So here’s Chapter One of my book. Yes, it’s late, So are my birthday greetings to my big sister, JBN. Happy birthday, JBN! And happy birthday today to my lovely bride Mrs. Cornell, who is now older than me again.
Anyway, you know the rules. Actually, there are no rules. Savage this without mercy. (You can go back and reference the Prologue if you need a refresher.)
“You, sir, are wrong. Dead wrong.”
Jeff Downey just laughed. “I’m not wrong. And, besides, even if I were, what are you going to do about it?”
“Hmmmm.” Walthius stroked his chin in mock thoughtfulness and jutted out his large lower lip. “A fine question,” he mused. Then he scrunched up his nose tightly, driving his black wire-rim glasses up to his forehead.
Jeff pretended to cough and said “Chicken” at the same time.
“That’s fine, laugh all you want,” Walthius said finally, with a vaguely Germanic accent. “I’m going to kill you.” He stood up from his bench and leaned across the table so he could face Jeff nose-to-nose, his small, beady eyes close together in a threatening squint.
He then smiled toothlessly and said, “I’m going to kill you very much.”
Jeff laughed so hard that milk came out of his nose.
“Milk just came out of your nose,” observed Rahsaan Leonard from the far side of the lunch bench. He then went back to reading his newspaper.
Jeff laughed again and dabbed at his face with his napkin, all the while surveying the landscape. Thankfully, no one else at the outdoor lunch tables of Topanga Canyon High School seemed to have noticed the milk-snorting incident. Jeff didn’t find that particularly surprising. He had long ago accepted the fact that the center of gravity of the school’s social universe was not to be found anywhere near his unlikely trio of friends.
Sure, the attention of the gaggle of girls who were just then fluttering around starting quarterback Sam Cornell might be nice on occasion, but Jeff decided that when you’re arguing with Ted Walthius about whether or not Superman could be killed by a nuclear explosion, geeky anonymity came in handy.
“How could a nuclear blast even dent the guy?” Jeff said. “Superman moves planets.”
“Big deal,” was Walthius’s reply. “Nothing explodes when you move a planet.”
“Moving planets is stupid,” Rahsaan muttered. “But no one listens to me.”
“Yeah, well,” Jeff countered, not listening to Rahsaan, “he also saunas in the core of the sun, which is, like, what, a billion nuclear explosions a minute?”
“Sure,” Walthius said. “But remember, it’s a yellow sun.”
“So the Planet Krypton orbited a red sun.”
Jeff arched an eyebrow. “And again I say – so?”
“So I think my case speaks for itself.” Walthius sucked the straw on his empty milk carton, making a gurgling noise and drawing the disapproving glare of a girl at the other table. He gave her a cutesy “hello” wave, and she turned her back in disgust.
“Rahsaan, a little help here?” Jeff said.
“Sorry. I don’t read the white man’s comic books,” said Rahsaan, not bothering to look up from the paper. “So unless you all start talking about the Incredible Hulk, I’m out.”
“The Hulk?” Walthius sniffed. “The Hulk’s a white man!”
“Excuse me?” Rahsaan slammed down his paper loudly enough to cause a few heads to turn. “A white man? I think not. The Hulk is a green man. Which makes him a brother.” He nodded smartly, picked up his paper, snapped it open with a flourish and began to read again. He mumbled to himself something about a bridge collapsing yesterday, which both Jeff and Walthius ignored.
“When he changes back to Bruce Banner he’s white, though,” Jeff said. “I don’t think it counts.”
Rahsaan, without moving his face, shot him a glare filled with mock scorn before returning to the front-page section.
“The hard truth that you just don’t want to face,” Walthius continued, his attention focused back on Jeff, “is that the fusion reactions of a red sun directly mimic the nuclear explosions of your average ICBM.”
This proved to be too much for Rahsaan, who pulled down his paper sharply to give him direct glaring access to Walthius. “And just how would you know that?” he said scornfully.
“It’s science, young man,” Walthius said. “You’re just a sophomore. Come back to me when you’re older.”
“It’s stupid is what it is,” Rahsaan responded, raising up the paper again.
“Even if you’re right,” Jeff said, humoring him, “what difference does it make?”
Walthius was aghast. “What difference does it make? Is that what you’re actually asking me? What difference does it make?”
“Did I stutter?”
“Ooh, tough guy,” Rahsaan mumbled from behind his paper.
“It makes ALL the DIFFERENCE in the world!” Walthius was getting agitated. “It means that a nuclear blast would be a tiny red sun, which would effectively decimate a Kryptonian even more than a regular human being.”
Jeff laughed. “Decimate more? Did you really say that?”
“I didn’t stutter, if that’s what you mean.”
“Zing!” Rahsaan said, still reading.
“How can you decimate someone more than someone else? You’re either decimated or not. No in-between.”
Walthius considered this, and then shook his head. “No. Partial decimation is possible.”
“What a load!” Jeff said.
“The word refers to the ancient Roman wartime practice of killing every tenth man,” Walthius said. “Look it up.”
“So you’re saying a nuclear bomb would take out a tenth of Superman?”
Walthius waved his hand dismissively. “The details don’t matter.”
“If you ask me,” Rahsaan added, “it depends on the tenth.”
“The important thing is that he’d be dead,” Walthius explained.
Jeff cocked his head slightly to the right. “What? So Superman would be fully decimated, then?”
“With a nuke?” Walthius nodded. “Oh, sure. He’d be dead by more than just a little bit.”
“Mostly dead,” Rahsaan quipped.
Jeff snorted.“That’s like being a little bit pregnant!”
“No, it’s like being a little bit dead,” Walthius said. “Pregnancy and death are two different things.”
“Not according to my mom,” said Rahsaan, who put down the paper long enough to take a bite out of his PB&J and shift backward on the bench and catch a glimpse of Sam “Stallion” Cornell, the Topanga Titans quarterback, as he wandered in their direction.
“Heads up,” he said to Walthius as nonchalantly as possible.
“What?” Walthius asked.
“Cornell coming at you at 3:00.”
Before Walthius could respond, Stallion Cornell wordlessly smacked him in the back of the head, which forced him to cough up a bite of his cafeteria cheeseburger. Stallion just continued on, not even looking back to gloat.
Rahsaan was fuming. “I wish he’d find another hobby,” he said.
“He’s not so bad once you get to know him,” Walthius winced while rubbing the point of impact.
Recognizing that this lunch hour had taken a turn for the worse, Jeff changed the subject.
“Did you finish your essay for Wilkoff’s class?” he asked.
Walthius was undeterred. “You’re changing the subject,” he said. “And why? I’ll tell you why. Because you’re scared.”
“Scared?” Jeff chuckled. “Of who? You?”
“Looks that way.”
Walthius opened his mouth and shut it again. I win, Jeff thought as he took another bite of his sandwich. His eyes wandered over toward the beautiful ladies around the other table where Stallion had sat down to eat.
Then, with reasoned calm, Walthius said, “Yes.”
Jeff’s eyes and ears were still focused on the girls. Those aren’t just girls. They’re actual cheerleaders. And they’re talking to him the way real people talk. What would that be like?
Maybe Vikki is over there, too, but I don’t see her…
“Did you hear me?” Walthius asked. No response. He grabbed the sports section from a protesting Rahsaan, rolled it up and slapped Jeff in the face with it. “Hey! Doofus! I’m talking to you!”
“What?” Jeff snapped, his face now focused on his friend but his mind still over at the girl’s table.
“I said yes.”
“Yes what?” Jeff said, confused.
“Yes,” Walthius answered, “I want to bet.”
“Oh, this is good. Good times,” Rahsaan smirked, his voice dripping with sarcasm.
“Yeah, well, I don’t.” Jeff said. He took another bite of his sandwich and went back to cheerleader gazing.
Walthius’s expression darkened. He then reached into his backpack, picked up a book and slammed it down on the table.
It was loud enough that even Sam Cornell’s table heard it. After the sudden noise, equally sudden silence fell on the outdoor lunchroom, and suddenly, much to Jeff’s horror, Walthius was the only person speaking.
“Crossover Classics,” he said, reading the book’s title, his voice raised and unperturbed by the virtual spotlight. “All the great DC/Marvel stories. Superman meets Spider-Man for the second time. And on page 74, he finds himself trapped in a nuclear reactor, which mimics the effects of the red sun of his home planet Krypton. Proof, sir, that Superman cannot survive a nuclear blast.”
“Fine,” Jeff mumbled. “You win.” He pushed the book back to the other side of the table.
“Everything all right over there, Downey?” Cornell shouted with the hint of a giggle in his voice. The cheerleaders were also stifling giggles. Jeff cringed. Giggling was not a good scene.
“We’re fine, Stallion,” Rahsaan shouted back, his nose still buried in the paper. “You just go right on flirting.”
Sam’s eyes narrowed and his ears turned red, either from embarrassment, anger, or a sick mixture of both. He glared at Rahsaan, who, in turn, smiled back a little too broadly. Jeff knew that if either he or Walthius had dared to use used that hated nickname, they might have ended up with their head embedded in a brick wall. Fortunately, Rahsaan was only in 10th grade, and he stood out from the rest of the student body as the only African-American student in the entire white bread school. Not everybody liked him, but everyone knew him, and they’d probably frown on any attempt by the biggest guy on campus to beat him senseless.
“We’re fine, everyone,” Rahsaan announced after Sam/Stallion had finally looked away. “Just fine. Turns out Superman can get all blown up. Nothing to see here folks.” Then, under his breath, he said to Jeff and Walthius, “You people are idiots.” He got up, grabbed his paper, but then caught a glimpse of Walthius’ book and did a double take.
“Is that the Hulk on there?” he asked Walthius.
“Yeah. He fights Batman.”
“How does he fight Batman? I thought Batman was DC and Hulk was Marvel.”
“Look at the title, will ya?” Walthius said. “Crossover Classics. DC and Marvel together. Side by side. Rising above their corporate differences.”
“Yeah. It’s a beautiful thing,” Jeff added, relieved that the worst was over and everyone was ignoring them again.
“Batman against the Hulk? Ha! That would last about five seconds,” Rahsaan said, grabbing the book and flipping through the pages. “I mean, who is Batman? Can’t fly. Can’t run fast. No super strength. Just some rich dude in a rodent suit.”
“Bats aren’t rodents,” Jeff said. Then he furrowed his brow. “Or are they? Maybe they are.”
Rahsaan rolled his eyes.
“I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss Batman,” Walthius said. “As the world’s greatest detective, he has the resources and the skill to –”
“Can I borrow this?” Rahsaan interrupted. Before a startled Walthius could say no, Rahsaan said “Thanks,” and, within seconds, he was halfway across campus and well out of earshot.
“No one respects Batman the way they ought to,” Walthius groused. “The movies help, but it’s still that stupid TV series. I don’t think the character will ever fully live it down.”
Now that the unwanted attention had fully dissipated, Jeff started to seethe. “What is wrong with you?” he whispered tightly. Walthius just shrugged. To Jeff, that was the last straw. This had to end – right here, right now.
“All right,” Jeff said, all business. “Superman. Nuclear explosions. Here’s why you’re full of it.”
Walthius raised his other eyebrow.
Walthius raised his other eyebrow.
“In the first place,” Jeff continued, the words pouring out of him with a geeky, fevered passion, “This was a crossover. That means it’s out of direct continuity. So it doesn’t affect Superman’s official history. Plus, that story is, what – thirty years old? How many reboots have their been since then? You know as well as I do that every few years, they blow up the universe and start over to keep Superman from celebrating his 40th birthday. So, summing up, your material, sir, is outdated.” He took in a deep breath and then said “Put that in your pipe and smoke it.”
Walthius said nothing for what seemed to Jeff like forever, and then a smile crept slowly across his face. “You passed,” he said. He then reached into his wallet and slid a five-dollar bill across the table.
“The bet,” said Walthius. “You won.”
“We didn’t make a bet.”
“I did.” Walthius said. “At least, I wanted to. So in my mind, we did.”
Jeff eyed him warily, looked around again, and then quickly slipped the bill into his pocket. “I earned this,” he said, more to himself than to Walthius, who nodded in agreement.
“And don’t worry,” Walthius added. “She didn’t see any of this.”
“She?” Jeff said, a little too quickly.
Walthius smirked. “Now who’s being the bonehead?”
Jeff tried to protest, but then rolled his eyes. “You’re right. She wasn’t there. I checked.”
“Yeah, what a surprise,” Walthius said. “Except she’s not dating Stallion anymore. She’s got some movie star boyfriend or something.”
“Whatever,” Jeff said, nonplussed. It didn’t matter who she was dating. Jeff just knew it would never be him.
The bell rang. Both boys started gathering everything in their backpacks for their next class.
“I dreamed about her again last night,” Jeff said.
“Another big surprise.” He shoved the remainder of a chocolate chip cookie in his mouth and then started to walk toward the math building.
Jeff frowned. “Have I told you that before?”
“The dream. You’ve had it eight times by my count,” Walthius said. They walked briskly to join the herd being shepherded into Mr. Barry’s trigonometry class. “You got any plans for the weekend?”
“Not as such,” Jeff said. “Why?”
“There’s a Planet of the Apes marathon on Saturday.”
Jeff winced. “The marching band will be playing at the big game Saturday.”
“You mean tomorrow,” Walthius corrected him. “The game’s on Friday, bonehead.”
“It is?” Jeff looked perplexed. “I thought it was Saturday.”
“Then what’s on Saturday?”
Walthius sniffed. “Like you don’t know.”
“Humor me and pretend that I don’t.”
“The big dance. The homecoming dance.”
“Oh, yeah,” Jeff mumbled. “No wonder I forgot.”
“No date again?” Walthius asked.
“Like you have one.”
“As a matter of fact,” Walthius said, “I do.”
Jeff was baffled. “With who?”
“Not who,” Walthius said. “What. The Apes marathon.”
“Hmmph,” Jeff said. “Tell Dr. Zaius to save the last dance for me.”
Walthius furrowed his brow. “Is that even legal?”
They walked inside the room. Jeff took his usual seat on the next-to-last row, although his lanky, spidery frame couldn’t quite squeeze under the tiny desk. In a kinder world, thought Jeff, I would be a basketball player. Maybe if I weighed a few more pounds. He opened his backpack, pulled out a half-eaten Snickers bar and took a hefty bite.
Walthius sat directly behind him, just as he had in every class they’d had together since third grade. Mr. Barry, the decidedly rumpled teacher with a bowl haircut, was still seated behind his own desk. He was patiently listening to an exasperated Lucy Greene, who always wasted the first five minutes of every class trying to get a private lesson to make up for ten years of math lessons that she’d failed to understand. The classroom was filled with the idle chatter of twenty-five students waiting for the lecture to begin, which gave Jeff enough time to look over where Vikki Dennis sat – two rows to the left, right up in front. Jeff had chosen this particular seat at the beginning of the year because it allowed him to stare at her for the entire hour without calling attention to the fact that he was staring at her for the entire hour.
He had been infatuated with Vikki Dennis since the second grade, when she first moved to his neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley. Her mother and his mother were both on the P.T.A. board, which meant that the two kids traveled together in carpools on a regular basis, beginning with their first music lessons. Jeff, unlike Vikki, had continued his musical career and was now Topanga High School’s First Chair French Horn, with Walthius right next to him as French Horn #2. This allowed Jeff to watch the cheerleaders – especially Vikki – during football games, which, as he thought about it, was the only social advantage that band membership provided him.
It was different in the old days, when both Vikki and he shared the same piano teacher. Since Jeff’s lesson was right after Vikki’s, they each had to sit and wait through the other’s session. Jeff figured he’d fallen in love with Vikki sometime around the time she learned to play Beethoven’s Fur Elise. He’d probably been smitten before that, but even today, with Jeff now a senior in high school, the first few notes of that melody always transported him back under the hot sun on Mrs. Chisholm’s patio, where he could see the little girl he wanted to marry tinkling the ivories on the other side of the sliding screen door.
Yeah, well, that was then. This was now. And now Vikki Dennis was a tall, leggy homecoming queen way out of his league, so much so that he found it difficult to walk in a straight line if she was within a ten-yard radius. It was so much simpler to gaze at her from a distance, which is what he intended to do for the remainder of the hour.
Except she wasn’t there.
Jeff frowned slightly and leaned his head back. “Walthius,” he whispered.
“I know,” Walthius whispered back.
“That’s the first time this year. She never misses class.”
“I know that, too.”
“So where is she?”
“That I don’t know.”
“Where’s who?” asked Charlotte Wasden, who was sitting in the chair directly to Jeff’s right.
Jeff smiled sheepishly. “Nobody.” Except he spoke simultaneously with Walthius, who said “Vikki Dennis.”
Jeff smiled sheepishly. “Nobody.” Except he spoke simultaneously with Walthius, who said “Vikki Dennis.”
Jeff kicked him in the shins from under the desk.
“Vikki?” Charlotte said. “Isn’t she at homecoming practice?”
“Practice?” Walthius snorted. “What does she have to practice?”
“What do you mean, what?” Charlotte answered, nonplussed. “Maybe it’s because they’ve got that film crew coming over to film a piece of a horror movie tomorrow in the middle of the game?”
Walthius looked confused. “Is it or isn’t it?”
Charlotte looked like she was gagging. “Hello!” she said, pouring all her disdain into the word’s heavily emphasized second syllable.
Jeff sat up a little straighter. “Is Vikki going to be in the movie, then?”
“Umm, yeah!” Charlotte said with impeccable San Fernando Valley sarcasm. “Her boyfriend’s dad is funding the movie, hello.”
“Hello!” said Walthius, with cheerful inappropriateness. Charlotte rolled her eyes and turned back toward the whiteboard.
“Wow,” Jeff muttered to Walthius. “So Vikki’s going to be a movie star.”
“You should be very happy for her,” Walthius said.
You’re right, I should, Jeff thought. And I’m not. Stardom would put her even further out of reach.
“She’s not going to be the star,” sneered Charlotte, her back still turned. “It’s a horror movie, hello.”
“Howdy!” Walthius said, a bit too loudly. Charlotte huffed in disgust.
“If she doesn’t want to be greeted,” Walthius said to Jeff, “she should stop using salutations.”
“What does it matter if it’s a horror movie?” Jeff whispered, unwilling to be distracted.
Before Walthius could answer, Charlotte, who seemed to have amplified ears, turned to face him.
“Um, maybe you should, like, pay attention during the morning announcements! The whole cheerleading squad gets killed in it.”
“Wow,” Walthius said. “Maybe if you were a cheerleader, they’d kill you, too.”
Charlotte looked like she’d swallowed a partially decomposed rat. “I am a cheerleader. If I weren’t a cheerleader, then I wouldn’t be going to her boyfriend’s fathers house tonight for the big kick-off party, now would I?”
“Would you?” Walthius asked.
Charlotte scrunched up her face as if she were sniffing at a pile of rotting beetles.
“You know,” Walthius said, “Your limitless scorn seems to interfere with your capacity for communication.”
Charlotte sneered. “You’re a geek,” she said before turning around again.
Walthius looked thoughtful. “Now that, I understood.”
“Good for you,” said Jeff.
Walthius, not willing to leave well enough alone, leaned forward and tapped Charlotte on the shoulder. When he had her attention, he spoke again.
“So if you’re a cheerleader,” he said, “why, then, are you not at the practice?”
“Ummm, the whole homecoming court is having a rehearsal. And I’m not a homecoming queen or princess, am I?”
Walthius shrugged. “Are you?”
“Whatever.” She turned her back yet again.
Walthius looked at Jeff. “Why isn’t she homecoming queen? Isn’t she pretty enough?”
Jeff didn’t answer, but he thought that given the fact that Walthius was only five foot four, covered with acne, and had strangely wavy hair reminiscent of a fiberglass fun house slide, he was in no position to comment on someone else’s physical attractiveness.
“Charlotte,” Walthius said, “I just want you to know that I’d vote for you. Twice, if I could. And I could, you know. There are ways…” He stroked his chin with an air of mystery.
Charlotte just huffed again, but Jeff felt the need to apply another quick backward heel thrust directly into Walthius’ shins. Walthius loudly howled in pain, which brought all other chatter in the room to a screeching halt.
“Mr. Walthius? Are you all right?” Mr. Barry had disposed of Lucy Greene and was now standing at the whiteboard and staring back at Walthius along with the rest of the class.
“Oh, the pain! The pain!” Walthius seemed to be enjoying the attention.
“Are you having a seizure, Mr. Walthius?”
Walthius stopped abruptly. “Come on, Mr. Barry! You’ve never seen Lost in Space?”
Mr. Barry just stared at him blankly.
“That was an homage to Dr. Smith,” Jeff explained to a befuddled and increasingly contemptuous Charlotte Wasden, but loud enough for Mr. Barry to hear.
“Mr. Downey, please be so kind as to tell your friend that if he doesn’t want an homage to the dean’s office, he should get out his textbook and stop disrupting my class.”
Jeff nodded, smiled, and opened his textbook. Walthius followed suit. Mr. Barry turned around and began writing on the board.
“Way to go, genius,” Jeff whispered without moving his lips.
“‘Homage to the dean’s office,’” Walthius whispered back. “That doesn’t even make any sense.”
The hour descended into a mundane discussion about sines and cosines and logarithms and other stuff Jeff found intensely boring. Eventually, they broke up into groups to do an assignment that took Jeff and Walthius a third of the time it took everyone else. Left with about twenty minutes to spare, Walthius pulled out the latest copy of Daredevil and began to read.
“You want anything?” Walthius asked, referencing his backpack’s vast comic book library.
Jeff shrugged. “Maybe later,” he said. He took off his eyeglasses and placed them on the desk in front of him. Then he put his elbows up on his desk and buried his face in his hands. Twenty minutes, he thought. Then he yawned. What am I going to do for twenty minutes? He let his eyes close and his mind wander, exploring the possibilities.
Then he was burning his socks. He was shaving some mutt off the street. The street was filled with grunions, and only Jeff could smell them. He stood up, only to find himself on the football field facing Stallion Cornell and the rest of the Topanga Titans in their full helmets and uniforms. He was the only one on the opposing team. He hiked the ball to himself and ran far in the opposite direction, far enough to end up in mid-air above the school parking lot, running, flying, the clouds beneath his feet…
The scene shifted to more familiar surroundings. Again he was on top of the mountain where the sun always sets. He leapt into the air, soaring higher, higher, and still he could hear the muscular man with the black linen mask cackling at him, always floating ten feet above, and she was there with him, screaming, help me, won’t someone help me…
And so he flew higher and harder, until he was above them, and just as they almost reached him, the man in the mask grinned an evil grin, and then he dropped Vikki Dennis to plummet to earth, and the faster Jeff flew to catch her, the faster she fell, until she disappeared into the clouds, too far gone to see.
No. Come back. I’m coming. No.
He flew faster, but she was beyond hope. Beyond reach. I’m coming. I’m not coming fast enough.
No. She has to wait. I have to save her.
“Problem, Mr. Downey?”
Jeff’s eyes flew open, and he found himself smack dab in the middle of reality, face to face with Mr. Barry and his bowl cut, and neither one of them seemed too happy about it.
The class burst out laughing. Jeff’s face flushed bright red.
The laughter didn’t stop as he grabbed his glasses and the hall pass and scurried out of the classroom. Usually, a student had to tell a teacher where he was going when he left the room, but everyone seemed to recognize that these were unusual circumstances.
“It was an homage to Luke Skywalker,” he heard Walthius explain as he left. “From The Empire Strikes Back.”
Wow, Jeff thought. What a geek.