SFReader 2015 Story Contest
First Place Winner
Desmond Warzel is the author of a few dozen short stories in the science fiction, fantasy, and horror genres. A full bibliography can be found at the Jobless Insomniacs Motorcycle Club, a blog that he updates about once per epoch. Apart from this here yarn, his most recent work appears in the anthology Coven: Masterful Tales of Fantasy (Purple Sun Press, 2015), while his first published story, 2007’s “Wikihistory,” found new life this past December in ear-pleasing audio form on the always-interesting Dunesteef Audio Fiction Podcast. He lives in Northwestern Pennsylvania.
PLAYBOY INTERVIEW, AUGUST 2042: LEONARD BOROWSKI
A candid conversation with the man behind the uber-man.
It was almost twenty years ago that the city of New York was first graced with the world’s only bona fide superhero. Cameron Brennan, known professionally as the Dilettante, burst onto the scene with a rescue so dramatic it might have come straight from the pages of a Marvel or DC Comics offering, and for the next twenty years he was an indelible feature of the Manhattan skyline. It’s estimated that the Dilettante directly saved nearly a thousand lives during those two decades, and the number of crimes and injuries he prevented is impossible to calculate.
As if that weren’t enough, the Dilettante was almost unfailingly friendly. This was no brooding, reclusive anti-hero; we can find no instance of his even refusing someone an autograph. He seemed at his happiest when holding court in front of the news cameras–so much so that one might well list “on-the-spot conjuration of headline-friendly soundbites” among his superpowers. And if it was a put-on? If there were a darker natured buried behind the Dilettante’s steel gaze or within his all-American heart? Well, who among us would have done better in his place?
Standing firmly at the Dilettante’s side was Leonard Borowski, known to the public simply as “Lenny”. The term “sidekick” fails to do him justice. Equal parts bodyguard, accountant, agent, and press secretary, Mr. Borowski was often on hand to face the reporters once the Dilettante had delivered his customary witticism and flown off; it was he who cut the checks for the inevitable collateral damage, and he who organized the innumerable Make-A-Wish experiences. That was him in the background of all the photographs: the clean-cut fellow with the khakis and the polo shirt in Dilettante purple-and-gold.
It should come as no surprise, given the blanket news coverage of the Dilettante’s sudden and untimely death earlier this year, that the concurrent hospitalization of Leonard Borowski for a serious stroke passed under the radar. He was conspicuous mainly by his absence; a few heartfelt words from him would have made the pontifications of politicians and celebrities go down just a little more easily.
We were never able to land an interview with the hero himself, but, despite all the latecomers in the news media seeking audiences with Mr. Borowski in conjunction with the upcoming unveiling of the Cameron “Dilettante” Brennan Memorial in Central Park, the erstwhile “sidekick” generously agreed to speak only with us.
Mr. Borowski received veteran Playboy interviewer David Khalil in the Dilettante’s Connecticut mansion. David reports that the décor might charitably be described as “busy” (“just say ‘cluttered,'” Leonard put in). What isn’t gold is snow-white, including the living-room carpet, which had David and our photographer walking on eggshells. Leonard assured us that his wheelchair treads had long since sullied it for good. “None of this is really to my taste,” he said. “Nor to Cameron’s, actually. He just had it decorated the way he thought a rich guy’s house was supposed to look.”
PLAYBOY: Not that it’s our business, but can we assume that Cameron left you this house?
BOROWSKI: Cameron’s relatives are contesting his will from a dozen different directions. Between one gag order and another, I have no idea what’s going on. Somebody’s obviously paying the housekeeper and the gardener–it isn’t me–but I’m not sure anyone knows I’m still here.
PLAYBOY: I’m afraid they will now.
BOROWSKI: Absolutely. As soon as this sees print, I’m out on my ass. Then again, that would mean one of those uptight old bastards would have to admit to reading Playboy, and that’s unlikely. So maybe I’m safe. Worst case scenario, maybe the wheelchair will give them some pause. Nobody wants to evict a cripple.
PLAYBOY: Where shall we begin?
BOROWSKI: At the beginning, I suppose.
PLAYBOY: How did you and Cameron meet?
BOROWSKI: I was his pet.
PLAYBOY: Come again?
BOROWSKI: You didn’t know rich people kept poor people as pets for their amusement? Happens all the time. Have you ever read a book called A Season in Purgatory?
PLAYBOY: I’ve never done much reading. I was a business major.
BOROWSKI: Me too. That’s why I’m telling you this story instead of writing an autobiography. We met at UCLA in the fall of 2016.
PLAYBOY: UCLA? I’d have thought Yale or Harvard for someone like him.
BOROWSKI: Apparently it’s possible to get in so much trouble as a teenager that even the Brennan family fortune can’t buy you a place in the Ivy League. So they packed him off to California to straighten out. This is evidently common, because there were half a dozen of these guys. They called themselves the Connecticut Mafia.
Cameron and I lived in the same residence hall. We weren’t really acquainted, but we’d bump into each other in the middle of the night. He’d be returning from some party, I from my fast-food job. Soon he’d made me his friend. Of course, in reality, I was the Connecticut Mafia’s mascot, but this naive kid from Seymour, Texas, population 2700, didn’t know any better.
BOROWSKI: You know: “Let’s invite the poor kid home for Christmas break and watch his jaw drop when he sees the size of the estate.” Or, “Wait until dinner, when he can’t figure out which fork to eat his salad with. That’ll be a hoot.” Or, “Let’s pour half a case of Dom Perignon down him, then laugh when he throws up in a ficus planter because the house is so big, he can’t find a bathroom.”
PLAYBOY: And you went along with it?
BOROWSKI: Cameron was so toxic that by our senior year, he’d alienated the entire Connecticut Mafia and I was his only friend. As long as he was spending money on me, I was getting the better of the arrangement; that’s how I justified it.
Also, I felt bad for him. That’s why a nice guy like Wally Cleaver hung around with jerks like Eddie and Lumpy: if he didn’t, nobody else would.
PLAYBOY: I’m not following.
BOROWSKI: Leave It to Beaver. Very underrated show.
PLAYBOY: I’ve never seen it. Is it still on?
BOROWSKI: There’s a thousand channels. Everything’s still on.
In 2020, two things happened in rapid succession: we graduated from UCLA, and Cameron came into his parents’ fortune courtesy of a Maserati, a tree, and two unused seat belts. He went home to assume the throne and took me with him. I told my parents that Cameron had taken over the family business and hired me at a good salary.
PLAYBOY: What were you really up to?
BOROWSKI: Drinking, driving, and debauchery. We crammed ten years’ worth into eighteen months. That brings us to the winter of 2021, and the heart of the story.
Midnight. Full moon. Cameron and I, stumbling down a snow-covered dirt road, so drunk we can barely stand. Cameron’s Mercedes in a ditch somewhere in back of us. About to freeze to death and too plastered to know it. Then, rising out of the trees, a church, lit up like Broadway. We went in.
To we two Catholics, it resembled a riot. Singing, dancing, arms flailing every which way. Lots of welcoming smiles, though. We took a seat at the back.
How they did go on–for an hour at least. But we needed to rest anyway. I was nodding off when some outside light–the moon, I assumed–aligned with the building’s only stained-glass window, and Cameron and I–and only us–were bathed in rose-colored light.
PLAYBOY: The Blues Brothers.
BOROWSKI: But you don’t know Leave It to Beaver? Anyway, I felt this buzzing in my head, and my hair was standing on end, and then I was out cold.
I remember falling. Clutching, pushing, grasping at anything that might slow or stop my descent. I jolted awake. I was laid out on the pew, and Cameron was looking down at me–from five feet off the floor. Panic in his eyes like you’ve never seen.
The entire congregation was on their feet, backed against the far wall; not scared, just watching. Then gravity asserted itself, and Cameron hit the deck.
PLAYBOY: What happened next?
BOROWSKI: We bolted. Made our way through the woods, found a highway, got home, and didn’t talk about it for two weeks.
When we did finally compare our memories of that night, we decided that we couldn’t be identically crazy. So we experimented. Not only could he levitate, with practice he could fly–and pretty fast, too. He could lift stuff–not via physical strength, but by sheer will. And he could generate a force field to protect himself. It wasn’t quite bullet-proof, though, as a brief and ill-conceived experiment quickly proved. Fortunately, a millionaire’s private doctor is accustomed to discretion. Cameron limped for weeks afterward.
PLAYBOY: But no powers for you.
BOROWSKI: Doesn’t it figure? Not a thing. I guess I’m immune. We never could account for it.
PLAYBOY: Did you ever find out what actually transpired that night?
BOROWSKI: Cameron made scientific and military inquiries. He used every connection his family had; burned every favor they were owed. No explanation, astronomical, meteorological, or religious, ever surfaced.
So he rolled with it. Came in the house one day and said, “Yo, Borowski, I’m gonna be a superhero. You in?”
And why not? I’d done nothing since graduation except wait around for a reenactment of Chappaquiddick with me in the Mary Jo Kopechne role. This was something.
PLAYBOY: How did you start out?
BOROWSKI: He needed a gimmick. You have no idea how many comic book characters there are until you try to find a name that hasn’t been used. Finally, exasperated, I jokingly suggested “The Dilettante.” Cameron asked, “What’s a dilettante?” I told him it was a wealthy guy who dabbles in a profession even though he doesn’t need to work. “Perfect!” he said. When you’re as rich as he was, you can afford to be sarcasm-proof.
PLAYBOY: Was the costume your idea, too?
BOROWSKI: He wanted to emulate Superman’s look. “Classic, baby.” I explained that Superman dressed like a circus strongman, with tights to emphasize the physique, extra trunks for modesty, and a cape for flair. Even back then, the look was seventy years out of date. The only reason he still wears it is that every time they change it, a bunch of nerds chain themselves to DC Comics headquarters. Cameron wouldn’t listen. Got him to pick different colors, though.
PLAYBOY: Did he see you as his sidekick?
BOROWSKI: They all had them, didn’t they? Robin, Jimmy Olsen, Kid Flash. Captain America had Bucky. Green Arrow had Speedy.
PLAYBOY: Those were all teenagers, right? To appeal to the core audience?
BOROWSKI: Someone paid attention in marketing class! Yes, mostly teenagers, but not all. The Golden Age Green Lantern’s sidekick was a cab driver named Doiby Dickles.
BOROWSKI: No, really. Look it up.
To answer your question, Cameron referred to me as his sidekick constantly. For years. I guess it was a hard habit to shake. Of course, from his point of view, maybe it was justified.
PLAYBOY: So how does one launch a superhero career?
BOROWSKI: Cameron wanted to make a big impression right away. He hit the gym from dawn to dusk so he’d look the part. I “earned” my “salary” by watching local TV and hoping for “breaking news.”
PLAYBOY: And you eventually found something.
BOROWSKI: A rig. One of those monster jobs with two trailers, dangling by its rearmost segment from a bridge in Jersey, with the driver trapped down in the cab and everyone afraid to help for fear of sending it tumbling.
It looked great on TV. A purple and gold streak comes darting into the picture, cape flapping in the wind, bystanders scattering in all directions. He flies down to the cab, plucks out the driver, and delivers him to terra firma. Then he loops under the bridge, comes up under the rig, and lifts the whole thing off the barrier. He flies to the other end, palming this thirty-wheeled monstrosity in both hands like he was serving a casserole, and sets it down an empty parking lot.
And so the world met the Dilettante. And they loved him.
We set up a penthouse in Manhattan with secure access, to stay close to the action and to keep public attention away from the Connecticut estate. We’d monitor the police band and keep an eye on the news, and if we learned about someone in peril, the Dilettante would leap into action.
PLAYBOY: I bet he developed quite a swelled head from that much adulation.
BOROWSKI: At first, sure. Wouldn’t you? But it wasn’t long before his attitude suffered a blow.
PLAYBOY: From what?
BOROWSKI: The first Make-A-Wish request. How would you feel if some little kid’s dying wish was to spend one of his last hours with you?
BOROWSKI: Bingo. It was a real roller coaster that first year, but Cameron sorted himself out.
PLAYBOY: The Dilettante saved hundreds of people over two decades. Are there any episodes that stand out?
BOROWSKI: I suppose each one would stand out, to the person being saved. But from my narrow, selfish perspective, there are only two worth talking about.
PLAYBOY: The bus?
BOROWSKI: Very perceptive. It was 2032; ten years into the Dilettante’s career. One of those driverless commuter shuttles malfunctioned over the East River, shot off its tracks, and plunged into the water. We were at the Connecticut house; I was flat on my back with bacterial pneumonia at the time. I could barely lift my arm to wave goodbye. An ordinary person would have been hospitalized, but I was content to stay home and endure occasional visits from Cameron’s personal physician instead.
I watched the rescue attempt on TV, but I was so sick I could hardly see straight. The screen looked like someone had smeared it with Vaseline. But even I could tell something wasn’t right.
The Dilettante drops out of the sky and hits the water, but he muffs his entry angle and bounces across the surface like a skipping-stone. He recovers and dives to the bottom. The bus is pretty smashed up; water’s pouring in through rents in the metal, and the doors aren’t functioning.
He tries to lift it out, but can’t get a steady grip. We see it repeatedly bobbing up out of the river and slipping back under again.
Finally he gets the thing balanced on one end on the river bottom. The bus is long–remember those beasts?–but there’s only about eight feet showing above the surface.
A tense minute passes while he tries to smash his way in. He’s a strong guy, and his force fields lend his fists some heft, but it’s nothing doing.
He takes off across the river, barely skimming the water. When he reaches land, rather than executing his usual deft, sure-footed touchdown, he grazes the concrete and tumbles head-over-heels to a stop.
Scrambling to his feet, he composes himself and takes flight one final time, straight toward the upturned bus with all the speed he can accumulate. His control is imperfect and he yaws dangerously back and forth before making a last-second course correction and striking the bus headfirst at full velocity. He punches a neat Dilettante-shaped hole in it, and rescue is underway.
I suppose you know how it turned out.
PLAYBOY: One survivor.
BOROWSKI: One teenage girl. Everyone else had either drowned or died in the crash itself.
Afterward, some reporter stuck his microphone in Cameron’s face and asked for a reaction to his first failure. The twit actually used the word “failure.”
Cameron’s reply was succinct: “If you don’t want people drowning, keep the buses out of the water. I’m not your mother.”
I was still half-dead on the sofa when Cameron returned. If I’d followed him to the scene, as I often did, I might have been able to calm him down. Instead, he was fuming at the highest setting. When he saw me laying there, he exploded. I’ve repressed most of his tirade but it ended with “Is this what I pay you for? To lounge around all day? Some sidekick you are.”
I walked out. It took most of my strength to reach the door, and I used up what was left walking down Cameron’s ludicrously long driveway. I collapsed just outside the gate.
Town was eight miles away. By the time I was halfway there, my lungs were on fire. I’d have accepted a ride from Pol Pot at that point, but not a single car passed by.
My intention was to hop on the ‘Hound and head home to Texas. My father transferred me the fare, and I bought my ticket at the tobacco shop–small towns don’t have proper terminals. The bus was six hours out. I waited across the street in the park. It rained the entire time.
PLAYBOY: You two must have reconciled, though.
BOROWSKI: Cameron showed just before the bus did. He’d walked–yes, walked–in the rain. “I’m not a priest,” I said. “Penance doesn’t impress me.”
“It wouldn’t be the same without you,” he said.
“You got that right,” I said. “Rest up, get centered, start over. Don’t listen to critics. You owe the public nothing. Everyone has a right to his own limitations, and that includes you.”
“You coming with me or what?” he asked
Cameron flew us home. His vector was still pretty shaky, but as I didn’t have to walk another eight miles, I didn’t care what he crashed us into.
It was pretty smooth sailing from then on. And he never called me “sidekick” again.
PLAYBOY: Can I assume the second occasion was–
BOROWSKI: The last one, yes. He had rescued some people from the roof of a burning building up in Harlem. Routine stuff. I was watching on TV in the Manhattan penthouse.
PLAYBOY: And then what happened?
BOROWSKI: You tell me, brother. Suddenly I was face down on the carpet, smelling burnt toast and listening to my individual brain cells in their death throes. If the cleaning service hadn’t come up just then, we’d be conducting this interview through a spiritual medium.
PLAYBOY: Here’s what I remember: the Dilettante’s comforting a little girl he pulled off the roof. There’s an explosion in the basement of the building next door, and the whole thing starts to come down. The Dilettante runs in without a second thought and starts hauling people out. He’s almost got the building clear when the upper floors give way and the walls cave in. The Dilettante braces himself; he’s holding the whole side of the structure up while the last stragglers escape, but the weight’s too much; he stumbles, his knees buckle, and the whole thing collapses.
Thus endeth the Dilettante.
It was quite a thing to see.
BOROWSKI: I’ve never watched the footage.
PLAYBOY: We won’t see anything like him again, will we?
BOROWSKI: Lightning in a bottle.
PLAYBOY: Will you attend the unveiling of Cameron’s memorial?
BOROWSKI: I’m tempted to no-show, just to see what the headline in the Post would be. “SIDEKICK KICKS HERO WHEN HE’S DOWN,” or something. No, I’ll be there. Heaven knows I owe Cameron a lot more than that.
PLAYBOY: Anything else you’d like to get on the record before we close up shop here?
BOROWSKI: I realize this has been a weird story–
PLAYBOY: Origin stories usually are.
BOROWSKI: But thanks for believing me, all the same.
PLAYBOY: Thanks for the exclusive. We were surprised you agreed, to be honest.
BOROWSKI: You guys finally put the naked ladies back in. Consider this your reward for correcting a dire mistake. Besides which, Playboy brought almost three dozen Ray Bradbury stories into the world. American culture owes you one.
PLAYBOY: That was way before my time.
BOROWSKI: Mine, too.
PLAYBOY: Any final advice for the kids out there?
BOROWSKI: The kids? Yeah, put down this magazine and go read a book. For the rest of you? Don’t expect perfection. Nor from yourself, not from anyone else. If perfection is your criterion for a hero, you’ll still be looking for one when they’re lowering you into the ground. That’s all.
PLAYBOY: Thanks very much, Mr. Borowski.
BOROWSKI: “Leonard,” please. Come back any time.
The duo from Playboy had barely been gone five minutes when the doorbell rang. Leonard wheeled himself to the coffee table and retrieved his tablet, swiping clumsily through the screens until the security feed came up. It was the photographer.
“It’s still open,” he called.
“I’m sorry to take more of your time,” she said as she entered.
“All I have is time. Feel free to get something to drink if you want; otherwise, have a seat.”
“I had a couple of things I wanted to ask. Supplemental questions.”
“For the interview?”
“No, David’s gone. This is for my personal curiosity.”
“You were so unobtrusive that I’m afraid I’ve forgotten your name.”
“Ask away. The worst I can do is refuse to answer.”
“I almost didn’t come back. This is difficult to bring up, but here goes. You lied just now.”
“You gave the facts as you wish them to be understood, not as they actually were.”
“I wondered if someone would reach that conclusion.”
“Then I’m right?”
“Let’s find out.”
The photographer took a deep breath. “Okay. You and Cameron are in the church. The beam comes through the window and strikes you both. But it’s you who gets the powers, not him. Force fields, object levitation, the whole lot. But you can’t use them yourself; that phenomenon has linked the two of you somehow, and you end up with a full set of superpowers you can only project through Cameron.”
“But Cameron could fly. We all saw it a thousand times.”
“He only thinks he can fly. But you’re steering him where he wants to go, because now you can read his thoughts. And you can do it from a distance because you can see and hear though his eyes and ears. And you never told him.
“Your weaknesses were his weaknesses. The Dilettante’s powers faltered on exactly two occasions: in the river, when you were incapacitated by pneumonia, and in the building in Harlem, when you had your stroke.”
“It seemed ironic at first. Even funny, if your sense of humor’s demented enough. My punishment for remaining friends with humanity’s most repulsive specimen was to spend twenty years living in his head. Still, it worked out. He gave me a sense of purpose I’d have never achieved on my own.” Leonard sighed. “Any chance of keeping all this to yourself?”
“My lips are sealed.
“I guess it’s more obvious than I thought. I didn’t expect to be found out quite this fast.”
“It wasn’t so obvious. I almost doubted myself, until…”
“Until I started photographing you.”
“You’ve lost me.”
“Being in that bus, with water pouring in from all directions, people thrashing around, fighting over the remaining air, their cries tapering off as more of them succumbed, feeling my resolve slipping away as my body demanded that I breathe, water or no water; those moments of fear were the strongest emotion I’d ever felt. Stronger than love, hate, anything.
“Then the Dilettante broke through and gathered me up in his arms, and when he saw that everyone else was already dead–well, the hurt and sadness that filled his eyes eclipsed my fear. I had never seen such pain. And now I know I wasn’t just looking into the Dilettante’s eyes; I was looking into your eyes, too.
“I saw some of that pain again, during the interview. That was when I knew for sure that you were with me that day.”
“That was you,” said Leonard with quiet wonder. “I’m not thrilled about being in a wheelchair, but I’m glad I’m sitting down right now.”
“I don’t know how to thank you.”
“Don’t thank me, thank the Dilettante.”
“But you made the Dilettante possible.”
“And you promised to keep your trap shut about that, Ms. Dominguez.”
“Call me Tina. May I call you Leonard?”
“You may. Now go get me a cold beer, Tina, and get yourself one too. The kitchen’s down that hallway.”
By the time the photographer returned, the two bottles were already dripping with condensation. “Since we’re getting to be such pals,” she said, handing Leonard his beer, “may I ask how your recovery is coming along?”
“Not bad. I think the stress of twenty years of surrogate heroics brought on the stroke. Now that my career’s over, I expect to bounce back. I’m pretty resilient.”
“That much is obvious.”
“Because even in then midst of a life-threatening stroke, you managed to help Cameron prop up that building until those people escaped.”
“I did no such thing. I was down for the count. It was Cameron’s finest moment, and it was all him.”
“How is that possible?”
“When things are darkest, there’s no limit to what ordinary people are capable of.”
“You really believe that?”
“What kind of hero would I be if I didn’t?” They sat quietly for a while. Eventually Leonard raised his bottle in the air. “To the Dilettante.”
“To the Dilettante.” They sipped. The photographer raised her beer in turn. “To Cameron.”