Last week, I threw open the doors of the Blunt Pencil (sounds like a pirate tavern, doesn’t it?) and invited Beth Trissel to talk about the importance of research. Today, I’m pleased to welcome my very good friend Tony Noland. I’ve been kicking around the concept of a series of posts intended to explore the initial idea that sparked the beginning of a story, and Tony has very graciously agreed to join in! I’ll be sharing the particular story he’s talking about at the end of the post. So, without any further ado, over to you, Tony!
If you were to have your life’s work taken from you, how would you react? I’m talking about the main thing that drives you, your chief source of joy and delight in life, what gives you your self-identity and self-respect. If you found out that you had to give it up, knowing that you would lose all your friends, all your status in the community, everything that mattered… how would that feel?
This is no fiction, of course. Every day, people are forced to give up careers, activities and relationships through the vicissitudes of life. Even without global upheavals like war, famine or zombie apocalypse, everyday changes in the job market, family turmoil, health crises… these can make any of us face terrible decisions with major impacts on our emotional well-being.
But what if it was a thriving career as a superhero you had to give up? And, just to make the stakes even higher, what if you had to give it up for a stupid, embarrassing, humiliating reason?
In writing “Grey Ghost Gone”, I wanted to explore the emotions in that scenario. When playboy billionaire Harold Rentnick is forced to make that hard decision of giving up his superhero career as the Grey Ghost, his biggest loss is emotional. He misses using the superpowers and the crimefighting excitement, but what he really misses are his friends, his romantic attachments, his sense of belonging.
The costumes, powers and codenames aside, this story is a tragedy for a very human reason. Mr. Rentnick had no one to fully share himself with. People wear masks to protect themselves emotionally, but an inevitable consequence is isolation. He kept his life so compartmentalized that when tragedy struck, he had no one he felt he could to turn to, no one to lean on. In fact, he was so concerned with preserving the dignity of the Grey Ghost’s image, and of maintaining that mask, that he went to great lengths to deliberately cut himself off from the friends who tried to help. With secret identities and life challenges of their own, I have no doubt they would have understood and they would have supported him in transition to a new life.
Instead, he isolated himself and lived only with his grief and loss. He was reduced to bitterness and solitude, convinced that he was worthless and had no reason to go on. This, because there was no one in his life who might have told him differently.
In this story, superheroes are people, with human needs. My hope is that readers can find something in it to connect with, even if they don’t have a magic ring.
Harold pulled into his garage, killed the engine and took off his sunglasses. Six more hours until sundown, as if it mattered. Nothing mattered, not anymore. The life of Harold W. Rentnick III was never much to speak of, but his night-time secret identity as a vigilante super-hero used to make his days bearable. Not long ago, he lived for the night, was anxious to leave this plush prison and go out to prowl the mean streets. Now, he just sat alone at home watching CSI reruns and movies from his Netflix queue.
True, home was a 34-room mansion on a secure estate, but so what? Harold knew that he was a boring, unlovable lump. It was his alter ego, the Grey Ghost, whom everyone liked to be with. When he was behind the mask of the Ghost, he could be clever, funny, charming, flirtatious… free. People liked him when was the Ghost. People only tried to hang out with Harold because he was rich. Whether they were from families that were rich, super-rich or don’t-bother-asking-rich, it was all about money. There was no one he could trust, with whom he could be himself. Money was like a disease that kept him apart from everyone else, a disease for which he knew no cure.
In the end, it was all worthless. He hated being Harold. He’d trade every cent of it to be able to be the Grey Ghost again; even if he had to start over from nothing, he’d do it tomorrow. But it was impossible.
He got out of the Benz and went into the empty house. The super-strength and ESP, he missed those, of course, but more than that or any of the other powers, he missed being cool and mysterious, being admired. He missed hanging out with RocketMan and Raptor, just kicking ass and patrolling together through the watches of the night. He even missed his on-again, off-again dating with Electra, crazy jealous as she was of that partnership he’d had with the Blonde Bombshell. He missed all of his friends.
But he dared not put on the magic ring that gave him his powers, not even once for old time’s sake. The pain was just unbearable when he took the ring off, and he couldn’t stay as the Ghost for more than 72 hours without dying of thirst.
The ring was upstairs, on his dresser in that little wooden box, the same one he’d found in that cave in Bolivia. The carved piece of bone was dense and smooth, and he’d been captivated by its beauty and power from the moment he saw it. When he first put it on though, he’d realized he had something unique in all the world. It had taken him a while to figure out the powers that came with the ring, but it was a chance to completely reinvent himself. How ironic that the same aspect of the ring’s power which had made him feared and hated in the criminal underworld was also the very thing that forced him to retire last year.
As the Grey Ghost, all forms of metal and other inorganic matter passed right through him. Bullets, knives, shrapnel… none of it could touch him. It wasn’t exactly full intangibility, but it also let him walk through brick walls, go in and out of locked vaults, stuff like that. It scared the hell out of the crooks. It never occurred to him to think about his teeth.
Harold walked down the back hall towards the kitchen. For more than twenty years, he’d been a super-hero, one of the best. Then, last spring, it all came to an end. He remembered going out on patrol after having a cavity fixed at the dentist, the first one he’d ever had. His new filling fell right through his mouth as soon as he put on the ring. He hadn’t noticed until after that night’s work, but when he took the ring off, that stabbing pain was horrible. It meant he’d had to endure a redrilling session to set a new one, which had also fallen out the very next night. Of course, he didn’t feel the pain as the Grey Ghost; as soon as the magic ring came off, though…
After replacing the filling for the fourth time, the dentist said he’d have to pull the tooth and set a crown if the fillings kept coming out. Harold considered what it would mean to have endured the drilling into his jawbone to set the pin, only to have to go back and do it again and again when his intangibility kicked in. That wasn’t a volitional power like the flight or the X-ray vision… it just happened when he put on the ring.
Harold thought of the needles jabbed into his jaw, the smell of burning bone during that last session in the dentist’s chair, the metallic taste of the most recent filling. With his jaw still aching, he made the hardest decision of his life. He’d given up his life’s work, his passion, the only thing that made life enjoyable. He sent a secret coded message to the mayor and to Fellowship of Protectors, telling them of his decision to retire, citing “medical reasons”. Every single one of them expressed concern, offered support, asked if he needed help. The Diamond Devil and Ms. Crusher even offered to meet up in real life.
He didn’t answer any of them. None of his friends – the Grey Ghost’s friends – knew who he really was, and he wanted to keep it that way. He couldn’t bear to let anyone know that behind the mask of the Grey Ghost, the spookiest, cleverest hero of them all, he was just Harold Rentnick, a worthless billionaire.
From one of the kitchen cupboards, Harold took a tall glass. From the refrigerator, he took a container of orange juice. From the butler’s pantry, he got a fresh bottle of Grey Goose vodka. It had been his favorite brand since he’d picked his nom-de-heroique. He smiled at that private joke one last time. In his pocket was a rattling bottle, a full prescription of sleeping pills. Unbuttoning his shirt, Harold went out onto the deck where the hot tub waited.