The Modern Letdown

by: Chris Thompson

A fictitious tale of a genetic letdown that may be a family’s only hope….

An especially troubling facet of growing up is its complete lack of elegance. I was an uncomfortable kid and a shining example of this truism. Red-haired and wild-eyed with a thick neck and two stout legs, I was far too short for my age and way too chubby for my height. I felt awkward in my own body, like I was constantly wearing a sweater a few sizes too small. Oftentimes it was suffocating. To add to my discomfort, my parents couldn’t be bothered with me. By the time I was born they had already consumed themselves with designs for my older brother Win’s future. To them I was a distraction. A misstep. A sap on their limited resources and they rejected my existence. So I rejected theirs.

Growing up in the shadow of Win’s accomplishments was dark so I disappeared into my mind to escape. Win was tall, handsome, elegant and well mannered. He seemed to have received all the qualities one would desire in a person while I was bestowed with what was leftover–the cast off husks of Win’s personality that could only serve to hinder him. I didn’t blame Win, it was genetic and out of his control, but I couldn’t help but resent his attributes. Especially since Win and my parents made it all to abundantly clear that I was insignificant.

The freedom my parent’s apathy towards me allowed was frightening. I came and went as I pleased, did what I liked and said what I wanted as long as it didn’t interfere with Win’s advancement. Their complete lack of enthusiasm for my existence settled over me like a dense cloud of ash, blanketing my world in a thick cloak of darkness. It was into this darkness that I habitually retreated. There I was named Neon. Neon Towers. I had filched the name from a derelict housing development decaying on the outskirts of our sprawl-laden town and liked the way it rolled off the tongue. Neon Towers was the King of his Darkness and ruled the realm with an iron fist.

When I was eight and my brother was thirteen my father gave Win a ruby-eyed serpent ring. Win had successfully completed an exam that assured his position in a prestigious academic program and my father considered Win worthy of the rings custody. The program conferred numerous privileges upon my parents, both financial and societal and they were overjoyed with their newfound circumstances. Having been in my family for generations–and passed down from father to son–the ring was my father’s most valuable possession. It was a great honor for him to pass this token on to my brother and he made sure to let Win know that he was adding another page to the rings long history.

As my father spoke animatedly to Win of the chronicles of the ruby-eyed ring, I watched secretly from the doorway, careful to remain silent lest I incur my father’s wrath. Win slipped the ring onto his finger and held his hand high to admire its detail in the light of the setting sun. As the suns rays filtered through the moth-eaten curtains of our shabby living room it struck the ruby eyes, causing its facets to suddenly blaze, throwing a pattern of crimson colored light about Win. The radiance seemed to envelop his hand, flowing through him like sunlight through a raindrop. I was stunned. I had never encountered such a thing of beauty in this sordid, decaying world and I desired it wholly. Win slowly turned his head to look at me, his hand still held high, and a shrewd look spread across his face as if to say See brother, now this here is true power. From that moment forward Win the Destroyer was born to my imagination and my struggle for the power of the ring begun.

I battled many powerful foes as Neon Towers in the shadows of my mind growing up but none as powerful as Win the Destroyer. He wielded a mighty, ruby-eyed serpent ring of the purest gold. It was the source of all his powers and I clashed with him relentlessly across the Realm of Darkness for its possession. But it always seemed to be just out of reach. I was forever on the cusp of victory, of seizing the ring from my brother’s vanquished hand when something would wrench me from my daydreams. Some portion of my reality consistently found a way to insert itself into my subconscious and prevent me from realizing my triumph. It was incredibly frustrating. As I grew older my adventures became more vivid and I took to believing that the ring itself held some sway over my thoughts. It’s dual existence in both the darkness of my imagination and in the actuality of my ever-disappointing reality troubled me.

Sometimes, when my thoughts meandered lazily I found myself yearning to be scolded. Like when Win failed to achieve perfect scores on an exam. Or like when the kids at the school I sometimes attended were reprimanded for misbehaving. I always listened intently as they told of being punished for their various acts of childhood rebellion. I would lean in quietly and eavesdrop as they talked in whispered voices of their disobedience when the teacher’s backs were turned. Or when we congregated on the dusty, ochre-colored ball fields during recess, I would wander within earshot and listen as they raucously bragged of the whooping’s they’d received, of how defiant they were during their punishments. It was like a badge of honor to fall under the punishing hand of authority and endure its sting. I wished to have a story of parental rebellion to share with these hellions of my adolescence. To have my parents divert their gaze from Win if only for a moment. But I didn’t. My boundaries were never defined. The only rule I had to adhere to was stay out of the way. Never was I told that there would be consequences for my transgressions and my parents couldn’t be bothered with my antics. As long as the authorities or what was left of childhood services those days didn’t come knocking on the door, I could get away with anything.

So I did a lot of things in my youth that a child could never hope to get away with. I was perpetually alone, shunned by parents and peers alike and as I grew older I began to master all manner of skills to help me navigate my solitary existence. Like how to shoot a gun and how to fight. How to steal and not get caught. How to sneak around the darkness and not be seen and how to live off the land. I’d done a lot of things that I wasn’t proud of by the time I entered my teens but I saw them as a requirement for my survival. My own badge of honor. They’d helped me to figure out how the world really worked and what was truly important and I realized quickly that it wasn’t any of the things Win was learning. That comforted me, lessened the darkness and made me feel like I was a little more important to the world. So by the time the first bombs dropped I was actually getting bored with this life. Looking for a change and desperate for a break from the dead-ended monotony of my apparent non-existence.

The opening salvos of the War took place towards the end of a particularly hot and dry summer. It was late August and my 18th birthday was fast approaching. I was nearing adulthood in the eyes of the state and I would finally be able to sever the last string that kept me tethered to my family. New York, Chicago, DC, Atlanta, LA and Boston were obliterated instantly. Several nukes landed in the waters off the East and the West coasts and one bulls eyed the Gulf, triggering massive tsunamis that raced up the continental shelf and drowned all the low-lying coastal cities. People died in droves. Plus they dropped a nuke in each of the Great Lakes and one at the headwaters of the Mississippi, polluting the water supply for millions. It was madness. Our family’s little house in Abilene, Texas–a few hours West of Fort Worth–was spared any of the initial devastation but we were by no means safe.

My brother–twenty-two at the time–was enrolled at Harvard and pursuing a masters degree in business. He was meticulously packing his bags for the return trip to Boston when we first heard the news of the bombings. Win kept a small wooden radio on his bedside table, a relic from the past and a gift from a favorite professor of his. He had been listening to a call-in business program as he packed and I had been silently watching him from across the room, leaning on the doorframe to his bedroom. My eyes were completely focused on the ruby-eyed serpent ring Win had placed on his bedside table and they went wide when the radio program suddenly cut out. It was replaced by a stern-voiced gentleman from the Emergency Broadcasting Service detailing the scope of the attacks and telling us to stay tuned to this wavelength, stay calm and stay in our own house. I remember the gentleman repeating several times that there was nothing to be gained by trying to get away. I found this to be amusing as I watched my brother holding a pair of slacks over his half-packed suitcase, frozen in mid-action as the news enfolded. “Going somewhere Win?” I asked my brother mockingly, interrupting the silence as the Emergency message paused to repeat itself. “I bet you’re glad Dad got sick and you had to postpone that internship this summer eh, bro?”

His face was dead white. Ashen. Like he had just been socked in the stomach and all the wind knocked out of him. The realization that he would undoubtedly be dead right now if he had stayed on in Boston over the summer flowed over him in waves. His perfectly pressed slacks crumpled to the floor as he ran his hands shakily through his silky brown hair. “Looks like the life you’ve been living for has disappeared Win. All those wasted hours. It’s a shame really.” I continued sarcastically. “What need is Wall St. going to have for a Harvard graduate when all the markets are gone?”

He just stared at me blankly. Like he was looking though me, trying to focus on an object, an idea that he did not want to acknowledge. His future was done. Gone. All that hard work and effort he had put into his life was for naught. My parent’s struggles and their group sacrifice in the name of Win’s future was turning out to be an exercise in futility, for none of that mattered anymore. The heaviest thing Win had ever lifted in his life was a pencil and the world didn’t need pencil-lifters anymore. It had been sent reeling and a new order was equilibrating out of the madness. An order that favored the adaptable, the resilient, the resourceful, the loner, the survivor–and I was all of those. Win was toast.

After a few moments Wins eyes focused back on me. He kept on opening and closing his mouth as if he wanted to say something–only the words never came out. He was just standing there looking like a fish out of water, gulping for air and suddenly uncomfortable with the world. “Let’s go downstairs Win, OK?” I offered. “We’ll go sit on the front porch, have a beer and figure this all out.” He nodded his head silently and walked clumsily towards the doorway, his suitcase forgotten. I placed my hand on the small of his back and guided him along the hallway, glancing back over my shoulder to look at the serpent ring still lying on the table where Win had left it. Obviously forgotten by him. I took him down the stairs, into the foyer and out the front door into the light of the setting sun. I sat him down on the porch’s front steps and went back into the house to grab a couple of my father’s beers.

When I came into the kitchen my father was sitting at the small Formica table we sometimes ate at, moaning with his head in his hands. He obviously had heard the news and was having his own struggles grasping its implications. As I crossed the kitchen to the refrigerator he suddenly looked up at me, red eyes swollen and skin blotchy and pale. Kind of like how I looked as a kid. But I paid him no attention and quickly grabbed a couple of beers. My father just stared at me silently the whole time, watching my every move. I could still feel his eyes intensely on my back as I left the confines of our small kitchen and hastily made my way back outside.

As I sat down next to my brother a violent wind suddenly blew up the street. It carried with it a terrible stench of burnt earth and ozone, like the world was on fire. It was acrid and pungent and made my eyes water. And as soon as it arrived it was gone–replaced by a stillness and silence the likes of which I have never experienced before. As if the very air itself has stopped moving. Win looked at me worriedly as I handed him his beer. “Don’t be afraid brother.” I responded and clinked my beer to his. “To the apocalypse” I said and took a long, deep swig. It tasted delicious, like contentment turned to liquid and I drank it in. The sun continued it slow, lazy descent to the horizon and we were both treated to one of the most gorgeous, dazzling sunsets I have ever seen. “It’s probably due to all the vaporized cities and people being thrown up into the atmosphere eh, bro.” I whispered to Win. He looked at me, white as a sheet, his untouched beer slipping out of his hand and falling into the grass. I smiled.

From behind me I heard the screen door noisily creak open and slam shut. I turned around to find my parents standing behind us, leaning on each other for support, a look of pure dread on their faces. They ignored Win and stared directly at me. It was unsettling and at the same time fulfilling to have them finally cast their gaze upon me. It was novel and something that I had imagined all my life but never expected to encounter so I rose to meet their gaze, returned it with the same intensity, and waited for them to speak. But they didn’t. I think they were too damn scared. My father removed his hand from his pocket and held it out before me, his sad, watery eyes locked with mine. He turned his palm upwards and opened his fingers to reveal the ruby-eyed serpent ring, its jeweled eyes glowing strongly in the twilight of the setting sun. Realization dawned inside me instantly, like a white hot flash of phosphoric light. They were throwing their lot in with me! Hoping that I could protect them from this harsh new word. Win looked up at us in silent astonishment, his fingers rubbing the pale spot on his hand where the ring usually resided. The final blow was complete and he collapsed further into himself letting out a long mournful whimper.

The ring was mine. How I had longed for this day. I hungrily took it from my father’s outstretched hand and slid it eagerly onto my waiting finger. It fit perfectly, like it had been there all along. And with that I took a bow, turned and made my way down the front porch steps, out across the street towards the main road out of town. Neon Towers had a whole new life awaiting him and he couldn’t wait for it to start.

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