6.20.6

“Hey, kid.”

I pause the video. Doc smiling at the camera is almost enough to destroy me. I take a few deep breaths and wipe my eyes, trying to steady myself. After regaining fortitude, I press the play button.

Doc looks just like I remember him from Houston. A gristly, overdone man with silver-gray hair, wrinkles upon wrinkles, and cold eyes. His smile is not happy, though rarely were his smiles ever happy.

“If you’re watching this video, that means you saw Megajoule’s last vlog, which means you found out that the rest of the videos were encrypted. Which also means you and I have had a talk about that.”

We never had a proper talk.

“I encrypted the videos because I wanted you to come to me when you’d seen… when you saw that I’d been mixed up in all that mess. That I’d done some god awful things, kid. I wanted you to see it because I didn’t really have the strength to tell you.” Doc sniffs, scratches his beard. Old familiar affectations that I miss so dearly. If only I’d gone to him calmly. But with Pandahead and everything that had happened, I had no wherewithal to speak to him.

I’m making excuses.

“Anyway, hopefully you and I have sorted that out and you’re willing to listen to my advice. Either that or you got Drone to decrypt the videos. Which, if so, that’s fair, kid. I wouldn’t blame you for hating me.”

I don’t hate him. I don’t think I did back when I found out. I was furious, indignant, and full of grief, but I never hated him.

“The rest of the videos, the encrypted ones, they aren’t like the vlogs you’ve seen. They weren’t designed by OPI to condition you to take Megajoule’s place. These videos… he saved them…” Doc trails off, lost. “I’m honestly not sure why, other than that he wanted to show you something you couldn’t see otherwise. The other side of being a big hotshot hero like he was.”

I’m not quite sure what this means. What other side?

Doc shakes his head at the camera. “The cost of his legacy, kid. I kinda hope you never watch these. I hope you never have a reason to watch them. See, as I’m recording this you’re out there in Houston, doing the masked vigilante bit, and right now that seems to be enough for you. But if there’s ever a day where you have people… the world depending on you, then you need to watch these.

“You’re the type that’s gonna give too much of yourself. Dumbass.” His bluntness catches me off guard and I laugh. “I’m serious. You’re a dumbass. You’ve got that same streak, the need to save other people at the cost of yourself.”

Reminds me of what Ruby told me, back in Houston. My corpse. Hurtling. Dead horse at this point. But maybe that’s because I haven’t learned my lesson yet.

Doc is silent for a moment longer, rubbing his cheeks, eyes staring through the camera as if he can see me on the other side of the screen. “I love you, kid. I never had a son of my own. Not until you. You gotta know how much I care about you. You gotta know how much I want you to succeed. I want you to find yourself a partner that loves you for you, I want you to be happy with your life and where it’s leading, and I want you to feel safe from all the shit the world is gonna try to make you eat. Because kid, the world’s gonna try. It’s gonna rub your face in the dirt and make you bite the curb and it’s gonna fucking suck.”

C’mon, Doc, this isn’t fair. You’re gonna turn me into waterworks.

“I just want you to take care of yourself. I don’t know when you’ll watch this video, whether it’s after I’m gone or if you and I just had a screaming match over the truth. And maybe you don’t wanna listen to advice from me, because in your eyes I’m a traitorous bastard. Trust me, kid, ain’t just your eyes. I’ll never forgive myself. I’ll go to God with this guilt and I’m not even sure I’ll let go of it then.”

Doc falls silent and glances away from the camera. A handful of seconds, a heartbeat or two, enough time to drink in the image of this man that saved my life. What a paradox of a human; savior, destroyer. Murderer saint.

“I shouldn’t turn this to a video about me. One last little bit of advice, Gabe: there’s a difference between self-reflection and angst. You don’t quite got that right balance yet.”

“Pot calling the kettle black.” Without thinking about it, the words come to my lips, and Doc apparently had the quote on his mind, too. We say those words in unison.

“If there’s one thing you take away from what I’ve recorded, it’s that you gotta save yourself before you save others, kid.” After all the smiles I got from him, this is the only one I’ve ever seen reach his eyes.

The video ends.

His words hit dead center mass. Almost like he punched me in the gut. The emotions roaring inside me I’ve no idea what to name or do with, so instead of psychoanalyzing myself I click to the decrypted videos. There’s only a dozen or so, and each one is less than five minutes in length, with two of them only thirty seconds long.

I start with the beginning, to see what lesson Doc wants me to learn from this.

The first video opens in the lobby of a gorgeous mansion. The perspective is from a bodycam, like a hidden camera. The audio is muffled. I can only assume that Megajoule made this video. Why make it so… secretively? Why hide this?

“Honey?” The voice just off camera is his. “What’s that?”

Megajoule appears on screen and I realize that he’s not the one filming. He doesn’t look so ragged in this video, not yet, not yet. That’s still a few years off, I think.

“It’s a camera!” a young girl replies. “Mom bought it for me, so I can make like daily vlogs and stuff. You can hide it in your shirt so people don’t know you’re recording. But I’m not gonna do that, I’m gonna wear it in my head band. Like a flower.” The girl giggles.

“That’s not a bad idea.” Megajoule grins at the camera’s owner, holding his hand out. She takes his hand. I’d guess the owner of that hand is around twelve. She wears a colorful bracelet with the name “Addy” spelled out by the beads. A little elephant charm dangles from the wrist.

“Where is mom?” Megajoule asks.

“She’s upstairs.”

Megajoule nods. “You talked to her today?”

“No.” The girl — Addy — stammers. “Are you staying tonight?”

Megajoule gives her the kind of smile you give a kid when you’re about to lie your ass off or apologize for being shitty. The smile that knows what’s about to happen is wrong but it’s not going to change. Certainly not for a tween girl.

“There’s… this thing I’ve got to do, Addy, or a lot of people are going to die.”

“After your thing?”

“Yes, after this thing. But you understand, don’t you? There are people, just like you and me, at stake. If I don’t go, they might get hurt. They might die. You understand, yes?”

Addy does not answer before the video ends.

The next video starts on a dark stairwell, with light coming from downstairs. Addy is muttering and sniffling, and a tiny sob escapes from her, but almost immediately she is overshadowed by a woman loudly shouting downstairs.

“-you can’t even spare your daughter one night? I don’t care that you’re in Russia, I care that you’re not fucking here, Julian!”

Addy cries out at the woman’s profanity. I’m guessing that’s the mom. The one that looks vaguely like Ruby, if I’m being honest. I believe her name was Victoria. Not a cape herself but at one point in Mega’s vlogs I think he said she was a UWC politician.

“I’m here far more than you are! And I’ll be here when she needs me! I’m the one making arrangements, I’m the one who makes sure she is doing her schoolwork and eating right and I’m the one who has to listen to her cry because you’re not here.”

Addy only listens to this one-sided argument. I wish I could hear Megajoule’s objections, his counterpoints, so that I could know if they sound anything like something I might say. If maybe he’d say something like, “Once I’ve tracked down this enemy, we can talk about it then, huh?” Probably thinks he is being gentle in abandoning his family. Maybe even protecting them by keeping them at arm’s distance.

Victoria devolves into screeching nonsense interspersed with the phrase, “You’re not here.”

And what is the worse sin, not being there for your family, or allowing them to be hurt? Who sinned? Me, or him?

The next video is from a family dinner, with Julian and Victoria sitting across the table from each other, quietly eating. There is a birthday cake on the table with frosting that says, “Happy Birthday, Teen!”

And no one smiles. The two parents eat in silence. They do not look at Addy or at each other, only at the meals in front of them. They eat as if it is hard work. They go about this work with a grim, professional demeanor, and I can’t help but think that maybe they should have just let Addy have a birthday with her friends.

The next video is pretty innocuous, set in a beautifully manicured lawn. Addy tosses a ball for a gorgeous border collie. The dog barks and chases the ball across the lawn, while Addy narrates.

“Lilith is a good dog. Every morning at 7 a.m. or so she wakes me up by booping me on the nose with hers. She sleeps in my room. Its more reliable than an alarm clock. Anyway, I get up with her and we go play for a while before breakfast. Mom says the exercise is good for Lilith and for me.”

Lilith, the border collie, returns with the ball, dropping it on the ground and pushing it to Addy’s bare feet with her nose. Addy picks the ball up and tosses it once more.

“She watches cartoons with me every day when I finish with my tutoring. That never takes very long, I’m usually done by noon, I think. I wish there was a dog park nearby I could take her to, maybe so she could make some friends with the other dogs. I think she must feel lonely a lot, with only me around. Mom sometimes. Alexa, that’s my teacher, she doesn’t like dogs. Isn’t that so awful?”

Yeah, it is, Addy. I never trust someone that doesn’t like dogs.

Then I wonder, who is Addy making these videos for?

Where are her friends?

“At night Lilith sleeps at my feet while I read and stuff. She also likes to hang around the kitchen while I cook dinner. I really hope mom would let me get another pet soon, since there isn’t a dog park.”

The next video is of just that: a new dog in the house, this one a little pug that Addy has named Jeremiah. She likes her biblical names, it seems, and it reminds me a lot of Epione. “Okay, so Lilith doesn’t really like Jeremiah yet, but I think she’ll get used to him. It can be really hard making friends.”

Oh, my God.

This girl doesn’t have any friends. She is literally the princess trapped in a tower by a dragon. Only this dragon is her parents.

She is alone. Her mom only shows up in a few of the videos, Megajoule only in the two I already saw.

I understand what Doc was trying to tell me. Megajoule was too busy for his family. He was out there, giving of himself, being the world’s big damn hero. He made videos for his surrogate son while his true daughter languished at home.

And in the end, isn’t that what killed him? He went out thinking he could topple OPI all on his own. He failed, obviously, even though he planted the seeds of their eventual defeat.

He should have saved himself instead of dying, but he went on a crusade and paid the ultimate price.

The last video is not a bodycam video, but one of Addie sitting on her bed with her two dogs. Lilith rests her head across the girl’s lap, while Jeremiah breathes in the snorting, gasping way of a pug.

Addy’s cheeks are red and wet, her gaze locked downward. She frowns, stroking both of her dogs’ heads. A pretty young teen, dressed in a jean jacket and pink pants. Blond hair in a neat ponytail. She’s in makeup like she expected to go out.

“Hey, dad.”

I don’t know if I should keep watching this, as it feels like I’ve torn into Julian’s mail. I’ve shattered through the barrier of Megajoule for a rare glimpse of the man hiding behind his confident smile.

Yet, Doc included it in the files, apparently at Mega’s request.

“I don’t know what to say to you. I’ve honestly never known. What does a kid talk to Superman about, even if he is her dad? And really, are you even my dad? You and mom… you made me. But honestly, I’ve read magazines and stuff, I know that it’s supposed to feel good when you make a baby, so I can’t imagine you were thinking about me when you and mom did that.” The thought of her parents having sex disgusts her, and she makes a remarkably goofy expression like she’s gagging.

She continues. “Why am I even making this video?”

“I know,” I whisper. “He left you and you’re trying to tell him that it was wrong.”

Addy obviously can’t hear me. “I hate you. That’s really the end of it, isn’t it?”

Fuck.

“You’re not my dad. You’re not even mom’s husband. You are Megajoule and that’s all you’ll ever be. Somewhere up in the sky, somewhere fighting monsters. Never here. Megajoule doesn’t go to PTA meetings or even let me go to a fucking normal high school. He doesn’t show up to my birthdays anymore. He doesn’t do anything for me. He might as well not even exist.”

The young Addy ages ten years at that one realization. I watch it happen. I watch a teen realize in the span of three seconds that the world is shit and that’s what adulthood is, just knowing that it’s shit.

“You don’t exist.”

And that’s the last video. The last of the things that Megajoule left me.

How can I reconcile this with his words? Reach, dream, strive, become.

Does chasing the better version of you come at the cost of your loved ones? Epione wants to destroy the Fear using my love, knowing full well that I could lose it. I’m sitting around New Foundation trying to save it from the clones, instead of going to find Ruby. I’m here. I’m not there.

I have to save myself before I can save others.

That was Megajoule’s mistake. Abstractly, I knew he tried to bear it all alone, thanks to what Ruby told me, but seeing his daughter tell him she hates him for abandoning her is different.

Megajoule made himself into the hero the world needed him to be, transforming the man into a weapon.

I am the weapon who must make himself a man.

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