When we felt the call, we gathered, Earth’s mightiest in the underground lair. This purple guy with issues soared in from across the galaxy, tried to wipe out half the population. We heroes fought like hell, got ourselves pretty banged up, some of us barely alive. We prevailed in the end, as we always did. But before we could finish our drinks at the after party, a new madman in an elaborate suit was waving around some galactic weapon and threatening Australia. They kept coming, one after the other, an orderly bad-guy queue. It got to be a regular thing, saving the world.
We gave our strength and our blood and our spandex to defend the Earth. Over time our perspective changed. The world looked fragile. We wondered if we shouldn’t hang back, let the planet take a few punches. Toughen us all up a bit. If it required so much effort to save the world, maybe the world wasn’t worth saving.
Gellatar the Gruesome appeared in 2026. He waved his tentacles, melted some skyscrapers. Roared about his plans to wipe out New York and Shanghai and Sao Paolo. The superheroes convened at the underground lair, but you could tell, looking around, our hearts just weren’t in this one. How many goddamn times had we saved New York, and here it was being swallowed by rising sea levels. Fuck it. Shanghai was blanketed in smog and unsafe for people anyway. Sao Paolo made us sad, but what’s one city out of thousands. We decided to warn all the citizens we could, but that was it. We’d done our bit. The world wasn’t our responsibility anymore.
We told everyone to leave and let Gellatar knock stuff over like a kid in a sandbox. Sure, the governments put up a little front, fighter jets spraying bullets and tanks in the streets. But we could tell it wasn’t a real assault, just something for the cameras. Election year and all. The governments had the same idea as us. What even is a city that’s so easy to knock down.
Gellatar attacked New York, tossed those thin skyscrapers into the ocean like spears. He snarled and flashed his teeth and destroyed. It was brutal, on all the channels for a few days, a mess of concrete, glass, and smoke. But then some movie star lost her shit on a waiter, so that took top billing. Pretty soon the live Gellatar feed wasn’t even on the main page of CNN. You had to go looking for it. The superheroes were all surprised at how little anybody cared.
Gellatar finished off the entire city. He’d flattened New York and no one had come to stop him. You could hear it from miles away, how the giant monster quit smashing, sat, sniffled, and began to cry. He was more lonely than anything, surrounded by empty, ashy land. So he got to work, and in 2030 the Newer York Gellatar Mall opened to the public. Just in time for Christmas shopping.
People came back for a look around. Gellatar made the front page of Fortune: “Malls are Back!” Sure, the workers had to wear hazmat suits from all the time spent around Gellatar’s trans-dimensional form, but the suits had a big smiley face drawn on the mask, which helped a lot.
We superheroes didn’t know what to think at first. Here was this event we’d been preventing and dreading and waking up in cold sweats over for decades. New York, gone. But when we did our yearly reconvene at the lair, no one seemed bothered. We felt strangely relaxed. We could let it all go. The next year half the superheroes didn’t even show. We heard rumors about their lives, going back to school, building veterinary clinics, getting their real estate license. Living the lives they never could.
I strolled over to the Gellatar mall. The big guy was there, out front, giving kids rides around his tentacle arms. I’m never sure what his mouth is doing, but it looked like he was smiling. I bought a new salad spinner for Mom. She loves those. The hazmat suit at the register was really nice. “Have a nice day!” she said with that hazmat smile that just melts your heart.
Wandering the mall, it’s nothing but clean lines and glass, beauty and symmetry out of so much destruction. I wondered why life before had been so complicated. Was it us, the superheroes? Did our saving people keep things constantly askew? Was it the cities themselves? Others had been lost since, Phoenix to the desert, Paris to another monster, Nairobi to earthquakes. Sure, the citizens were a little bummed, but nobody worried excessively. Shit just moved on.
I’ve got my government pension now. Think I’ll buy a little land outside Nashville to start a beet farm. Nobody needs me anymore. I thought I’d feel fear, but deep inside it’s nothing but goddamn relief. I give one of Gellatar’s eyes a wink on the way out.
Caleb Tankersley is the author of the chapbook Jesus Works the Night Shift. He has won the Wabash Prize in Fiction from Sycamore Review and the Big Sky/Small Prose contest from CutBank. More of his stories can be found in New Plains Review, Permafrost, Psychopomp, and other magazines. He is the Full Length Editor for Split Lip Press. Follow him on Twitter at @midwestpenance.