Steely Reflection

A pair of stern eyes followed a dollop of toothpaste as it dripped from the corner of his reflection’s mouth. It splashed in the sink with a dull wet smack. The reflection’s mouth opened as if to say something. Its hand grasped the toothbrush a little firmer. Their eyes fell as they closed their mouths again.

Metal clashing on metal broke the silence. A bulbous man with bright red skin tore a car in half with his bare hands beyond a patchwork metal fence. His gut peeked out from under a ratty undershirt. Stains ran down the front of his bathrobe. He smashed the car and yanked the engine out. He separated plastic from steel, and other things he could part out.

“Hey! Keep it down, Garth!,” the man yelled from his bathroom window.

“Come down here and make me, Barney!” the man yelled from his side of the fence.

Barney, in the bathroom, slammed his window against the sill. Garth, in the scrapyard, spiked his engine on the ground.

Cursing for no particular reason, Barney got dressed. He removed his bathrobe and replaced it with a jumpsuit. He gave thought to brush his hair but, eyeing the balding spot, just flipped his reflection off and headed downstairs. He banged his head against the lip of the ceiling just above the stairs. He cursed at it. There was a well-worn section of wood where his head hit.

The smell of bacon filled the air at the base of the stairs. He turned and entered the kitchen. A young woman smiled and greeted him. She set out plates, utensils, and served runny eggs with bacon. She poured a cup of coffee.

“Morning, Tonia,” Barney said walking in.

“Morning, daddy, what’s your plan for today?”

“I’m gonna try and watch TV, quietly.”

“And?” she asked sitting down.

“And stay out of trouble.” She smiled and passed him a pile of mail. She started to say something but he cut her off. “I’m an adult. I’m fine.”

“So you yellin’ at Uncle Garth cause you enjoy it?”

“Hey, don’t call him uncle,” he said rubbing his knuckles. Scars striped his hands. He threw down his fork. “That’s just how we communicate,” A clock shaped like a cat tocked with each wag of its tail. His eyes followed the lines of the table pattern. Blobs and squiggles weaved themselves together. She placed a hand on his and squeezed.

“Please, daddy, try to talk, calmly, to Garth.”

“I’ll think about it.“

“And yelling don’t count.”

They both laughed. Tonia laughed a little more than Barney. He picked up his fork.

Tonia asked, “Do you even remember why you two started fighting?”

He thought for a few tocks of the cat’s tail. “It was probably your mother. We always fought over her.”

They shared a glance before they both broke away. He started reading through his mail. She put up her plate and filled a travel mug with the last of her coffee. Stirring in some sugar she said, “I’ll be out late. I have my night class. Do you need anything while I’m out?”

He shook his head.

“Love you, dad.”

“Love you too, Sparkplug.”

She rolled her eyes at the nickname. Taking her keys and mug, she heaved her bag over a shoulder and left the house. She waved to Garth. He sat on the hood of what had been a semitrailer truck. His pink gut peeked out from under his shirt.

Barney glanced over the morning paper. He took it and his coffee to the living room. A tattered recliner sat in front of a cracked television. He smacked the side causing the screen to snap on and fell back into his chair. The footrest popped out as he hit the seat. On the screen, a woman in an orange jumpsuit sat with her legs crossed. She had short dark curly hair. Amy Dangerous and Janis Jones were laughing.

Janis asked, “That’s amazing, and I heard you saved the day in Citadel City just last week.”

“Well, I was in the neighborhood,” Amy responded.

“So modest, but, Amy, isn’t Earth your neighborhood?” the host asked laughing.

“That’s right, Jan. Ever since the Great Wars, I make it my business to keep tabs on all the nations, even the Commonwealth,” Amy said pulling a curl back over her ear. The audience applauded.

Ms. Jones moved close to Amy and held one of her hands, “I did mean to ask, would you feel like talking about… your absence?”

Amy pulled her hand back from Jan’s. Sitting back, she locked her ankles. “No.”

An empty beer can hit the TV screen. “Damn lousy aliens. Go home you rotten good for nothings.” Barney slapped the remote and the screen snapped to a different channel. A news station covered the rebuilding efforts of the New Norville neighborhood. Giant monster blood painted some of the buildings. People in hazmat suits scrubbed the streets in the background. “Serves those commonwealthers right,” Barneys laughed at his own comment before changing the channel again.

Footage from a security camera showed a group of robots breaking into a bank. They walked through teller lines and threw guards aside with ease. Barney laughed. “Those look like some bad movie. I could build something better than that.” A group of teen heroes appeared in the scene. He grumbled as they snapped the robots apart with ease. Then he sat frozen. The trio became powerless against the mechanical monsters. His unlit cigarette dropped as a young Centauri broke her hand against the machine’s plating. “Holy smokes.”

He sat forward with a jump. He watched more of the footage.  He frantically shuffled through papers piled on a TV tray next to him. Pulling one coffee stained page he rushed to the landline. He dialed a number from a list by the phone.

“Hello, Citadel Police, Central Station,” a voice said dryly on the other side. “This is Officer Gonzalez.”

“Hey, Frankie, it’s Barney. Barney Steele.”

“Barney? What the hell? I thought you died?”

“No, just semi-retired.”

“How’s Hildi?”

Barney swallowed, “Sort of dead.”

“Oh, shoot, sorry buddy.”

“That’s fine. It was a while back. Hey, wanted to ask. Do you goons have a wrecker lined up for those robots,” Steele rubbed his bottom lip with the index.

“Man, I tell you, between the kaiju clean up and all the refugees, we haven’t really thought about it. That junk is just taking up space,” Frank replied.

“Well, I’m still licensed to salvage super weapons and I’ll undercut anyone that bids on them,” Barney said rolling on the balls of his feet.

“What makes you so interested, old man?”

“Old? I’m not that old.” Gonzalez laughed at that. “Just professional intrigue.”

He didn’t reply right away. A few muffled voices talked in the background. Finally, Gonzalez came back on the line, “If I say yes, will I regret it?”

Two flatbeds with shrink-wrapped wreckage pulled into Barney’s half of the lot the next day. Police tape and hazard stickers littered the sides of the delivery. Steele grinned and ran his hands over the shipment. Officer Gonzalez hopped out of the cab.

“What’s the big idea with the fence?” The officer gestured to the sheet metal wall between Barney’s and Garth’s yards.

Barney waved the question off. “We had a split. He stays on his side. I stay on my side.”

Garth peeked over the wall. His wispy white hair blew in the wind. He yelled, “You actually took a job? I thought the only thing you were wrecking these days were your tighty whities!”

“Screw off, alien!” Barney waved his middle finger toward the wall.

Frank held his arms up, “Hey, listen you two. Let me unload and I’ll be out of your, er, hair. Oh, don’t forget Barney, send us back the super tech.”

The semi-trailer trucks pulled away, Garth pressed his face against the fence to peek through a rusted hole. He goaded Barney, “Whatcha gonna do with all that junk?” Barney just loaded the wreckage onto his forklift a chunk at a time. “There’s no way you can scrap all that, old man.” Barney kept loading the wreckage into his workshop.

Later that night, Tonia sat at the kitchen table. A chewed pencil hung from her lip. Papers were scattered in loose stacks around her. Barney opened the back door and hopped over the last step. He whistled and swung open the refrigerator door. She looked up from her work.

“Are you feeling okay, daddy?”

He opened a beer. “I feel fine, Sparkplug.”

“Then why are you whistling?” she pointed her pencil at him.

He held up his hands. “Honest, I just feel good.”

“I don’t believe you, geezer. Did you talk to Uncle Garth?”

He set his beer down. “I asked you not to call him uncle and no. Well, nothing important. I took a job and he was making fun of me.”

“Slow down. Hotrod, a job?”

“Yeah, what of it? I wanted to do something with my hands. Frank at the station had a big job.”

The woman started straightening her papers. She removed her glasses. Tonia gave him a hard side-eye, “What are you up to?”

Barney held one hand up and the other with the beer over his heart. He put on a solemn expression, “I’m not up to anything. Swear.”

A few weeks later, Tonia packed her bag. Barney was watching TV. She leaned over and gave his bald spot a kiss. “I’ll be out late. If you need anything, text me.”

“Okay, Sparkplug.” He waited. A commercial babbled about cavities. Her car started. Some burly woman in a unitard and mask smiled while holding the advertised toothpaste. As Tonia’s car pulled out of the driveway, Barney sat up. He jogged to his workshop.

Inside, machine parts were stacked from floor to ceiling. Pieces of old doomsday devices were displayed as trophies: the Atomic Drill, one of Cerberus’s heads, and Shadow Doom’s Starlance. Just husks of their former glory. Rust dulled their surfaces. A thick dust blanketed everything, except for a single workbench. Stacks of robot parts were neatly arranged next to the table. A heavy tarp concealed a bulky form.

Garth took a swig from a beer. A news anchor reported a story involving a lumberjack and a blue man robbing a bank. He chuckled. “I get that reference.”

His doorbell rang. He grumbled. Getting up from his chair, he made his way down the hall to the front door. Framed newspaper clippings, photos, and magazine covers lined the walls. One featured a tall, muscular, bright red man shaking hands with a mayor in a cowboy hat. Another showed the red-suited man punching Martians. The tagline on another read:  “Guardian Garth & Hildi the Hunter, Supers of the Year, 1981–Duo TELLS ALL.” The doorbell rang impatiently.

“Hold your horses, you no-good, rotten bastards. What the hell are you selling, you piece of–” he was cut off by a metal fist punching him in the gut through the door. Garth and his front door blew backwards down the hall. A pile of pizza boxes toppled over him.

“Hey, old man. What do you think of my junk now?” Barney said. He towered over the doorway. He grinned from behind a steel cage. He wore an amalgamation of the robot wreckage as a battle suit. The sets of cylindrical arms were intertwined to form a single pair of muscular arms. Its legs were stocky construction equipment. A pair of claws clacked and spun while motioning suggestively at his robotic pelvis.

Garth stood up. “What’s wrong with you?” The bulbous man lurched toward the door. The force threw both men into the dirt.

Barney’s suit launched into a backward handspring. Its crude claws plowed the loose gravel with the force of the leap. The human’s eyes narrowed at the red alien. “Nothing is wrong with me. You’re the one that always second guessed me.”

“What are you talking about?” Garth stood.

“You always left me behind because I was human.” Machinery whirled in the exosuit. “Well, now we’re equals.” Barney jumped at the man. Metal claws grasped at his flabby neck.

“Me? You were the one that always complained about money. You were the one that never cleaned up your messes.” The alien peeled the claw from his neck. Pneumatic fluid spat from the machine’s wrist. He threw a right hook, knocking Barney and his suit to the ground. Barney said, “You were always jealous of Hildi and me.”

Garth stood “Yeah, I was. You two were so happy. I wanted to be that happy.”

“Well, uh, I want it now too.” Barney greeted his teeth, trying to move his suit.

Garth walked to him and held out a hand. He said, “I wanted to be loved like you were but I didn’t love Hildi like you did. She was like a sister to me.”

Barney started to take the hand. His metal claw wavered in the air. He turned a dial and reeled back his arm. A steel wrist caught Garth square in the gut. He sailed through the air. A stack of junked cars broke his fall. “Liar!” Barney screamed, “I know how you felt. I found her love letters to you. I know.”

Garth tossed a car at Barney. The suit deflected the car. Right behind it was a red fist. It caved the protective shell of the cockpit pressing Barney’s face between the bars. His robotic legs dug into the dirt. “You moron. You don’t know nothing if you think those letters matter now. How many years was that? How many kids ago? You think some letters from academy matter now?”

Barney tried to wipe a tear. His metal claw scraped the cage. “I miss her,” he blurted out.

A pair of stern pale eyes followed a tear as it dripped from the corner of the steel cage. It splashed in the dirt with a dull wet smack. Barney and Garth opened their mouths to say something but both stopped. Their hands grasped each other a little firmer. Their eyes met as they closed their mouths again.

Garth said, “We all do.” In the suit, Barney could look his neighbor straight in the eye. The men embraced.

“Oh, hell no.” A voice yelled from the front gate. Tonia stomped toward the two. “I know that isn’t police property you are wearing. Are you two idiots fighting? What is wrong with you?”

Garth patted Barney on the back. “It’s like she never left.”

The End… For Now.

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