Okay, I’ve broken my original Chapter Three into bite-size chunks, and I’m enjoying this far more than what I feel like writing about today, which is this hideously depressing Wall Street Journal article which essentially outlines how the US turns itself into a European-style welfare state overnight, only with the extra added bonus of the end of free speech. Someone please talk me down from the ledge… or just comment on my novel instead.
and Chapter Three. The comments are as much fun, or more fun, to read than the actual story, so please keep them coming – be as brutal as possible!
“Want to stop and get anything?”
Walthius was driving up Santa Monica Boulevard chewing on the remains of a large green apple. Jeff was riding shotgun. He asked the question to Jeff as they passed one of their favorite comic book stores at the 11th Street intersection.
Jeff just stared at him blankly.
“Now might be a good time,” Walthius said. “Don’t know when we’re going to get back here, after all.”
Jeff stared at him some more.
“Suit yourself, then.” Walthius then giggled inappropriately.
Suit myself. What an odd thing to say, since Jeff was still shirtless, shivering, and stunned at how well Walthius was taking all of this. He had just told him the whole story, which came rushing out in uneven and unedited bursts. Jeff would have appreciated a little more rehearsal time to make the whole thing sound plausible, but, even so, it was all on the table now. He felt exposed but much lighter, like he had unloaded a burden that he hadn’t realized he was carrying.
He also felt very, very silly.
Jeff found Walthius’ response, or lack thereof, to be tremendously disconcerting. What was wrong with him? Would a regular human being be acting this way after a revelation like this? Is this normal?
The problem wasn’t that Walthius was acting abnormally. It was the normalcy that was most disturbing. Walthius was just sitting, listening, taking the whole thing in. He was being completely inscrutable, something he’d never been before. Prior to this moment, Walthius had been the most scrutable person Jeff had ever known.
He didn’t know if Walthius believed him, if he pitied him, or if he was paying attention at all. The story sounded even dumber to Jeff as he put it into words, and he started to think that Walthius was going to slap him back to his senses by the end of it. Walthius didn’t do that, but during the long, awkward pause after the speech, Jeff kind of wished that he had.
Didn’t matter. Walthius didn’t even blink an eye. And after a particularly awkward silence, he finally glanced over at Jeff and asked, “Are you waiting for me to say something?”
“Only if you want to,” Jeff said sheepishly.
“Well, I said the thing about the comic store…”
Jeff breathed out a mirthless laugh.
Walthius’ eyes narrowed and he looked at Jeff directly. “What?”
“What do you mean, ‘what?’”
“You got more you want to say?” Walthius said, no inflection in his voice whatsoever.
Jeff rolled his eyes. “No.”
Walthius turned his attention back to the road. “So that’s it?”
It? What does he mean by it? Jeff thought. “That’s pretty much it, yeah.”
Walthius took a bite out of his apple. “So,” he said with his mouth full, “Where do you go from here?”
“Where do I go from here?” Jeff repeated. “That’s all you want to know?’
“What else is there to know?” he said with just a dash of spittle, his mouth still filled with apple. “It sounds like you told me everything.” He took one more bite and then looked at Jeff with his apple hand outstretched, offering him some.
He doesn’t believe me, Jeff thought. Of course he doesn’t believe me. And he’s not laughing, either. Which means he thinks I’m crazy. Or dangerous. And maybe I am.
“This wasn’t the reaction I was expecting,” Jeff said, trying to draw Walthius out.
Walthius shrugged and bit in to the apple core. “What reaction were you expecting?” Bits of apple flew onto the dashboard as he spoke.
“Never mind.” Jeff wiped the sprayed apple bits to the floor. Another awkward pause. Who am I trying to impress? Jeff thought. It’s just Walthius. Get it all out.
“I know you don’t believe me, all right?” Jeff blurted, raising the volume of the conversation by a few decibels.
Walthius didn’t bother to look at him. “I don’t?” he asked, as if this were news to him. “And why don’t I?’ He was academic and passionless, like Mr. Barry explaining a particularly vexing axiom.
“You don’t believe me,” Jeff said, “because I don’t believe me.”
Another pause. Another apple bite. “Well, then you’re the one with the problem,” Walthius stated matter-of-factly. Having passed judgment, he just kept on driving. And stopping. All these red lights and they hadn’t made it through a single intersection.
“Friday night traffic sucks,” Walthius said. “You owe me for this.” He threw the apple core out the window. “It’s biodegradable,” he said in response to the disgusted look on Jeff’s face.
“You think I care about the apple?” Jeff asked incredulously.
“Well, you should,” Walthius said. “That was flagrant littering. Which is, as you know, against the law. If you’re going to fight crime, you’re not going to have the luxury of overlooking stuff like that.”
“If I’m going to fight crime?” Jeff sputtered.
“Don’t tell me you’re not going to fight crime,” Walthius said. “I don’t want to be disappointed in you.”
To Jeff, this was turning out to be a very disturbing conversation. They drove in silence until Jeff had the presence of mind to formulate a rational question.
As he spoke, he did so slowly and precisely. “How can you just sit there and pretend that this is no big deal?”
Walthius shot him an angry glance. “When did I say it was no big deal?” Walthius asked, then returning to stare at the river of taillights in front of him. “Of course it’s a big deal,” he said matter-of-factly. “It’s a huge deal, in fact.”
Jeff sighed. “Thank you.” He turned to look out the window.
Walthius snorted. “No, thank you,” he said, far too formally. The light turned green; the car lurched forward another few yards and then came to a stop again.
Jeff blew out a burst of air. “So you don’t believe me,” he said, more to himself than to Walthius.
Walthius snorted again. “You got from school to the Pier before the end of sixth period without the benefit of a car,” he laughed. “How else would that have happened if what you were saying isn’t true?”
He believes me. He believes me completely.
“Maybe I just should have flown home,” he repeated aloud.
“You’d certainly get there faster,” Walthius said, as if they were discussing the merits of train vs. bus travel.
Jeff shook his head. “You’re nuts, you know that?”
Jeff leaned in closer to him. “You know, it bothers me that you believe me.”
“That’s not surprising.”
He sounds so reasonable saying crazy things, Jeff thought.
Walthius seemed to be able to read his mind. “You seem to be forgetting,” he said “that cosmic catalysts happen all the time.”
Jeff cocked his head. “What the Sam Hill are you talking about?”
“The only thing worth talking about in a situation like this one,” Walthius replied. “Cosmic catalysts. One second, you’re one thing, and in the blink of an eye, you’re something else.”
Jeff turned his attention back to his feet. “Yeah, that’s great.”
“Sometimes it is, yes.”
“Newsflash, Walthius!” Jeff shouted. “This doesn’t happen all the time!”
Walthius snorted louder than usual. “Happens every day. A guy wins the lottery. Another guy gets hit by a truck. A kid is born; a mother dies. Someone wins, someone loses. Changes happen instantly, immediately, and irrevocably.”
Walthius stopped the car to let someone make a right turn into traffic ahead of him, which Jeff found annoyingly polite. Then he continued his speech, looking Jeff straight in the eye. “And you. You’re minding your own business; you fall off the bleachers and then wham! Cosmic catalyst.”
“Okay, granted,” Jeff conceded. “If that’s the way you want to go, fine.”
“Are you patronizing me?” Walthius said with mock seriousness, a small smile on his lips. “Are you actually patronizing me?”
“You shut up,” Walthius said. “So there.”
Jeff shut up. Then he didn’t. “This isn’t like winning the lottery or getting hit by a truck.”
“Well, to begin with, the guy who gets hit by a truck usually ends up as road kill, not Superman.”
“Aha!” Walthius said, lifting his index finger to add a sting to the point. “Key word there is usually, my friend.”
They stopped again. Walthius surveyed the traffic again and frowned. “Can I get over to the right lane?” he asked. “Maybe if we take Pico, we’d move faster.”
“Maybe if you’d stop letting people in ahead of us, we’d actually be moving at all.”
“You want to drive?”
“Then up your nose with a rubber hose,” Walthius snapped. “Can I get over or not?” It was the first time he sounded even remotely angry.
“Pico won’t be any faster,” Jeff snapped back. “And stop changing the subject.”
Walthius smiled with Cheshire impudence. “Testy, are we?” Then he returned to his tone of professorial seriousness. “Your raise a provocative point, I must admit. I concede that when a bolt of lightning hits someone, they usually die.”
“Who said anything about a bolt of –“
“But Barry Allen didn’t die, my friend,” Walthius said, cutting across him.
“Barry Allen,” Walthius confirmed. “He didn’t die. Cosmic catalyst right there.”
Jeff couldn’t remember a Barry Allen. Was he the guy with the tiny head in Wilkoff’s class? “Barry Allen?” Jeff asked. “Do we know a Barry Allen?”
“I mean,” Walthius said, pausing for dramatic effect, “The Flash.”
Jeff slapped his forehead. “What are you talking about?”
“I’m talking about the fact that Barry Allen defied your so-called logic.”
“So nasty arachnids send most people to Poison Control, but one turned Peter Parker into Spider-Man.” Jeff tried to protest, but Walthius wouldn’t give him the opening. “And,” he continued, “not everyone at ground zero of a gamma bomb explosion turns into the Incredible Hulk. But, my friend, remember, always, that Bruce Banner did. And no one can say that he didn’t.” With each of those last few words, Walthius poked Jeff in the chest and then he nodded his head with a smug “so there” gesture. Then he frowned slightly. “Of course, there’s the TV show version, where he did it to himself, but that’s not relevant, is it?”
This led to the most awkward pause yet. Jeff’s eyes bore into Walthius, who didn’t bother to return his gaze.
Jeff was beside himself. “That’s it? That’s your argument?” he said, more as a sarcastic statement than an actual question.
Walthius raised an eyebrow. “Is there any other way to look at it?”
Jeff breathed a few times before speaking. Finally, he said “You’re a flaming idiot.”
“High praise,” Walthius said. “They said the same thing about the Human Torch.”
“Who did?” Jeff asked, his voice and temper rising. “Nobody says anything about the Human Torch.”
“Of course they –“
“There is no Human Torch!” Jeff was getting angry now. “There are no radioactive spiders! There’s no such thing as a gamma bomb!”
“Even so,” Walthius said.
“Even so? There’s also no such thing as the Flash or Peter Parker or the Incredible Hulk!”
Walthius threw up his hands. “Now you’ve lost me,” he said. The car began to swerve. Jeff reached out instinctively to correct course, but Walthius immediately regripped the steering wheel.
“What do you think you’re doing!” Jeff yelled.
“Sorry,” Walthius said. “I know I’m not supposed to take my hands off- “
“You’re talking comic books!” Jeff exploded. “You’re rambling on about some stupid comic books! I’m talking real life, here, Walthius! Try and keep up.”
“Real life,” Walthius repeated dully. “Stupid comic books.” His tone was flat, but there was an edge of irritation in his voice.
“Don’t patronize me!” Jeff shouted.
“Then stop being stupid!” Walthius shouted back. He brought the car to a screeching halt and was almost rear-ended by the car behind him.
“What in the world is wrong with you?” Jeff said, panicking.
Walthius eyed him with cold fury. “I expected more from you, Jeff. Especially from you.“
Jeff refused to meet his gaze and instead motioned aimless toward the windshield. “Just drive, willya?”
Walthius ignored him, as well as the exceptionally loud blats of the horn honking directly behind him. “Comic books,” he explained, “are our modern legends, my friend. They’re archetypes. Constants. They’re the myths we tell each other when we’re huddled around the campfire. And there isn’t a myth that doesn’t have its roots firmly planted in the truth.”
Jeff nodded heartily, looking behind him. “Fine,” he said, his eyes locked in a staring match with the furious motorist behind him. “If I agree, will you start driving again?”
The motorist came down on his horn again. Hard. If he’d had my powers, Jeff thought, there wouldn’t be much left of that car.
“Seriously, can we move again please?”
Walthius pondered for just a moment, and then said, simply, “Fine.”
“Fine!” Jeff said, relieved.
They drove in icy silence until Jeff began to mutter under his breath. “Campfires,” he mumbled derisively. “Ghost stories. Crap.”
To Jeff’s surprise, this was the thing that set Walthius off. “Crap, is it? Thousands of years of oral tradition. It’s all crap.”
“Easy, there, Tex!” Jeff said, smiling uneasily, trying to diffuse a tension he hadn’t noticed until now.
Walthius would not be deterred. “The building blocks of civilization were laid around those campfires, you ungrateful little pud.”
“I don’t doubt it,” Jeff said, his voice unnaturally calm. “It’s just –“
“We don’t huddle around campfires anymore.”
“Then maybe we should!” he shouted.
Jeff came right back at him with “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.”
“You think so? You think that the cosmos isn’t interested in you? That stuff just happens because it happens?”
Jeff was too angry to actually think about his response, but he still knew what his answer was. “Yeah, you got one thing right. Stuff just happens because it happens.”
“Well, you’re wrong,” Walthius yelled. “And this…”
He took a deep breath and collected himself before he thrust his finger into Jeff’s chest and then pulled his voice down to a natural, conversational level.
“This,” he said again, quietly, “is the cosmos proving you wrong.”
Jeff opened his mouth and closed it again. He didn’t have an answer for that one. And he could see the freeway up ahead.
A Great Wall of Headlights, all standing fixed and immovable. At this rate, they’d never get home.