Saturday, November 28, 2015
The cold of the late January morning seeped into Danny’s exposed face and hands as he stood outside the Penitentiary, the cold metal doors clicked shut behind him. This is wrong, he thought. This is all wrong. The sun, just coming over the horizon beyond the thick stand of trees, bathed the world in gray from behind heavy, dark clouds. He wrapped his arms around his chest, the thin state-issued coat doing little to fight back the frigid air. Wrong. Overnight, those clouds had covered the forest with snow. He needed the snow to fall again to cover his tracks.
“Daniel David Wornall,” echoed from loudspeakers that dotted the twenty-foot-tall chain link fence that enclosed the Chase as he stood before the doors, reality starting to creep in. “The Hunters await deployment. You have five minutes.”
Danny’s legs, clad in thin, gray prison pants, didn’t move. The whole thing was a mistake. It had to be. Danny had brought the police to Kayla’s bloodstained body; he hadn’t killed her. He’d only …
“You have four minutes,” the monotone loudspeaker voice droned.
One, two, three, Danny. Run. Run goddamnit, RUN.
He pulled one leg forward; his gray slip-on tennis shoe disappeared into the drift, the snow bitingly cold pushed up his loose pant leg and over the ankle sock. His next leg moved faster. By the time the loudspeaker told Danny he only had three minutes to run, he had disappeared into the grayness of the snow-covered forest.
Danny ran awkwardly in the snow, not knowing what lay beneath the thick, white blanket that covered the deer trail he’d stumbled onto. He stopped, and listened. Quiet permeated the forest, like someone had sucked out all the air. No birds, no animals, not even a passing jet broke the silence. Just his deep, gasping breaths. His eyes grazed across the arm of his coat; the bright orange nearly glowed in the gray and white morning.
“Shit,” he hissed, and pulled at the buttons that held his coat tight, keeping in what little warmth it could. The cold clung to his skin like a wet towel as he peeled off the jacket, and threw it behind a snow-covered bramble. He stood in a gray T-shirt. The cold might kill him, he knew; but that orange coat made him an easy target for Hunters.
Danny wrapped his stiff, frozen fingers around the low-hanging branch of a young beech tree to steady himself. Gloves would have been nice, but Runners didn’t get gloves. The branch swayed as Danny sucked in air and exhaled it in heavy bursts of steam. Great flakes of snow began to fall steadily; within moments a white bead curtain weaved itself through the woods.
“Thank God,” he whispered, leaning heavily on the branch, his eyes trained behind him. Prints in the snow made by his state-issued tennis shoes no boots for you, dirtbag were going to bring every Hunter right to him. Maybe the snow would fall fast enough to erase those prints.
A shout. Somewhere in the forest behind him a Hunter had found his trail. Danny couldn’t hear their words, but he knew what they said. Goddamnit. Danny had jumped over a bush, and brushed away prints before running down the deer trail, but the Hunters found the deep footprints anyway. That call was from the man who found his trail. Danny knew that man. He released the branch, the small tree swaying slightly, and pulled his freezing feet into motion. The Hunters were well dressed. Heavy gloves, thick Carhartt coats, military boots, and hand warmers. The cold wouldn’t even slow them.
Danny just had to keep moving.
The season was just turning cool the night Kayla died.
The sky had begun to darken; a pastel wash spread across the western horizon past the Smithmeyer’s farm field that October night. Stubble from corn stalks ran in rows as far as Danny could see. Kayla stepped onto the wooden back deck where Karl Smithmeyer had grilled steaks just an hour before, her mother Gwen sitting in a deck chair sipping a glass of wine. Kayla leaned against the rail, and smiled, her parents now inside watching the news. “The movie starts in an hour,” she said. “We really need to go.”
A smile grew on his face. Kayla. Just looking at her made his breath come fast. He turned and tossed a soft, loose spiral to Kayla’s little sister. It hit her hands and skittered across the grass.
“Just one more,” he said.
“Five,” Katie called, the ball back in her hands. She never wanted to stop.
Danny turned to the girl, her hair tied in a ponytail. “Two.”
She frowned. “Deal.”
The snow now came hard. Danny paused; the visibility before him was about ten feet. I’m going to get through this. The snow didn’t affect his vision like it did the Hunters because they were looking for someone in a bright orange Penitentiary coat, not a gray T-shirt and light gray pants that blended in with the snow. His breath came heavily as he jogged. The Gate was out there somewhere, and he was ahead of everybody. All he had to do is get through the Gate, and he was free. He thought of the old time punishments. The electric chair, lethal injections, and the barbaric practice of making a criminal sit in a six-by-eight feet concrete jail cell, until they died – like an animal in a cage. But those punishments weren’t enough to deter most people from breaking the law; the Hunt was. Robberies were rare, murders almost non-existent.
As snow built on the trail, covering his hair in white, he wondered if a little barbarism might be better than the Hunt, because he knew who stalked him in the cold. Kayla’s parents Karl, and Gwen, and her sister Katie were in these woods looking for him, armed with M4A1 carbine rifles, and Beretta 9mms, and they wanted to cut out his heart.
The movie faded into the background as Danny held Kayla Smithmeyer in the dim light of the theater, the armrest folded back to form one large chair. Her hair smelled of coconut, her breath of cinnamon, and he inhaled deeply. They’d met their sophomore year in college. “You see that guy,” Kayla had said to Jenny Kappleman as they sat in the university library, anthropology books spread over the table. “I’m going to marry him.”
Jenny shrugged. “You don’t even know him.” She paused and took a long drink of the Chai mocha latte from the coffee shop downstairs.
“Watch me.” Kayla stood, and walked across the study lounge, the ΣΣΣ on the chest of purple sweatshirt like a shield. Danny sat alone at his own table, ‘The Collective Works of Shakespeare’ open to ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream.’
“Are you Team Demetrius or Team Lysander?” Kayla asked, the fingers of her right hand curled around a strand of her auburn hair.
Danny looked up, pulling off his glasses. Just like Clark Kent, Kayla thought. How adorable.
“Hermia,” she said. “She’s supposed to marry Demetrius, but she loves Lysander. Who are you rooting for?”
He gently sat his glasses on the open pages of the book, and leaned back in the hard library chair, a smile teased the corners of his mouth. “Lysander,” Danny said softly. “How can you root against love?”
That was two years ago. They sat, wrapped around each other in the empty back row of the eight-screen theater in Kayla’s small hometown, their lips joined, the bad romantic comedy they’d come to see far away.
A stream cut across the trail, the falling snow melted as it struck its surface. Danny jumped over the three-foot-wide gap in the trail, then stopped, the gurgling of the moving water threatened death. He looked down the stream; the snowfall all but blinded him. There may be another trail downstream. If he could this is stupid, Wornall. You’ll freeze make it through the water without getting frostbite; the Hunters would lose his trail. The Gate was near. It had to be. He’d been on the run for at least an hour. The Chase wasn’t that big. Danny jogged up the trail about twenty feet, and slipped into the brush to the left of the trail, then slowly backtracked, placing his shoes in his deepening footprints until he reached the stream.
“You’re going to make it, Danny. You’re going to make it,” he whispered through chattering teeth. The Gate was freedom. He just had to reach it first, then Kayla Smithmeyer’s death would be forgiven.
If he could forgive himself.
Danny draped an arm around Kayla’s shoulders as he drove his roomy older model Buick. She kissed his neck. “Find a place to pull over,” she whispered in his ear.
Kayla leaded away from him, and pulled her yellow cotton blouse over her head. He stole a quick glance as she worked the hooks on the back of the black lace bra. “Yes, really.”
The abandoned farmhouse sat about a quarter mile off the rural highway that connected the Smithmeyer farm to Collinwood. The headlights of Danny’s car bounced over the ancient front porch as it made it’s way slowly down the bumpy, unused lane. Tall, brittle yellowed weeds in the middle of old tracks folded under the bumper. White paint peeled off the old boards of the house like a sunburn, and black hollowed eyes stared from where windows once stood. The car turned in a big arc to point back toward the highway. The headlights suddenly shone over nothingness.
“Whoa.” The car lurched as Danny pushed the brakes to the floor. Kayla giggled; her jeans followed her shirt and bra onto the floor. The car sat at the edge of a ravine. Danny could see Kayla bite her lower lip in the soft green glow of the dash lights. She wormed her panties over her buttocks, pulled them slowly down her legs, and held them over the floorboard.
“I want you,” she said, and dropped her panties. Danny slammed the car into park and turned off the ignition as Kayla threw her arms around him and pulled him on top of her.
The sex in the front seat of his Buick was only their third time. Kayla’s fingers clutched Danny’s T-shirt as they moved; sweat beaded over his body in the cool fall night. She’d moaned, then screamed during their lovemaking, more from emotion than from the inexperience they both shared. “I love you, Danny,” she whispered as she pushed back against him.
Love? Yes. Love. “I love you, too.”
The water stung his feet, but Danny hardly noticed the cold anymore. The snow was his friend, but he knew it would kill him as surely as a bullet from Kayla’s family. They were out there, even Katie. A tear froze on his cheek. God, Kayla. I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry. Icy water splashed his legs as he trudged through the stream, the pain numbed him. He wondered if he’d still have his toes if he made it through the Gate.
After a few minutes – or an hour, Danny no longer sensed time – a second deer trail appeared covered in a clean coating of spotless snow. No tracks crossed the trail, no deer, no rabbit, no people. Danny walked unsteadily back through the stream to a large branch that hung over the water. Sleep pulled at him; he shook his head to try and dislodge it. He knew exhaustion was one symptom of extreme hypothermia, and it terrified him. Oh, God. The exhaustion, the clumsy hands, the chattering teeth. I’m freezing to death.
Danny had to leave the stream now, if he didn’t, he’d die here in the cold water of the Chase. The deer trail was the key. His head slowly swung upstream, snow blinding him, but Danny knew the Hunters were there, following him. Maybe even down the stream; if not now, soon. They’d see his tracks on the deer trail if he just stepped out. Pain threatened to cripple Danny’s hands as he flexed his fingers, the skin gray, blotched with patches of blue. He didn’t know if his hands would support his weight. For Kayla. He leapt and wrapped his frozen fingers around the low branch. Danny’s hands worked; he held himself out of the water, his wet pants legs immediately began to freeze. He swung forward, and back, the branch moaned under his weight; then he launched himself over the brush on the far bank, and landed in a crunch. Snow-covered sticks snapped beneath his body as he crashed into the snow-covered timber; air shot from his lungs.
A rifle crack sounded from behind him. The Hunters had heard his fall.
Kayla put the blouse back on slower than she’d taken it off, and shimmied into her faded blue jeans. “That was beautiful,” she said. She grabbed Danny by his cheeks, and kissed him deeply. It was, honey. It was. Love? Yeah, I’m in love. Then she pulled away, and giggled. “I have to pee.” Her fingers caressed Danny’s smooth cheek, and she smiled. My god, that smile. “I’ll be right back,” she said.
The mechanism click was loud in the still night as she swung open the door and stepped outside. A slight breeze flowed through the boughs of the nearby trees, the grinding of the branches eerie in the darkness. Kayla pulled her jeans to her ankles, and squatted in the weeds as her right hand held onto the door.
The ravine. She should watch out. “Be careful,” slowly came from Danny’s mouth. Oh, the taste of her breath still lingered.
“I’ll be fine,” she said. “I’m just …”
A squeal past her lips as her hand slipped from car door, and she tumbled backward.
“Kayla?” Danny scooted over the bench seats, his pants up, but unbuckled. “Kayla? Are you okay?”
A groan blended with the hush of the wind, and a thud, like somebody had dropped a watermelon. Then silence. Oh, dear God. Fingers numb with fear fumbled with the latch of the glove box. It sprang open, and papers flew. His insurance card, car manual, Sonic napkins. The flashlight sat at the bottom; he hoped the batteries still worked. “Kayla?” he called out the open door. There was no response but the wind in the trees.
Danny caught his toe on buried root and stumbled. A sharp pang lanced through his chest as his knee buried itself in the snow. He grabbed his right side with frozen hands. A rib, he figured, from the goddamned stupid jump from the creek. A warm, coppery taste filled his mouth, and he spat, a steaming crimson stain landed in the pure white that covered the ground, and melted out of sight. A hospital awaited on the other side of the Gate. He had to get to there. Danny pulled himself to his feet, and kept moving, each step stabbed his ribcage.
Ten yards farther through the driving snow his teeth stopped chattering, and he began to sway. I should rest, ran through his head. Danny limped toward a massive white oak tree, its bare branches reached out like comforting arms. I’ll just sit and close my eyes for a minute, and I’ll be fine. I’ll be fine. His eyelids became heavy, and he stumbled. Don’t do it, Wornall. You’ll die out here. Then he heard the voice.
“Two hours,” the monotone loudspeaker echoed in the distance. “The Hunt has been two hours.”
Danny shook his head; some consciousness seeped back in. Two hours? Most hunts were over in two hours. It must be the snow, slowing the Hunters down. The loudspeaker meant the fence was close. If the fence was close, the Gate was close. Danny quickened his pace, steeling his jaw against the pain. He rounded a bend in the trail and stopped dead. He’d entered the Garden of Ghosts.
“Kayla,” Danny screamed as he spilled out the passenger door and onto the grassy lane. The ravine fell off the lane nearly straight down, the front passenger tire inches away from the edge. “Kayla. Answer me.”
The cool wind brushing his hair seemed the only thing alive in the night. He clicked on the flashlight, the dim yellow beam damn batteries nearly useless. Danny stood; his knees weak from sex were now weak from terror. “Kayla,” he called again. Twenty yards toward the crumbling house, the ground sloped to meet the lane. He scrambled down the weed-choked pitch toward the bottom, the flashlight beam bounced over decaying tires, and rusting metal; a fender, an oil drum, box springs, bits of rotting cloth hung off the spindly coils like spider webs. Danny crawled over the ruined husk of a 1940s truck bed and reached the bottom of the gorge, the shadow of his Buick in the moonlight hung over him.
“Kayla,” his voice softer now, almost a whisper.
The weak flashlight beam grazed something twisted awkwardly on the floor of the ravine. “Oh, my God.” Kayla’s leg lay at an impossible angle, unmoving from behind an ancient farm implement. Her shoe was gone. “Kayla,” Danny’s mouth moved, but no sound followed. Gooseflesh pricked his arms and legs as he slowly moved around the tiny, four-row planter that may have once been pulled behind an Oliver, or some other tractor from a company that no longer existed, and found Kayla.
She lie silent, eyes wide, her mouth open like she’d just been surprised. “Kayla, baby.” Danny stepped closer, his legs threatened to spill him onto the junk-strewn ground. “Say something, Kayla. Please, say something.”
Then he saw it. A rusted pipe gleaming wet with blood jutted from the center of her pale yellow blouse like it was giving Danny the finger.
Haunting eyeless sockets stared at Danny from peeling skulls. Mouths, some fleshless, some starting to decompose, hung agape as Danny stood at the edge of the clearing, the Garden of Ghosts. His eyes affixed to the bodies of the Runners nailed to crucifixes, and planted in the snow like scarecrows from a nightmare. Those killed in the Hunt were brought here, and pinned in the clearing like giant specimens in a bug collection, then put on television for everyone to see. Danny couldn’t tell how far the clearing stretched; the gray haze of the falling snow made the Garden look like it went forever. Maybe it did.
Placards marked “Child Molester,” “Rapist,” “Thief,” hung from what was left of the necks of the dead. Great spikes driven through arms, legs, and chests held these bodies to the rough wooden poles. These people were dead before the nails sunk into their flesh. The bodies were just here to slow you down, Wornall.
“Shit,” he whispered in a whiff of steam. He limped through the dangling bodies, legs in decayed gray prison pants, and feet, some in state-issued slip-on shoes, some bare and skeletal, hung at face level. Danny stared at the ground as he moved through the crucified. The faces. He couldn’t look at the faces.
A bit of orange at the base of one pole jutted from the snow. He reached toward it and pulled; a prison coat came free. He stood in the falling snow, holding the bright orange garment. Damn it, Wornall. You’re going to die from the cold if you don’t put it on. He’d tossed his into the brush, to help him hide from the hunters. But they knew where he was; he could hear them in the distance, closing. It wouldn’t make any difference. Danny shook snow from the coat, and slipped it on, his fingers didn’t function well enough to work the buttons, so he left it open.
More sounds in the distance, but closer now. Through the snow, a trailhead entered the trees. Danny lowered his gaze from the hanging bodies of the damned and stumbled toward it. A skeletal foot raked across his hair as he passed beneath the last crucifix; he caught the scream in his throat, and looked up. A grinning skeleton glared back, a patch of skin on its cheek held all that was left of its beard. The falling snow collected in that beard creating a macabre Father Christmas. The sign under its chin read “Murderer.”
Danny pulled the coat tighter around him, his frozen hands in the pockets, and disappeared back into the forest.
The side trail was old, underbrush starting to choke it closed. Danny almost missed it. The shouts behind him had grown silent, but he doubted the Hunters had gone a different direction; his tracks were too visible. He had to get off this trail quickly. Fifteen feet up the trail the underbrush grew short, short enough to step over. Danny hurried to the stunted bushes, and reached his aching leg to the other side, pins and needles stabbed his foot as he put his weight on it and stepped fully over. Gotta hide the evidence, Wornall. He pulled his cold, clumsy hands from the coat pocket to grab a branch to sweep away the new tracks, but something fell from the right pocket.
“What the hell?”
He bent, wincing as his side stabbed with pain. A book of matches lay on the snow. He picked them up and opened the cover; eight matches remained. Matches? Matches? Fire. Heat. No, no. They’ll see. The matchbook sat in his palm. But if I’m far enough off the trail, a little fire. Just a little fire. They won’t see that. They can’t see that.
Danny held the matches tightly in his right hand, and wrapped the aching fingers of his left around a dead, leafy branch, wiping fresh snow over his footprints as he backed toward the side trail.
The trial lasted less than an hour. Indisputable DNA evidence on Kayla Smithmeyer proved Daniel David Wornall had raped her minutes before throwing the twenty-two-year-old education major to her death. No one listened to his story; the stone faces in the jury had already decided he was guilty despite lack of evidence of a struggle. No bruising, no scratches, no skin under Kayla’s fingernails. The jury sentenced Danny to the Hunt in front of a national TV audience. Danny expected to see Katie cry as the deputies led him out of the courtroom in handcuffs and ankle chains. She simply stared at him like she wanted him dead.
A rocky overhang at the base of a small hill protected Danny from the worst of the snow. The side trail weaved through forest, and led him to this spot. Dear God, this is going to work. He slumped to the ground; sleep again tugged at him. Fire. Have to start the fire. He knew if he fell asleep he’d never wake. He rolled to his left side to push himself to his feet – then he saw the writing. Rusty smears in a jagged line on the rock wall read, “I DIDN’T DO IT.” Blood? The words were written in blood, drips of rust-red dotted the stone beneath the scrawl. Danny crouched before the wall, and traced his finger along the letters. They’d been written with a bleeding finger. I didn’t do it. I didn’t do it, either, pal.
On hands and knees Danny swept snow away from the foot of the overhang, making a spot to pile kindling. His hand hit something hard beneath the snow; he reached his hand around it, and pulled out the branch. It was white.
A stifled cry burst from Danny’s mouth as his brain finally registered the femur, bits of dried flesh still clung to the surface. He dropped the bone, and brushed away more snow. An orange sleeve appeared under the white carpet, then a bare skull, grinning.
“Did you fall asleep, buddy?” Danny mumbled, looking down at the corpse of a man, a Runner. They never found him. “You’re supposed to be in the Garden, dude. Hanging in the Garden, but you’re here, in this hidey hole.”
A painful smile tugged at his cracked lips. If this man was here, it was because no one found him. This place was safe; he could light his fire. Danny pulled the orange coat from the snow, bones and remains rattled out. “Sorry about that, but you’re going to save my life, mister.” He placed the coat on the cleared ground under the overhang, and stood, his body shrieked in pain. “It’s okay, pal. Happens all the time. Getting old. I’m nearly twenty-three.” Danny grabbed branches, dragged them to the coat, and began to break off twigs. “You’re going to help me make a fire, whoever you are.” He sprinkled the rotted Penitentiary jacket with twigs, added larger sticks, and bent over the pile. He still held the matches in his hand. “I don’t care what you did to wind up here. I didn’t do anything, myself. I just wasn’t fast enough to save my girlfriend.”
I DIDN’T DO IT.
Horatio. Horatio. Were you guilty? Was anyone in the Garden guilty of the crimes that hung around their neck? Were pictures of the Garden of Ghosts enough to keep a desperate kid from robbing a liquor store? It didn’t matter. All Danny knew was that he hadn’t killed Kayla. He had to tell people that.
“I gotta get out of here.”
Stiff fingers fumbled with the matchbook. Danny used his thumbs to pull it open. Eight matches. I’ve got eight shots at this, or I’m going to die. He laughed, the sound loud against the snowy silence.
Come on, Wornall, goddamnit. Focus. Danny breathed in slowly; his fractured rib stabbed his chest. Light the match. Just light the match. Fingers deadened by the cold fumbled with the paper matches in the plain green book. The matchbook dropped to the snow.
Danny tried to flex his fingers, but couldn’t. The semi-frozen digits were locked into claws. His breath came fast. I’m not going to do it. I can’t do it. I can’t light a stupid goddamned match.
“Ease up, Wornall,” he whispered. “Ease up.”
Danny slowly scooped the matches from the snow, and pulled them open with the palm of his hand. The matches stood at awkward angles. “Come on, man,” he said as he brought his nearly useless hands toward his face, and felt for a match with his mouth. Danny’s stiff, cracked lips opened and closed around the book, a stick protruded awkwardly; he clenched his teeth onto it, and pulled. The match came free. Yes. Holy shit, yes. He took a deep breath through his nostrils; the cold burned his nose. Danny slowly pushed the match between the knuckles of his right index and middle fingers, and clamped them together.
Danny stared at it. This tiny, fragile paper stick tipped with phosphorus and potassium chlorate, was going to keep him alive. I did it. I freakin’ did it. Now light, damn you. He turned the matchbook clumsily in his hands, and pulled the match head awkwardly across the strike strip.
Danny took in a shallow breath and struck the match again.
They’re too old. No. They can’t be. They just can’t.
He cursed, and dragged the match head across the strip again, and again, and again. Pop. The side of the match head fizzled, and sparked, then died, a thin whiff of smoke crawled upward into the onslaught of snow.
Danny giggled. The next match took fire immediately, but he dropped it, the snow killed the small, yellow flame. The third match lit, and he touched it to the arm of the prison coat; a tiny flame climbed over the old, faded fabric, then took hold, and ate its way up toward the kindling. The sticks began to crackle as they burned.
Heat flowed into Danny’s damaged hands and feet; the pain was intense. Fuel logs stacked in a teepee over the kindling popped as they burned. The loudspeaker had droned again as Danny built the teepee, he’d been on the run three hours. No one had lasted three hours, except the man whose skull Danny had pulled from the snow, and sat next to the fire.
“I don’t know who you were, Horatio, but thanks.” Danny tossed another fuel log onto the fire; the teepee collapsed in a shower of sparks. “I would have fallen asleep out here.” Smoke disappeared quickly into the snow that seemed to hang in the cold, still air. The hunters would have reached the Gate by now, Danny realized. Karl, Gwen, and Katie no, not Katie probably stood at the gate in their warm winter clothing, just waiting for a bright orange jacket to come running from the tree line. Or maybe they’ve reached the Gate, and have come back in, looking for me.
He flexed his fingers and toes, pain stabbed with every movement, but they worked. They needed to work. He was going to leave the Chase alive, and he needed fingers. And I am leaving the Chase alive. The fire popped and whizzed as pockets of sap in the logs exploded. Danny threw on another log.
“How am I going to get past them, Horatio?” he asked, the dancing flames cast grim shadows on the skull. “They’ll be waiting for me. How can I distract them long enough to run …” limp “…through the Gate?”
The fire cracked, and shifted again, and Danny grinned. He’d set the woods on fire.
Dead trees lie everywhere. The Chase was a deathtrap, not a recreation area. No one came through to clear the dead brush, and it clogged the ground. Danny dragged heavy branches over his fire; Horatio was now buried beneath the flames. The long-dead wood caught quickly, and the flames leapt into the snowy sky. No one would see the smoke through the snow, but they would smell it. The blaze rose to ten feet. I need more wood.
He scrambled up the small hill that overlooked the fire, snowflakes melted on his face as he climbed. On a clear day, he may have been able to see the Gate, or at least the fence, and maybe a glimpse of cars on the highway that stretched by the Penitentiary, but the gray haze was complete. A dead fir lay on the hilltop; brown nettles still clung to the branches. Danny smiled, ignoring his cracked, bleeding lips. This was it. The long dead tree went over the side of a short drop off easily; beneath Danny the dry fir burst into flames, and the fire quickly began to catch the boughs of nearby trees.
Someone shouted in the distance.
Twenty minutes later, Danny stood watching the Gate, which hung wide. He lurked behind the tree line, the dead man’s orange coat hidden in the snowy bushes behind him. Nothing moved. No guards, no Hunters, just the still falling snow. An ambulance waited outside the gate; exhaust spewed into the morning. That ambulance was for him. Warmth, food, water, healing. It was all there. Snowflakes gathered in his unkempt brown hair, hair that just a few months ago Kayla had run her fingers through. God, I miss you, Kayla. The only noise in the air came from behind him where he had burned the forest. Something was wrong. This part shouldn’t be so easy.
Go, Danny. Run.
But it was. His body flexed, and he limped from the protection of the trees and onto the last thirty yards to freedom. Twenty, fifteen, ten. Danny’s pace quickened, the lancing pain from the broken rib sent tears down his face. I’m going to visit Kayla’s grave, first thing. Yeah, first thing. Kayla, I promise. I … Five.
A gun fired from the trees behind Danny, and his shoulder exploded in fire. He stumbled, and his body twisted as he fell onto his back on the frigid, snow-covered ground. No, NO. Cold seeped quickly into him as he bled warmth into the snow.
“I’m glad it was me.”
That voice. I know that voice. That tiny, tiny voice.
Ten-year-old Katie appeared in his line of sight as he stared into the sky, her blond ponytail stuck from the back of a brown knit cap, her blue eyes cold as the day. She pulled a military rifle into his sight, and rested the hard, black muzzle on his forehead.
“I thought you were my friend, Danny.”
What? Katie. Oh, God, sweet Katie. “We are friends, honey. I always played catch with you.” He sucked in air; his face winced in pain. “I went to your soccer games. I am your friend. I’ll always be your friend.” He swallowed, his throat dry. “Don’t do this, Katie.”
She stood over him, her head cocked to one side. “They said you killed her, Danny.” Her voice was emotionless, flat. “Why did you kill my sister?”
Danny tried to shake his head, but it wouldn’t move. “I didn’t. It was an ac… an acc… .” His body shivered, the blood loss drained him. Katie. KATIE. “It was an accident.” I DIDN’T DO IT. “She just fell. I loved your sister, Katie. I loved her.”
Katie frowned. “Then you can tell her that if you see her,” she said, and pulled the trigger.
Sunday, March 2, 2014
Clark Bland stopped in the street and looked into the morning sky blurred with assholes. Swoosh. Swoosh.
He started walking again, tiptoeing the thoroughfare's centerline like a tightrope. He stopped at a weed jutting out of a large crack in the asphalt. Sunflower, maybe. Or it could be a maple tree for all he knew.
I'm not a damned farmer, Clark thought.
He jumped over another crack. The holes in the streets were growing wider. Too bad about the cars. If the cars were still running, then maybe people would give a damn about the streets. But as Clark straddled the centerline, he didn't need to worry about cars. He didn't need to worry about busses. He didn't need to worry about somebody asking him for two bucks after they washed his windshield while he waited for a traffic light to change. Everyone was up there. In the sky.
Clark's toe caught one of the growing splits in the once smooth street and he started to fall.
His lunch box flew out of his hand, the turkey and cheese on wheat squashed between the side of the box and Clark's can of Fresca as it spun in the air.
Stupid Fresca, Clark thought as his face shot toward the gritty, jagged pavement as fast as a speeding...
Clark was in the air. Huge arms, solid as iron, grabbed him and put a growing distance between him and the nose-bloodying pavement. The man was dressed in a red and gold Spandex body suit. And he wore a mask. Damnit, damnit, damnit. The man's golden cape fluttered around the two as they landed three blocks from where Clark tripped. The dandy had also caught Clark's lunch box.
"You've been saved from certain bruising and possible nosebleed by Captain Courteous," the costumed man said.
It was another super hero rescue of poor Clark Bland.
"Sorry about the shirt," the man said as he handed Clark his lunch box. "It's blood from a mighty battle with Dr. Danger of Apartment 6A on Locust Street. It probably won't wash out. Oh, and I think a can of Fresca smashed your sandwich."
Clark looked down at the front of his white Oxford. Blood was smeared across it. At least the blood isn't mine, he thought, then paused. No, I would rather it be my own blood. Clark's tie wasn't much better. Gloria could have gotten the stain out, he thought as he clenched the lunch box handle in his fist and watched Captain Courteous shoot into the air to join thousands of other super heroes out to save the world from whatever they hadn't saved it from yet.
Clark started walking again, faster this time. Can't go to work in a bloody shirt, he thought. Too many questions.
Clark remembered a time before super heroes. A time when wars still cropped up in the Middle East. A time when people still died from walking in front of cars. A time when Gloria still cared.
"What do you think about the new SPA treatments?" Gloria had asked Clark from across her bowl of oatmeal. Hot. With a few raisins and a pinch of brown sugar. Always with just a pinch. Why bother eating something healthy if you're just going to ruin it with sugar? Clark had heard her say this enough times he now left sugar off everything.
SPA. Super Power Advantage. Take a little here. Take a little there. Then one day suddenly, BAM, you're Superman. What's the advantage, Clark wondered, if everybody's got it?
"That's like putting breast implants on a super model."
"I didn't say I wanted breast implants."
"I know, honey," Clark said, reaching across the table and touching his wife's hand, wishing like hell he'd picked another analogy. "I just mean that you don't need either one—super powers, or breast implants."
Gloria squeezed Clark's hand. "You didn't answer my question."
"I'm happy with who I am," he said. "If people aren't satisfied with what God gave them, I pity them."
"Even those who can leap tall buildings in a single bound?"
Why is she going on like this? Clark wondered. He frowned.
"Yes, even them."
The clothing store at 95th and Duncan Avenue was already open. Good. There were no cars out front, but that was normal nowadays. Most retail outlets now relied on fly-in business, or at least flash-in business. The lights were on, too. That was a good sign the store served customers without ultravision.
A bell over the door jingled as Clark stepped inside.
"May I help you?" asked a hugely built man in skin-tight leather. The man stood about two feet from Clark. He hadn't been there a second ago, but Clark had felt the air pressure change as the man shot toward him in super speed and he realized he had gotten used to people appearing out of nowhere.
"I need a shirt," Clark said.
The man in leather stared at Clark for a moment, then reached out to touch him. Clark put up a hand. "I'm sorry, but I already know my size."
The man in leather shook his head and reached forward again.
"No, no. I know your size, too. I just need to touch you to find your inner color."
Clark's raised hand stopped him again. "White. Just white."
The man in leather pursed his lips. "And you are?" He asked.
"Clark. Clark Bland."
The man in leather laughed. "No, no, no. I mean who are you, really? You're so mysterious, so unassuming, so ... vulnerable. You must be..."
"Normal," Clark said. "I need a shirt. One with buttons. One with a collar. One with sleeves I can roll up when I get too hot. One without a lightning bolt on the chest, or an explosion, or a monogram. One without a cape."
The man in leather shook his head slightly. "I'm so sorry. But that's all we have."
Something was wrong with Gloria, Clark thought the evening she came home talking about peaches. She was talking too much. That wasn't like her. When Gloria spoke about anything, the state of society today or whether someone took a co-worker's breast milk out of the office fridge and used it in their coffee again, her words were precise, her sentences short.
Tonight Clark and Gloria were sitting on the couch watching people they'd never know buy a vowel from Pat Sajak on "Wheel of Fortune" and Gloria was rambling about the price of canned peaches.
"What's the matter, honey?" Clark asked.
"What do you mean?"
"You've gone over the heavy syrup versus light syrup equation three times in the last half hour," he said. "What's bothering you?"
Gloria wouldn't make eye contact with Clark. Her eyes were on her hands. Her hands were in her lap. Her fingers were racing over each other almost as quickly as Clark could keep up with them. Clark reached over and held her hands together.
She looked up at him slowly. "I want SPA," she said.
SPA the wonder drug. SPA the enhancer. SPA the self-esteem sensation. SPA had been on the market for six months and already there were more super heroes than cops. City councils across the country were talking about disbanding their now unused police forces. If normal citizens were doing the work ...
Normal. To Clark, a SPAed-up hulk pulling a little girl's cat out of a tree could never replace a cop. A cop's duty was to protect and serve. The only duty these SPAed-up freaks had to the world was to show off. Sure, all these new super heroes spouted "truth, justice and the American way," but who's to say all their truths were the same? Or their justice? Or their idea of the American way? Clark didn't trust them—any of them.
And my wife wanted to be one.
"Honey, no. You don't need SPA. You can't want it. Y-y-y- ou..." Clark began to stutter. "You're perfect already."
"No, I'm not," she said. "How can I be perfect if I don't like who I am?"
Clark had never heard this from his wife before.
"I'm weak, Clark," she continued. "I bought the peaches in heavy syrup because a stocker at the grocery store saw me stand in the aisle undecided—for 5 minutes. She said she liked the kind in heavy syrup, so I bought those. This high school girl I didn't know told me what to buy and I bought it. Like a sheep, if sheep bought groceries. Wonder Girl wouldn't have done that. Wonder Girl would have bought the light syrup because, damnit, that's what she likes."
"Wonder Girl," Gloria said. "That's who I want to be."
"But you don't know what SPA will do to you," Clark said. "Your health, your personality, hell, who you are will change. You won't be the woman I fell in love with."
Gloria stared at Clark for a moment, then looked down. Clark saw a tear run down her cheek.
"I'm going to bed," Gloria said as she stood and walked away.
The cape of Clark's new shirt got caught in the revolving door at work. The janitor, the Karlinator—Man of Destiny, rescued him from a nasty bump on the shin.
"Thanks, Karl," Clark said, doing his best to tuck the bright orange cape into the back of his pants, but most of the oversized shirt Clark didn't come close to filling was already back there. The door had ripped the bottom third of the shiny cape so part of it still drooped around the back of his knees.
"Sorry 'bout that, Clark," the Karlinator said. "That was a nice shirt."
Clark nodded and walked toward the steps. His office was on the third floor. Nobody used the steps but him anymore. At least the steps were sanctuary, a place Clark could hide from ultra 10-key, mega accounting, and super word processing. But he could never hide for long. Mitch Dingle the Amazing had X-ray vision, and Mitch Dingle was a snitch.
Gloria. Clark couldn't get that stupid song out of his head. Clark couldn't get Gloria out of his head either. She...
Clark Bland. Clark's name pounded into his temple like a blow to the head. Christ, Jerry, not so loud.
Bland. Get into my office.
More pain. God that hurts. Jerry Bettendorf, Clark's boss, the Cobra, was calling. And the Cobra had telepathy. I'm coming, Jerry, Clark thought.
Make it quick.
The last few steps to the third floor of Waxman & Associates were hell.
"You're late for work again, Clark," the Cobra said as Clark hurried into his office. The Cobra, hard and chiseled in silver Spandex, seemed out of place sitting in a plush velvet chair. "That's twice this month."
The Cobra didn't ask Clark to sit.
"I was eight seconds late, Jerry," Clark said, pointing to his watch for effect. It didn't work.
"Do you know how much Hanson could have gotten done in eight seconds?"
"Hanson's got super speed."
The Cobra stared at Clark and Clark started to sweat. The Cobra had heat vision too, but Clark knew he wasn't using it.
"I'm sorry you're not up to your job," he said. "But I'm afraid you've rendered yourself obsolete. I'm going to have to let you go."
Clark knew this was going to happen eventually. Everybody around him worked faster than electricity could pass through Clark's brain synapses. It made him old. It made him useless. But more than that, it made him angry.
"Fired? You're firing me?" he screamed. "But I've worked here 10 years."
The Cobra stood and leaned on his desk, the wood creaking beneath the massive pressure from a man on SPA.
"Things have changed, Bland, and you haven't kept up." The Cobra stood and walked over to Clark, resting a massive arm around Clark's now insignificant shoulders. "Clark, you've fallen behind. Your productivity's way down from last year."
"Because SPA's way up from last year."
The Cobra walked Clark toward his office door. "You like baseball, don't you Clark?" the Cobra asked. "Of course, everybody likes baseball. What happens to an old workhorse of a pitcher who can't throw over 800 mph anymore, huh? He's cut from the team. Sorry, Clark, but you're an old horse."
The Cobra escorted Clark to the door.
"Go get some SPA, Clark," he said. "Keep up with the times."
He pushed Clark outside his office and shut the door behind him.
Gloria was late the night her real life ended.
Clark had been home from work for two hours and Gloria was late—again. Like her period lasting exactly five days, like the pinch of brown sugar on her oatmeal, Gloria came home precisely at 5:05 p.m., fixed dinner if it was her turn or worked in the garden if it wasn't, then she and Clark watched "Wheel of Fortune," maybe had sex if it was Thursday, read a book then fell asleep.
Every night, except the past three.
It was 7:15 p.m. and Gloria wasn't home. Clark was worried, again. Pat and Vanna couldn't have cared less.
At 8 p.m., Gloria came home, but she wasn't Gloria anymore.
"Sorry I'm late," said this mock-Gloria. Walking into the living room wasn't the 5'4" petite brunette he'd met at a party, sitting in the corner sipping a Diet Pepsi because she was too much of a wallflower to talk to anybody. Walking into the living room was an Amazon. Tall, lean, hard, with flowing black hair and a bosom that, if Clark were a physicist, he would refuse to believe existed.
That's why she's been late this week. She'd been taking SPA treatments.
"My God, Gloria, you've..."
In less than a second she rushed to Clark, her bosoms knocking him to the floor.
"Sorry. I haven't gotten used to them yet," she said, then looked down at him. To Clark she looked crazed. "Take me," she said.
"Call me Wonder Girl," she interrupted as she lifted him from the floor, cradled him in her rock-hard bosom and flew into the bedroom.
The super guy in front of Clark at the grocery store check out line had antennas. Nubby, shiny ones. He also had gray skin, and if you looked closely enough, his skin was a little shiny, too. The guy looked like a slug, so that's what Clark called him. Slug-man.
"Hey, Slug-man," Clark said toward the guy's massive back. Clark didn't care anymore. He'd been fired from his job because of people like Slug-man, he'd lost his wife because of someone like Slug-man, he felt helpless and alone because of everyone like Slug-man, and he didn't need to be pushed around by any one of them, whether they meant it or not. "The sign says 15 items or less. You've got 16. What kind of justice is that?"
Slug-man looked into his basket, then turned to Clark. Clark had exactly eight items. A 24-pack of beer, four frozen pizzas and three oranges. Count 'em. Eight.
"You're right, good citizen," Slug-man said. "I will take my produce to the slower line and wait my true and rightful turn. Whenever you are wronged in a supermarket checkout line, tell them Slug-man is watching."
Clark hated the way everyone talked now. And he hated that the guy's name really was Slug-man.
In less than a second, Slug-man had scooped up his 16 items and zipped into another line.
"Kinda rough on him, weren't you?" It was Rudy. Rudy was the manager of Ultramart. He worked the cash register because since people could fly, it's hard to get them to work a check out line. "Those super guys are good customers, too."
Rudy was normal. About Clark's size, and he walked funny. That's why Clark shopped at Ultramart. He was supporting Rudy the Normal Guy, not SPAheads.
"You ever thought of taking SPA?" Clark asked as Rudy rang up his groceries.
"Yeah, I tried. But after one treatment they found out I was allergic. Threw up for a week. I can still do this, though," Rudy said as he froze one of Clark's oranges with his breath. "Oh, sorry about that. I'll go get you another one."
Clark shook his head. God, not even Rudy was normal anymore.
"No thanks, Rudy. What do I owe you?"
Clark peeled $32 from his wallet, handed it to Rudy, then took his quarter in change and left the Ultramart, maybe forever.
Clark drank three beers on the way home. Hell, there were no cops around to tell him not to. If Clark just made sure he didn't litter, he didn't even have to worry about hassle from the SPAheads. He had three more beers at home before his pizza was ready, and three during dinner. As Clark ate the pizza he watched SuperNews with SuperChuck. The Great Doug Smith put out a fire in an empty high rise. The Centaur stopped a flood by damming a levee no one bothered to maintain anymore. And there was footage from Waxman & Associates's security cameras. It was of the Karlinator—Man of Destiny rescuing Clark from a nasty bump on the shin.
Clark hated SuperNews with SuperChuck. Later, Clark Bland passed out on his couch.
"I'm sorry Clark," Gloria had said. No, Gloria wouldn't have said what this woman was going to say the way she was going to say it. She was Wonder Girl now. Completely. "But I need more in my life."
More? You just stopped a train wreck this morning with your tits and didn't even muss your hair, Clark thought.
"What do you mean, more?"
Wonder Girl stood in the doorway. Her hands on her hips in a very comic book stance. Clark hated that stance. She stood that way all the time now. Maybe she thought it made her boobs look bigger.
"I need a strong man, Clark," she said. "A robust man, a..."
"A super man?"
Gloria glared at him. She could feel the sarcasm. It was one of her powers.
"Not exactly," she said. "A Moth Man."
She's been cheating on me. Cheating. "Moth Man?"
Wonder Girl nodded.
"You've been seeing Moth Man?"
She nodded again. "
We met fighting a nuclear disaster in Chile."
"You're leaving me," Clark said, "for a copyright infringement?"
Wonder Girl picked up the one suitcase she'd packed. She didn't need much. None of Gloria's clothes fit her anymore. "Good-bye, Clark," she said. Gloria was already gone, but she'd been gone for a while.
A nanosecond later, Wonder Girl was gone, too.
Swoosh. Swoosh. Kaboom. Swoosh. Swoosh. Kaboom. Crash. Zap.
Clark's eyes slowly opened. His head hurt. Not the searing hangover pain he'd hoped for, just a dull ache. At least pain would have taken his attention away from his life. The ache just made him grumpy.
...filled Clark's living room. Not morning yet, is it? The thought slowly wandered into his head through all the buffers he'd placed there with beer. No, can't be. Wrong light. Too green for morning. Can't sleep through all these damned...
...explosions. He stood, a piece of pizza crust fell from his chest and onto the floor. Clark looked at his living room clock. "Three a.m.," he said, then looked at the clock again. Yep, sure enough, it was 3 a.m.
Clark walked into his bedroom and grabbed his bathrobe to hide the fact that the flap on his boxer shorts never staid shut, walked through his dirty, beer can strewn living room, out his front door, and into a morning full of too damned many explosions for his taste.
But Clark was going to stop the explosions. He didn't have anything better to do.
"And when did you notice this problem?" the Doctor had asked.
"Well," Clark began. He was lying on a couch. He'd always thought lying on a couch, telling a psychiatrist all your troubles was something you only saw on television, or in bad movies. He sat up.
"I came here to talk about Gloria."
"Gloria Bland? You mean Wonder Girl?"
"No," Clark said. "Gloria. My wife."
"What about her? Certainly she's improved now that's she's undergone SPA treatments."
What the hell is wrong with everyone? Clark thought. SPA is not normal. I'm normal.
"Of course she changed," the Doctor said. "For the better. She can fly, can't she? Your Gloria couldn't do that."
That's not the point. "She didn't need SPA. She left me when she got it."
"Why didn't you undergo the treatments yourself?" the Doctor asked. "You could have been improved with her instead of as you are without her."
What the hell's wrong with this guy?
"I like who I am," Clark said. "SPA doesn't improve anyone, it turns them into someone else. Someone I don't like."
"But certainly you want to be better, better than," the Doctor spread his massive arms as if to show Clark to himself, "this."
"Look," Clark said. He was getting angry with this guy, doctor or not. "Do you even have a degree in psychology?"
The Doctor was silent for a moment. "No," he said. "Before the treatment I was an arc welder."
An arc welder?
"Empathy is one of my powers," the Doctor said. "The psychiatric board said that was enough."
The Doctor was a SPAhead. Of course he thought not wanting to be a SPAhead was a problem.
"I think this session is over," Clark said, standing and walking toward the door. "I hope you were better at arc welding."
SPAheads everywhere, Clark thought. He couldn't keep up with them. The best he could do was follow the explosions. 85th Street. 88th Street. 90th. 95th. 102th. When Clark reached 105th Street, he saw what all the excitement was about.
It was the office building where, until yesterday, he'd gone to five days a week, except holidays, for the past 10 years to crunch numbers and make a decent living. But it wasn't the building causing the excitement as much as the mammoth flying saucer that had crushed the building's upper floors. A flying saucer that was under a heavy barrage of heat vision, cold vision, laser vision, sonic slams, mega blasts and whatever silly little name the hundreds of super heroes attacking the thing called their particular SPA gift.
Something in Clark's head tried to tell him he should be happy. Waxman & Associates was gone, at least temporarily. The Cobra's red velvet chair probably smashed, or on fire. But something else in Clark's head wasn't happy.
Atomicman's sonic blast missed the flying saucer by half a block and destroyed the indoor play area of the McDonald's where Clark had eaten lunch three or four days a week since he'd started at Waxman & Associates. Clark instinctively threw an arm over his face to protect him from the flying debris that wouldn't give a darn about his arm. A couple of objects hit him. He lowered his arm and saw one of the objects was a salt shaker.
Damned SPAheads, he thought, picking up the shaker and looking at it for a moment. Zip here, zap there, smash this, crush that, don't bother thinking, just destroy my life, my marriage, my McDonald's. He absentmindedly slipped the shaker into the pocket of his bathrobe. Clark tried to see if Gloria was up there, fighting the saucer, but then changed his mind. Wonder Girl was probably up there, he figured. Gloria was nowhere near him, the flying saucer, or the flattened McDonald's.
Swoosh. Bam. Swoosh.
Whoever was inside that glowing green ship that was so shiny and unblemished it looked like it just came off the factory floor, Clark thought, probably didn't care about his problems, or the McDonald's. The pilot probably had other things on his mind.
So did Clark. He was tired, his head hurt and he wanted the SPAheads to quit making so much noise so he could go back to bed.
"Excuse me," Clark said to the nearest Spandex-clad figure. "What's happening, and why does it have to be so loud?"
The super hero turned and faced Clark. The man's antennae bobbed as he moved.
"Slug-man," Clark said.
Slug-man smiled smugly. "You've heard of me, have you?"
Clark brushed off the man's ego. "Yeah, yeah, yeah. We had a mighty battle. Blah, blah,
blah," he said. "What's happening here, and why is it so damned loud?"
Slug-man looked at Clark skeptically. "We are under attack from foul beings from beyond the..."
"Yeah," Clark interrupted. "I can see that. Have they actually attacked anyone?"
Slug-man stood silent for a moment. His fists rested on his hips in a posture that seemed to be very popular with super heroes everywhere this year.
"Uh, not as such, no," he said. "But the dastardly villains have destroyed the headquarters of..."
"An accounting firm," Clark finished. "And it's not even tax season."
Clark walked past Slug-man as the super hero was still talking. I'm tired, Clark thought. I'm tired and it's Halloween every damned day. Clark put his hands into his robe pockets and walked toward Waxman & Associates. Slug-man zipped in front of him.
"I'm afraid, good citizen," Slug-man said, holding his hand up to Clark. "No matter how mighty our past battle, I cannot allow you to go into harm's way by walking into that building."
Clark looked at the man's chest, which was big enough to play football on, then up to his face.
This has got to stop, now. No more rescues, Clark thought as he pushed his hands deeper into the pockets of his robe. His right hand hit the shaker he'd picked up from the ruined McDonald's, and for the first time in weeks, Clark Bland smiled. Yes, it's time to put a stop to all this.
"You're right, Slug-man," Clark said, pulling the shaker out of his pocket. "It's dangerous around here."
Slug-man took a step back from Clark.
"Not completely invulnerable, are you Slug-man?" Clark said as he pointed the shaker at the super hero. But Clark didn't see a super anything in front of him. He saw something that had choked the life out of his world. "SPA's not perfect, is it?"
"Good God, man." Slug-man shouted in the same way Adam West's Batman did right before he said something obvious. "That's salt."
Clark shook some salt at him. Slug-man screamed as the salt crystals made contact with his exposed slug-skin.
"Are you going to let me walk into that building?" Clark asked.
Clark flicked more salt. Slug-man winced in pain. "How about now?"
Slug-man held up his hands. "Sure," he said. "Fine, just stop it with the salt. I'm rescuing puppies tomorrow and I don't want to look bad on SuperNews with SuperChuck."
Wussy, Clark thought as he stalked toward the revolving front door of Waxman & Associates.
The flying saucer loomed above Clark, suspended in the air by a science his world would never achieve. Wouldn't need to, he thought, when everyone can fly. The ship was massive, its green glow enveloping him now, too. He could see hundreds of SPAheads bouncing off an invisible force shield above him. Idiots, he thought, although Clark really didn't know what he was doing either. Clark just wanted to go back to sleep. He just wanted to stop the SPAheads from invading his life for a few more hours today.
Clark stepped through the broken glass door his cape had caught on that morning. The Karlinator—Man of Destiny was off the clock. There would be no more rescues today. The electricity was off in the building, but the flying saucer's glow gave Clark enough light to find his way.
Where? Clark wondered. Where in the hell am I going? Why am I here?
But Clark knew why he was inside a building that was smashed by a gigantic, green flying saucer. He didn't have any more to lose.
Clark noticed the sound of the explosions deadened when he walked under the greenish glow of the space ship. KABOOM was now ka-boom. They were even fainter as he entered the stairwell and started up the steps. He wondered how he had gotten so close to the ship when all the SPAheads were kept at bay by the force shield. Maybe, Clark thought, no one has tried walking up to it.
The belly of the ship had crashed through the ceiling of the third floor. His floor. The floor he'd lived in from 8 to 5 for a decade. The floor on which SPA had made him useless. Clark looked around. Remnants of the ceiling were scattered over the floor and over the desks, his desk.
Clark walked to his desk and brushed the debris onto the floor. His stapler was still there. He'd forgotten to take it with him. Clark looked at the spot where a picture of Gloria once rested. A picture from a day they'd spent in the park. She'd plucked some bright yellow dandelions and stuck them in her hair. Clark loved that picture. She looked so beautiful, so natural. So...
Clark looked up at the space ship. It was a few feet from the top of his desk. He climbed up on his desk and touched it. The metal was cool.
There were no vibrations from the explosions. The SPAheads were doing nothing, he realized. "Open up," Clark said to the belly of the flying saucer. "Open up, damn you. I'm tired." Nothing.
Clark picked up his stapler and tapped it on the bottom of the ship.
"Open up," Clark said. "Please."
A vibration. A whir of something pneumatic. Clark turned and saw a circular opening appear in the center of the ship.
It was like that in the old movies, Clark thought. Why not?
A figure dropped out of the ship onto Mitch Dingle the Amazing's desk, knocking a picture of Mitch's girlfriend, Goldenrod, onto the floor.
The stapler fell out of Clark's hand. The figure looked like him. It looked human, mostly, but normal, not SPAed-up. It held an unfolded piece of black paper covered with constellations.
"Am I anywhere near Barnard's Star?" the figure asked.
Clark shook his head. "Uh, no," Clark said. "Wrong solar system."
The figure bowed to Clark. "Thanks," it said as it climbed back into the flying saucer. Clark heard the whir again, and felt a vibration in the air as the opening closed in the belly of the ship. A moment later the ship noiselessly lifted itself off the remains of Waxman & Associates and disappeared in the early morning sky, leaving hundreds of SPAheads wondering what in the hell just happened.
Clark was angry the day he walked home from the psychiatrist/arc welder's office.
"Damn you," he screamed into the sky. He picked up a piece of crumbling asphalt and threw it as hard as he could into the air. It hit nothing and fell back to earth a few yards away from where he stood.
Useless. Obsolete. Old horse. I need a strong man. But certainly you want to be better than this. Clark screamed into the afternoon and ran as hard as his 35-year-old body would let him. Sweat poured down his face and his back and into his underwear. His side hurt, his breath was short. He couldn't run anymore. Clark felt his legs go out from under him, but he didn't brace himself for the fall. What's the point, ran through his mind. I'll just be rescued.
Clark's knees hit the pavement first, rocks digging through his pants legs into his flesh. His elbows hit second, rocks scraping off skin.
Strong hands grabbed him before his face hit the road. The SPAhead lifted him into the air, then lay him softly on his stomach in the overgrown grass on the roadside.
It took a minute before Clark could catch his breath enough to speak.
"You're late," he wheezed. "
I know," said a soft, feminine voice. "I'm sorry."
Clark rolled over to look at her. It was Wonder Girl. He hadn't seen her since the day she flew from their home to be with Moth Man.
"Are you OK?" she asked.
"Do you need help getting home?
" Clark shook his head. "No," he said. His voice was shaky, weak. "Gloria, don't go. I love you. Can't we..."
"I'm sorry, Clark," she interrupted. "I can't be with you." As Wonder Girl flew into the sky, Clark lay in the grass and cried.
"There he is," Clark heard Slug-man say as he walked out of Waxman & Associates and into a morning that was starting to lighten with dawn. "The one with the salt."
In less than a second, Clark was surrounded by SPAheads. He put his hand back into his robe pocket and grabbed the salt shaker, but Slug-man was keeping a good distance from him behind the Wolf, Martin the Nearly Invisible, and the Stealth Bomber. But someone was pushing their way through the mass of muscles that encircled him. It was Wonder Girl.
"Clark," she said, rushing to him. "Clark. Did you do it? Did you send it away?"
Clark nodded and the throng of super heroes gasped like they were in a bad sitcom.
Wonder Girl grabbed his hand gently. Clark tried not to look at her, the woman who had left him crying. But he couldn't stop himself. She was beautiful, of course. All SPAheads were. That was one of the fringe benefits. But Wonder Girl's beauty didn't match Gloria's. He knew it never would.
"I always knew you were a hero, Clark," she said. "I'm sorry I gave up on you. Can you forgive me?"
Before Clark could answer, a SPAhead in a double- breasted Spandex business suit and perfect hair muscled his way between them.
"You've saved the planet," the man said into the microphone he carried.
It was SuperChuck from SuperNews.
"Tell us how you did it," he said. "What are your powers? How did you chase off the terror from beyond the stars?"
Clark was silent for a moment. He could see the look of anticipation in the faces of every unmasked SPAhead around him. The masked ones were harder to read. But Clark knew what they all wanted. They wanted to know his secret. How he had saved the planet without them.
"Because I'm better than you," Clark said simply. "Because I'm normal. Now get out of my way. I'm going home and going to bed." He looked at Wonder Girl. Her face was awash with pride for Clark. Clark could see Gloria in that face, bits and pieces of the girl he'd pledged his love to forever.
"Alone," he said.
As Clark moved through the mass of super heroes, they let him pass. By the time Clark passed the ruined McDonald's, he realized his headache had gone, and that stupid song was finally out of his head.