From the author: Grant discovers that the many pills he is taking have super side effects. And he's not the only one at the Senior Center who has these new powers!
Grant Gatzke pointed with a shaking finger. “There’s one. A Pepsi, I think. It’s got that color.” Metallic blue glimmered in the weeds at the side of the dirt trail.
“Where did you say?” Lyle Nojima tapped at the frames of his glasses as if he could force them to focus by doing so.
“Right there, at the edge of the ditch.”
“Oh, for God’s sake, I’ll get it.” Not that bending over would do his back any good, but his doctor kept telling him about the importance of regular exercise for those getting up in years. “It’s those Japanese eyes of yours, Lyle. You can’t see. They’re not big enough around.”
“Ah, go to Hell. You didn’t see those beer cans in the blackberry bushes.”
“I didn’t need to see them. They were back in there too deep. I’m not getting my arms all scratched up for a couple of cans.” Grant picked up the Pepsi can with a little grunt, and put it in his brown plastic bag.
As he straightened up again, a blur of motion screamed past. The riders.
“Whoo-hoo! Make way, oldsters!”
The bicyclists never actually collided with those walking the trail. With an accuracy of aim honed by hours of video games, they would dart between a shuffling husband and wife, startling the hell out of both of them, or tug a hat off a head as they flew by.
This time one of them, the black-haired one, lightly slapped the top of Grant’s bald head as he whizzed past. Grant tottered in the wake of their passage, and would have fallen if Lyle had not seized his sleeve. Lyle pulled, and might have fallen himself, in the opposite direction, if Grant had not regained his footing in time to pull him back.
“Close one,” said Lyle.
“Damn kids,” Grant said. “Ought to do something. No helmets, untied shoes. Imagine in a couple years when they start driving!”
“They shouldn’t even allow bikes on the trail,” Lyle said. “And they always throw their cans too deep into the bushes.”
Molly Chunchhad staked out her usual place in the corner and was knitting or crocheting or whatever it was, half engulfed by the armchair. Behind her, on the blue wall, she had taped up watercolor depictions of horse-like things and a crayon drawing of a lollipop tree and a yellow sun, even though the Senior Center’s Decorating Committee had not authorized it. Many of the local senior citizens were accustomed to hanging out in the Center in the afternoons, and the artwork made it seem almost like a home. The grandkid artists were in high school nowadays.
“Well, hello, Grant,” she said as Grant and Lyle came in.
Lyle looked from Molly to Grant and set his bag of cans down on the scarred card table. “I’d better leave you two to it,” he said. “I don’t want to be a third wheel. Anyway, I need a Sprite or something. You want anything from the kitchen, Grant? Molly?”
“Thanks, Lyle, nothing for me,” Molly said.
“It would be no trouble,” Lyle said. “And I would just quietly leave it at your side, no interruptions to your flirting.”
“Shut the hell up.” Grant put his own bag down on the table. Lyle chuckled and headed off.
“You look all worn down,” Molly said, “collecting those cans for what was it, your granddaughter’s education fund? Getting hot out there today?”
“Yeah. It’s a thing to do. I try to find some way to keep active. Most of us who hang out here, we do what? The crosswords, telling each other the old stories. It’s just those damn kids. One day soon they’re going to hit someone.”
“Oh, yes. I heard.”
“‘Heard’? It just now happened, Moll.”
“Yes, but what can you do?” Molly said. “Why not have a seat over here, Grant? Rest a bit.”
“I suppose.” Grant sat on the ratty couch across from Molly. “Those kids were at it again, running us off the road. Life. If it’s not one thing, it’s another. And you hear? That nurse Wusterbarth at the clinic, she’s been threatening to take away Neil’s driving license, just ‘cause he misplaced his keys. Shouldn’t have said anything to her. That woman, she’s got what they call issues. A power complex. Remember how she refused to get Gretchen that simple glass of water?”
Molly’s mouth soured. “Now let’s not get started on her again. That nurse Wusterbarth has tortured more than one of us, over the years. And I’m just sick of thinking about her.”
“Sorry, Moll. So, how’s things with you?”
“Slow, I guess. Now you got to tell me all about your visit to the doctor yesterday.”
“There’s never anything new to say about doctor visits. Tells me I should be taking those baby aspirin. Low-dose aspirin.”
Molly put her knitting down in her lap and looked closely at Grant. “You getting headaches? Oh, Grant. You got to take care of yourself!”
“No, no, no headaches. It’s because I started taking that niacin.”
“What’s niacin for?”
“I’m not even sure. Cholesterol, blood pressure, something about the blood, I think. But I get these rashes, like a damn sunburn, from the niacin, and I guess the aspirin is supposed to take care of that. One pill to save me from another pill. Like usual.”
“Well, they say aspirin is good for you.” Molly took up her knitting again. “My youngest son takes it. He’s only forty-three.”
“Yeah. What’s that you’re making there, Moll?”
“Oh, some stocking caps. I don’t have anyone to do it for, I just enjoy it. Knitting, sewing, all that. I donate the caps to the homeless shelter.”
“Well, that’s nice, I guess. Seems like you’re always working away on something.”
“I used to do costumes, for the kids’ school plays, that sort of thing.’
“Yeah, I remember you telling me about that.”
Molly looked up from her project and swept the room with a gaze. “Look at some of the people hanging around here, I guess just having to take aspirin isn’t so bad,” Molly said.
“But it’s not just aspirin. At least I knew what that was when he told me to take it. The other stuff he’s got me on – Finasteride, Simvastatin, Lisinopril, Metformin, a couple others – I mean, who even knows what they are? One’s for the kidneys, I think. One’s so I don’t have to get up six times a night to pee. Doesn’t work too well. Then I take those flaxseed oil pills and the fish oil.”
“I’m amazed you remember their names. I don’t even know all the things I take. My son wrote them all down on a little card, if anyone wants to see it.”
“I think about these things,” Grant said. “I think about those pills all in my stomach at the same time, blending in, mixing it up, changing each other, all the colors swirling around. One’s blue, one’s pink, one’s kind of an orange. I can’t believe they aren’t doing things to each other that the doctors don’t even know about. They’re always finding out about unexpected side-effects, from the mixing.”
“You’re worrying too much. You’re strong as a horse.”
“This horse has run too many miles. And the jockey on my back has got to lose some weight!”
Molly laughed, her eyes shining behind their glasses.
“Some serious weight!” Grant said, leaning forward and laughing himself.
That night Grant took the baby aspirin along with all his other pills.
The next morning Grant retrieved the newspaper from his porch and took it to the kitchen table. He heated up some frozen, pre-made hashbrowns – not as good as the real thing, but less trouble – and sat down to eat and read. It was the same paper they got at the Senior Center, of course, but he could read half here and half there. And if he forgot some article and read it twice, well, that was all right. He could remember it better.
He was on page three when he realized he hadn’t put his glasses on.
He touched the bridge of his nose to be sure. No glasses. So how could he be reading?
“Well, that’s…” What? He stood in the early morning light from the window. “Should I see a doctor? Is this normal? Am I dying or something?” He’d heard heart attack victims saw the world in brighter colors. Maybe it was something like that.
The better vision was just the beginning.
“One side, Grampses!”
Lyle lurched to the left. Grant stood his ground.
“Not today, son,” Grant said, and as the boy flew past he lightly snatched the kid from off the bicycle. He held him there, long enough for the boy’s eyes to get wide and his mouth to open, and then flung him into the blackberry bushes. Not hard, and not far, but if the kid got some scratches climbing back out, well, that would be a nice education for him.
The boy hadn’t been bicycling alone. His two friends scritched to a halt and stared at him, each with one foot on the ground, their eyes wide and their mouths open like in the slapstick movies. Then, as the first boy struggled out of the bushes, breathing hard and making “Unnnhh, Unnnhh” sounds, all three of them fled, the first boy leaving his bike behind, the front wheel still spinning.
Lyle was looking at Grant, his mouth open just like the boys’ had been. “Something seems a little different about you today,” he finally said.
Grant looked down at himself. “Yeah, I guess so,” he said. “Sight, strength – those pills, I figure. This morning I read the paper without my glasses, then I climbed that tree in my backyard like a squirrel and snapped off a branch that was getting too close to the power lines. Just snapped it off. Must have been two or three inches thick!”
“Well,” said Lyle.
“Can’t fly, though,” Grant said. “I did some experiments from the roof of my garage.”
“I think there’s a Coke can over there,” said Lyle.
Grant didn’t look. “I tell you, Lyle – I’m going to do something.”
“I don’t know. But I got powers, and I am going to use them somehow. You know I’ve always been kind of a champion of justice.”
“Yeah. I remember that time you used a key to scratch a long line into the side of a Toyota that was parked in a handicapped zone.”
“Exactly! But now I can do even more.”
“I don’t know, exactly.”
Lyle nodded, then winked. “I think it’s time we talked to Molly, and the group,” he said.
“So this is the gang,” Molly said. “Each one of us with our own power, even our own funny little super names. We meet maybe twice or three times a month, talk about things. I guess Ed started it – he’s passed, now, but about four-five years ago he noticed he could twist himself around like he had no bones, and he started this little group when he found out some of the rest of us could do things, too. Every few months or so, another one comes along. I’m glad it was your turn, Grant.”
They had commandeered a small meeting room at the Center. The fluorescent lights flickered just a bit, but there was a table big enough for all of them.
Pete leaned forward over the table. “When I pee, it’s blue. Looks like one of those chemicals you put in the toilet.”
“Not if you’ve got a septic tank, you shouldn’t,” Warren said.
“I call myself Blue Peeter, with two e’s in the Peeter,” Pete continued.
“OK,” said Grant.
“There used to be a TV show, back before I left Great Britain,” Blue Peeter explained.
“I’m the Invisible Geezer,” Neil said proudly, sitting next to the dusty plastic plant in the corner.
“But you’re not invisible.”
“I am. Oh, yes I am! No one under 40 can see me, not at all.”
Grant turned to Molly. “And how about you, Moll?”
“I got this kind of super hearing,” Molly said. “I call myself Elephant Ears.”
Grant tried to nod.
“It’s not a very good name, I know,” Molly said. “I have to come up with a better one. Glenda, she can jump twenty or thirty feet at a time. Warren can puff himself up like a blowfish – you know, those fish the Japanese eat and then they die. And when he does that nothing can hurt him. Harriet can breathe underwater. Joan, she’s not here now, she can tell when it’s going to hail.”
“Only fresh water, not salt water, I can breathe,” Harriet said. “The salt gets up in my sinuses.”
“Jerry can’t hear a thing – we’re not sure if that’s really a superpower or what.”
“He used to be a roadie, you know,” said Blue Peeter. “I forgot for which band.”
“Radiohead,” Warren said.
“That’s not a band. That’s Sandy’s super name,” Molly said.
“But he had nothing to do on Thursdays, when we usually meet, so he came into the group,” Glenda said. “Except today, because he has a thing with his ex-wife. I don’t know why he always jumps when she calls.”
“Oly Tellet has a buzzing feeling in his jaw,” Molly said, “so he’s Buzzkill. And Rosa can see around corners, and she’s Señora Citizen.”
Rosa nodded, her eyes hidden by the reflection of the overhead fluorescent light on her glasses. “My husband, he’s dead now, he could forget. He could forget pretty much anything.”
Grant looked at Lyle. “You in this group too? What’s different about you?”
The others laughed, and Lyle looked down. “Not much,” he said.
“’Not much’!” said Neil. “I’d trade any day!”
“So what is it?” Grant asked.
“It’s about peeing, too.”
“Well, so much is, these days,” Grant said. “What, you pee colors, too? Or some kind of acid?”
“It’s just that every time I pee, I get, I mean I have--”
“He gets really happy,” said Neil. “And without the need of a missus or any Viagra or nothing! Our own Orgasman! Nurse Wusterbarth gave him the coldest stare you ever saw in your life when she suspected what was going on.”
Grant swallowed his laughter. “That’s a pretty good superpower,” he said. Then he turned to the group. “So – what do you guys do?”
“Do?” said Molly.
“With your powers! I mean, together we’re like the League of Justice or whatever. We got to use them for the good of mankind or something, right?”
“We got to keep a low profile,” Neil said. “The government, you just know they would do experiments on us.”
“The government can’t even spell my name right on the Social Security checks,” Lyle said.
Neil nodded. “I guess I got to give you that,” he said. “Useless.” He smiled. “One new member, and you’re changing everything, making a new kind of group, just like you said with your new medicine. Grant, you are our baby aspirin!”
Grant chuckled. “I’m honored,” he said. “So, now we need a name, a group name.”
“The League of Oldsters?” Harriet said.
“Well, that doesn’t sound quite right,” Grant said. “Old Farts”?
“No, that’s already taken,” Molly said. “That’s John – we didn’t invite him, just this one time--”
“All right,” Grant said. “Maybe – the Gray Guardians.”
“That sounds pretty good,” Lyle admitted. “But what will we do?”
“Plenty!” Grant said. “Those bike hooligans, they were just the start.”
“There’s a neighbor kid from across the street who steals my tomatoes,” Glenda said.
“Well, that sounds like a mission,” Grant said. “The first mission for the Gray Guardians.”
“We’ll need uniforms,” Rosa said.
Grant put his hand on Molly’s. She blushed.
“Molly,” he said, “you used to do a lot of sewing. We’re all going to need something special to wear, that you just can’t find in stores.”
“Well, a commission! I guess I can try, Grant. I did all kinds of different outfits for the school plays – I did trees, and doctor’s gowns, and a feathered Aztec kind of thing. I guess I could come up with some ideas.”
“That’s great,” said Grant.
“But after the kid with the tomatoes. I mean, he’s probably not really a supervillain,” said Lyle. “A supervillian that would, you know, be a real challenge.”
“Yeah,” Grant said. “Someone more equal to our powers.”
“Someone really evil,” said Oly.
“Someone who poses a real threat to the good people of the world,” Molly added.
Grant nodded. “I got it!” he finally said.
“Who?” Lyle asked.
“Who else?” Grant said. “A truly evil person. A person who has humiliated us, and taken every opportunity for petty, vindictive, pointless – yes, I mean Nurse Wusterbarth.”
The group fell silent. “But she’s almost like a doctor,” Molly said.
“If we try to put her in her place, and fail, she’ll – well, God knows what,” Neil added. “And I think she’s probably got powers, too.”
“That freezing stare,” said Lyle, and several others nodded.
Grant surveyed the Guardians. “It’s time to step up,” he said. “Make or break. Fish and cut bait. Get out of the hot kitchen. What do you say?”
He put out his hand. “Are the Gray Guardians going to be intimidated by the forces of evil, or are we going to rise up to protect our fellow oldsters?”
And one by one, each of the other Guardians placed his or her hand on top of Grant’s, though Oly had to rest his elbow on the table, because his power didn’t provide him with the level of strength required to hold his arm up so long.
“All for one, or something!” Grant said. Everyone leaned back in their chairs, smiling, now with renewed purpose.
“Remember, first we have to stop the kid from taking my tomatoes,” Glenda said.
“Sure,” Grant said. He edged his chair closer to Molly. “Molly,” he said, “maybe you could help think of a good superhero name for me. I was thinking, maybe something you, know, alliterative?”
This story originally appeared in Outposts of Beyond.