If Steven Axelrod could have one superpower, he wouldn’t fly, shoot lasers from his eyes, or talk to animals. He’d help you realize you’re an asshole.
Here’s a question: what’s the most annoying thing about an annoying person? It’s not necessarily what they do. It’s what they think about what they do. It’s their attitude. A standard piece advice for beginning fiction writers is that the villain should always believe he’s the good guy. There’s a reason for that. The villain actually does believe he’s the good guy.
We all know the asshole who seriously believes that everybody else, everyone around him, everyone he’s ever met, is an asshole—that explains why he has no friends and even strangers cross the street to avoid him. We’ve all known the obnoxious motor-mouth who actually believes she’s “a good listener” despite the fact that she hasn’t shown a heat-lightning flicker of interest in anyone else’s life in decades, and can keep acquaintances on the phone literally for hours with the operatic drama and traumatic details of her own.
One of these people marched into my apartment 20 minutes after I had found out that my father died, stared at the shell-shocked group on the couch and started talking about her day at work. When my girlfriend explained the situation, this lunatic said “Oh,”—just a little pot-hole in the road to swerve around—and then re-launched: “So, anyway, all the cooks hate me and they won’t give me my orders and then I have to explain that to the customers, I mean without seeming racist or whatever, and when I try to talk about it I just get the cold shoulder. The one guy? His name’s Raoul? He actually had the nerve to say …” and on and on.
We just stared at her, dumbfounded.
And I realized that this woman had no idea of how she sounded, or what we were thinking at that moment, or to be more inclusive, who she really was: her nature, the truth of her character. Alcoholism is not the only mental disorder whose primary symptom is denial. And how many wives and husbands and parents and children and siblings and friends of alcoholics have yearned to hear them say, “I have to stop drinking, it’s ruining my life,” before their life is actually ruined?
One Olympic-level marathon-talker accidentally heard an answering machine tape of a phone message—not even a live call, just a message, going on and on, ceaseless as a cicada, tedious as a cricket, subtle as a woodpecker—and was appalled.
“Do I really sound like that?”
Oh yeah. That was kind of a taciturn moment, actually.
But it was soon forgotten, that’s the point.
The only lasting value to that brief moment of clarity was it made me realize what the coolest mutant power would be. Not shooting beams from my eyes, or levitating objects, or growing metal claws out of my fingers. No, my power would be much more devastating. With a single blast, I would make people see themselves with absolute clarity. Not who they think they are, but who they really are. On top of that they would get some vivid consensus flash of the way other people see them. The jerk who thinks he’s admired, efficient, and envied … kind of a Renaissance man, actually … gets the blast and suddenly realizes, not for a second like the friend with the phone message, but permanently, as an absolute reconfiguration of the synapses, that he is in fact an inept blowhard, a bully and a fool; that people despise him and laugh at him behind his back. That his name itself has come to be a kind of joke, a slang word for an incompetent bungler who thinks he can do everything perfectly.
Iceman can encase you in a block of hardened snow; I think my power would be far more paralyzing. Cyclops can hit you with a bolt of sheet energy from his eyes, but you can recover from that attack.
Once you realize the truth, there’s no going back. Remember the first time you saw the flash in the upper right hand corner of the movie screen just before the reel change? Someone had to point it out to me. But now I always see it, and I always will.
Maybe my victims will take this knowledge and change. Maybe they’ll just get some kind of aneurism and collapse. Maybe they’ll spend a year or two whimpering in the fetal position. There’s no way to tell—I can’t predict that.
Hey, I’m just the messenger.
The classic Twilight Zone ending to the story of this power is that I blast someone, they move unexpectedly, and it turns out they were standing in front of a mirror. The blast ricochets right back at me, and I see I’ve turned into a pompous, power-crazed tyrant myself.
So I never unleash the power again.
Too bad, because the world could really use it.
Originally appeared at Open Salon.
—Photo JD Hancock/Flickr