the life and death of john chrysanthemum, superhero

Captain Chrysanthemum was never a particularly important superhero. He was not part of the team that stopped Dr. Colossal from destroying the city, nor was he among the coalition members that sent the Beryllians running back to their home world with their tails between their tentacles. No, for the past thirty years he had spent most of his days in the park, entangling pickpockets and politely asking passers-by not to trample the flowers. It was good, respectable work for a superhero whose only power was to rapidly accelerate the growth of plants.

For John Chrysanthemum, today was much like any other day. He woke up at precisely 6:15, staggered to the bathroom, took a shower, brushed his teeth, staggered to the kitchen, ate a bowl of oatmeal, drank a cup of coffee, staggered to the bedroom, combed his hair, and stuffed himself into his uniform.

He looked at himself in the mirror. Green boots and shorts framed muscular legs; green suspenders showed off his tight, flat stomach and crossed in the center of his powerful chest; a silver collar sat atop broad shoulders, while a silver cape and horned, green mask rounded out the ensemble.

He smiled as he patted his taught stomach, and admired his broad chest; he looked eminently heroic. He could only hold his breath for so long, though, and when he exhaled, his high-school wrestler body dissolved into that of an aging superhero who didn’t get enough exercise. He frowned. “You’re not getting any younger, John,” he said with a sigh. As he shook his head, one of the horns flopped in the middle. He tried to prop it back up, but it just flopped over again.

“Maybe it’s time for a new costume,” he thought, “One without a cape.”

***

The Hall of Heroes stood at the east end of the park. Every day, while the important superheroes were out saving the world or stopping supervillains, John was stopping crime in their own backyard. Some days, he was amused by the irony. Other days, like today, it was merely frustrating. He had tried to join the group a number of times. When the Beryllian invasion was being repelled, he took the time to learn the alien race’s unique sign language in the hope of being admitted.

“John,” Captain Fantastic had told him, “Leave the real superhero stuff to us.”

When Dr. Colossal had threatened the city, he volunteered again. That time, Captain Stupendous, Fantastic’s son, had been less patronizing, but still firm in his rejection.

“Assholes,” John muttered. He turned his attention back to a patch of daisies that he was tending. He carefully touched each flower, and watched as they grew and blossomed under his care. He smiled, and gingerly stood up, trying not to make his knees creek too much along the way.

Then, suddenly, he heard a screech come from off in the distance. “Ah hell,” he muttered, and took off running. He ran across the park, past the hot dog vendors, the musicians, and the fountain before he spotted a crying, elderly woman.

She looked at him hopefully, then pointed at a young man who was racing toward the park entrance at a sprint.

“Not in my park, buddy,” he muttered under his breath as he pointed toward the grass in front of the man. It sprouted and twisted around the man’s ankles, sending him sprawling. Once he was on the ground, John pointed again, and spiny weeds erupted from the ground, pinning the pickpocket’s limbs.

After catching his breath, John pulled out his cellphone and dialed 911. “Hello, this is Captain Chrysanthemum. I’ve just apprehended a pickpocket.”

***

John discovered his powers in the autumn of his sixteenth year. Although he spent most of his childhood outside, he had never felt any particular connection to the natural world, so when he took the shortcut through the woods to his friend Chester’s house, he paid little attention to the forest around him.

The sky was grey and overcast, and a bitter wind whipped through the trees, sending the dried leaves scurrying along the path, searching for shelter. He turned up his collar and quickened his pace, eager to be out of the chill air and in front of a warm dinner. As he began to descend the final hill, he heard a loud snap, and looked up just in time to see a branch plummeting toward him. He dived forward out of the way, but caught his foot on a tree root and tripped, sending him tumbling down the hill.

He rolled and bounced down the path, crashing through the underbrush and banging his limbs against trees and rocks, before coming to a stop at the bottom. Unfortunately, his last bounce turned him in such a way that he landed directly on the back of his neck. He heard a snap, hoped that it was a branch, and then the world went black.

Images and sensations faded in and out as he lay on the cold, leaf-covered ground: the trees swayed overhead in the breeze, a squirrel chattered noisily off to the side, and leaves danced across his chest and face.

Then, as his vision faded in again, a figure emerged from behind a tree. It was shaped like a man, but moved with a stiff gait. It walked slowly toward John, creaking like the wind-blown trees with every step. John’s vision was blurry, but he could swear that it looked like it was made of wood. Moreover, it looked like its arms and torso were covered in some sort of fungus. As it ambled through the woods toward him, every branch it brushed against burst into bloom, and flowers erupted from the ground where it stepped.

John tried to move, tried to sit up, but found that he couldn’t. His arms and legs simply refused to listen, and any attempt to will them to move caused his vision to black out. The creature, whatever it was, finally reached him, and bent down, creaking and groaning all the while. Its head was shaped like an inverted tree stump and its breath was warm and earthy. John thought he detected a face carved into the stump through his hazy vision, but couldn’t be sure. He thought about screaming, but the presence of the creature filled him with a great sense of comfort.

Then it placed its hands on his chest, and he could instantly feel energy coursing through him. Warm, green power flowed through his veins and back into the earth, repairing him, mending his broken bones, and patching his internal organs. The creature emitted a musty sigh, and collapsed, crumbling into dirt.

By the time John was able to sit up, all that was left of the creature was a pile of fresh, fragrant loam. He shook his head to try to clear the fuzziness from his mind, and then stood up on wobbly legs. As he staggered down the path, he felt different somehow. As the world became clearer, he realized that he could see the green energy flow through the forest around him. Fountains of it bubbled from the tops of holly bushes, while great pools of it gathered at the base of pine trees. For the first time in his life, he felt connected to the world around him

***

John had just finished handing the pickpocket over to the police when a beautiful, young, elegantly dressed, redheaded woman tapped him on the shoulder.

“Can I help you?” he asked as he turned.

The girl said nothing. She simply smiled, motioned to him to follow her, and began walking away.

“Odd,” he thought to himself. “I wonder if she’s one of those European models that can’t speak English?”

She led him past the hot dog vendors and musicians, past the fountain and the patch of daisies he had been caring for earlier. She said nothing - just turned and smiled at him occasionally.

“Crap, why didn’t I learn French or Russian or something?” he thought to himself.

She led him toward the maintenance building in the far corner of the park. Once they rounded the back of the building, the girl stopped dead in her tracks. She turned and stared straight at him, the smile never fading from her face as the back of her head opened up.

John stared in shock as a small creature climbed out. It looked like a cute little owl with a red beak, but it possessed three long, thin, feathered tentacles and a spiny tail. “Oh crap,” thought John, “It’s a Beryllian!”

As creatures with neither vocal cords, nor the ability to communicate telepathically, the Beryllians had developed a complex sign language. It wiggled its tentacles at him.

John’s comprehension of the alien language was a little rusty, but he nodded his head, “Yes, I can understand you. What are you doing here?”

Wiggle, wiggle.

“What kind of information?” he said, suspicious. The mere presence of a Beryllian on Earth was a bad sign.

Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle, wiggle.

“Well, we fought off an invasion once, we can do it again,” he said, trying to sound confident.

Wiggle, wiggle.

“Oh my. That’s horrible.”

Wiggle.

“You’re right; I don’t think we could fight off you and Dr. Colossal at the same time. How are they planning on releasing him?”

Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle.

John gasped as the full weight of the information he was learning sunk in. If what the creature was saying was true, they would not only free Colossal, but kill a great number of heroes. “Ok, I’ll communicate this to the Council of Heroes, but before I do, I have one question. Why are you telling me this?”

The Beryllian wiggled its tentacles once more, this time at the ground in front of him. He watched as the plants at his feet burst into full bloom, growing and stretching toward the sun, and he understood.

***

As John entered the Hall, he saw a young Japanese woman in a schoolgirl uniform being chased by two stylized humanoid cats. His heart jumped at the sight of her. Keiko - the name brought a smile to his face, even though she was young enough to be his daughter. “Keiko, Keiko, Keiko,” he sighed to himself.

The woman giggled when she saw him, and ducked behind him to hide from the cats. Her soft, small hands pressed against his back as she peered out at her pursuers.

“Careful,” she taunted, “If you don’t behave, Captain Chrysanthemum will turn your heads into flowerpots!”

“Maybe he’ll turn our cocks into cucumbers!” retorted Neko, the cat on the left.

“Or our balls into turnips!” quipped Neko, the cat on the right.

John forced a smile. “No, I can’t really,” he trailed off. “Um,” he muttered as he reached into a pocket and pulled out a small green stem. He held it in his palm, concentrated, and the stem grew, budded, and blossomed into a rose over the course of a few seconds. He offered it to Keiko.

“For me?” she said quietly as she took the flower. “It’s beautiful, John.”

“Better than a balloon animal,” giggled Neko.

“Get lost, you two!” Keiko yelled, and the cats ran off. “John, I don’t know what to say,” she said as she looked at him with her beautiful brown eyes.

“It’s ok. You don’t have to say anything.”

“Thank you,” she said, smiling, as she stood on her tiptoes and kissed him on the cheek.

He blushed, and she turned to walk away. After a few paces, she turned back, “I’d like it if you brought me more flowers, John.”

“Ok,” he smiled, and then watched her walk away. After she turned the corner, he finally exhaled.

On his way to the Council chamber, he passed the giant handprint of Dr. Colossal. At forty feet tall, the hand was both a memorial to those that had lost their lives fighting him, and a reminder that the 400 foot tall, indestructible behemoth lay in a state of suspended animation far below. He read the inscription at the base of the palm, “Never Forget,” and had to wipe a tear from his eye.

“I’m getting too old for this,” he thought.

When he reached the Council chamber, he saw Captain Stupendous about to close the doors. “Captain, wait!” he yelled, and saw Stupendous roll his eyes.

“John, we’re somewhat busy right now,” Stupendous said.

“But the Beryllians are about to invade again,” John replied.

“Yes, I know, that’s why we’re busy.”

“I have information about their plans, though.”

“John, we have the most sophisticated information gathering tools in the galaxy. Anything you might know, we doubtless already do.”

“But…”

“John,” Stupendous interrupted. “Maybe,” he paused, “Maybe you should think about retiring.” Then he closed the doors, and left John Chrysanthemum standing in the hall.

***

John spent the night in the park. He watched as the most powerful superheroes in the world flew off into space, as explosions lit up the night sky, and as the sun slowly rose over the top of Hall. He wasn’t going to let Dr. Colossal get released, he wasn’t going to let the Hall get destroyed, and he certainly wasn’t going to let Keiko get killed.

He waited, nervous that the Beryllian had been right, and nervous that it had been wrong. At a quarter ‘till eleven, his stomach started growling, and he decided to get a hot dog. As he was standing in line, the hot dog vendor looked up, and pointed frantically toward the sky.

Screaming directly toward the hall was a black missile, followed distantly by the caped figure of Captain Stupendous. “I was right, you ass,” John thought to himself. He looked at the distance between the two, and realized that Stupendous would never be able to close the gap before it hit. He needed to do something quickly.

John reached down and placed his hands on the bare earth. He could feel the green energy beneath his palms - ebbing and flowing as the earth itself drew breath. It cascaded from the tops of trees, lapped at the edge of the grass, and trickled along the cracks in the sidewalk where weeds had taken hold.

He took a deep breath and pushed. Energy rippled out from his hands, and the blades of grass around him groaned audibly as they grew. He stopped and cursed at himself - grass tall enough to entangle a normal man certainly wasn’t going to stop a direct hit from a Beryllian missile.

He closed his eyes and tried to block out the panicked screams of those around him. “Harder,” he thought to himself. His own pulse quickened as he pushed again. Energy flowed out from him, creating waves of green that crested and broke against water fountains and park benches.

“That’s not good enough, old man,” he growled to himself, and then pushed again. His pulse and breath both quickened as he forced the energy inside him out into the world. This time, the waves crashed into and over each other, building on each other as they raced to the other end of the park. John could feel his pulse pounding in his ears as he gasped for breath. He didn’t have much time until the missile reached the Hall, so he pushed again. This time, he felt something burst inside him, and he fell.

He fell down, down into the green, down through the tumultuous surface into the warm comfort of the verdant sea. Above him, all was chaos. The green boiled and swelled, sending a tsunami of grass, flower, fungus, and tree careening toward their target.

The green, fueled by Captain Chrysanthemum’s anger, engulfed the Hall, forming a living, impenetrable shield. In the distance, far, far above him, there was sound, and there was fury, but down here, there was only calm and quiet. John smiled and relaxed, as he drifted farther into the great below.

###

Author’s note: this story was originally written for the third round of the Ceramic DM writing tournament. Unfortunately, I was defeated in this round. However, I would return…