re lucky to have me and I ought to be enough. Maybe too much.”

“If you think you’re too much woman for me, D’Nice, feel free to trade up. I haven’t heard you complaining.” Though, actually, I had.

“I’ve…” She pressed her lips together, making her lip stud jut up and out. “Just tell me the truth where you were.”

I opened my mouth, and then closed it, and then said, “No.”

“You keep secrets and we can’t be together.”

“You don’t trust me?”

“As you just said… ‘no.’” She glared back at me, and it felt exactly like the time an army officer got me right over the heart with .50 caliber anti-vehicular round. That same hit and halt. “If it was just this one time, but it’s all the time. Tell me what’s going on!”

“I’m Bloodskull. There. That’s what’s going on.”

So she started swearing, just real slow and thick and monotonous, wouldn’t meet my eyes.

“What, you don’t believe me? You think I couldn’t do it, is that it?”

“Five minutes ago you were saying you couldn’t manage a girlfriend,” she said. “You ’spect me to believe you’re a badass revolutionary?”

Bloodskull was never a revolutionary,” I shouted, and she flinched back. “He’s a monster, a thief, a supervillain and you know what? There’s practically no skill overlap between what he does and being a good boyfriend.”

You’re Bloodskull.”

“Some of the time, yes.”

“Prove it.”

“Mal…” Then I bit my lip and I thought. Real hard. Because I recognized that I did not want to show her the power because I loved her and wanted her to be a part of my life. And I wanted to shut her up and make her scared. I felt, quite strongly, that I was entitled to have things go my way.

The last time I’d felt that exact thing had been Rusty Stobel.

“Why don’t you drop me off at home,” I said, turning to look out the window.

“Why don’t you just get your ass out my truck right now?”

“Yeah, okay,” I said. “Perfect end to a perfect evening.”

“Lying sonofabitch!” she yelled, and peeled out into the snow.

I called Jeffrey for a ride. He was real cool about it.

# # #

The next day I found out Koestler had killed himself with carbon monoxide, and that was it.

I heard the news in the lunchroom, which is where all the heavy gossip gets confirmed—first draft is texts from study hall and the drivers’ ed classrooms, but people talk face to face in order to gauge what’s real and what’s a spoof. But honestly, I didn’t even care if anyone was lying or not. Johnstone looked pretty shook up and sincere, but it was kind of hard to tell past the two black eyes. (Yeah, I plead guilty. It’s not that hard to beat someone up when you have a ball bat and are invulnerable. In fact, the hard part is not letting it go too far, especially with Malagdun… yeah, well, anyway.)

I ducked out and went to the dark spot under the steps with the broken security camera and put on the slime. Then Bloodskull came out into the cafeteria for what wound up being his final appearance.

Our school mascot is the Eagles, just like every other jerkwater public school, and there was this big so-so mural opposite the food line. (The colors were okay, but I always thought the proportions of the feathers were a little off.) I hit it with the burning bone, right over the cheerleaders’ table, then waited for the screaming to die down and for the stampede to the doors. Another burn-bolt to the exit sign stopped that rush.

“Listen to me!” I screamed.

God help me, they all did. They turned, and were quiet, and stared, except a few were sobbing or hiding their faces.

I couldn’t think of a thing to say.

Fortunately, Malagdun had some suggestions, which was where “Bloodskull the Soul-Catcher craves your innocent blood!” came from, and once that started the ball rolling, there wasn’t really anything to do but ham it up.

“Puny, pitiful, punif… you bitches!” I roared. “You think your lives are so sad that you have to go kill yourselves? Huh? Well you’re just doing exactly what I want! Bloodskull has warped your minds, Bloodskull has inhabited your hearts, Bloodskull is playing you like your daddy’s old 8-tracks! Yeah! The suicide machine is on, punks, blasting out its vibes 24-7 and dragging you down to hell, with me! I couldn’t keep silent any more because it’s all too hilarious, watching you do my job for me!”

A few guys from the soccer team were creeping towards a hallway, so I sent a fire-face arcing over their heads to let them know I’d spotted them. “Listen up, I could Kentucky-fry the whole soggy lot of you right now and that would be… okay I guess, but I’m getting off on watching you sad sorry chumps kill yourselves. That’s right! It gets me all stiffied up! So who’s gonna be next, huh? You?” I barked that in the face of Lindsay Shaw’s little lieutenant, Marcy Brant, the one who kept the slam books and made sure to laugh at all of Lindsay’s jokes. She screamed and it was all I could do not to backhand her.

“Right. I’ma count to three and when I do, you walk out them doors, hear me? Walk don’t run. You run, I will end you, understand? Or do y’all need a demonstration? No? Aight then. One. Two.”

I blew out a bank of fluorescents, prompting screams and leaps.

I ain’t said it yet!” I was blowing the lights that were closest to me, the ones without so many people under them.

Three!” A couple more light blasts, and then I dove under a table, shedding the armor as I did. I wasn’t the only one scrabbling around on the floor, or cowering, or passed out. I heard the sirens outside, but just acted like I’d been there the whole time. Which, I guess, I had.

# # #

That night, D’Nice called.

“Heard Bloodskull trashed up your school.”

“…yup,” I said.

“You okay?”

“…mm hm. Yeah, fine.”

There was a long pause. My mouth felt totally dry.

“Heard he took responsibility for all those teens who died there.”

“Yuh. Yes. I mean, that happened.”

“So you’re not still claiming you’re him, huh?”

“That was dumb,” I said, voice rasping. “I don’t know why I even said that.”

“Uh huh.”

Another pause. I could hear her breathing.

“So you want to go out Friday?” I asked. “Go and… do something?”

“We’re on a break,” she said.

“We could… unbreak it.”

“Nah.” She didn’t even pause to think it over. Didn’t sound regretful.

“…okay then. I guess this is goodbye.”

“I guess.”

# # #

So that Friday I went out with Malagdun, fifteen feet tall, burning. Beat up a crack house. Had to drive, like, an hour to get to one too. Called myself “Mister Vigil” and said a new era of justice had come, blah blah. I only killed the guys who shot at me.

# # #

It was two whole years later, when I’d been doing ‘superheroic’ stuff for a while, that I found out Ryan Wouk had been Captain Stars.