Heroes and Villains

Photography of Orange and Gray Building

He opened his eyes to an expanse of white. The ceiling? He wondered why it was so close. He’d been asleep; he knew that. But he couldn’t figure anything else out. This was like waking up somewhere unfamiliar after a hazy, drunken night. Was that what was going on? He couldn’t remember.

Confused, he rolled so that the ceiling was at his back and stared down at his bed where he found himself lying supine. His body. Was he dead? Was this how it begins: the soul set free, the light, the tunnel, the montage of triumph and failure, the joyous reunion with grandparents and childhood pets? Or worse: would he now have to accompany his vacated body on a long international flight back to the United States, witness his own sparsely attended funeral and then drift for eternity? Or would he maybe remain here, far from home, trying to get his roommate to notice him and then spending the following decades upending furniture to frighten the apartment’s future tenants?

He considered his options although he couldn’t think of many. Then, he kind of willed himself to drift down like a scuba diver or an astronaut to the bed below. As he neared himself, now staring at himself face to face, he heard snoring. Not dead then but sleeping. He moved closer.

Then, something. Swirling chaos. He reoriented. He lay awake then in his bed observing the ceiling from a more familiar distance. Not the outdated popcorn ceiling of his childhood bedroom but the flat white of his overseas apartment. He sat up and looked around the room in the twilight. Nothing amiss. No grim reapers or dead grandmas or anything. He heard the familiar sounds of his neighborhood, honking horns, barking dogs, drunken locals and expats wandering backpacker street. He lay awake the rest of the night trying to make sense of what had happened.

“I think that’s called lucid dreaming,” his roommate Perry said at breakfast the next morning. The two worked together teaching English at a nearby language school.

“No, that’s not…that. That’s something else. That’s…you know you’re dreaming.”

“Fine, Evan,” Perry said. “You had a nightmare then.”

“But I wasn’t scared at all. I was just curious. I kind of wanted to check everything out.”

Perry laughed, “But you didn’t. You didn’t check anything out. You just crawled right back into your body. Like a pussy.”

“That’s sort of true actually.”

Perry stood from the table and washed out his cereal bowl at the sink. “Yeah, I’ve got nothing.” He dried his hands on a plaid dish towel hanging from a nearby hook. “Less weed maybe, OK?”

Next night, the same thing. Evan woke up again outside of his body, sort of floating around the room unmoored.
Wishing not to be have his masculinity called into question by Perry again, he drifted around the room; over to his desk, where he saw his closed laptop, the school materials he’d brought home to work on but then didn’t, and his half-empty rocks glass; along the walls, where he studied his framed diploma, a few old science fiction movie posters, and a childhood photo of his sister and him at Niagara Falls; past his bookcase, full of ESL textbooks, drug paraphernalia, and Lonely Planet travel guides.

Venturing a little farther, he passed directly through his closed bedroom door and out into the hallway. He floated into Perry’s room, which was unoccupied and then found Perry passed out on the living room sofa in a t-shirt and boxers with an empty, overturned bottle of bourbon nearby. He explored most of the apartment for the better part of an hour and then got bored and moved back into his bedroom to re-enter his body.

“So, you just stayed in the apartment?” Perry asked over breakfast. “Yep, definitely still a pussy. You basically have Doctor Strange’s powers, and you’re squandering them inventorying the shit in our tiny apartment.”

“Baby steps, alright? I don’t think I’m ready for outside missions yet. What if I get lost out there somewhere and can’t find my way back?”

Perry lowered his mug of coffee and looked at Evan. “Then you wake up and who gives a shit because you’re just dreaming anyway. You don’t really think you’re ghosting around outside your body at night, do you?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know what this is. Have you ever heard of anything like this?”

“Ask around,” Perry said. “I’m sure someone’s heard of it. There’s probably even a name for it, and it’s a condition triggered by stress or excessive drinking and pot smoking.” He stood from the table. “And by being a pussy.”

So, Evan asked the internet, and the internet said the experience was called astral projection. That it was an out of body experience where the soul or the astral body left the physical body and traveled on something called the astral plane. That it was usually deliberate and developed as a skill closely related to telepathy. So, Perry was right then; it was like Doctor Strange. Also, that even though it may seem like pseudoscientific New Agey bullshit, it was actually something referred to in a variety of myths and religious traditions all over the world. Wikipedia said something about the occult and Aleister Crowley. Other sites mentioned demons and Satan worship and, of course, psychedelics while How Stuff Works provided helpful step-by-step instructions for projecting oneself outside of one’s physical earthbound shell and onto the mystical astral plane.

Armed with fresh internet knowledge, Evan lay down that night ready to get metaphysical. Did he need to be drunk first? He had been on the previous two nights. Although he’d also been drunk on countless nights before that when he hadn’t experienced this phenomenon. Should he maybe run some drunk and some sober control experiments? He hadn’t found anything online about the link between binge drinking and out-of-body experiences, so he’d just had his usual few cocktails after work before lying down for the night.

A few hours later, there he was again, drifting around his bedroom like some kind of errant helium balloon. He wondered how far away he could venture from his body. Was it like a Bluetooth connection? He decided there was only one way to find out and passed through his floor and down into the apartment below. Good decision. He found his downstairs neighbors — a really tall white expat guy and an attractive local Asian woman — still awake and on their striped sofa having an intense conversation. And since neither of them shrieked or publicly renounced everything they’d previously known about the nature of reality, Evan discovered that his astral self was, in fact, invisible.

“So, then you just need to stand up for yourself. Assert yourself more,” the man said. Evan had seen him once or twice in the lobby and remembered that the man usually wore a scarf. Even when it was starting to get warm outside. Hipster. The man spoke in a strange accent. Something amiss with a few vowels which the other vowels had then rushed in haphazardly to make up for. Minnesotan? Canadian?

“You don’t know what it’s like,” the woman replied. “You don’t know what’s like to be the only woman in a department full of men. They don’t listen. And if I’m too aggressive then I’m the bitch. Then I’m irrational.” Her English was great. Singaporean?

Evan floated around the edges of their conversation half listening but mostly just watching them and retesting his invisibility hypothesis.

The man sighed, “Well, I don’t know. I’m just giving advice here. But you’re right; I don’t know the whole situation, and I don’t know what that’s like.”

The two continued talking, but Evan had stopped really paying attention. That was kind of his way. He didn’t think he’d seen the woman around before. He was sure he would’ve remembered. She wore a sheer white tank top with no bra and tiny pink shorts. The man wore plaid pajama pants and a grey t-shirt, the type with that single ornamental breast pocket.

“Any supernatural excursions last night?” Perry asked the next morning.

“Nope. Slept like a baby. You must’ve been right. Just stress.”

Perry looked at him. “Stress and….?”

“And…being a pussy,” Evan allowed. He’d decided the night before not to tell Perry about spying on the neighbors. He’d decided this right around the time the woman stood up and stripped off her clothes and then got into the shower, an act which Evan’s soul or whatever elected to waft in and watch. Perry would’ve been impressed by the voyeurism, of course, and the eyeful Evan had gotten, but Evan felt uncomfortable about the prospect of having that conversation. “Dude! Tell me everything. Details, man, details.”

The next few nights proceeded similarly: Evan sort of lurking around the apartment building like a creeper spying on his neighbors, appraising all their possessions and eavesdropping on their conversations, even though very few of them spoke English. He’d never really interacted with any of the neighbors before, only passing them occasionally on his way to and from work or sharing taciturn elevator rides with them to their respective floors. And, again, he neglected each morning to tell Perry anything about the previous night’s wanderings, feeling somehow that this was his own thing now, his very personal and private cosmic miracle.

One night, Evan awoke outside of his body and heard the unmistakable clamor of sex coming from Perry’s room down the hall. Was Perry dating someone? Had he somehow feigned enough charm to lure a woman home? Evan hadn’t really paid attention to his roommate’s love life, generally too aloof and insular to notice other people’s entanglements, but considering the fact that the bulk of his nocturnal expeditions over the previous month or so had just involved trying to see his neighbors naked, there was no way he wasn’t going to check out what was happening down the hall.

“What are you smirking about?” Perry asked the next morning over breakfast.

“What? Uh…nothing,” Evan said. He’d been daydreaming. “I was just remembering something funny that happened at work yesterday. So..hey, how much did you pay for that girl I heard you with last night?”

Perry laughed and looked impressed. “About half the going rate for your mom, actually. It was quite a bargain.”

In truth, Evan had made a significant discovery that previous night in Perry’s room. Not of Perry’s weird proclivities or repertoire of sexual choreography but of something even more momentous. Evan had entered the room and found Perry in some sort of pretty standard sex position atop an unfamiliar Asian woman. Moving closer to the bed for a better angle, Evan had evidently gotten too close and had brushed Perry’s arm or something. The next moment had been a flash of confusion, and Evan had suddenly found himself looking down at the nude woman through Perry’s vantage point. Evan could feel himself inside her, could unequivocally experience himself penetrating her. The sensation was every bit as real as if he had taken the woman to bed himself. Somehow, he was physically occupying Perry’s body at this moment.

He’d continued having sex with the woman just as Perry had been but then wondered whether he was merely a passenger inside his roommate’s body or a driver. Tentatively, he’d reached his hand forward and cupped the woman’s left breast. It worked. But what if Perry had already been about to do the same thing? Maybe it was a coincidence. He’d decided to try something more definitive and removed himself from the woman, instructed her to roll onto her stomach and then repositioned himself to re-enter. Clearly, this had been his deliberate action and these had been his chosen words. Momentarily, he or maybe Perry or maybe the two of them together in an unwitting team effort then climaxed inside the woman before collapsing onto the bed next to her.

As he’d lain there, Evan wondered whether Perry had had any sense of no longer being in control of his body. Had he just assumed that changing positions had been his idea? Evan then wondered how to remove himself from Perry’s body. None of his astral projections had been deliberate up to this point and so he was still unclear how to trigger an out-of- body experience. The internet had been no help on this. Luckily, the matter was settled as a drunken, postcoital Perry quickly drifted off into sleep and began snoring loudly, ejecting Evan in the process like an escape hatch.

That next morning at breakfast, Perry commenced with all the expected man-boasting about his previous night’s conquest. In his synopsis of blowing tons of money to impress the local woman, bringing her home, having sex with her and seeing her on her way just after dawn, Perry betrayed no sense of anything unusual having happened or that he’d felt at any time during the night like a helpless human host possessed by alien parasite or malevolent demonic spirit. His description was quite graphic, and — Evan couldn’t help noticing due to his own participation — exaggerated, but Perry seemed confident of having accomplished it all of his own volition.

“High five, dude,” Perry said holding up his palm in Evan’s direction. After the previous night, Evan felt a little loath to touch his roommate, but high fives are, of course, an obligation.

Clearly, this had been a breakthrough. Evan’s astral self had touched Perry and then taken ownership of the guy’s body. Evan shuddered to think what might have happened if it had been the woman’s body he’d accidentally made contact with. He might have found himself horrifyingly staring up at his roommate’s grotesque sex face and…no, it was too terrible to imagine. The point, though, was that Evan realized he not only had the ability to separate his soul from his own body but also to occupy the bodies of others and potentially control them.

Over the next few nights, he conducted a series of experiments among his assorted neighbors. Walking around in their bodies. Guiding their conversations in odd, non- sequitur directions. Having sex with their wives and girlfriends. Within the month, he’d bedded most of the attractive female tenants in the building, possessing their male partners, and even in one instance a same-sex female partner, and indulging his every whim in the safe assurance that he’d never have to have an uncomfortable conversation in the morning or justify some weird pornography-influenced tactic he’d employed.

One night, Evan sat in the apartment with Perry and Perry’s new girlfriend Melanie getting really stoned and watching TV. They were watching some epic superhero movie. What else was there these days? Melanie was from London and worked at their school. She’d been in the picture for about a month by that point. By inhabiting Perry’s body, Evan had slept with her three or four times now.

“Some of these superpowers seem impractical to me,” Perry said, taking a long hit and passing the bowl to Evan. “I mean, how useful is the ability to fly really? Is it just to run away from conflict? That doesn’t seem very heroic. It seems like a power a pussy like Evan here would have.”

“Well, I think you can also save people. From like fires,” Melanie said.

Perry asked, “Yeah, but how often does the opportunity present itself? Is it just dumb luck that you’re in the vicinity when a tall building catches fire or do you have to spend your downtime listening to the police scanner and waiting around to save the day? It sounds fucking boring.

Evan exhaled and stared ahead at the TV where two costumed superheroes battled amid the destroyed embers of a metropolitan downtown. He could feel his eyes getting heavy. He could feel himself drifting off to sleep.

“I think it’s a kind of calling,” Melanie said. “It’s what separates heroes from villains: the belief that superpowers should be used for the greater good. To help the helpless.”

“That’s beautiful,” Perry giggled through a cloud of smoke. “The greater good.”

Then, Evan was outside his body, watching from the periphery as Melanie went on about virtue and ethics and individual responsibility. Whether it was from the weed and the alcohol or from legitimately being inspired by Melanie’s intoxicated earnestness, he wasn’t sure, but he suddenly became emboldened and passed through the window and into the night outside. His body would be just fine on the couch, and Melanie’s moral compass would prevent Perry from drawing a marker-stache on Evan or taking a compromising photo of his balls next to Evan’s face.

He’d been reluctant to leave his building before this, worried he’d get lost in an unfamiliar neighborhood in this unfamiliar country. That his soul would be carried far away into the wind. He wasn’t sure what he imagined would happen, but it was time to face his fears. He floated above the city, swooping down to drift in and out of row-houses and empty office buildings. He wandered unseen through pubs and restaurants and dance clubs, careful not to make direct contact with anyone and become temporarily trapped inside them. He still didn’t know how to vacate people at will, so he would need to wait until any host fell asleep before making his way home to his own body. And so he worried he might end up somewhere unknown and far away

He thought as his spirit wandered freely about what Melanie had been saying. Was this special ability of his a type of superpower? And, if so, why had he spent so much time using it for such trivial and self-gratifying purposes? Why wasn’t he out saving people, righting wrongs, and serving the greater good?

He wondered what kind of person would, upon learning he possessed superpowers, quickly settle on being a voyeur and, if he were completely honest with himself, a rapist. But he knew the answer instantly. A villain would. Melanie was right about what separated heroes from villains. And it was tough to argue based on the evidence that Evan was anything other than a bad guy. A privileged, first-world antagonist praying on disadvantaged local women.

The next morning, Evan lay in bed thinking. He wondered whether comic book villains were self-aware at all. Did they consider themselves villains or heroes in an altogether different narrative? He wondered if The Joker or Doctor Octopus or whoever had ever had an epiphany or felt some sort of growing existential dread about their lives. Did they ever feel that they’d squandered their talents robbing banks and baiting their nemeses with bound damsels in distress?

Obviously, Evan had never considered himself especially heroic. He avoided conflict and treated everyone he knew with superficial politeness. He wasn’t rude or aggressive. He’d always considered himself a nice guy, unlike his alpha male douchebag roommate, but deep down he knew that no villain was more insidious than a self-professed nice guy. Like most people, though, he’d imagined himself as the protagonist in his own story bogged down by myriad external and internal conflicts. But heroism didn’t square with his behavior after discovering the gifts he possessed. And the only conflict related to this whole phenomenon was his guilty conscience resulting from his own villainous misdeeds.

So, he decided to give heroism a try. To use these abilities to uphold civic virtues, help the downtrodden and needy, stare defiantly into the face of evil. But how could he do anything of value with his weird astral projection thing? It wasn’t like he could run super fast or punch through brick walls or melt steel with laser eyes. Maybe he could inhabit the bodies of bad guys and then make them turn themselves into the police. But he barely spoke the local language, so it wasn’t like he could converse at length with the cops after he surrendered. Plus, he’d have to get lucky and stumble upon criminals doing criminal things during his nighttime sleep- wandering hours.

The next night, Evan began patrolling the neighborhood looking for criminal activities in which he could intervene in a way that still wasn’t entirely clear to him. He trailed two young men into an alley who seemed like they might be looking to get into some trouble. He wondered how to characterize them in his mind in a way that wouldn’t feel racist. Hoodlums? Street toughs? The two wore big, baggy coats even though it was a pretty mild night. Were they hiding weapons somewhere? Was there a local gang that displays its allegiance through muted earth tone colors?

Unfortunately, this turned out to be a red herring. The hoodlums didn’t really do anything but stand around and smoke cigarettes. Not even menacingly.

Eventually, he lucked upon two young ne’er-do-wells with knives mugging some other guy in an empty parking lot under the freeway overpass. Poor bastard. This was definitely a superhero type moment, but Evan didn’t exactly know what to do. He could possess the victim and fight back, but he couldn’t fight for shit in his own body and didn’t want to get stabbed…because getting stabbed probably hurts. Or he could inhabit one of the muggers to make him stop and walk away and maybe use him to get the other mugger to stop too. But, again, possible fighting, potential stabbing, pain. So he just floated there pathetically and watched as the victim gave up his money to the two men and then received a few perfunctory blows on the head.

“Jesus,” he thought. “What the hell am I even doing out here? I’m useless.”

After the violence, the muggers divided their meager spoils and went separate ways, deciding, Evan supposed, to work on some solo mayhem for a little while before reconvening later. Evan finally had an idea and chose the bigger and more imposing of the two to follow. Maybe he couldn’t directly intervene and stop crimes in progress, but he thought he’d thought of a method for prevention.

The man walked to a rundown apartment building and entered through the front door, and Evan followed. He supposed the man was heading home after a long day of criminality. The man walked through a dimly lit lobby littered with paper trash. As the man began ascending the stairs, Evan entered his body and took control. He felt the man hesitate on what was likely his correct floor, but, with Evan in charge, the man continued climbing until he reached the exit door to the top of the building.

The man pushed open the door and emerged onto the roof. He looked around and ensured it was empty and then walked to the edge to stare down at the street below. Evan wasn’t sure how well this plan was going to work out. At Evan’s urging, the man hopped up onto the ledge and let his toes dangle over. He was on the 8th floor, and a fall from this height would likely be fatal. He stood glancing down at what was likely his own impending death.

Evan reasoned that this guy was probably not a first-time knifepoint robber nor one on the verge of retiring from the trade to become a productive citizen. He seemed more likely to continue to prey on his neighbors than to do anything of value for the community like start an outreach organization or something. If Evan jumped, the man would die and the future crimes he would almost certainly commit would be prevented. Making the man jump to his death would spare a lot of people a lot of pain and could even save a few lives. So, he should just jump, right?

But was this superhero behavior? Evan hesitated, which, of course, meant the man hesitated. He wondered whether causing someone’s death was compatible with being a hero. A vigilante, certainly. An antihero, maybe. But mainly a villain. Evan wondered whether, even in trying to save the day, he was still defaulting to villainy. He also couldn’t help but wonder what would happen to his astral body after the man crashed into the ground below and died. Would he be ejected instantly to wander home unscathed? And what if the man didn’t die instantly? Would Evan himself feel the pain of impact, broken bones, catastrophic internal injuries, blood loss?

He continued to stand on the ledge indecisively. And then he felt something wet on his cheek. A tear. Next, he felt his legs shaking. Then something more profound. He could sense his host’s utter confusion over what had led him to keep climbing the apartment stairs past his own floor to the roof and then step out onto the ledge of the building as if to jump. Unaware of Evan’s presence, the man couldn’t have understood the divergence of his mind and his body that ignored his wishes to go home and seemed intent instead on oblivion. More and more, Evan allowed himself to identify with the man. To feel his fear. His despair. To empathize.

It was then that Evan finally understood what his powers had been all about and what he needed to do next.

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