#FridayFlash: Grey Ghost Gone

Grey Ghost Gone

by Tony Noland

Harold pulled into his garage, killed the engine and took off his sunglasses. Six more hours until sundown, as if it mattered. Nothing mattered, not anymore. The life of Harold W. Rentnick III was never much to speak of, but his night-time secret identity as a vigilante super-hero used to make his days bearable. Not long ago, he lived for the night, was anxious to leave this plush prison and go out to prowl the mean streets. Now, he just sat alone at home watching CSI reruns and movies from his Netflix queue.

True, home was a 34-room mansion on a secure estate, but so what? Harold knew that he was a boring, unloveable lump. It was his alter ego, the Grey Ghost, whom everyone liked to be with. When he was behind the mask of the Ghost, he could be clever, funny, charming, flirtatious... free. People liked him when was the Ghost. People only tried to hang out with Harold because he was rich. Whether they were from families that were rich, super-rich or don't-bother-asking-rich, it was all about money. There was no one he could trust, with whom he could be himself. Money was like a disease that kept him apart from everyone else, a disease for which he knew no cure.

In the end, it was all worthless. He hated being Harold. He'd trade every cent of it to be able to be the Grey Ghost again; even if he had to start over from nothing, he'd do it tomorrow. But it was impossible.

He got out of the Benz and went into the empty house. The super-strength and ESP, he missed those, of course, but more than that or any of the other powers, he missed being cool and mysterious, being admired. He missed hanging out with RocketMan and Raptor, just kicking ass and patrolling together through the watches of the night. He even missed his on-again, off-again dating with Electra, crazy jealous as she was of that partnership he'd had with the Blonde Bombshell. He missed all of his friends.

But he dared not put on the magic ring that gave him his powers, not even once for old time's sake. The pain was just unbearable when he took the ring off, and he couldn't stay as the Ghost for more than 72 hours without dying of thirst.

The ring was upstairs, on his dresser in that little carved wooden box, the same one he'd found in that cave in Bolivia. It had taken him a while to figure out the powers that came with the ring, but it was a chance to completely reinvent himself. How ironic that the same aspect of the ring's power which had made him feared and hated in the criminal underworld was also the very thing that forced him to retire last year.

As the Grey Ghost, all forms of metal and other inorganic matter passed right through him. Bullets, knives, shrapnel... none of it could touch him. It wasn't exactly full intangibility, but it let him walk through brick walls, go in and out of locked vaults, stuff like that. It scared the hell out of the crooks. It never occurred to him to think about his teeth.

Harold walked down the back hall towards the kitchen. For more than twenty years, he'd been a super-hero, one of the best. Then, last spring, the first time he'd tried to go out after having his first cavity fixed at the dentist, his new filling fell right through his mouth as soon as he put on the ring. He hadn't noticed until after that night's work, but when he took the ring off, that stabbing pain was horrible. He'd had to endure a redrilling session to set a new one, which had also fallen out the very next night. He didn't feel the pain as the Grey Ghost; as soon as the magic ring came off, though...

After replacing the filling for the fourth time, the dentist said he'd have to pull the tooth and set a crown if the fillings kept coming out. Harold considered what it would mean to have endured the drilling into his jawbone to set the pin, only to have to go back and do it again and again when his intangibility kicked in. That wasn't a volitional power like the flight or the X-ray vision... it just happened when he put on the ring.

Harold thought of the needles jabbed into his jaw, the smell of burning bone during that last session in the dentist's chair, the metallic taste of the most recent filling. With his jaw still aching, he made the hardest decision of his life. He'd given up his life's work, his passion, the only thing that made life enjoyable. He sent a secret coded message to the mayor and to Fellowship of Protectors, telling them of his decision to retire, citing "medical reasons". Every single one of them expressed concern, offered support, asked if he needed help. The Diamond Devil and Ms. Crusher even offered to meet up in real life.

He didn't answer any of them. None of his friends - the Grey Ghost's friends - knew who he really was, and he wanted to keep it that way. He couldn't bear to let anyone know that behind the mask of the Grey Ghost, the spookiest, cleverest hero of them all, he was just Harold Rentnick, a worthless billionaire.

From one of the kitchen cupboards, Harold took a tall glass. From the refrigerator, he took a container of orange juice. From the butler's pantry, he got a fresh bottle of Grey Goose vodka. It had been his favorite brand since he'd picked his nom-de-heroique. He smiled at that private joke one last time. In his pocket was a rattling bottle, a full prescription of sleeping pills. Unbuttoning his shirt, Harold went out onto the deck where the hot tub and the razor blades waited.

===== Feel free to comment on this or any other post.


  1. Tony-

    as much as I liked the idea, I couldn't help but think that all the Grey Ghost really needs is dentures. He can afford them, and it's an easier time than suicide.


  2. I KNOW, D. Paul... dentures!
    Quick! Off to the hot tub to rescue this poor sad rich man!
    I liked this character, Tony, don't kill him off!
    (I always knew dentists were true villains)

  3. Dentures are a good idea, and they would work, but I'll be honest, guys. My first version of this story had the dentist calling him at the end with a new kind of polymer-resin filling which, being carbon-based, wouldn't fall out of his mouth. That would have solved the problem, too.

    In the end, I let him be overwhelmed with his depression. No special non-metallic fillings, no reprieve at the end.

    Why would I do that to this poor guy? Why would I let him be miserable and kill himself instead of having him search for some means of solving his problem?

    I can only say that depression makes people do strange things. If he'd confided in one of his super-hero buddies, they might have suggested the dentures. The thing is, though, he feels alone. Completely and utterly alone. He didn't want to accept any help from his friends, and he can't level with his dentist about what's going on. he feels that there's no one he can trust.

    All of the subtext here is about loneliness and depression, about the wearing of masks and the isolation that comes with it. This guy is Richard Cory, through and through.

    This story isn't about being superhuman. It's about being human.

  4. I like the story Tony, but if you don't mind me saying, the fact that you had to explain all this in the comments means that you could have showed this depression better. His despair, his loneliness, etc are hidden behind the cool money talk, so we can't see it. Just trying to help. :)

    Ah, his super powers are cool!

  5. Thanks, Mari. In editing this down to ~1000, it looks like I cut some of the wrong stuff.

    I'm still working on how to convincingly convey clinical depression in a character without having him say, "I'm depressed."

  6. Tony, I have to ask - is this for Adam West? On the old Batman cartoon they had the young Bruce Wayne be inspired by a television show, The Grey Ghost. The actor portraying that hero becomes typecast and leaves a destitute life in old age. They purposely cast Adam West as his voice. There are enough dots to make me curious, even though this story is clearly not about the same GG.

    "nom-de-heroique" was my favorite part. Never thought to turn a phrase like that. Clever and right up my alley.

  7. Well, I like it, Tony. I agree it's difficult to portray that kind of depression, but I didn't feel the end was too much of a shock. I feel sorry for poor Harold, though.

    Thought this was well done the way it is. :-)

  8. Getting past the obvious - dentures - I could feel the depression and the underlying sense that many people have when forced to retire for medical reasons.

    Maybe it should have been a hip replacement instead of a filling?

  9. How does the metal ring stay on his fingers? Would it too not pass through the flesh and drop on the floor?

    There was something really base rock sad about this character. I felt for him.

    marc nash

  10. How does the metal ring stay on his fingers? Would it too not pass through the flesh and drop on the floor?

    The ring is made of bone, actually. It's older than old, created in an time before the Path To The World Beyond was closed to men. It was carved from the living thighbone of an albino jaguar and infused with the lifeblood magic of nine hundred newly hatched ravens.

    From warrior to warrior, it was handed down until it came, in this cold and sterile age, to our poor hero.

  11. Really liked the Grey Ghost and his sadness. I also felt the ending come out of left-field a bit. Now, the razor blades are metal -- do those do the job on the Ghost?

    I think this is a story that could stretch a bit past the 1k mark; I'm pretty interested in what brought him to the brink of the hot tub. Peace...

  12. Well now I feel like a schmuck, Tony! Making fun of the poor guy's teeth when there's so much more involved. Of course there is.
    But what a wonderful thing to have this much discussion on a #fridayflash. That has to be satisfying.

  13. This is a great exploration of depression. Reading the comments gives it a clarity on subsequent reads. Knowing people who suffer from depression, you have captured that sense of hiding behind masks very well.
    Adam B

  14. Setting aside that he's rich enough to find a solution to his teeth problem, this was excellent, Tony. You showed his pain and final night quite well. Good story!

  15. I dunno, Tony ... I sorta got that he was depressed just fine.

    I dig the idea alot. The whole thing works for me...

  16. This is such an original and different take on the whole superhero genre and oddly serious and deep considering the content...though I admit to finding it hard to sympathise with a billionaire.

    Nice work!

  17. I'm curious if you are trying to protray Clinical Depression as it actual is, or as it is commonly portrayed to the masses?

    Culture sees Depression as a lingering sadness, and sometimes akin to laziness. It's the girl crying or the guy who can't get out of bed.

    The component that seems invariably lost, is the "filter." It turns whatever is said to the person, or whatever action the person takes is twisted to be negative.

    So, if you're trying to protray that type of depression, I'd show him in action as a super-hero. And then have his responses be wholly negative to every good thing that he did.

    If he saves a woman at a bank robbery, but someone three blocks away is killed in a mugging, all he'll remember is that he let a mugee die. That kind of thing.

    I have, unfortunately, had people very close to me suffer from this, and this is the component that never seems to be portrayed.

    One final note, is that I saw the back story to the ring in the comments. That is just too coll to not include in the story, 1,000 words be damned!

    You could even tweak it to where the ring helps influence the Depression, although I think Tolkien might have worked with as a theme in one of his more obscure works...

  18. Confession - I only read the first few comments and felt compelled to respond without reading further.

    I felt his depression quite well throughout, and I've experience, so I know, (unfortunately, it isn't because I'm rich). :)

    Very well done, in my humble opinion, Tony. I don't think the story could logically end any other way.

  19. I felt despair more than depression, but sadness was certainly there

    I totally want to know more about time before the Path To The World Beyond was closed to men - future flash maybe...?

  20. Tony Stark would never have this problem.

    I do like this, I really do, and it's neat how it's an actual physical pain that makes him retire (I thought it might be some kind of existential pain at not being the Grey Ghost when he took off the ring) but it just seems such a shame to end it all because he can't be a superhero.

    Surely those billions could be put to better use?

    Still, brilliantly written, as always.

  21. Such terrific comments, everyone!

    John Wiswell: No, I'm not familiar with the Grey Ghost you're referring to. Must be a cosmic coincidence (or an affinity for alliteration that makes such a consonant construction overtly obvious). I'm glad you like the nom-de-heroique... I made that up myself. Very proud.

    Linda: if he's not wearing the ring, he's just a normal guy.

    Cathy: no worries - there's almost always a bunch of stuff going on under the surface of my stories. It's just that I don't usually talk about it.

    Laura, Adam, D. Paul, Deanna: I'm glad it resonated and seemed true, at least to one extent or another. Depression comes in different forms, but the sense of isolation is a commonality. He didn't seek help, rejected offers of help, couldn't see that he needed help.

    Mazzz: Heh, I hope this isn't one of those #FridayFlash weeks where the comments are more interesting than the story itself!

  22. I second Mazz. I want a flash about the ring and all related stuff too. :)

  23. See, I get this, 'cause I have a teeth "thing." I have nightmares about dentists and teeth falling out. The smell of burning bone is frightening as hell. G.G. was sentenced to lifelong dentistry hell!!

  24. Before I read the comments, I was smiling throughout the story. The ending surprised me, because I didn't feel it fit with what I thought the set-up was (excuse my poor grammar).

    Tony, I got the despair, I wondered about dentures, but the dentist thing had me almost laughing out loud! I took this as an irreverant spoof of the superhero genre, with a compassionate portrayal of your protagonist. I was shocked that Harold thought he had to kill himself--didn't see him as so lost in his depression.

    I don't know if I feel stupid or proud after reading this. But you proved once again (or maybe the commenters proved?) that reading is subjective, no matter how precisely we choose our words.

    BTW, I enjoyed this one almost as much as your earthquake story (which I still think is your best that I've read).

  25. Tony - I like the idea of this one a lot ... my thought would be that you've given up some of the opportunities to show us his sadness/depression in favor of the full back story. There's a lot on both sides and hard to fit into a flash story. Maybe with all of this as a backdrop in your mind you could envision a way to show us both back story and his sadness through action. Or maybe he could be having a conversation with his parrot? Dunno, but i like the concept a lot :-)

  26. Well, I suppose I could jump on the "no need for suicide" bandwagon, but all I want to say is how cool this story was. It had such an awesome Watchmen vibe, I loved it.

    Great job, and the prose is clean and tight as always. Great stuff. But man! Death before dentures? Bummer choice. ;)

  27. I get the overwhelming, all consuming part of his life dwelling on the money being of no use to him. That portrayed the depth of his depression. Dentures? For a super hero?

    Am I the only one who has ever cheated on a fridayflash and gone a teeny weeny bit over 1,000 words? Shame on me!

  28. Thank you Icy & jdanetyler, I am to please!

    Pegjet: Well, I hadn't intended it as farce, but I can see how it could work that way. Right up until the suicide, I mean.

    PJ, Susan: The first draft of this story had lots more about his inner life, his daytime life, all kinds of things that fleshed it out and made his descent into a suicidal depression much more believable. How his family got rich (think Tony Stark, as Icy suggests, but with an ugly twist), how little Harold was treated as a rich child, etc. Alas, I was feeling draconian, and cut it all to make it fit in 1000 words, purely as an exercise in discipline. As I note up above, I think this might be too much to cram in and still get across the message I wanted to convey.

    Mari, Mazzz & D. Paul: So you really want the story of the ring and the Path To The World Beyond? Seriously?

  29. I am always serious when it comes to Worlds Beyond, you must know me well enough by now to know this :-)

  30. That last comment was mazzz btw, commenting on mobile phone isn't optimal on blogger it would appear!

  31. I had no problem keying in on the depression. And I agree with Benjamin. This was such a different take on the superhero trope that I found it refreshing.

    My only quibble is the razor blades. He's got the drugs, alcohol, dilated blood vessels from the hot tub -- the razor blades really seem like overkill. We get it that he intends to off himself. That one piece might be over written.

    I liked it.

  32. I feel like I'm being stalked by superheroes this week. First, I see a photograph from an art exhibit about aging superheroes, then the cover a favorite magazine that came in the mail has a photo of a new superhero movie and now this. Your work is wonderful as always. Such a sad end to a wonderful character.

  33. Tony,
    I think you portrayed the deep depression very well. While your characters actions may not have made much sense with all of the options available to him, you gave him a year to dwell on the aspect of his life which made him miserable.

    I think the manner of his downfall was unique. Fillings and dental work are so common that you would never think of them as something that would cripple a superhero.

  34. Very clever! The fillings falling out... I was in pain just reading that.

    Great post - tragic end.

  35. I always feel like I was able to escape to another world with your flash, and this was no exception. Although because of my phobia of dentists, there were parts that weren't pleasant -- but that means you did your job. ;-)

  36. I feel so sorry for him - he doesn't deserve this ending in his life - meaningless on one spectrum but so popular and a hero on the other

  37. I really liked the back story. The character development was superb.

    I'll have to agree with Jon about the ending, it wasn't underwriting the depression (which was fabulous) and the suicide seeming odd as much as the abruptness. For future reference I would have been willing to read through a couple extra sentences for a little more build up.

  38. Tony,

    Although I liked the idea and the character, and I thought it was very well written, I can't help but agree with those who wished for more development building up to such a tragic ending. It could have had much more of an impact if it had been longer. Perhaps it's just not meant to be a flashfic, but it's definitely good enough to spend some time expanding upon.

  39. I thought you did a great job of showing his depression and loneliness. No further explanation was necessary (in the comments). Suicides aren't rational, so of course he didn't think of the dentures... he was drowning in his own suffering. The razorblades weren't necessary, but the story was wonderful - very unique and original.

  40. Such a sad story. Good to know even superheros can have flaws as well.

  41. I love super-hero stories that showcase their humanity. I can understand him being worried- teeth may just only be the start of it, if you ask me. I agree with Jon that the multiple suicide articles feel like overkill - one would probably be a lot stronger. Although I would think he would go out as the Grey Ghost - at least then he would feel more like he could leave boring Harold behind forever. It would be a slower painful death though. Great story!

  42. My lord, there's something super-heroic about inspiring a comment thread like this. Well done!

    I got that he was depressed too, but I can't take cartoon characters very seriously, and Like Benjamin I have a little trouble feeling sorry for a billionaire. Also, like Peggy, I smiled through the dentist episode. I would think, just for old time's sake, that he might want to go out in a blaze of glory as the Grey Ghost one more time instead of the dismal end in a tub.


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