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.
“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.