Chapter Four

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. 

Again, if you need a refresher, please reread the Prologue,  Chapter One,  Chapter Two,
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! 
Enjoy!

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“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.

“You sure?”

Jeff nodded.

“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?”

Another pause.

“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.

Jeff shook his head.

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. 

Jeff sat there, dumbstruck. Walthius pointed at him and winked, as if to say “gotcha.” As if Jeff were the only one in the car who needed convincing. Jeff blinked. He really does believe me. Which means he’s crazy. Or dangerous. Or both. Maybe I just should have flown home.

“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?”

“Yes.”

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?”

“Shut up.”

“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.”

“Why not?”

“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?”

“No.”

“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?”

“Barry Allen,” Walthius confirmed. “He didn’t die. Cosmic catalyst right there.”

“So what?”

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?”

“Wake up.”

Then it hit him. “You mean the comic book character?”

“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?”

“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 –“

“Just WHAT?”

“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.

Chapter Three: Part One

I’m enjoying this probably more than the rest of you, but here’s Chapter Three of my magnum opus. If you want to catch up, the Prologue is here, here’s Chapter One, and here’s Chapter Two.

Right now, Chapter Three is over 12,000 words long. I need to break it into pieces, but I’m not quite sure how. This part at the beginning is only 2355 words, and it fits together as a piece, but I’m not sure if it’s long enough to sustain itself as an entire chapter.

I’ll post more pieces of the chapter in coming days.

In the meantime, read and enjoy. Even if you don’t enjoy, read and comment.

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At least I can still bleed.

David Chakiris found unlikely comfort in this thought as twilight fell on the ornate rock garden by the swimming pool. He looked over the Bel Air estate that had been torn down and rebuilt to replace the home in which he’d grown up. He’d been reluctant to throw a party in his father’s absence, but his girlfriend seemed to think it was the thing to do, and it may very well have been. All these cheerleaders scurrying around the halls made him feel awkward, and then angry. This is my house, he thought. Why should I feel awkward? Despite his father’s social standing, he had never been able to master the obligatory social graces, and he took some pleasure in the thought that it wasn’t going to matter anymore.

As he listened to the man-made stream trickling over the stones, he relished the warm, red gush pouring down the length of his forearm, even though it all began to seem strangely innocuous.

He was starting to get woozy.

Although he was entirely stationery, the sounds of the party raging in the house behind him grew more distant, and David found himself of two minds as to what he should do next. Do I stop the bleeding, wash up, and go back to playing the good host? Or do I let nature take its course?

He had to do something. He almost wanted to do the right thing. He just wasn’t quite sure what it was.

Twelve people who were alive yesterday were dead today. I did that.

I killed them.

He had seen death before, and it had unsettled him. Unnerved him. But this was the first time the blood was on his hands.

I killed them.

He wasn’t sure if his conscience would ever let him think about anything else. He hadn’t meant to do that, he told himself over and over again. Surely that counts for something. He kept repeating that, mantra-like, for his conscience’s sake, but his conscience was still at war with the fevered rush of pleasure that had enveloped him the moment those cars came plunging off the overpass. Guilt washed over him in waves, cresting and falling, but each wave was stronger than the last, and the perverse delight of killing was still burning too brightly to ever be fully extinguished.

No. This isn’t me, he thought. I never wanted to be a killer.

Anyway, it was all moot, wasn’t it? He had no idea how he’d done it before. So why did he want to do it again? These questions were the impetus behind his decision, made over the course of the evening, to proceed with a simple, elegant solution. Since he had already killed twelve people, all he had to do to end it was kill one more.

That way, everyone’s happy.

This was the perfect place for it, too. He staggered toward the diving board at the far end of the pool, trying not to imagine what someone would think if they found him, bloodless, lying at the bottom, but he knew it would be better that way. He tried not to think of the dreams that would haunt the one to discover him. And anyway, there’d be less mess to clean up.

His mantra was lost. He was definitely on the edge of consciousness now, and it was getting harder and harder to remain standing. He barely noticed the sliding glass door opening behind him, or the slender, heavily decorated brunette who stepped out on to the patio. He caught a glimpse of her out of the corner of his eye, and he thought, vaguely, that she looked very much like his new girlfriend. What would she think if she knew he’d taken the bus today? Pretty girls don’t date bus riders, and, if nothing else, she was such a pretty girl. Pretty stupid, too, but you can’t have everything, which was really the whole problem in a nutshell, now wasn’t it?

That might have been his final thought if she hadn’t opened her mouth.

“David?”

From where she was standing, the shadow prevented her from seeing the stained knife dangling precariously from the end of his non-sliced arm, or the pastiche of blood that smeared the front of his shirt. You’d think, David thought, that she’d at least be able to smell something, some kind of blood musk…

There you are!” she squealed, oblivious. “You are, like, so in trouble. Everyone’s looking for you, and I’m all…”

Her voice trailed off when he collapsed into a heap and dropped the knife, which rang out against the cold stone patio.

“DAVID!” She ran to him and stopped short. “What’s wrong? You’re, like, all bloody!”

“Careful,” David mumbled, “you might soil your miniskirt.” It was a clever line, but David knew the moment was ruined. Why did she have to spoil this? No, it’s not her fault. It’s mine. Can’t I get anything right?

“What are you doing?”

“Doesn’t matter,” David answered. “I’m not doing it anymore.”

His dreams of a fashionable death dashed, he hobbled over to the fountain and plunged his arm into the stream, applying pressure to the wound with his good hand. Blood and water ran together until everything was clear, and within moments, David found himself newly focused and alert. His girlfriend just stood planted, blinking, her mouth hanging wide open.

She’d be prettier, David thought, if she learned to breathe through her nose.

“It’s only a flesh wound,” he quipped with his best Monty Python accent, trying to keep things light but knowing full well she’d miss the reference. He watched her kneel down to examine the discarded weapon. She was shivering with revulsion.

“This is, like, a knife!” she winced, holding the offending instrument by the blade with her thumb and forefinger as if it were the tail of a dead mouse.

“Nope. Not ‘like a knife.’ It’s the real thing, lady,” said David, all the while toweling off his arm with the dry part of his shirt. Then he examined the place where the wound was supposed to be. The bleeding had stopped, and there were only a trace outline of where he’d broken the skin, like a long-healed scar.

He had recovered completely in just a few seconds.

Maybe I can’t bleed after all, he thought.

“I really can’t do anything right,” he muttered.

“Seriously, what are you doing?” she asked again.

“Seriously?” David answered back. “You mean it? You’re serious this time?”

No, that’s not right. Why am I taunting her? What is this? What’s happening to me?

At the same time his head was clearing, the pretty girlfriend was descending into the throes of panic. “Help!” she screamed back to the house. “We need help out here!”

“No, we really don’t,” David said, and instantly, he was down on his knees and right upon her, slapping his hand over her mouth before she could shout again. He was sure he had been too forceful and had hurt her, and was disgusted with himself for not caring. “That’s enough of that,” he hissed with more than a hint of a threat. Ignoring her resistance, he, a little too roughly, raised them both up to their feet.

She wasn’t trying to resist. She was merely whimpering now, weak and afraid. David had no use for her.

Oh, how I hate this, David thought, and then realized that it wasn’t true. No, he didn’t hate this. He hated himself for how much he was enjoying this.

Yet she was absolutely terrified. And so was David. It took everything he had to keep from breaking her neck. He felt his hand start to swell, a fresh but familiar bloodlust engorging him, consuming him. She’s too pretty, David told himself. Much too pretty. I’ll bet her blood is pretty, too.

Enough. Enough! He took in a deep breath and exhaled slowly, and he told her to do the same. And then they breathed together, and he felt his conscience awake, and it incrementally overcame his murderous impulses. He spoke to her in a very slow, deliberate voice, as if he were calming a young child after a tantrum.

“Now you listen to me. Are you listening? Blink twice for yes.”

She blinked twice. Then she sort of nodded.

“Good. Nobody else has to know about this. Right?”

Another two blinks. This was too silly for David, so he loosened his grip just enough to allow her to nod properly.

“In fact, nobody else is ever going to know about this. Because you’re not going to say one word about what you saw out here. Do you understand me?”

Her eyes welled with tears as she nodded, slowly. He nodded along with her.

“That’s right,” he said in his most patronizing tone. “Because we both know how bad it would be if you couldn’t keep that pretty little mouth of yours shut. So as soon as my hand comes off of your mouth, this will never have happened, and we’re both going to go back in there and have a few laughs at our fun little party.”

Her eyes seemed to brighten a bit. Was she trying to smile? David thought. I can salvage this. Maybe this won’t be such a disaster after all.

“Now I’m going to take my hand off of your mouth, and you’re not going to make a sound. Are we clear on this?”

She nodded once more time.

“What’s going on out here?” asked a sharp, female voice from behind them.

David wheeled around to find himself facing a petite blonde who he recognized as one of those other high school cheerleaders. Startled, he dropped his hand from his girlfriend’s mouth, and she took advantage of the moment.

“He’s hurting me, Lisa!” she shrieked. “He’s hurting me!”

“I told you,” David seethed, “ to keep your stupid mouth shut!” He yanked her by the arm and then hurled her to the ground with enough force to make a sickening crunch as she hit the floor.

“Vikki!” Lisa scrambled to her side and stumbled over the bloody knife. She looked down and gasped in horror. “He stabbed you?!” she said to Vikki, picking up the knife with a firm grasp on the handle.

Not so dainty, this one, David thought. Might take a bit more to bring her to tears.

Vikki tried to answer, but she was incoherent. She was cradling what looked like a broken arm, wailing hysterically.

“For your information,” David intoned with an eerie calmness, “Nobody has been stabbed, least of all, her. I know you’re both just high school girls, but I’d appreciate a little perspective.”

Lisa shot him a withering glance before she gently eased Vikki to her feet, cradling her elbows in the palms of her hands. “You need a doctor, honey,” she said soothingly. Vikki nodded, still shaking, trying to get her tears under control.

“Sorry,” David said, taking a series of small but deliberate steps in their direction. No sudden moves, he told himself. This can still be salvaged. “That’s not going to happen. And I’m afraid, Vikki, this means I won’t be able to accompany you to your homecoming dance Saturday night.”

“Keep him away from me!” Vikki howled. Arm and arm with Lisa, she started limping back toward the door.

David wasn’t pleased. “No!” he shouted. “You’re not going anywhere!” They ignored him.

“Hey!” No response.

David was in no mood to be ignored.

Without thinking, he reached over and grabbed one of the huge, molded boulders that made up one of the foundations of the fountain. It seemed perfectly natural to him that his hand and his arm were now about five times their normal size, and with the strength to match. He lobbed the boulder over the girl’s heads and it hit the glass door, shattering the nearby windows and destroying most of the back wall of the house.

Vikki forgot about her dramatic limp and, while still trying to cradle her arm, tore off toward the gate to the front yard. Lisa trailed close behind. David, finished with the warning shots, grabbed another boulder and heaved it directly at them, only to have it blocked by the fully-grown maple tree near the neighbor’s fence. The tree cracked on impact and fell directly on the roof of the house, collapsing the whole northern wing, which was, thankfully, far from the center of the party’s action. Had he thrown in the other direction, who knows how many guests would have been crushed?

Who knows how many more I just killed? I didn’t want to do this. So why do I keep doing it?

David looked at his arm after the throw. The pangs of conscience had begun to deflate it, the same way it had the day before. But this was not over. His heart was still racing. He had tried to kill again, this time in his own father’s house. Soon all the other cheerleaders would be out here. They’d know what he did.

So he’d have to kill them, too. Most of him didn’t want to do that. But there was too much of him that did.

No. There was another option. Not entirely bloodless, but less bloody, surely.

He dashed around the side of the house just in time to see Vikki’s car racing out of sight. He opened the side door to the garage and saw that Dad’s good car was gone, but the big old Buick was still there, and David knew where the extra keys were hidden.

Dad will kill me if I hurt his car, David thought instantly and then almost laughed at the absurdity of it.

Within seconds, David was out on the street, winding his way down Stradella Road toward the south Bel Air entrance. He could see Vikki’s car just up ahead. He imagined what it might look like after it was grabbed, tossed like a shot put, and splattered all over the nearest hillside.

He cursed himself as his hand throbbed with pleasure at the thought of it.

Debate Wrap-Up

I’m very grateful to have avoided blogging my way through perhaps the most frustrating of all the presidential debates. It wasn’t the most boring – that was the last one – but this one demonstrated, more than any other, why John McCain is easily the worst Republican presidential candidate to get the GOP nomination in my lifetime.

McCain was “feisty,” according to Tom Brokaw in the follow-up, which is a nice way of saying he was cranky, testy, condescending, and argumentative. Plus he blinked too much and smiled like Igor from all the vampire movies. He moaned and whined about Obama’s friends calling him nasty names. He then tried to link Obama to domestic terrorist Bill Ayers and the voter fraud machine known as ACORN , but his heart wasn’t in it. Instead, he boasted, again, about what a disloyal Republican he’s been, even managing to compromise himself on the one issue that might have persuaded me to vote for him: the judiciary. Over the weekend, he stated that Obama’s potential Supreme Court nominees would be just dandy, and tonight, he trumpeted his support for judicial tyrants Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer and bragged about cutting off the GOP at its knees with his dumb “Gang of 14,” which undermined the Bush administration’s judicial nominees.

He also let Obama get away with murder – i.e. infanticide – on the Born Alive Act and partial-birth abortion.

In the meantime, Obama looked like a grown-up and, once again, sounded like a conservative. He promised a “net spending cut” after implementing all his new federal programs, which is either a freakin’ lie or the biggest, dumbest demonstration of ignorance possible. Mathematically, it simply can’t be done, especially while entitlement spending continues to consume a metastasizing share of the federal budget. He also, again, promised a tax cut for 95% of all Americans, overlooking the fact that 47% of American PAY NO INCOME TAXES. yet McCain ignored that completely, because he doesn’t understand it, either. He ran to the left of Obama on his asinine “let’s buy everyone’s mortgage!” plan, and he was unable to articulate, in any coherent fashion, a single conservative idea, beyond a nebulous support of tax breaks for his pal Joe the Plumber.

And you know Joe the Plumber’s going to show up in the Saturday Night Live sketch, don’t you?

I just stand aghast that this is the man my party has decided represents me and what I believe. He doesn’t. He doesn’t even come close. If he’s elected, the GOP will lose any connection to the principles that first attracted me to it. How can I vote for that? How can anyone vote for that?

I cannot stomach Obama, either, but I will say this: if someone put a gun to my head and said I had to vote for one or the other – instead of throwing my vote away, which is what I intend to do – I’d have to accept that there are essentially two Democrats in this race, and the right thing to do is to cast a ballot for the only one who is honest enough to put a D by his name.

Obama’s going to be the next president. That’s a terrifying thought. The only thing more terrifying is the idea of John McCain as our next president.

Heaven help us.

Debate Issues

Tonight is Presidential Debate #3, and I’m about as interested in watching McCain getting flushed down the crapper again as I am to watch, well, anything get flushed down the crapper. Each debate blogging has gotten in me in hot water with Mrs. Cornell, as she has had to deal with the majority of the family issues/Stalliondo nudity during the debate time. 

So I make no guarantees as to my blogging participation in the continued ritual immolation of the Republican Party. If I can blog, I will, but you may be on your own on this one. 

The Authorship Question

THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU for your comments on the novel. They are more helpful than you know. Some comments on your comments: At one point, the dog was important, but as the novel progresses, it doesn’t seem to be working out that way. Except Lisa calls Jeff “Jumper” throughout the book based on that incident, and I’m reluctant to give that up, as “Jumper” was the name of this story back when I wrote the whole thing in first person and it was a self-indulgent mess. I’d like to keep that connection, but I probably shouldn’t worry about it, especially if it’s not germane to the plot. And, yes, the ripping off of the shirt has to go.

The Nathan Petrelli connection is a little more disturbing. I watched the first season of Heroes and gasped in a few places as I realized that my book would likely have to change to avoid charges of plagiarism – even though I finished the first draft of my old novel ten years ago. (I started writing this story in 1994. I could win a court case, but I doubt anyone would publish this thing if it was too Heroesesque.) I haven’t seen any episodes of Heroes since the first season, but I’m confident that this story is different enough at this point that I’m not as worried as I was.

When writing, it helps to read to provide some perspective. I just finished the book Interred With Their Bones, a murder mystery that focuses on the Shakespeare Authorship Question. It’s a serviceable thriller, made even better by a fictional visit to the Utah Shakespearean Festival, an event the author describes in detail – and gets the details wonderfully right. It’s something of a Da Vinci Code knock-off, only instead of Jesus, the subject is Shakespeare and one of his lost plays, Cardenio. Along the way, the question of “who was William Shakespeare” comes up more than once, and this book’s greatest flaw is its timidity in providing a definitive answer. 

As commenter thursowick can tell you, prior to beginning work on my silly novel, I wrote a silly play, which has gone through several titles and iterations. I think it was originally called The Butcher’s Apprentice. The latest version, which I haven’t touched for a couple of years, is called Fortune and Men’s Eyes. The plot, the characters, and just about everything in this play changes with each successive draft, but one thread remains constant – the idea that William Shakespeare was actually a pseudonym, belonging to one Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. 
If you’re not familiar with what Shakespeare folks have come to call “The Authorship Question,” then you’re probably already bored reading this. I keep trying to find people who want to talk about it, and nobody really cares. I have an entire forum at Stallion Cornell’s Moist Board devoted to this very issue, and I think nobody has posted there since the beginning of time. 
A quick summary for anyone who IS interested: the problem arises from the fact that the man credited with writing Shakespeare’s plays is entirely disconnected from the plays themselves. We know very little about him biographically, and what we do know bears no resemblance to the man who would and could have written the works attributed to him. 
Just one example: None of his original manuscripts exist, so the only things we have that were written in his own hand are six signatures from legal documents, all of which are spelled differently and are hideously messy. They look more like the handiwork of an illiterate, not the greatest writer in the history of the English language: 



There’s more. In fact, the evidence that the man from Stratford-on-Avon did not write these plays is considerable. The question of who DID write them, however, is more difficult to answer. Mark Twain, himself a pseudonymous author, helped make the case that Shakespeare was actually Sir Francis Bacon in his pamphlet Is Shakespeare Dead?  Others believe that playwright Christopher Marlowe, who died in a bar brawl in 1593, faked his own death to return to writing under an assumed name – William Shakespeare. Many candidates have been proposed throughout the years, including Queen Elizabeth I herself, but the most persuasive of them all is Edward de Vere, who had the unfortunate distinction of having the case first made for him in a book by Thomas J. Looney. (His name is pronounced “Loney,” but that doesn’t soften the blow.)

The Looney theory, such as it is, is that de Vere, as a nobleman, would not have been permitted to write for the lowly public theatre under his own name. And since de Vere was such a controversial character in his own right, the Royal Family took great pains to ensure that he remained anonymous even in death. Suddenly, much about Shakespeare’s writing makes all kinds of sense. Hamlet becomes almost autobiographical, and the Sonnets, which are largely love poems from an older man to the Earl of Southhampton, make sense for the first time. (Southhampton ended up as de Vere’s son-in-law, so when he tells him, in Sonnet 10, “make thee another self for love of me,” you can see where he’s coming from.) 
I can rehash all of this all day long if you’d like, but there are others who do it far better than I do. Shakespeare by Another Name is by far the best of the Oxfordian biographies; Alias Shakespeare by Joseph Sobran is short enough to read quickly and makes the case based on the Sonnets alone, and The Mysterious William Shakespeare: The Myth and the Reality by Charlton Ogburn is the gold standard of Oxfordianism. It’s also well over a thousand pages long in hardcover with a tiny font. It’s as dry as dust. If you want just a simple introduction to the idea, I recommend the Shakespeare-Oxford website’s FAQ. 

Usually, when I start to discuss this with anyone, people don’t tell me I’m wrong. Instead, they ask me why I care. After all, we have the plays and the poems, so why does it matter who really wrote them? The problem is that such a question could be asked of just about any work of literature. If it doesn’t matter who wrote the greatest plays ever written, then it doesn’t matter who wrote anything. Knowing something about de Vere makes the play far more fascinating as you see his life, his ideas, his point of view shining through. If you’re a Shakespeare aficianado at all, knowing who really wrote the plays will enhance your appreciation for them tenfold. 
Still, despite a significant body of evidence pointing to de Vere as the true author, orthodoxy will not go quietly into that good night. I remember one particularly unpleasant experience when I was seated next to Fred Adams, the illustrious founder of the Utah Shakespearean Festival, at a charity banquet. Mr. Adams is a distinguished and a delightful man, and the conversation was entirely pleasant until, just for kicks, I told him I was an Oxfordian. 
His face darkened. “You’re not really, are you?”
I assured him I was. 
He scowled. “Well, I guess that sells a lot of books, now, doesn’t it?” He didn’t say another word to me for the course of the evening. 

Chapter Two

Only four comments on Chapter One, but all four are very helpful. Most complain about the length of the comic book setup, but there’s less fat there than it might seem – much of the banter becomes important in later chapters. I was trying to lay some expositional groundwork without being tedious, and I’m not sure I succeeded.

Yes, thursowick, I was trying to be somewhat disorienting in the first couple of paragraphs, much like a camera in a tight shot, pulling back to reveal a scene entirely different from one you might have imagined. I thought that was fun, but it could be that it’s simply annoying.

And, yes, those bits of dialogue are a pretty sitcommish. Out they go. What did you think of the dreams? Bill Cosby and his dog chow make an appearance later in the book.

wbpraw, “Rahsaan” was the name of an African-American KOTC guy. I wanted a name that suggested his ethnicity without using something clunky and obvious. Anyone else think it sounds Indian?

Thanks for the typo corrections, too – and I’ll have to check out that Buffy ep.

Since it seems that you four are the only ones interested in commenting, I thought I’d offer additional incentive by putting chapter two online today. I mean, really, why not? You have all weekend to read it while civilization collapses around you.

Here ’tis:

________

“Stupid, stupid, stupid.”

Jeff muttered this to himself about seven times before punishing himself with other, more profane curses. He was walking quickly, but he was going nowhere in particular. He hiked up the steps to the front of the campus, ostensibly to use the toilet up in the boy’s locker room. Since he had no urgent need to use the facilities, he kept on walking toward the football field, staying in the outdoors to clear his head.

That’s when he saw the homecoming float.

It was actually a silver pickup truck with a makeshift floral façade slapped on the flatbed in the back. The cab and the wheels were still clearly visible, and Jeff assumed that the Student Council hadn’t finished decorating it yet. There were several other floats on the other side of the field, which looked a little too professional to have been produced by mere high school students. Jeff assumed that they were props for the movie they were going to be filming tomorrow. Topanga High, being relatively close to Hollywood but still looking somewhat small-townish, often appeared on the silver screen as a double for more rural locations. Jeff wondered if his fellow marching band members were going to get paid to be extras. If not, Walthius would be sure to raise a stink. I wonder how an extra files a grievance?

He didn’t have long to ponder the question, because he soon spotted a truck that was making its way along the jogging track around the football field. The float itself really wasn’t much to look at, but what was riding in back took Jeff’s breath away – and it distracted him from his self-flagellation for at least thirty full seconds.

It was the entire Homecoming Court, led by a tiara-clad Vikki Dennis, in all of her homecoming queen regalia, waving at the imaginary crowd sitting in the stands.

Jeff’s first instinct was to wave back, which is why he didn’t wave back. He learned long ago that things went better when he ignored his initial instincts. Instead, he took a lonely seat in the back row of the bleachers and settled in to watch the rehearsal, which seemed to consist solely of lots of waving and looking pretty.

And that was exactly the way Jeff liked it.

The only other observer in the stands was a scruffy looking black Labrador, who had wandered onto the school grounds from parts unknown. Jeff ignored him at first, until the dog decided that sniffing in the crotch seam of Jeff’s jeans was a far more interesting activity than watching a bunch of girls wave their hands without moving their fingers.

The first time Jeff pushed the dog away, he tried to be nice about the whole thing. “Shoo,” he said as he gently nudged the dog’s head, which reverted back to its initial sniffing position as soon as Jeff’s hand stopped obstructing his goal.

“I said shoo!” Jeff hissed, more forcefully this time, and with a harder shove, but with no change in the ultimate result. This exchange repeated itself several times, and as the dog grew increasingly insistent, Jeff became more and more riled up. He finally stood up and jumped down over the next row in the bleachers to a seat below, hoping that the dog wouldn’t think to follow.

The dog, of course, wasn’t thinking at all, and he jumped down with Jeff, which led Jeff and the dog into a game of bleacher bench hopscotch, as Jeff and the nosy dog crisscrossed and zigzagged their way across the bleachers. Jeff, in a vain effort to escape, started jumping two or three rows at a time, up, down, and sideways, with the dog was right behind him every step of the way. The canine was also becoming increasingly agitated, and he had started to yelp, and then progressed into a full-throated bark. It didn’t take long before Jeff was screaming like a little girl, and soon the pickup truck stopped cold as the Homecoming Court observed this whole spectacle with the horrid fascination of people watching a train wreck. It was impossible for them to take their eyes off the snarling, sniffing dog and his shrieking, gangly victim as they gamboled about in a mad frolic that was bound to end in disaster.

And end in disaster it did.

Jeff lost his balance near the top of the bleachers and fell onto the track below. He was about ten feet above the ground, and he missed the pavement to the rear of the bleachers and landed on the gravel-covered earth, which, while it could have been worse, was not really a good thing, since he landed squarely on the side of his head.

Jeff was disoriented, more by the fact that he was still alive than by any kind of pain. Had he been knocked out? He should have been, but he didn’t think he had. In fact, he felt strangely alert, as if the fall had shifted something inside of him that needed to be shifted. He didn’t quite understand it, but he had the sense that something had just clicked into place.

The girls on the float screamed in panic, and the driver of the pickup truck jumped out of the cab and scurried to Jeff’s aid. The Labrador pounced on Jeff immediately after his fall, snarling wildly as he tore Jeff’s Green Lantern logo T-shirt right off of his skinny frame. Jeff kicked him away, and in the ensuing chaos, the Labrador was smart enough to make a clean getaway from the scene of the crime.

The pickup truck driver was Mr. Sylvester, the head football coach and Jeff’s former P.E. teacher, and he was startled to find that Jeff had survived the fall without losing consciousness. “Are you all right, buddy?” he asked. The girls had now formed a semi-circle around him, and Jeff, blinking, looked up straight into the face of Vikki Dennis. She had a look of deep concern on her face, which thrilled and terrified him at the same time.

No one was more surprised by Jeff’s safe landing than Jeff himself. He found he was staring at Vikki just a little too long when the coach asked again: “Are you okay? Talk to me, buddy.”

Jeff blinked, and then said, simply, “I’m fine.” He resumed staring at Vikki, who, for the first time since fifth grade, was actually staring back. Jeff then allowed himself a big, goofy grin, partly to show how casual he was about the whole thing, and partly because he couldn’t think of anything else to do. A slight breeze began to blow, and Jeff felt the wind on his bare chest. Jeff tried to cover himself by putting his hands over his nipples. The girls tried in vain not laugh, but they were only partially successful.

“Better get to the nurse’s office. You took a pretty bad fall,” the coach said.

“No, no,” Jeff said, standing up and brushing himself off. “No, I’m fine, Coach.” He had never called Mr. Sylvester “Coach” before, but he had heard football players do it, and he hoped it would make him sound manlier. He was trying to recover, or at least manufacture, just a bit of dignity, and he tried to play down the silliness of the whole thing. He shrugged his shoulders and conjured up an artificially smug look on his face. “I’m good,” he said, playing the tough guy. “Nah, I’m good.”

“Well, you sure are a good jumper!” one of the girls said in a condescendingly earnest tone. Suddenly, no one could deny the utter ridiculousness of the situation. The giggle dam burst and everyone was laughing out loud.

“All right, that’s enough,” the coach scolded, but his heart wasn’t in it. Jeff could tell he wanted to laugh, too. Jeff smiled a pained smile, trying to ignore the hot, sticky wave of embarrassment that was sweeping over him. He shot a look at the girl who had mocked him. It was Lisa Meyer, a tiny blonde cheerleader with an attitude twice her size. Being an easy target, Jeff was frequently on the receiving end of her pointed barbs.

Lisa Meyer, Jeff thought to himself. I should have known.

“Sorry, pal, but you’d best get along to the nurse’s office,” the coach said. “I insist.”

Jeff didn’t argue. He turned his back and walked away, still covering himself with his hands, trying not to run but walking as fast as he could so he wouldn’t have to hear the continuing giggles behind him and the coach’s half-hearted attempts to silence them. “You sure are a good jumper,” he repeated to himself in a singsong, nasal voice. Jeff decided that when he ruled the world, Lisa Meyer was going to be strung up by her thumbs.

As soon as he could no longer hear them, Jeff picked up the pace and started to run. He knew he should make his way to the nurse’s office, but the fall hadn’t seemed to injure him at all. In fact, if anything, it had cleared his head completely. Emotionally, he was falling apart, but, physically, he had never felt better in his life.

He picked up his pace.

He now seemed to be running almost twice as fast as he’d ever run before. But he wasn’t even winded! Jeff poured it on and tore past the main administration building, past the lunch court, past the classrooms and the tennis courts at the edge of campus, and down to the lower student parking lot.

He traveled a distance of over four hundred yards in about seven seconds.

He stopped when he reached his own car, an ancient, maroon Nissan Sentra. He had delivered papers for three years to save money to buy this cheap piece of junk, and all for nothing. All of a sudden, he could run faster than he could drive.

Jeff stood still for a long time. He put his finger on his pulse. His heart wasn’t racing. He hadn’t broken a sweat. He was breathing normally, and he had a hard time reconciling what had just happened with what he knew about running. Granted, Jeff hadn’t had much athletic experience, but he had had enough to know that people aren’t supposed to run that fast, especially uncoordinated people. He was always the last across the finish line for as long as he could remember. Now he was fast enough to cut through the ribbon before the other runners got out of the gate.

Jeff had never ditched school before, but he was naked, humiliated, and seriously freaked out. He fumbled for the keys in his pocket, pushed his glasses back up on the bridge of his nose, and got in the Sentra and drove away.

He didn’t want to go home, so he drove down Topanga Canyon Boulevard until he got to the Ventura Freeway onramp. He headed south toward downtown, but with no real destination in mind. On a good day, he could make it from school to Hollywood Boulevard in twenty to twenty-five minutes.

This was not a good day.

It was smooth sailing for about two miles, but soon the traffic was backed up, bumper to bumper. He turned on the radio to the news station, and apparently this was all still caused by some overpass that had collapsed the night before. It was the only thing the commentators were talking about, how the bridge’s structural integrity should have held, how twelve people were dead and thirty more injured, about how awful it was, and what was the government going to do about it…

Jeff didn’t care. He was furious that he couldn’t see around the van driving in front of him. Knowing there’s a bridge down up ahead didn’t make his car go any faster.

But finally, enough was enough. Jeff hadn’t moved fifty yards in fifteen minutes, and he was getting antsy. Surely traffic had never been that slow before. He started to get angry at every car on the freeway. He imagined his car with a big, impregnable glass shield in the front, pushing helpless Volkswagens to the side of the road like some freeway snowplow. Sure, people would be killed if he did that, but at least he’d be moving.

Finally, he got so angry that he started to swear at the top of his lungs. Every foul word he could think of came streaming from his lips. Jeff was not a swearer by nature – in his view, profanity should be reserved for those tender moments when you are stranded in the center of a sea of chrome with no land in sight. That’s when he used his army vocabulary.

Walthius always told Jeff that swearing is like cheap romance – it’s exhilarating while it’s happening, but it feels lousy the second it ends. Jeff had never paid attention to that, because who would believe Walthius knew anything about cheap romance? Well, apparently, Walthius had more experience than he let on, because he sure knew something about swearing. Jeff’s tirade made him feel awful. Even worse, it just made him angrier. Now he not only didn’t mind if he hurt someone – he NEEDED to plow his car into the something, and he didn’t care what it was.

Shaking with rage, he slammed down on his wimpy little horn and held it down, hoping to annoy everyone in sight until the traffic gods were appeased. This was much better than swearing, because it inspired real misery in others. Jeff was now the freeway judge and jury, and his verdict was that all other drivers needed to be punished.

His plan to anger the entire freeway yielded the desired undesirable results. He didn’t realize, however, that the other motorists would so eagerly punish him back. A symphony of car horn blats and honks filled the air and built to a chaotic crescendo that nearly drove Jeff insane. Losing complete control of his temper, he raised his fist and slammed it down hard on that fragile horn, making as frightful a noise as a Nissan possibly can.

His hand didn’t stop with the horn.

His hand plowed all the way through the steering wheel and into the steering mechanism. He pounded the thing so hard that the entire dashboard collapsed, and he fell forward and smacked his head on the windshield, shattering it with the force of the fall.

He was trying to relieve stress, and in the process he’d totaled his own car.

He stopped and took a deep breath. He looked at his hand. No blood. He felt his head with his hands. No cuts, no bruises, nothing. He looked at his car. No front half. It looked like it had had a head-on collision from the inside.

Whatever else he had done, he had also set off the horn mechanism. And now that the horn itself was lying in a pile of rubble, he had no way of stopping it. The car wouldn’t start – the key was now part of the steering column slag by the accelerator – but it was easily the loudest car on the freeway. Yet it probably still wasn’t much louder than the guy with tattoos all over his arms behind Jeff who was cursing him at the top of his lungs.

“Move it! Move it! MOVE IT!!!” Tattoo Man yelled, leaning out of his driver’s side window.

“Shut up!” Jeff yelled back. “SHUT UP!!!”

This dialogue continued for several seconds before Tattoo Man leapt out of his car and ripped open Jeff’s door. He reached into to grab Jeff by the collar, but since Jeff had no collar to grab, he ended up grabbing him by his shoulders and flung him out of his car. As he lifted his arm back to deliver a full body blow, Jeff did the only thing he could.

He ran. And ran fast.

And ran up.

He didn’t do it on purpose. He just wanted to fly away and leave the Nissan to rot.
So he looked up, reached for the moon and, much to his astonishment, found himself halfway there. It was a really unsettling and exhilarating feeling, all the same time – sort of like bungee jumping backwards. When he finally bothered to look down, he saw his car sitting on the main artery of Los Angeles like some tiny blood clot, and at that point he didn’t care about traffic reports or homecoming floats or rabid Labradors or anything earthly.

Now he was a thing of the air. He was part of the sky. He could do and be anything he wanted.

He wasn’t sure how long he stayed up there, gliding about aimlessly, somersaulting with giddy delight, or backstroking through clouds. It felt like forever, but his watch said thirty minutes. In any event, he started to get confused by the impossibility of it all and felt he might do well to figure all of this out on the ground before he started drag racing with helicopters.

Do helicopters drag race? he asked himself. This is getting too weird.

He decided to fly home, which required him to figure out how to get from here to there, something he had a hard enough time doing when he was on land. He decided to follow the freeway back the way he had come, which was easy to do, since his side of the freeway was completely clogged. He watched the road as he flew, although he had to stop every few seconds to wipe the condensation that was collecting on his glasses. Clark Kent wore glasses as a disguise. Despite his other new powers, Jeff still had to wear his specs to see the big “E” on the top of the eye chart.

Following the freeway was easy enough, but knowing where to get off the freeway was difficult from just below cloud level. He also wasn’t sure which interchange he was supposed to take. Was he still on the 101, or was he following the 10 or the 405 now? All the buildings looked pretty much the same, and he had no frame of reference for where he lived. He was also flying much faster than he realized, and he knew that when he hit the ocean he had gone too far.

He decided he was probably in Santa Monica, and his suspicions were confirmed when he caught sight of the Ferris wheel at the Santa Monica Pier. He came hurtling down from the heavens and plummeted straight into the water about two hundred feet from the shoreline. His glasses were knocked off on impact, and he desperately flailed about to find them as he rose upward. Thankfully, they were cheap enough that they were floating just above the waves, and he grabbed them and put them on before surfacing. Other than that minor snafu, he judged his landing to be an unqualified success. He would have attracted a lot of attention if anyone had actually seen him, and as he popped his head up and sputtered for air, he was reasonably sure that no one had.

Not that he cared much. He was in a world apart from them now. He was bigger. Better. The little people could think what they wanted, but none of them had the power to fly sans airplane.

He swam to the beach, and as he got closer, he relaxed and drifted, letting the waves do most of the work. He washed up on the sand with bent up glasses and waterlogged jeans. And still nobody paid much attention to him as he wandered up the hill to the top of the pier.
He was quite a sight, but Santa Monica had seen a whole lot worse than him.

He flopped backward into the sand and lay there, gritty and salty, his soggy clothes sticking to his back. He lay there for more than a few minutes, just staring out over the horizon.

If I wanted to, he thought, I could leap up and fly right past the horizon.

Maybe I’ll spend tomorrow morning in Hawaii. Or Tahiti. Or Jamaica. Except isn’t Jamaica the other direction? Maybe Tahiti was, too. It didn’t matter. If he got lost, he could zip to the other side of the world in the course of an afternoon. There were no limits anymore. He could disappear forever, start a whole new life, and maybe even get a girlfriend.

Only then did he start to feel anxious about the life he would leave behind. Was it right to disappear without even saying goodbye? Like I’d really go through with it. And where would I go, anyway? As he pondered, he felt a sudden surge of warm water trickling out of his right ear, and suddenly he could hear better. He didn’t even know his hearing had been temporarily impaired.

There’s a lot I don’t know.

Too much had happened for him to make any decisions like that on the spur of the moment. His head had cleared to the point that he wanted to go home, and, for whatever reason, his instinctive caution warned against trying to fly again. He had no cell phone, so he had to track down the last pay phone in Los Angeles. Which, to his surprise, he did, at a solitary service station up along Pacific Coast Highway. He dug through his drenched pockets to find any loose change. There was none to find, so he picked up the receiver and dialed “0.”

The operator came on the line and asked if she could help him.

“Yes, I’d like to make a collect call, please.”

“To what number?”

Jeff started to give her his home phone number, but then he stopped.

“What was that?” asked the operator.

“Hold on,” Jeff said. What was he going to say to his mother if she picked up the phone? How would he explain what happened, when he couldn’t possibly explain it himself?

There was only one other person who could help to begin to make sense out of all of this.

“Sir? Are you there?” the operator asked.

“What? Sorry. Yes, I’m here. Can I start over?”

“It’s your nickel,” the operator said, which made Jeff chuckle inwardly as he gave her the home number of Ted Walthius.

Chapter One

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.)
Enjoy!
_________________

“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?”
“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.”
“Wanna bet?”
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?”
“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.
Hard.
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.
“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.
“What’s this?”
“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.”
“Nope.”
“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 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…
Vikki.
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.
No.
No.
“Nooooooooo!”
Everything stopped.
“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.

Debate II Commentary

Got here late. Obama blames the economic crisis on George Bush. He needs to read my “Bailout for Dummies.” This is sheer scapegoating. Now he’s beating up on CEOs with bonuses and golden parachutes. He says middle class needs a rescue package – a mini-New Deal. Lots of class warfare tonight. 

McCain looks awkward and starts to sound populist. He lurches into energy independence. Let’s not raise taxes on anybody…today. Wants a package of reforms. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about. He wants to do something about home values…? Wants Washington to BUY INDIVIDUAL HOME MORTGAGES?! What kind of jackassery is this? First use of “my friends.” Thinks Washington buying homes will creates jobs. Second “my friends.” This is pure gunk.
Brokaw asks who’d they’d appoint as Treasury Secretary. McCain starts with Warren Buffet. Gag. This guy is AWFUL. Now says maybe Meg Whitman. Now starts to complain about corruption on Wall Street and greed. He’s an economic buffoon. 
Obama likes Buffet, too. Slams trickle down economics. How can Obama get away with slamming McCain for saying economy is fundamentally sound when he said exactly the same thing this week? Class warfare abounds. 
Oliver Clark wants an explanation of the bailout. McCain says it isn’t a bailout; it’s a rescue. Cites his boneheaded campaign suspension. How dumb is this guy? OKAY… here we go! Starts to slam Fannie and Freddie and links Obama to it. Hope he keeps this up. He looks uncomfortable. Stumbling through a slam on Fannie and Freddie slams. Now tries to sort of explain the rescue package. Goes back to his WRETCHED idea of DC buying houses. 
Obama’s is actually answering Oliver’s question, and doing so quite reasonably. Point for Obama. Now gets defensive about Fannie and Freddie and raises a deregulation boogeyman. Obama tries to pretend he was out ion front on this. Now being defensive about Fannie Mae. Now tries to link McCain to Fannie. Says “I’m not pointing figures; how is this going to impact you?” Obama seems to understand this issue – he’s walking away with this. 
Brokaw asks if the economy is going to get much worse before it gets better. Obama says no, but can’t say why. Goes back to this vapid “”2oth century system for 21st century markets.” That means nothing. Stump speech. Stump speech. 
McCain says it depends on what we do and then GOES BACK TO DC BUYING MORTGAGES. Are conservatives going to line up with this? Can anyone tell him how stupid this is? Cites some letter that Obama didn’t sign. McCain DOES NOT UNDERSTAND THE ECONOMY. AT ALL. 
Weird looking chick asks how we can trust either of you. Obama gets a little folksy with her. He’s got a very light, personal touch. Then he goes into slamming Bush. Tedious. Says “nobody is completely innocent,” and then says it’s all Bush’s fault. Goes stump speechy again. Health care. Energy. College. Now says he’s cutting more than he’s spending. Bullpucky! 
McCain tries to give essentially the same answer. Talks about taking on special interests. Boasts of the horrific abominations of campaign finance reform and climate change. Boasts that he’s a disloyal Republican. Bipartisanship, Johnny? Translation: “Screw over my own party.” Goes into earmarks. Tries to attack Obama on spending. Looks desperate. At least he’s not smiling like soom zombie vampire. “My friends” again. My fiancee’s probably drunk by now. My daughter Chloe comes into the room to say she read something about the economy that has to do with rattlesnakes. 
Brokaw asks them to rank priorities of health care, energy, and entitlement reform. McCain says we can work on all of them. “My friends” #4. Fiancee sloshed. McCain talks about all his creepy Democrats friends. This guy is so mind-blowingly awful that I want to stick a hot curling iron in my eye socket. 
Obama says we’re going to have to prioritize. Energy is at the top of the list. This guy sounds like a grown-up; McCain sounds like the guy yelling “get off my lawn.” Have to go get shampoo for Cornelius. 
Shampoo gotten. Obama pretending he has line-item veto. Slams tax cuts. 
McCain’s first question from the Internet. Question: what sacrifices will we have to make? McCain says we will have to elimnate some programs. Now McCain pretends he has the line-item veto. Says he’s going to cut DEFENSE SPENDING?!!! Really? That’s the first thing at the top of the list? McCain is NOT A REPUBLICAN. Goes back to earmarks. Says some “good” projects will be cut. Now says he won’t cut defense spending. This guy is a deluded old gasbag. Now goes back to health care and energy – wants to do them at the same time. 
Obama begins with 9/11 reference. Slams Bush for saying “go out and shop.” Chloe says John McCain will win because of Sarah Palin. She’s wrong, but I don’t tell her that. Obama goes into energy. Slams foreign cars built in South Korea. Chloe asks “why not North Korea?” Obama wants to double the Peace Corps. Chloe wants to know if that includes kids. I say no. I may be wrong. 
Brokaw asks how we control deficits. Obama says both spending and revenue sides need to be addressed. Obama predictably slams tax cuts. Says people don’t feel like they’re sharing the burden. CLass warfare crap. Stalliondo comes in naked, slapping buttcheeks. Wants to get in the bathtub. Leaving to go draw his bath. 
Water is running. McCain says “my friends” twice. Slams Obama on taxes, yet maintains he won’t “cut taxes for the wealthy.” He loses. Brokaw won’t let Obama respond. 
Obama says he won’t address entitlements for two years. Says “McCain’s Straight Talk Express lost a wheel.” Obama’s tax cut for 95% of Americans, which is ludicrous. Says “only a few percent” of small businesses make more than 250,000 bucks. He’s wrong. I don’t think he’s lying; he’s just wrong. He does NOT understand taxes. Neither does McCain, but at least McCain is fumbling around on the right side of the issue. Blames Bush again. 
McCain starts laughing, and nobody else does. Another “my friends.” And another. Calls for a “commission.” Oh, THAT’LL do it! Brags about what a crappy, awful Republican he is. Slams Obama for raising taxes. Brags about his record. Another “my friends.” Someone hit this guy in the head, please. 
Chick asks about climate change and “green jobs.” McCain brags about his Lieberman crap. Stalliondo dumps an entire bottle of shampoo on his head. Leaving to rinse his hair so I don’t have to listen to this ghastly dreck. 
Obama talks about a new energy economy. Says the computer was “invented by a bunch of government scientists?” Don’t think that’s true. Obama claims to favor nuclear power. Stalliondo out of tub, says “I like orange.” Obama calls for a sustained effort on energy. Obama slams US oil use. “Can’t drill our way out of the problem.” Global warming cited, even though the globe is cooler than it was 10 years ago. Wants us to produce all of China’s energy, too. 
Brokaw whines about time. He wants to know if we should fund a “Manhattan-like project” for new energy sources, or fund lots of garages? Bad question – we should free up entrepreneurs, but McCain doesn’t agree. Another “my friends.” McCain calls Obama “that one.” Wanders into voting against spending. Supports off-shore drilling. Obama looks on serenely. He’s mopping the floor with McCain’s geezery arse. 
Obama asked if health care should be treated as a commodity. Obama tells sob stories and talks about rising health care costs. Obama lays out a simple health care plan. Wants all medical records on computers. Slams McCain’s $5000 health care tax credit and sounds bright on this. 
McCain starts saying “me, too.” Begins repeating Obama’s answer. Slams a government solution and mandates. Says Obama will fine you if you don’t get insurance. Starts talking about going across state lines. His health care plan is more market based, but he presents the case for it clumsily. Says he needs a hair transplant. He’s warbling the right tune, but his singing voice sounds like a belching orangutan. 
Brokaw if health care is a right, privilege, or responsibility? McCain says responsibility and then answers as if it’s a right. Goes back toward Obama’s fines. Obama says health care is a right. Ah, new rights. They’re quite expensive, you know. Obama repeats his previous answer. Now starts talking about insurance companies being evil and says crap about mandates. he’s going over, and Brokaw won’t stop him. McCain asks for the size of the fine and gets crickets. 
McCain is asked how economic stress will affect our ability to be a peacemaker. McCain says we have to have a strong economy. “My friends.” America is the greatest force for good in the world. McCain’s strongest answer of the night. Cleta screaming in the background. 
Family meltdown with much shrieking. Missed five minutes. Heard snippets of Obama anti-Iraq drivel. Says we can’t be everywhere all the time. Pretends our allies hate us. Talks about Darfur. 
McCain asked about McCain Doctrine. “My friends.” Slams Obama on withdrawal from Iraq. “My friends.” My fiancee may be dead by now. Says we must do whatever we can to prevent genocide. Says we need a “cool hand on the till,” which disqualifies him. Brags about standing up to Reagan. Why is insulting Republicans such a huge badge of honor for this clown?
Good, conservative question for Obama: should the US respect Pakistani sovereignty or ignore the borders and pursue our enemies? Obama dodges; slams Iraq. Obama claims al Qaeda is stronger now than any time since 2001 – not true. Wants more troops in Afghanistan. Rattles a saber at Pakistan. Says we should take out OBL whether or not Pakistan lets us. 
McCain pauses – preparing to whiff it. Talks about Teddy Roosevelt. Says Obama talks loudly. McCain says we should attack Pakistan without announcing it. Starts recounting Afghani history for no particular reason. Calls for an Afghan surge. Talks about having visited some weird Waziristan or something like that. Talk softly, carry a big stick. 
Scrap about follow-up, and Obama gets one. Obama says he didn’t call for an invasion of Pakistan and then calls for an invasion of Pakistan to get OBL. Slams McCain for singing “bomb bomb bomb Iran” and calling for annhiliation of North Korea. McCain tries to get a little dig in and fails. Slams American ally Musharraf. 
McCain apologizes for singing. “I’ll get Osama bin Laden, my friends.” I’ll miss my drunken fiancee. Boasts of his experience… blah blah blah. 
Brokaw asks how you reorganize Afghan strategy because we’re supposedly losing there. Obama says yank troops out of Iraq and put ’em in Afghanistan. McCain says we need an Afghanistan surge without actually saying it. Speaking in legislative shorthand. Looks old. Thinks Petraeus can work miracles. 
Question: how can we apply pressure on Russia for humanitariam issues? McCain says Russia’s behavior is bad. Says Putin is a KGB jerk. Goes into Ukraine. He sounds solid on this. Wants Ukraine’s membership in NATO. 
Obama says we must deal with the resurgence of Russia. Says he agrees with McCain. Says we have to provide financial and concrete assistance to help rebuild economies. Obama fumbling around a bit for the first time tonight. Point for McCain on this one. Lurches back to Iraq to get on solid stump speech ground. 
Brokaw asks a yes or no. Asks if Russia is an evil empire. Obama says “they’ve engaged in evil behavior.” McCain says “maybe.” It depends on a lot of things. Says yes means cold war is back, while no means we ignore their behavior. Says we can deal with them, but they’re facing a determined US. 
Two more questions. First is about Israel. What we do if Iran attacks Israel? Will we wait for the UN? McCain stalls for time. Shakes hand. Says we won’t wait for security council to defend Israel. Says Iran is a great threat with nukes. Reminder about Obama’s “no preconditions” gunk. Brings up loony “League of Democracies” crap. Says “My friend,” singular. Does that count?
Obama “me, toos” on service. Says we can’t allow Iran to get a nuclear weapon. Sounds resolute without answering question. Refuses to take military options off the table. Says he WON’T go to UN?! Oh, wait, he’s hedging on that one. Now talking about diplomacy, etc., and wanders into familiar lib territory. Time to end this debate/McCain mauling. Now talking about talks. 
Brokaw asks “what don’t you know, and how will you learn it?” Obama makes a joke about his wife. Obama says it’s never the challenges you expect; it’s the ones you don’t. Goes into biographical/flag waving mode. Stalliondo comes in and wants his pajamas on. 
McCain gives closing statement, saying what we don’t know is the future. Boasts of experience. Goes into his own bio mode. References his own experience being tortured. This is powerful stuff, but it won’t be enough to salvaged a dreadful performance. 
Bottom Line: get ready for President Barack H. Obama. McCain loses, and loses badly. 

The Bailout for Dummies

So I spent Saturday night and Sunday morning up in Park City with my lovely bride, ditching the Priesthood session of General Conference because Mrs. Cornell’s sister was willing to take all five kids off of our hands overnight.

This does not happen often, and when it does happen, the opportunity must not be squandered.

We did watch plenty of LDS General Conference, though, and I especially liked Elder Uchtdorff’s talk on hope, as well as Elaine Dalton’s words about “ever texting and never able to come to a knowledge of the truth.” Not quite sure why Elder Oaks thinks a white shirt is a necessary component to passing the sacrament, but there it is. I really dig the idea of a Mormon temple in the shadow of the Vatican. That should be very interesting, indeed.

The other thing we did was spend Sunday afternoon discussing the bailout package with family members, and it became clear that very little about said package is clear at all. A brother who used to work for Fannie Mae added some light to the discussion, and others with some inside Washington scuttlebutt inspired me to write today’s blog entry, which I have appropriately titled “The Bailout for Dummies.” This does not mean everyone who is getting bailed out is a dummy, although certainly some of them are. What it means is that I’m trying to make the basic principles of what happened comprehensible to the average Joe Sixpack who may still be drunk from taking a shot every time Sarah Palin used the word “maverick” in the veep debate. In the process of doing so, I want to see if I could put it into words without embarrassing myself.

So here we go.

Once upon a time, people who bought houses went to their local bank and got a loan from that bank in order to pay for the house – a “mortgage,” if you will. These loans guaranteed that the bank a got a monthly payment from you for the next thirty years, and that flow of cash is how the bank made money on the deal. Over the life of the loan, they recovered the “principle,” – i.e. the amount of money initially borrowed – and a certain amount of “interest,” additional money charged by the bank for the right to be able to borrow all that cash up front.

With me so far? Good, because those sweet, simple days are long gone. It gets a whole lot more complicated from here.

See, now when you buy a mortgage, that cash flow is usually sold to another company almost immediately after you close on the loan. And the company to whom you end up paying your loan may not end up being the company who gets the cash. Modern technology makes it possible for every aspect of your loan to be handled by different parties, and often loans are sliced, diced, and bundled into mortgage securities that are sold to financial institutions all across the globe. Every time you pay your mortgage, dozens of banks anywhere in the world could be getting a piece of the action. And any one security could include chunks of dozens of loans – some subprime, some not. A computer spits out a number that tells you how risky any part of a security is based on how risky it’s been in the past, and the whole thing get so convoluted that nobody really knows how much risk they’re taking. As long as things continue to function as they have in the past, though, everything should be fine.

And there’s the problem.

What’s happening now is unlike what’s happened before, because two things screwed everything up.

The first is a well-intentioned and inept federal government. Through Fannie and Freddie and a host of federally-blessed lending programs to provide the “dream of home ownership” to people too poor to afford homes, people got mortgages who really couldn’t afford to pay them over the long haul. This is why Sarah Palin’s cutesy “predatory lenders” shtick sticks in my craw so much. Sure, there are predatory lenders, but the biggest ones come from Washington DC. They told poor people to buy houses with balloon-payment loans, which would be just fine, because when the balloon payment came due, the value of the house would have risen to the point that all they had to do is use the increased equity to get a new loan, and they’d still come out ahead in the long run.

But that doesn’t work if home values don’t continue to rise forever. And that’s the second shoe that’s dropped – home values have collapsed.

As much as Pelosi and Co. would like to say that this, like everything else, is George Bush’s fault, the reality is much more mundane. The bubble has popped. Just like the dot com bubble popped at the end of the last century. Just like the oil bubble – hopefully – has just popped. That’s what happens in free markets; people speculate; markets correct themselves, and bubbles pop. But this time, Fannie and Freddie had bet heavily on the bubble’s integrity.

Suddenly, an unprecedented number of subprime mortgages are collapsing, which screws up the computer models that bundled these loans into securities along with everything else. Record foreclosures mess up the model that determines the value of those securities, so nobody’s really sure what those securities are worth.

So if you’re a bank, and you’re holding a fortune in mortgage securities with undetermined worth, you have a real problem. The FDIC comes in and looks at your books, and they say “hey, these securities aren’t worth the price on the label. So unless you can determine their real value, you can’t rely on them as assets.” All banks have strict loan-to-asset ratios, and if their assets are suddenly devalued, they have to stop making loans.

This has far-reaching implications well beyond Wall Street. Lines of credit that run small businesses would all be frozen. Car dealers all across the country would have to shut their doors unless they paid cash for all the cars on their showroom floors. Without a free flow of credit, the economic engine that drives this country would be like a motor running without oil, seizing up and grinding into bits.

That is the crux of the issue at the heart of the bailout.

The Treasury Secretary and the Chairman of the Federal Reserve wandered into the White House and Congress last week and said they were out of tools to fix the problem, and the United States was just days away from total economic collapse.

The rest, as they say, is very recent history.

So what does this mean? What is this bailout – what does it do? What does it NOT do? Is it the end of capitalism as we know it? Is it going to add almost a trillion dollars to the national debt? And is it all George Bush’s fault?

Let’s address each of these one at a time.

What does the bailout do?

The bailout creates a saleable market for the nebulous mortgage securities that are cluttering up bank’s balance sheets. The federal treasury will buy those securities and free up assets for affected banks and allow them to start making loans again. This restores confidence in the credit markets and allows the free flow of capitalism to continue.

What does it NOT do?

It does not prevent people from losing their homes in foreclosures if they can’t pay their bills. It does not keep the Dow Industrial Average above 10,000. Despite the heated rhetoric, this is not a “Wall Street bailout.” It does not forestall a recession, which is on the horizon and is probably here already. It does, however, keep the recession from being deeply intensified by a full-scale financial collapse.

Is it the end of capitalism as we know it?

That’s actually what it’s trying to prevent. Had the government not been so deeply involved in getting us into this mess, we probably wouldn’t have to rely on government to help dig us out. There’s also a two-year sunset provision in the bill, so the government will forfeit the power to conduct business like this by 2010. (I should add that Mrs. Cornell says “fat chance” with regard to this provision, and she’s usually right.)

Is it going to add almost a trillion dollars to the national debt?

This is, I think, the biggest mistake people on the Right are making as they review this; they see this as the Treasury writing a 700 billion dollar check and sending the money scattered to the four winds, never to return.

That is not what’s happening here.

Although that’s not to say the Federal Government isn’t capable of doing something that stupid; indeed, they did that with about $200 billion earlier this year when they sent us all “stimulus checks.” I appreciated the nice chunk of change at the time, but that was money that went directly on the treasury balance sheets as part of our metastasizing national debt.

In this case, the only way all 700 billion ends up adding to the debt is if 100% if all the securities the government purchases end up in default. We aren’t anywhere near that number of foreclosures. Indeed, if we were to hit a 10% foreclosure rate, that would be worse than most of the direst predictions out there. Consequently, if a good chunk of these mortgages continue to be paid, there’s a very good chance that the government could end up making money on the deal.

Of course, all the larded up wool subsidies and pork-barrel gunk added to the bill to sweeten the deal for reluctant lawmakers will add to the debt, but while it’s obnoxious and shameless that this stuff was included, it’s really not a whole lot of money in the grand scheme of things.

Is it all George Bush’s fault?

Not this time. Hell, even Saturday Night Live acknowledged that this past week. Bush, McCain and the GOP have pushed for greater regulation of Fannie and Freddie, only to be called thugs and racists by the Barney Franks and Barack Obamas of the world for trying to prevent poor people from owning homes.

Remember when Enron and WorldCom went down with the dot com ship and Washington paraded a host of disgraced executives in front of Congress to give them a public, ritual shaming? Don’t you find it curious that no one in the Democratically-controlled Congress seems to have the appetite for a similar spectacle with Fannie and Freddie this time around?

This is political correctness run amuck in the world of finance, and no amount of speeches by Nancy Pelosi can change that. They can, however, demagogue the issue and muddy the waters enough so that nobody really understands the problem.

Thank you, Stallion Cornell. You’re a friggin’ genius.

You’re welcome. This has been “The Bailout for Dummies.” I wish John McCain would read it, as he, more than anyone else in Washington, has no idea what this is all about.