Thirteenth Labor of Hercules

Submitted for Contest #48 in response to: Write about someone who has a superpower.... view prompt

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There are always expectations, and Hercules hates to disappoint.

“Oh crap,” he says to Jack as they are unpacking the camper van, a souped-up refurbished Airstream, “I completely forgot about the three-chilli guacamole.” Anxiety washes over him. What the hell kind of friend is he? He’d told Jack he’d bring the guac and yet here he is, empty-handed. Jack, the friend he’s known longest of all, who has stood by him through thick and thin since kindergarten.

“Well, that’s it,” Jack says. “I’m packing up and going home.”

Then Jack laughs, and Herk laughs, and suddenly they are eight years old again and ready to explore the forest – adventure, just like they used to.

The Airstream is parked at a designated camping spot five miles inside a wilderness park. Three other vehicles are in the gravelled parking lot. A second, larger, camper van, an old Winnebago, is disgorging a bunch of freckled children and one weary adult. “JennyJasonTabithaMax Gowashyourhands youfiltybeasts,” the adult trumpets three times. The Winnie rocks as the kids stampede from one side to the other. The sweating, beleaguered mother wears a hot pink tank top stretched tight over droopy breasts. She pauses and her eyes travel over the two young men, especially Herk, like she’s trying to remember if she combed her hair today.

The other two vehicles in the lot are big choppers, Kawasaki 650 cc, parked nose to rump like dogs. Two guys are shaking the road dust off their crash padding. They’re mean-looking dudes, all black leather, grizzled stubble, and crazy-assed tattoos. The big dog rider looks like he’s had his share of canyon bites, riding too fast on twisty roads while hanging it out. They give the stink-eye to Jack, who is bespectacled and nondescript. They leave a large respectful distance around Herk, stealing glances at his biceps, which are roughly the diameter of a man’s waist.

At first Jack and Herk pay no mind to the other campers. Although they were weekend regulars in their late teens, it’s the first time in four years they’ve been camping together. After initial bungling, where both of them dive to pick up the same six-pack, and knock noggins, they remember the old rhythms.

Jack lugs the cooler to the campsite, arms straining with the load. It’s heavy with bottles and jars and icepacks and meat. It thuds and bumps against his thighs.

Herk unfastens the metal Grumman canoe from the roof of the Airstream and deftly swings it down like an empty bar tray. While the other campers look on, each mouth a big round O of amazement, he piles everything else in it – tent, sleeping bags, jugs of water, charcoal briquets, beer, lifejackets, oars – and carries the full canoe to the campsite. He could carry it with one hand, but that would just be showing off.

Each campsite has a picnic table, as weathered-gray and inviting as a favorite grandma. The two young men unload the canoe then pause to revel in the moment. It’s peak camping season: the park contains groves of trees interspersed with grassy meadows where, from time to time, deer and elk are known to wander. In the groves, the trees are juicily green and bursting with vitality; the insects are humming and whirring; and the birds orchestrate a cacophony. Feed me, I’m here, this is my nest, my territory. The two friends can barely discern the rustle of the other woodland animals – porcupine, raccoon, and fox – going about their feral deeds.

For a long moment, the two lie flat on the table, human planks, staring up at the dazzling sky where plump clouds drift by, unconcerned by mortals below. The men laugh. This is the life.

Herk rises first. He’s hot, wants to have a dip in the water, but right now food’s the thing. Later, when they take the canoe on the lake, that’s when he figures he’ll plunge in for a cooling swim.

When Jack gets up, he starts ransacking the boxes. “Aw, crikey,” he says, “I forgot the fire-starter.”

“No matter – we can use this,” Herk says, grabbing tufts of dried grass, secretly glad he’s not the only absentminded one. “Tell me we at least have dry matches?”

“Of course,” Jack says, tossing him a little red Bic lighter. He rips open a bag of nacho chips for them to snack on.

Herk overhears other conversations. The toughs are grumble-cussing about the traffic, so heavy in places they were forced to white-line it between lanes. The alpha tough tries to chat up Tanktop Mama who returns the attention. To further impress her, he digs out speakers and cranks up the volume on Nine Inch Nails.

It grows noisier when the Winnebago kids start screaming and whining – “no I didn’t” and “yes you did, I’m gonna tell Mom” – a wail of discord that strangles the summer day’s serenity.

Herk sweats copiously, trying to build a fire from dead grass in the designated grill. Another expectation he’ll fuck up. His stomach growls, he grabs fistfuls of chips and crunches. He keeps flicking the damn Bic but the wispy grass does not start. If only he could get the briquets burning and the food cooking, he could try have a real heart-to-heart with his buddy. Instead, the fire fizzles. Annoyance grows. Herk figures he’d better ask for the music to be turned down – before he gets hangry, because that’s when toughs are likely to bait you. What’s a polite way to ask? “Excuse me, but my friend and I are trying to talk…”

Suddenly Jack shouts; he’s found the fire-starter. Game changer. They set fire to the briquets – and by happy coincidence, a kid dribbles soda pop in the speaker and it blows a fuse. Nine Inch Nails shrink to Nine Millimeter Pins.

Jack brought a “variety pack” of burgers from the new “artisanal meats” start-up where he works. The burgers are made from ostrich, wild boar, kangaroo, et cetera. All meat is locally sourced from small ranches that are diversifying their herds away from the regular cattle and swine. Herk and Jack sip low-alcohol microbrews as they stare at the black briquets charring to gray. Soon the grilling gets underway and Herk salivates from the delicious aromas.

“Ostrich is especially high-protein low-fat,” Jack says. He grills six burgers, four for Herk. They share a whole container of potato salad.

Afterward they recline, groaning, faces greasy, bellies full. “Know what?” Herk says, giddy with the joy of the moment. “It feels like you never left.”

Jack burps in reply and gives a thumbs-up.

This is as mushy as it gets.

Herk fiddles with the fried onion left on his plate. Now comes the hard part. He wants Jack’s advice about kickstarting a stalled career. Everyone else in town has him pigeon-holed. A false arithmetic, where strong equals stupid.

“Hey, you look like you ate sumpin a lil off,” Jack says, his brow furrowed.

“Nah, I’m just thinking about … quitting,” Herk says. “I’m pretty sick of Benchley’s,” It’s a risk; he doesn’t want to throw a damper on the day, but if he can’t talk to Jack about a career move, who can he talk to?

“About time you moved on,” Jack says, grinning with enthusiasm. “You’re too damn good-natured.”

“Am not,” Herk says, color rising in his cheeks.

“Shit, when we graduated four years ago, you were doing pick-up and deliveries.” Jack finishes his beer and crunches the can. “I expected, when I came back, you’d own the place.”

Herk stares awkwardly in the distance. “I reckon it’s most efficient when Mr. Benchley keeps me doing strong-man jobs.” He picks up Jack’s beer can, adds his, and casually presses them flat with his fingers. “But I feel stifled.”

“There you go, being ‘understanding’ of Mr. Benchley.” Jack, who is used to living on a student budget, packs away his unfinished second burger. “I think I was lucky,” he says. “Unlike you, I had no niche, no superpower. I was equally bad at many things, so I got the chance to get away, get four years of college under my belt.”

“Sometimes I watch a forklift,” Herk says wistfully, “and I think, that’s all I am – a human forklift. Instead I’d like to design machines like that. Multiply my efforts, you know.”

“Now’s the time,” Jack says. “What’s holding you back?”

Herk stares at his hands, turning them this way and that. People think strength equals decisiveness. But he always dithers – in part, because he can always count on that last-minute burst of adrenaline. People also think strength equals initiative. But get-up-and-go is a quality that eludes him. Expectations are large sticky nets that trap him in place.

A sound of muffled thunder makes him look up. And then a full-throated scream pulls his gaze sideways. Oh no, it’s Tanktop Mama, with a huge wild boar running behind her. Its hooves are the thunder. Herk takes a moment to process. A wild boar? Here, in the park? Then he remembers a recent news story about exotic animals breaking loose from enclosures. The ranchers are used to fairly mild, domesticated creatures, and underestimate the testosterone frenzy of large mammals.

Time slows to a crawl. Herk is irritated that on the one day he wants to hang out with a friend, some numbskull chooses to play tag with a big animal. His belly is filled with lead, keeping him in place. He shuts his eyes, trying to ignore the terror of the woman as the beast closes in on her.

Thing is, the thunder gets louder. Faster. The scream goes up a notch. Savemesavemesaveme. Herk’s eyes snap open and he sees the cloud of dirt and grass the hooves are churning up. Anxiety squeezes a fist around his overfull stomach. Slowly ever so slowly (it seems) he rises and assesses the creature. The boar is spewing foam from its mouth; the lips are twisted in a fearsome grimace. The enraged look of bulging bloodshot eyes, the slavering mouth, and the yellowed tusk – a single look – puts Herk’s every muscle cell on full alert. He hates the boar, hates the scream, hates the woman for pulling him into his destiny.

The chopper dudes are shrinking back, ready to run to their crotchrockets. The children are hovering, screaming, ignorant of potential danger to themselves. MommyMommyMommy they scream.

Herk knows the pair, the pursuer and the prey, can see him as he lopes toward them. The whole camp area has gone quiet – or maybe it’s a trick of his hearing, this loss of sound at total focus. He knows the woman can see that he’s the only one who can save her. He wishes he had neutrality – an indifference to her plight. But no, action is required – and he must provide.

When the boar has the woman pressed against a tree, Herk strides forward, hoists the giant mass, like a flesh tank covered in tough skin and dirty bristles, and slowly rotates it. Once more around he turns the animal like it is no more than an empty cardboard carton, then tosses it roughly on its head.

He kneels forward and takes the woman by the arms away from the tree. While she catches her breath, Herk sits there, apologizing. “Sorry, ma’am, I was a million miles away.” And between choking sobs, the woman says, “What’re you talking about? I’m alive because of you!”

*         *         *

Around sunset, the two friends crack open the hip flask as they sit near the fire pit.

“She called me a hero. Gawdalmighty! I am so undeserving.” Herk says, looking into the fire, his cheeks ruddy, his brow golden. “I was so slow to react – she could have died – she should be pissed as hell at me.” His face fills with consternation, as if he’s trying to convince himself he didn’t almost let a woman be trampled to death before his eyes. And her children’s eyes. He takes a good long swallow and passes the flask.

Jack is silent; he’s always been the type who listens to a friend unload before he ventures a suggestion.

Herk turns to Jack. “Do you see the awkward position I’m in?” He does not want to be Mr. Strong Man anymore, but if he steps back from the role, people will die.

“I see burnout, Herk. Happens all the time with doctors – like my old man.”

Herk nods in grim recognition. Jack’s right – he’s as burnt out as the ashiest briquet in the grill pit.

In his carelessness, Herk had thrown the boar so hard, at such a bad angle, that its neck had broken and it died before their eyes. He can still feel the gargantuan mass of the pig on his back, the rock-hard muscle of its haunches, the bristles like porcupine quills poking through his T-shirt.

The woman had insisted on a tearful hug, a kiss from her dry lips, and he kept turning away, saying it was nothing.

The worst, Herk thinks, is that the woman forgave him.

He'd looked at Jack, imploring, and Jack had pretended that the two of them had to get going, and he’d peeled off her horrible clingy arms. Meanwhile the two toughs, abashed, broke out the Southern Comfort and drank to Herk’s victory all around, and invited her over for a sip, too.

And now Jack and Herk just look at one another. What to make of their derailed day?

Herk grabs a towel and runs to the lake’s edge. He dives in and swims a few yards, then remembers muscle mass is not buoyant; it’s damn hard to swim. A crashing noise comes from the shore.

“Shee-yat, Hercules, don’t bugger off like that!”

Jack dives in and Herk returns to shore, to wait for his friend. Herk sits massaging his face. Recalling the face of the broken boar. Surprise and rage and ultimately release. After it died, it looked so peaceful.

Herk sits, rubbing his eyes, pulling at his skin, as if to remove the whole face. He’s trying to forget the moment when he saw the woman panicking, and he had thought, maybe this time I’ll just lean over here, fall right under the pummelling hooves of the beast. Maybe I will just lie here and be still.

THE END

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