Dan Purdue lives and writes in the West Midlands. His short stories have been published in numerous places online and in print, including Writers’ Forum, Defenestration, The View From Here, and The Waterhouse Review, and have won prizes in various competitions, including the Seán Ó Faoláin Short Story Competition. He has also been shortlisted for the James White Award and The Guardian Summer Short Story Competition.
Commended in the 2012 Seán Ó Faoláin Competition
One night in September, up late and drunk, Gary bought three CDs and something described as a “Superhero Franchise” on eBay. The following morning he hunched over fizzing Alka-Seltzer and inspected his purchases. Two of the CDs were albums he hadn’t heard before; the third was just a replacement for one Janice took with her when she left. He wasn’t sure what to make of the superhero thing. The description was vague and the underexposed, out-of-focus photo didn’t help at all. The seller had zero feedback. Perhaps it was just some comic books and an action figure or two. Gary didn’t particularly want any superhero gear; he wasn’t a collector—although he did have a few Marvel and DC Comics adaptations on DVD. He hoped he’d be able to sell whatever he’d bought for a profit. He shrugged, shut down the computer, and headed to the local shop to buy Wotsits and a Cornetto.
A couple of days later, Gary opened the front door to a postman bearing three Jiffy bags and something like a pizza box, only deeper. He took the delivery, put on one of his new CDs and inspected the package. It was lighter than he expected, and it didn’t make any noise when he shook it. He couldn’t find a return address, or decipher the smudged postmark. It had clearly been wrapped with great care, though, with dead-straight strips of brown packing tape and obsessively neat corners. He slit the tape with the edge of a key and lifted the lid.
Inside, folded into a perfect square, lay what turned out to be a one-piece bodysuit in mottled greys and greens, with a sort of dark brown diamond pattern printed over the top that made it look a little like it was covered in scales. As Gary lifted it from the box, a card with a picture of a puppy fell from the folded suit. Inside that, Birthday Greetings had been scored out and replaced with precise strokes of a blue biro:
Hi, thanks for agreeing to become The Gecko! Good luck with your new life as a vigilante!!! All the best, Scott. P.S. Sorry about the card, it’s all I could find.
Gary put the card and suit to one side and rechecked the box, but there was nothing else there. He couldn’t remember anything about a costume in the item description. In what way did that count as a franchise? And who’d ever heard of “The Gecko”? It felt horribly like he’d wasted twenty-five pounds, plus postage and packaging. He logged into eBay to recheck the details. The seller’s account had been deleted.
The suit seemed way too small, more like a child’s size, but an investigative tug on one of the legs revealed it was remarkably stretchy. It felt tough, though, and there didn’t appear to be any seams to worry about. Gary took the suit into the bedroom, spending a while looking at it, stretching it this way and that, and holding it against himself in front of the mirror. He tried to resist the irrational but growing urge to put it on.
It had gloves, feet and a hood with a kind of eye-mask all built in. Gary hunted for but couldn’t find a zip, poppers, Velcro strips, or any other means of getting into the suit. The only way in appeared to be the hole where the bottom half of his face would go—assuming he managed to squeeze his decidedly unchildlike frame into the rest of the suit.
Gary stripped down to his underpants and sat on the edge of the bed. He poked first one foot then the other in through the hole in the suit’s neck. As he pulled the material up over his calves, he batted away mental images of sausages being manufactured, fatty meat straining inside a tight skin. Gary wasn’t badly overweight, but nobody would ever accuse him of having a ‘physique’. Already the sweat was beading on his forehead, just from the effort of squeezing his legs into the suit.
He stood up and managed to work the suit up to waist level. The first arm went in okay, but the second one required him to all but dislocate his shoulder to line his hand up with the sleeve, which had by this point disappeared behind his back. He got it, eventually, and as the suit slipped over his shoulders, closing around his neck, he thought he might pass out. It hugged his chest so tightly he could barely breathe. The urge to tear it off again was immense. He sat back down on the bed, feeling trapped and dizzy, closed his eyes, and put his head between his knees for a while.
When the room stopped spinning, he got to his feet. He took a deep breath and pulled the hood over his head. It felt like a vice clamped around his skull, and Gary panicked that it would crush his brain. He imagined his corpse being found, weeks later, dressed in what the police, his parents, and – worst of all – Janice, would surely assume was some kind of fetish outfit. But then, as he tugged the eye mask into place, he felt a shift, a change that seemed to come from both the suit itself and a deep place somewhere inside him. The costume was no longer crushing the life out of him; it was supporting him, perhaps even protecting him. He felt compact, focussed, aware of his edges. Stood before the mirror, Gary first looked in horror at the way it clung to every lump and bulge, then – as he turned first one way, then the other – he couldn’t help thinking his body looked more toned, more alive than ever before.
He found the suit enabled him to stick to any surface. First, he tentatively climbed the bedroom wall, and then crawled across the ceiling on his hands and knees. After that, he explored the house, going from room to room without touching the floor. As a finale, from standing on the ceiling of the living room, he performed an upside-down somersault, which proved so disorientating he had to climb down and lie on the sofa for an hour.
When it got dark, Gary stood at the window, watching the lights of the city and thinking about the card that had come with the costume. A vigilante, he thought. That must be a joke, right? Nobody really did that. Did they? Yet, standing there in the suit, with the night stretching out before him, he felt fate pushing him in a new direction. He wasn’t sure it was a direction he wanted to take. Fighting crime sounded quite… confrontational, after all—and he’d never been very good at that kind of thing. Still, the gecko suit worked, the capabilities it offered were exciting, and Janice had always complained that he never took enough interest in the community. So he decided he would go out, test the suit, and see how things turned out. Gary threw on a long coat, turned up the collar and pulled a baseball cap low on his head.
“Well, criminal scum,” he mumbled, pulling the door closed behind him. “Prepare to meet… The Gecko.” It sounded a lot better in his head than it did out loud.
When he reached the city centre, Gary ducked down the alleyway beside a block of flats that seemed tall enough without being excessive. He took off his hat and coat and hid them by the bins. He glanced around to check nobody was watching, and then reached up and pressed his palm against the concrete. It held. He lifted a foot, and that, too, stuck fast. He wasn’t sure why this surprised him, but for some reason it felt more real now than when it was happening within the confines of his suburban home. His heart pounded as he climbed, a wild rush of exhilaration surging through his body. The suit was astonishing, needing only the slightest brush against the building to adhere securely, yet relinquishing its grip as soon as he pulled away. He climbed quickly, and had reached the fourth floor before he’d even realised he was above the level of the streetlights. Gary edged around to the front of the building, looking down on to the road below, where cars and trucks whizzed by, chasing one another’s brake lights. He breathed in the night air, a broad grin plastered across his face. He wondered what Janice was doing, and wished he’d taken his mobile phone with him.
Just as he was about to climb even higher, he heard the unmistakeable sound of a struggle. He quickly scanned the nearby windows. The noise came from an open sash, up and across to his right. A knot tightened in his stomach as he made his way over to investigate. This is it, he thought, my first crime. Domestic abuse, a burglary gone wrong, an attempted kidnapping—whatever it was, this was the moment he would truly become The Gecko, Crimefighter.
Gary paused to catch his breath. Then he peeked through the open window.
Inside, with the duvet lying crumpled on the floor beside them, a naked couple were hard at it on the bed. Their vigour was surprising, given their age and combined weight, and Gary – embarrassed, shocked, and slightly disappointed all at once – hurriedly moved away. But in his haste, his hand stuck to a flowerpot on the windowsill, and in attempting to dislodge it he managed to smash it against the wall. He froze; so did the couple. For an agonising moment, nothing happened. Then the couple turned and saw him. The woman screamed, grabbing for the duvet to hide herself. The man, seemingly unconcerned by his nudity or state of arousal, strode across the room and punched Gary straight in the face.
Gary tipped backwards and lost his grip on the ledge. It all happened in slow motion. The window shrank away from him, drifting upwards into the night sky where stars swam in the city’s amber haze. The growl of the cars and buses became a roar as he tumbled towards the busy road. Pain bloomed across his face like an ink stain. As the dark folds of unconsciousness wrapped around him, Gary watched his fingers raking the air. Grasping at nothing.
As he came to, Gary found himself stuck to the side of a lorry, travelling at speed and already several miles out of town. When the driver stopped at a set of traffic lights, he unpeeled himself and walked towards home. It was nearly dawn by the time he arrived.
As his black eye faded, Gary convinced himself that it hadn’t been that bad a start. He just needed to establish his credentials a little better before hitting the streets. The following week, he organised a press conference. He thought it might be enough to just let the criminals know the town now had its very own superhero. Maybe that would make them think twice about doing any crime, and he wouldn’t actually need to go out and fight it. Gary sat behind a desk in the conference room of a nearby hotel. Quite a few reporters turned up, but there were many more empty seats than people in the room. There was no sign of Janice, either, and he wondered whether she might have started using a new email address. Waiting for the press conference to begin, Gary felt horribly uncomfortable in his suit, but then a pretty policewoman gave him an encouraging smile and the ‘thumbs up’ sign, and that helped a lot.
The reporters mainly wanted to know about his special powers.
“Well, I can climb any building,” he said.
“Like Spider-Man?” one of them asked.
Gary sagged in his chair. “Um, yes,” he told them. “But Spider-Man is just a comic book character.”
Gary wasn’t sure what to say.
“Can you swing from a web?” another one said.
Gary frowned. “When has a gecko ever swung from a web?” The reporters looked at him blankly. “No,” he said. “I can’t swing from a web.”
“Do you eat bugs?” asked a sharply dressed female journalist. “What?” she said, when some of the other reporters laughed. “I saw a gecko eat bugs once.”
Gary shook his head. “I don’t eat bugs.”
The reporters looked disappointed and muttered amongst themselves. Eventually, at the back of the room, a hesitant hand rose.
“Yes?” Gary said, leaning forward.
The hand belonged to a very young, nervous-looking reporter with thick glasses and bad acne. He turned bright pink as everybody in the room turned to hear his question.
“Um,” he said. “‘Spider Man’—is that hyphenated, or is it one word?”
During the noisy debate this question triggered, Gary quietly slipped out of the room and took a taxi home.
He resolved to give it one last go. That same night, just before 11 o’clock, he headed into the city centre and climbed a wall near the biggest bank he could find. He sat on a ledge and kept watch. He tried to visualise himself thwarting a robbery. He liked the word thwart. Being a crime-thwarter would be fine, he thought, although he wondered how he could say it so it wouldn’t sound like he had a speech impediment or something. He smiled to himself and hugged his knees. The ledge was cold and draughty. He wished he’d thought to take a thermos of tea with him, or some soup.
After what seemed like several hours he checked the time and found it was only quarter past midnight. He stood and stretched and looked up and down the road. There was nobody about. The whole city had gone to sleep, it seemed, except him. A mix of frustration and relief washed over Gary as it dawned on him that the odds of there actually being a bank robbery on any randomly chosen evening probably weren’t that great. He climbed down and walked to the 24-hour convenience store near his home.
Under the harsh strip lighting in the shop, Gary navigated the aisles and collected breakfast things in a wire basket. He decided to compensate for his unsuccessful stake-out by cooking himself an indulgent brunch. He put eggs and bacon into the basket.
While he was choosing between two different types of bread, an altercation broke out between the only other customer in the shop and the cashier, a dumpy girl with hair hanging in loose brown curls. The customer told her he’d given her a twenty, and that she hadn’t given him enough change. The cashier replied that he’d given her a ten. The man shouted that he knew perfectly well what he had given her, and that he didn’t appreciate people stealing his money. By this time the cashier looked like she was about to burst into tears. She opened the till again and tried to show the man that there weren’t any twenties in there, and when he started shouting again she looked over to where Gary stood, holding the two loaves of bread.
There isn’t much writing on bread packaging, but as the cashier reluctantly handed over another ten-pound note, Gary read every last word he could find. He held the bread close to his face like he was very short-sighted. Although he told himself he wasn’t trying to hide behind it, he knew it was a lie. As soon as the other man had gone, Gary took his basket to the counter and paid and left without once looking at the cashier. He didn’t need to. He felt contempt coming off her like heat from a burning car.
Back at home, Gary wrestled his way out of the suit, stuffed it back in its box, and kicked it under the bed. Then he went into the kitchen and put away his shopping, stopping halfway through to hurl every last one of the eggs against the wall.
He stood there in his underpants, watching yolk and white and bits of shell slide down the tiles. I’m not cut out for this, he told himself. I didn’t know what I was getting into.
He hardly slept that night.
In the morning, before he could talk himself out of it, he donated the suit to a charity shop. He felt relieved straightaway; knowing somebody else might find it and be much better at being The Gecko than him. Just like that, the problem was out of his hands, and for a while that made him happy.
It niggled at him, though, as the weeks went by. At work, he couldn’t stop staring out of the office window, imagining all the wrongs out there, somewhere, going unrighted. He longed to read or hear about a mysterious figure, scampering fearlessly across the sheer face of a tower block to thwart a mugging or rescue a kitten. But nobody ever mentioned such a thing, and Gary looked for a way to make amends for his failure as a superhero.
He got a job as a traffic warden. He liked the uniform, the camaraderie of his new colleagues, and the free pens. It was good to spend so much time outside. He wasn’t keen on the attitude he got from some members of the public, but then upholding the delicate balance of good and evil in the city was never going to be easy. With his notebook in hand, and an optimistic eye on the tall buildings around him, he patrolled the streets, ever vigilant.
It still counted, Gary assured himself. He was still fighting the good fight, still protecting the righteous and bringing the wrongdoers to justice. He would tell Janice, if she ever returned his calls, that he was cleaning up the city—one parking infringement at a time.
©2012 Dan Purdue
Dan Purdue website
Purdue story in the Guardian
Purchase Somewhere to Start From: a collection by Dan Purdue (Amazon)