Hero Complex | Nick Gregorio

Hero Complex

 
 
 

Kelly doesn’t remember me. She can’t. When she woke up she couldn’t remember anything. Or speak very well.

But she was able to write. I saw the notes she would scribble.

Who was I? Why I was there, spending so much time in her hospital room. Always the same questions. Every night. Notes handed off to her parents about me.

Her parents would ask me the same questions. Only they knew exactly who I was. They knew what I did. Or at least some version of the truth.

Now, through the skylight, I watch her mother bring her a bowl of soup and a sandwich with the crust cut off. Kelly smiles at her mother, thanks her the best she can.

I buckle my helmet in place, take another look at her.

She doesn’t remember.

But I do.

*

The Daily News sitting in the rack at the corner store has a grainy photo of the Night on the front page. From a traffic camera, probably. The headline’s expected, nasty, accusatory.

I take a copy, wincing, stretching to reach it near the bottom of the stand.

They attempt to hide the column regarding their increased readership at the bottom of the front page, like it’s an afterthought. It doesn’t discuss the corollary between the Night showing up and the paper’s selling copies as collector’s items when they actually snap a photo of him and print it on the front page. It’s just a nice, ancillary puff piece stuffed underneath a story about the city’s first vigilante—superhero, whatever.

The clerk asks me if I’m going to buy the paper or what.

I apologize, smile, limp to the counter.

“You alright, pal?” he says.

I say, “Absolutely,” smile again.

He stares at my mouth. He asks me to smile again.

Then I notice the taste. The metal. I feel my lips sticking together.

“Bit my tongue,” I say.

“Off?”

I laugh, say, “Almost.”

“Jesus.”

Placing the paper down on the counter, I ask for a napkin.

He hands me one, and I’m careful to make sure paper fibers don’t ball up, flake off and stick to my lips as I wipe the blood away from the corners of my mouth, my teeth.

“Paper’s a buck,” he says.

“Oh, can I have a coffee, too, please?”

“Won’t that hurt?” he says, his voice cracking a bit from what I assume is an aversion to blood.

I smile again, hoping I’ve wiped the blood away enough to make it more pleasant to look at, say, “I sort of got used to the pain.”

*

At my arbitration hearing, a room full of people in suits thank me for coming. They tell me to take a seat, and I try not to smile as I shake their hands. They’re cordial, nodding their heads as I go down the line. They look at my hand, bandaged and seeping, but I tell them it’s a pleasure to meet them so their gaze doesn’t linger. But even then I’m sure they notice the swelling around my eye.

My principal, at the end of the line, doesn’t shake my hand. Her eyes go to my mouth.

I wipe my lips with a tissue. There’s blood, but not much.

My union rep tells me to let her do most of the talking. With her hand on my back she turns me to where I’m supposed to sit.

I say, “Okay.” I say, “How’s it looking?”

She doesn’t say anything, purses her lips, motions for me to sit down.

As I sit I feel my knee pop, lock into a half-bent wreck. The pain pulses in the corners of my eyes, leaving spots in my peripheral vision.

The people who were so nice when I entered the room are now speaking in stern tones about the position I’ve put myself in over the last several months. They talk about what my students have said about me. They talk about what my principal has reported. My running out of sick time, but calling out anyway. My black eyes, my limping, my broken fingers.

They speak, but I only hear buzz words as I work on my knee, massaging the kneecap, trying to straighten the leg.

I hear “suspension.”

Hear “responsibility.”

Hear “egregious lack of…” something.

My union rep says, “What a teacher does outside of work is his or her own business.”

Someone at the table says, “But when that affects the students’ progress in the classroom that’s when we have to look more closely at what one of our teachers does off-hours.”

The table and my rep begin to get heated, discussing my case as if I’m not in the room.

My forehead, now slick with a sheen of sweat, begins to ache from all of the grimacing. The heat in my mouth from my split tongue is met and increased by my grinding teeth, which singe the inside of my cheeks.

I hear someone ask me if I’m listening, tell me how serious this is.

Smiling with my lips clamped shut I tell them, yes, I’m listening.

“What’s the matter?” my union rep says, whispering in my ear.

“Nothing,” I say.

“They won’t terminate you today,” she says.

“Good.”

“They’ll wait for the next hearing to do that.”

Someone at the table clears their throat. He begins speaking.

I push my kneecap to the right, to the left. I feel tendons, ligaments grinding against bone while the man behind the table speaks to me in a calm, firm tone.

My knee pops, echoes through the room. I release a long, loud breath, smile as I stretch my leg.

I hear someone say, suspended without pay.

I say, “I’m sorry, what?”

*

Kelly answers the door, her right arm locked into a crutch, her face confused and frightened that her mother wasn’t the one who rang the doorbell. She doesn’t recognize me, but when her eyes fall to the bouquet of flowers her mouth hooks into a smile.

I ask her if she remembers me, hoping that after this long something may have come back to her.

“No,” she says. “Wait, you came to visit me in the hospital, right?”

I smile, tell her yes I did, tell her that we used to be friends. Years ago. I ask if she has gotten the flowers I’ve been sending her.

“No,” she says. “I don’t think so.”

“Well, I brought you some more. You can have them if you want them.”

“They’re pretty,” she says.

“Your favorite.”

I turn and look back to the driveway, say, “Can I come in? Put them in water for you?”

“I don’t know,” she says. “My Mom told me when I was a kid I shouldn’t let strangers in. With my memory the way it is she still tells me that.”

“But I’m not a stranger, remember?”

She stares at me, her eyes dart from my face to the flowers. She doesn’t fully recognize what it is, but there’s something in there deep, making her hesitate, making her think that I’m okay, that I’m a good guy.

I hold the flowers out to her, place my hand on the screen door so she can take them. “What do you think?” I say. “I’m a friend, I swear.”

She nods, turns and moves toward the kitchen without taking the flowers from me.

Glancing back at the driveway before I enter, I step into the house. I haven’t set foot in here since just after college. When we were still together. I remember her then. Fit and firm, she filled out her clothes with a body that I couldn’t help but stare at. But now as she hobbles through the foyer I see up close how much of that person has faded away. Her pants are lose, her shirt hangs from her shoulders.

Her smile’s gone.

I go to the sink, take a tall glass from the cabinet, fill it with water. Unwrapping her flowers, dropping them into the glass, I try to arrange them the best I can. But my hands are shaking too much.

Turning around, I begin to tell her how much she loves these flowers. But I stop when I see her. Facing me, shoulders slouched, eyebrows bent toward the space between her eyes, she stands there. Staring at me.

She says, “You.”

I say her name, take a step forward.

“No,” she says.

“No? No, what? What’s the matter?”

“You.”

“Do—do you remember me?”

“You did this to me.”

I take another step. She flinches.

I say, “No. I—”

I can’t finish my sentence. A car honks in the driveway.

Her mother must already be out of the car.

Kelly lunges at me, but catches her crutch on a chair at the kitchen table. Her face shifts from anger to horror as she loses her balance, collapses to the floor. Her knee hits first, then her shoulder. The sound of her face colliding with the floor makes me drop the flowers. The glass shatters; water bursts up and sloshes on her, soaking her.

The door clicks, unlocks. But before it opens I’m stepping over Kelly, running through the living room to the French doors that lead to the back yard.

Outside I sprint away, hearing the screams fade behind me.

*

I hold the lighter to the hooked needle until my fingers burn, pinching the metal at its base.

Taking the entire glass of whisky down, I wait for the needle to cool.

I pinch the torn flesh together just under my nipple, weave the needle through in tight loops, drawing the hypoallergenic thread through fast enough that I don’t forget how much this actually hurts before I run it through my skin again.

My breathing becomes a series of short inhalations. The volume of each breath increases every time I push the needle in, poke it through the other side.

Learning to sew stitches from instructional YouTube videos makes for ugly, jagged scars, but running to the hospital every time I get shanked in an alley, or slashed in a brawl isn’t in my best interest.

I snip the thread close enough to feel the scissors graze my swollen skin, and pour peroxide over the closed wound. It barely stings at all. The whiskey’s kicking in too late. I can never gauge how long to wait between chugging booze and stitching myself up. This one bled so much I think I made the right choice, though.

Leaving the bathroom, careful not to forget the bottle on the sink, I notice all the blood on the bedroom carpet and take note that I’ll need to shampoo the stains out when I wake up tomorrow—actually, later today. It must have gushed onto the Berber after I unzipped the Kevlar tunic without my noticing. Sloppy.

I drop onto the couch and can’t help but recall the sound Kelly’s face made on the kitchen floor. I heard that sound while punching in the teeth of the guy who stabbed me. I heard that sound when my bloody vest smacked onto the tile floor in the bathroom. It’s the only sound I hear over the ringing in my ears and the reruns on television.

I take another pull from the bottle. Now just a slow, dull burn.

Putting my feet up on the coffee table, I kick the remote to the floor. The plastic slapping onto the hardwood is Kelly’s face again.

Now, with nowhere to go in the morning, I finish off the whiskey and drop the empty bottle onto the couch hoping not to hear that sound again.

*

We fought. All the time.

It was our thing. We would fight. Fuck. Wake up the next day and do the same thing all over again. It was our process. Never mind what friends and family would say about the emotional abuse. Those bruises we could hide easy enough.

The others, when she would bite me too hard, or I would hold onto her hips with a bit too much pressure, those were the ones we adored. The ones we couldn’t get enough of. We would scar each other and laugh, and the laughing would turn to touching, and the touching would start the whole process over again.

Oddly happy, and happily miserable. That was us.

With love like that, though, everyone eventually crosses a line.

I talked to Jackie too long one night at a party. Or maybe I stared at Cora’s ass over Kelly’s shoulder when she was telling me to stop talking to Erica. I can’t remember. It turned into a blend of jealousy and rage that threw Kelly over the top. She slapped me in front of everyone there.

I grabbed her arm and we left, screaming at each other down the street.

She threw me against the car, mashed her lips into mine after I told her I was fucking sorry. My lip bled, dripped onto her chin. She told me I was in some serious trouble and I should get us back to her house as soon as I could. Otherwise she might’ve cooled off. And I wouldn’t have wanted that.

Driving home she started talking about how bad she wanted to climb on top of Jackie’s boyfriend.

I just drove, gripping the steering wheel harder and harder until my hands cramped up. I knew what she was doing. I knew she would resort to that tactic to get me more jealous than she was. But I didn’t say anything.

Until she told me she thinks about him when we’re fucking.

I lost it. I screamed at her. Used words I only used when she told me to.

We were on Broad Street when I pulled over and told her to get out of the fucking car.

She laughed, but I said, “Stop fucking laughing. Get out.”

When she started crying I got out and walked around to her side. I opened the door, pulled her out.

She told me if I left her we were done.

I got in the car and drove away.

I turned my phone off. I screamed lines I wished I’d said while she was still there, had a conversation with myself almost all the way to her place. I wish I could say that I turned back around because I felt awful for leaving her.

But I didn’t have a key to her place.

I called her to ask her where she was, but her phone rattled around the cup holder she left it sitting in. She hadn’t had time enough to grab it before I’d ripped her from the car.

It didn’t take long to find her.

There was an ambulance, lights flashing, a couple blocks down and around the corner from where I dropped her off.

I didn’t bother to find a spot. I threw the car in park, got out and ran. There were cops everywhere.

She was lying on a gurney, her head strapped into an orange brace, her face covered in blood from where her eye socket was smashed in, where her head was cracked open. Her clothes were torn up, covered in blood.

They loaded her into the ambulance, holding a mask over her face, pumping oxygen into her mouth. I was screaming for someone to tell me what happened. I screamed until the cops asked me who I was, why I was there, who was I to her.

And I told them.

I told them everything that wouldn’t make them believe I was responsible.

*

Running the shampooer over the carpet, I realize I waited too long. The blood caked into scabs of polypropylene, hardened brown lily pads of varying sizes and shapes.

I hear the knock at my door over the machine. I shut the thing off and listen. I’m quiet, still, hoping whoever is there will get lost so I can finish up before suiting up and heading out for the night.

But they knock again.

I close my bedroom door, locking the bloody mess away. “Just a minute,” I say, kicking a steel-toed boot into the closet and shutting it.

It’s a cop.

I ask him how I can help him.

He asks if I am the name he reads from the paper he’s holding.

“That’s me,” I say.

“You’ve been served, sir. You’ll find the date of the hearing inside this envelop.”

“Wha—what is this?”

“It’s a PFA, sir.”

“A what?”

“A restraining order. The details can be found inside. Sign this please.”

I sign the form he hands me, take the envelope from him. I tear it open, letting go of the careful hold I have on my door, allowing it to swing away from me.

Reading the thing brings back the sound of Kelly hitting the floor. I hear it over and over again, a heart beating in my ears as I run over the same printed lines for the second and third time. My forehead beads with sweat. My eyes water. I suck back something wet in my nose.

“Sir?” the cop says.

“I’m good. I’m shocked, but—”

“No, sir. What’s that?”

He’s staring over my shoulder. I turn, see my helmet sitting on the coffee table, a felt rag and spray oil next to it.

“Motorcycle helmet,” I say.

“In an accident recently?”

“Yes, sir,” I say holding a hand up, displaying the wrecked knuckles I got from punching through a car window.

“It’s an interesting design.”

“It’s new.”

“Yeah?”

“Yep.”

“Mind if I come in, take a look at it? I ride too.”

“I don’t think that’s the greatest idea, Officer…”

“Norton.”

“Officer Norton. Sorry, but I think you should go now. Thank you for serving me.”

Norton smiles, backs away from the door, says, “Have a nice night.”

“You too.”

He walks down the hall, and I keep an eye on him the entire way to the elevator. He turns, says, “Hey, make sure to lock your windows, okay?”

“Sure, thanks.”

“There’s a nut in a mask running around beating the hell out of people. Can’t be too careful.”

“Thanks for the tip.”

The elevator dings; the doors roll open. He stands there staring, smiling for a moment, then waves.

Closing the door, I read the words on the PFA over and over again. The words tell me I am no longer allowed within one hundred yards of Kelly or her family outside of the hearing that will take place in a month.

I lift my helmet from the coffee table, look into the empty eye sockets.

Without buffing out the scrape on the forehead, I buckle it onto my head and get dressed.

*

The house is dark. Too dark to see anything more than my reflection through the skylight, my own featureless face staring back through black eyes. My breath catches in my throat.

The glasscutter I keep in my belt is in my hand. I can’t remember reaching for it. Or clicking it open. But I scratch the blade along the frame of the pane anyway. Making sure the glass doesn’t fall in, I wedge the blade into a cut corner to lift it from its mooring. I lift, set the pane aside, and drop myself inside after checking for anyone waiting in the dark.

The furniture hasn’t been used for a day or two. The indents normally present have filled out.

I walk through the darkness, listening as my breathing becomes stressed. My chest doesn’t fully expand, my vision gets spotty from the lack of oxygen, and the helmet becomes more a prison than protection. I keep a small flashlight in my belt, but my fingers shake too much to undo the clasp to the compartment it’s kept in. My knees are weak. My steps feeble and uncertain.

They’re gone.

In the kitchen I walk over the spot where Kelly landed, force the sound away. There’s nothing in the sink, or the dishwasher. Or the refrigerator. The flowers are gone.

I move from the kitchen to the dining room, to the library with its books all in their proper place. I walk up the stairs, careful to be silent for no reason, maneuver around the motorized chair on the track bolted into the wall.

The bathroom is clean, no tube of toothpaste lying rolled up on the sink, no hair products, no soap, no towels hanging on a hook or a door knob.

The floorboards under the carpet groan as I walk the hallway, passing an office without a computer on the desk, a spare bedroom, the master with the bed made.

Kelly’s door is closed, but opens with a push. It’s perfect, sterile. Almost as if it’s waiting for the dust to settle.

I sit on her bed trying to breathe. But I can’t. Even after pulling my helmet off, the air I’m trying to suck back doesn’t move much further than my throat. It gets caught there and coughed back up. Blood pulses in my temples as my heart ramps up its pace. I slip from the bed. On my hands and knees, drawing hiccupped breaths, my mouth hangs open, a wire of saliva runs from my lip to the floor.

*

Officer Norton stands inside my apartment, stares at me through my window. I’m on my fire escape, but it’s dark enough that he can’t see me. There’s no lighting out here, and the street lights below don’t help his vision. He doesn’t know he’s looking at anything but his own reflection in the window.

The cops are rooting through my closet. They’re cataloguing things that could possibly prove I am what Norton thinks I am. They’ll find dark clothing, emergency medical supplies, receipts for bouquets I had sent to Kelly’s, students’ progress reports. And the carpet cleaner. Everything else I’m wearing. Anything incriminating I disposed of. Norton’s hunch based on my carelessness will become nothing more than a wasted night for his precinct.

Norton presses the butts of his palms to the window, cups his hands and looks through. I hear him say what the fuck.

I don’t move. I only realize that I’m hyperventilating again when he puts his ear to the window.

Then he opens it.

And I’m over the fire escape railing before Norton tosses off some compulsory cop word. My ankle pops, slick and wet, when I hit the sidewalk. My knee buckles. My spine sends a shockwave of pain shooting from my tailbone to the base of my skull. My stitches tear open.

But I get up. I move a fast I as can, making my way to the alley where I dumped all the bio-hazardous waste from the other night.

I get tunnel vision from the pain. My eyes twist the street into a spiral of concrete and metal. I set off a car alarm, smashing through a side view mirror.

Then there are cops yelling for me. Shouting commands at something they can’t see.

I turn left, stumble down an alley. Hitting Van Pelt Street and turning back toward the direction of my building, I collapse at the side of a dumpster, crawl behind it.

I wait here for the cops’ voices to fade.

*

The pain clouds my vision, but I can stand. I can hobble. The last of the flashing lights from a police cruiser came and went a while ago. The sirens have stopped. I shimmy my way from behind the dumpster and walk. Never stepping into a streetlamp’s conical light, I work my way behind parked cars, sticking as close to walls as possible. The blocks blur into neighborhoods as I move, hiding from everything, making sure I’m unseen.

I walk until I can’t anymore. Until my legs, weak and broken, collapse under my weight.

I reach for something to pull myself from the ground. But my hands find nothing. My lungs tighten, my breaths shorten. My heartbeat pulses in my ears, pumping louder with each beat.

Until I hear a different sound.

A whimpering from down the street.

I crawl toward it.

Around the corner, a man presses a woman up against a wall, holds his hand over her mouth. He tells her this will only take a minute.

She begs him to let her go. I hear her begin to cry.

I stand, move toward them.

He sees me before I reach them. He pulls a gun, points it at me, tells me to walk away.

“I can’t,” I say.

“The fuck you can’t. Get out of here.”

So I run.

Directly at him.

He pulls the trigger. I hear the shots, but don’t feel anything. I’m used to the pain.

On the ground, with the guy under me, fighting me, I wait. I wait until I see her running away. Until I hear the sound of her shoes hitting the pavement, getting as far away from me as she can.

 
 
 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:



Nick Gregorio

Nick Gregorio lives, writes, and teaches in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He holds a BA in English Literature and an M.Ed from Chestnut Hill College. Currently he is enrolled in Arcadia University’s MFA program. He plays in two area punk rock bands and harbors an intense addiction to print media.

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