Jim’s friends told him that he had a drinking problem, which was not strictly true. Jim had a drinking solution.
His problem was the screams.
“What will it be?” asked the bartender, a round, ruddy man, whose hair had given up on him about the time his wife had. “Beer, whiskey, vodka, rum?”
“Yes,” said Jim.
The bartender laughed, and, after a glimpse at Jim, stopped laughing and started pouring.
The burn from the first shot of whiskey didn’t register until he’d already downed the second. He took a third for good measure, and indicated the bottle of rum as his next choice.
He couldn’t make out words yet. The screams were just a steady roar, sometimes rising, sometimes falling, but constant even in their variance. The words would come soon enough. Shot of rum. Coke to wash it down. Shot of rum.
It was like adjusting a television antenna at this stage. Move it this way, more static; the other way, less. The furthest screams were dimming, and the rest were coming into focus.
There was a lot of Indian in the air tonight. He remembered a news report about a hurricane that was expected to sweep past Mumbai and curve back into the Arabian Sea. The hurricane must have had other plans.
Jim alternated vodka and bourbon, a trick he’d long ago learned to drown out the voices more quickly. There was nothing he could do for India.
Africa was quiet, as usual. Famine, disease, and death in abundance, but so little screaming. They didn’t expect anyone to be listening. The relative silence disturbed him more than the uproar from everywhere else, and he fumbled for the bottle of vodka.
The bartender put a hand around the bottle’s neck. “I think you’ve had enough.”
Jim looked the bartender in the eye. “Do you know what Superman’s greatest weakness is?”
“Don’t change the subject,” the bartender said with a scowl, and a moment later, “…it’s kryptonite.”
Jim shook his head. “Nope. If kryptonite was his greatest weakness, he’d get rid of it. He’d use his super x-ray vision to find all the pieces floating around in the universe. He’d make a lead-lined suit to protect himself from the radiation, gather up the pieces, and burn them in the heart of a star. Problem solved.”
“Yeah, well…sloppy writing.”
“No, it’s not. It’s more true than the writers could have guessed. You see, Superman’s strength is that he can do anything.”
“Yeah, okay, so what’s his weakness?”
“His weakness,” said Jim, “Is that he can’t do everything. Every action he takes, every moment of his life is slave to choice. What to do? Who to save? Rescue Lois Lane from a burning building or stop an earthquake in Germany?”
“So why wouldn’t he get rid of the kryptonite, then? If all his enemies stop sapping his powers, he’d have one less distraction, wouldn’t he?”
“He leaves the kryptonite because somewhere, deep in the recesses of his mind, Superman wants them to succeed. He wants them to take away his powers, but if he takes them away himself, he would be selfish.”
“That’s bullshit,” said the bartender. “Why would Superman want to get rid of his powers?”
“Because every time Clark Kent is stuck in a staff meeting, he hears three thousand screams for help he can’t answer.”
The bartender held Jim’s gaze for several seconds before releasing the bottle. Jim nudged his glass aside and drank vodka straight from the neck.
The voices were all American now, each growing in volume to make up for the great number that had been tuned out. He could make out snatches.
“—got a gun…Jesus, call the police—”
“—help, somebody, help, please help,—”
“—he’s not breathing…oh shit, oh fuck, he’s not breathing—”
“—what’s wrong with mommy? What did you do to mommy—”
“—stop stop stop stop stop—”
A chorus of shrieks rang out as someone opened fire in a middle school. Somewhere on the East coast, Jim guessed. Too far away, and over too soon for him to do anything. He drank from the bottle again and let the circle tighten a little more.
Soon only three voices remained. One broke off mid-scream, leaving only two. Of the two, the more distant seemed to be in the midst of a marital dispute. Rising in volume, but not, Jim hoped, in severity. He took a long slow sip until this voice disappeared.
And then there was one.
“Please, let me go. I promise, I won’t tell anyone if you let me go now. Please. I just want to go home. Please don’t touch me. I don’t want to…just don’t hurt me. I’ll do whatever you want, but don’t…don’t hurt me anymore. Please. Please. I want to go home. Please.”
Where are you? Jim asked. No good, of course. The voices only went one way. After it became clear that the girl was not going to state her location, he started probing. Shouts, cries, screams…sounds of distress were the only things that came to Jim without effort. If he exerted himself, he could hear, faint as whispers, the voices of those near the distressed.
The rapist’s voice came into focus, and Jim turned his mental ear away. He couldn’t listen to that, not even for the chance of finding them.
He lucked out with the voice of a passing motorist, lost and speaking on a cell phone. “I followed your directions, but this doesn’t look like the right place. I’m at the corner of—”
“Hey.” Jim beckoned the bartender over. “Call 911,” he said. “Tell them there’s a rape happening at the corner of Third and Meridian.” He pulled the bottle closer. “If they hurry, maybe they can stop it from becoming a murder.”
The bartender gave him a skeptical once-over, but reached for the phone nonetheless. As he did so, Jim tipped back the bottle and let one last swig wash the rest of the screaming away. At long last, silence.
He left a few twenties on the counter and stumbled out the door. He looked at passing traffic, gave some fleeting consideration to hailing a cab, dismissed the idea, and made his way to the alley instead. It was a warm night, and quiet now, and he decided he would be all right sleeping outside.
As his eyes rolled shut, he quietly wished to himself that this sleep would be the one he wouldn’t wake up from. But as far as he could tell, nobody was listening, and even if someone was, Jim knew better than most that listening was no guarantee of help.