Baseline

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They say that when you look at someone else, you never really see them.  You see your own ideas overlaid on them instead, filtering who they are through your perception of how the world is.  And complicating matters further, none of us present our true selves to the world.  We all wear masks, pretending to be who we think others want us to be.  So that’s human interaction: people in masks trying to see each other, making up their own stories about who’s beneath them.

This means you can never really know another person.  You can only know the stories you tell yourself about them.  It’s sort of a depressing metaphor — but let me tell you, it’s a frankly terrifying reality.

As usual, I’m getting ahead of myself, though.  Let me back way up; I’ll tell you about myself, or at least about my standard mask.  I’m Dan Everton.  I’m your basic-model white guy.  I’m a little big, a little clumsy, a little goofy.  I used to try to pass as cool, but I’ve pretty much given up on that these days.  Oh, and sometimes I get superpowers.

They show up when they feel like it, and they always seem to have one purpose: stop some other superpowered individual from ruining things for everyone.  I took down a lady who was causing city-flooding storms earlier this year, and just last month I kept a guy from overrunning the city with an army of clones.

Man, that just does not sound any less weird, no matter how many times I say it.

Anyway, once I’ve done my job, my superpower vanishes, leaving me with just the vaguest ability to do what I used to.  I’m smarter and stronger than I used to be, I can magnetize stuff with my hands, and I can set flammable objects on fire without a match.  The main power that sticks with me, though, is that I’m super-unable to keep a job.

I got fired from my museum job for being there when I was attacked, and I got fired from my burger-flipping job for not being there when I was attacked.  They should be happy, honestly; I was at the police station, and it burned basically to the ground.  For which I’m technically responsible, in that I started the fire.  Look, you try stopping a clone army without damage, okay?  If you want to make an omelet, you’ve got to break a few eggs.  And set the kitchen on fire.

The point is that I need work, and intermittently being a superhero doesn’t pay the bills.  Fortunately, one of the policemen, Officer Peterson, knows about me and appreciates what I do, and he gets me hooked up with Tanger Construction, the guys who won the bid from the city to rebuild the police station.

In my head, this means I’m going to get to drive bulldozers and earthmovers and other big machines around the lot, and maybe swing a wrecking ball to take down some of the walls that are still standing.  And absolutely, there are guys out there doing that — while I’m stuck inside watching safety videos and going through mandatory training about not dropping heavy objects on my toes.  Trust me, video: I have done that once.  I’m not doing it again.

My foreman is a guy named Mr. Steele, a slightly pudgy guy with receding red hair who’s clearly got iron muscles underneath his padding.  He looks like he spends his free time bowling in the kind of league where it’s more about the beer and camaraderie than about getting 300.  I spend most of the first day trying to figure out a joke about Steele in construction that he hasn’t heard before.  None of the ones I come up with seem good enough to risk ticking off my new boss on day one, though, so I keep them to myself.  He looks pretty easygoing, but strange things set people off sometimes.

You know how in A Clockwork Orange they strap the main guy down and make him watch videos of violence until he can’t take it anymore?  I think those same people made these training videos.  I spend about a week watching construction accidents happen on tape, and when they finally let me out there to work, I have a borderline-unhealthy fear of all of the equipment.

This lasts for about twenty minutes, until Steele says, “We’re gonna put you on the bulldozer later,” and everything I learned about the danger is crowded out of my head by a single thought: all right!  Bulldozer!

I may be an adult, but some stuff you just never grow out of, all right?  Don’t act like you don’t know.

Steele clearly knows that this is a reward, though, because while I’m scheduled for training on the bulldozer in the late afternoon, I’m stuck unloading piles of materials until then.  I’m partnered up with a guy named Christopher, who’s got some sort of Minnesotan or maybe Canadian accent.  He’s extremely polite, so probably Canadian.

At first, there’s a lot of talking and readjustment as we move stuff, like when you’re helping a buddy move furniture to his new apartment.  Pretty soon, though, Christopher — not Chris; he was polite but firm about that — and I get into a pretty good rhythm of grip, heft, walk, drop, and our chatter drops off.  We’re at it for nearly an hour before the load’s moved and we can sit down for a brief break.

“Not bad for a new guy!” Christopher says admiringly, wiping sweat from his forehead.  I’m sweating pretty profusely myself, which is putting a bite into the November air.

“Hey, man, I was just trying to keep up,” I tell him.

“Oh sure, just keeping up.  I swear you never even got tired!  If you weren’t sweating, I’d call you a machine.”

“Well, you know.  I work out,” I say, flexing a muscle that does not support this claim.  I do work out, sometimes.  But mainly it’s the remnant of superstrength.

By the end of the day, we’ve unloaded a couple of dozen tons of material, and superstrength or not, I’m definitely feeling it.  I’m drinking a soda and daydreaming about how good sitting on the couch is going to feel when I see Steele walking up to me, and I try to look efficient.  Since I’m not doing anything at the moment, this mainly involves gripping my soda with more determination.

“Good work today, Dan,” Steele says.  “You ready to work the bulldozer?”

“Yeah, let’s do this!” I respond enthusiastically, which is not as professional as “yes, sir!” or any of the other things I probably could have said there.  But Steele grins, so I think it’s a decent answer anyway.

You ever build something up in your head so much that it becomes this massive promise, and then you do it and it’s a letdown — not because it wasn’t great, but because you’d built it up so much?  Driving the bulldozer was like that, except that it wasn’t a letdown.  It was even better than I’d imagined.  It’s loud and ungainly and shuddering, and you run over things and push things out of the way and leave the ground flat behind you.  Also, you control the whole thing with what are basically two joysticks, which just makes it even more like an amazing toy.

I’m grinning like an idiot while I’m steering this around, and Steele is smiling, too.

“Looking good, Dan!” he calls over the rumbling of the bulldozer.  “Always good to see a man who enjoys his work.”

“Can I drive this home?” I ask.

He laughs.  “Keep up the good work, and I might forget to take the keys out one night!”

I’ve forgotten my exhaustion in the exhilaration of working the bulldozer, but it hasn’t forgotten me.  I’m waiting at the bus stop after punching out for the night, and I can barely keep my eyes open.  Heaving myself off of the bench and onto the bus is a heroic effort, and once I’m on the bus, I give up the fight and take a catnap against the window on the way home.  Luck or intuition wakes me up just before my stop, and I stumble the blocks home like a drunk.

Inside, I throw my sweat-stained shirt and jeans over the back of a chair and flop onto the couch in my boxers.  The remote, unfortunately, is more than arm’s length away, so I just gaze at it reproachfully for a minute before falling asleep without even having turned the TV on.

I’m awakened some indeterminate amount of time later by someone knocking at the door.  It’s probably Brian, my sleep-addled brain tells me, but that doesn’t make any sense, because Brian would have texted before coming over, and also would have let himself in without knocking.

It has to be Brian; you don’t have any other friends, my brain insists, and that part unfortunately does make sense.  The knocking repeats, and I wander back to the kitchen to pull on my pants and shirt before opening the door.  I fish my phone out of my pants pocket while I’m walking over to check for messages, but as I near the door, it starts fritzing out and shuts off.

“Weird,” I think, and so I’m shaking my phone and only half-paying attention to the ragged blonde woman on my porch when I open the door.

“Dan?” she says hesitantly, and my head snaps to attention as I stumble back inside and slam the door, because I know that voice.  That’s Regina, the stormcaller, and the last time I saw her, she was trying to kill me with lightning and ice.  Then I broke her powers by turning her magnetic, and then she got briefly committed for insanity — it was sort of a weird day all around.  It ended badly, though, is my point.

I don’t know why she’s on my porch right now, but I doubt it’s to sell me girl scout cookies.  There’s nothing in the entryway that could serve as a decent weapon, so I run to the kitchen and grab a frying pan out of one of the cupboards.  Then, armed like a 1950s housewife, I creep back toward the front door, ready for battle.


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