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The Borer: A Captain Major Tale

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Borer: A Captain Major Tale

By Jim D. Scott

Copyright 2015 Jim D. Scott

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Shakespir Edition

 

The Borer: A Captain Major Tale

By Jim D Scott

 

 

March 20, 2016

Table of Contents

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Chapter Preface

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Chapter One

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Chapter Two

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Chapter Three

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Chapter Four

  • Preface*

 

In Confederated Justice, the first book in the Captain Major saga…

Captain Major, moderately powerful super hero fighting for justice under the Confederated Justice corporate umbrella, faced her ultimate challenge when Metroville’s first and most powerful hero, Amazing Man, totally lost his shit and threatened to destroy the city in fits of unbridled rage. Captain Major, with the help of the future-sensing Immortal, defeated Amazing Man at a great personal cost.

Spent and dissatisfied with heroing for Confederated Justice, Captain Major retired to allow her alter ego, Dee Major, to spend more time with less of her family. Her husband, Randy, having degenerated into an utterly useless lump of selfishness, Dee decided to kick him to the curb. With two teenagers in the house, Lou and Leigh, Dee continued her day job with Venn Diaphragms, Inc., to pay the bills.

 

 

Jim Scott’s personal blog:

http://www.jimdscott.com/ungrump/

 

For more information on Confederated Justice, the first Captain Major adventure, visit:

http://www.jimdscott.com/ungrump/cfj

  • CHAPTER ONE*

Monday, August 29, 2011

Metroville was fading beautifully from summer to fall as the city woke up to the last Monday of August and the first day of school.

Randy Major was very busy missing it all.

Sheldon Davies held Randy’s manicured hand as they walked past the store fronts on Pioneer Avenue. Sheldon was half a head taller than Randy, with graying temples that framed a beaming smile. Sheldon felt fully the warmth of the rising sun on his face in contrast to the chill in the morning air. He turned his face up to the sun to feel it all the more. He walked, chin up, eyes closed, across the sidewalk with Randy tugging him around obstacles and jerking him along whenever his progress was slowed too much by delighting in the day.

It was minutes before seven when they reached their destination. Randy was a bit out of breath from the four-block walk from their building. They made the walk every day now, but Randy’s body was still adjusting to the microburst of activity. A body at rest tends to stay at rest. A body in decline accelerates until it crashes into rock bottom. Randy’s body, at this point, was largely debris. Physics.

Randy had been single and living alone for eight months. It’s fair to say that he was still bitter from the divorce. He was asked to leave his previous employment due to his co-workers finding him impossible to work with due to his increasingly frequent outbursts. He made ends meet now with odd jobs — sweeping out Gail’s Nails Tuesdays and Fridays and taking Sheldon for a walk five mornings a week. The second floor of Randy’s building included assisted living for adults. Sheldon lived there. Sheldon liked most everything about his life. His friends who worked in his building, his friends who lived in his building and his friends who rode the elevator one floor up or one floor down with him.

Sheldon did not like Randy who was always pulling him one direction or pushing him in the other. But Sheldon adored puppies and Randy earned 80 bucks a week by walking with Sheldon to Pioneer Pets so that he could marvel as the puppies woke up to blink at the coming of the light and piddle in the shredded newspapers.

Sheldon loved all the puppies great and small, but he loved the black and white border collie best. Sheldon and the border collie pressed their noses against the glass and stared into the other’s eyes. The puppy licked at the glass. Sheldon wanted to lick back but knew better than to invite Randy’s wrath.

Not that Randy was paying much attention. He was standing back, leaning against a large planter bristling with German flag mums planted by the Metroville Horticultural Society and waiting for the Blog Master 3000 (Professional) app to finish launching on his phone.

The Captain’s Chronicles was flat on traffic despite the search engine optimization schemes he subscribed to and all the places where he’d posted nearly genuine comments on other blogs to spread his signature and link back to Captain’s Chronicles.

The thing is, there wasn’t a great appetite for a harshly critical review of Captain Major these days. In December, the heroine had teamed up with The Immortal, until that point a super villain, to defeat Amazing Man, who had been, up to that point, the city’s first and greatest hero. Amazing Man’s personal decline into madness and violence nearly destroyed the city and threatened greatly Captain Major’s life. Randy was fuzzy on the details, having not paid too close of attention to the events at the time despite being married to Dee Major, Captain Major’s secret identity. In Randy’s defense, he had been very close to finishing the main quest in Skyrim without reaching level 14 and was filling his down time trying so very hard to like L.A. Noire.

The Majors separated before Christmas and were divorced over the summer. She got the kids and he got the shaft, or so Randy told most of the fellows at the bar whenever he could buy them a round and rent their attention for the duration of a beer.

The blog was his outlet, his howling in the wilderness, his way to strike back at the twin falchions of darkness — hey! He had a new comment. Randy was surprised to see both that the comment appeared to be from a human being and from someone he didn’t know in real life. Maybe a doctor, too: his screen name was simply “M.D.” That, of course, was inconclusive. Randy’s screen name was “HitHerBack”, though he hadn’t thrown a punch since grade school.

The comment itself was simple. It expressed general agreement with Randy’s theses, a trick many bots used to try to manipulate vanity to escape the spam button. The second sentence consisted of six words describing Captain Major. The last two were curse words. One of which Randy used profusely in all situations. The ultimate word was also the last. An epithet Randy had, so far in his life, refused to speak aloud. Not as a joke, not in a drunken boast to prove he had the stones to say it. On his worst day, from the depths of a bottle of Irish-sounding whiskey he had thought it: thought it very, very hard about Captain Major and Dee Major, too. Now he read the word again and again in tiny letters on his phone. He let his mind work through the sounds as he repeated the word in his head. He let his lips linger silently around the word, enjoying the sensation of how it would feel to say it, to mean it, while screwing up the conviction to utter it.

And, oh but it was with pleasure that he approved the comment and let it publish through to his readers, and he smiled a vicious smile as he grabbed Sheldon by the arm and pulled him away from the puppies. Sheldon whimpered and stumbled backwards, slow to turn away from the little collie starting to bark at the rubber chew he shared his cage with. And there the word was, primed for Randy’s use. And it fit well and felt right and slid over his tongue and clicked against his teeth in the aptness of the epithet.

“Come on,” Randy hissed as he dragged Sheldon faster, stumbling him with the hurrying. And, as Sheldon continued to tarry, Randy’s frustration found voice. He stopped short and turned, purple-faced and spitting with rage: “Move faster, you stupid cunt.”

 

Shannonanigan’s Pub was abrasively green throughout, but Dee Major made special note of the avocado-colored bathroom stalls between her second and third Irish Curses. Shannonanigan’s started with the popular Jameson’s and ginger ale, served it in an unfortunately short glass and then garnished it with fresh ginger, a pair of filberts and a slice of lime skewered on a plastic shillelagh. They successfully charged an extra four bucks for twelve cents in garnish derived from tongue-in-cheek ethnic stereotyping. Dee Major, of course, loved drinks with umbrellas, swords or shillelaghs but hated filberts. Not enough to make a fuss, though, so she fished them out with her fork and dropped them in the bowl of edamame husks from the second round of appetizers.

Dee scrupulously washed her hands as she took a hard look at herself in the mirror. She promised herself she would have just one more drink. The look itself was metaphorical rather than literal. She didn’t notice her bright, black eyes or the pools of golden light that chased like snakes around her pupils. Nor did she notice her skin, which was as pale as a fish belly in the moonlight. A perfect fit for the environs. And she didn’t have to adjust her dark violet hair, which was held in place by the invisible Band of Adornment. The Band was standard issue for all female Confederated Justice super supers. After the property and casualty coverage, it was the most valuable benefit CFJ provided. The insurance automatically canceled when Captain Major left, but the personal items were manually collected. It was terribly easy for an invisible hair band to go missing. Even the visible ones are always hiding under beds and behind sofas. Why, the risk of accidentally misplacing it was so damn high, Dee felt a moral obligation to wear it constantly in real life.

Rather than noticing anything about herself, Dee reflected on about how she had spent her 42 years — especially the last 42 weeks. Her life had been a steady escalation of duties concomitant with a steady diminishment of support. Without meaning to, she began to count the weeks until she would have another full day of vacation: no kids at home and no work at the office. Her resolve toward tenuous sobriety wavered. By the time she reached the last two women from Life After Five who still remembered her, her resolve to behave responsibly had collapsed like an out of fashion Vegas hotel.

Val was teasing the poor man-child who had been waiting on them since 11:01 a.m. Val’s style of drinking included beating the lunch rush. The server’s classic faux-upscale serving attire — white Oxford shirt, shitty black pants and deeply unstylish black shoes — was literally capped with a bright green beret. The beret, in turn, was capped by an orange puffball which served as an unfortunate reminder of the large pimples still dotting the server’s forehead and face. The girls at his community college didn’t seem to mind, but he also lived in his own place which made him seem so very different from the other boys in Composition 18.

Dee delighted in Val, who was always a little too drunk, a little too gross and a little too forward. Dee called her first the night before to see if she had kept the tradition Dee had abandoned: celebrating the first day of school with day drinking followed by a movie to sober up and then a take-out pizza to savor in front of their kids.

Val had been in as many dicey situations as Captain Major and had escaped with slightly fewer, and vastly less powerful, dick punches. In most of her encounters, Val dealt more damage than she took. The exception was her divorce, which had come as a complete surprise to her and left many a mark. She recovered from the surprise in time to fully engage in the acrimony that marked every day of the eighteen months of litigation it took to reconcile the divorce to an exhausted, bitter detente.

Amy was a soccer mom with a secret: she hated soccer as much as she hated sweater sets. She hated the games, hated the unevenly enforced throw-in rules, hated the flopping and hated the goddam spots on the goddam balls. She had driven over ten thousand miles to watch games in wind and rain and sweater sets without a word of complaint, because she loved being a mom. Not much of a secret, but Dee had never considered Amy to be much of a secret keeper. Dee was wrong.

Dee and Val arrived first. Val used the opportunity to explain that Amy had been sober for nearly four years. Dee shook her head to jar loose all the details from her fond memories of their fun nights out. The whole Life After Five group would eat or dance or sing karaoke. The leakers would sneak home to their husbands and kids while Val and Amy kept the party going. The night often ended with Dee insisting on driving Val and Amy home. They lived but a block apart at the time and not more than two miles from Dee, so it was only an inconvenience the nights when Val threw up in the back seat.

What Dee never knew, and Val only suspected, was that Amy’s night didn’t end when Dee dropped her off. While Val slipped into bed for clumsy and apologetic sex with her husband, Amy stole into the kitchen to drink until she couldn’t feel anything. She kept drinking until she passed out to keep the feelings at bay for as long as she could.

Amy’s divorce was sad rather than angry. Once the divorce was certain, it took but a few nights alone in a studio apartment for Amy to start to give up drinking. After a few months of stops and starts, sobriety became easier and even a relief. She began to feel better and eventually she returned to how Dee remembered her: smiling broadly and giggling endlessly. She was fueled now by leafy greens, fair trade coffee and energy drinks rather than dark rum and diet cola.

She had even, accidentally and unexpectedly, picked out Dee’s blouse for her. Dee hadn’t asked for help. She was a grown woman capable of dressing herself. Amy stopped by with a casserole and a kind note in the days after Randy moved out. Dee and Amy were chatting in the living room, with Dee’s hands full of casserole. Dee was horrified, as ever, at the state of the house and glanced nervously at the massive pile of clean laundry teetering dangerously in Randy’s recliner while it waited patiently to be folded. Amy’s kids honked the horn from the driveway like they were auditioning for a boogie woogie neuftet. Amy worked retail all throughout high school and began to reflexively fold clothes and layer them on the coffee table in a mall-worthy display. She made quite a fuss over one of Leigh’s tops, assuming it belonged to Dee. Amy complimented it so much that Dee felt compelled to wear it the next time they met. Dee felt entirely too exposed in the v-neck to the point where her fingers were wearing grooves in her collar bones from her demure fidgeting.

Sitting across from Amy now, Dee remembered her smile, worthy of a movie poster for any summer blockbuster. Her lips were naturally full and her wide smile beamed with gloriously white, perfectly straight teeth. It was a smile that many missed because they were uncomfortable with her left arm due to the minor ulnar deficiency. Amy was clumsy with her three-fingered left hand, but she suffered from no ill effects other than those caused by ignorance.

Val ordered another Irish Curse for Dee and sent the server on his way, pantomiming a friendly swat on the backside with the drink menu. Another drink would go a long way toward relieving Dee’s insecurities. A couple more drinks and she might be swatting at the server, too.

“You guys have to use the bathroom,” Dee remembered excitedly. “The stalls taste like avocado.”

“Taste?” Amy noticed.

“I’m glad the nachos come with the guac on the side,” Val added.

Dee chastised herself for what she slurred. “Jeez, Dee. Hold it together a little bit.”

“Your problem,” Val interjected, “is that you’re holding it together too tightly. This is your rumspringa. Cut loose. Live a little.”

Dee shook her head. “I’ve got responsibilities. I’m a goddam role model. I can’t show up at home sloppy drunk on a Monday.”

“It’s the first day of school, Dee. The kids are out making their own mistakes to learn from today,” Val added.

“By the time they get home, you can be in bed, pretending to take a nap,” Amy patted Dee’s arm.

Val continued: “I like the sound of that! Down in one!” Val threw back her head and finished her drink in two loud gulps, then did her best to squelch the ensuing belch.

Amy blushed. “Dave and I used to use that excuse with the kids. He’d sneak home from work early, before the kids got home from school. He could never remember when school let out, so sometimes we were finishing up when the bus dropped off. It was so hard to focus when the kids are trying to unlock the front door.”

“I was married to Terry for 10 years and he never figured out how to unlock the front door,” Val said. She immediately shook her head. “That’s not really true.”

Dee finished her drink. “I bet you taught your kids how to work the lock, though,” Dee said.

Amy and Val stared at Dee waiting for an explanation or the opportunity to flee.

“I mean, take some responsibility, right?” Dee asked. “Randy didn’t teach the kids anything except min-max strategies and inventory management. Not that I’m much better. I don’t know if Lou could make himself a grilled cheese.” Dee paused to note the ongoing stares.

“For Randy, I mean like, literally, he didn’t teach the kids how to unlock a door. With Terry, the lock is a metaphor. For your clitoris. I’m not suggesting you teach your kids how to work your clitoris. They’re children. And, also, they’re your children. For goodness sake. Someone get me a drink and more nachos so I stop talking.”

“I think Val might have chased our boy away permanently,” Amy noted.

“I’m good at that,” Val agreed.

“Me, too,” Dee moped. “I know we’re celebrating because the kids are back in school, but look at me. I’m a babbling wreck! I can’t talk to people. I mean, I was never great with people, not ever, but two decades of being married to Randy and I got so much worse.”

“You’re not that bad,” Amy said. “You just seem a little nervous and awkward, and awkward about being nervous. Relax. And stop rubbing your neck. Your skin is beautiful except where you’re giving yourself a friction burn.”

“I know. I should relax and give it some time,” Dee said.

At long last another round of drinks arrived. Dee took refuge in aiming for the bottom of her glass. She felt warmer as the drink went down. When she looked up from a long pull on her Irish Curse, she saw that Val was staring intently at her.

“What?” Dee asked.

“You don’t need to relax and it’s time to stop giving it time,” Val insisted.

“You should think about putting yourself out there,” Amy agreed.

“You should think about putting out,” Val cut to the chase.

Amy was gentler. “You haven’t been divorced so very long, but how long have you been alone? You were married to a troll. You’re lucky he didn’t steal your kids.”

“That’s not what trolls do,” Dee said. “They hide under bridges and eat goats and hobbitses and comment on YouTube. I guess if they eat goats, they must also eat kids.” Amy and Val excused Dee’s punning while drunk. Dee, thankful for the indulgence, returned to her drink.

“What dating sites are you on?” Val asked.

Dee shrugged and nibbled at her food.

“Obviously, The Fellowship would be one place to start,” Amy suggested.

“A lot of short guys on that one,” Val said before remembering that she towered over Dee. “But you could do worse.”

“And you have to enjoy Middle Earth cosplay,” Amy continued. “But you’ve got the skin to be an elf.”

“What else you got?” Dee asked.

“Everything, I suppose. It seems like there’s a new dating site every week, each more specialized than the last.”

“But they’re all owned by the same company,” Val added.

“Yeah,” Amy sighed. “And everyone signs up for all of them, so you meet the same guys. But every site has its own theme or gimmick. The ones that are fun last for a little bit. There are still some hard-core Tolkein nerds and barefoot runners using The Fellowship. Plus, there’s no pressure from the new sites claiming they will find you a perfect match. Failure is built in.”

“What do you use?” Dee asked.

Having skipped commercials and blocked online ads for years, Dee was wholly unprepared for the answers she was about to receive. Both Amy and Val raced to be the first to open apps on their phones.

“I like Nintendate,” Amy was the first to offer. “It’s all based on classic Nintendo games.”

Dee did a quick search and showed her phone to Amy. “Is this it?”

“No,” Amy pulled a face and laughed. “That’s Nintendate DP. You’re maybe not ready for that.”

Dee scrolled through a couple screenshots. “Perhaps not,” she agreed.

“So,” Amy continued, “with Nintendate regular, the first thing you do is pick your avatar family — don’t worry, you can customize later on. Just choose the Nintendo character that best fits your dating style. Some of the avatars are gender-neutral, like the Koopa Troopas, while others are gender-based, like Mario and Luigi. I picked Birdo.”

“What’s a Birdo?”

“Birdo is a pink yoshi with a red bow.”

“What’s a yoshi?”

“A yoshi is a kind of dinosaur,” Amy explained.

“With a prehensile tongue,” Val added.

“Prehensile?” Dee asked.

“A yoshi can pick up virtually anything with its tongue,” Val went on. “It’s a very popular talent in video games.”

“As well as in real life,” Dee added.

Amy shrugged. “I’m not one to hide my gifts.”

“Oh, I found it now,” Dee said while opening the app on her phone. “Why didn’t you choose Princess Peach? She’s pretty.”

Amy laughed. “A yoshi can pick up anything with its tongue, but Princess Peach does pick up everything with her tongue.”

“Don’t slut shame Peach,” Val argued. “She’s got to be pent up, what with being kidnapped and locked away in another castle all the time.”

“Who would I be?” Dee asked.

Amy thought about it for a minute. “Samus Aran. She’s super fit and humanoid, which are big pluses, but some assholes are going to maybe judge you as transgender.”

“Samus Aran is transgendered? Isn’t that sending the wrong message?” Dee wondered.

“No, she’s not transgendered. It’s just that she was a big, bad bounty hunter in powered armor who kicked Metroid ass and everyone assumed she was a he. Then, at the very end of the game, you see her in a bikini. It’s like the opposite of The Crying Game. Or maybe the same? I never saw that movie. Some guys might think you’re trans in real life. Others will resent you for reminding them of the huge betrayal of finding out that they had been playing a video game as a chick.”

“You really think any guys would be upset at being reminded that one video game character in the history of video games turned out to be a woman in armor instead of a man? And that choosing that as an avatar would hurt my dating chances somehow?” Dee asked.

“Yes,” Amy and Val agreed instantly.

“Duh,” Val added.

“What else you got?” Dee asked.

“I’ve been using Safari a lot,” Val said. “Figuratively, you literally get to meet down at the watering hole. And, my avatar is a fennec fox, which is adorable.”

“If you’ve got an ear fetish,” Amy said.

“All the ear fetishists are on the The Fellowship or 10 Forward,” Val argued.

 

A few drinks later, Dee’s mind was spinning from the alcohol and the online dating options. She went to the avocado bathroom to clear her head. When she stumbled out, her friends had her purse and keys in hand.

“We’re taking you home,” Amy said.

“Yep,” Val agreed. She put her arm around Dee. “Wow. Good deltoid. Are you working out?”

“Not as much as I used to,” Dee mumbled. “Don’t have to any more.”

“You’re always beautiful,” Val said, “But don’t let yourself go right when you’re getting back out there.”

“Jesus, Val,” Amy shot back, “if she’s letting herself go, you must think I’m beyond salvation.”

“That’s not what I meant.”

“I should,” Dee hiccuped. “Get home. But I don’t think Imma oughtta drive.” She tried to pull her phone out of her pocket, but her phone was not in her pocket. She looked up, confused. “I think Imma lost my phone.”

“I’ve got your phone,” Amy said. “And your purse and your keys. We’re driving you home.”

“Let’s just get you to your car, do you remember where you parked?” Val asked.

“Outside,” Dee said brightly.

 

Twenty minutes later, Val was rummaging through Dee’s fridge while Amy noodled through the disaster of a study looking for a blanket to put over Dee, who was snoring on the couch.

“Too bad we couldn’t get her up the stairs,” Val said.

“She’s heavier than she looks,” Amy noted.

“Sure, when I say it, I’m a bitch, but if you say it, it’s cool.” Val handed Amy a glass of water.

“What’s your plan?” Amy asked.

“I don’t know,” Val said. “I don’t think we should be here when her kids get home, but I’m a little scared of leaving her alone.”

“We could get her a cat,” Amy suggested.

“That is a terrible idea,” Val said as they stood together in the dim study. “But I have a much worse idea.”

 

“This feels wrong,” Amy said as they huddled in front of Dee’s aging laptop.

“Of course it feels wrong. We’re hacking her computer!”

“I don’t think it’s hacking if you find her passwords in an open notebook on her desk.”

“Our hearts are pure,” Val asserted. “How about ‘MajorDees’ as a screen name?”

Amy rolled her eyes and pushed Val away from the keyboard. “If we’re doing this, I’m going to drive.”

 

In fifteen minutes, the dynamic duo had created a Choose Your Own Companion profile and stocked it with the poorly cropped photos they found while scouting through the directories on the laptop. As a courtesy, Amy scanned through Randy’s hidden porn files until she was sufficiently disgusted, then she deleted the lot. After freeing up nearly a third of the laptop’s hard drive, she kicked off a disk defrag before they sneaked out to Amy’s car and drove back to the mall for Val’s car.

 

Dee Major woke feeling all out of sorts to a dim, quiet house. After years of coming downstairs to find Randy passed out on the couch in a pile of energy drink empties with a sticky controller lolling tenuously from his hand, she felt a strange mixture of shame and pride at being the one waking up on the couch with a dry mouth and a bad headache.

The lack of kids at — she blinked at the clock on the wall until she could focus on its arms — 7:30 on a Monday evening felt strange, even though both teenagers had long since taken to spending hours and hours alone in their rooms. They usually managed to make their presence known by music, stomping, yelling or a combination of the three that reminded Dee of her favorite Pogues song. Dee brewed a pot of coffee and toasted bread while sipping ice water. She wondered if the kids had eaten supper.

Dee began loading the dishwasher as she nibbled her toast. She was starting to feel a bit closer to normal, though certainly not fine, and decided to pass on the coffee. She dumped the freshly brewed brown down the sink and added the carafe to the top rack. She was still a few dishes short of a full load, so she began to hunt through the house for wherever the kids may have left their bowls and glasses.

She found a pair of glasses in the study that were still damp around the rim. Next to the glasses, she found a short note in Amy’s friendly script resting upon her password book. Dee whispered a sarcastic thanks in reply to the written welcome to the wonderful world of online dating. She had no idea what to expect when she logged on to her profile.

She did not like what she saw. Not one bit.

First, she removed the pictures Randy must have taken on vacation when she wasn’t paying attention. She took a selfie on her phone. It was fine. She took a few more, but each was worse than the last. Her smile kept turning weirder and her eyes were going all crazy. She watched a short video on how to take a good selfie, then took a few more pictures before finally giving up. She uploaded the first picture with a defeated click of the mouse.

In the picture her hair was a mess and her light make up was uneven at best. At least her smile looked nearly natural. Whatever the flaws it was good enough for now and better than the cobra pose pics her friends had selected for her.

Dee knew, without wanting to, that she was beautiful. Along with giving her the power to control plasma fields, her superpowers kept her perfectly fit without effort. Even though she had abandoned nearly all her training since her divorces from Randy and Confederated Justice, she hadn’t gained an ounce. The hours she logged in the CFJ danger room helped her control her powers and prepare her for different styles of attack, but weren’t fat burning, body sculpting, or ab blasting. These days she spent a lot more time eating popcorn and chocolate while watching television with Lou and Leigh rather than patrolling the city. She was happier, almost content. She was sleeping through the night for the first time in years, to the point where she was almost well-rested.

Dee’s desire to meet someone new surprised her because she knew the risks. Her sense of peace was still so new that she wasn’t yet taking it for granted. She had much more to protect than that, of course. She was responsible not just for herself, but for Lou, Leigh and Captain Major. She no longer had the extra resources of Confederated Justice at her disposal to protect her identity. She felt sure of herself, believing that the years of practice had prepared her to the point where she could date without putting herself or her children at any appreciable risk and the kids had always understood — better than Randy, at times — the importance of the protocols in place to protect the family.

As Dee poked around the Choose Your Own Companion site, she quickly realized that if she wanted to actually meet someone she was going to have to address the site’s central conceit and undertake an adventure. Dee was a practical woman driven to extremes by the responsibilities she carried. None of the fanciful stories called her to participate. One story looked to be a space adventure. The inky black nothingness of space held no interest to her. Hard pass. The next story was one of those hack and slash dungeon crawlers. She preferred that to the superhero story that was also on offer. A little too on the nose.

There were two distinctly feminine options available. One looked like a farming adventure. The other was about rescuing kittens. Both seemed juvenile with appropriately insulting artwork. By process of elimination, she had no choice but to explore some Aztec ruins.

 

On the day after your 21st birthday, an unforgivably early knock awakens you from a gruesome slumber. You stagger to the front door, regretting your previous night’s debauchery with each step. You swing the front door open a few inches, leaning against the door to disguise the fact that the chain is long broken and your landlord has yet to see to fixing it.

A smiling delivery man with unkempt golden hair spilling out from under his corporate brown cap smiles like you’re his last visit before spending the rest of the day hanging 10 and whatnot off the beach at Malibu. He slips you his package through the small crack you’ve exposed, then passes his clipboard through for you to sign. He hands you the special pen to digitally add your signature and lets his well-worn, yet impeccably clean fingers linger and tease the tiny hairs on the back of your hand. He cocks his head and winks so subtly you’re not sure whether he’s flirting or you are wishing it were so.

You sign your name and return the signature pad to him. You spot the name tag near his right shoulder. “Thanks, Chad,” you smile, suddenly feeling much better than you did just a few minutes before.

You start to close the door with a reluctant smile, but Chad stops you with a whisper. You lean your head close to the door, keeping it open just an inch and waiting for him to repeat himself.

“Can I buy you a drink?” he asks.

To go out for a drink with Chad, turn to page 14.

To invite Chad in for a drink, turn to page 199.

To say goodbye to Chad, turn to page 88.

 

“Say goodbye!”

Dee Major jumped out of her chair with the explosiveness of the superhero that she was, nearly toppling the desk in her leap.

“Leigh!” Dee gasped. “You startled me.”

“Uh-huh,” Leigh replied. “Whatcha doing, mom?”

“It’s nothing,” Dee said. “Old people stuff.”

“Lou!” Leigh yelled. “What’s ChooseYourOwnCompanion.com?”

“It’s a dating site,” Lou yelled from the kitchen over the clattering of plates as he made himself a sandwich. Leigh smirked and Dee returned her expression. “For old people,” Lou finished.

Leigh laughed and rushed to the computer. She had just turned 14 and washed the black dye out of her hair. She was an inch taller than her mother, for now. Dee was as certain she could be that Leigh had more growing to do. Leigh’s powers, which so far mirrored Captain Major’s, had developed the previous year. The confidence she was gaining in her powers was infecting her personality in almost entirely positive ways. Dee saw a beautiful girl with beautiful brown hair, a beautiful smile and a new, infectiously eager personality. She was not much wrong.

“Chad does sound hot, mom. But he’s probably too hot for you.”

“As if,” Dee tried to make a joke of it, but the awkwardness in her voice turned her feigned bravado into a meek cry for help that Leigh, in a remarkable moment of teenage empathy, actually heard.

“Fine, mom,” Leigh answered the unasked question. “You’re pretty and I will help you.”

Leigh hurried for a chair and nearly bumped into Lou while he ambled over to see what was going on. Dee tried to return to the screen with perfect nonchalance, but grew increasingly tense as she listened to Lou chew while he read over her shoulder. Lou was two years older, but no taller than his sister. He seemed to be eating constantly in a desperate attempt to force at least one more growth spurt. He wasn’t getting any taller, but he was noticeably leaner now that the cross country season had started. He was starting to look like a man. Unfortunately for Lou, that man was his father.

At long last, the crunch of ice berg lettuce and stale bread stopped so Lou could ask a question. “Jesus, mom. What’s wrong with you?”

Leigh and Lou passed abruptly again, Lou exiting for his bedroom and Leigh entering with a folding chair under her arm. She perched at her mother’s elbow, reaching for the mouse to move the story along.

“That site is full of creeps,” Lou shouted as he stomped up the stairs. A moment later, his door slammed closed.

“Don’t slam doors!” Dee called up, trying not to reveal her frustration in her voice.

“He told you,” Leigh said. “Now click. Click click click. What happens next?”

 

You smile at Chad with a shake of your head. It’s far too early for a hair of the dog, and you’ve had trouble with his type before. Maybe, you think, it’s time to find a guy with a sense of responsibility. Someone who doesn’t forget to borrow a tie when he gets invited to a wedding.

You’re about to head back to bed when you look at the package Chad delivered. There’s no return address. You tear off the plain brown wrapper and find a sturdy cardboard box taped tightly shut. You need a scissors to open the box. Inside, you find three items: a leather-bound pocket journal, a plane ticket to Lima, Peru and a carved wooden figurine.

You notice that the journal appears to have several hundred hand-written pages in an unfamiliar typography. You notice the wooden figurine has a hole drilled in it. It appears to be a fertility symbol. You notice that the ticket to Lima is for a flight that leaves in 90 minutes.

To race to the airport, turn to page 101.

To study the figurine, turn to page 7.

To start reading the journal, turn to page 17.

 

“You’ve got to go to the airport, mom!”

“But, wait. We don’t even know how far I am from the airport. Or how I would get there. It’s not fair that the writer leaves so many key details unexplained. Can I get an Uber? Is that safe? Do I have a car? Do I even have a passport? I think we should read the journal.”

“Oh, god, mom!” Leigh shouted exasperatedly. “Do you really think men want to date a woman whose first instinct is to read?”

“I should hope so,” Dee replied. “I happen to like reading.”

“Yeah, right. You still haven’t finished The Red Pony. What’s that been, eleven years?”

“Maybe it’s a wishing figurine. If I had wishes I could get a date, time to finish a book and daughter who doesn’t sass,” Dee suggested.

“‘Sass’? That isn’t even a word anymore! I mean, do you even hear how old you sound right now? Go to the airport before it times out and you get stuck with a bunch of loser boys who want to take you on a date to the library.”

“George Bailey went on a date to the library.”

“Who even is George Bailey? Like, your high school boyfriend?”

Dee started to do the math in her head, then gave up. “He would’ve been old enough to take your great-grandmother on a date, but he was a movie character.”

“Oh, god, mom. You want to go on a black-and-white date with some movie character from before movies were even good?”

“That sounds a little racist, dear.”

Leigh scowled at her mom until Dee stuck her tongue out. Leigh rolled her eyes. Before she could object again, Dee clicked the button to turn to page 17.

 

You slowly turn back the dusty front cover to reveal a page, and then page after page, of a writing you have never seen before. The letters are as blocky as cuneiform, yet somehow elegant. Regardless of the beauty of the typography, the plain fact remains: you cannot read a word of the journal.

Glancing at the time, you call for a Lucky’s Taxi and have but a few minutes to pack before it arrives to take you to the airport.

To pack make-up and miniskirts, turn to page 147.

To pack toothpaste and toiletries, turn to page 55.

To pack your Swiss army knife and multitool, turn to page 38.

 

Dee and Leigh shared a groan.

“Brogrammers,” Leigh complained.

“What’s that?”

“You know, boys who don’t grow up and end up as over-paid, hubristic programmers who devote their lives to developing more realistic boob physics rather than creating female characters who are interesting to play.”

“I’m so glad you’re taking AP English,” Dee said.

“You’re glad, but Davidson makes us read the shittiest, boringest books ever,” Leigh complained.

Dee looked disapprovingly.

“Whatever. Like you never swear.”

“I swear all the time,” Dee agreed. “Just not in front of you.”

Dee clicked ahead to page 55. Leigh lightly gasped. “So adventurous, mom!”

“I’m not going to Peru without a toothbrush,” Dee reasoned.

“They sell toothbrushes at the airport, don’t they? And probably in hotels?” Leigh asked.

Dee looked over out of the corner of her eye. “Not in Peru,” she said.

“For real?”

“Yes.”

“Have you ever been?”

“Yes,” Dee remembered.

“Really?” Leigh asked.

“I haven’t,” Dee clarified as the memories started to creep back. “But, Captain Major battled Jenny Girth over the steps of Machu Picchu. Girth was doing one of those body shaming slash addictive diet pill schemes. Kids your age were dropping dead on stair climbers with 14-inch waists and 16-inch calves. I think Captain Major beat her senseless with a rolled up fashion magazine, then rolled her down every step.”

“So how do you know whether they sell toothbrushes in Peru?”

“Internet,” Dee replied.

Lou interrupted by standing in the doorway, arms folded.

“How much longer are you going to be doing that?” he asked.

“We’re not even to Peru yet!” Leigh replied.

“I don’t know, honey,” Dee forced herself to smile. “Do you want to join us?”

“I want something to eat,” Lou’s voice was a deep, dull monotone, dripping with the urgent need to get angry over something.

“There are noodles in the fridge,” Dee said.

“I don’t want noodles,” Lou said.

“How about breakfast for supper? I’ll make us a scramble in just a little bit,” Dee offered. “Sound good?”

“Whatever,” Lou turned and stalked away. “I guess it doesn’t matter that I’m hungry now.”

Dee sighed, harder than she meant, louder than she would have liked. Leigh turned her head appraisingly. “You don’t think that’s worse than swearing a little bit?”

“We all get frustrated,” Dee said. “Let’s just get to Peru so I can feed your brother.”

“Okay,” Leigh said as they returned to the story. “But I don’t want eggs. I want French toast.”

Dee sighed again, as hard as she could this time to disguise how much she really meant it. She was happy to see Leigh smirking beside her.

“I’m glad you get me,” Dee put her arm around Leigh to give her a half-hug squeeze.

“Ack!” Leigh yelled as she leaned away and folded her arms over her chest and face like George Foreman before he lost to Ali in the jungle and turned pitchman. “Assault! Bad touch! Do not want!”

Dee, deflated, continued her adventure.

 

You are staring out the window, waiting for the trademark green clover emblem to appear on the roof of your Lucky cab. You’ve got your passport, a small bag of clothes and your toiletries. The cab pulls up in front of your building. You stride toward the door, grabbing for your keys on the way.

As you lock the front door behind you, you have the strangest feeling that you’ve forgotten something. You ignore the honk from the waiting taxi and rush back inside.

To grab your copy of Lady Vox’s Fifty Shades of Scarlet Vampires, turn to page 69.

To grab the incomprehensible journal, turn to page 84.

To grab your travel pillow, turn to page 73.

 

“What’s Lady Vox’s Fifty whatevers?” Leigh asked.

“It’s about vampires,” Dee replied.

“Is it that weird one about vampires?” Leigh continued.

“Yup,” Dee said.

“Mom porn is weird,” Leigh said.

“It’s a long flight, maybe I should bring a pillow,” Dee changed the subject.

“Don’t be dumb. You definitely need that journal for later in the story,” Leigh argued.

“But I’m also probably really tired. A long flight could be a great chance to take a nap. A glass of wine, a few milligrams of melatonin, another glass of wine, then a long, long nap.”

“Okay, whatever, grandma. But if you want to survive, you need the journal.”

“I’m going pillow. When you do this…”

“In like, forty years.” Leigh interrupted. “I meet boys the normal way. I stalk them on Twitter.”

“When it’s your turn (and forty years from now would be delightful),” Dee continued, “it’ll be your choice. But this is my choice, and I choose…”

“Journal!” Leigh grabbed for the mouse as Dee moved to click. They struggled over the pointer until they managed to click on Lady Vox.

 

You dash into your bedroom and grab your dog-eared copy of Lady Vox’s Fifty Shades of Scarlet Vampires, excited to have something to read on the long flight. You put it in your purse and jog out to the taxi. Bounce, bounce.

Ninety minutes later you are winging your way south toward Mexico and beyond. You tire of looking out the window at the great plains passing below. You pull out your copy of Lady Vox and flip toward a passage where a shirtless werewolf secretly listens to the heroine have bondage-themed phone sex with a married vampire. As you find the familiar chapter, a stunningly attractive man appears in the aisle and leans toward you.

“Is this seat taken?” he asks while tucking his long hair behind his ear. You notice how tall he must be from how deeply he has to bend to fit his head under the overhead compartments.

To invite him to sit next to you, turn to page 112.

To ask him his name, turn to page 44.

To call for a flight attendant, turn to page 25.

 

“Look!” Leigh pointed excitedly. “You have matches!”

Dee looked. She had two matches. Then three. Then six. The counter steadily increased until it started to settle around 85, all within a 30 miles of Metroville. She was uneasy at the turn of events.

She stood. “Lou, I’m starting the scramble!” she called and walked toward the kitchen.

“And don’t forget the French toast,” Leigh reminded as she followed Dee toward the kitchen. Leigh peeled off as they reached the door and headed back to the computer to continue the adventure.

 

Captain Major was, more or less, officially retired from the ranks of superheroes and had been since Christmas last. Her heroing turned harrowing just as her personal life crumbled around her. She quit Confederated Justice and returned all their gear, except for the things she found useful. She still had her personal kit, including a new costume which The Immortal had given her before he, too, retired upward from villainy and ersatz herodom to further his private fortunes in a slightly more legal way.

But. There was a freedom to Captain Major that Dee longed for and couldn’t live completely without. There was both the joy of the present — laying down the burdens of memory and giving up the fears for the future — that came with fighting crime, as well as the incomparable rush of using her skills and energy to their maximum.

Tonight, Captain Major returned to the Metroville skyline. She dashed across her familiar haunts, from the Civic Center in Sector Seven to the coffee shops and tourist spots in District Nine. She was breathing hard when she reached her favorite gargoyle atop the natural history museum overlooking the still damaged Middling Park. This gargoyle was the same as all the others. At least it had been born the same. The rain and snow had worn down its right eye, so that from a certain point of view he always seemed to be winking and therefore slightly more cheerful than all the other gargoyles. At least he wasn’t quite as serious as his fellow stone watchmen.

Captain Major was 42 years old, but looked 28. She hadn’t appreciably aged since Dee Major gained her powers while saving children from the worst field trip ever, what with the generic soda, raisin cookies, nuclear meltdown and all. She wore a short sleeve, navy tunic with matching harem pants and violet Converse that matched her hair. Underneath it all, a gift from The Immortal kept her warm and waited to store ionic energy for battle. The translucent fabric fit her perfectly from her ankles to her wrists and was decorated with finely stitched, purple Godzillas wearing diamond masks that matched the mask Captain Major wore to protect her identity.

In the east, a shooting star blinked across the sky, then was gone. Just like shooting stars do. Captain Major drew on the ionic energy around her, gently forming the quanta of plasma into tiny balls. She likened the invisible, internal process to preparing chocolate chip cookies for the baking sheet, with less shortening. Though she could form the energy into any shape, she was best known for the twin falchions she preferred in battle. Tonight she idly shot plasma from her fingers in long, arcing streams of energy. Her sparks chased after the shooting stars in the distance, lasting but little longer as she gazed over her city while her mind and body came to comfortable rest.

Below her, the Printer Ink Repository slumbered gently between the First Federated National Bank of Metroville and Blingalingaling, Metroville’s premier jewelry and ring tone emporium serving those with more money than sense. Something about the van idling out front struck Captain Major as odd. Reflex urged her to call it in to CFJ HQ, but having parted from CFJ, no such call could take place. She danced across the gargoyles to take a better view.

The driver was nervously drumming the steering wheel with fingers wrapped in leather driving gloves. He was young, with a shaved head and a toothpick dangling from the corner of his mouth. His homages were all balled up — pieces of Statham and Diesel mixed with McQueen. But beneath the overt hardness Captain Major saw the blue t-shirt peaking up between his layers of open denim collars. John Schneider had sparked his calling. The other personas were the veneer he wore to protect his Hazzard heart.

The doors on the back of the van swung open with the slightest of squeaks. Three masked figures emerged. Two activated a hospital-style gurney, which sprung up on casters for easy maneuvering. The gurney driver tripped, then the wheels of the gurney got stuck in a sewer grate. The third carried an acetylene torch and a matchbook from Rock, Jock and Two Smoking Carols, a rough sports and karaoke bar near the abandoned Kmart that offered Christmas tunes all year round. Also, the waitresses were topless. The waiters would go bottomless, but only if you knew the password: “Guy Ritchie”.

At any rate, the second figure was wrestling to get the wheels out of the grate while the first tended to a badly scraped knee (he was a bit of a germophobe and extremely concerned about an infection being downtown and all). Acetylene guy tried to figure out how to strike a match while holding the torch between his knees. Their amateurishness suggested nothing but pawns intended to distract the police from a real crime taking place elsewhere at the same time. Knowing she had an early morning, Captain Major deftly shot a plasma bolt to explode the left front tire and called the clowns into the police before heading home.

She was blocks away wondering whether her flannel pajamas were clean when the sirens were close enough for the gargoyles to hear. Tragically, those PJs were still dirty.

 

Randy Major didn’t know what he was watching at first; a fairly common experience with Internet video. Someone had recorded something from downtown Metroville and posted it to one of Randy’s favorite discussion boards with the innocuous and unhelpful title, “U Must Watch This”. When Randy found the video, it had four fans and one comment: “Be shure to watch to the very eNd.”

Randy was barely paying attention as three masked figures exited the back of a van and proceeded to fall over themselves as they tried to break into a downtown Metroville storefront. It was amusing, sure, but despite all the clumsiness, no one took a shot in the face or the balls. Just a boring, stupid tease.

Then it happened. At the end of the video, a flash of navy that he recognized instantly. Captain Major was fleeing — FLEEING! — the scene. Instead of stopping a very serious crime, Captain Major was abandoning her duty, abandoning her city, to go somewhere else, her tail tucked between her legs, frightened even before a confrontation.

What the hell was wrong with her?

Randy immediately reblogged the video from his personal account, with a deep sense of his own duty:

 

This has to be the most disgusting scene I’ve ever witnessed. While her city sleeps all around her, the supposed hero known as Captain Major lies in wait for crime to happen, only to turn her back on the crime and her city. Like all bullies, she turns out to be a cowerd when she doesn’t have someone strong to protect her. Someone like Amazing Man or The Immortal, who have been true heroes for the city.

There can be no excuse for such behavior. If any man showed up for his job, then turned his back on it out of cowerdice or for any other reason, why he’d be fired in favor of a woman just like this who has neither a sense of duty or shame or responsibility. When the whim strikes, she attacks. Like a viper. When you least expect it. But when she doesn’t feel like it, she’s off into the night to go buy another pair of shoes or a looser sports bra.

It sickens me to the core to think that some people think of Captain Major as a hero. She’s the worst. She does nothing for the city or its inhabitense.

Let me be the first to say this: fuck her and every pretender like her, who takes the place of true heroes, heroes that kids one day used to look up to and now they look up and just see a bitch in a stuipd costume running away from a fight with a few bumbling crooks.

 

Finishing up, Randy immediately went to his minifridge for a beer. By the time he got back to his computer, he was ready for another one. In his short time as a single man, mostly without his kids, he had become very good at drinking many beers very quickly. Wishing to be efficient, Randy returned to the fridge, grabbed the rest of the six pack, and sat back at his computer, only to realize that he had to pee.

Finishing up from that, Randy sat back at his computer to find that his post had several comments that required moderation.

As an unpopular, neophyte blogger, Randy was accustomed to moderating comments. Over 98% of the comments on his site were spam. Either link spam, where the comment itself contained links back to a malware website, or name spam, where the comment was generic praise, but the commenter’s name was a link to a malware website. Randy, then, was thrilled to see that four of the six comments awaiting moderation were, in fact, from human beings. Human beings of the basest sort, but at least entities capable of possessing a soul. At least in theory.

Randy was flush with excitement. He immediately approved the comments and hurried to reply:

 

Hey, I appreciate allt he comments. Not to pat myself on the back to hard, but I think this is the best thing I’ve ever written maybe. Sometimes humor is the best way to take down powerful people. Glad everyone is getting a laugh! But I won’t be happy if we just laugh about this in our homes. We need to get out and take the fight to Captain Major. We can’t let her think that she’s beating us. We need to stand up, together, for together we are strongest. And that dumb bitch will understand that she can’t just pretend to be a hero when she wants to and then run off when she’s too scared to fight. We need to fight and fight and fight until Captain Major and all the other phonies understand that we’re not going to take it anymore.

Because I want to say this. If that store lost anything, that’s Captain Minor’s fault. She should have to pay that store to make up there losses. And if any cop gets injured by those criminals she let go away, then that’s on Captain Minor too. She failed to do her duty. So we must find out if any good cops got hurt because she’s a punk bitch and it’s on her.

I’ll just say one more thing. Captain Minor is a little pussy. Her name should be Labia Minor more like. And if she ever comes after me I’ll punch her write in the dick.

Sorry if I misspelled anything. I’m real angry and a little drunk.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Dee Major had so many things she should be doing that she gave up on all of them and went about cleaning her work space. She had been assigned to the same cubicle at Venn Diaphragms, Inc., for the last 16 months. A personal best for cubicle consistency in the fast-changing world of pressure-responsive rubber widgets.

Dee didn’t squeeze the trigger hard enough, so the whistle from the can of compressed air startled her and those nearby who weren’t wearing noise canceling headphones. Most of her co-workers wore headphones most of the time. The steady white noise they endured otherwise reminded them of waiting in a dentist’s office with a telemarketer.

Once Dee had the hang of the can of compressed air, she marveled at the distance she was able to achieve as she shot detritus from the spaces between the keys on her keyboard. At one point, she was fairly certain she saw a dime shoot out from between the T and the 6 and bounce under her desk. She descended to her knees to scope out the situation, but didn’t find anything silvery at all.

Instead, she found that the carpet was horrifyingly dirty. She moved her wastebasket aside and was shocked to see the difference in color between where her wastebasket normally sat and the carpet surrounding it. Dee was familiar with carpet fibers fading in bright light, but in this case the carpet all around her workstation had absorbed so much filth that it had shifted from grey to nearly black. Using her phone as a flashlight, Dee peered around the corner to see how Tom’s cube fared. His carpet was more orange than black, but then Tom loved his Cheetos.

Venn Diaphragms, in an aggressively short-sighted cost-cutting measure, had virtually abandoned all carpet cleaning activities. In early 2010, facilities management had planned to replace all the carpet by the end of the year. Since they were going to have to pull it up soon enough, it just made financial sense to let it absorb all the filth the employees could generate until carpet judgment day. When the facilities budget was further reduced during the mid-year planning session, the carpet replacement was deferred. The carpet cleaning was not restored, of course, because those savings had already been baked into the latest estimates for the current year fiscal plan.

The environment beneath her desktop was, on the whole, slightly less sanitary and safe than a fire-proof storage area in a condemned lead paint factory. Dee tried to brush some cobwebs away from the cords connecting the pieces of her work station together and felt ready to vomit when her fingers seemed to stick to the cords. Abandoning the proper shutdown procedure, Dee unplugged every cord, pulled the monitor away from the wall and sprayed all-purpose cleaner on everything until the bottle ran empty. Dee used an entire box of disposable wipes scrubbing the bits and bobs until they were clean enough not to haunt her nightmares.

Dee was using the last wipe to brush the grit from her slacks back onto the carpet and muttering to herself about how disgusting the whole thing was when her supervisor, Paula Dundas, appeared behind her with a polite reminder. Paula was always pageant ready-beautiful and her practiced smile made most news seem pleasant. Dee still couldn’t suppress the groan as Paula reminded her that the all-hands webcast was starting in a few minutes.

Dee looked at the state of her computer and asked if it was important. Paula assured her that it was terribly important, as well as mandatory. Dee didn’t get the chance to object further, for Paula was moving on down the aisle, checking on Tom, then Archer and the rest of the team to remind them to attend.

 

Despite reassembling her computer as quickly as she could, Dee was still several minutes late for the start of the webcast. Initially, she struggled to find the email announcement, buried as it was in her inbox below all the spam and special offers. Then she had trouble remembering her login for the webcast service. As it turned out, the password was the same as she used for the local network, but the username required that all employees insert the last letter of their first name into the middle of their network id. For their security vendor, it was a very convenient way to simulate double mega security for marketing purposes.

Dee bounced in in the middle of the gist which was described, excitedly, as an opportunity for Venn Diaphragms to expand into the lucrative market for supersonic aircraft which had, apparently, specific diaphragm needs for their air intake and cabin pressurization systems. Dee actually knew a lot about supersonic flight and the rationale didn’t make a lot of sense to her, but she decided to just go with the premise and hope for the best.

The best way to break into this market was to merge with an existing supplier. Technically, Venn Diaphragms would be absorbing Fast Airborne Supplies, but due to the relative size of the businesses, the decision had been made to combine the businesses into a new entity. In fact, the CEO of Fast Airborne Supplies, Michelle Bassfender, had already been named to lead the new entity, which would be called Fast Airborne Venn Diaphragms. The original name, Fast Airborne Venn Diaphragms and Supplies, was rejected for being stupid.

Bassfender’s first order of business as the new leader for Fast Airborne VD was to consolidate redundant services into new centerships for excellentness. The leader of the gaggle of centerships would be Venn Diaphragm’s CEO, Evan Venn-Trickle. Venn-Trickle was a descendant of NASCAR royalty who married into the diaphragm business after accidentally knocking up the scion of the Venn dynasty, Vivian Venn. Evan’s decision to join Vivian in taking both surnames upon marriage was strongly influenced by his desire to promote inequality among the potential successors to the VD helm. Venn-Trickle was very disappointed by the way Bassfender outmaneuvered him for leadership of the new conglomerate and had secretly, publicly, and redundantly announced his desire for revenge.

The gaggle of centerships for excellentness would unleash opportunities for diminishingment of redundancies impeding progress toward the unleashmenting of growth opportunities. It was only the super powers she obtained by swimming into a nuclear reactor to save a school bus full of children from lethal radiation exposure that prevented Dee Major, former English major, from suffering permanent damage to her cochlea and frontal lobe as she suffered through the continuing onslaught of nonsensical jargon.

 

Dee logged off when the webcast seemed like it was just about over. In fact, she logged off with twenty minutes left to go. That time was reserved, per tradition, to reward the middle managers who didn’t yet realize they had no real career prospects with the opportunity to either offer obsequious comments or ask fawning questions. Needless to say, the only thing Dee missed was the opportunity to fail to demonstrate her super-human patience, a trait she selfishly reserved for her children alone.

Despite the recommendation that everyone return to their normal work and wait for additional information from their leaders, Dee soon found herself in the usual position of being surrounded at her cubicle while her teammates griped about a change. But, she also found herself in the unusual position of being worried about how this change might affect her and her family.

Archer was the first to reach her cube. There was something to be said for the eagerness of youth. Archer was struggling with the realization that he was in his late 20s and no longer had much in common with the college students he lusted after. His prize possession was a heavily waxed mustache which he always referred to in the plural, rather than the singular, which is dumb. It was thick and black with a well-tempered sheen. His most immediate goal in life was to grow his bangs out long enough so that he could pin them back in a handsome man bun.

While he took pride in having a job that kept him in his own apartment, he certainly didn’t take it as seriously as the music reviews he authored for HayRide.com, which he wrote under the nom de rock of Roland Fingers. Archer was also the only person ever to flunk out of piano lessons for refusing to play the notes designated in the “puerile” treble clef. At the time he lodged his complaint, Archer didn’t know what the word meant. No harm done as he never bothered to learn the word or the piano.

“What division are we in?” Archer wanted to know.

“We’re called Operational Administration,” Dee explained. “But we’re not really operations and we’re not really administration.”

“Do you think we’re in danger of losing our jobs?”

“Because we’re redundant?” Dee asked. Archer nodded. “Honestly, if there’s anyone else who does what we do, I’d be stunned that they would admit it. We’re not redundant, Archer. We’re useless.”

Archer took this information in stride, matching, as it did, everything his parents had ever told him about himself. Also, he was adopted, but by mistake. He blinked a couple of times while he was processing.

“So what do we do?” he asked.

“We do what we’ve always done, just more of it, but with a lower profile,” Dee counseled. At the end of Dee’s thought, Winthorp wandered over to join the conversation. Winnie had been with the team the shortest amount of time. Her normally cherubic face was ashen with worry. Even younger than Archer, this was the only job Winnie had ever held. She had focused on schoolwork and extracurriculars in order to be accepted at colleges she couldn’t afford to attend. Once the pattern was in place, Winnie spent three years studying hard and filling her free time planning charity events. Her world caved in around her during her senior year, at which point she coasted to graduation on a sea of Southern Comfort only to land on the shores of the worst job market for college graduates in Metroville’s history. Without ever holding a paying job to that point in her life, she more or less had to take the first thing offered to her.

This was how Venn Diaphragms recruited all its best talent during the 2000s.

“Are you saying we should hide in plain sight?” Winthorp asked.

“I’m saying,” Dee paused to wonder what, exactly, she was saying. She guessed, and at some deeper level knew, that when she had the support of Confederated Justice, her job with VD, Inc. had always been protected. Without their influence, whether as shareholder or secret director, her job, and therefore all their jobs, was at a significant risk. Her instinct was to be reassuring; why encourage worry if there was nothing they could do to influence decisions that would be made far elsewhere? On the other hand, certainly there were things that could be done. Résumés could be polished, if nothing else, and they could maybe be first in line for some other dead-end job for another mediocre business. Maybe they could reinvent themselves on the fly and create some useful, greater purpose, or at least demonstrate just how efficient and valuable they could be. Her answers were so ambiguous and conflicting that she began to lose sight of the question.

Dee did the thing that sometimes made her love her job, because it was a thing she couldn’t do anywhere else in her life. She couldn’t do it as Captain Major and she couldn’t do as a mother. But as a worker bee for the newly minted Fast Airborne VD, she most certainly could. Dee Major gave up. She even refused to feel bad about it.

“I don’t know, Winnie,” Dee explained. “It’s probably something you should ask Paula. That’s why they pay her the big bucks.”

Winnie argued: “You know I’ll never get a straight answer out of Paula.”

“That assumes she knows something to tell,” Archer took the opposite point of view. “I bet she doesn’t have any better idea of what is going to happen than we do.”

“Hey, guys,” Kramer sidled over to escape the lonely terrors of his cubicle for a few moments. “What are you talking about?”

“The announcement,” Winnie explained.

“And whether we’ll still have jobs with Fast Airborne VD,” Archer continued.

“Was that today?” Kramer asked.

“Paula came over and reminded us right before it started,” Winnie reminded him.

“I guess I wasn’t listening,” Kramer shrugged.

Dee’s phone began to ring. “I’ve got to take this,” she explained before looking at the number. She turned her head and pressed a finger over her ear as she answered with a grateful, “Hello!” Her gratitude for the interruption immediately disappeared as she recognized the voice on the other end of the line. “It’s a really bad day for that,” she said into the phone. She listened for a few moments before noticing her three teammates were still hanging around her cubicle. She shooed them away with a wave of her hand. “Listen. Listen. Listen,” she said to someone who wasn’t listening. “Fine. Noon. I’ll be there at noon,” she agreed before wishing for a landline so she could put her whole shoulder into hanging up.

 

Dee Major, as Dee Major, had never been comfortable walking the halls of Confederated Justice’s regional headquarters in Metroville. She was always more comfortable as Captain Major. It gave her a sense of purpose and confidence that assuaged her concerns over not really belonging.

Captain Major didn’t belong, either. She was a hero, that much was true, but she wasn’t quite the right kind of hero. She did her thing, but she didn’t deliver in the ways that mattered most to CFJ. Her memorabilia, for example, was never a big seller and her web promos were fair to middlin’.

Also, she lacked balls. Not in a metaphorical sense. Confederated Justice was a man’s world where female super supers were mocked for their abilities and valued on two axes: the size of their breasts and their willingness to test the boundaries of bad taste in costuming.

Dee avoided eye contact as she walked the familiar halls, not expecting to see anything other than contempt and the confused looks of people trying to remember an old roommate’s name in a photo album. She kept her eyes on the floor to avoid disappointment.

Dean Panda, Captain Major’s former supervisor, was sitting impatiently inside the small conference room as Dee Major entered. He made a show of shuffling some papers after Dee seated herself, as if he had been right in the middle of something terribly more important when she arrived.

“Just as punctual as always,” Panda said once he felt stalling had reestablished his authority.

“Good to see you, too,” Dee replied. “Please tell me this is a joke so I can get back to my real job.”

“Yes, you still do work at Fast Airborne VD,” Panda mused. “Well. What’s the saying? Enjoy it while it lasts.”

“You terrify me,” Dee absently replied. “I thought they fired you right before I quit.”

“This isn’t about me,” Panda interjected. “I’ve been asked to conduct your six-month check in as your last supervisor at Confederated Justice.”

“But I quit.”

“Believe me, I almost wish you would have,” Panda smiled. “Your performance over the last six months has been just terrible. Truly awful. I’d say the absenteeism is the best part of your overall performance. Your justice metrics are as bad as I’ve ever seen.

“You’re the lowest rated super super on my team. I’m not supposed to say this, but you’re actually the lowest rated super super in the department. Lucky for Barry Ometer. Wielding the power of slight changes in air pressure. He’s a glorified oboe and half as smart.”

“Listen to me, Panda. I don’t work here anymore. Why the charade?”

“Oh, but you do work here,” Panda said. “You say that you quit, but you didn’t. The recordings clearly show that you were offered a different position, a different opportunity, and turned that down. You didn’t quit your old job, you just turned down a different one.”

“That’s not true at all. You paid me severance.”

“That was a bonus, for helping The Immortal save the city,” Panda said.

“I returned my equipment,” Dee argued.

“All of it?” Panda asked while scratching his head.

“Everything I could find,” Dee responded. “How can you pretend like you think I still work here when you haven’t been paying me?”

“If you’re not getting paid, that’s the first you’ve told me about it,” Panda said.

“You think if I contact finance they’ll send me back pay? Let’s call them now. I won’t say no to a check.”

“I suspect you will not be getting a check,” Panda resumed his air of confidence. “You’re definitely on the do-not-pay list. You’ve been expunged from the payroll system.”

“Then why,” Dee took a deep breath to keep from strangling the functionary in the manner he deserved, “am I here for a mid-year review?”

“Payroll and performance have different systems,” Panda said. “You’re still in our performance systems. You’re actually quite valuable to me, even though the terribleness of your recent performance has been very taxing on the reporting subroutines.”

“Why,” Dee repeated to herself, “bring me here?” The air about her glowed as she subconsciously gathered the ionic energy around them and charged it within her body.

“As I say…” Panda started to reply, but Dee shushed him, murmuring, “Let me think.”

She knew there was no reason for this. No apparent reason anyway. It was petty and ridiculous, which was Confederated Justice’s bureaucratic raison d’etre. This, however, had required extra and specific effort. She wasn’t special enough to Panda that tormenting her would be a special treat. He could torment dozens of others at the drop of a hat, with far more effectiveness. She recalled her last performance review, though few others would. Panda would recall that Amazing Man interrupted the review before it got very far. Dee recalled the first review, where she accidentally released an electromagnetic pulse that wiped out data throughout the building. An accident serious enough that Staphon Clork, CFJ regional manager, had sent Amazing Man back in time to stop the performance review from happening.

Dee got up. “We’re not finished,” Panda insisted.

“We’re finished,” Dee assured him. “We know I quit and it’s pointless to pretend otherwise. Don’t summon me again unless it’s to apologize.” She walked to the door, turned and finished her thought: “Apologize properly. With cake.”

Dee released a deep breath as she exited the room and began to walk down the hall and toward the exit. Something was amiss, but as long as she kept to herself, chances are it would go away. She smiled reflexively at the guard who took her visitor’s badge and signed her through the security door.

“Thanks,” Dee said.

“No, Captain Major. Thank you,” the guard said. He smiled genuinely and gratefully. Then darted his eyes left and right before putting his head back to his work as if she had already disappeared.

 

Dee Major’s thrill at reaching her comfortable home lasted all the way from her car to the living room, where the state of the room seemed a perfect cap to her lousy second day of school.

Though the room had been in decent shape when she left for work in the morning — decent being a relative term for everyone, but for Dee it meant that in an emergency she could shove all the extra clutter from the living room into a single closet and that there was nothing growing in the guest bathroom — it was a disaster as she returned from work. Not as bad as Middling Park after The Immortal’s battle with Amazing Man, but a close second in Metroville history. The kids had managed to remove every dish from the cupboards, dirty each dish in whole or in part and balance them all in precarious stacks on every flat surface of the living room save the floor itself. The floor was covered with colored pencil shavings, as if a gerbil and a hamster had a sharpening contest in an art supply store on Fleet Street. But the center piece of the awfulness was a stack of half-wrapped chocolates melting in the living room carpet.

Dee was nothing short of furious when Lou bounded down the stairs and loped past her into the kitchen. She called over to him, not ready to risk walking across the living room just yet.

“Lou?”

He didn’t answer, so she raised her voice.

“Lou? Lou?!”

His head didn’t budge from the fridge, where he was rooting around for yet another snack. Dee shouted, “LOU!”

“God, mom. Take a pill.”

“What happened in here?”

“I dunno,” he said. “Must have been Leigh.”

“Your sister did all of this?”

“Yep. Think so.”

“None of it is your mess?”

“Nope.”

“Not the chocolate?”

“Not mine.”

“Not the colored pencil shavings?”

“I don’t ever use colored pencils.”

“And none of these dishes are yours?” Dee gestured broadly at the stacks of dishes scattered about the room.

“I guess some of them are mine,” Lou conceded.

“Will you pick them up please?”

“Sure, after my snack.”

“No, pick up your dishes and bring them to the kitchen. Now.” Dee demanded.

“Whatever, mom. Jesus.”

Lou walked to the closest pile of dishes. He examined the individual dishes carefully. He took a plate, which supported a bowl with a few Lucky Charms floating in a puddle of pink-gray milk, as well as a two forks and knife, and lifted it off the short glass beneath it. He took the glass, set the plate, bowl and flatware down and returned the glass to the kitchen.

Dee put her fists on her hips and shook her head. “Really?”

“Yeah,” Lou said. “Oh, also, I invited the cross country team over Friday night for spaghetti dinner. We have to feed the team before the meet on Saturday.”

“No,” Dee said. “I can’t have them all over on Friday. Another day, Lou. I don’t have time to get ready.”

“It’s spaghetti, mom. Not a chocolate fountain or whatever. Pasta, pasta sauce and milk. It’s like fifteen minutes at the grocery store and then you boil some water.”

“It’s more than that, Lou,” Dee began to explain. “But you have to ask before you invite the entire team over to the house. I need to agree to that in advance. Plus, we’re not set up to do that. We don’t really have enough room.”

“I bet dad says he has enough room,” Lou said before storming back upstairs.

“That went well,” Dee said to herself when the room was her own. She looked around her. Despite her fervent hope, the room was still a disaster. She gave up, vowing to deal with the mess after she ate. But she wasn’t feeling up to having something to eat until she had something to drink.

She tippled herself a glass of Flapping Cape Red Wine and tried to relax while thinking about what ingredients she might be able to throw together to make a semblance of real meal. She was about to give up and order Thai food for the family when Leigh floated through the room.

“What can you tell me about the disaster in the living room?” Dee asked.

“I thought Lou was in his room?”

“Ha ha, Leigh. The dishes, the pencil shavings. The chocolate mountain. All that?”

“That’s not mine,” Leigh said. “Lou did that.”

“He said it was your mess,” Dee said.

“And you believed him?” Leigh relaxed into the favorite part of her indignant stance.

“You just go and clean up what’s yours. Please,” Dee said.

“While you clean up that box of wine?” Leigh asked.

“We’re all doing our part,” Dee tried to sound bright and cheerful despite anticipating the whirlwind of ass-thrashing she would have to undertake to actually get the living room cleaned up. She didn’t need a nanny. She needed an foreman. Or a Pharaoh.

Leigh left the kitchen for a few minutes. She came back with a glass and a spoon, which she set in the sink before walking away. Dee finished her glass of wine, filled it half-way, then walked back through the disastrous living room to find Leigh, who was using the laptop in the office.

“What was that?” Dee asked.

“I made myself chocolate milk before,” Leigh explained. “Those were my dishes.”

“And everything else?”

“It must be Lou’s.”

“Really?”

“Yes, mom, really. Did you look? I trashed all the spammers and finished an adventure right for you. You have three decent matches. I think you should go out with all of them.”

Dee walked over to the laptop to see the results. The pictures were acceptable if not promising. She vowed to read their character sheets later. “That’s not important now. First, don’t use my account without asking. Actually, don’t use my account ever. Second, I need you to clean up your part of the living room before I lose my flippin’ mind.”

Lou walked out of his way so that he could storm past the door to the office and heave an exasperated sigh. When no one noticed, he stormed and sighed louder. He was momentarily satisfied when Dee reacted.

“What’s going on, Lou?” she asked.

“Dad says he won’t have the team over Friday, either.”

“I’m sorry, dear,” Dee commiserated. “It’s hard on such short notice. And neither one of us really have enough room.”

“We’ve got more room since Dad left.”

“I’d be willing to talk about having the team over later in the season. When I have some notice.”

Lou didn’t respond. He glared. At the floor. At the wall. At his mom’s shoes.

“How about we go for a run Sunday morning? We could go to the track together, run some intervals.”

“Sorry, mom, there’s not enough room at the track for me and you and your notice.”

Lou stormed to the kitchen where he banged all the cabinet doors, pretending to look for something to eat.

“Come with me,” Dee ordered Leigh. She led her into the living room. “Stay here. Don’t move.”

Dee moved on to the kitchen. Lou was elbow deep into a bag of potato chips. “Put the bag down,” she said. Lou slowly nibbled at the chips in his hand, otherwise not moving. “Now,” Dee demanded. Lou, as slowly as he could, set the bag down and began to languidly lick the salt and vinegar from his fingers. “Follow me,” Dee growled.

Lou followed at a snail’s pace. As soon as he entered the living room, Dee erupted. “This is not okay. This room would let protective services place you in foster care. Lou, you want to have the team over when the house looks like this? You both need to show some responsibility. Look at this,” she pointed at the pencil shavings. “Who was sharpening pencils?”

Neither child was willing to accept responsibility. “Leigh, were you sharpening pencils today?”

“Maybe,” Leigh offered.

“And did you spill the sharpener?”

“Maybe.”

“And did the shavings fall all over the carpet?”

“I guess. But it wasn’t my fault.”

“Are you four? Never mind. Don’t answer that. I don’t care if it was a cruel twist of fate that no one could have predicted. It happened. It needs to be cleaned up. Get the vacuum from the closet, plug it in, and vacuum up all the shavings.”

Lou smiled and Leigh shot him a look. “Have fun cleaning up your chocolate pile,” Leigh said.

“Are these your chocolates?” Dee asked.

“Yes,” Lou admitted.

“Then why did you say they weren’t yours before?”

“I thought you meant different chocolates.”

“What? What different?” Dee stammered. She clapped her hands over her face and shook her head until she felt ready to continue. “Okay, here’s what you’re going to do.” Leigh began to vacuum and Dee raised her voice to be heard over the electric motor. “You’re going to pick up all the chocolate and all the wrappers. Then wipe everything up with a wet rag. Then, then, spray the carpet with the carpet cleaner and scrub it. When you’ve done that, you need a clean, wet rag to soak up all the cleaner.”

Dee looked from kid to kid. Neither was looking back at her. Leigh maneuvered the vacuum head like it was a cobra trying to strike a mongoose made of pencil shavings. Lou was picking up the chocolate with dainty fingers, like a proper English lady picking good crumpets for those what gone bad. Dee walked to the wall and unplugged the vacuum from the outlet. Leigh turned on her as the vacuum whined to a stop.

“I thought you wanted me to vacuum!” Leigh snotted.

“And finally,” Dee ignored her and continued in a voice full of quiet menace, “when you’ve done all that, you will both work together to get all these dirty dishes into the kitchen. Carry them one at a time if you like, but neither one of you is doing anything else until you’ve remediated this before the EPA has to.

“And while you do that, I will be checking the school’s website for any assignments you need to be working on tonight.”

“We’re not babies, mom,” Lou yelled.

“Then act like it, Lou,” Dee replied.

“You act like it,” Leigh rallied to Lou’s side. “You’re not making any sense. First you tell me to vacuum, then you unplug the vacuum. On what planet does that make sense?”

“Just get this done,” Dee said. “Do what I’m asking, no more arguing, and get this done.”

Dee walked away. As she entered the office she noticed the small sparks of energy riding along each time she took a breath. She slowly relaxed, gently releasing ionic energy back into the atmosphere. She felt ashamed.

When she was neutral again, she turned to her computer. She confirmed very quickly that neither child had any missing homework. Or, if missing, not logged in the school tracking system. She switched back to the tab with her profile and skimmed through the new matches. She accepted all of them and even requested dates. If she could handle nonsense this, a few random dates should be a breeze.

  • CHAPTER TWO*

Friday, September 9, 2011

The staff at Romano Aviano were encouraged to wear a mustache and required to keep it neatly trimmed. There’s nothing quite so gross as a booger hammock. Diners even preferred mustache hair in the risotto to facial hair nets, though health inspectors disagreed. Staff were also reminded, repeatedly, not to think about the name of the restaurant. It sounded nice, and that was enough to bring in the swell kids looking for Italian food without endless bread sticks. If you hungered for chicken Marsala and knew that Chianti starts with a “kuh”, you headed to Romano Aviano. If you hungered as well for love, you requested a booth in the back.

Dee Major was wearing a stunning black dress that Amy would have bought for her if she knew that Dee was on her first date of the decade. As a result, she felt more exposed than in any Danger Room session as Jordano escorted her directly to a booth in the back. She was pleased to find her date for the evening waiting for her in a romantic booth with a yellow candle flickering on the table and a framed dollar bill hanging on the wall.

Dee didn’t get out much, but she could tell from the shade of red on all the booths and the absence of paper place mats featuring maps of Italy that her date had picked a classy (enough) place.

“Thanks, Jordano,” her date said as he rose to greet her at the table. “Another glass of red for me, if you please. Something for you, Dee?” he asked.

“I’ll need a minute,” Dee apologized. She loved wine, but she specialized in cheap wine. Ordering wine in a restaurant made her feel judged. Paying for wine in a restaurant made her feel poor. At least sliding into the high-backed booth brought her a sense of security. If nothing else, she was safe from Hail Mary, the villain who only attacked from behind. She was hanging out in Wisconsin a lot these days and so miles away from Metroville, anyway. The gentle lighting made her feel less anxious about the neckline of her dress, so that was another plus.

Dee raised her hand just above the table to catch the waiter’s eye before he could leave. “I would love a glass of water,” she smiled. Jordano bowed his head and scurried on his way. Her date, Stefan, saluted her with the last drops of his glass: “Let our adventure begin!”

Dee forced a smile before turning her attention to the menu. She quickly settled on the scallops. Scallops and butter and noodles. What more could a woman ask for? In answer to her question, she peeked over her menu at her date: Stefan. Stefan Something. She couldn’t remember the last name, but it had certainly seemed memorable when she first read it. It was something like a Bond villain, but not the juvenile villainess names. It wasn’t Scaramanga or Cowabunga, but it was close.

For the moment, then, he would just be Stefan. Stefan, for the moment, was not looking at his menu, not at all.

“Make up your mind?” Dee asked.

“I’ll be having the usual.” As Stefan replied he tapped a finger like he was indicating where to make an incision for a tracheotomy. He let his index finger slide through the unbuttoned buttons of his gray Oxford to check whether his chest hair had come in yet. It hadn’t. Dee wondered again how old he was.

“And what’s that?” she asked.

“Oh, it’s not on the menu,” Stefan breezed. “Something the chef,” he waved toward where the kitchen might be, holding his hand as if it cradled a slowly burning unfiltered cigarette as gently as a pamphlet of unpublished French poetry, “and I came up with together. He’s the talent, of course, but I have a special tongue.” Contrary to his affectation, Stefan had never smoked an unfiltered cigarette and could read neither French nor poetry. The only cigarette he had ever smoked was a menthol, which left him violently ill.

Dee couldn’t decide if he was gross or nervous or lampooning bad first dates to ease the tension. She wanted desperately to give him the benefit of the doubt. It had been nearly 20 years since her last first date. Much, she was sure, had changed.

Jordano returned with the water and wine. Stefan swirled the wine gently in his glass while caressing the heat above the candle with his free hand.

“Were you ready to order?” Jordano asked.

“The lady will have the…” Stefan prefaced Dee’s order.

“Scallops, please,” Dee said. “With the salad. No croutons, house dressing.”

“Very nice,” Stefan complimented. “And I’ll have the usual.”

“I’m so sorry, sir,” Jordano replied. “We’re out of the veal. Perhaps you’d like the special?”

Stefan never flinched from his smile, but Dee could hear the pinched sigh as he slowly released it between his teeth.

“Why didn’t you tell me that earlier?” Stefan demanded.

“We’ve only just run out,” Jordano explained. He hunched forward in an apologetic bow each time he spoke.

“Why didn’t you hold the veal,” Stefan asked. “For a loyal patron?”

“I’m sorry, sir,” Jordano’s forehead was nearing the edge of the table from the bowing at this point. “Chef’s policy is to serve in the order of the, well, ordering.”

Chef’s name, in fact, was Larry. Hence, he insisted everyone call him Chef.

“Perhaps Chef’s policy should be to have enough veal on hand on a Friday night.”

“I’m sure Chef is full of regret. He suggests the special, sir, which are lamb cutlets with rosemary, quite delicious, and a perfect match for your wine.”

Dee began to be impressed with the flexibility of Jordano’s hamstrings. She thought again about signing up for a hot yoga class. Maybe Jordano could recommend a good teacher. She tilted her head to check whether he was bending his knees, but there was no way for her to be certain due to the loose cut of his black slacks.

“I’ll be the judge of the pairing,” Stefan said. “I will have the ‘special’. Remind Chef…well, never mind. I’m sure he appreciates my disappointment.”

“Very good, sir,” Jordano slowly straightened up. Dee flinched as he nearly banged the back of his head on the underside of the table. He took the menus and turned to take his leave.

“Oh!” Dee called as Jordano was about to make good his escape. He didn’t seem to hear, so Stefan gathered his attention with two snaps of his fingers and a curt tone: “Jordano! The lady.”

“Could I trouble you for a Manhattan?” Dee asked.

“Certainly. Do you have a whiskey preference?” Jordano inquired.

“Yes, lots,” Dee joked.

Jordano smiled and paused before explaining his question. Dee interrupted him: “No, whatever you have is fine.”

“Old Portrero, Jordano,” Stefan interjected. To Dee he sent his assurance: “You’ll love this. It’s the perfect rye for a Manhattan.”

“I’m not fancy. Good enough is good enough for me,” Dee replied.

“Here’s hoping the whiskey, and I, will exceed your expectations,” Stefan toasted.

 

Dee was done with her scallops long before Stefan had even decided whether he liked his cutlets. He certainly savored every bite, like he was examining the meat for clues to a decades-old mouth crime. The only notable mouth criminal in Metroville history was the Palette. He was an unsavory character with a short-lived career. He was soft and investigations into his schemes were always open and shut cases. Captain Major had never encountered him, though Dee thought back to his dossier while she watched Stefan chew. She expected to be infuriated with his pace, but instead found that she was amused, at least at first. She grew bored after recognizing that Stefan was not a most curious creature; Lewis Carroll might have created him had a deadline been looming with the apothecary lacking laudanum.

Stefan paused between bites to let his tongue investigate something new. “Do you date many younger men?” he asked.

“To tell the truth,” Dee said. “This is the first proper date I’ve been on in a long time.”

“How long?”

“Years,” Dee replied.

“Sometimes something new can be a wonderful experience,” Stefan took another small bite, studied it with the same intensity as every other bite and then pushed his plate an inch away but with portentous finality. Jordano hurried over to clear it.

“How were the cutlets, sir?” Jordano asked.

“Not to my liking,” Stefan replied.

“I am sorry to hear that, sir,” Jordano effused. “May I offer you the Moscato d’Asti with the Chef’s compliments? Perhaps with tiramisu?”

“That would be satisfactory, Jordano,” Stefan offered his grace.

“It’ll be right out,” Jordano left his assurance and flitted for the kitchen or the bar or wherever he needed to go. Dee felt guilty for Jordano’s obsequious service and was simply glad whenever he was allowed to leave the table. Stefan had already turned his full attention back to Dee.

“The tiramisu here is absolutely stunning,” he said.

“I’m sure I could be tempted,” Dee agreed.

The wine and tiramisu arrived a few minutes later. Stefan sipped at his wine approvingly, but didn’t touch his dessert fork.

“This is delicious,” Dee mentioned. “Please, have some. It’ll embarrass me if I finish this all by myself.”

“Thank you, but I prefer to stay a little hungry for what comes next,” Stefan’s voice trailed down a husky half octave as he spoke.

“And what’s next?” Dee met his leer with skepticism.

“We’ll have to wait and see,” Stefan said. “The night is young. We’ve got half a bottle of wine and a great opportunity to get to know each other better.”

“You might want to temper your expectations,” Dee cautioned.

“Come, now,” Stefan chided. “We’re adults. We see what’s happening here. A woman of your age with a much younger man. I’m not embarrassed that you want me for my young, fit body. I’ve read this tale before: I know well how this hunt ends.”

“Tell me,” Dee said.

“We thirst, we drink. We hunger, we eat. We hunger — well, we hunger more deeply. I’m here to satisfy your hunger.”

“Are you real?” Dee wanted to poke him with a stick. A pointy stick that would reach from another table.

Stefan nodded slowly with a steady, lecherous smirk.

“I promise that I will not be having sex with you,” Dee replied.

“Let’s not foreclose any possibilities. Let whatever comes, come in its due time.”

Dee set her fork down and licked the chocolate from the the insides of her teeth. She appraised Stefan, with his neatly trimmed goatee and his long brown hair slicked back like a boring, greasy Sonic the Hedgehog. Stefan, unsurprisingly, did not know when to quit.

“You’re confident. I like that about older women,” Stefan said.

“I’m barely 40,” Dee said.

“And you don’t look a day over 32.”

“You have no idea what 32 looks like,” Dee said. “What being an adult looks like.”

“Show me,” Stefan said.

“Where? The bathroom? The backseat of your Honda Fit?”

“I’m not here to judge you,” Stefan soothed. “Maybe you like it in the bathroom or want to do it in my Fit backseat. Like I say, I’m here to satisfy your every desire.”

“My desires are none of your business. But they most definitely do not include sleazy, skinny rude boys,” Dee wiped the corners of her mouth and dropped her napkin over the dessert plate.

“How do you know until you try?” Stefan asked.

“You remind me of a charmless Kevin Smith,” Dee shook her head.

“Who’s that?”

“He makes movies. Has a beard. A little skeezy.”

“You into mustache rides?” Stefan outlined the contours of his mouth with fingers. “I know one with an inverted corkscrew.”

“Let’s get the check,” Dee said. She raised a hand toward Jordano. “I’m going home. Alone.”

“I’ll drive you,” Stefan.

“No, thank you,” Dee replied.

“Oh, come on, Dee. What’s the matter? I can see you’re a cougar on the prowl. I’m just letting you know that I’m the kind of prey you don’t have to hunt. I’ll lay right down for you.”

“Maybe I had too much tiramisu, but everything you say is making me feel a little bit sick,” Dee said. She stood to take the bill as Jordano dropped it off.

“Thanks, Jordano,” she muttered as she looked over the bill.

“It’s just Jordan,” he whispered.

Dee shared a silent laugh with Jordan while she divided the check. “Criminey, how many glasses of wine did you have? You get here at lunch?”

“I’ve got this, Dee,” Stefan said. “I’ll get this, you can get us a night cap at the bar. We’ll leave as friends.”

“Counter offer: I pay for my dinner and we’ll do our best to never see one another again.”

Dee dropped four twenty dollar bills onto the table. She remembered the electric bill coming up and folded one of the bills back into her purse before grabbing her jacket and heading for the door. With her jacket on and her purse over her shoulder, she felt her phone vibrating. She stopped to check the alert when she reached the entryway. Someone — and it wasn’t had to guess whom — had sent her messages on Choose Your Own Companion.

She scrolled through the messages, deleting them as she went. He wasn’t much for spelling, but he certainly typed quickly. By the time she reached the fifth message calling her a cold bitch, a cock tease, a whore and worse, she changed her mind and stormed back to the table. She grabbed Stefan by his skinny silk tie and pulled him as close to standing as she could while he remained in the booth.

“If you ever message me again, wanker, I’ll…”

“You’ll what?” Stefan smirked.

“You’ll regret it,” Dee said. She remembered his last name and dropped it as a parting threat, despite the fact that it sounded like a Pokémon. “Salachanga.” She let go of his tie and he slumped back into the booth. He poured himself the rest of the Moscato as Dee walked back toward the exit, her car and her home. She felt her phone vibrate before she reached the door and again before the crease from the edge of the table faded from Stefan’s pants. She turned her phone off when she reached the car and drove home wondering what she would do if Stefan didn’t stop.

 

Leigh Major was the first to greet Dee as she came home. She was smiling from ear to ear, full of questions and demanding answers.

“How was it? How was he? Is he going to be my new dad?” Leigh asked.

“The food was fine. He was a dud. And, no,” Dee replied.

“Was he gross? Did he have a tail?” Leigh asked.

“A tail?” Dee asked. “No, he didn’t have a tail. But he was awful. Someone should send him to Peru without a toothbrush.”

“Tell me all about it,” Leigh urged.

“Please don’t,” Lou called from the kitchen. “I’m trying to do homework.”

Dee begged Leigh for a moment of peace as she hung up her jacket and made her way into the kitchen. “What are you working on, honey?” she asked.

“I told you. Homework,” Lou replied icily.

“What kind of homework?” Dee asked.

“It’s an essay,” Lou said.

“Do you need any help?” Dee offered.

“No, I just need quiet so that I can concentrate,” Lou said.

“Okay. Well. If you need absolute quiet, you can use the office or your room. If you’re going to be in the kitchen, then we’ll be as quiet as we can. But we can’t be silent.”

Lou didn’t respond. He stared at his textbook and tapped his eraser on its pages. Dee excused herself upstairs. She took a quick shower to wash the Salachanga off and was changing into her soft clothes when she heard a rap on her bedroom door.

“Can I come in?” Leigh’s voice called quietly through the hollow door.

“Yes,” Dee invited Leigh to join her. They sat together on Dee’s bed.

“Is it bad that I don’t miss dad?” Leigh asked.

“Probably,” Dee said. “But you just had a long holiday weekend with him. So maybe not so very bad today.”

“Why can’t we all be happy at the same time?” Leigh asked.

“Jeez, kid,” Dee said. She gave her daughter a side hug. “I don’t know, but I’m glad that’s what you want.”

Dee sat quietly, peeking from time to time at her daughter. She was fourteen and showing the blossoms of wisdom as she became an adult.

“You know the famous Copacabana scene from Goodfellas?” Dee asked.

“I literally have no idea what any of the words in that sentence even mean,” Leigh replied. “God, mom. Do you even speak English?”

Dee laughed and rubbed her eyes. She realized how tired she was and ready for a good, long sleep. “Well, it’s the famous scene with lots of movement but no cuts,” Dee explained.

“Wait, mom. Are you crying?” Leigh asked.

“No,” Dee said. “I guess my eyes are just a little watery.”

“Yeah, that’s called crying, ya weirdo. The cocaine and bananas scene must be very sad.”

“I’m not crying!” Dee raised her voice in mock outrage. “I’m explaining, ya boob. In the movie, Henry Hill takes Karen for a date at the Copacabana and she’s all impressed because he’s a big shot. My date tonight was pretending to be a low-rent version of that. Of course, when the date was over, I felt more like the part where Joe Pesci comes back to the bar to beat that old guy to death. ”

“So, like a bad fan edit on an old person’s YouTube channel?” Leigh asked.

“I literally have no idea what any of the words in that sentence even mean,” Dee replied.

“It means your face is about to have an accident,” Leigh squeaked.

“An accident?” Dee wondered.

Leigh grabbed a pillow from the head of the bed and whipped it around, catching Dee squarely in the face which a heavy whoompf. “Get your shine box!” Dee yelled before answering with a thudding pillow slam of her own, catching Leigh in the shoulder blade with enough force to tip her off the bed.

In the kitchen below, Lou heard the thud of Leigh falling from the mattress to the floor and cursed softly. He put his paper away and started looking at his trigonometry notes. Nothing made sense as he listened to the laughter and heavy footfalls from upstairs. He slipped his ear buds in and turned his music up until he couldn’t hear the sounds of fun.

“Do you give?” Leigh demanded as she stood over her mother. She had both pillows now, one at her side, the other cocked behind her shoulder, ready to strike.

“I give, I give,” Dee said. “Mercy. No more. Bully.”

“Yes! Now, I am the queen of the house. And I decree that you shall make me macaroni and cheese.”

“Shells or regular?” Dee asked.

“Only the shells are fit for a queen!” Leigh dictated. “They complement my crown.”

“Yes, your highness,” Dee replied. “But don’t stand on my bed.” She rolled herself slowly off the bed, straightened her clothes and walked downstairs. She found Lou bent over his homework.

“Do you want macaroni and cheese?” she asked.

Lou didn’t answer. In the quiet after she filled the pot with water, she heard the rumblings of his headphones. She tapped him on the shoulder to get his attention. “I’m making macaroni and cheese for your sister. Do you want any?” she asked when he looked up at her. He scowled and shook his head.

Dee noticed that Lou was nearly motionless as she prepared the box of macaroni and cheese. She unloaded the dishwasher while she was waiting for the water boil, and he didn’t move. She loaded the dishwasher and cleaned the sink while she waited for the noodles to cook, and he didn’t move. He stayed still, a pencil in his right hand, his left hand balled up into a fist and his head bent far forward as if he had fallen asleep. She was draining the noodles when he finally moved. He turned his head so that he was nearly facing her, but not quite.

“The Internet is broken,” he said.

“Really? I didn’t realize you were using it.”

“I’m not,” Lou explained. “Because it’s broken. But I need to, because this homework is impossible and I don’t understand it.”

“Did you check the router?” Dee asked. “Maybe it needs to be reset.”

“I don’t have time to do that, mom! I’m trying to do my homework.”

“There’s no need to yell, Lou. Just calm down. It’s only Friday, for heaven’s sake. Nothing is due tomorrow. I’ll check the router as soon as I’m done making this.”

“But I need to look this up now,” Lou whined.

“Then reset the router yourself. You know how to do that. Or wait two minutes and I’ll do it. Either way, as soon as I set this down, I can help you.”

“You never know the right way to do math. It’s all different now,” Lou complained.

Surprisingly, math was different. From Pythagoras to Stand and Deliver, math was more or less the same. But by the time Lou was in sixth grade, the kids had to get the right answer, in the right way, and explain how they felt about it. The extra layer of abstraction surely served some pedagogical purpose, but when Dee was called in at the last minute to recite the quadratic equation for the first time in 20 years, pulling plus or minus the square root of B squared minus four AC from her butt seemed like accomplishment enough without having to write a one act about why it worked.

“Why don’t you take a break,” Dee urged. “You seem really tense right now and it’s hard to learn when you’re feeling tense.”

“I need to do this now, mom, because I have a meet tomorrow and you always yell at me if my homework isn’t done by Sunday, so I guess I’ll just have to reset the router myself like I have to do everything myself these days!”

With that Lou slammed his books shut, snapping a pencil in half in the process. He scooped his books and papers into his ratty backpack and jerked the heavy load off the counter, knocking a half-full glass of milk onto the floor in the process.

“Lou!” Dee called after him as he marched toward the router. He ignored her as he unplugged the router and counted to ten. “Lou!” Dee yelled. He turned away from her and glared at the corner, daring it to aggravate him. Fortunately, the corner knew to hide behind a spiderweb rather than engage. “You need to clean this up, Lou. Now.”

Lou plugged the router back in and stomped up each stair on the way to his room.

“And don’t slam your door,” Dee muttered to herself as Lou slammed his door hard enough to bounce pictures off the wall in his room.

Dee stood. She looked at the blue plastic cup that had bounced and rolled most of the way to the living room after leaving a pool of milk on the kitchen floor. “I am aces with men,” she said to herself as she thought about rescuing a dog. Spilled milk is a delight for a dog. Resignedly, she decided it would be best if she cleaned up the milk rather than let it fester on the linoleum until Lou calmed down.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The drizzle was mostly a steady mist, only allowing itself to be interrupted for interludes of a heavy, spitting rain that rang noisily off the puddles that covered the course at Amazing Man Regional Park, host facility for the annual Metroville invitational cross country meet. The spectators hunched together in the few high spots where the ground wasn’t completely saturated. Little brothers in bright yellow rain jackets with matching boots and red hats splashed in the biggest puddles near the playground equipment that was built to resemble Amazing Man’s famous Solar of Fortitude. Their parents were distracted by the second pack of runners who were chasing 100 meters behind the leaders at the first kilometer mark in the five kilometer race. Dee Major smiled as one little boy lost his boot in the suck of the mud at the bottom of the puddle, then immediately turned back to watch Lou Major running hard in the middle of the second pack.

Leigh Major shuddered as she huddled beneath her mom’s umbrella, wondering how a September morning could be so cold and if it would ever stop raining. She stared off into the distance, looking numbly at the faces on the other side of the course without seeing any of them. Her lack of focus was suddenly interrupted by Dee’s shrill shouts of encouragement as Lou reached hearing distance.

“Go, Lou!” she yelled. “Goooooo, Looouuuuu!”

Leigh elbowed her mom in the ribs and gasped, “Mom!” out of sheer embarrassment. Dee’s cheering continued unabated. “Catch ‘em, Lou! Run ‘em down! Go get ‘em, go get ‘em, go get ‘em!”

Lou tried to break from his pack, but found himself boxed in on all sides. He tried to shoulder forward, but teammates from Metroville Southeast, bitter rivals to Lou and the other Panthers, yielded him no room. He tried to break to the outside around the gentle turn leading up to the first kilometer marker, but misjudged his steps and stumbled through a puddle. He bumped the runner next to him and they both nearly went down in a tumble. Each kept his balance as Lou finally won his escape from his mother’s encouragement.

Five minutes later, Lou had faded far enough behind the second group that he lost contact with them. He struggled to find his own pace through the wooded course. He turned his focus to his calves at the halfway point. They felt tired and tight from the extra effort of lifting his feet from the muck and keeping his balance through slippery turns. Lou focused on picking his feet up and putting them down as efficiently as possible. He checked in with his lungs to assure himself that his wind was still strong even if his feet were failing him now.

He was on the precipice of that peaceful point of concentration where all that’s left is the running, where the focus, will and expectation work together and the miles slide backward like special memories blindly forgotten, when he heard his name being yelled from up ahead. His mom, soaked and alone, stood just off a narrowing in the course, cheering loudly just for him.

Lou stared down at the path one stride in front of him as her words grew louder in the approach. He ignored her as best he could and refused to look in her direction. Soon he knew he had to be past her, but her voice refused to fade. He shot a glance toward her voice. She was following him, running easily where he was pushing himself to his limit. His heart was thumping from effort and anger. He glared at her, deepening his darkest scowl. She slowed, but didn’t stop, and continued to clap and cheer. His temper burst. “No pacing!” he yelled.

Dee pulled up short. She wasn’t sure what Lou meant, but took his meaning. She stopped her feet and clapped in place. Lou continued on, listening only to the slapping of two chilly hands fading into the damp woods.

Lou ran the rest of his race in peace, though not in solitude. Despite his best efforts, his pace kept slowing over the second half of the course. Small packs of runners overtook him every 30 seconds or so. He was fading fast when a teammate passed him on the right. It was Dmitri Medvedev Chlenovich, the Russian exchange student. He was running in his knee-high gray socks with his stupid-looking old-school knock-off 1980s Adidas. He seemed a nice kid, but something about his face rubbed Lou the wrong way.

Khorosho,” Dmitri panted as he passed.

Lou didn’t know the word, but could tell it was meant to be encouraging. It annoyed him. “Just run, DMC,” he muttered back as Dmitri left him behind.

Lou saw the finish line at the bottom of a gentle decline and reached deep for any energy he could muster. He drew neck-and-neck with Dmitri before Dmitri took note. At first Dmitri seemed content to let him pass; they were teammates after all. Neither one would score points for his team on this day. Lou was two strides ahead when Dmitri’s Cold War pride lurched into gear and he joined Lou in a sprint for the finish.

Lou and Dmitri ran stride for stride toward the vestiges of the white chalk stripe that marked the end of the race. Lou pumped his arms faster, trying to trick his legs into moving more quickly. He let his jaw hang loose and his face go slack, anything to distract himself from the pain he was inflicting on his body. From his left he heard Leigh cheering him on. She was smiling and yelling and jumping up and down, probably to try to keep warm in the miserable day. Behind her, Randy Major’s face was half hidden by the megaphone he was making with his hands. Lou heard his dad shouting one long “Looooouuuuu”. Then, a few feet away, he saw his mom, smiling excitedly, clapping so softly he couldn’t hear the sounds her hands made beneath the cheers for the finishers and the announcement of the passing seconds read by one of the officials.

And then Dmitri was a half-step ahead. Not even that. A quarter of a step, maybe an eighth. Just far enough to be clearly ahead without being meaningfully ahead. Lou leaned. He leaned far over his feet to try to break the imaginary tape with his head, his neck, his chest, his anything before Dmitri got there first.

Dmitri got there first.

Lou crossed the finish line a hundredth of a second after Dmitri. No difference, but all the difference. Lou broke stride, fell to a slow walk and left the finish area to make room for the rest of the field to cross. He bent forward, his hands on his knees. He straightened up, interlacing his hands on the top of his head. He bent forward again and heaved, his entire breakfast seeming to come up in one continuous go. The smell was acrid and the taste got in his nose. His eyes watered. He wiped the vomit from his lips with the back of his arm.

In a moment, he felt a delicate hand on his back. “You missed the garbage, Lou,” his assistant coach was saying. Ms. Betty Johnson was young and very pretty, still enthused about the opportunity to teach despite being overwhelmed by the difficulties of teaching. Still willing to get out and help coach the cross country teams for a few hundred dollars for the season. Still able to make a joke and smile while standing next to a puddle of beige vomit that was slowly washing into the muddy turf. Still unaware of the effect that her gentle touch and friendly smile had on a sixteen year old boy. “New PR, for you Lou. By eleven seconds. Keep it up!” she said. Feigning a conspiratorial whisper, she put her hand to her mouth and said, “But also work on keeping it down.”

“Good job, buddy!” Randy Major grabbed Lou by the shoulder in a moment approaching genuine pride. Lou was feeling better, but unable to stand up straight in his cross country shorts, so he stayed bent forward, resting his hands on his knees and staring at the ground.

“Thanks, dad,” Lou replied. No one recalling the moment in the future, including Lou, would ever be certain if his tone was trying to hide real gratitude or the result of being embarrassed by his father’s congratulations. On the other hand, when he turned his head and proudly effused “I ran a new PR, dad!” even passers by recognized that he was lashing out at his mom.

“What’s a PR?” Leigh asked.

“Personal record. Some call it a personal best, PB. But we say PR,” Lou explained.

“You know why I was never a runner, Lou?” Randy asked.

“Why?” Lou asked. He was too tired not to.

“Because I liked PBR,” Randy laughed at his own joke. “PBR! Tall boys!”

“That’s almost too dumb to be a dad joke,” Leigh complained.

“That’s what dads do,” Randy replied. “So I guess it fits.”

“Hey, dad,” Lou interrupted as he finally straightened up. “Did you think any more about whether the team can come over to your place for dinner before the next meet? It would be kind of a cool way to celebrate my PR.”

“Damn, Lou, you know I’d love to celebrate your PR with a PBR, but I just don’t have the space. Maybe next year, if I get a bigger place.”

“But you promised.”

“I promised that I would think about it. And I did, Lou. It’s just not a good time for me to have the team over. Your mom has the big place. I’ll bet she’d be happy to feed the team and celebrate your PR.”

“Sure,” Dee agreed in part before Lou cut her off.

“Never mind, then,” Lou said. “I’m sure one of the other guys can host. I’ll tell coach that it doesn’t work.”

Lou immediately turned and walked away to find his coach and report that his parents were assholes. Randy smirked smugly. Dee shook her head faintly but clearly while Leigh judged them both silently for as long as she could. This proved to be just shy of four seconds.

“You two both need to grow up,” Leigh demanded.

“I offered,” Dee threw up her hands. “He wouldn’t listen.”

“And I don’t have room,” Randy explained. “You know how tiny my place is compared to your mom’s.”

“Whatever. You’re enjoying this way too much,” Leigh scolded her dad, then turned to her mom. “And you’re pouting like you’re the teenager. Of course he’s pissed off at you. He’s pissed off at everyone. And so am I. We’re from a broken home. Did you forget?”

Leigh marched off toward the plastic and wooden tower atop the Solar of Fortitude. Thunder cracked in the distance and the rain began to fall harder as the sky darkened even more.

“That went well,” Randy said.

“Shut up, Randy,” Dee replied.

They stood silently, turned toward each other at odd angles, not wanting to face each other directly, not wanting to be the first to turn completely away.

“I’m getting wet,” Randy said.

“I’ve been wet,” Dee said.

“You’ve got an umbrella,” Randy pointed out.

“You just got here,” Dee reminded him.

“You’re a coward,” Randy said.

Dee assumed she hadn’t heard him correctly. “What’s that?”

“I said,” Randy repeated, “That you’re a coward.”

“What’s that mean?”

“You know what it means. The ink heist. A cop almost died because you’re a coward. A-A-A bitch-ass coward.”

“I’m not a coward, Randy,” Dee hissed as she looked from side to side to make sure no one was eavesdropping. “I called in a crime. The gun went off accidentally. For goodness sake, it was his own partner who shot him. In the foot! Besides all that. Besides all that. I am retired.”

“I’ll sign your name to some flowers at the hospital. ‘Thanks for taking a bullet for me. I’m not a coward. I’m the retired Captain Major.’”

Dee gave him a stare which once made Dr. Costive shit himself in the middle of a caper with the ferocity of a junkie white-knuckling it through the first night of withdrawal.

“That look don’t work on me no more, Dee,” Randy said as he turned away. “You’re ‘retired’. And we’re divorced.”

Saturday, September 17, 2011

(continued)

The Super Fun Zone was always the place to be, but especially so at a little after 2 on a Saturday afternoon. The place was crawling with cake-faced birthday-goers wandering in glazed circles from too much frosting, too much fruit punch and too many dodge balls to too many melons. Dee took great delight in watching it all teeter on the edge of disaster while knowing she wouldn’t have to pick up any of the pieces or dry off any of the tears afterwards. The rambunctiousness also helped distract her as she waited for Mike Ferris to arrive.

Arrive he did, just a minute or two after the appointed time. Dee had the privilege of watching him pull up in his aging, but tidy, Honda Civic. His brown hair was graying at the temples and his face was soft and smooth as well-formed cheese. He had a wide smile that he wore even before he saw Dee walking toward him through the front door.

“You made it!” Mike said excitedly.

“I did,” Dee smiled. She recoiled instinctively from his friendly hug, then gave into the pleasantness as soon as he released her.

“Sorry,” Mike said. “I’m a hugger. If the date goes terribly wrong, at least you got one free hug.”

“Let’s hope for better than terribly wrong,” Dee said.

“Total truth time, Dee,” Mike put on a serious face. “I’ve been on a few of these Choose Your Own Companion dates now. Terribly wrong is actually better than my average. God! I hope it’s not me.”

“Couldn’t be,” Dee said.

“Then who?” Mike answered. Dee stared blankly. “Camp song. Sorry. I guess you never stole the cookies from the cookie jar. You must be more honest than you look.”

“I guess,” Dee said.

“I’m making you feel awkward,” Mike observed. “Let’s go play some skeeball. If you don’t like skeeball, then you’re an asshole. We can do your asshole test next.”

“I don’t have an asshole test,” Dee replied as they re-entered the Super Fun Zone.

“Well, Dee, if you keep trying these dates, you’ll either figure out an asshole test or spend too much time with assholes.”

“You talk fast,” Dee said.

“I’m nervous,” Mike agreed. “I do that when I’m nervous. I deflect. I fire volleys of words to keep people off balance. I’ll slow down as soon as I get some quarters. Let’s skee some balls and win some shitty prizes!”

 

Dee’s first ball barely made it the length of the table, while Mike’s scored 5,000 points.

“Don’t look,” Dee chided Mike as he waited for her to roll. “It’s harder when you watch.”

“Are you skee shy?” Mike asked.

Dee frowned.

“I’m not looking,” Mike said. He made a show of closing his eyes, covering them with his hands, then peeking between his fingers.

Dee’s second ball landed in the bottom ring and scored 1,000 points. “You know,” Mike said as he took careful aim, “when I started playing skeeball, the most you could score was 100 points on a single ball. Of course, back then, pinball only cost a quarter and was considered a form of gambling.” Mike rolled another 5,000 point ball.

“How often do you come here, exactly?” Dee asked.

“Well, I couldn’t say, not ‘exactly’, at least. But I played a fair amount when I was a kid, then I brought my boys here while they were growing up. They’re gone now, but I guess the practice kind of stuck with me.”

“Gone?” Dee asked.

“Oh, sorry,” Mike seemed embarrassed. “They’re both in college now. Probably not playing skeeball any more. What is it the kids play? Beer pong?”

“Their loss,” Dee said. She rolled her third ball and scored 4,000 points.

“You’re getting the hang of it,” Mike noted.

“I haven’t played since I was eight or nine,” Dee remembered. “My kids, and my ex, they all loved video games. When we came to a place like this, it was…” Dee struggled to remember the names of any of the games they played. “Pac-Man? Or something with guns. I guess there’s no guns in Pac-Man.”

“Not that I remember,” Mike agreed. His next ball bounced off the lip of the 5,000 point cylinder, then rolled down to the 1,000 point catch-all. “The boys played the shooters, too, once they got a little older. I really don’t pick this place to get all melancholy and nostalgic. It’s just stuff to do without having to shout over the noise of a bar or try to have a conversation with pasta and chicken stuck between my teeth.”

“No drinks, though,” Dee mentioned.

“I always drink on the way over,” Mike said. “Helps keep me loose.”

“I didn’t think to do that,” Dee said.

“I’m a planner,” Mike replied. “Since the score is getting closer, I’ll try to distract you with questions. What do you like to do for fun? Any hobbies?”

Dee rolled her first 5,000 point shot and pumped her fist. They continued to roll back and forth as they chatted.

“I’m thinking about taking up skeeball,” Dee said.

“You’ve got the knack,” Mike agreed. “I’m kind of a movie buff. What kind, you ask? A crappy movie buff. I’ll go see anything. The worse the better. But the high-minded stuff? The art part? That’s not really my thing.”

“I guess I don’t see too many movies,” Dee said. “I can’t think of the last movie I saw in a theater. I was working a ton last year. That’s settled down, but we separated at the start of the year and the divorce was finalized over the summer. With all the moves and shuttling, not much time for seeing movies.”

“And what do you do for work?”

“I work for Fast Airborne VD. It’s kind of a specialty company, you might not have heard of us.”

“What do you do for them?”

“General stuff, really. Administrative operations. Just general office stuff. Whatever they need me to, I guess. It isn’t much.”

“That’s what was keeping you so busy last year?” Mike asked.

“No, I was working a different job then. Well, two jobs. The other job was really stressful. I’d rather not talk about it, if you don’t mind.”

“Sure, sure,” Mike agreed. “What would you like to talk about?”

Dee thought for a moment. Without paying much attention, she rolled her final ball and scored another 5,000 points. Her mind was peacefully blank. “I don’t know,” she finally said. “You’re good at making conversation. What do you want to talk about?”

 

Dee and Mike were counting their tickets minutes later near the redemption booth. They waited patiently behind a boy deciding between a fake goldfish and a miniature water pistol on a key chain. The boy seemed years away from possessing any keys of his own, so Dee silently willed him toward the fake goldfish. The boy bought the water pistol, instead, probably swept up in the current of youthful defiance swirling around Dee in her daily life.

Dee won the skeeball contest by better than 4,000 points and therefore had a few extra tickets to spend. Nevertheless, she deferred to Mike to make the first purchase.

“Can I get,” Mike said into the air, but generally toward the teenage clerk behind the corner, “that bag of jacks?”

The clerk turned up his nose as Mike tried to hand him his short roll of prize tickets. “We don’t take those here,” he explained. “You need to get a voucher.”

“A voucher?” Dee asked.

“Over there,” the clerk pointed with his chin, too lazy to move his arms and too busy being bored to engage any further.

“New to me,” Mike shrugged.

“It’s always been that way,” the clerk muttered so low that Mike couldn’t be sure he heard anything. Dee heard him perfectly well and shot a glare at the rudeness. The clerk was too busy trying to invent a way to slouch his torso free of his arms without removing his graphic tee to notice Dee’s disapproval.

“I guess we just feed them in here,” Dee said as she stood in front of the change machine. Mike was skeptical.

“I think that’s just for getting change,” Mike said.

“No, look,” Dee pointed. “I think it does both.” Dee fed her tickets into the machine, which thought a minute and then spit out a printed receipt. “48 tickets,” Dee reported.

“Wow,” Mike said. “I never noticed that slot.” Mike struggled to feed his tickets into the machine. “Does it have to go in a certain way?” Mike asked as he flipped the roll of tickets over and over like he was trying to plug his phone into a charging cable in the dark.

“Nope,” Dee said. “You just have to stick it in a little further for it take.” Dee offered to take the strip of tickets. Mike handed it over and moments later he had his receipt.

“Thanks. I have 44 tickets,” Mike noted as they walked back to the redemption counter and waited their turn again. The same boy was back, debating between the fake goldfish and a purple feather pen. Dee still voted for the goldfish. The boy went for the pen.

“Sweet pen,” Mike encouraged the kid as he walked away. Upon his turn, Mike requested the bag of jacks. “A gift,” he presented the jacks to Dee. “If I won 10,000 tickets, you’d be getting that poodle skirt so we could finish the date cosplaying the 1950s. I’ve got a letterman’s sweater covering up a stain on my back seat.”

“Thanks,” Dee said, wondering whether there was a stain. She put the jacks in her purse after examining the bag long enough to know that she wouldn’t want to sit on the jacks. “I would love to get you this hand tattoo,” Dee lamented. “But it’s 50 tickets.”

“Here,” Mike offered up his receipt with four tickets left.

“Can I combine these?” Dee asked.

“Of course,” the clerk said while wondering if he should dye his hair black or dark indigo. “Just put them in the machine.”

“Really?” Dee asked. “Don’t you have the identical machine back there? The one you just used for the jacks?”

“That’s not for customers,” the clerk replied.

“Do you hate your job?” Dee asked.

“No. I don’t hate the job,” the clerk deigned to make a flicker of eye contact.

“Well, never mind,” Dee said. The clerk shrugged as if the whole business was none of his. Dee turned to Mike. “Do you mind if we do something else?”

“Not at all,” Mike said. “What would you like to do?”

Dee quickly looked around. “How about the batting cages?”

“It’ll mess my hair,” Mike rubbed his high and tight haircut for effect.

“Sorry about that,” Dee said.

“I’m just joking,” Mike said.

“I know,” Dee smiled. She led the way toward the cages.

“Do you like baseball?” Mike asked.

“Not especially,” Dee said. “But it’s close.”

“I played a little bit of baseball in high school,” Mike offered. “Now I’m waiting until I’m 50 to play softball again.”

“Why do you have to wait until you’re 50 to play softball?” Dee asked.

“Partly because my body has always been best suited for the senior leagues,” Mike said. “But, also, they ruined it. It’s too competitive.”

“I thought softball was mostly about drinking beer?” Dee wondered.

“Maybe twenty years ago it was about drinking beer. Now it’s about drinking beer and expensive bats. By the time I’m 50, they’ll probably give up on pitching and just let the batters shoot their balls out of a cannon. I’d like to work a cannon.”

“You could be a rec league Margaret Corbin,” Dee said.

Mike grinned and thumped a red plastic helmet on his head, then walked inside the netting to take the first turn in the cage. The noise of the batting machines and the thumps of well-hit balls made conversation nearly impossible. Dee contented herself with cheering from the safety of the far side of the netting.

Mike’s first swing was so bad he accidentally proved string theory. He missed the ball by a foot in at least seven dimensions. Sadly, Michio Kaku wasn’t there to collect the evidence, or watch Mike still shaking his head at himself when the machine counted down the next pitch. He only had time to stick his bat out in a mock bunt. He barely made contact with the end of the aluminum bat. The vibration raced down to the thin handle and made his hands ache. He stepped out of the box and pretended to adjust his helmet during the next pitch to give his hands a chance to rest.

He stepped back in and tried to remember what a comfortable stance felt like. If he bent his knees too far he felt like he was trying too hard. When he stood too straight, he felt like he wasn’t ready for the pitch and couldn’t catch up with the ball in time.

Mike blew out a long breath and tried to relax. Swinging like himself wasn’t working. He thought back to the stars of his childhood and adopted a different stance, extending his left foot forward like he was being dragged across the floor in a dramatic tango, while bending his right knee deeply so that his profile became a gradual plane to his helmet, with his bat fidgeting like a puppy’s tale. He drummed his fingers on the handle for effect.

To his surprise and delight, he made solid contact on the next pitch, driving it right back at the pitching machine. He lashed line drives on the next three pitches, starting to smile and even taunt the pitching machine between swings. When he saw one ball left in the hopper, he dug in grimly and swung as hard as he could. He popped the ball straight up into the air and twisted so far he staggered like a drunk across home plate. It was a fortunate trip, as the ball popped into the netting above only to fall into the batter’s box Mike had fallen out of.

“Dodged a bullet on the last one,” Mike joked as he and Dee met outside the cage.

“You looked just like the Magician’s Assistant,” Dee said, thinking back to one of her earliest encounters as an official Confederated Justice super. She trapped the villain in her own zig zag box and thereby rescued her career from the sidekick track. “Except, a man in regular clothes who was not robbing a pet store.”

“Is she still around?” Mike asked.

“Probably somewhere,” Dee guessed. “Maybe Vegas. Or Branson. Crime doesn’t pay, but stage work sometimes does.”

“Did she really go straight?” Mike wondered.

“She’d have to have, I think. Stealing rabbits and pigeons? I can’t imagine there’s much of a payday in that. She could be dodging knives at an amusement park for at least minimum wage.”

“Sad, I suppose,” Mike said.

Dee had no answer.

“I guess it’s my turn,” Dee finally said.

Dee fed quarters into the pitching machine and tested the cement floor with her walking shoes while the hopper filled up. She had played softball as a child, but hadn’t swung a bat since before she saved the school children from the meltdown and gained her powers. Although she saved an entire bus load of kids, it was only saving the last boy that caused her to gain her powers. Who knew she could even hold her breath for so long? It made living with Randy, who had spent that summer ‘perfecting’ the chili recipe he never did take to county fairs and amateur cook offs, seem fortunately fateful preparation for that momentous day.

Like Mike, it took Dee a few swings to figure out how to feel comfortable in her stance. The more she relaxed, the easier it came. She simply flicked her bat toward the ball and sent it rocketing in one direction or the other. Dee began to enjoy herself and extend her swing with a balletic flourish. Before she knew it, the hopper was almost empty.

“Last ball, slugger,” Mike called. “Make it count.”

Dee smiled determinedly as she waited for the last ball. She kept her bat quick and her swing short, but popped her hips through contact and drove what was left of the ball into the back wall in a cataclysmic crash.

“Whoa,” Dee and Mike said together, though neither heard the other. At Dee’s feet was the cover of the ball centered perfectly on the outline of home plate taped onto the floor. Dee kicked it to the side as she exited the cage.

“You really got into that one,” Mike said.

“Must have been a defective ball,” Dee suggested.

“Even if it was, it was a hell of a swing,” Mike said. “Let’s find something where you can’t do quite so much damage. I’ve got a reputation to protect.”

“You were good, too,” Dee said.

“Sure,” Mike agreed. “One or two times I could feel like the cover was just about to come off.” He held his thumb and forefinger about an inch apart. “This close. This close.”

Dee smiled, abashed.

After a long, awkward pause, Mike continued. “Lady’s choice. Dodgeball or miniature golf.”

“Either one is fine with me,” Dee said.

“Dodgeball you have to take off your shoes and bounce on a tramp,” Mike said.

“That would be fine,” Dee agreed.

“But don’t think I let just anyone talk about my mother that way,” Mike added.

“Oh, I would never,” Dee said.

“Or mini golf, where there’s a much lower chance that you hit me in the face,” Mike suggested.

“That might be safer,” Dee agreed.

After another pause, Mike decided. “Let’s play the front 9 and see whether we’re willing to risk our faces afterwards.”

“Sounds great,” Dee smiled.

 

Their scores were tied after the front nine, so they had no choice but to play through the second half of the course. They were neck and neck the rest of the way. Mike did well on the difficult holes, while Dee had a preternatural gift for putting that helped her whenever the green was flat and free of drawbridges, windmills and geometry. Her skill at putting had nothing to do with being a super hero; it was just something Dee Major was naturally good at.

The final hole had two levels connected by a series of tubes, much like how the Internet works. Mike and Dee watched a family of seven or eight — really, after four kids, the parents aren’t keeping track, why should narrators? — muddle through the hole. Six of the seven, or seven of the eight, hard to say, took the left fork and carded twos for par. One took the right fork and missed the follow up putt badly enough that he threw his putter into the tepid, trickling stream of nonpotable water between the 15th and 18th greens. Dee and Mike waited, amused, as the parents sorted through the tantrum. When the ruckus was sufficiently quelled, they approached the tee.

“It’s your honor,” Dee reminded Mike as he tried to defer to her on the last hole. Mike bowed modestly and placed his purple ball with a white stripe on the left side of the rubber mat. He struck his shot well. It rolled confidently toward the middle hole, dropped dramatically into the tube, rattled about a bit and then found its way to the lower green, coming to a stop no more than a inch from the cup.

“This close,” Mike lamented, again holding his thumb and forefinger no more than an inch apart. “I was this close.”

“You still might win,” Dee said.

“Ah, but now I’ve shown you the way,” Mike said. “Gave you the secret.”

“We’ll see,” Dee said.

Dee, too, took the left side of the rubber mat for her starting position. She looked carefully over the course, then brought her focus back to her green ball with a yellow diamond on the top. She bent down, centered the diamond so that it was at the apex of the ball and wiped a fleck of dust away.

She shrugged her shoulders and drew her putter back.

“I won’t try to psych you out,” Mike said as she started her backswing.

Dee stopped and looked up. Mike smiled.

“Sorry,” he said. “I just wanted you to know that I wasn’t going to try to psych you out or anything. That would be bad form and I’m a good sport. Didn’t mean to interrupt. You go ahead.”

“Thanks,” Dee replied.

She readied herself to address the ball again. She brought her putter back and Mike began to speak to her in a golf whisper. “Don’t mean to worry you, but each time you bend over like that, every boy in the family in front of us starts peeking at your butt. Just thought you should know.”

Dee took a practice stroke and responded without looking away. “Good to know.”

“I can’t rattle you at all, can I?” Mike asked as he moved closer to the ball. He kneeled forward in front of Dee.

“You might need more than that,” Dee said.

“Okay, take you time,” Mike said.

“Thank you, I will.”

“You’re welcome. Pay them no mind. Don’t even listen to me.”

Dee took her shot. Her ball rolled true to the middle cup on the top level, paused an instant for dramatic effect, then rolled down the tube and toward the ultimate cup. On its way it tapped into Mike’s ball, then deflected slightly to the left and wound up in the hole for an ace.

“Beautiful shot,” Mike said as he tapped his ball in and carded a two. “You win by one. I tip my cap. A very well-played round.”

“Yay!” Dee said. “That was fun.”

 

It was after they turned in their tiny pencils and borrowed putters that it dawned on Dee that the date was ending, and she certainly didn’t want it to.

“Any particular place you need to be?” she asked.

“If the place was too particular, they wouldn’t take me,” Mike joked.

“I know a place that isn’t particular at all,” Dee said, even though she didn’t. “Care for a drink?”

Mike looked at his watch for a long, long time. Three seconds, maybe three and change. But as each second passed, Dee realized all the more that he wasn’t looking at his watch. He was looking for an out.

“I should probably get home,” Mike said. “Get the place cleaned up.”

“You sure?” Dee asked. “I felt like we were having fun.”

“It has been fun,” Mike agreed.

“So one quick drink?” Dee said. “My last date was a disaster. I could use a better ending this time.”

Mike looked her in the eye for a long time. Dee couldn’t tell what the look meant. It was pity.

“Let me be honest, Dee. You seem great, but I don’t think it’s going to work out for me in a romantic way. I’d love to have you on our kickball team, though.”

“Is it because I beat you in skeeball?”

“No, it’s not because you beat me in skeeball or hit the holy hell out of the baseball. That was awesome to see. If you ever see a movie, rent The Natural. But, you know. I’m not saying you’re doing something wrong, but it’s not right for me. I mean. Well, maybe I’m just particular. Maybe. We all are. If we weren’t we’d all be the same and that would be confusing.”

Mike tilted his head in a universal sign of empathy and continued. “You’re great. You’re beautiful, like out-of-my-league pretty, and you seem smart and you laugh at my dumb jokes, but we spent two hours together and you didn’t have an opinion on anything. Until you said you had a bar in mind, you didn’t have a single preference.”

Dee felt a fresh embarrassment for not having had a place in mind.

“You’re hiding behind your smile, Dee. You didn’t show me anything about yourself that wouldn’t, I dunno, be written on your tombstone. God forbid. You’re divorced, you’ve got kids, but other than that, what do you like? What don’t you like?”

Dee was too surprised to defend herself. “I like you,” she finally managed.

“I’m sorry, Dee. I’m genuinely sorry. Forget I said anything. You know, I’m probably just projecting my own issues on you. In my marriage, I just went along with everything for years. I forgot I was even allowed to like a different kind of ice cream. I had chocolate and marshmallow ice cream on my birthday. On my goddam birthday. I had marshmallows in my ice cream. They’re ridiculous. In a ‘Smore, fine. In hot chocolate, a few of the little ones. But not in my ice cream. Not on my god damned birthday. I still can’t believe that I smiled and said ‘Thanks’ as I choked that shit down.

“So, yes. I’m still working through that. Sorry I said anything. Just forget about me.”

“Was it a disaster? Did I improve your average?”

“You are great,” Mike began. “Totally great. Opposite of a disaster. I really, really mean that. I need you to know how great I think you are. Just not for me.”

“Enough,” Dee interrupted. “I appreciate the honesty, I guess. But you can’t talk me out of feeling shitty.”

“I’m sorry, Dee,” Mike said. “I truly am.”

“I understand, but if you apologize again, you’ll really make me feel bad,” Dee said. She couldn’t remember the last time she had been rejected. She tried desperately to figure out how to pretend to be an adult who handled rejection well. “I guess it’s better to say something now than to string me along. I don’t like what you’re saying, but I respect that you said it. Thank you?”

“I guess this is goodbye, then,” Mike said.

“Not necessarily,” Dee said. “What’s the name of your kickball team?”

“We’re the Sith Kickers,” Mike said. “Like Darth Maul.”

“Cute,” Dee said, who had seen that movie with Lou. “If I see you out there, I’ll be the one kicking your ass.”

“I bet you will,” Mike agreed. Thanks, Dee.”

Monday, September 19, 2011

The halls of Fast Airborne VD were gently abuzz at all times now that everyone had something to talk about. Rumors circulated like flies at a dog park, while little pieces of truth fell unnoticed into the cracks between the cubicles. Paula Dundas kept her head down and avoided all unnecessary contact, possessing, as she did, the rare commodity of actual information about the near future. She had even taken to using a bathroom on a different floor to avoid indelicate probes.

She was hustling down to the sixteenth floor to meet with her team when she nearly collided with Dee Major, who was hurrying in the opposite direction. At the last instant, Dee dodged like a matador to save her coffee and Paula’s collection of papers.

“You seem to be heading the wrong way,” Paula’s friendly tone belied her annoyance. “Team meeting is about to start.”

“Is it?” Dee was genuinely surprised. “I thought it was canceled.”

“Nope,” Paula said. She picked up her pace as she pulled Dee along in her wake. They passed a clock on the wall telling them that the meeting was supposed to be starting already. “We’re meeting,” Paula continued. “Things to cover.”

“Like what?” Dee asked as they reached the door to the meeting room.

“Well, we’ll talk about it in the meeting,” Paula said. The lights in the room flickered on as they detected motion. Paula glanced up as the wall clock clicked ahead another minute. They were two minutes late, but no one else had managed to show up at all.

Paula walked around the conference table to the far end of the room to take a chair on the narrow end of the rectangular table. She shuffled through her papers and reorganized the things she needed to cover with her team. She moved slowly, feeling Dee’s eyes on her and not wanting to reveal her anxiety. When she couldn’t shuffle and tap her papers any more, Paula began to fiddle with her phone.

“Should I go get them?” Dee asked.

“They’re adults, Dee. Thank you, but they should be able to find their way to a meeting. Lord knows y’all ain’t so busy that you can’t meet for a few minutes a week.”

“You sure seem to be,” Dee noted.

“Yeah, these one-on-ones have been nuts,” Paula mused. “With my new teams, I have 56 one-on-ones this month. And I still don’t know everyone’s name,” Paula tried to turn her complaint into a joke, but failed.

“We’ll probably re-org again before you know everyone,” Dee added.

“Probably,” Paula agreed while turning back to her papers.

They sat in silence for a few moments listening to the ticking of the clock. Dee noticed the faint hum of the white noise coming from the ceiling. As soon as she noticed it, she couldn’t ignore it. Dee stretched her neck and looked toward the door, anxious for an escape from the buzz. Finally, she interrupted the white noise with a question.

“When does the meeting end?”

“11:30, but I have a lot to cover, so depends on when the team gets here.”

“I’ll go find them,” Dee offered.

“I just messaged them to come over,” Paula replied. “You’re in a powerful hurry to get started.”

“I have a date over lunch,” Dee confessed.

“Really? How’s that going?” Paula instantly brightened. She loved other people’s dates.

“It’ll be my last online date,” Dee shook her head.

“You’re giving up awfully quick,” Paula noted.

“I keep getting messages from this one guy,” Dee said. “I block him, he creates a new profile and I block him again. Every time my phone goes off, I expect he’s reaching out to just to let me know he’s thinking about me and what a bitch I am. Or to send me another picture of his freckled penis.”

“Any good dates, though?” Paula was hopeful.

“Oh for two so far. You know, I thought adult dating would be easy,” Dee confessed. “I was a mess when I started dating Randy. Not a mess, just caught up in pretending to be someone I thought I was supposed to be. I didn’t get to be a mess until we were married. Then, somewhere along the way, I finally got comfortable with myself. I grew up. I figured it would be easy to put myself out there now. I know some people will like me and others won’t. But I would make sure everything was casual and low pressure. I’d look around and find someone I liked who liked me back. My first date was bad enough to put me off men forever. I liked the second guy, but it didn’t work out. I guess rejection sucks no matter how gently the rejection comes. And it sucks no matter how grown up we think we are.”

Kramer entered the room during Dee’s summary, followed closely by the rest of the team. “There’s no shame in being alone. Get a dog,” he said.

“I’m not alone, I have two kids.”

“So, you’re not alone yet,” Archer inserted. “If not a dog, kickball is great.”

Dee rolled her eyes. She marveled that adults really played kickball. She associated it with pinning your bus number to your jacket and worrying about cooties. “So I hear.”

“Let’s leave Dee be,” Winnie said as she patted Dee reassuringly on the forearm. “It’s hard out there for us successful, beautiful women.”

“Successful?” Dee asked.

“Yes,” Paula interrupted with a serious tone intended to bring the team back to business. They ignored her.

“You work with us,” Archer said. “You can’t pretend to be successful.”

“I feel pretty successful,” Kramer said. “Look how far I’ve made it. Eight years to retirement.”

“We’re all successful,” Paula raised her voice and made her tone even more serious. “Or, we can be if we are aware of the current protocols and changes at Fast Airborne Venn Diaphragms, Inc.”

“FAVDI?” Winnie suggested.

“Actually, no,” Paula continued. “The new direction from corporate branding is to use the full name at all times, especially with outside customers. There’s been a bit of a splash in social media about different ways to abbreviate or truncate the name. So, use the full name whenever you need to use the name.”

“Even in the URL?” Winnie asked.

“Even in your thoughts,” Archer added.

“Not in your thoughts, necessarily, but just a reminder that when spending company money, be sure to think of it as your own money and to treat it just as carefully.”

“That’s why they pay us so little,” Kramer interjected. “To train us to be better stewards of the corporate dime.”

Paula pressed forward. “Badgers, people. Badges must be worn above the waist at all times. If you lose your badge, there’s a fee to replace it.”

“Did you say ‘badgers’?” Dee asked. “We have to wear badgers now?”

“Red is not my color,” Archer opined.

“Badgers aren’t red,” Kramer noted.

“They’re cardinal,” Archer muttered as Paula pressed forward, talking over him.

“Parking permits are required in the underground ramp. You’ll be issued a parking permit via interoffice mail. Hang the permit on your rear view mirror whenever you park in the ramp, including weekends. If you lose the permit, there’s a fee to replace it. If you park without a permit, you will be ticketed.”

“Perhaps they can use all the money collected from fines to deal with this badger problem,” Archer suggested.

“Enough,” Paula hissed through clenched teeth. “Just listen. Is that so hard? Listen to the information. Show up for meetings on time. Act like adults. Pretend like your jobs are important to you.”

Paula stared grimly at the papers in front of her, refusing to notice the reactions of the team around her. They were bemused rather than chastened, but smart enough to hold their tongues, if only temporarily. Paula gathered her papers into a neat pile, pulled them to her chest as she stood and hurried from the room.

“Things are getting bad,” Winnie noted once Paula had left.

“I thought things were already bad,” Archer agreed.

“Lower your expectations,” Kramer suggested.

“That’s good advice for you, too,” Archer added as they all stood and began to exit the room. “Expectations can never be low enough when meeting men online.”

“You’re the expert,” Kramer added.

“Good luck on your date,” Winnie cheered to change the mood and divert attention away from Kramer’s use of implied homosexuality as a slur.

Dee shook her head at Kramer and forced a smile at Winnie. She walked toward her cube for her purse wondering how brave her face would have to be to make it through lunch.

 

As far as Metroville sea food bistros go, the Regal Seagull was far from the worst. The lunch buffet largely featured the bits of specials from the previous night which would otherwise have to be thrown out. The chef, though hilariously clumsy, did a solid job of picking out the brownish pieces and using those to stiffen the soups. Prices were therefore just shy of reasonable for a place which aspired to be fashionable despite lacking the appetite to invest in its own success.

Dee waited in the foyer thinking about groceries and worrying about Lou. He needed something from her that Dee wasn’t able to provide. Or, maybe he didn’t. Maybe all he needed was time to adjust to all the changes in his life. Or, maybe that was a cop out and she was letting herself off the hook too easily. On the other hand, now that she had more time to spend with her kids, she didn’t seem to be connecting any better. That wasn’t true. She was connecting with Leigh. They had never been closer. And a good thing, too, because her impulsiveness required a close eye, particularly with the tumultuous onset of her powers. Maybe she was putting too much focus on Leigh rather than giving attention to Lou. Maybe Leigh’s powers were an excuse to spend time with her since that was, for the time being, so much easier than spending time with Lou. Maybe it was all excuses, all the way down, like a stack of uncertain, conflicted turtles. Meanwhile, Randy was still a dick, that was clearer now than ever.

Max Depf, Dee’s date, walked right past Dee, who was too lost in thought to notice anything short of a punch from OctoTom (the eight-armed villain who wielded drum sticks like police batons and serially abducted children and forced them to listen to Rush), and requested a table for two from the hostess. Dee checked her watch more than five minutes later and, in leaving her name with the hostess on her way to the little hero’s room, discovered her date was waiting for her. Not waiting: Max was sitting at the table without her, but the half-empty schooner of Michelob Golden Lite indicated that he was not refraining from anything in advance of Dee’s arrival.

Max bumped the table as he jumped up to greet Dee. After checking to make certain that his beer didn’t topple, he leaned in hard to kiss Dee on the cheek. The wool of his newsboy cap tickled her ear with the kiss. He smelled of after shave, something with mint, though he wore an immaculate five o’clock shadow which took three days to grow.

“Hi, I’m Max,” he squeezed all three words into a single quick breath that fluttered the hair over Dee’s ear. She reflexively tucked her dark violet hair behind her ear as she willed the tickle away.

“I’m Dee,” she replied while sitting down. Max handed her the drink menu. She took it reflexively. She glanced at it for a moment before remembering that it was a Monday and she was due back at work in less than an hour.

She set the drink menu down with a brief apology: “I have to be back at work at one.”

“Then you better hurry, or you’ll have to work the afternoon stone cold sober,” Max said.

“Sounds like a nightmare,” Dee replied as she looked over the lunch menu. She was hoping for something with avocado, which against all odds she had come to enjoy, and without tomato, which she had always loathed. “Actually,” she added, thinking aloud, “if I had a drink now, I’d probably be napping at my desk.”

The waitress came over to take their orders, which gave Max and Dee another few minutes worth of chit chat. Max requested a second beer with his chicken finger basket. He ate the chicken fingers with a knife and fork, but managed the waffle fries with his fingers. He was full of simple questions and seemed pleased with Dee’s answers. She worked for Fast Airborne Venn Diaphragms, whatever that was, she was recently divorced, she had two kids and had always lived in Metroville. She liked to travel, though she had only left the country once, to visit Japan where her years as a collegiate swimmer were put to the ultimate test as she swam into a flooding nuclear reactor to save two dozen field trippers from severe radiation exposure. The bulk of that story — from the flooding to the part where she gained super powers, heroed as an independent for a bit, made the big leagues with Confederated Justice and finally retired after a series of deadly battles with hero turned pariah Amazing Man — went unsaid.

Max was also divorced, but had no children. The marriage had lasted less then 18 months. She sounded like a real piece of work. Dee felt like she had to embellish Randy’s failings just to justify their split. Renee Lasso Depf had been both controlling and absent, as well as icy, cruel, frigid, dismissive and rambunctiously, abruptly, consistently unfaithful.

Truly, she was history’s greatest monster and her expensive clothes didn’t even really fit.

Max offered to share his fries with Dee, who declined. “You can afford to eat a few fries,” Max offered by way of a compliment. Dee demurred. She could eat whatever she wanted, but found it somehow impolite to pound through a 22-ounce porterhouse with cheesy potatoes and baked beans in public. Much better to eat a sensible lunch — a chopped salad with avocado, hold the croutons and the tomatoes — and to eat deep dish pizza by the yard when she was safely at home.

Max glanced at his watch while nibbling at the last of his fries.

“This is nice,” he said.

“Yeah,” Dee agreed. “You’re easy to talk to.”

“Thanks,” Max smiled. He caught his breath on the verge of a thought. He started again, then stopped. The waitress came by to clear his place. He gently slapped her wrist as she reached for the plate. “I’m still working on that, luv,” he said. He turned his face toward the waitress but not his eyes.

“I’m sorry, sir,” she said, looking to hastily back away.

“Would you take my bowl, please?” Dee asked. “I’m all done.”

“Of course,” the waitress replied. Dee saw how flushed her cheeks were as she came closer to take her bowl.

“Thanks. It was really good,” Dee said.

“You’re welcome,” the waitress replied. She stiffened her back and turned toward the kitchen with Dee’s bowl. Max glanced at his watch again, then called to her. “Hon? Michelle?” He snapped his fingers. “Could I get another draft? Just a short one. Running low on time.”

“Certainly,” the waitress nodded. She turned back around far enough so that Dee could note her name tag: Melissa. “I’ll be right back.”

Melissa took two steps toward the bar before Max called out again. “And the check!” Melissa turned, smiled and nodded: “And the check. Right away.”

“I don’t know where they get these servers some times,” Max commented. “It’s like they don’t want to be here.”

“I don’t always want to be at my job, either,” Dee said.

“No, of course not. But you pretend, right? You pretend for your boss that you like your job. Hell, I’m going to pretend to be sober and working all afternoon. A brisk walk and a couple pieces of gum, then sit quiet and smile the rest of the day to make my boss happy. When you think about it, we’re not really her customers. While we’re here, we’re her boss.”

“I’ve never waited tables,” Dee said. “I think I would be pretty bad at it.”

“How could you be bad at it?” Max asked. Melissa returned to drop off the beer and the bill. “There’s nothing to it. You write down what people want and then you bring it to them.”

“There might be more to it than that,” Dee suggested.

Max smiled. “I’m sure you’re right,” he agreed. “I’ve never worked at a restaurant either. But she didn’t even take my plate.” Max took half a breath before offering his next thought. “I think I’d be a good bartender, though.”

“Oh, yeah?”

“Yeah,” Max said. “I like to drink. Plus, I always wanted to learn to juggle. Oh, I’m also left handed.”

“Really?” Dee asked.

“Sure am. That has to be a big advantage, you know. If you have two people working behind the bar, you wouldn’t be bumping elbows all the time. Like Thanksgiving.”

“You might be on to something there,” Dee said.

Max smiled again, holding his grin until Dee laughed and smiled back. Max took a long pull at his short beer, nearly finishing it.

“We’ve both been hurt before,” Max said, suddenly becoming more serious than the foam on his upper lip allowed Dee to take him. His face matched his tone: even his eyebrows seemed to darken as he lowered his head and looked up at Dee with his hands folded below his chin. “So I’m just going to put this out there and see what happens. I don’t know what you’re going to say, but I can tell that you could hurt me really badly if I let you. I really enjoyed lunch. I don’t usually drink this much, but you’re so pretty it made me nervous. Anyway, I would love to see you for dinner sometime, sometime soon, if you want. And if you don’t, just say so. Don’t say yes now and then ‘forget’ to answer my texts tomorrow or next week.”

“I would like to have dinner with you,” Dee agreed. “What could possibly go wrong?”

Even Melissa, while dropping off change, cringed as she heard the words escape Dee’s lips.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

It was well after eight p.m. as Leigh Major waited and waited for the Snapchat that didn’t come. Todd. Todd was good at making promises, but terrible at keeping them. He loved his new twelve string guitar more than anything else in the world. More than keeping promises, that was for certain. Not enough to learn how to tune it himself, but he loved it enough to want to learn to tune it himself. Laziness trumps many a passion.

She liked Todd. No sense in pretending otherwise. When he first approached her in the hall between classes she was beyond thrilled. His tattered tan cargo shorts revealed smooth, skinny calves and his tousled brown hair fell into his face over and around his eyes — they were blue, like the sea on a very calm, boring day when one wonders what’s so great, and what’s so blue, about the sea anyway.

He was sixteen already, one of the older sophomores at Metroville East. He sang in the choir, skipped and pretended to skip just enough classes to seem dangerous, vacationed in Mexico where he had tried tequila, was definitely getting a tribal tattoo for his eighteenth birthday and could drive at night. A pentafecta.

On the other hand, he couldn’t be bothered to follow through on a promise to chat with Leigh. Leigh had even sent one friendly message to remind him, then a really funny one a little bit later to show him what he was missing. She refused, now, to remind him any further. If he wasn’t going to chat back at her, she would find something to do without him.

Leigh found herself in her mom’s room in the time it took to check her phone for messages three more times. Wandering more than anything else. There wasn’t a ton of room in Randy’s apartment so when Leigh was with her mom she found herself walking around more than she used to, just because she could. Usually she wandered while eating, of course. Today it was Fritos. She was leaving a faint trail of corn dust up and down the halls and now across the carpet of her mom’s room. The only space that was safe was Lou’s room. He was locked in his room, as usual, doing whatever it was that he did these days.

In the next moment, she found herself in her mom’s closet, wandering her hands over her mom’s clothes. It was like touching the exhibits in a museum and covering them in faint yellow dust. The clothes stretched deep into the crowded closet, traveling ever backwards in time. There, at the furthest back, was a garment bag that hadn’t been ignored long enough to begin collecting dust of any variety. Without opening it, Leigh knew what it contained and what she was going to do that night.

 

Bo Tannie was born a bad seed. He was delivered with a yellow pallor common to jaundiced infants, but early rounds of phototherapy did nothing but mix a bit of blue into his unnatural pigment so that he spent the next nineteen years of his life with a slightly green complexion, as if he was perpetually seasick or recovering from grocery store sushi. With his long, lean build, stooped back and pompadour, he could be mistaken for steamed asparagus.

He responded to this adversity aggressively from the start. Although punching the NICU nurse in the nose was purely accidental, it certainly presaged his behavior to come. At every stage of development following volitional movement he attacked all obstacles with the same flailing furor. He rained blows on lamps, dogs and his parents with equal vigor. His maternal grandmother pooh-poohed her daughter’s concerns over Bo’s behavior and bought him a toy carpentry set for his second birthday. She retreated into a more respectful silence on the matter after Bo hammered a plastic nail into her foot far enough to break the skin because she tried to move him away from the television during Power Rangers.

As a senior, Bo had two hobbies. First, he tormented Lou Major who was suffering through a miserable freshman year as nearly the puniest student at Metroville East. By spring break, Lou was bothered enough that he fashioned archery targets featuring Bo’s smirking face. He was afraid to actually shoot them and couldn’t stomach steamed asparagus.. Bo’s other hobby was secretly playing Champions Online. He pieced his computer together himself through a series of crap jobs and petty thefts around Metroville. He had now moved on to Rift and was still working jobs just long enough to buy a new video card or power supply.

Leigh was aware of the tormenting when she giggled at Bo’s attention before the Friday night football games. Even as a seventh grader, she had sense enough to stay with her friends no matter what Bo promised would be waiting for her in the back seat of his car. She had a good idea what it would be, even if she didn’t know the proper name for it yet.

Bo was between things now — out of high school, not interested in more school and not yet required to work more than a few hours a week to keep his step-dad off his back. When his Rift rig was in solid shape, Bo spent his money on as much cheap beer as he could dearly buy from the guys who taught him how to smoke.

Bo still divided his time equally between the thirteen-year-old girls who dreamed of nothing more than being older and the boys of gentle nature and any age who would be worth shaking down without making the effort of actually beating anyone up. His yellowing smile was far more grim when directed at the boys.

It was Saturday night, so no high school football games to skulk around and scout for victims of opportunity. Instead, Bo was imagining how awesomely he could shred the strip mall parking lot in Tony Hawk’s Underground while eyeballing the girls on their way in and out of the Apple store.

 

Not that Bo would have cared too much, but the girl he eventually moved on was buying a new three-pin cable for her fourth generation iPod Touch with a gift card she got at her eleventh birthday party. That she looked thirteen should have been little comfort to any man approaching his 20s. It didn’t comfort Bo, either, but only because his conscience needed no comforting. Bo joked with her and smiled slyly as the evening grew darker, never taking his fingers off the front tire of her bike.

Dusk gave way to night before she realized it. A joke or two more and she was confronted with the realization that she wasn’t comfortable getting home alone in the dark. Maybe, as Bo promised, her bike would fit easily into the trunk of his 280ZX, even though it looked like it had hardly any trunk space at all. If she took the front tire off, the front fork would still probably loll out the trunk like a panting dog’s tongue.

He seemed friendly enough, though even at eleven, Molly knew he wasn’t harmless. Home wasn’t more than a couple miles away. She smiled as she played with the ends of her hair waiting for a decision to happen. Whether it was a hint or not, Bo was more than willing to take the opportunity. He took the bike from her hands and rolled it to the back of his car. He was fishing in the breast pocket of his faded denim jacket, half a size too small when he bought it, now a size and a half too small and practically unbuttonable, when he felt an unexpectedly strong hand reach up and grab him by the shoulder.

When he spun around, he found Captain Major standing before him, but not quite up to him.

“You’re short,” Bo mentioned.

“You’re dumb,” Captain Major replied. “And butt ugly.”

“What’s your beef?” Bo asked. “I’m just giving the girl a ride home.”

“How about I walk Molly home,” Captain Major suggested. “And you find your way back to the first rock you can crawl under.”

“Hey, man,” Bo pushed Captain Major’s hand from his shoulder. “I’m not doing anything wrong. So why don’t you leave us alone?”

Captain Major grabbed the bike by the seat and handlebars and pried it away from Bo.

“I’m sorry,” Molly was mumbling to herself now. “I should get home.”

“I’m happy to walk you,” Captain Major assured her.

“I’ll be fine,” the girl said.

“’Cause you’ll be with me, sweetheart,” Bo offered a winning smile.

“No, thanks,” she said. She slipped the bike from Captain Major’s hands and began to roll it away.

“Come on!” Bo insisted. He grabbed her by the elbow. Captain Major grabbed his wrist. A jolt of energy surged through all of them. Molly jumped. She landed awkwardly against her bike and tumbled to the ground, landing on top of it. Captain Major reached toward her, trying to form an apology. Bo jumped back from the shock only long enough to ball his other fist and throw a haymaker into Captain Major’s skull, connecting just behind her right ear.

Captain Major pitched forward, landing awkwardly upon the girl and pressing her further into her bike. Captain Major raised herself up to her hands and knees. Bo’s canvas shoes dug into her ribs with a ferocious kick. He was spitting curses at her now, his words unrepeatable and impossible to unsay. Captain Major saw that Molly was bleeding from her knuckles as she lay on her side beneath her. She ignored the kicks and worried over whether Molly had scraped her hands when she fell the first time, or when she had fallen on her. Bikes were awkward things when not moving. Anything could have happened in the off-balance moments as spokes, chains and fingers rushed toward pavement.

Bo kept up the pace of his kicks, landing blow after blow, but each kick was less forceful and accurate than the last. He still aimed for the softness of Captain Major’s belly, but was starting to connect with the sharp hardness of her elbow and ulna.

“You’ll be okay,” Captain Major promised. Molly looked up at the masked eyes and felt safe. She smiled gratefully. Captain Major shared a determined grin and began to stand.

“Enough, Bo,” Captain Major easily blocked the ineffectual blows as Bo gave up on the kicks and started throwing wild, arcing punches. She moved forward, trying to corner him in the parking lot, but Bo scampered about, instinctively avoiding every trap that she set. Captain Major feinted a right hand. Bo cowered behind his forearms and Captain Major moved in to push him, reeling, into the far corner of the lot. Then she helped him stumble into the alley between the Apple Store and Taco and Vansghetti, a take and bake Mexitalian place that would stay in business for three more weeks before the owner skipped town without paying staff for their last month of work.

Bo backed into a pile of untended garbage bags. He fell on his ass with a crinkly crash, then rolled to his hands and scrambled further away. He stopped and looked back at his patient pursuer when the tinkling sound of broken glass bouncing over the pavement was interrupted by Captain Major’s laughter.

 

“You really are a coward,” Captain Major shook her head at him.

“No, please,” Bo begged. He held a hand in front of his face for protection as he struggled to his feet.

“That’s far enough,” Captain Major halted him as he reached a knee.

“Please, please don’t hit me,” Bo pleaded. “Don’t hurt me. I didn’t do anything.”

Captain Major pretended to think hard about what to do while she enjoyed the thrill of having someone beg for mercy. She picked him up by the denim of his jacket just far enough so that they were eye to eye.

“Fine,” she said. “But if I ever catch you hassling girls that age again, I’ll cut off your dick and feed it to the raccoons.”

She formed a delicate plasma blade extending from two fingers on her right hand. She meant to extend it toward his throat (or his groin; she hadn’t fully made up her mind) but Bo rolled out of his jacket. The fall was short — more than six inches, less than a foot — but the pavement was hard and uneven. Bo cried out in pain, then flopped to his side, soaking his Slipknot t-shirt in the Mexitalian effluent of canned tomatoes and the juice of a thousand bulbs of garlic.

Before Captain Major could turn to go, Philip Bottomest, Bo’s best friend since the third grade, swung the lug wrench from the trunk of Bo’s car at the back of her legs. With wide eyes and a silent smile he smashed her knee with a sickening crunch. Captain Major toppled. She fell to her side as Bo drew himself to his feet.

Curly Quinn, who was really more of Philip’s friend than Bo’s, was there as well, carrying a tattered golf umbrella also from Bo’s trunk. He brought it down on Captain Major’s neck with a gleeful cry. She turned to beat back his attack only to feel the cold cut of steel as Bo sank the blade of a butterfly knife into her side.

She reached back for the knife, but Bo fell upon her, pressing his weight against her, pressing forward on the knife with his left hand and grabbing a fistful of hair with his right. He pushed her face forward into the muck and awful of the damp street until a gesture from Philip broke his reverie.

Still holding Captain Major down, he pulled back on her hair. Her face was dripping from the street, stinging her eyes as she tried to blink her vision clear.

When she did, she saw Molly astride her bike, watching in horror. “Go!” she yelled. Molly didn’t move. Captain Major saw the wrench in Philip’s raised hand as he shuffled forward like he was trying to time the steps just right. “Now!” was the last word she managed before the wrench shattered her jaw. She felt the breaking of her bones from the moment of impact until Bo slammed her head back into the pavement and she slipped mercifully from consciousness.

 

“She’s still breathing,” Curly nudged at Captain Major with his umbrella.

“Fuck that bitch,” Philip wiped at the bloody edge of his wrench with his fingers. “We should probably finish her off. She knows you, Bo. If she wakes up, she’ll come after you again.”

“Then I’ll take her down again,” Bo paced back and forth next to Captain Major’s still form. “As many times as it takes before she learns her lesson.”

“And what if she goes to the cops?” Curly asked.

“That’s right,” Philip argued. “Are you going to go spend the rest of your life as somebody’s bitch in prison because you don’t have the balls to be a man?”

“Let me think,” Bo squared his jaw and stared back at his car. The trunk yet yawned open.

“Bo, brother, you don’t have time to daydream about what could have been. I’m telling you what your choices are now.” Philip gripped Bo’s shoulder and squeezed. “Either we finish this, together, right this fucking second, or we’re going to wind up in prison. Or dead.”

Bo stepped away from Philip’s hand and looked at him. Philip’s face lit up as Bo’s eyes dimmed from revulsion to resignation. “Yeah,” Bo muttered. “I guess yeah.”

“No one would have to go to prison,” Curly argued while backing away. He accidentally stepped between Philip and Captain Major. He side stepped quickly as he aimed for any exit. “It was self-defense.”

Curly’s next retreating step never reached the pavement. A sandy flow of fabric floated from the shadows to sweep Curly’s feet with a spinning kick into his calves. Curly lost his wind as he fell onto his back. A swift kick from a luxuriously soft leather boot curled Curly over his stomach, where he gasped for breath.

“What are you doing here?” Bo wondered as he stared open-mouthed at the legend standing in a puddle of green chili and ravioli. The Immortal flexed his fingers inside his heavy leather gloves. The creak of the leather, desperate for oil, seemed to swirl around the alley. His face, that which was visible below his mask, was grim. With no words and no expression, he waited, the faint outlines of the symbol for infinity shifting as the breeze moved his heavy cape over his chest.

With a whoop, Philip charged, his bloody wrench held high. He brought the wrench down hard. The Immortal easily dodged the blow and sent Philip tumbling forward before dropping a swift elbow to the base of Philip’s neck. Philip pitched forward, eyes open but unseeing, as his face splashed into a puddle of rain water.

Bo looked to run to his car. He tried darting left and right, but The Immortal cut him off and forced him backwards into a corner between a dumpster and the Mexitalian wall. “Dude, it was self-defense. She started it.”

The Immortal slapped the young man hard enough to twist Bo’s entire body like he was wringing out a wet towel. “Don’t call me ‘Dude’,” The Immortal said. Bo spit blood from a gash on the inside of his cheek. “And don’t tell me it was self-defense. You stabbed her in the back with a smile on your face recorded by three different surveillance cameras.”

The Immortal wrapped his gloved hand around Bo’s neck and squeezed. He turned Bo’s chin up while he stared him down. “I can’t turn you in. I can’t kill you. And I can’t rip your dick off.”

The Immortal grabbed Bo’s balls with his other gloved hand. “Actually, I could rip your dick off. I could,” he paused to squeeze as hard as he dared while Bo choked back a sob, “crush your nuts like tomatillos and serve them up to the alley cats. But I’m not going to. I’m not going to do any of that.”

Bo collapsed against the wall as The Immortal released him from his grip. Bo noticed how loud his breathing was but couldn’t help but to continue gulping for air. He began to slide along the wall, feeling for a chance to escape. The Immortal took one step backward. Bo began to turn and run, but The Immortal stopped him with a word:

“Now. I’m not going to do any of that now. But when that girl wakes up, I’m going to do whatever she asks me to do. I won’t feel the least bit bad about it. If she asks me to, your mother will spend each of her remaining birthdays opening a finely wrapped gift box with another piece of your body inside. Go.”

Bo, feeling clammy and faint, ran to his car, started it, backed up without looking and raced off into the night. His flapping trunk finally slammed shut as he bounced over a curb and accelerated toward Fourth Street.

 

As Bo sped away, The Immortal glanced at the other three bodies still littering the alley. Two were slowly crawling away, afraid to look in his direction. The other remained far too still.

The Immortal knelt at Captain Major’s side, checking her limbs and the knife wound before contemplating her broken face. Her mouth was a bloody pile of teeth, so confused he couldn’t tell which belonged where and which were in their original places. The left side of her face was swelling enormously with the skin turning almost black in places.

He felt her pulse at her neck and counted her breaths. Despite everything else, her heart was strong.

He bent forward and brushed the hair from her forehead. He intended to kiss her, but the fall into the pavement left her forehead cut, bruised and dirty. He found no place safe for even the gentlest kiss.

“You’re going to be fine,” The Immortal patted her hand. “I’m taking you somewhere safe. We’ll make sure you’re fine. You’re going to be okay.”

Captain Major’s eyes fluttered open, then fell back nearly closed. She tried to speak, but the pain in her jaw and the disaster in her mouth meant that she couldn’t properly form any words.

“Hush,” The Immortal quieted her. “My ‘copter is on the way. We’ll take care of the pain, then fix you right up.”

Captain Major continued to breathe words, moving her lips around them, trying to whisper them through her broken face. Seeing she wouldn’t be dissuaded, The Immortal bent forward, placing his ear directly over her lips. He shut the world out around them, straining desperately to understand what she needed to say. Finally, as the helicopter began to land and all hope of hearing was lost, he pieced together what her raspy whispers meant to convey.

“Don’t tell my mom.”

 

Dee Major was doing her best to focus on the finishing touches of the early dinner for Lou and Leigh rather that stew in her anger at Randy for having changed plans at the last minute — again. It was his weekend for the kids, but he had dropped them off that morning with vague reports that he felt like he was coming down with something and didn’t want to expose the kids. Suddenly, and for the first time, he was very, very concerned about their academic progress. Of course, part of the subtext in his complaint was that his place was so small and they all shared a bathroom, and so on, so they couldn’t help but infect one another. Just one more reminder of the petty jealousies he was nurturing. There was a lesson in there for Dee about forgiving, forgetting or just moving forward, but she was having trouble remembering to see it among the flurry of pots and pans as she tried to make tacos and grilled cheese without spilling anything on her new dress. If she dated more, she’d figure out these simple logistics.

Lou was in his room. He was ever in his room, when he was home. He was out more these days, running or hanging out with his new friends on the team whose names he never seemed willing to share. Dee was initially happy that he was spending more time with the runners. Anything seemed better than moping around the house. Surely it was better, for him at least, to spend some time with his peers. Dee simply regretted that she saw him even less than before and that his attitude, toward her at least, was just as brutally shitty as before. She gave him life. She probably deserved all the pain he offered her in return.

Leigh’s attitude remained dangerously exuberant. She seemed alive to all the new possibilities that life had to offer. As if the divorce freed Leigh to explore her own life. Perhaps it wasn’t nearly so complicated. On net, the separation and divorce, combined with retiring from heroing, had reduced the base level of stress and anxiety in the house from Apollo 13 to Rocky 2. Even Dee couldn’t help noticing, from time to time, the absence of the resentment which she had been carrying around for years. Perhaps, just perhaps, the mere absence of misery was a positive change for her children. At least one of them.

Leigh continued to take a strong interest in Dee’s dating life. The dates she had arranged had in some way worked out. Stefan was an obvious miss, but Leigh took one glance at Stefan’s profile after the date and came up with half a dozen warning signs that she would be wise enough to spot in the future. Mike seemed a good guy even though he was overwhelmingly interested in lame kids activities. Leigh was very proud of Max, though, as Max had been Dee’s highest match on the site and they were already going on their third date.

“I like your outfit, mom,” Leigh said as she waited for her dinner to be ready. “It’s really pretty.”

“Thanks, Leigh. That’s nice of you to say.”

“Do you think you’ll marry Max?” Leigh asked.

Dee’s whirlwind of stirring and chopping snapped to an immediate halt. She felt the clammy grip of panic on her neck for another instant before deciding that Leigh was back to teasing her.

“Probably,” Dee answered.

“Really?” Leigh asked. “Will you change your name? Will you be Dee Depf?

“I don’t think so. I’m already sorry I didn’t go back to my maiden name. It would have been easier to get rid of you.”

“Drum?” Leigh said. “Your maiden name sounds weird. ‘Dee Drum’. No wonder you changed it.”

“Your dad really wanted me to hyphenate it so I’d be Dee Drum-Major. How ridiculous would that have been?”

“And then when you married Max, you would be Dee Depf-Drum-Major,” Leigh marveled. “You’d have to move to the island of misfit toys.”

“That’s not how it works, dear.”

“You don’t know how the island of misfit toys works. No one does. It’s a mystery,” Leigh feigned amazement, then shifted gears. “Are you going to have another baby? Or babies?”

“You’re about to get your permit. I don’t think I could handle those worries on top of baby worries.”

“Really?”

“No,” Dee said. “Honestly, Leigh, I don’t think I’ll ever marry again. I certainly won’t have more kids. I love both you guys, of course, but I wouldn’t have had kids if I knew what I was going to become. I put everyone at risk. I’m so glad I don’t have to worry about that anymore.”

“Where are you going tonight?”

“Some place that Winnie recommended. Max is making me pick. Like I know restaurants.”

“Respect yourself,” Leigh adopted a mock serious tone. “If you don’t, no one else will. Make good choices. I’m proud of you. Use a condom. Practice on a banana if you’re not sure how. You’re still my special girl.” She waggled a finger menacingly at her mother who shook her head and seasoned the simmering meat.

 

Dee was nervous as they walked into the brightly lit restaurant for the first time. She gripped Max’s arm a little more tightly as a strange wailing came from somewhere beyond the hostess stand. A flash of fire grabbed her attention from the corner of her eye. She turned quickly and flexed toward a battle stance. It wasn’t easy in her new dress which fit her so well she could barely bend her knees.

Her alarm subsided as soon as she noticed that the fire was nothing more than the extravagance of a hibachi chef with an over-sized onion volcano erupting to delight a 10 year old’s birthday party.

“Seems like a fun place,” Max said as they waited for their turn with the hostess.

“What else would you expect from Sushi and the Ganges? Winnie loves this place. The food is great. They’ve got the best Indian-sushi-hibachi fusion in town,” Dee recited all the facts she knew about the place.

“Reservation for two,” Max held up two fingers on his right hand for the hostess.

“Name?” she asked.

“Max. Max Depf.”

The hostess scanned her book for the reservation. “Ah, yes,” she said as she found the reservation. “In the Taj Mahal. Very romantic.”

Max grinned slyly. “Very romantic,” he repeated.

“Very long walk,” Dee noted. “From the Ganges to the Taj Mahal.”

“Then we’ll have quite the appetites,” Max agreed.

The walk was, in fact, quite short. In no time, they left the louder parties behind and entered a new, cozy room.

“This is nice,” Dee admitted as she surveyed the private room with pale yellow light hiding in the curves of heavy red drapes hanging on three walls. In the center of the room was a warm teppanyaki griddle. Dee and Max took their seats opposite another couple and peaked at them over the griddle while pretending to look at their menus. The other couple was young and immune to the judgments of the rest of the world. They held each other close, always touching, hands on faces, noses to necks, caressing and nuzzling between sips of sake.

 

There were four empty chairs left at the griddle when the chef appeared. He confirmed their orders brusquely and in choppy English, then set up his work space. Dee was startled at the noise from the start, as he banged his knife and spatula against the grill. Max pulled heavily at his bottle of Sapporo while watching the chef work with great interest.

“I could’ve been a chef, I think,” Max said dreamily as he idly fiddled with his black cashmere fedora.

“Do you like cooking?” Dee wondered.

“Oh, no,” Max said. “But I like fire.”

Sure enough, the chef was lighting small fires across the griddle like a Vegas showman. He ran through all the usual tricks, including catching a bit of egg in his hat on the second try and, much to Max’s delight, soaking Dee’s face with a squirt of sake from his squeeze bottle.

Through it all the other couple hardly seemed to pay attention so focused were they on one another. They shared smoldering looks, but not just with each other. They seemed to want everyone at the restaurant to know that they were fighting every instinct in their bodies just to keep their pants on until they tumbled into the backseat of a taxi to take them home for the night.

Max was mesmerized by the carrying on. He ordered another beer to go along with the show while Dee tried to focus on her grilled chicken and fried rice. The woman whispered something that made her date smile. He kissed her and took his wallet out. He left several folded bills next to his plate, bowed slightly to the chef and escorted her from the room without another word, his hand trailing gently from the skin of her neck below her neatly trimmed pageboy haircut all the way down to the butterfly tattoo hidden beneath her blouse as he gently walked her through the beaded curtain that gave the room a sense of intimacy. Max watched the proceedings with open-mouthed fascination.

In the next moment, Dee noticed the chef was finished cleaning up the grill. As she nibbled at her dinner, he, too, departed. Dee and Max were alone in the dimly lit, velvety room.

She almost had time to enjoy the mood before she felt his hand grab her breast. His touch was less eagerness than desperation. She didn’t react, not even to flinch, and he squeezed, too hard. She shook her head to wake herself up from her own thoughts. “Too hard for what?” one of her internal voices berated the one that had given the instruction not to flinch. She pushed his hand away.

“Why don’t me and you go back to my place?” Max asked.

“I don’t think so,” Dee said. She checked her mood carefully, following her training to keep her anger and confusion under control.

“Nothing has to happen, Dee. Unless you want to. And you might like it,” Max moved his hand to tickle the back of her neck. She shrugged and twisted away.

“Nothing like that is going to happen. Not tonight,” Dee said.

“I think it would be good for you,” Max said. “See how it feels to be with a man who cares for you.”

“If you cared for me you’d be using your words rather than your hands. And if you listened to me you’d know that groping me in a restaurant is absolutely not how to get me into bed,” Dee stood up and took a step back. She felt like she needed a little more room, more air of her own to breathe. The cozy room now felt small and too warm.

Max sat for a moment. He swirled his bottle of beer and tossed back the last few drops. He slammed the bottle back down on the table hard enough that Dee wondered whether it would break. He pushed himself away from the table and out of his chair. He stood and stepped toward her. She noticed for the first time how much taller she was than him. He raised a finger to point toward her chin as he spat his anger at her.

“Listen? I’ve listened to all your stupid stories about your stupid boring kids. ‘Wah! My son doesn’t like me anymore.’ Boo fucking hoo. I take you nice places, I give you compliments, bring you gifts, buy you meals. And no pressure from me. But as soon as I have a need, you turn into a frigid fucking bitch.”

“I liked you,” Dee replied. “But you don’t get to buy me like a fried rice or a Dos Equis. Don’t you dare think of me like that.”

“You’ll take everything I give you, but you won’t give anything back in return. You’re just another thieving skank. Lead me on, take advantage that I’m a nice guy. Well, not one penny more. This well is dry. You stupid slut. So ungrateful. Guess fucking what? You’re buying me dinner tonight!”

With that, Max turned and marched to the beaded entryway. Without paying attention to where he was going, he nearly crashed into the busboy coming to clear the plates.

“Idiot,” Max hissed toward the busboy.

Captain Major’s phone buzzed in her pocket. Dee answered it as automatically as she had grabbed it on her way out that evening. She heard The Immortal’s voice. His tone grabbed her attention. She didn’t fully understand what he was saying, but a million questions immediately rushed through her head. She squeezed out two, getting even those in the wrong order: “Where? What?” She heard the location but couldn’t remember where it was. “Send it to my map,” she said. Not even knowing where she was going, she made one more promise before she hung up: “I’ll be there in five.”

Max returned and poked his face through the beaded curtain. “Enjoy walking home, you worthless bitch.” Max paused long enough to delight that she seemed totally shattered. There were even tears. He smiled and was nearly whistling as he walked back to his car.

Dee heard not a word he had said, but waited for him to leave before racing to the kitchen and out the back door and then into the darkness beyond.

 

Dee Major clambered up the fire escape at the back of the Sushi and the Ganges. She ditched her shoes at the top and ripped her dress to the top of her thigh so she could run. She rushed from rooftop to rooftop, following the directions fed to her from the nav system on her phone. Barefoot and barely clothed, she felt neither the touch of the night air as it rushed over her skin nor the stabs and pinches of the rough and pebbled roofs as she willed herself ever forward, taking risks, never looking back, inviting any hurt that might come her way.

Finally, in the distance, she saw The Immortal’s new commercial building — Intie Tower. An immodest building that towered over the rest of its block, it was slowly being finished, floor by floor, from the bottom up and the top down. Dee was 40 floors from the top when she landed on a convenient scaffold and pushed her way through plastic sheeting into the steel and cement skeleton of the building.

She knocked over sawhorses and dodged between piles of brick waiting to be laid and refuse waiting to be disposed to reach a stairwell. She opened the door and felt her heart change. It shifted from 210 beats per minute of cardiovascular efficiency to half the rate and twice the strength as fear gripped her. She lost her breath and heaved next to a bucket of broken timbers and random sweepings.

She was on the 32nd floor. She had never been to the building, despite a few requests from Phil Intie, the now-reputable alter ego of the once-villainous Immortal. She knew vaguely of the plans from conversations long past when they drank coffee together and searched for anything to talk about except Phil’s grotesque success and Dee’s failing marriage.

The thirteenth floor of Intie Tower was among the first completed and the only one hidden. It was assembled by microbots directed by The Immortal’s advanced artificial intelligence engine. The thirteenth floor held all the remnants and memories of The Immortal’s career and the most salient feature of the moment: a fully equipped, largely automated medical bay. That’s where Leigh would be, if she were alive. She had to be alive.

Dee bounded down the floors, sweeping her legs over the safety railing to save steps. She reached the fifteenth floor and slowed, not knowing exactly how to proceed. She thought of Lou. If Leigh was dying, she had to call him, but she couldn’t think of how to say anything to him. She couldn’t talk to him about washing his crunchy socks or taking care of his cereal bowls. She couldn’t possibly tell him about this.

She moved cautiously now as she continued to descend. She studied the walls with her eyes and fingers, hoping to see some evidence of the floor she knew to be there. Nothing in the walls betrayed anything. She reached the landing of the twelfth floor and looked out at the city that had betrayed her. It was busy in the street below. The lights of cars lit the pedestrians milling on the sidewalks and walking in all directions. From this height, everyone seemed peaceful and in control.

Dee punched the wall next to the stairwell window in frustration, angry at the instructions she had been too upset to understand. The punch failed to reveal anything. Her damaged daughter was nearby, but as lost as if she were stranded in Hannibal Caverns. She suppressed a scream and turned to work her way back up the steps.

A bright, yellow light began to leak out from the bottom of the window. The window itself rolled up like blinds to reveal Phil Intie wearing fresh scrubs and a very concerned look. He held out his hand and beckoned Dee forward. She followed, not marveling at all as the window rolled back down and resumed concealing the secret entrance with a live projection of the outside world.

Intie led her in a quick circle. Three right turns through a narrow, utilitarian hall led them to a doorway on their left. He scanned his retinas to release the locks, then opened the door. They stepped into a blindingly white room. There, but ten yards away, in a bed surrounded by monitors, Leigh Major lie.

 

Phil opened his mouth as if to speak, but no words came. He stood silently, looking out over the machinery his wealth and genius had created. The steady beeps of the many monitors were tuned to be calming, but did little to lessen his worry. Everything was out of his control now and all his jobs were done. There was nothing more but to wait.

Dee no longer saw her friend Phil or the expanse of white flowing outward in all directions. She saw her little girl, battered, bruised, unconscious, lying in a hospital bed, her body feeding signals to a dozen monitors that perched around her like scavengers. She rushed to her daughter’s side and grabbed Leigh’s clammy hand. She squeezed until she imagined that Leigh was squeezing back.

She wasn’t.

An automated voice began to speak. Its tone was programmed to be reassuring, but it sounded droll and mocking to Dee’s ears as it reported its latest findings. Blood pressure was low, pulse ox was low, respiration was low, brain activity was minimal. “Minimal!” Dee seized onto that word. She whipped around to glare at Phil. He patted the air between them, urging her to stay calm.

“There’s no sign of brain damage,” he soothed. “She’s just drifting in and out of consciousness. She’s been on a morphine drip while we stabilized her.”

“Is this where she should be?” Dee asked.

“Look at her,” Phil said. “It’s the only place she can be.”

An image flashed across Dee’s mind. The roundabout for dropping off at Metroville East. Yes, of course that’s where Leigh should be. Off at school or at a friend’s or in the kitchen whining for Dee to make a third supper. Dee pulled the light sheet back and looked down at her daughter’s body. Leigh still wore remnants of the new Captain Major kit, though it had been torn in the fight and then cut to ribbons to examine the wounds and attach the monitoring strips.

“I should have put her in a gown as soon as I got her here,” Phil continued. “But I couldn’t. I don’t think she’d forgive me for taking it off.”

“I don’t know if I can forgive her for putting it on,” Dee said.

“Of course you can,” Phil said. “You will.”

“I don’t mean her,” Dee said.

“I know,” Phil softly agreed.

“What happened?” Dee demanded.

Phil scratched his head hoping that the motion would shake the details into order. He started with a confession.

“The suit I gave you,” he began. “I had a way to track you. I didn’t expect to use it. I didn’t know that I would ever use it, but I thought it might be handy, in case we were ever working together again. That was before you left the business. Of course.”

Phil waited a moment for that to sink in, but Dee declined to react. She stayed quiet and willed him to get on with it. “The system,” Phil waved airily to indicate the latest revision to the artificially intelligent systems which managed most of the building and lived in another part of the thirteenth floor, “alerted me when you went out on patrol. I’ve watched you a few times when you’ve gone out, but I’ve never wanted to interfere. You weren’t in any of your usual places tonight, which caught my attention. Plus, I had heard you were on a date. So I thought I’d check it out.”

“Why didn’t you see this coming, Phil?” Dee asked. Phil recognized the real question that was just below the surface. Why hadn’t he stopped it? Phil Intie, The Immortal, had his wealth and his genius, but what had made him a super villain and then a super hero was his ability to see the future. He didn’t see the future that would be. He saw all the futures that could be. With his super computer, and its predecessors, he had become very good at focusing on the futures that were most likely to be. The ready excuse, the honest answer, was that even though the system hadn’t filtered out this possibility, Phil had ignored this outcome because it seemed so unlikely to happen. The unlikelihood was of no comfort to Phil and would be worth even less to Dee now that it had happened. The truth being desperately unpleasant, Phil wanted to lie.

So he did.

“I didn’t see this, Dee. Maybe I don’t see all the possible futures. I guess I just see many of the possible futures. I had no idea that this could happen, or I would have stopped it.”

“You would have told me about it, right? I mean, you would have let me know that my daughter was going to be…” Dee trailed off as she stood and pulled her hand away from Leigh’s. She gestured back at her daughter’s body, unwilling to look at her while she was unable to name what had happened to her.

“She’s going to recover, Dee,” Phil said.

“Don’t make me any more promises,” Dee said. “Ever.”

Stillness fell between them. It lasted for beep after beep. Dee held onto her anger and Phil respected her rage. He invited it. It was satisfying to feel her blame and anger. He didn’t deserve it, but he welcomed it all the same.

“I’m sorry, Dee. I’m so, so sorry,” Phil said. He reached toward her, gently offering his hand. She turned away and folded herself over Leigh’s body.

Dee watched Leigh’s breathing and took some comfort in the regular rise and fall of her belly. More minutes passed in that way: Dee watching Leigh’s breath, Phil standing behind Dee and watching the monitors. “It’s not your fault,” Dee finally responded.

“I’m still sorry,” Phil said.

“Thank you.”

“You know you’re welcome.”

That’s all they said for a long while. Phil kept talking himself out of putting his hand on Dee’s shoulder. His feet began to ache. He walked away to get a chair.

Dee heard him walk away. She stood. She leaned forward and closed her eyes like she was blowing out birthday candles, then kissed Leigh as gently as she could on the forehead. She looked down at her beautiful daughter’s face — bruised and bloody with ugly sutures closing one large gash across her cheek. She returned to watching the rise and fall of Leigh’s breath and everything else seemed to drift far away. “Leigh, Leigh, Leigh,” was all she could think to say.

She sat back down and took Leigh’s hand in both of hers again. The IV taped to her daughters wrist seemed enormous and delicate at the same time. She wondered what time it was and thought again about whether she should call Lou or Randy.

Leigh gasped. It was a deep, sudden breath in and then a labored wheeze out. A sudden, guttural gasp. A broken breath from a broken girl.

Dee jumped to her feet. Phil returned with his chair and saw the panic on Dee’s face as her eyes darted from her daughter to the various monitors. Dee found a green line bouncing wildly on a small, round screen. She pointed at it. “Something’s wrong!” she yelled at Phil.

“She’s fine,” Phil said. He left his chair at the foot of the bed. “Her brain activity is picking up. She might be waking up.”

Dee sat down and stared, expectantly, holding Leigh’s hand again. She felt the clamminess of her sweat going stale between their palms as she waited and waited for another reaction that didn’t come.

Twenty minutes passed before Phil made to leave. “I’m going to get us something to drink,” he said. He didn’t know if he meant coffee, whiskey or a bit of both.

“Nothing for me,” Dee muttered softly.

“Are you sure I can’t get you something? A bite to eat?” Phil implored.

“All I want is my daughter to wake up.”

“She will, in her own time.”

“And I want to know who did this,” Dee finally turned away from Leigh to assess Phil with her eyes, to see what he might know and what he might be trying to hide.

“It was boys, Dee, just boys,” Phil explained.

“How did boys do this to my little girl?”

“I don’t know what happened before I got there,” Phil lied. “But it wasn’t a new villain or an old enemy. She was wearing your costume and three boys had her in an alley. They were mean. They weren’t evil. Do you know what I mean?”

“I don’t care what they were, Phil. I want you to tell me who they were. The rest will take care of itself.”

“I don’t know their names,” Phil said. He turned to get the drinks. Whiskey for himself, coffee for both.

As he stepped away, Dee returned her attention to Leigh.

“Three boys,” Dee whispered toward the floor. “Who did this to you, Leigh? Who did this?” Dee gently brushed the bangs back from Leigh’s face so they weren’t hanging in her eyes.

Leigh’s eyelids fluttered, then opened.

She looked back at her mom. Dee felt a surge of tears as she saw the strength in her daughter’s eyes. Leigh licked her lips and swallowed with effort.

“Hey,” Dee smiled and patted Leigh’s hand enthusiastically. “Are you waking up?”

“Bo,” Leigh said.

“Oh, I think you are,” Dee said. “It’s time to wake up. We’ll get you something to drink in just a second. Let me look at you first.”

“No,” Leigh argued, shaking her head subtly but firmly. “Bo.”

“Bo?” Dee prompted. It was difficult to understand the soft, unformed words. “Bo who?”

“Tannie.”

“From school?”

Leigh nodded. Phil returned with a tray of coffee, milk and sugar. He set it down in his chair and began to check the monitors while giving vague reassurances about all the good things he was seeing.

“I should call Lou,” Dee stood to go.

“Call him from here,” Phil said. “Let him talk to Leigh for a bit.”

“She should rest,” Dee said.

“So should you,” Phil argued.

“I have to tell Randy, too,” Dee added.

“Of course,” Phil agreed. “And he’ll want to talk to his daughter, I’m sure.”

“I’ve got business to take care of,” Dee said. She set her phone on the bed near Leigh’s feet as she walked away. “There’s nothing more I can do here.”

Phil grabbed her by the arm to keep her from walking by. “There’s everything more you can do here. You can be her mother,” he begged with his face turned to Dee but his eyes fixed on his patient.

“I don’t always get to be her mother,” Dee said. “Justice is everyone’s mother.”

“Justice can wait,” Phil said.

“Justice delayed is justice denied.” Dee said. “And if you put your hands on me again, I’ll leave you in a bed just like this one. If you’re lucky.”

Phil let her go. He watched her walk hurriedly down the hall, then break into a run as she neared the exit. He slumped and sighed and turned back to his patient. She looked just like her mother after a battle not so long ago — a face full of determination, resolve and scars that might never heal.

 

Max Depf drove straight from Sushi and the Ganges to his happiest place on earth: The 10,000 Inches, a sports bar at the intersection of two highways that offered 100 televisions each measuring over 100 inches in length. His mouth was already watering from the anticipation of a basket of walleye fingers as he mashed the key fob to lock his car.

He found a seat at the bar and decided to treat himself to a tower of onion rings in addition to the walleye fingers. He began washing it down with a white ale garnished with an orange slice because life was too short for bad beer. He didn’t really know what good beer was, and didn’t like white ales, but he did like the commercials and the busty lady on the bottle.

All the games were on, but Max didn’t really watch. He had never played any sports and owed no allegiance to any particular team. On the other hand, he loved expressing opinions, especially ones he didn’t know he had. Max delighted in how easily sport lent itself to uniformed opining.

A women’s college softball game was on one of the small televisions above the bar. Max wasn’t particularly interested. So much bunting and hustling and fundamentals. And visors. The only real sport where people wore visors was high stakes hold ‘em, and if any of those dudes were sporting pony tails the studio producers had the good sense to keep them out of frame.

Ultimate fighting was coming up, but the previews all looked the same to Max. One guy lying atop another guy and punching him over and over in the head until he couldn’t defend himself. Three or four punches after that and the fight was over.

Max was looking around for something interesting to stare at when the guy two stools to his right loudly yelled “Holy fucking Jesus!” That grabbed Max’s attention by the balls.

“Did you fucking see that?” the guy swatted toward Max with his free hand, making no contact, while cradling his beer with the other. “That fucking chick took a laser right in the fucking melon.”

“What the fuck?” Max inquired.

“Here, here, here,” the guy replied. “They’re showing the fucking replay now. Watch. Just watch.”

Max watched. In slow motion, the pitcher released the ball. The batter swung and drove a line drive right back through the box. The pitcher brought her glove up, but too late. Her face was still contorted from concentration and effort when the softball struck her somewhere over her right eye. Her visor went pinwheeling toward second base as she fell to the ground like a burst sack of string cheese sticks.

“That’s so awesome!” Max laughed as the broadcast cut to the medical staff attending to the pitcher on the mound. The infield gathered closer and everyone took a knee while the doctor worked through her exam.

“Right in the face,” his new buddy added. He used his palm to mime the ball striking his own eye. “Thwak!” he said to mark the noise, then he slumped heavily into his chair as if he had gone unconscious.

On the television the batter took a few tentative steps away from first base, not sure what she should do. Making up her mind she trotted to the mound and sank to a knee between the first and second basemen. The batter whispered something to the second baseman, who nodded. In another moment, the players were holding hands in a circle around the pitching mound where the doctor and trainer worked. The benches slowly cleared as the coaches and both teams stood in solemn semi circles with their heads drawn down.

“I wonder if she’s fucking dead,” the guy said.

“Nah, they couldn’t show it if she was dead,” Max opined. He pushed the brim of his hat back to show his seriousness. “That would be pretty awesome if they did, though. Like fucking Saudi Arabia.”

“I think she’s moving.”

On the screen, the camera switched to a different angle and it was clear that the pitcher was alive, but only marginally alert. Her eyes were as glassy as the worst drunk at the bar, who contemporaneously continued his commentary: “Chicks playing sports, am I right?”

“You are so fucking right, brother,” Max said.

“Hey, can you spare an onion ring?”

“Sure,” Max pushed his plate over.

“Thanks. Sweet lid, by the way.”

Max smiled. “What’s your name?”

“Randy,” Randy Major gave his name. The jukebox kicked in, playing a Thin Lizzy tune.

“Good to meet you, Randy,” Max handed over the ketchup bottle so Randy could dip. Having no plate, he drew a thin line of ketchup over his onion ring instead, then held it up over his right eye.

“Guess who I fucking am?” Randy asked.

Max got a real kick out of that one.

 

Dee was nothing short of grateful when Randy didn’t pick up and she got his voice mail. She left the calmest, vaguest message she could muster then hung up the land line. She walked into her closet and made for the satchel in the back. She slid through the numbers on the lock then clicked open the latches. She gravely opened the brown leather bag.

No music played and no mystical light issued forth. Inside, balled at the bottom of the bag was her well-worn Captain Major costume, exactly as she left it. Ratty, dirty, creased, torn and familiar. The fabric belonged to Confederated Justice, but the memories belonged to her. She slipped it on piece by piece. The baggy harem pants, then the slightly oversized tunic. The night was warm enough that she didn’t bother with a thermal layer. She laced her purple trainers up over her favorite socks and secured her mask over her eyes.

She looked herself over in the mirror. She stared a long time at the face she hoped she had buried. She wasn’t out for exercise. She wasn’t out for the rush of dancing over the rooftops of the world. She tore herself away from the mirror and doused the lights before creeping out the window. She listened once to make sure that Lou hadn’t stirred from his room. Satisfied that he was still safely ignorant of all the night’s events, Captain Major slipped from shadow to shadow until it was safe to be seen. When no one would know where she had come from, she darted across rooftops and patios, through backyards and cul-de-sacs, heading directly for Bo Tannie’s last known address, found in a middle school parent roster that she had forgotten in the mail sorter for nigh a decade: 1369 Maycomb Lane.

Captain Major skulked in the shadow of the chimney above 1369 Maycomb Lane waiting for Bo to return, not even knowing if he still lived there. A call to The Immortal would get her his address in an instant, but she had a feeling Phil wouldn’t be taking that call right now. Sweet guy, Phil, but he didn’t understand that when you mess with the cubs, you face the grizzly.

It was a nice neighborhood. Winding, tree-lined streets and well-groomed lawns. A few of the houses had pools in the backyard, but not 1369. Lots of fences, very few dogs. It was late in the year and late in the day, but it still smelled a bit like sausages and burgers cooking over charcoal. After picking discretely at her food in the restaurant, Captain Major’s stomach grumbled with desire for a well-prepared cheeseburger.

Cars passed, but none stopped. Captain Major wished she had her phone so she could check the time. A minute later, she checked her pockets for her phone again, then was distracted by the muscular sound of an approaching car.

The tires on Bo Tannie’s 280ZX chirped as he turned tightly into the driveway. The undercarriage complained as he hit the poorly graded curb cut and banged against the blacktop. Bo parked well into the grass by the garbage cans so that his dad had room to back out in the morning.

Bo staggered out of his car and fumbled with his keys. He dropped them as he tried to shove them into the breast pocket of his jacket. He bent forward to pick them up from where they glinted in the street lights.

He stood up and turned around to find Captain Major standing directly in front of him. She was half a head shorter than he was and far thinner, but he still fell back against his car in fright.

Captain Major used a fan kick to send his keys flying toward the street, then moved effortlessly through a spin to sweep Bo’s legs from underneath him. Bo fell to the ground, hard, his head bouncing off the pavement. He tried to crawl under his own car, but was too big to fit more than his arm behind the left front tire. Captain Major dragged him away from the car by his pant leg. Bo kicked and squealed like a piglet being separated from his mother as his fingers slipped away from the tire.

“What did you do today, Bo?” Captain Major asked, standing over him like the Colossus at Rhodes minus the eternal impassivity.

“I didn’t do shit,” Bo replied. The odor of stale beer followed his words as he looked up from the driveway. “It was Philip who bashed you with the wrench.”

“Your bad luck. Philip isn’t here,” Captain Major replied.

“The hell he isn’t,” Bo betrayed his friend for a second time in the same evening. “He’s hiding in the back seat.”

“Don’t move. Not even a little,” Captain Major bent far forward until her face was inches away from Bo’s. “Not even to breathe.”

Bo put his entire focus on not pissing himself. He closed his eyes and screwed up his face in the effort. Captain Major casually kicked Bo in the ribs as she walked over Bo on her way to the back seat of the car. The door was locked. Captain Major knocked on the window and watched as Philip tried to pull a blanket over his head to pretend that he wasn’t there.

It took Captain Major half a second to charge her plasma power from the surrounding air, then the glass of the back seat window shattered most satisfyingly as she punched her first through the middle. She unlocked the door and grabbed the brown and orange afghan blanket with both hands. She dragged it and Philip out of the car and onto the driveway. The sound his head made as it bounced against the pavement was even more satisfying than the shattered window.

She kicked Philip firmly through the blanket, rolling him over until he was side by side with the obediently immobile Bo. On the last roll, the blanket began to unravel. A metallic clang clued Captain Major into a foreign object hidden among the folds of the blanket. She dropped into a full squat and picked up what Philip was hiding: a heavy lug wrench, crimson and brown with blood. She recognized the bend of the wrench from the sutures on her daughter’s face.

The lights came on inside the house. A moment later, the outside lights snapped on as well. The lights were bright and blue and placed to light up the basketball hoop Captain Major now noticed looming over all of them.

Philip struggled to his feet and began to run toward the street. Bo stood a moment later and ran for his front door. Bo was too slow and couldn’t elude Captain Major’s swift left hand. She grabbed him by the collar and jerked him backwards. He lost his feet and she slammed him hard against the black top. Philip continued to flee, his arms and legs flailing out of rhythm like a middle school marching band with the drum line hopped up on Red Bull and salt water taffy. Captain Major picked up the bloody wrench, took two steps to get clear of a young willow tree and threw the wrench with perfect aim. It struck Philip between the shoulder blades. The impact — and the case of Busch Light he and Bo vanquished while victoriously cruising around town — caused him to lurch forward. His face met the curb before he could raise his hands to protect himself.

Captain Major didn’t stay to check on either of them. She turned to walk down the street toward home. She was a block away before Bo made it to Philip’s side, turned him over and watched him spit out bits of his broken teeth.

 

The bartender in the turquoise suspenders rang the bell above the register to announce that it was last call. Randy Major and Max Depf treated it like a starter’s gun and glugged through the rest of their beers. Max finished first. He pointed and laughed as Randy struggled through the last few swallows, until he finally coughed and spit up enough beer to soak the bar and his shirt.

“Last round’s on you!” Max laughed.

Randy struggled up to his elbows and leaned over the bar looking for a rag. The bartender swept over and began to clean up the puddle of spit and beer. Randy kept leaning over the bar, looking for a fresh rag. The bartender influenced Randy back into his seat by wiping the bar closer and closer to Randy’s elbows.

“Hey,” Max called to the bartender. “Two more beers. This mook is buying.”

“Sorry, guys, last call,” the bartender explained. “I can’t serve you.”

“That’s not what last call means, buddy,” Randy argued.

“Yeah,” Max agreed. “It’s last call for alcohol. That means time for one last round, and we’re having one last round and this pussy is buying.”

“How about I call you a cab instead?” the bartender asked.

“How ‘bout we figure that out after you serve our drinks,” Max said.

“I don’t think I can do that,” the bartender said as he finished cleaning the bar and edged away.

“Be a pal,” Max urged. “One more beer isn’t going to hurt anybody.”

“I’d have to ask my manager,” the bartender explained.

“Ask your mommy if you have to,” Randy said. “We’re not going anywhere.”

The bartender turned his back to pick up the phone and call to the manager in the back office where they also stored the bathroom supplies. “And how ‘bout a fresh towel?” Randy called after him.

“Jesus, can you believe this guy? He’s breaking our balls like my fucking bitch date,” Max said.

“Let’s just get the fuck out of here,” Randy added. He wobbled as he stood and was surprised by the sound of his bar stool falling over behind him. He left it on the ground. “I’ve got to get home anyway. Lots to do tomorrow, you know.”

“Me, too,” Max said. He stood on steadier legs, but still involuntarily leaned against the bar when he stuck his hand out to shake.

“It was good to meet you, Max…” Randy trailed away.

“Depf. Max Depf,” Max introduced himself formally.

“And I’m Randy Major, at your service,” Randy feigned even greater formality.

“That’s hilarious,” Max replied. “My date was a Major.”

“Yeah, a major bitch, from what you said.”

“No,” Max corrected. “That was her name. Dee Major.”

“Jesus fuck me in the ass!” Randy blurted in shock. “You were trying to fuck my ex-wife.” Randy began to laugh hysterically.

“What the fuck is so fucking funny?” Max asked.

“It ain’t funny, man. It’s fucking tragic,” Randy said. He threw his arm around Max and they staggered toward the door. The bartender hung up the phone and hurried to finish cleaning up, grateful that his night was finally ending. “What’s funny, Max? You thought you had a chance of scoring with that frigid bitch. Three dates? Christ almighty, I put in months, months, of hard time just hoping for a half-assed hand job.”

“I bet it was worth it, though,” Max said. “She was smoking hot.”

Randy put on his studliest smirk. “Best hand job I ever got that I didn’t have to give myself.”

  • CHAPTER THREE*

Monday, October 17th, 2011

Lou Major waited impatiently for his download to finish, then plugged his headphones into his iPhone and started the Tod Franklin Poombah podcast. He had no clear expectations of what he was going to hear. All he had was a text message from his father that he ought to listen to one particular episode of one particular podcast and to let him know what he thought.

The Todcast, as the Poombahyayas called it, was popular in the overall ratings, though Lou had never heard of it. He had, of course, heard every ad that was played at the open of the show, as the ads were identical to all the other ads on all the other podcasts which had enough listeners to merit advertisements. Needing neither a mattress nor a code to download an audio book, Lou skipped ahead to the meat of the program.

The host, Tod Franklin Poombah, was a polished and genial fellow, full of great billowing laughter which pushed the show forward like a sail. He laughed at everything, his own jokes loudest and longest of all, but showed no real discernment so long as the tone indicated that someone was attempting to be funny.

Poombah seemed to know the one guest, guy by the name of Max Depf. At the very least, at the end of several prolonged laughs, Poombah repeated for all to hear, “Good to have you back, Max. Good to have you back.”

Max muttered a collegial thank you off mic, so Lou didn’t hear it. Poombah groaned inwardly and pressed onward. He hated working with amateurs.

 

“First time guest, as well, for all you out there. Randy Major, author of the Captain’s Chronicles blog, a wonderful, fantastic, frenetic look at the life and crimes of Captain Major, one of the most awful women to disgrace the cape in the history of our fair city. I’d call her a bitch, but I promised Ginger that I would be more respectful … to dogs!” Poombah joked and waited for Randy to laugh or speak. He didn’t. “The microphone doesn’t pick up smiles, Randy,” Poombah chided.

“Sorry, T.F.,” Randy replied. “It’s great to be here. And I agree with your dog.”

“Now, Randy,” Poombah continued. “You’ve been blogging about Captain Major for nearly a year. Most of that time, she’s been retired. Is that because of you, and where do I send my thank you card and the box of steaks? (And a reminder to all you sharp-earned listeners: our sponsor Postal Direct lets you send as many thank yous as you want right from the convenience of your own computer, with the fun of using a balance scale. Order now and the collectible bronze-plated reference weights are included for free, good for measuring any package up to 22 ounces.)”

Randy mumbled something off mic until he understood Poombah’s gestures and leaned into the microphone. Lou jumped back when Randy’s levels jumped off the chart before the engineer could dial him back.

“You’re really giving engineer Eddie a workout there, Randy. Back up a bit now: is Captain Major retired because of you?”

“Uh, yeah. I’d like to think I get a little credit for that,” Randy said. “One thing I noticed is that no one ever punches her in the face. It’s so weird. It’s like even villains are afraid to fight back against a girl. Political correctness has gone so far that villains won’t hit girls. But also, I’ve relaunched the blog. It’s called Major Painz now.”

“That’s with a ‘z’,” Max added.

“At the end,” Randy clarified.

“Though there’s more work to be done,” Max continued. “The new video Randy posted is downright scary.”

“It’s terrifying,” Randy said.

“For those who haven’t seen the video,” Poombah instructed, “check it out on the Major Painz blog. It shocks the conscience what that woman did to those poor boys.”

“All too common,” Max added.

“She stalked them, hunted them like prey,” Poombah went on. “She lurked in the dark then pounced. She beat the hell out of those poor boys. Destroyed one boy’s face. For nothing.”

“For nothing!” Max agreed.

“Then ran away before the police could get her,” Randy reminded.

“It was a goddam beat and run, is what it was,” Poombah said. “A crime against hu-MAN-ity. Now, did I read that one of the boys was hurt really badly?”

“Yes,” Max agreed. “But you can’t see that in the video. The video only captures the end of the beating, from a distance.”

Poombah continued: “The citizen who took the video must have been afraid to get any closer. We’re keeping his identity a secret out of fear that Captain Major will go after him next.”

“That’s right, Tod,” Max said. “From what we know, it sounds like Captain Major punched all his teeth out.”

“And he never punched back,” Randy added.

“I, for one, can’t believe how many people are willing to put up with it,” Poombah scoffed.

“Not me,” Max said. “I’m not.”

“Not Max,” Poombah said. “So we’ve got one. Hallelujah! For the record, Randy is raising his hand, so we’ve got two people sick of these vagilantes.”

“That or he’s asking permission to use the bathroom,” Max joked.

“I should say that we’ve gotten over 25,000 views of that video already,” Randy continued over Poombah’s laughter. “The more people know about this, the more people will be sick.”

“You’re doing God’s work, gentlemen, sickening people,” Poombah said.

There was a shared blink between the three men before Max jumped in again. “And, you know, we’re going to be wanting to get people together. Down at Middling Park, which Captain Major let Amazing Man destroy last year. And we want people to bring signs and show up and just let Captain Major and all the other bitches who spend all their time thinking up new ways to break our balls know that we’re just sick of it all and the time has come for comeuppance.”

“Captain Major ruined my life,” Randy said. “I’m just a regular guy. I can’t get into it all here, because I’m afraid of what she would do, but she destroyed my life once. So, all I’m doing is shining a light now on all the other lives she’s damaging.”

“We can protect you, Randy,” Poombah said. “Together, we are strong.”

“Stronger than any woman,” Max said.

“Stronger than Captain Major, to be sure,” Poombah said.

“Yeah,” Randy agreed.

“We are out of time on this segment. If you’re always running out of time, log on to ShoeWatch.com, look for the microphone, click on the icon next to it, then enter coupon code TodCastOffer in the box, provide a valid credit card, and you will get 5% off your first order on ShoeWatch.com. ShoeWatch — the shoe with a watch that helps you time your run so you run on time. A new shoe will be delivered to your house every week.

“Try them on your feet. If you get 3 lefties in a row, you can get a refund.”

Lou paused the Todcast so that he could focus on his homework. Something about talking really distracted him. Listening to his father catch shade without even noticing made it all the worse. After two pages of reading about the Assyrians, he forgot about the homework and the podcast and decided to take a nap.

 

Off-mic, at the conclusion of the recording session, Poombah took a sip of tea and leaned back in his executive, high-back chair. He folded his fingers together over his belly and looked at Max and Randy, nodding his head slowly.

“I believe,” he said, “I would like to make you boys regulars.”

“That would be awesome!” Randy nearly jumped to his feet in excitement. Age, more than wisdom, kept his butt in his stiff-backed side chair.

“There’s meat on this bone,” Poombah said.

“There sure is,” Max agreed.

“I don’t need a yes man,” Poombah spoke as he stood from his chair in a lumbering way and walked around the studio until he was standing behind and between Randy and Max. He dropped his voice. “You get this rally together. Make it credible. Convince me you can manage it.”

“I can get naked pictures of Captain Major,” Randy blurted. Max gasped while Poombah appraised him with new respect.

“Are they real?” Max asked.

“That don’t much matter,” Poombah ruminated. “Do they show her face?”

Randy tried to hide his panic. He did, in fact, have naked pictures of Dee Major and nearly every one showed her face. But Dee Major was not Captain Major and neither one knew about the pictures. He saw the line that only he knew he just offered to cross. Whether he lacked the will or the anger, had a moment of good judgment, or decided to wait before showing something that couldn’t be unseen, no one will ever know. Whatever his heart believed, he chose to lie: “No.”

“Shit,” Max said. “What does it even matter then?”

“Are they real?” Poombah asked.

“Yes,” Randy said.

“I won’t ask how you got them. But I need to know one thing. Will she know they’re real, if they don’t show her face?”

“Yes,” Randy said.

Poombah smiled. “And that’s why it matters, son. Because fuck her, that’s why. She’ll know.”

Wednesday, October 27, 2011

The cold rain had finally stopped, but Captain Major’s canvas high tops splashed through sloppy puddles which felt all the colder because they had become so familiar. The wettest October in Metroville history was leaning into a miserable November as Captain Major surveyed yet another quiet part of Sector Seven.

Captain Major leaned against a heating vent at the top of Achilles’ Tents and wondered why she was there. The smell of mini-donuts and gyros permeated everything in the Little Greecy part of Sector Seven, leaving Captain Major hungry and nauseous. She remembered both her pregnancies as she scanned the neighborhood again. The streets below were the same, but everything else had changed. She had donned her old costume again to try to remind the city of all the good she had done, but nothing good had come of it.

Her job, as a hero, included beating up villains. Each confrontation now brought out a cadre of amateur videographers to record every punch for later dissection. Her hero life had become an official time out in a college basketball game to determine whether a flagrant foul should be called. A legion of floppers instantly sprung up to commit minor crimes and crumple at the first whiff of the ozone surrounding Captain Major’s twin falchions of justice.

Each appearance she made was also an excuse for someone to repost the grainy, poorly lit pictures Randy had shared of her body. Her face was never visible, but it took three clicks for anyone to superimpose her costumed face upon her naked body. Users could download an app from Major Painz so they could submit and rank the rankest efforts of the depraved hive mind.

She wanted to stay home, but guilt drove her into her costume and out to the city. Leigh was recovering quickly. The boys, not so much. Reports from The Immortal suggested that Bo Tannie would recover fully but he declined to make any predictions about Philip Bottomest. He had quietly ensured that both received the best medical care available outside Intie Tower.

Captain Major had broken her own heart. She recognized now that now only did she want to be a hero, she wanted to be a great hero. Greatness was waiting for her after her battles with Amazing Man, but she walked away. Regret transformed to hate: she hated herself for walking away. For the first time in her post-powers life, she felt certain of what she wanted and feared that she had thrown her last chance away with reckless revenge.

Knowing how unlikely it was that anyone would try to rob a Greek camping store when it was offering end-of-season discounts so steep that they were practically giving their tents away, Captain Major settled back into a deep, comfortable sulk.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Lou Major enjoyed just about everything about running cross country. Having never really run before, he was improving dramatically with training. The long afternoons of using his mind to beat up his legs and lungs were deeply satisfying. The only negatives so far were his mother’s behavior at meets, which he had addressed directly and furiously, and the period of time when the cross country team shared the locker room with the football team.

Normally, Lou tried to be the first guy on the team out of the showers and out the door, but today he was running late after doing some extra stretching with a foam roller to try to loosen up his lower back.

Most of the football players were fine. Regular guys playing a different sport which glorified their ability to beat up those weaker than them. Lou thought fondly of the Jurassic period, where he wouldn’t be able to outrun a dinosaur, but he could easily outpace a linebacker. Lou secretly longed for an inhuman apex predator to remind everyone in the locker room that they were all just meat sacks of different sizes (and different 5K times).

Lou was thoroughly gassed today after a heavy set of hills with Coach Kelometer. No one could argue with Kelometer’s success. He held every distance record at Metroville East and had even won a scholarship to the City University of Metroville, where the administration still hadn’t figured out why the school logo was so popular with teenage boys and Hooters patrons. The administration accidentally created the biggest selling t-shirt in the history of Metroville retail by attempting to increase awareness of the winter term study abroad options, which the school branded “All Over!”.

Lou was tossing his grass-stained shoes into his locker when the football team started hollering into the locker room. Lou wondered if they would be whooping so much after a cross country practice They moved in a pack like they were getting ready to practice an end zone celebration. Lou always felt small around them. He felt even smaller while they were still in full armor.

Kirk Solverson, one of the starting defensive ends, broke away from the pack, made eye contact with Lou, and headed straight for him. He carried his helmet in his hand like a mace, ready to rain down 1d6 bludgeoning damage on anything in his path. On the other hand, his shining eyes made him seem friendly, or at least less than utterly menacing.

Lou hurried to finish with his locker, but Kirk caught him before he was done. Kirk tapped him on the shoulder with his helmet. Lou was turned awkwardly and the pressure from the tap was enough to drop him to sitting on the bench in front of the lockers.

“Louis,” Kirk smirked. “You still got the hots for Captain Major?”

“I never had the hots for Captain Major,” Lou struggled back to his feet. Kirk wouldn’t take a step back, so Lou reached back to walk himself to standing with his hands on his locker.

“I saw your locker last year. You had, like, thousands of pictures of her. Seemed like a total spank fest.”

“Don’t be gross,” Lou said.

“Then why did you have her picture in her locker? Did you like the way she beat up kids your age?”

“You don’t know that she beats up kids,” Lou argued softly. “Just a stupid Internet video.”

“We all saw what we saw,” Kirk was very serious now. His voice was growing louder and attracting a crowd. “Are you saying that she didn’t beat up Bo Tannie? You know, he lettered for this team last year.”

“I know he played football,” Lou agreed. “I’m sorry he’s hurt, okay? I had posters up last year, but I don’t any more. Maybe I know more about Captain Major than one stupid video.”

“You’re sorry? Jesus. What are you going to do, cry? I don’t want you to cry, Baby-Lou, I want you to be a man. At least pretend to be a man. Stand up for something. That could’ve been you that she was beating the hell out of.”

“Should’ve been,” a voice called from the back of the crowd. Lou couldn’t see who and he didn’t want to know. He fought hard to hold back the tears, but there was nothing he could do to stop the rush of blood to his face. He could feel the redness in his cheeks from the shame and embarrassment and impotence. He didn’t know what to do. Couldn’t think of anything to do. So he balled his fist and threw his best punch right at Kirk’s nose.

Kirk saw the punch coming and tried to lean out of the way. Lou’s fist missed its mark and grazed Kirk’s cheek. The rush of skin against skin was enough to open a small gash just below Kirk’s right eye. Lou tried to grapple Kirk, but Kirk’s teammates grabbed his arms and pinned him back against the lockers while Kirk dabbed a finger at the blood. It was bright red, just a splendid, vibrant shade of red as it trickled down his cheek before it began to dry and clot over the cut.

“Get him and get his shit,” Kirk said flatly as if he had no choice. Kirk led the team to the showers. Lou came along, struggling futilely to escape. Somewhere behind him, the linebackers were carrying his clothes and shoes and everything else from his locker.

“Let’s help him cool off,” Kirk pointed toward the showers. Kirk’s teammates threw Lou under a shower head while someone turned the water on full cold. The linebackers threw the contents of his locker at him: his practice jersey, his shorts and socks, his new running shoes, deodorant, travel shampoo, a couple bucks and a folder of homework he kept forgetting to turn in.

Lou knew better than to get up while the gang taunted him from just outside the splash zone. He stared straight ahead at the floor, waiting for everyone to go away, ignoring the taunts echoing around him.

“Is it sleepy bye time, Lou? Are you going night-night now?” Kirk asked. Lou kept staring at the ground and grinding his teeth. “You know what I like to do before I go to sleep?” Lou thought of answers, each of which would surely lead to a beating. When he saw that Lou wasn’t going to answer, Kirk continued. “I like to take a nice, big dump. That way I can go to sleep feeling like I accomplished something.”

Lou shook his head, not sure who Kirk thought he was goading with that statement. If a dump was his biggest accomplishment, that said a hell of a lot more about Kirk than it did about Lou. Lou understood what would happen as soon as Kirk swiped his practice jersey from his hands. Lou leaped to his feet and made to chase Kirk, but the starting guards stepped in front of him and held him easily at bay. Kirk exited the showers and made his way to a toilet stall.

The team chuckled as Kirk heaved and grunted like he was squeezing a tennis ball through one of the long balloons a clown twists into animals to frighten children. Finally, an explosive shot of gas, a heavy splash and Kirk’s victorious sigh made the team erupt in cheers.

When Kirk exited the bathroom, the rest of the team followed after him to the locker room to change. Lou waited a few moments to make sure the worst had passed, then reached up to turn the water off. In the quiet, alone, he began to shiver, feeling the cold much more deeply now that the adrenaline was leaving him.

Lou sat there for a long time, cold and dripping, cycling between anger and shame.The locker room was quiet and his clothes were soaked through and clung painfully to his skin when he stood up and began walking to the bathroom. He hit both of the side-by-side hand dryers and turned the nozzles toward his head so that he could dry his hair. The warm air felt good on his face and neck. His teeth finally stopped chattering. There were towels outside the bathroom, but he could hear the stragglers of the football team horsing around out there. He didn’t want to risk reigniting the confrontation or, worse, seeing someone who might feel sorry for him.

Lou chewed his lip as he opened the door to the bathroom stall, then tried to blink away the stink of the shit Kirk left behind. Lou managed a quick glance at the toilet. The sight of Kirk’s loose stool made Lou gag. Lou held back the urge to vomit and shuffled to the side of the bowl.

He grabbed his jersey with three fingers, lightly touching the fabric where it appeared to be least soiled. He pulled the t-shirt up and out of the toilet bowl, feeling it lighten as the shit slid down the shirt and fell into the brown water below.

The collar had taken the worst of it, but there was nothing he could do about that now. He grabbed the tag in the collar and tried to pull it free. His numb fingers slipped from the wet filth coating the tag and the fabric. He tried again, but his hands couldn’t secure purchase on the stubborn tag.

He thought, for more than a moment, about using his teeth to bite at the stitches or start ripping it off like a dog, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. He closed his eyes and pinched his fingers as tightly as he could. He grabbed the tag, took three or four deep breaths and then pulled with all his minor might.

The tag ripped just as he feared he was pulling the skin from his fingers. He smiled as he started to work the tag free, stitch by stitch, until he had the tag in his wet, putrid hands.

He dropped the jersey in the nearest trash, leaving a brown stain on the silver lid. He went to the sink. He washed his hands and the tag, carefully and thoroughly until he was sure that every fleck of feces was down the drain. He set the tag on the shelf under the mirror and shuffled to the hand dryers. He dried his hands and arms. They had been wet for so long that the skin was wrinkling. Finally, he went to one of the clean stalls and grabbed a roll of toilet paper. He wiped down the garbage lid and flushed the toilet paper.

He washed his hands once more, stopping before rinsing to turn the tag over as it lay on the shelf. He looked at the back, where his mother had drawn a heart in running shoes in permanent marker. The black lines were washed to wavy gray, but he knew what it had been and what it had meant and so he smiled.

He walked home and he was late. He was hungry and he didn’t care. His mom said something about something and he didn’t listen. He went to his room and closed the door, speaking to no one. He changed his clothes and sat in the dark so as to keep safe the last spark of hope and happiness still flickering inside him.

Monday, October 31, 2011

The lobby of Confederated Justice was exactly as vainglorious as Captain Major remembered. Everything gleamed as brightly as Enamel’s front teeth, which had famously blinded Bad Judgment and Dare Me, a villainous duo more suited for professional wrestling than a life of crime. A twelve-foot tall mural of that event was not on display in the CFJ lobby, but The Immortal was rendered in exquisitely atavistic detail by Metroville’s Walton Ford in residence, a certain Shirley Audubon Brush. The Invisible Girl hung on the wall opposite The Immortal, though of course no one noticed. Brush was currently putting the finishing touches on two new commissions for the lobby’s rotating collection. She had completed a detailed sketch for her private collection of Riddick the Bowman setting out poisoned bait to ease his hunt on the African savanna. The official portrait featured Riddick scanning the horizon in a far more tasteful and heroic pose. The other work featured Lycra and Adhosvan, the Elastic Twins, in a pose that would have given Salvador Dali a real boner.

Captain Major had never waited in the lobby before. Dean Panda was clearly exercising his authority. He had agreed, politely, to Captain Major’s meeting request. Though he had retired to the board of directors, The Immortal still held some sway here. Anyone as ambitious as Panda would know it. The Immortal had quickly abandoned his leadership of the branch, finding the daily grind to be, well, grinding. He far preferred to sit on the board where he helped pick and pay the consultants to tell them what they ought to do. It was a good gig destined to last just as long as the consultants refrained from pointing out that by hiring consultants the board rendered themselves superfluous. The board only hired the best consultants, so such an event was unlikely at best.

October had been the shittiest month Captain Major had endured in a long, long time, including that July when Randy had bought some Vietnamese Viagra and a year’s supply of Extenze. Neither worked, not in the least, but Dee worked her hands raw balancing the checkbook and patting his deflated ego. Randy moped about until Postal 2 came out. Dee would’ve objected to the extra expense and the quality of the game had she not been so grateful that Randy found something to occupy his time and hands.

Max Depf and Randy Major had become instant celebrities with a steady trickle of videos and teasers and a deluge of invective. Randy was unquenchably furious with Captain Major while Max had an endless supply of hatred for women in general which he gladly shoveled at Captain Major’s feet. The result was a fetid pile of putrid content which was making them relatively famous and podcast rich. The secondary result was that Captain Major was being attacked and ridiculed on a daily basis in the local press and couldn’t be seen on the streets or rooftops without inviting a riot of rage.

They had even adopted a name for themselves: Menhevicks. Immediately after adopting the name, they began explaining to anyone without access to egress that the Menhevick label carried multiple meanings including the simultaneously opposing ideas that while the Russian word menshevik originally meant “minority”, the early mensheviks were actually more popular than the Bolsheviks. It’s always the branding. While the modern day Menhevicks claimed the flag of majoritarian popularity, they also lamented their status as heavily persecuted outsiders who were marginalized by an increasingly feminized society that used tools like political correctness and big words to make the Menhevicks feel out of step and a little dumb.

Also, they intentionally dropped the “she” from the literal transliteration of mensheviks because they didn’t want a feminine pronoun sullying up their good name.

Those travails ignored everything that had happened with Lou. Lou spent the weekend in his room, but that wasn’t surprising in the least. Then Leigh saw a rumor on Twitter that she couldn’t bear to keep from her mom. Dee couldn’t live without knowing if it was true. She confronted Lou about the incident. She had the facts wrong, but the gist right. Lou, nevertheless, denied everything in a way that led Dee to the inescapable conclusion that the whole situation was both true and more than she could handle.

 

Captain Major didn’t know what to think when Dean Panda finally did show up. In an office accustomed to bizarre costumes, Panda’s Halloween get up set a new low.

Panda was dressed as Jim Corbett, though Captain Major didn’t know that Panda’s costume referenced a specific tiger hunter. Instead, the “dead” tiger Panda had apparently hunted was Hobbes of Sunday comics fame. That it was Hobbes was made plain by the fact that Panda was towing the body in a red wagon filled with peanut butter sandwiches, toy dinosaurs and a red t-shirt.

Panda couldn’t have been happier with Captain Major’s horrified reaction. He used all of the long walk to the conference room to explain his costume from conception to execution. Panda spent far more time explaining his costume than he did declining Captain Major’s request for help with the Menhevicks. In the official opinion of Confederated Justice, the Menhevicks were a poorly organized, marginally funded collection of regular guys who took good ideas just a little too far. They would probably go away as soon as everyone stopped paying attention to them. They were absolutely right about some stuff, Panda was eager to concede. For example, Panda fully agreed with Depf that if a chick goes out in a low cut top, she’s asking you to compliment her on her tits. “Three buttons is fair game,” was the slogan. They were sold out of t-shirts on the website. The “Get in the game” companion shirt was not selling quite as well.

Captain Major was not surprised at CFJ’s reluctance to do anything, let alone the right thing. Why break with tradition and so on. But supers relied to an extent on the good will and deference of the general public. The Menhevicks were creating an atmosphere of hostility toward a super which could make them all fair game at some point. If nothing else, it made them all potential victims of misleadingly edited home videos. Considering the reputations many of the supers had for accepting particular favors from damsels and Hansels immediately following their being in distress, many of CFJ’s top supers needed to pay some attention to the risks they were exposing themselves to.

Panda was not particularly responsive to this line of argument, either. Boys will be boys, of course, and supers will be supers. Saving the day and then making a dream come true was like a doubleheader from back in the days when baseball was fun. The few complaints that they had had were well taken care of and properly budgeted for on a rolling annual basis, with favorable momentum on the expense line now that Amazing Man was off the books.

“What about professional courtesy, then?” Captain Major asked. “Perhaps you help me here and maybe I could help you in the future. The same way you might treat an out-of-towner during a cross-over event?”

Panda scoffed. “And what help do you think you’d be in a position to offer us in the future?”

“I did just save the entire city when your number one hero went on a murderous rampage,” Captain Major couldn’t believe she had to remind her former supervisor of such a momentous event. He really didn’t pay any attention to the day to day stuff.

“And since then, we’ve kept the city safe without your help,” Panda reminded. “A perfect record. And don’t forget that your behavior was one of the proximate causes of Amazing Man’s unfortunate incident.”

“I’m well aware of your after action analysis,” Captain Major huffed. The Immortal had shared the report with her on the sly, along with his apologies, shortly after he stepped up to the board room.

Panda settled comfortably back in his chair, certain for once that he had the upper hand with his former underling. He enjoyed it so much that he settled into a good long smirk including a tapping of his fingertips and a twiddling of his thumbs to demonstrate that he had all day to not do a goddam thing to help Captain Major.

Captain Major stood to leave, giving Panda his cue to speak. “There is one thing you could do for me,” he offered, “that would inspire me to help you out in some small way.”

“And what’s that?” Captain Major said. Even Nostrildamus, the oracle whose sinuses were plugged with prophecies which emerged each time he sneezed, could smell this trap.

“I am feeling frustrated with the current pace of my career advancement,” Panda explained. “I have agreed to a 360 assessment to identify any behaviors I should address to effectuate my maximum promotability.”

“Try not dressing like a wiener,” Captain Major offered.

“You’d be surprised at how popular my costume has been up on five,” Panda retorted. “Riddick has already asked to borrow the wagon for next year.”

“Another reason I don’t work here any more,” Captain Major said.

“I’m well aware of, and deeply gratified by, that,” Panda said. “But I’m sure an exception can be made for a former direct report. You do this for me and I can make sure that the local police treat the Tannie investigation with greater urgency.”

Captain Major reflected on the offer. All of Metroville had seen the video at this point. It was less than 30 seconds long. Captain Major kicked an unsuspecting Bo Tannie, then banged both Bo and Philip Bottomest around a driveway. A bright light flared and the video went white for a couple seconds. When the video resumed, Captain Major was slamming Bo to the driveway. The video showed Captain Major throw a heavy wrench then suddenly stopped.

The police had been dragging their heels on any official announcement closing the Tannie investigation. The investigation was complete. The police had a full, but inaccurate picture, of what had happened. Piecing together the attack at the strip mall with the driveway beat down led them to the conclusion that Captain Major was lawfully engaged in the fighting of crime when she severely injured the boys. Nevertheless, local sentiment still seemed opposed to that conclusion. The police chief, having no reason to come to Captain Major’s defense, was looking for the most opportune time to release their conclusions so that no one would yell at him. Max and Randy, for their part, were using the delay to build up anger about undue influence and an obvious cover up. Just getting the report released would be one small punch in a dynamic flurry for Captain Major.

“What would I have to say?” Captain Major asked.

“I have a list,” Panda said. He slid a stack of papers to Captain Major. “You’ll just have to write it in your own words. You don’t work here any more. You and I know that means you don’t care even more than you didn’t care when you worked here. But some people in my command chain will see you as unquestionably objective. Plus, there’s a double bonus for me, since you weren’t beating up children when you were under my supervision.”

“They weren’t children,” Captain Major said. The hairs on her arms stood on end as she conspicuously gathered energy from the room. If Panda was worried, he didn’t show it.

“I know exactly what happened that day,” Panda said. “I know how beneficial it would to put that whole messy mess behind you. I’m offering you help, if you’re smart enough to accept it.”

Captain Major deflated. “Fine,” she said. “I’ll do it.”

“Yes, you will,” Panda said. “When you finish with the forms, leave them at the front desk. With cake.”

Saturday, November 6, 2011

Middling Park was once a favored spot for downtown gambolers and picnickers, then a battle between Amazing Man and The Immortal uprooted the ancient shade trees, toppled the park benches and destroyed the once-impressive statute of friendship near the playful fountains. All things considered, the toppled park benches weren’t such a big deal. Its current ruinous state was exactly as one would imagine a park to be if a 30-foot tall, six-month old puppy were allowed to run wild through the green space while its owner answered work email on her phone to catch up after a long weekend.

This morning it was hosting a somewhat special event. The main walkway was festooned with ribbons and balloons flapping in the breeze. The event was lightly themed in silver and black, the manliest colors other than the muddish red of blood drying below a broken nose. The occasion was a rally for Bo Tannie, the recovered Menhevick hero, who would be making his first public appearance since his brief hospitalization some weeks before. His concussion merited observation overnight, but the scrapes on his forearms could have been successfully treated by a Boy Scout with a Tenderfoot first aid badge. Bo had been out in public, though no one in his right mind cared. Today was only special because Bo would be in public on a stage. His buddy, Philip Bottomest, was also on the mend, but he wasn’t much in the video, so no one even cared.

The event also celebrated the launch of Max Depf and Randy Major’s new podcast, which was already in talks for syndication on local radio. Max Major, as the show was called, had over 20,000 subscribers and a 4.7 star rating, despite — or because of — its lack of redeeming content. The inaugural episode was also live streaming across the city, even reaching Lou Major’s phone as he jogged backwards up the popular sledding hill in Ryan Park.

The three stars were ensconced in the VIP tent, notable for the letters VIP written in black sharpie on a piece of laser printer paper and pinned next to the door. A chain of paper clips served as the barrier to entry. The office supply store on the corner was the biggest sponsor of the event, having donated $100 in cash and upwards of $200 (retail) in office supplies. Sitting a few hundred yards away, drinking pumpkin spice lattes al fresco, Dee and Leigh Major kept careful watch on the proceedings. Despite previous promises, Tod Franklin Poombah’s assistant had only that morning extended his regret at not being able to attend.

A small crowd was milling out front when the final equipment test began a few minutes before 9 o’clock. Dee noted, with some respect, that they were prompt and well-organized loons and hooligans. Most hooligans, and nearly all loons, are notoriously unprompt, but do well at following orders.

A few minutes of silence followed the screech and wail of the sound check. Dee took the time to sip her drink and look at her daughter. She was different. In truth, she would never be the same again. Her face was changed. Subtly, but a mother noticed all the changes. It wasn’t just the fading scars that marked the changes, but light lines showed the way of worry as it worked over her daughter’s face. And when she smiled — a smile that still came with effort and was easily overwhelmed by shame or fear — the perfectly matched new crown was obvious to Dee who remembered with new found fondness the imperfect real tooth that once sat crookedly in the corner of Leigh’s smile.

Leigh was hiding now, using the large paper cup from which she drank as a shield. She dropped her eyes behind the cup. She dropped her gaze whenever she saw the concern on her mother’s face. She felt lost when the guilt washed over her and there was no room to hide in and no brother to pick a fight with and no bike to ride toward the setting sun and up a hill, any hill, any rise with green on all sides and a sun to fade to the horizon and night to settle around her while she waited for the stars to come out and remind her that no matter how colossal her screw ups were, there was an infinity beyond her which couldn’t care less about anything she did. Then, she thanked all the goodness left in the world that she couldn’t affect the stars. She was grateful for the impotence she felt in the night. She welcomed the feeling of powerlessness even as much as she didn’t believe it.

That lie was a great comfort to Leigh whenever she could be alone, and of absolutely no use at all to her when she glanced across the table and saw her mother’s sympathy and concern coming at her like tendrils, holding her in place, choking her with guilt from her mistakes and the fear of mistakes yet to be made.

On the other hand, pumpkin spice lattes, even half-caf, were pretty freaking good and there was something delightful about her mother interrupting her comforting smile by sticking her foam-covered tongue out at her that cut right through Leigh’s well-practiced sulk.

Leigh smiled and felt the urge to apologize again. Not for the smile or even for stealing the costume, but for the look on her mom’s face when she first escaped the fog of pain killers and sedatives. And then the time after time when she saw the same look as she healed miraculously thanks to her powers and The Immortal’s impossibly advanced medical care. Thankfully, her compulsion to apologize was interrupted by the obviously put-upon radio voice of the emcee taking the stage in the park.

“Hey, guys, how about this weather?” the emcee oozed cheese. He wasn’t quite as wholesome as real cheese, more akin to processed cheez food. Even his cheesiness was imitation rather than sincere. He was right, however. The weather was delightful for a November morning. Brisk, but not as cold as the season would suggest. In his private office inside Intie Tower, Phil Intie recorded a feed of the event using a hacked weather satellite he was informally borrowing and sipped a morning brandy, which could really use a sprig a spice that hadn’t been hybridized yet.

“We’ll bring Max and Randy out in a few minutes, along with a few special guests,” the emcee continued.

“Boobs!” a voice from the crowd called. There was a tittering of laughter.

“What’s that?” the emcee had not heard.

“Boobs!” a small chorus of voices called.

“Sorry, guys, no boobs on the menu today, just a slate of great speakers, entertainers, people who make you think with your minds!”

The lack of response was deafening and depressing. The emcee thought for a brief moment about his last day in culinary school and how much he would have liked to have continued. He wondered if there was still time in his life to try something different, all the while knowing that he couldn’t afford to lose the paltry income that his hosting duties brought in. If only he could book an award show, maybe he’d have a chance to really break out into the mainstream and quit his job at Romano Aviano.

Looking out at the sea of black and khaki amassed before him, a new level of despair washed over him. Without introducing the next speaker, he tried to replace the microphone in the stand. He missed, felt rattled, and gently placed the microphone on the ground before walking off stage and into the rest of his life. Which started with a five to nine shift bussing tables.

“That was weird,” Leigh said.

“It’s like the hopelessness is somehow infectious,” Dee mused.

“Without a scapegoat, you mean,” Leigh added.

Backstage, Max was manhandling Randy, wrestling him toward the stage so that Randy could introduce Max. Randy, out of his element, was trying to slide away until a better plan came along. The pair broke right through the paper clip rope, though the intern who spent twenty minutes putting it up didn’t mind that much. Finally, Max grabbed Randy by the collar and threw him up the steps toward the stage. Randy tripped on the last step and staggered clumsily into view. He grinned sheepishly at the hundred faces before him as he checked the microphone.

“Is this thing still on?” he asked speaking too loudly into the mic which he held close enough to his mouth that he risked licking it with each “th” sound. The front row clasped their hands over their ears with the feedback.

“Yes!” Max hissed from the wings.

Randy fidgeted nervously at the front of the stage. He put a hand in his pocket and walked in a circle, carelessly turning his back on the crowd and staring at the ground as if looking for the bread crumbs that marked his trail home. He muttered “uh” and “well” into the microphone a few times, as if measuring which was more annoying.

Max gesticulated wildly, though Randy failed to notice. Had Randy noticed, it would have been impossible to decipher what it was Max wanted Randy to do other than not land a plane on stage. In truth, Max himself wasn’t clear about the immediate objective. At bottom, he wanted Randy to do something, anything, even though whatever he did was dead certain to be dead wrong. Max was more than happy to correct whatever mistake Randy inevitably made, but he was absolutely counting on Randy to take that first faulty step.

“Thanks for coming, everybody,” Randy finally managed. There was a smattering of applause. Randy looked up to see if it was sarcastic. It largely wasn’t. Unbelievably, the crowd was on his side.

“So, well, uh, thanks for coming. And thanks, well, for all your support. You know, uh, we’re launching our radio show today, so listen to that. It’s on in the, uh, morning.”

Max nearly fainted as Randy failed to mention the station or the time. He thought of all the sponsors they might have which he would have to apologize to in the future for Randy’s next cock-up.

“It’s fun to see a live crowd, meet some fans,” Randy continued. He began to feel a small sense of calm as he finally squared himself to the crowd and peered out at the faces and signs. “What’s that sign say,” he pointed to a large sign, stage right.

The owners of the sign whooped at the recognition and shouted something back. “What’s that?” Randy asked. He couldn’t hear the response, so he gestured for the sign holder to come closer as Randy walked to the edge of the stage. Randy tucked the microphone under his flannel clad left arm as he took the sign in his hands to look it over. The crowd stepped back with the rustling and scraping of the fabric against the mic before Randy passed the sign back.

“It says, ‘Captain Major blew it’,” Randy explained. The crowd laughed and applauded. “And there’s quite a detailed drawing of Captain Major blowing Amazing Man. It’s pretty good, not sure if you all can see it.”

“That’s you!” the sign holder yelled.

“Really?” Randy asked.

“It’s you in a cape,” the sign holder explained.

“I guess I’m going to have to get a cape, then,” Randy laughed. “Looking forward to that. You want to see that?”

The crowd, on whole, did not care whether it saw that or not. A few cheered with gusto, a few applauded from a sense of duty and most waited for something more interesting to happen.

“I know what you want to see,” Randy said. “You want to see the man of the hour, right? Should I bring him out here? Do you want me to bring him out here?”

The crowd roared its approval, though the roar was hardly deafening. There was enthusiasm, to be sure, but Dee found the lack of blood lust comforting. They really were just a carnival of dicks, a möbious strip of a run-down freak show.

“Here he is, then: straight from Metroville Memorial Hospital,” Randy fibbed for dramatic effect, “and straight to the stage, your very own Bo Tannie!”

Max was two steps on the stage before he realized that his name had not been called. He ducked back behind the speakers so that the crowd wouldn’t see him, then stood stock still, deciding what to do next.

Randy, that oaf, was still on stage, calling Bo’s name and expecting him to show up. A very characteristic blunder for a man well-suited to silent partner status. Max looked around, not knowing what he was looking for — perhaps inspiration, perhaps an exit, perhaps a weapon with which to murder Randy. A blow gun would have been nice. Whatever his purpose, it wasn’t met. He turned on the balls of his feet, raced off stage and ran to the VIP tent. He flung the flap open.

“He’s calling your name!” he shouted at Bo, who was lounging in a chair, fiddling with his phone.

“I know,” Bo said without looking up.

“You need to get out on stage!” Max moved next to Bo, who still refused to look up.

“Just a sec,” Bo replied.

Max grabbed Bo by the front of his collar and lifted him off his chair and nearly a foot in the air. Bo covered his arms with his face and screamed with shrill panic. Max paid no mind. He dragged Bo backwards out of the VIP tent and toward the stage. As they approached the stage steps, Max heard the crowd chanting Bo’s name. Bo heard his name, too, and tried to twist around to see where he was being taken. Bo completed his turn just before the top step. Catching the tip of his shoe on that top step, Bo tripped. He kept himself upright by giving Max a hearty, two-handed shove. Max careened forward, lost his footing on a loose cable, and somersaulted into a back splat a few feet away from the very surprised Randy. Bo nonchalantly stepped over Max’s surprised and supine form to generously shake Randy’s hand and wave to the crowd.

Leigh and Dee shared a mischievous smirk at the pratfall and confusion. Leigh felt a great sense of relief that her new greatest enemies were bumbling, clown-car maroons. She half expected to see a giant of a man walk on stage with a tiny, well-trained dog. She hoped that someone’s suspenders would slip and and pants would fall down so that they could go home feeling safe from this lot.

“Good morning, Metroville!” Bo shouted at the crowd. He looked good. The scabs had healed on his face. He waved both arms broadly as if he was addressing a throng of millions. The sad souls gathered before him enjoyed it quite a bit.

Max muscled between Randy and Bo, slipping an arm around each man’s shoulders as he stepped to the microphone. He unintentionally put Randy in a head lock as he adjusted his fleece-lined wool cap. Dee noticed that Leigh involuntarily straightened her posture and grabbed a heavy spoon. Max released the headlock, leaned in close and started to speak into the microphone.

“This is a great beginning, and the beginning of something great,” Max began. “We’ve ceded so much to so-called heroes like Captain Minor without ever taking the time to determine whether her might makes her right. And that’s our fault. That’s all our fault.

“But we’ve got a chance to fix that now. We’ve seen what she does with her powers. Thanks to this guy,” Max shook Randy roughly while keeping him pressed to his chest, “we’ve seen what kind of hero Captain Minor really is. And she’s not someone that I want running around and beating up regular Joes like Bo here.”

Dee felt a strange swirling of energy around her. She looked at Leigh and noted the intensity of her focus before she realized that they both were drawing energy into themselves while Max spoke, in a harmonic a half-step below a positive feedback loop. Leigh started when Dee touched her wrist. When she caught her gaze, she whispered, “Easy,” while repeating the same word to herself in silent reminder of the example she was setting. She smiled as she gently released the energy back to the world around them. Leigh nodded as she carefully did the same.

“www.FundBo.com! Donate!” Bo yelled. His medical bills were taken care of, as his parents were willing to lie to keep him on their insurance plan, but Santa sure wasn’t going to bring him a Radeon HD 6990 graphics card. Bo would have to earn that himself.

When Bo was done waving again, Max returned to addressing the crowd. “Randy and I are going to make it our mission to see that Captain Minor — and everyone like her, the meddlers, the upstarts, those who don’t know their place, those who want to take and take and take, take our jobs, take our pride, beat us down, ruin our movies and shows and books and our lives — we’re going to expose these people. We’re going to follow them and let them know that we’re not at their mercy any longer. They are at our mercy. And if they no longer deserve mercy, we will strike. Not as a hundred fists or a thousand fists, but as one fist.”

“One big fist, he means,” Randy interrupted with a smile.

Max smiled broadly as he shook his head to chase away the thought of choking his partner. He took a deep breath and continued. “We’ve let ourselves be isolated for far too long. We’re coming together now. And now that we’re together we’re going to show the world, but especially that hateful bitch tinpot despot shrew Captain Minor that we’re sick to death of her bullshit.

“The Bible tells us that to everything there is a season. A time to be born and a time to die. There’s a time for mercy,” a smattering of boos came up from the audience, but Max hushed them with a wave of his hand. “And there’s a time for vengeance. When that time comes, when we are sick to death of letting the Captain Minors of this city walk all over us and take everything we hold dear and shit all over it. When we’re sick to death, that’s when the time for mercy will be over.”

The crowd started to come alive. They began to stomp and whistle, shouting back up at the stage. Max loosened his grip on Randy. He moved a step away and began to applaud loudly and shout in his own right. Max raised his voice to try to speak over the din. Dee and Leigh started to lose the discrete sense of his words as the noise of the crowd boiled over Max’s voice. The front of the stage turned into a mosh pit with bodies jostling and banging and a press forward that gave a specter of potential disaster to the proceedings.

“And I promise you one thing. When that time comes and we strike back from righteousness and community, that’s going to be a healing power for all of us. And then we won’t have to share this city with hateful bitches. It’s a beautiful day that’s coming. We’ll all stand in the sun when the ice queens are deposed and we all take turns raping the shit out of their melting corpses.”

Although there was a loud cheer as Max threw the microphone into the crowd and stormed off stage, it wasn’t at all clear that anyone in the vicinity was paying attention to what he actually said. Except for the Majors, who stood to watch the crowd respond as Avenged Skynrdfold, the best local heavy metal country tribute band, began to play on stage.

Kirk Solverson hated tribute bands and headed for the exit as the band played the first notes of the Gimme Three Steps / Chapter Four mashup. He didn’t notice Stefan Salachanga pushing toward the stage until he had accidentally bowled him over. Stefan extended his hand, looking for help to his feet. Kirk stopped long enough to make sure Stefan knew he was not helping him on purpose. A handsome older man with tousled, cobalt hair who was dressed as if he had stopped by on his way to a yoga class shared an approving wink with Kirk as he passed. Kirk snarled, “Shut up, fag,” and marched away to find his dad.

Sunday, November 7, 2011

The very last thing Dee Major wanted to do with the last Sunday before Thanksgiving was to attend HeroCon in any capacity. She spent an hour at the promoter’s office arguing against her appearance and signing events. The pressure of the constant scrutiny from the Menhevick nut jobs was wearing her down. The thought of sitting in front of them, maybe having to meet a series of them, was infuriating.

In the end, the promoter made threats and promises that were inescapable. Captain Major couldn’t afford the bad publicity from pulling out of HeroCon at the last minute. Publicity the promoter made clear she would do everything in her power to use to her advantage, playing a right bastard Fred Gailey. On the other side of the ledger, the promoter promised additional security beyond what any hero should possibly expect. She resisted until Captain Major made clear that she was at a complete loss here — the Menhevicks clearly wanted a violent confrontation and would do anything to provoke one. Captain Major, for her part, had to do everything she could to avoid one. The last thing she wanted was to give them, or anyone, another opportunity to build resentment toward her.

Finally, there was a question of money. Captain Major needed it. Even the hopelessly optimistic Winnie had read the writing on the wall. They all now realized that their time at Fast Airborne VD was coming to a close. Dee Major would have loved to walk off the job in a huff, but so far she could only afford to imagine how good that tantrum would feel. Dee recognized that she had avoided updating any of her professional skills for the duration of her superhero career and knew that she was no longer suited for any work but what she had (and largely had not) done for Venn Diaphragms and Fast Airborne VD.

The tiny bit of child support helped, but Randy was only marginally better at paying it now that he had more income. On the other side of the ledger, Randy was moving closer to demanding shared custody. He was well-contented paying his lawyers ahead of making support payments.

So, as Captain Major tried to relax in the back seat of the town car that carried her from Confederated Justice headquarters to the convention center, she felt perfectly centered in the cross hairs of a clustertrastrophe waiting to strike. On the other hand, the complimentary mixed nuts were quite tasty as she absently chowed them down. She took the can with her as she exited the town car and met the assistant who would be escorting her for the remainder of the day.

The assistant was an adorable young woman in a mouse gray sweater. She had a button nose and large, round ears that evoked, in total, nothing more or less than Mickey Mouse himself. Captain Major held her breath as she approached their introduction, fearing that she would have a thin, reedy voice chirping in her ear all day. Thankfully, her voice was unexpectedly deep, though not manly, and mellifluous.

“I’m Tamara Ammit,” the assistant extended her arm in greeting. Captain Major shook her hand and said, “So good to meet you.” She hadn’t made a social introduction in costume for many, many years.

“Just one change to your program,” Tamara explained with a smile. “We’ve added a Q and A after your signing.”

“No,” Captain Major said.

“I was told you might say that,” Tamara said. “And I understand your reluctance. Also, you should know that my boss sent me because she already announced that you would do the Q and A. I’m sure she thinks that because I’m cute you’ll have a harder time blaming me directly for the fact that everyone on site already expects you to do a thing which you had already declined to do. I can offer you an addition $7,500 for your participation, but I expect you can get double that if you call Amanda to complain.”

Captain Major called Amanda and extracted a $14,000 concession, but still didn’t feel good about the exchange. Tamara looked pleased, though. “Good for you!” she said with a smile as she wondered what Captain Major’s $1,000 mistake had been. The more she spoke, the less Captain Major trusted her and the more Captain Major resented herself for not trusting her.

 

Lou and Leigh got along like Sarah Palin and terminal g’s most of the time, but the novelty of being on their own together was still enough that a trip to HeroCon was a treat for both of them. It was Leigh’s idea, so Lou made her pay for tickets. And parking. And gas. And snacks. Captain Major left early to protect her identity by concealing her movements, so Lou and Leigh were able to sleep in, borrow the car without asking and get the good muffins at the coffee shop — the giant lemon poppy seed muffins with the cream cheese filling — and still reach the convention floor before her.

Once at the convention hall they shared secrets like siblings as they roamed from booth to booth, touching everything and buying nothing. They followed some of the best cosplayers at a discrete distance, each hoping the other would get up the courage to ask for a picture. Neither did. Leigh was just on the brink of asking when Lou spotted a classmate. Embarrassed to be seen at HeroCon with his sister, he darted into a booth selling VHS tapes and poorly painted pewter figurines. Leigh practically saw the zip ribbons trailing behind Lou’s fast-moving form and abandoned all hope of taking a selfie with the Zangief and Vault Boy they had been trailing for twenty minutes.

In part because they both wanted to, and in part because Lou was bad at telling time, and in third part because Leigh was bad at reading the HeroCon program, they queued up to get a signed picture from Captain Major. They pretended it was on a lark and that they felt bad for their mom because her line was so short. In fact, the line was so short because the signing started at eleven, but Leigh thought the program said it started at ten. Lou made matters worse by glancing at a clock around 9:50 and thinking it said 10:45. At any rate, they plopped down next to the hard core Captain Major fans 70 minutes before the signing started thinking they and their mom were 45 minutes late.

Lou scrolled through the text messages on his phone, glad his dad was his dad, but wishing he was different. If the football team knew his dad was the Randy half of Max and Randy, Lou might be something of a hero. Considering that Randy’s role had devolved into being the oblivious butt of Max’s jokes, Lou really couldn’t predict how the team would see him. They loved Max, that was certain, and in no small part because the first of the many Menhevick listicles had focused on the cheerleader’s proper role in getting the football players pumped up before a game and helping them chill afterwards. Lou objected to the listicle not only because it was utter bullshit, but also because he believed there should be a strictly enforced limit to the number of times one can lecherously reference pom poms before a permanent extrajudicial sex offender status is conferred.

Lou came up with pom pom references equal to -2 * (x-18)^2 + 3, where x was the age of the person making the reference. He also knew exactly how he felt about this formula.

Lou missed his dad. He sent a text: “@ herocon with Leeeee. You should come.”

Lou waited for a reply. None came. Eventually, he bored of looking at the message that wasn’t there. He looked up and started. Leigh was looking back at him. If he wasn’t mistaken, Leigh was looking at him with admiration.

He was mistaken. It was gratitude and affection, so it was an easy mistake to make.

Leigh was blissfully ignorant of her survivor’s high. She simply enjoyed the ride each time it came around. It was a rush of clarity. She saw the world and everything in it as a gift. She could have died (maybe) but she hadn’t. She had a much better sense of what mattered and what didn’t. For fleeting moments, and this was one, she felt the warmth of being connected to her brother, of loving him in such a pure way that there was nothing he could do to diminish her love for him.

This feeling, a miracle of sorts, was more real than any reported miracle and lasted inversely as long. Joshua blew a trumpet and the walls fell down; people still believed that thousands of years later. Leigh genuinely was as happy as she, or anyone, could ever be and it lasted a few seconds if she rounded up. Her miracle stopped because it had to stop, not because of what it started.

“Solverson shit on my jersey,” Lou confessed. He didn’t know why his sister loved him. No one ever knows why their sisters love them. But his sister did love him and, at that moment, sitting on the hard floor wishing they could lean against the stanchions without them tipping over, he could tell her anything.

Leigh heard him. Worse, she understood him. Lou panicked. He got to his feet and looked for an exit. Leigh bounced to her feet. “I know,” she said. She hugged him, her hands around his neck because she was taller than him. Lou panicked again, worse this time than just before, and hugged her back.

The longest second in their lives to date passed. Their eyes were closed and their ears couldn’t hear. Then it was over and Leigh was whispering: “I’m gonna stomp that bitch.”

Lou chuckled and pushed his sister away. They left the line together looking for something interesting. Lou’s phone buzzed in his pocket, but he didn’t notice. Randy had sent a reply. “Busy today :(”

 

Her convention duties began with a photo opportunity. Captain Major was impressed with the long line of people stretching away from her photo op area. “Lots of fans,” she noted to Tamara with a hint of pride.

“A long line,” Tamara agreed with circumspection before going over the ground rules. “You just be nice and nicer. I’ll keep the line moving. Once we’re inside, just pose and smile — don’t sign anything. Keep your hands at your sides. Don’t accept anything. If someone wants to leave anything, we have a bin. Security will clear the bin between photos. There will be no private photos, just the approved photo. Don’t let anyone touch you, though you should put your arm around them, whatever, there will be some incidental brushing. No kissing, no hugs, nothing of that sort.”

“The security is tight,” Captain Major said approvingly.

“That’s not security,” Tamara corrected. “It’s economics. We’ve got to get everyone through this line in 75 minutes. You’ll have about 20 seconds between photos. Be sure not to look at the flash. I can’t stress that enough: do not look at the flash. You’ll be dizzy and blind before we’re halfway through the line. Also, no matter what, you may not sit down. We don’t have time for you to sit down and stand up. This is constant movement. My assistant will stage the guests before they enter. They’ll enter, take the photo, then security will guide them to the exit with their receipt. They’ll get their photos at the end of the day. It gives them a reason to hang around the convention and more time to shop.”

“I’m ready,” Captain Major said.

Tamara looked at Captain Major and smiled, knowing that Captain Major was not at all ready; not even close. She was a rookie and about to make a thousand rookie mistakes that would only make Tamara’s job that much harder. She checked her watch. Time to start.

 

Seventy-six minutes later, Captain Major felt like she was disembarking after a treacherous journey across a tumultuous sea where the luckiest passengers had suffered from food poisoning and then been eaten by sharks within five nautical miles of pulling up anchor. The unlucky ones didn’t get food poisoning and therefore couldn’t skip the time share presentation. They, therefore, fed themselves to sharks as soon as the first dorsal fin was spotted out the starboard portholes. Further, Dee was certain that the flash had burned holes in her retinas and, toward the end, would swear that she felt her hair blow back with the constant wind of the guests moving through her space.

It was all a blur, but for the hairy little guy at the front of the line who had politely taken a picture, picked up his receipt, then ripped it into pieces and stomped them on his way to the exit. Captain Major tried to convince herself it was funny. The jackhole was paying for the privilege of being there, while Captain Major was taking home more for the day than she did in a month at Fast Airborne VD. If ripped up receipts could pay for college, Captain Major hoped for a hundred more bozos to do the same. But, as much as she tried to see the positive, that first interaction stuck with Captain Major as she tried to decompress.

Eleven minutes after the seventy-six minutes later, Tamara had Captain Major resting in a quiet area of the privatest part of the VIP section with a glass of red wine in one hand and a cup of coffee cooling on the seat of a folding chair beside her. Tamara kneeled in front of Captain Major’s lounge chair, primarily because she wasn’t certain if Captain Major was ready to lift her head yet.

“Captain,” Tamara’s voice was as gentle as a Sara Bareilles song and as to the point as a Marvin Gaye song. “You have 48 minutes all to yourself. I want you to relax. Let me know if there’s anything I can bring you. But, it’s important that you start thinking about your signing. It’s a different focus. We’ll be working in concert for the signing. One of the wranglers will bring each guest to you and will give us the name. You’ll want to look each person in the eye and say hello as warmly as you can. Step back a bit and let them lead the conversation. If they push too hard, I’ll step in and redirect. If they get star struck or seem nervous, ask them a short, simple question. ‘Are you enjoying HeroCon?’ is a good one. You’ll sign whatever they want you to sign. If we’re doing well on time, I’ll allow photos at the end, but no selfies. I’ll take the photo and stand to the side so that they have to come toward me and away from you to help mark the end of the event. Keep the pen in your hand at all times. Don’t ask who to make it out to or what they want you to say. Choose one phrase and write it every time. ‘Name, All the best! Captain Major’. And you’re done. Offer a thank you when I’m leading the person away and then break contact. Move on to the next, but know that the wrangler won’t approach you until I’m in position. If you forget a name, or anything, I will remind you.”

“How will you know if I’ve forgotten something?”

“Sweetheart,” Tamara said. “Nothing is going to happen out there that I haven’t seen a thousand times before. I’ll know what you’re going to forget before you’ve tried to remember it.”

Captain Major nodded a “yeah, right” nod. Tamara handed her her phone. “You left this in the photo booth,” she said. “I’m going to give it to you now so you can check your messages. And I’ll give it to you again before your Q and A after you forget it here.”

“Of course, I’ll remember it now that you’ve said that,” Captain Major said.

“Of course,” Tamara said as she returned Captain Major’s “yeah, right” nod.

 

Tamara had lost the running count of guests processed no more than fifteen minutes into the signing. The chaos had grown so indiscriminate that she was embarrassed to say that she had forgotten one person’s name. The name she did remember was Phil. He was the first person to be forcibly ejected. In retrospect, she should have noticed his nervousness before he got close enough to Captain Major to poke her in the chest with a fudge-thickened finger and shout “Die you nasty dyke!” Captain Major broke his finger with a simple Krav Maga block. The snap of the bone was largely lost in the sudden uproar from the crowd. Security reacted quickly, gang-tackling Phil and dragging him to an area behind the food vendors that had been cordoned off in advance. They handled him roughly enough that his broken finger proved to be but one of many injuries. Even Tamara smiled a bit when she heard his head bang into the metal postilions used to mark the queues.

If Captain Major derived any satisfaction from that, she chose not to show it. With a supreme air of calm, she had simply sat back down on her stool, straightened the pile of 8×10 photos on hand for anyone who had nothing to sign, and then smiled at the next person in line.

The next person in line was a burly man in his early 40s with a wild mustache he might have been growing for a Wild Bill Hickock lookalike contest. In truth, his trimmer was broken and he was waiting for payday before buying a new one. His hands were chafed and cut, but also rubbed red from washing with an ornery pumice until they held a shine. He was slow to approach Captain Major, so Tamara intercepted him and guided him by the elbow at a quicker pace to the table. “It’s for my son,” he muttered softly as he held forward a creased hero card in a shaky hand. Captain Major recognized the card from the bubblegum packs. She looked the same now as she did in the picture, though it had been more than 10 years since the picture was taken. She imagined something in her faded eyes blending into the gray cardstock that bordered on hope. She couldn’t afford that naivete any longer, but still missed it every morning in the quiet moment after she sent her kids off into the world.

“What’s his name?” Captain Major asked while Tamara began cueing the man to move along.

“Daniel,” the man said. “He’s…”

Captain Major’s heart was in her throat as she worried that she had used the wrong tense. She couldn’t remember a Daniel. She hardly ever took a name, though. Not of people she saved, nor of villains she fought. She wasn’t blessed with super speed. Every action took time. How often was saving someone the end of an encounter? No, it was almost always at the start, when confusion filled a plaza like a dense fog and it was Captain Major’s first job to get civilians to the closest semblance of safety she could before tackling whatever the threat might be.

“…alive because of you.”

Captain Major hugged the man, though he couldn’t hug her back. He still held his trading card in one hand while Tamara tugged at the sleeve of the other.

“I’m so glad,” Captain Major said softly. She took the card and signed her name very carefully in the corner. The man was thanking her as Tamara pulled him away. Captain Major was afraid to look him in the eye. She felt tears in the corner of her eyes and fought them back, thinking of the long line she had yet to work through. She looked up and shook her head. With a heavy, but contented, sigh, she let a few tears fall. She wiped them away as she sat back down and smiled at the next person in line.

And that’s the way the rest of the line went. A random series of encounters, some brutal and some benign. But each step was fraught with peril. A total of twelve men were ejected from the line and several others trod a careful line to say their vicious piece without losing their convention passes. Many more than that were grateful. The rest were fans or the merely curious eager for any brush with celebrity. One disappointed girl had simply checked the wrong box when filling out the web form.

Then back they went to the lounge, where Tamara brought Captain Major another glass of red and a cupcake while wishing beyond words that she could enjoy the same. They were in the home stretch, now, and just needed to take a breath before shifting the focus to the finish line.

 

The first question at the Q and A was oddly distressing. A young woman in a peasant tunic and flowing skirt certainly had something to say, though no one, least of all she, could make sense of what it was. She was thrilled, and a big fan — that much was obvious. Beyond that, Captain Major, even with Tamara’s help, couldn’t decipher what the question might have been that she was being asked to answer. At the end of a tedious, awkward exchange, Captain Major simply said “Thank you.” Tamara insisted that they had to move on to the next question and the questioner walked away deeply disappointed.

The next questioner asked a series of questions before being escorted away by security. Captain Major couldn’t make out all of the questions, but she felt comfortable offering a collective, emphatic “No” to the questions she had heard: Was she a lesbian? Had she always hated men? Did she enjoy beating up kids? And so on. Captain Major looked into the crowd and saw Lou and Leigh sitting together not enjoying the experience they must have felt obligated to sit through. Captain Major smiled to herself. At least the scales were balanced for not forcing them to sit through church. Their presence was also a good reminder of the costs of college. Captain Major wondered how many credits the next hour would pay for as she resisted the urge to look at the clock. Tamara, ever observant, simply whispered “54 minutes” and patted Captain Major on the forearm.

The third questioner was a seven-year-old girl who wanted to know what the best part of being a superhero was. Captain Major had a well-prepared answer for that from her public relations training at Confederated Justice: “Meeting people like you,” she said with a smile. The girl smiled back, said “Thanks” and stepped away from the microphone. She tried to remember where she had been sitting. Her pause gave Captain Major a chance to extend her answer: “And doing justice.”

The next question came from a middle-aged super fan who wanted to know exactly what had happened with Captain Major’s battle against a villain called the Ironic Twist. The Tussle with the Twist was her most famous battle until her epic confrontation with Amazing Man. Captain Major thought back to The Tussle. It was the fight that brought her the kind of attention that resulted in an invitation to apply to join Confederated Justice. She leaped at the chance. Confederated Justice meant security, beginning with the income from Venn Diaphragms, plus the gadgetry and the umbrella policy.

The Ironic Twist was a classic trickster villain, in the mold of Loki from Norse legend or Jafar from collectible McDonald’s glassware. He granted wishes which, of course, would turn out horribly wrong for the wisher. If you wished to be happy for the rest of your life, you’d get a puppy and then get hit by a bus. If you wished for riches, you’d end up with solid gold arms and legs then trip over a puppy and fall into a swimming pool. That wasn’t really one of the better ones, but it remains illustrative of something.

Of course, once the Ironic Twist gave you a wish, you were obligated to use it. If you didn’t make a purposeful wish, then some randomly spoken desire would come true. This was largely inconvenient. If you were trying to get home during rush hour, the thought “I wish I were home” would instantly transport you home, but would leave your driverless car stuck in traffic with the kids still in the back seat, crying because your car had just run over a puppy. The Ironic Twist really hammered on the dead dog motif.

Captain Major didn’t have a lot of time to plan once the onus of making a wish was upon her, but her instincts proved to be true. She wished that the Ironic Twist’s deepest wish would come true.

Things seemed bleak at first, as the the Ironic Twist burst out of his villainously checkered suit as a surge of new power rippled through his growing body. Soon, he was nearly fourteen feet tall with dominion over the entire world, evinced by a new crown and scepter.

The twist to ultimate power over all living things just had to be some fatal weakness or flaw which was readily apparent to everyone but the Ironic Twist. The Ironic Twist mistook the giant, glowing gem newly affixed over his breastbone to be one more indicia of his ultimate power. Captain Major, even then, had seen enough video games to know what it really was — the critical hit spot which would result in an insta-kill.

The Ironic Twist called Captain Major forward to bow before him. She hesitantly agreed. She bent her knee while gathering her plasma energy until she was at maximum power. As soon as he lifted his scepter, most likely to clobber a golden doodle to death before braining her with its skull, she sprang forward and plunged her twin falchions of plasmic justice directly into the gem. The Ironic Twist gasped in the pain of truly knowing himself, then blinked out of reality.

Anyway, the question was what had become of the Ironic Twist after that. Captain Major had no idea the answer to that, nor did she wish to know. She finished her retelling of the events by saying she didn’t know what had happened to the villain but supposed whatever had happened was bad for him but good for the city.

That seemed to placate the questioner, who walked around the young girl on his way back to his seat satisfied not so much with the answer, but with the fact that someone had finally asked a decent question.

“Do you always behave so recklessly?” Max Depf stepped from his seat, removed a trucker hat to reveal a close fitting wool beanie and budged to the front of the question line. The seven year old from two questions before finally spied her grandmother who was waving at her from somewhere behind Max Depf.

“It’s not your turn, sir,” Tamara said pointedly.

“Answer the question!” an anonymous voice shouted from the crowd.

“I wasn’t being reckless,” Captain Major. “I was protecting the city from a super villain.”

Security guards approached Max cautiously from two sides. They watched Tamara for a sign as to what to do. Max took a half step to the side as if he was relinquishing his spot, then grabbed the microphone and moved toward the stage.

“You just said, in your own words,” Max readied himself for an aggressive paraphrase, “that you not only had no idea what you were doing to Twist, but you didn’t care. That’s the definition of recklessness. He could’ve exploded and destroyed the entire city. You might have sent him to some infernal hell dimension for all eternity!”

Captain Major, who knew for a fact that there were other dimensions, particularly one alternate Earth where neither super powers nor Metroville nor she existed except in mediocre works of fiction, shook her head as if the possibility were nonsense. “I’m not a god, Max. I don’t send people to hell.”

Max smiled. “No, but you put them through it! You nearly killed poor Bo Tannie. He’ll be disfigured for life!”

“He was just born ugly!” a woman shouted.

Tamara motioned for security to escort Max out of the building, but several Menhevicks stood up and formed a tight circle around him. They stood, arms at their sides, looking grim and rigid. Security moved in slowly while waiting for backup to arrive.

“We’ve all seen the official report on that,” Captain Major replied.

“A boy, a boy! With no powers! And you beat him near to death on his own lawn,” Max shouted into the microphone. A burst of feedback echoed through the makeshift auditorium.

“A man,” Captain Major stood as she replied. “Who, with his friends, beat me with a wrench earlier that evening.”

“So it was revenge!” Max shouted gleefully.

“It was justice!” Captain Major smashed her fist into the table, shattering it into a pile of kindling and splinters. Tamara took Captain Major by the arm and tried to pull her from the room.

“He’s got a gun!” someone shouted, throwing the crowd into a panic.

Captain Major scanned the crowd, but didn’t see a gun. She heard a small cry from the corner but couldn’t see what was going on. She moved toward the cry, but a security squad finally emerged to surround her. Tamara was at her side, pulling her toward the back door. “Let security handle this,” Tamara was saying.

Lou and Leigh Major were sitting not more than ten feet from where Max and his phalanx of Menhevicks locked arms against a growing security contingent. Lou moved toward the stage. In the confusion, it was easy to clamber upon the stage without resistance. Leigh stayed in her seat and watched the young girl who had asked a question moments before. The girl had fallen to her hands and knees. She looked up but saw nothing but blue jeans and black sneakers. She tried to crawl away, but one of the Menhevicks stepped on her fingers, causing her to cry out.

The stepper tried to move back, but struggled to move his neighbors. He finally moved his foot off the girl’s fingers, but stood awkwardly off balance, pulling his neighbors backwards toward Max.

The little girl was suddenly in the no-man’s land between the security guards and the Menhevicks. Captain Major saw the danger and shouted, but she was too far away to do anything before the security guards began their rush. Leigh leaped into the breach and gathered the girl in her arms. She lifted her easily, but was too slow to avoid the rush of security.

A thick-necked security trainee toppled them both back to the ground as part of his memorable first day on the job. Leigh well-noted the yellow fabric on the breast of his shirt marking his probationary status as she fell hard to the ground, using her ribs and arms to protect the girl. She felt the girl trembling in her arms as Leigh tucked her head and turtled over her body.

Above them, the security guards grabbed and pulled at the Menhevicks, who held their formation with great determination. Seeing that security was unable to pull his protective fence apart, Max cackled into the microphone until an engineer muted all the mics and activated the emergency system. Red lights began to flash. An automated voice instructed everyone to move to the exits immediately. Most of those who could comply had already left. Only the gawkers remained to watch one security team try to remove the Menhevicks and another security team try to remove Captain Major.

Leigh noted the stalemate as it ebbed and flowed above her. When she looked up, she saw a confused, older woman looking desperately in her direction. Leigh figured her for the girl’s grandmother, probably lost from the start in the noise and oddness of HeroCon, then tragically transfixed by her granddaughter’s peril.

Leigh gathered energy and let it flow around her fingers. She grabbed the nearest Menhevick’s ankle and sent a shock up his leg. He squealed in fright, pain and surprise. He also hopped backwards, breaking temporarily away from his neighbors and falling backwards into Max. Max, in surprise, disappointment and disgust, pushed the man forward so that he tumbled back toward Leigh. The security guards saw opportunity in the chaos and rushed forward. Leigh put her head down over the girl again, waiting for the storm to crash above them.

Leigh, her head down and eyes closed, didn’t see Lou launch from the stage like a flying squirrel to tackle the left side of the Menhevick line. He rolled off of them and toward his sister. He took a boot to the ribs and another to the face as the security team rushed over and through him to swarm through the line and grab Max before he could abscond. In disarray now, the Menhevicks lost all discipline and began to fight back against the security team with poorly aimed punches and ineffectual kicks.

Leigh looked up to see her brother’s bloody nose close to her face as he whispered in her ear: “Finish them.” He gathered up the girl in his arms and carried her over to her grateful grandmother, who reached into her purse to offer a hard candy as reward. Lou turned his back on the reunited pair. He saw the last of the Menhevicks collapse to the ground. Max himself was well in custody, surrounded by a pile of his compatriots shaking sense back into their heads and feeling back into their legs. A team of security guards attempted to reassert their professionalism despite the confusion.

Lou saw Max’s smug face change sharply into a voiceless scream before he crumpled into the arms of his escort and passed right out. Captain Major’s every instinct was to rush to her children, but the core of her training kicked in. She relented to Tamara and her own security team and allowed them to lead her away from her kids and away from the stage. She didn’t see Lou wiping the blood from his nose, or Leigh giving him a hug, or Lou almost hugging her back. And she didn’t hear Leigh whisper “Thanks” or Lou mutter something about messing with his sister.

Most tragic of all, she didn’t hear Lou’s laugh, his first genuine laugh in weeks. Worse, she would never know what Leigh confessed to Lou to prompt the laugh, for Leigh never spoke of it again though she thought of it for years afterwards whenever she washed her hands: “I zapped that dick’s junk.”

Monday, November 8, 2011

Now that she knew the way, Captain Major’s journey to Phil Intie’s inner sanctum was a breeze. Arriving early, however, meant that she was waiting in costume in a meeting room yet again. Was a time that the costume meant action. Now action was the least likely possibility each time she donned her mask and tunic.

Dee Major could have entered The Immortal’s lair without raising too many eyebrows, hidden as it was in what would be the largest commercial building in Metroville. Perhaps the sheer size of the building was what was keeping Phil from getting to his appointment on time.

It wasn’t that, though.

Phil Intie didn’t need to tap into The Immortal’s ability to see the multitude of potential futures to know why Captain Major had called his private line to schedule this urgent meeting. The news reports were covering her travails with the importance of mythic tragedy and all the sensitivity of a celebrity divorce. The gossip was never ending and the drama was rich. Most news outlets published in full Max Depf’s letter from Metroville jail. Given the two hours he spent in custody, Captain Major was certain that the 40 page letter had been written in wishful anticipation of his arrest.

An army of volunteer Menhevicks — more of a light battalion, really, barely more than a full-strength company — had their camera phones at the ready whenever Captain Major made an appearance. They inserted themselves into her life wherever possible, including disrupting her crime fighting efforts to demand answers as to why her crime fighting was ineffectual. This meant a constant stream of video was available for analysis. The only people busier than the super pundits on cable news were the audio editors responsible for beeping away the constant stream of vulgarities that the Menhevicks were hurling at Captain Major. It would have been easier to mute the audio on the entire video, but that left the video feeling awkward and unreal. Everyone knew what a battle between Captain Major and Autumnaton (a sentient golem-like creature who sought to stop winter from coming because he froze in the cold; also, he wore a cape of leaves because he achieved self-awareness while leaf peeping in the north woods) would sound like. Lots of punches and rustling. Without the audio, the whole thing seemed phony, made up.

So, Phil did what all successful business leaders did when they wanted to avoid a meeting: he scheduled a meeting just before that was likely to run long and a meeting immediately after to narrow the encounter and ease his escape. The ante-meeting meeting was now wrapped up and Phil was taking his time in returning from his official office to the secret one.

Captain Major was standing before the glass case protecting the mannequin displaying The Immortal’s now-retired costume when Phil finally entered the room. He launched directly into his prepared apology, all about the difficulties of getting to a meeting on a secret floor when so many people were watching and counting on you. Captain Major played along, but knew instantly from his nervous demeanor that he was ready to disappoint her.

Phil filibustered for as long as he could maintain the friendly veneer before finally yielding the floor: “To what do I owe the pleasure, Captain?”

“I’ll give you one guess,” Captain Major offered.

“I want to say that you remembered my birthday, but you don’t look in the mood for jokes.”

“There are other ways to make me smile, Phil.”

“Oh my, my Captain. Why didn’t you say so?” Phil leered.

“I thought we agreed I wasn’t in the mood for jokes?” Captain Major asked.

“Just trying to lighten the mood. You’re coming to me because you’re desperate. I understand that. But my hands are tied here. I’m a legitimate businessman now. And, the last I checked, you’re supposed to be a retired super hero.”

“I need your help, Phil. Please.”

“You want my help?” Phil asked. “I’m thrilled to help. You retired. Now go back to being retired. Enough with this Brett Favre bullshit.”

Captain Major grimaced. She hated Crocs. “I can’t stay retired. Not when I can make a difference. I have to make a difference.”

There was pity in Phil’s heart, but gruffness in his voice. “We can all make a difference. All of us. I know better than anyone you’ll ever meet how many people could have made a real difference and chose not to because they were too tired to try or too scared to take a chance. The world is full of people who could but don’t. You’ve done your part. You’ve made the world a better place for us all. Let someone else have the glory for awhile.”

Captain Major smiled sadly and held Phil’s gaze until he blushed and turned away. “The glory?” she asked. She paused a long time before continuing. “The world is full of people who could but don’t. So I have to be someone who does, even when it feels like I can’t.”

“You died, Captain. Your duty is done.”

“Dying was the easiest part, Phil. The trying is so much harder. Putting the gear on and going outside is hard. Knowing what’s waiting for me is hard. Worrying is hard. Leaving the job at the door is hard. Dying is dramatic. Dying is as easy as catching a punch with your face. You know better than to make a hero out of someone just because she died. The grind matters. The effort matters. Following through matters.

“I thought I could walk away, but I know better now. This is what I do. This is me. All of it. The costume is just as much a part of me as raising my kids or finding a goddam man to watch a goddam movie with me come Saturday goddam night.”

Phil chuckled. “You lost me a bit with that last part,” he said.

“I’m a mother and a hero and I’m a little lonely right now,” Captain Major said. “I’m not going to apologize for containing multitudes. Now, are you going to help me out?”

“Publicly, no,” Phil said. “Publicly I can’t do a thing. I’ve got to stay out of this. There’s nothing but downside for me and my shareholders if I get involved.”

“There’s doing the right thing,” Captain Major reminded him.

“Doing the right thing by you is easy. Doing the right thing by everyone who works here is hard,” Phil explained. “I don’t want to pick a fight with these Menhevick idiots any more than you. But it’s a fire that will burn itself out once it uses up all the oxygen.”

“When all the oxygen is gone, I’ll be asphyxiated, too,” Captain Major replied.

“Not literally,” Phil said. “This is going to blow over. That’s not a vision — that’s a prediction,” he held up a hand the way he did to distinguish between a future he had seen and a future he hoped to see. “I’ll always have a lawyer on call for you. A good one, whenever you need it. Retainer is paid up for life.” Phil slid a card across the desk. Captain Major took it and looked it over.

“Thanks, Phil,” Captain Major said. “I know I should thank you, but I don’t know if I can mean it.”

“There’s another thing,” Phil said. “But this isn’t from me. It’s from him.” He turned a thumb toward the glass case where his costume seemed to rustle and stir. Captain Major eyed Phil curiously. Phil nodded slyly to indicate that his costume, in some fashion, was responding to the attention it was receiving. There was no questioning his genius, but his priorities were suspect, at best.

Phil reached into one of the drawers of his antique oak desk and pulled out two plain boxes, tied with twine, and pushed them across the desk. Captain Major looked at him wonderingly.

“Go ahead, open it,” Phil said.

Captain Major untied the twine of the top box and looked inside. She pulled out a new kit, very similar to her original, but with fine distinguishing details others would likely miss. First, it was brand new. It didn’t have the worn patches of her threadbare classic costume or the giant rips prominently featured in the costume Leigh had borrowed. Second, the fabric was a new space-age polymer (probably) that had all the upside of an alien symbiote suit with none of the nasty side effects (promises, promises).

Captain Major examined the costume with great care and appreciation. “It’s got all the bells and whistles,” Phil explained. “5G plus satellite Internet; it’s a mobile hotspot; GPS. All built right in. Satellite voice calls are enabled, but I’ve got to get you the password for that. Photon capacitance system interwoven throughout so if anyone lands a punch, they’ll get paid back with a jolt. Should act like a powerful battery for your plasma powers. And the feet are modeled after jika-tabi. Should be warm, comfortable and extra grippy on slick surfaces. You could even help with the welding on the upper floors when you’re done with Fast Airborne VD.”

“Very nice,” Captain Major agreed. She thought fondly of her Chuck Taylors.

“The footies are detachable,” Phil offered. “There’s also a version with a built-in push-up bra.”

“Pass,” Captain Major started to put the costume back in its box.

“You said you were lonely,” Phil reminded.

“I am, but I don’t think showing off my boobs is the best way to cure that,” Captain Major said. She cut Phil off with a look before he could interject. “Fine, showing off my boobs probably is the best way to cure that. But I’m sticking to the high road a little while longer. I’ll meet someone based on my character and personality. My boobs will be a pleasant surprise.”

“Indeed they will,” Phil agreed.

“Is the push-up version in the other box?” Captain Major asked.

“No,” Phil said. “The other box has the junior edition.”

“The junior edition of what?” Captain Major demanded.

“It’s for Leigh. Similar but distinct. A good fit for a side kick.”

“I don’t have a side kick,” Captain Major raised her voice.

“Don’t you?” Phil asked. “I think you ought to stay retired. Disappear. But I know you won’t listen to me on that. So please listen to me on this: You either have a side kick or you’ll soon have a rival. This will help keep her safe, and help you to keep her safe.”

Wednesday, November 10, 2011

The good china stayed in the hutch, the wine stayed corked and the silver — well, the Majors didn’t own any silver flatware, so the fancy forks that didn’t exist in chateau Major didn’t need to be polished. On the other hand, the television was off, both kids were at the table and there was a semblance of peace in the house for a change. Dee Major sneaked out of work early and was taking the night off from being tracked and hounded when she tried to patrol. Even the thought of relaxing made her tired. Still, Dee managed to put together a solid vegetarian lasagna paired with a green salad made of all the bits of leafy greens she could salvage from three different salad bags, topped with the bacon left over from Sunday prior. The bread was almost stale enough to pass for flavorless croutons, but Dee left it on the counter, trusting it would better serve for toast in the morning.

Lou sat to her left and Leigh to her right with the steaming golden brown lasagna between them all.

“I wish we had candles,” Dee said wistfully.

“Is it my birthday?” Lou asked.

“If it is, I got you the same thing as last year,” Leigh smiled.

“It’s the same thing you got me for my birthday,” Dee added. “And mother’s day, if I remember right.”

“No, I got you something for mother’s day,” Leigh said.

“Dear, you haven’t given me a blessed thing for mother’s day since you finished elementary school,” Dee reminded her.

“I gave you a card last year,” Leigh said. “I’m sure of it.”

“I bought the card,” Lou said. “I let you sign it.”

“Thank you, guys,” Dee said softly.

“What’s that now?” Leigh asked.

“I’m glad we’re all having dinner together today,” Dee explained. “This is better than a present on mother’s day.”

“Even better than our card?” Leigh asked.

“Even better than any card,” Dee replied. “It’s been a tough, tough year. Heck, it’s been a Gelatinous Skunk of a week. You guys have been through a lot. I have — my choices have made you go through a lot. We’ve had a lot of fights and I’m sure we’re going to have many more. We’ll probably have another one before the lasagna is gone. But the peace of right now is very meaningful to me. Thank you.”

“God, mom. Are you like starting a church or something?” Lou asked.

“I think she’s a Scientologist now,” Leigh said.

“A little prayer wouldn’t hurt,” Dee said.

“Wouldn’t help, either,” Leigh added.

Dee watched her daughter out of the corner of her eye as she passed the butter to Lou.

“No, it wouldn’t help. But I don’t know what would help. I’ve been beating bad guys up for so long, I don’t know how to tackle a threat like this,” Dee explained. “Eventually, and maybe sooner than I’d guess, one of these Menhevick lunatics is going to go crazy eight bonkers and hurt someone. Badly. Maybe kill somebody. Maybe one of us. Do we just wait?”

“I guess,” Leigh said. “We’re not vigilantes. We’re soldiers of justice.”

“Who’s ‘we’?” Dee asked. “You and the turd in your pocket? I’m a soldier of justice. You’re a freshman.”

“Not a very good one, even,” Lou smirked.

“Well, certainly no fighting crime until you turn in all your homework,” Dee scolded gently.

“I’m all caught up on my homework,” Leigh said as she stuck her tongue out at Lou.

“Even still. No crime fighting for you,” Dee said. “I’m not saying no to any help right now, I just don’t even know what kind of help to ask for. I’m not going to beat Randy up.”

Leigh perked up in her seat, raising her eyebrows and smiling.

“And you’re not going to beat him up, either,” Dee said. “Not even a little bit. That Max douche needs a good kick in the smalls to set him straight, but I can’t hand out a butt kicking today for what anyone did yesterday. They aren’t guilty of anything de jure villainous.”

“They aren’t innocent, either,” Lou said.

“And we can’t even use the Internet,” Leigh added. “They all have a dozen accounts and if you shut one down, they open twelve more. They’re like the octupuses of assholes.”

“Octopi,” Dee said.

“I think,” Lou said. He stopped, thinking he heard something. Convinced it was nothing, he continued. “I think about the Q and A you did. There were more people there who wanted to ask questions and have fun. It wasn’t like there were a million Menhevicks. They were organized, though. We just need to be organized, too. And give everyone an easy way to stand up against them.”

“Like how?” Dee asked.

“I think we need like a Twitter campaign, but in real life,” Lou was thinking aloud. “Like how people change their avatars to show support for something.”

“But they own the Internet,” Leigh said. “Not literally. They’re not Comcast. You’d have to be nuts to sign up for that kind of harassment on purpose. I won’t ask anyone to do that.”

“No, I mean something like that, but we do it in real life. What about masks or something?” Lou wondered.

“Like what’s his name, the guy who wanted to blow up Parliament?” Dee asked.

“No,” Lou said. “Like your mask. So people have a little anonymity, but also have solidarity. Or ribbons that look like masks.”

“Or masks that look like ribbons,” Leigh said.

“Let him finish, Leigh,” Dee shushed.

“Oh! Masks that look like gibbons. Gibbon ribbons.”

“Honestly, Leigh,” Dee started to cut a new slice of lasagna from the pan.

“Yes! If they weren’t honest, they’d be fibbin’ gibbon ribbons. We don’t want that.”

“Enough with your mouth sounds,” Dee said sternly enough that Leigh was on the verge of listening when the front door burst open. The sound of shattering wood was quickly replaced by shouts and boots stomping across the front hall.

Leigh jumped up into a ready pose. Dee looked to the back door and saw a squad of black-clad officers with weapons drawn readying themselves for entry. She grabbed Leigh’s arm and yanked her hard to the floor. Lou was already under the table, his eyes wide with fear.

Dee held Leigh’s wrist tight in one hand while reaching out to caress Lou’s cheek and brush the hair over his ear. He turned his face away to hide the tears he worried were about to come. “It’s okay,” Dee said firmly. “Just stay calm. It’s okay.”

 

The adrenaline began to fade twenty minutes later as lieutenant Solverson wrapped up the taking of their statements with yet another long-winded apology about how they had to take all reports of drugs and weapons seriously, even anonymous tips. Ever since the meth epidemic, even nice neighborhoods like this one weren’t safe. Gosh, but he was sorry about the door, but experience showed that the only way to keep the troopers safe was to use maximum reasonable force at the outset to make sure they had tactical control of the situation.

Dee disagreed with all of it, but couldn’t bring herself to care. She was tired. She felt her kids sagging against her in their own exhaustion. All she wanted to do was to find a way to fix the door and to go to bed and sleep until everything was better.

In the end, Dee didn’t even bother fixing the front door. The whole thing would have to be replaced. She took a nap on the couch while Lou watched Happy Days on his phone and Leigh complained that his volume was so loud that she couldn’t hear her podcast.

Dee woke up after an hour of fitful rest. She cleaned up for a bit, then sent the kids to bed. When their bedroom doors were closed, she slipped into her own room and found the new costume Phil had made for her. It fit perfectly, of course. The man had expensive taste and great style. She really needed to let him buy her more gifts.

And so, with the front door held shut by a footstool from the living room, Captain Major perched in the shadow of the chimney and kept a watchful eye on the neighborhood for the night, not knowing what the morning would bring, but making damn sure that her family was safe for the night.

 

Then she remembered what the morning would bring. She had to write a goddam 360 for the biggest asshole in the world, and it had to glow like the moon above. She felt certain she could keep her family safe through this night, but had every doubt that she could polish that turd come morning.

Friday, November 12, 2011

Max Major had been an instant hit, so Max Depf immediately pushed through a name change. Depf Jam and Randy continued to gain listeners both for the three hour daily podcast and the one hour condensed broadcast for Metroville’s afternoon commuters. Max was therefore pleased, but not too surprised, to see the crowd waiting for them at Robert’s Robots, a robot manufacturer in the industrial part of town. Since the somewhat disappointing event in the park, Max had wanted to be in front of his crowd again, but also demanded that the chaos be replaced by a high degree of professionalism. He knew that Randy would never be able to reach that standard, so Max worked diligently to find activities better suited to Randy’s talents. Today, Randy was moderating the comments section on the show’s website.

And scrap booking.

Robert’s Robots seemed a strange place to do a remote show, but the owners were glad for a bit of publicity. They needed skilled workers to assemble and test the sophisticated robots and exosuits they were building for the mining and timber industries and would try literally anything to attract qualified candidates for their open positions short of increasing the starting wage.

The business was displaying a new prototype which, when fully assembled, became a ten foot tall piece of machinery operated by a man inside the device which turned the operator into an old growth forest’s worst nightmare, minus the faun mimes adapting A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The suit itself was modular, consisting of individually powered pieces which could be connected together for different tasks and load sharing.

Max’s favorite part of the entire apparatus was that it was designed from the get-go to only accommodate male bodies. The less said about how this was accomplished, the better.

Max shook a few hands at the end of his private tour, then moved to the temporary broadcast booth where Bo Tannie double checked the network and audio connections. Randy focused intently on his laptop as he waited for new comments on the current show thread.

Max pulled Bo to the side for a private word. Finding nothing more private than a poorly lit corner, Max removed his new porkpie hat to conceal the conversation. Bo scoffed. Max was very bald, with thin red hair forming a semicircle around the back of his head. A port wine stain over his left eye looked a bit like someone had crudely sketched a penis on his forehead while sleeping. In sum, Max was a ginger monk dickhead. Poor Max.

“What do you think about Randy?” Max whispered.

“I don’t,” Bo replied gruffly, making clear he weren’t no gay.

“Can you keep a secret?” Max asked.

Bo nodded.

Max licked his lips, thinking hard about what he wanted to say next. He started to speak, but the crowd began to applaud over his whispering.

The production intern who Max hired based on the prominence of her tits and the fragility of her self-esteem was standing before the crowd, trying to find Max. Max gave Bo a friendly pat on the arm before returning to Randy in the makeshift booth. The intern smiled with relief. She counted them into the broadcast, then turned to exhort the four score fans to cheer the start of the show.

Max nodded appreciatively at the mix in his headphones as the engineer brought up the applause with a gentle effect to smooth the loudest shouts into something more like a stadium cheer. As ever, Max wasn’t particularly interested in what any of his fans had to yell at him, but the enthusiasm was rewarding.

Dee Major chewed her lip in nervousness as she scanned the crowd while Max kicked off his show. She wore a pair of soft leather calf-high boots over Russian violet leggings with a cable knit sweater that hung down to the middle of her fingers when she let her arms rest at her sides. Her hair was back in a pony tail.

She wore a mask.

Her mask was a costume store version of the Captain Major mask. It was mostly plastic and very uncomfortable. The tiny elastic bands pulled at her ears enough that she had tried, unsuccessfully, just to glue the dang thing in place. She had had to buy the rest of the costume, too, which was insanely overpriced considering the low quality of the limited amount of fabric that went into the affair. (The manufacturer had started with the far more popular Sexecutioner model and added a few pieces of styling to make it vaguely recognizable as a Captain Major costume. It was how Captain Major would have likely been drawn, had she ever been popular enough to appear in a comic.)

Despite the simple disguise, she felt exposed in the crowd of whooping men. She noted security guards eyeing her. She flexed her hands at her sides to remind them that she wasn’t armed, then began to walk forward into the crowd.

Security began to move in closer as she worked her way through the crowd, but she found it far easier to move through the crowd than her pursuers. She slipped between elbows of assholes as the listeners kept a heterosexually safe distance between one another. The burly security guards found the going rougher as they had to push their way through Dee’s choppy wake.

Max was mid-thought when he noted the masked woman approaching the stage. Fortunately for Max, he only had the one thought, so he was able to finish his sentence with only the slightest hiccup. He glanced side to side and saw his security detail moving forward purposefully. As an afterthought he nudged Randy’s attention away from his patterned paper and laptop and pointed toward the woman in the crowd with a shift of his chin.

Max threw to commercial. The show’s biggest sponsor was a crowd sourcing campaign for a remotely operated riding lawn mower with a klaxon horn and “rolling coal” mode which inserted grass or leaf clippings into the exhaust system to create the illusion of huge belches of black smoke. Rolling coal mode activated automatically whenever a Prius passed by. The product would never exist, of course, but the promise of being able to drive a mower over a perfectly manicured lawn without having to absorb any Vitamin D at all was too strong a siren song for many listeners who pledged with their hearts at insane reward levels. Grass Master, Inc., was formed by two law school drop outs and their unlucky buddy who graduated. He went into bankruptcy law. The bankruptcy plans were already in place while the first dropout pretended to be a project manager, the second sold security systems door-to-door and the lawyer tried to become passionate enough about anything so that he could turn it into a micro-targeted writing career. The opening notes of the jingle washed over the crowd and sent half the front row into a curiously ecstatic state of reverie which Dee Major used to her final advantage to move all the way to the stage.

“Are you here to make my breakfast, or are you ready for my sausage?” Max asked as his engineer potted down the commercial and sent Max’s voice to the speakers.

“I’m here to ask you to stop,” Dee said. “You’re hurting people.”

“Stop what? Being awesome?” Randy asked.

Dee smiled sadly at her ex-husband. She could tell Max didn’t recognize her, but Randy seemed on the verge of figuring things out, like the seventh time he unsuccessfully attempted cunnilingus. “You’re hurting people you should love. Your mothers and your sisters. And your daughters.”

Leigh Major took a step out of the shadows in the back. She was 30 yards away from Randy, but he could tell from her size and stride that it was Leigh. The mask confused him, but the Senor Frog’s t-shirt he had bought for her in Cancun was a dead give away. Randy stood up. It took him longer than it should to piece together that Dee was the masked woman standing in front of him — by the time he got all the way to his feet, that realization weakened his knees so that he had to sit back down.

“Get her out of here,” Max directed. Security pushed through to grab Dee by the arms. She let them begin to drag her away. More security appeared in the back and began to manhandle Leigh, who pulled against their rough grasps. One guard twisted her arm behind her back and pushed her into his buddy. “Keep struggling,” the second guard smirked as he pressed his chest against Leigh and smiled.

Randy stood up again, knocking over his chair and unplugging his headphones with a sudden jerk that threatened to overturn the off-balance table that held all their rented equipment. Max grabbed at the table with one hand and slapped the cockeyed headphones off Randy’s head with the other.

Randy shouted off-mic to leave his daughter alone. He raced off the stage and tried to fight through the crowd to reach her. It was slow going as the crowd retreated into itself. From all corners of the factory floor a sea of masked women melted into view. The call had gone out on the dark web (well, to Pinterest, mostly) to doctors and nurses, school teachers and bus drivers, a performance artist, an editor and an unemployed professional dominatrix. Each in her own clothes, though no one really noticed what they were wearing except the last three. Each also in a mask, though the performance artist had made her own and the dominatrix wore one she bought for business purposes.

An unexpected lurch of the crowd knocked Randy to the floor. He found it easier going on his hands and knees. The crowd instinctively shied away from the odd fellow crawling over the floor. Short moments later he reached Leigh. He shoved a guard away from her; Lou appeared from behind a lathe to trip him as he staggered. Leigh used almost the gentlest shock she thought she’d need to make the guard holding her in an arm bar release his hold and jump back. She pulled her mask from her face, dropped it to the floor and gave her dad a hug.

She released her hug and took him by the hand. “Let’s get pancakes,” she suggested. Randy saw Lou and thought about giving him a hug, too. Lou had the same thought, but knew where they parked, so he figured it would be better if he led the way.

On the floor, more women moved forward, recognizing the faces in the crowd of men they loved, or had loved, or ought to love if family is to mean more than blood. They offered their hands, leading more and more of the men silently away.

Max grabbed a spare microphone with a long cable and ran at Dee. Two guards continued to walk her to the exit as originally instructed. Max let loose a primal yell before crashing into her back, knocking the three in different directions.

Dee picked herself up and turned to face him. “It’s over Max,” she said.

“Nothing is over,” Max said. And — spoiler alert — he was mostly right. The phenomena of privileged people feeling aggrieved over the diminishment of privilege was not ended on this day. Not even close.

“I’m not here to fight you,” Dee explained. “You don’t even need guards. I’m just going to walk away.”

“The fuck you are, bitch,” Max spat. He began to whirl the microphone around like a sling without a stone. Well, he whirled it around his head like he had seen in a martial arts movie. Being entirely untrained in this style of fighting, he was making a scary noise with the microphone racing through the air, but that was it.

Dee turned. “Good bye, Max,” she said.

She took a few steps away then heard the clatter of the microphone crashing into the ground several feet away from her. Max hurriedly began to coil the cable to spin up another throw. Dee kept walking away as security scattered from the random danger Max presented.

A second crash came, both louder and further away than the first. Dee turned to check on Max’s progress. He was running forward again, looping the cable around his elbow as he came. He began whirling the microphone again. His tongue stuck out a bit with the effort and concentration.

“Quit it,” Dee said. “You’re going to hurt someone.”

“I am going to hurt you!” Max yelled. He punctuated the last word with a flight of his microphone. It almost came close enough to Dee that she would have to dodge it, but she didn’t. The microphone instead crashed into an odd piece of machinery, first hitting the button that turned the feeder on, then falling into the feeder proper. The microphone and cable began to feed into the machine, which made horrible grinding and chopping noises as it worked.

“Let go of the cable,” Dee advised.

Max ignored her. He wrapped the loose cable around his elbow again while talking to himself. “I’ve got this now. I’ve got this now.”

The cable grew taut. Max began pulling himself closer to the machine as he coiled more cord while working toward the microphone that had been chomped out of view.

“Let it go, Max!” Dee shouted. She raced forward and grabbed at him, but he pushed her away. She grabbed for the cord and began to pull the tight loops off his elbow.

Max tried to push her away again, but Dee held her ground, threatening her secret identity as she batted away his arm with one hand and held his jacket with the other. She sent a jolt of plasma energy through his body that was strong enough to incapacitate most men.

Max ignored the jolt. In one motion he escaped from his jacket then turned and sprinted with an outstretched hand toward the clanking, grinding machine. With a belief that defied any other belief, he threw his hand, elbow and arm into the feeder after his microphone. He loosed a barbaric mewl until he was shoulder deep into the machine.

The machine and man went silent.

Max slumped against the machine, passed out or dead, though Dee felt certain he heard him say, “Got it,” before his eyes closed.

The floor foreman came running up a moment later. “I hit the kill switch,” he explained. “But it must have been too late.”

“What does that machine do?” Dee asked.

“It’s an assembler. Right now it’s rigged for our drill bits.”

“Like for bird houses and stuff?” Dee hoped.

“More for deep core samples, undersea exploration and that kind of thing. If you ever need to drill 800 meters into an asteroid, this is the bit you need.”

“You’ll probably want to stand back, then,” Dee said. “Way, way back.”

“I’m running the floor, ma’am. It’s my duty to clean out whatever bits of that man that are clogging my machine.”

Something roared to life with a sudden grinding sound from within the assembler. Dee pushed the surprised foreman backwards, sending him tumbling ass over skull into a pile of discarded plastic.

In the next moment, Max Depf emerged from the machine. At the end of his left arm was a massive, whirling, diamond-tipped drill bit infused with Captain Major’s own plasmatic energy signature. Dee double checked that her mask was in place and continued to be entirely unsurprised.

Max began a spittle-flecked tirade which was just out of reach of Dee’s hearing thanks to the pulsing energy spinning the drill that was Max’s new left hand man. Just like his right hand man, Max immediately put the drill to work and flung it Dee-ward with all his fury.

He failed to anticipate the weight of his new hand and nearly toppled himself at the end of his swing. Powered by fury he swung his mighty drill ineffectually in a backhanded arc toward Dee. She ducked the wild swing and waited for Max’s momentum to twist his body completely about.

As he struggled to unpretzel his legs, arm and drill, Dee stepped behind him and kneed him sharply in the balls.

Max pitched forward, coughing and staggering with pain and futile anger. Bent forward, he craned his neck to shout at Dee over his shoulder in a pinched, pained, strained, comically high voice: “You haven’t seen the last of the Borer!”

With that, he plunged his drill downward, creating a Max-sized hole that he slipped through into the basement, subbasement and finally sewer as he made his escape.

Dee knelt at the holes he made, wishing her costume was near enough to make pursuit. Knowing that it wasn’t, she whispered friendly advice to Metroville’s newest villain: “Don’t be so quick to settle into a name, Borer. A lame name will haunt you.”

  • CHAPTER FOUR*

Friday, November 19, 2011

Paula Dundas sat at her desk watching as each member of her team accepted the meeting appointments she had just sent out. She felt sick to her stomach. She was relieved that she wouldn’t have to deliver the message herself, but felt all the dirtier for the subterfuge she was required to engage in. Her instructions were direct, meticulous and contradictory. She invited each member of her team to a “status” meeting. To avoid suspicion, she invited each of them individually to the same room. When the last acceptance came in, she undocked her laptop and slunk off to a remote conference room a floor below so no one could ask questions before the meeting.

A half hour passed as she absently managed her email. She had thirty more minutes to wait when a meeting request popped up. Her boss’s boss, Bob Lasso, wanted to check in with her before the status meetings started. Paula accepted the appointment which was supposed to be starting already. Still, she stopped in a bathroom on the way to the executive offices three floors up to make sure she was presentable.

 

Paula hadn’t been to the eighteenth floor since before the last executive refresh, which redecorated the space in a faux-1950s theme that bordered on black and white. In truth, the entire floor was already imbued with an ambiguously amoral gray. There was little color but enormous contrast. The maple wainscoting was burnished with a bright finish over an ebony stain. The carpet was predominantly Davy’s gray, with speckles of gunmetal throughout. The pile was thick and luxuriously soft. It absorbed all sound from Paula’s pumps as she hurried along the corridor wanting more than anything to walk barefoot and feel the tufts between her toes.

She found Lasso’s office, but the door was closed. His administrative assistant was not at his desk, which Lasso noticed was much nicer than hers. It was a sturdy oak with the assistant’s name burned into the surface in an elegant script. Paula’s work surface — she never confused it with a desk — was made of leftover material that hadn’t been kitschy enough for a 1970s counter top. She kept it covered in calendars to prevent migraines.

Paula knocked on Lasso’s door and took a respectful step back. She glanced at the clock on the wall. It was now ten minutes since her meeting was supposed to start. The anxiety of the morning made her less patient that she normally would be. She looked through the glass window and could see Lasso talking. She couldn’t see his guest. Setting her back straight, she walked back to the door, rapped firmly and opened it a crack.

Lasso turned imperceptibly and assayed Paula from the corner of his eye. He glanced to his watch, back to Paula, to his watch, and to Paula one more time before a spark of recognition lit across his face. He stood serenely and smiled at Paula. She opened the door and stepped inside his office.

She didn’t notice the artwork, which was breathtaking in scope and lack of execution. Other than the exterior and interior windows, the entire office was a mural depicting the Battle of Hastings. The style was heavily influenced by tapestries of the time. The figures were flat and simple, but also horrifyingly disproportionate. The faces lacked meaningful detail, but for the fact that everyone was smiling the same thin, simple smile, as if an emoji stamp had been the original model. Even the defeated soldiers, limblessly floating in puddles of their own blood, were meeting their gods with good cheer.

Paula didn’t notice this because Lasso’s assistant was sobbing into his hands. Daniel Fletcher had taken the job out of desperation to address his crushing student loan debt, then had been stunned to discover that not only was he good at the job, but he enjoyed it. The pace, the responsibility and the interactions were all surprisingly gratifying. To be told that his job was being eliminated but six months after he took it was an affront to his sense of purpose.

Daniel stood up, took a deep breath and left the room.

Lasso shrugged in a “well, that went poorly” kind of way. He gestured for Paula to take the newly vacated chair. Paula sat. She grimaced at the pile of damp tissues on the table in front of her. Lasso noticed them as he sat opposite her. He looked at the door, ready to call Daniel in to tidy up. Thinking better of that at the last moment, he took a piece of letterhead where he’d been composing a shopping list for Daniel to execute and used it to brush the tissues onto an interoffice memo which just happened to be close at hand. He used the letterhead to sweep the tissues onto the memo and dropped everything in the garbage.

“Paula, right?” he began.

Paula nodded.

“I have some very difficult news to share with you,” Lasso said. He looked around, suddenly at a loss.

“I think you just threw it away,” Paula said.

“Yes, thank you!” Lasso said. He walked over to his garbage. He glanced into the bin, then sat at his computer. “I’ll just print out a new copy,” he announced to himself. He continued talking to himself as he tried to find the file on his computer. He was pretty sure he had a copy in his documents folder, but sometimes he saved those things to his desktop. Or maybe the email was still there, but he couldn’t remember who had sent it. He was getting frustrated when his phone rang.

And rang. Daniel wasn’t picking up.

Annoyed, Lasso grabbed the phone. He didn’t recognize the internal extension.

“Yes?” he demanded before listening a bit. He hung up. “Paula, right?” he asked.

Paula nodded twice this time.

“One of your staff isn’t in his meeting room,” he said.

“Kramer?” Paula guessed.

“No,” Lasso said. “Harold Jackson.”

“I don’t have a Harold Jackson on my team,” Paula said.

“Well, he’s not in the meeting,” Lasso replied.

“I understand,” Paula said.

“He needs to be in the meeting,” Lasso continued.

“I don’t know who that is,” Paula said.

“Figure this out for me?” Lasso asked. “I’ve got a hell of a day.”

Paula stood to go. “Was there more you needed to tell me?” she asked.

“Yes,” Lasso said, focusing on his computer again. “Just come back when this is done and I’ll finish you up.”

 

Paula found the meeting room on the sixteenth floor where most of her team was sitting. Kramer, in fact, was not there. She walked to the facilitator at the front of the room who was checking her timeline on her phone.

“What’s going on?” Paula asked.

The facilitator looked up from her phone. Her hazel eyes matched her sweater set perfectly. She was a contractor whom Paula had never seen before. Her badge indicated she worked for a temporary services company, but didn’t give her name. The facilitator didn’t speak, she just slid the printed roster toward Paula, who scanned it. There were seventeen names on the list: sixteen of the names had a mark next to them.

Harold Jackson’s name did not have a check next to it.

“Is Harold Jackson here?” Paula asked.

“Yes,” a man’s deep voice spoke up. Paula looked over and recognized the face. He was on one of the walking teams, often doing laps inside the building. He walked by her desk two or three times a day, though Paula hadn’t known his name before that moment.

“Thanks,” Paula said and returned to the list. Kramer’s name immediately followed Jackson’s and had a check next to it. She scanned the room again, carefully avoiding eye contact with her team members who were all sitting together in a bunch at the back. Kramer was not with them, though Dee had saved him a chair.

Paula felt for her phone, but she didn’t have it with her. She stood over the facilitator who leaned slightly out of the way so Paula could reach the speaker phone. Paula dialed Kramer’s extension on the speaker phone on the table.

“Yello,” Kramer said after the second ring.

Paula kept her focus on the gray phone. It reminded her of a science fiction prop from a 1970s film. It was curiously rounded, both sleek and bulbous. It’s form hinted that it had some special function, which it probably did. The phone was absolute crap for making calls.

“You’re late, Kramer. You’re supposed to be in 1640.”

“Huh,” Kramer said as he clicked at his computer. “I see that I am. Sorry about that, I was so caught up in my work I missed the reminder.”

“Just get here,” Paula directed.

“You’re not going to fire me, are you?” Kramer said. He stood and looked around. He took the ear bud out of his right ear and noticed that the rest of the team wasn’t at their desks. “Where’d everybody go?”

“They are all waiting for you,” Paula said.

“Sure thing. On my way,” Kramer said.

Paula hung up.

 

A few moments later, Paula finally looked over at her team. Winnie looked back at her hopefully, perhaps imagining that there was something Paula could yet do to save them. Archer was trying his best to look bored, but failing. He kept licking his lips nervously. He whispered something to Dee, accidentally spitting a bit in her ear. She shook her head. Paula tried to smile a sad smile, but her face wouldn’t cooperate. She grimaced ironically.

In the minutes it took Kramer to show up, Paula was disappointed that she didn’t feel sadder. She had barely slept Thursday night and was heavily caffeinated to get through the day. She felt tired and disappointed, but the righteous anger or collegial sadness she expected was as absent as Kramer. She was doing her job and feeling nothing about it.

Kramer finally walked in. The facilitator stood up and began speaking even before the door was closed.

“Hello, everyone. My name is Donna Martin. I’m here to share some difficult news with you,” she turned to her notes and began to read the message verbatim in a flat, dull voice. “In order to protect the future of Fast Airborne Venn Diaphragms, difficult decisions have to be made about the course of our expenses. The actions we are taking today, while difficult, will ensure that Fast Airborne Venn Diaphragms returns to profitability and growth.”

Paula decided to sneak out and head back to the eighteenth floor for her message. By nature, she didn’t expect the worst. She ran through the interaction with Lasso again: was he giving her this message, or something different? Maybe she was being moved to another office or given a new role. A demotion? Nothing at this point made much sense.

Paula stopped at the door and returned her attention to Martin’s monologue.

“Right now, some of your colleagues are being informed that their positions are being closed. We value their contributions and thank them for everything they’ve done for our business. If you are in this room, you are not affected by these actions.”

Paula hurried to the front of the room and grabbed Martin roughly by the arm. “You’re reading the wrong one,” she hissed.

“This is the only one I have,” Martin dismissed Paula as dull with a quick look. She returned to her script. “We ask that you show respect for colleagues who are receiving difficult news today. We want you to know that appropriate support will be offered to anyone affected by these actions, including a 60-day license for high-quality, résumé friendly fonts.”

“Stop it! Stop it! Stop it!” Paula demanded. She grabbed the paper away from Martin, who fell back into her chair as if Paula had slugged her. Paula turned to the people in the room. “This is not the right message,” she said.

Martin shrugged and turned to her phone. Paula considered her options. “I’ll be back,” she said as she hurried to the door. She paused again at the doorway. “Wait here,” the tremor in her voice surprised her. She swallowed the tremor and risked the one thing they had specifically instructed her not to say. She looked to her team, her friends, the people she had never expected to care about. “I’m sorry,” she said before hurrying on her way.

 

Paula trotted along the hall, peeking into conference rooms as she passed, looking for a room with the right message. Starting from room number 1640, she moved through the 1630s and the 1620s before encountering another team lead, Simba Delgato, hurrying in the other direction.

Both stopped and approached each other cautiously. All of the information on the job actions had been apportioned so arbitrarily that no one knew what they were supposed to know, let alone what anyone else actually did know. This was intended to prevent gossip and control the message. It didn’t work; the team leads avoided gossip out of respect for the people they worked with, while senior executives idly chatted about it in grade school code on elevators and speaker phones. The extra layer of control was unnecessary and ineffective, and therefore sacrosanct.

Paula led with a vague statement that was nevertheless clearly urgent. “I have a room with the wrong message.”

“How many?” Simba asked.

“About twenty. Three teams,” Paula said.

Simba rotated his hand back and forth between thumbs up and thumbs down. “They are getting,” Paula showed a thumbs up, “when they should be getting,” she finished with a thumbs down.

Simba nodded. “My room is the opposite. Thank god I was there. I wasn’t supposed to be,” he confided.

“Me, too,” Paula agreed. Simba was smiling broadly, clearly relieved. He held out his memo. Paula took his memo in exchange for hers. She scanned through it quickly. It was the right message.

“Thanks!” Simba enthused. “You’re a life saver!” He headed back toward room 1604 in a heroic trot.

Paul took a breath and turned. She walked resolutely back to 1640.

 

Martin waited at the front of the room for Paula to walk over to her and hand over the memo. She began reading it. Her tone was still flat, though now clearly annoyed as she rushed through the bits she’d read once before.

“Hello, everyone. My name is Donna Martin. I’m (still) here to share some difficult news with you. To protect the future of Fast Airborne Venn Diaphragms, decisions have to be made about our expenses. The actions we are taking today will ensure that Fast Airborne Venn Diaphragms returns to profitability and growth.”

Paula walked quietly toward the exit. Dee stood to stop her as she passed.

“Today, we are giving you notice that your jobs will be eliminated in five weeks. Those who satisfactorily complete their job duties over the next five weeks will be eligible for severance pay equal to ten days for every fifteen months of continuous service.”

Dee hugged Paula. She whispered “thanks” and let her go. Dee returned to sitting. Kramer shook Paula’s hand as she passed. Martin continued to read as Paula left the room.

“In addition, you will be eligible to purchase individual health coverage through the employer plan for a period of 90 days following your last day of employment. Right now, your colleagues are being informed that some positions are being closed. We are not sharing information on the teams or individuals who are infected.

“Excuse me. We are not sharing information on the teams or individuals who are affected. You are encouraged to take a long lunch if you feel it will help you process this difficult news. If you do so, report your time with activity code XR17. XR17 will be unpaid, but will count toward years of service when calculating any severance.”

 

Paula barely had a chance to think of her own precarious position before the elevator discharged her on the eighteenth floor. The messages in most groups had already been shared. Clusters of sad-looking people were meeting all over the building, but other than a few empty desks, it was business as usual on the eighteenth floor.

Paula reached Lasso’s door without making eye contact with anyone. She knocked. “Come,” Lasso barked from the other side.

Paula entered the room. Lasso was sitting behind his desk. Paula took a seat opposite him and waited quietly. Lasso finished typing something into his computer then looked over at her. “Would you mind shutting the door?”

Paula rose to shut the door. “Thanks, angel,” Lasso said as she retook her seat.

Lasso rolled his chair over to his printer and grabbed a couple of pages from the output tray. He looked at them for a long time, then rolled back to his desk to get his glasses. He looked back at the pages. After a long minute he said, “That’s not what I needed. I printed that yesterday.”

Lasso went to his keyboard and clacked away. Paula folded her hands in her lap and focused on sitting up straight.

“Printer is fucked,” Lasso said.

“Oh?” Paula asked.

“Whatever, I guess,” Lasso said. He ran his hands over his long, slightly greasy gray hair. He reached deep into the front pocket of his boot cut jeans and tied his hair back into the tiniest pony tail imaginable. It was no more than an inch long and he had to twist the hair tie four times to get it to stay.

Lasso stared at his monitor. “I’m going to share some difficult news with you,” he paraphrased. “In order to protect, blah blah, difficult decisions have been made about our expenses. As you may know, salaries make up the vast majority of our ongoing expenses.”

Lasso paused here to look over his glasses at Paula. She gazed out the window. Lasso returned to his screen and lost his place when he scrolled the document.

“Uh. Difficult decisions, salaries are our biggest expenses. The actions we are taking today, while difficult, will ensure that Fast Airborne VD returns to difficulty and growth.

“Oops. Profitability and growth.

“Earlier today, some of your colleagues were informed that their positions would be closed. We value their contributions and thank them for everything they’ve blah blah. If you were affected by those actions, you would already have been informed.

“At the same time, we are starting a new stretch program for front line leaders to expand their authority to rationalize and flatten our organization. You have been selected to not continue as a leader in our new organization. We thank you for your contributions and are giving you notice that your role will be eliminated effective today.”

Lasso pawed through folders on his desk. Finding one with Paula’s name on it, he handed it to her.

“That’s it?” Paula asked.

“There’s more in the folder. Take your time reading it, but to qualify for severance you have to sign the release before you leave today. Security will escort you to the front door at 1:00 p.m. Be a dear and grab the door on your way out, will you?”

 

 

Lou and Leigh were with Randy for the weekend, so Dee came home to an empty house. She poured herself a big glass of wine, intending to marinate while she ruminated. She turned the oven on, threw a sheet of foil on a cookie sheet and prepped a big tray full of supreme pizza rolls. She bought them for the kids, but she tended to help herself whenever she had a bad case of fuck this.

She thumbed through the Internet on her phone while waiting for the oven to reach 475 degrees (Dee Major liked her pizza rolls crispy). Amy was celebrating her soberversary. Good for her. Val had just won a karaoke contest. By the looks of the pictures she posted, it was more stripping than singing. At least her fitness classes were paying off. Dee sincerely intended to see them more, but as soon as her retirement faded, her positive intention morphed into lingering regret and self-resentment.

Archer was tweeting up a storm, for all the good that would do. Dee hoped he’d feel better in the morning, but judging from the rapid deterioration of his spelling, Dee guessed he’d be nursing a well-starched hang over.

The oven beeped that it was preheated. Dee slid the pizza rolls in the oven and wished they also had tater tots. She set a timer and sat back down. Her phone whistled. A secure message from Phil.

 

Guess who’s going to be blamed for this? http://tinyurl.com/hhr3kan I’m with you. All the way. Whatever you need.

 

Dee followed the link. The Borer had stood by his name and his grievances. He was calling for a societal reformation around traditional gender roles like subservience. He had, in fact, hacked a local women’s health clinic’s web site and posted his 96 theses on the front page. The hack had not lasted long, but the story was picked up by all the local news feeds. Menhevicks.org had helpfully converted the grievances into four separate listicles to maximize page views. You would not believe grievances numbers six, eight, four and seven.

For her part, Dee believed them all, inasmuch as they were all the same petulant complaints she’d been hearing all her life. Her time at Confederated Justice was coming in handy yet again, this time because it inculcated her against routine sexism and whining about opportunities. The Borer wanted to be cared for like an infant and feted as a man-god: powerful, infallible and virile. He wanted a world where he would be responsible for making all the decisions but wouldn’t be responsible for making dinner. He was happy to pick up a check as long as he never had to pick up his socks. And so long as a happy ending followed the meal.

Dee’s stomach rumbled at the smell of the melting cheese and processed meat flavor. She pulled the crispy pizza rolls from the oven as soon as the timer went off. They were all well-popped, with the tasty innards spilling out onto the foil. She picked bits of pancake batter off an otherwise clean spatula and shuffled a handful of rolls onto a plate.

She sat back down and set her phone to the side. She nibbled delicately at the crispiest bits of the pizza rolls while she waited for the insides to cool.

She knew the storm was coming. The threat could not have been clearer. Metroville had to conform to The Borer’s wishes or incur his wrath. She had created The Borer and she would have to defeat him.

This was probably the last moment of peace she’d have until she clobbered The Borer’s skull so hard he had to buy a whole new menagerie of hats. Captain Major wouldn’t just be fighting for her city, her family or her gender. This time, she’d also be fighting for the haberdashers.

Wednesday, November 24, 2011

The cubes of Fast Airborne VD were nearly as barren as they always were on the day before Thanksgiving, with one exception: Dee Major’s team, except for Paula Dundas, was all-hands on deck. Not because they had work to do — maybe, in fact they did, but not a one of them was paying attention to that. But because they were narrowing in on their final days in the office and it made little sense to any of them to spend a vacation day when that extra day of pay would come in handy with Christmas around the corner. A new supervisor had been assigned, but he had not yet made the time to introduce himself. No one cared, so long as he signed their certificates of good behavior.

They flowed around Dee’s cube, taking turns wasting one another’s time, wondering whether they could each sneak out early to begin preparing for their Thanksgivings, or if this would be the day that Gravy Jones decided to finally check in.

Dee needed to stretch, so she took a turn hanging her arms over Winnie’s cube wall. She was confused for a moment, but didn’t know why. A couple blinks later she sussed it out. Winnie hadn’t brought in her Christmas decorations. Her cube was nearly sterile, with no traces that a human being with likes and interests had ever inhabited it.

Of everyone on the team, Dee judged Winnie’s prospects to be the best. She was young and educated. Most of the others, including herself in this analysis, were dangerously calcified after years of service with a middling employer. Great experience, in its own way, as most employers are middling and most corporate jobs are mix of good people and bad conditions. Just the blush of that exposure immediately made each of them better candidates than first-time job seekers who demanded to be treated with the care of the first snowflake that falls and shivers on a toddler’s mitten at daybreak on a Christmas morn.

In Narnia, no less.

As Dee watched, Winnie scrolled through page after page of dense green text on a black background. So intent was she, she didn’t look up until Dee startled her by asking what she was reading.

After catching her breath from her startled leap straight up out of her office chair, Winnie explained. She was reading the Borer’s Manifesto. It was intended to be a list of demands which the city had to meet. In truth, no one had gotten to the demands part yet, because the web page which housed them required the viewer to read through the list of grievances first.

The Borer needed to be heard, first, and they obeyed. And then probably heard some more. Dee guessed that Confederated Justice had their best heroes working on the project right now. Best, in this and only this case, featured the Completionist. He was a rather standard hero. He could fly and was super strong, but had a fatal weakness in the need to complete every task along the way before battling a super villain. This tended to take forever as he collected all the clues rather than moving ahead to defeat the villain before the city was in grave peril. On the other hand, his trophy chest was second to none.

The Completionist would likely have one lieutenant in this task, the Self Punisher. Self Punisher dressed in all white and carried an arsenal of weapons with her at all times. If the Self Punisher lashed out at criminals in a hail of bullets, it was nothing compared to the punishment she routinely inflicted upon herself. Any stain to her brightly white costume would mean days of scrubbing everything — the costume, her lair and every inch of skin until it was as red as Joseph McCarthy’s worst fever dream and everything else, from her costume to her deep shag carpeting in the rec room, was white as an Oscar nominee for Best Original Screenplay.

Self Punisher also had two poorly trained akitas who had the run of the house whenever she was on duty. Duty led to doodie which led to another cycle of bitterness aimed inward and calls to puppy kindergartens which rightfully refused to admit her giant adult dogs into classes with 12 week old puppies.

Self Punisher would hate the the Borer’s Manifesto almost as much as she hated herself for each mistake she had ever made. She, too, felt a deep compulsion to finish the Manifesto inasmuch as she must have done something to deserve the pain. Another part of her would hope that her arch-nemesis, Self Abuser, would make an appearance in a subway car or movie theater so she’d have anything else to do.

Winnie, bored at work, was actually closer to the end of the Manifesto than anyone else in Metroville. It’s amazing what one can accomplish when one stays busy doing nothing.

“I’m impressed that he was able to put this together so quickly,” Winnie said. “It’s nonsense, but it’s a lot of nonsense. I’m surprised he had time to physically compose this much verbiage. Especially one-handed.”

“I imagine he’s had a lot of experience using computers one-handed,” Dee noted.

“Probably,” Winnie agreed. “Still, it’s a lot to write.”

“Writing is pretty easy,” Dee said. “I think you just keep typing until you get bored enough to convince yourself what you typed is good.”

Dee peeked over Winnie’s shoulder to get a better look at the text. “How much you figure you have left?”

“There’s an implied structure and organization here. Not a strong structure or good organization, but based on conventions, I figure I’ve got to be about halfway through.”

“Good for you,” Dee said. “Is it fair to judge this by conventional standards, though?”

“Oh, god, yes,” Winnie said as she turned in her chair. “No matter what the Borer thinks, there’s nothing new here. He’s just rehashing grievances we’ve all heard.” She dropped her voice conspiratorially, though no one was around who would object to what she wanted to say. “Mostly, he thinks his mom should have tied his shoes for him when he was six and that he deserves a lot more blow jobs now.”

“That does ring familiar,” Dee smiled.

Winnie turned back to her screen. “This is clever, though. All the pages are generated dynamically, so you can’t index them or skip to the end. And when you get to the bottom of a page, there are these CAPTCHA buttons. It’s easy for a human to read which one says ‘Next’, but a screen reader would struggle. The JavaScript behind the buttons just gives a random 32 bit key, so you can’t tell from that, either, which button takes you forward. If you hit the wrong button, you go back to the very first page and have to start all over again.”

“Seems like you’re the clever one, Winnie,” Dee said. “I bet you could find a job where they pay you to figure those things out.”

Winnie looked skeptical. “I like figuring out what I like to figure out, not what someone else tells me to figure out.”

“Well, good luck, Winnie. I hope you find something soon.”

“Me, too,” Winnie said. She turned back to her computer and began skimming through the Manifesto again, occasionally groaning or chuckling to herself. Dee turned back toward her cube and was shocked to see Randy approaching from a distance. She stood still for a long beat, wondering what might happen next. Fearing the worst, she darted into a conference room. Randy followed her in and Dee quickly closed the door behind them.

“I brought you some coffee,” Randy handed over a large cup of coffee, still steaming as Dee took it with a soft thanks.

“How’d you get in?” Dee asked.

“I told security I needed to ask you how to defrost a turkey. I guess that made me seem harmless enough.”

“Why are you defrosting a turkey?” Dee asked.

“I’m not,” Randy said. “I have something to say.” Randy paused and gauged the surroundings. He didn’t quite look at Dee, but around her.

“Go on,” Dee urged.

“Just making sure you’re not getting ready to zap me,” Randy lied. “I’m sorry for some things.”

“Not everything?” Dee asked.

“Fuck no, not everything,” Randy answered. “I’m sorry that the kids are having a hard time because we’re fighting. I’m sorry that I used your identity against your other identity. And I’m sorry for calling you a c-word.”

“When did you call me that?” Dee asked.

“You weren’t there,” Randy shrugged. “But I said it and I meant it at the time. Still, sorry for that. For those three things.”

“And nothing else?”

Randy wouldn’t look up from his own cup of coffee. He twisted the brown lid from side to side.

“Thank you, Randy,” Dee replied. “I’m sorry for some things, too.”

“Like what?” Randy asked.

“I’ll make a list. Get it to you later?”

“I’ll look forward to that,” Randy said. He dropped Dee’s gaze and studied for a moment the awful carpeting in the conference room. “If this matches the drapes,” he joked, “then I sure don’t want to see the drapes.”

“Yeah, I suppose,” Dee agreed.

“I’m going to go. Enjoy your coffee,” Randy said as he abruptly turned to leave. He stopped after he cracked the door open half a foot. “I hope someone teaches the Borer a lesson, Dee. God, what an asshole.”

“I hope so, too,” Dee agreed. She watched Randy leave and sipped her coffee for a moment before heading back to her cubicle.

Winnie was waiting for her with the list of demands the Borer had made. Dee was incredulous. “How’d you get this so fast?” she asked.

“I’m as surprised as you. The whole thing ended really abruptly,” Winnie said.

“You did say he was a conventional guy,” Dee agreed.

“Yep!” Winnie chirped agreement. “I don’t know if he got bored or suddenly worried that the whole thing was too long and no one could actually read it or what, but the last sections were much shorter than anything else. The pace really picked up. No more long-winded asides or misdirection.”

“What a relief,” Dee said.

“I’ll say,” Winnie agreed. “At any rate, those are the demands.”

Dee shuffled through the seven pages of discrete demands for money, property, immunity, obeisance and so on. The Borer clearly had a Fantasy Island scenario in mind, as he was holding the city ransom for everything including a sovereign island but not including the little person as servant and punchline. He probably planned on impressing Randy into that job.

“Do you think anyone will meet those demands?” Winnie asked.

“If I know anything about the Elastic Twins,” Dee, who knew Lycra better than her sister, Adhosvana, said, “some of these demands are bound to go unmet.”

“Then can anyone stop him before he destroys the city? Half the city is without sewer and the other half has brown water. That orphanage on Seventh and Main collapsed in on itself last night because the foundation had been drilled away. How many kids would have been hurt if they hadn’t been at the theater that night?”

“And who knew that kids liked Sweeney Todd?” Dee wondered.

“Is that what they were seeing?” Winnie asked.

“I don’t know, Winnie,” Dee said thoughtfully. “I do not know.”

 

The Immortal moved some personal appointments around in order to make a rare in person appearance at a Confederated Justice board meeting. As he walked into the well-appointed meeting space he nodded solemnly at the professional servants lining the leather-wrapped walls who had been hand-picked for their present roles due to their inability to register contempt for their fellow human beings. Today, as always, they were in black tie and waited in hyper-vigilant stasis for the board members and hangers-on to arrive. As The Immortal entered the room his feeling of foreboding immediately turned to shame and regret. He took the seat closest to the exit and began to compulsively wipe his hands on the opulently soft, unsustainably warmed towel placed in front of him before politely declining all further offers from Hermes, the attendant to whomever sat in that particular chair.

The Immortal was ready to set the towel down when Staphon Clork oozed in. The man was full of superficial charm, but it didn’t take superhero senses to detect the sleaze churned up in his wake. He smiled broadly and brightly, all the better to show off his freshly bleached and capped teeth. His hair was freshly frosted, too. His jacket was short enough to be mistaken for a cape-let, but the man refused to let any unnecessary fabric cover his chiseled buttocks. The Immortal nearly choked when Clork turned and gave him an eyeful of his padded, push up slingshot briefs. The man’s ass was choked up above his waist, or so nearly so that The Immortal had no idea how he would sit.

As it turned out, there was no need for Clork to sit. He called the meeting to order while walking around the conference table. The Immortal waved away the deluge of cologne that washed over him as Clork passed by. The Immortal wisely surmised two things: Clork had recently watched The Untouchables and he was in full preen for an upcoming press conference.

Clork was nearing the end of the beginning of the middle section of his introductory remarks for the board when The Immortal interrupted. “Will all due respect, Staphon, I need to get back to my sanctum for a rub down before the Borer demolishes the rest of the city. How about we assign some super supers to finding this guy and get this taken care of before Metroville looks like the Detroit parts post-quake Frisco?”

“Who would you suggest?” asked Dan Herbert Manskirt, one of the newest members of the board. He had not been born with such a ridiculous name. Manskirt was born Daniel Walter Ants. His mother was an itinerant poet and his father was a oboist who named his only son in tribute to the Pink Panther Theme. Manskirt’s mother left his father on the same day his father left his mother. His father left to pursue a career in scoring short films. Ironically, his mother left to pursue a career as a camera operator for the Philippine Basketball Association where she was filming short scores. Manskirt was a ward of the state for barely eight weeks before he was adopted by two other Dans: Dan Herman and Dan Bertskirt. In a loving, if misguided, teenage tribute, Manskirt combined his fathers’ names into new middle and last names. As an adult, he was an earnest kid who reserved a great deal of energy for trying to grow a full beard. To date, he was failing, but The Immortal noted that the density seemed to be improving. Modestly.

“What’s that?” a voice on the phone asked.

“Who’s on the line?” The Immortal asked. He waited, but there was no response, so he continued. “I suggest the Texan for starters. Thematically, it makes a lot of sense. Maybe not so much these days, but there’s a connection between the oil derricks and the Borer’s motif.”

“Sorry, I put myself on mute accidentally. This is Brendan Large.”

“Did you have a question, Brendan?” The Immortal asked.

“I’m having trouble hearing, especially the guy with the squeaky voice.”

The Immortal and Manskirt looked at each other. Manskirt tried to pretend that The Immortal’s voice might be perceived as squeaky, but they both knew better.

“The Immortal suggested the Texan,” Manskirt raised his voice toward the phone.

“I can hear The Immortal, squeaky,” Large whinged.

“Sure, sure,” Manskirt pressed forward. “Texan’s got to have help, though. If you get past the rugged jaw his only powers are rope tricks and being able to wear the hell out of a big hat.”

“That alone might intimidate the Borer,” The Immortal said as he nodded his agreement. “I also think it’s time to give the Badger a shot. She’s good underground and fights with the relative ferocity of a human-sized badger.”

“The Blob-ger?” Clork scoffed. “Not on my watch.”

“She’d be safe,” Large added. “No one would want to ‘drill’ her.”

“Leaving that aside, I think Badger and Tex would make a good team on this one,” The Immortal said. “My computer is finalizing probabilities based on the futures I’ve seen. With the Completionist refusing to take shortcuts and Self Punisher actually re-reading the dullest bits for context, it’s the only chance that we’ll have the Borer’s location before the whole city sinks.”

“It’s not going to happen, Immortal,” Clork leaned over the table to shout in his face. “Not Tex. Certainly not the Blob-ger. Not anyone. You know as well as I do that Captain Major created this villain. He is her responsibility. Fuck her. Let her twist in the wind until she’s ready to come crawling back and beg me for help.”

There was an unsubtle connotation in the way Clork said “beg me” that made The Immortal queasy. It was obvious that Clork had spent too much time thinking about Captain Major begging for help that only Clork could deliver.

“Our priority is the city, Clork. Not your,” The Immortal paused to point his pinkie finger at Clork’s crotch, “damaged pride.”

Clork straightened himself and took a step back from the table. He turned his back on The Immortal and folded his arms. “No part of me is damaged,” Clork began.

“Sorry,” Manskirt interrupted. “I’m not sure the people on the phone are going to be able to hear you if you face away from the table.” Manskirt grabbed one of the speakerphone extensions and dragged it closer to Clork.

“Who is doing that?” Large yelled. “Do you have any idea what that sounds like? It sounds like you’re using the phone to scratch your balls.”

“His balls haven’t even dropped yet,” Clork vaulted over the table and spun Manskirt’s chair so they were facing each other. Clork was standing close enough that Manskirt had to fight the urge to lean back as Clork displayed his pride in Manskirt’s face while shouting at The Immortal. “And if you wanted to have opinions you shouldn’t have left your post. You exist on paper only. You have no voice. Your opinion does not count. I’m more likely to listen to Manskirt here than I am to you.”

“Ignore me at your peril, Clork!” The Immortal warned.

“I’m shaking, Immi. Shaking so hard I might knock Manskirt’s balls loose. So keep making me quake, you’re doing your little boy a big fucking favor.”

“Leave the boy out of this,” The Immortal stood.

“Or what? You’ll do nothing! Know why? I’ve had this entire room lined with quantum temporal disruptors. Your little future sight trick can’t see anything that might happen here. You are powerless, you sad, sandy twat.”

The Immortal slapped Clork hard enough that one of his dental caps popped off. It bounced merrily the length of the table, where a lucky servant swept it up and brought it to the kitchen area for cleaning. The Immortal being his responsibility, Hermes immediately placed a call to the emergency cosmetic dentist.

Clork looked up with a lopsided smile. “Is that the best you’ve got?”

“Not by a long shot,” The Immortal said. “But I know what side I’m on. If you’re not going to save this city, then I will.”

“That’s where you’re wrong,” Clork said. “And not for the first time today.”

Five finely muscled and impeccably groomed men charged into the room and overwhelmed The Immortal with pressure points, submission holds and greasy pelvic thrusts. “Say ‘Hello’ to my new private security force,” Clork bragged. “They’re called ‘The Groomed Men’.”

“More like the Dick Clork Five,” Manskirt said.

“Good one,” The Immortal managed sweatily from beneath a PVC-clad knee.

“Take him, too,” Clork thumbed toward Manskirt who stood and straightened his jacket before the leader of the Groomed Men grabbed him by the wisps on his chinny chin chin.

“Here’s what’s going to happen gentlemen,” Clork continued. “I’m going outside to meet the press and let them know who created this mess and who needs to be cleaning it up. When Captain Major has learned her lesson, we’ll be ready to save the day.”

“And the city?” the voice on the phone asked.

“If we can,” Clork said. “But sacrifices have to be made. I’m the regional manager. I’m not here to protect Metroville. I’m here to protect the region. After today, I don’t imagine any super will ever see their way to spurning Confederated Justice again.”

 

Dan Herbert Manskirt’s instructions from The Immortal were simple and infuriating. The Immortal had programmed his super computer to determine the Borer’s location. The Immortal, being temporarily imprisoned in Confederated Justice’s halls of holding, had whispered this to Manskirt during the few moments while they were jointly dragged out of the Confederated Justice board room. Then The Immortal was on his way to a cell and Manskirt was being thrown out the building and onto his ass. The Immortal had also taken the time to mention, as a point of pride, that his state of the art artificial intelligence had no name or personality. Why this mattered wasn’t clear. What was clear was that Manskirt would be on his own to collect the message from the nameless computer, find Captain Major, pass along the details and convince her of the reliability of his information.

Captain Major and Manskirt both being on something of the outs with Confederated Justice, the meet up was proving to be more difficult than Manskirt had expected. Captain Major was not in the phone book or in any of the public records databases Manskirt could afford to search. She also wasn’t famous enough to be included on any celebrity stalking apps, so Manskirt had to improvise.

In truth, it wasn’t a particularly impressive social hack, but Manskirt was tremendously proud of himself nevertheless. He stayed puffed up for a full week afterwards. (Or, he will have stayed puffed up for a full week, if he and the city survive the impending doom. Shwew. Close one.) He rather purposelessly searched for Captain Major’s name in a news database. As he scanned through the results, he found some coverage of Captain Major’s Hero Con brouhaha which included a candid photo of Captain Major and her handler, identified as one Tamara Ammit. Tamara Ammit had a public identity and a professional profile on the Internet. Manskirt had her work number after two clicks and was speaking to her a few moments later.

Ammit was not inclined to set up any kind of meeting with Captain Major absent some proof of merit from Manskirt. They met at a coffee shop close to Ammit’s office with one of Ammit’s most imposing co-workers loitering around the fancy coffee pick up zone in case of trouble. Manskirt flashed his CFJ keys and credentials, along with his winningest smile. Ammit was satisfied with his provenance and agreed to arrange the meet.

For her part, Ammit had no way of directly contacting Captain Major. She wasn’t a permanent client, but Ammit had a way of anticipating people’s needs. Captain Major had a need to find the Borer and to keep an eye on the ragged remnants of the Menhevick community. Hence, a vaguely threatening anonymous post on the Menhevick website suggesting a dance with danger on a rooftop in the central city seemed like a proper invitation. Manskirt did his part by finding a way to the roof all by himself. He was also very proud of that accomplishment, accomplished, as it was, without setting off a single alarm.

 

Captain Major knew she was being baited, but desperate times demand calculated risks. As such, she arrived on the roof top of the Good Neighbors building, next door to the Fences building where the challenge was to take place. She stopped playing with her jacks and tucked them into a secret pocket within her costume when she saw Manskirt emerge from the stairwell. She could hear the wheezing as he tried to try to regain his breath from the long flights up. He poked around the roof while his lungs gasped for air, then seemed genuinely surprised that he was alone.

Still, Captain Major waited and watched. Manskirt checked his phone for the time repeatedly. Soon he got bored and found a place to sit facing the door. Minutes passed and he began to play on his phone and forgot to check the door. It was only when he seemed in danger of nodding off that Captain Major danced from one roof to the next to approach him from behind and demand answers.

Manskirt started at the noise behind him and dropped his phone, which went clattering across the roof. Manskirt began to chase after it, but Captain Major’s commanding voice rooted him in place.

“Why did you call me out?” Captain Major demanded.

“Call you out? What? No. I was told to meet you here,” Manskirt said. “To give you…”

“Who told you?” Captain Major asked.

“Tamara.”

“Tamara who?” Captain Major probed.

“Um,” Manskirt bit his tongue as he tried to recall her name. “Oh! God. Ammit! Tamara Ammit. She worked with you at HeroCon.”

“Tamara doesn’t know me,” Captain Major said. She thought hard about what little she knew about Tamara and began to see her designs on the evening. Yet, she wondered, whether Ammit herself could be trusted any more or less than the well-intentioned, slightly buffoonish character before her.

“What do you want to give me?”

“A message,” Manskirt explained. “From The Immortal. Coordinates. Where he expects the Borer to be tomorrow, before his deadline expires and he destroys the city.”

“I can’t trust you,” Captain Major said. “And I can’t fully trust the coordinates, even if they really do come from him.” Captain Major tapped the coordinates into her phone while she waited for a response. She desperately wanted to ask about The Immortal. She needed her friend and her friend needed her. She worried that she would fail her city and her best friend at the same time. Then Captain Major paused and wondered if and when The Immortal had become her best friend. Must have been one of those times when she died. Or the day trip they took to Palookaville for her first corn hole maize. (For details on what a corn hole maize is, visit http://www.jimdscott.com/ungrump/corn-hole-maize/.)

“But you can trust me,” Manskirt offered plaintively.

Captain Major rolled her eyes internally. “Well, that’s certainly good to know,” she said. “Thanks…”

“Daniel Herbert Manskirt,” Manskirt filled the pause.

Captain Major extended her hand to shake, but shimmied her index and middle fingers to the inside of Manskirt’s wrist. She passed a quick, enervating pulse of energy into him. She steadied him as his knees wilted.

“That’s a marker, Manskirt,” Captain Major explained as he examined the red dots burned into his skin. “It’s my fail safe for situations like this. If I’m not around to deactivate the satellite, a homing missile will explode directly above your coordinates in twelve hours. It’s a very good missile, so there’s no sense hiding. Best you can do is be sure you’re not around anyone you care about. If you’re the vindictive sort and the city still stands, invite an enemy to a casino brunch. Be sure to sit close.”

Captain Major gave Manskirt a bear hug that threatened to crack his ribs. She whispered in his ear before departing, not looking back: “Let’s just find out what you are, Manskirt.”

As she leaped from the rooftop down to the adjoining building, Leigh’s voice popped into her ear. “Was any of that real?”

“Coordinates might be,” Captain Major replied.

“The missile?”

“The missile? Absolute nonsense. All of this is nonsense. But if you’re not going to amuse yourself along the way, what’s the point?”

“The Borer’s deadline is in three hours, Captain,” Leigh said.

“Then no more nonsense for us,” Captain Major said. “Tonight, we battle.”

“And tomorrow we cook!” Leigh enthused.

Captain Major harrumphed. “Like you’re going to help.”

“This year for sure!” Leigh said.

“I’ll believe it when I see it,” Captain Major replied. She checked her bearings and began to race across the city toward destiny and, with any luck, yams.

 

Captain Major followed the coordinates toward the Green River which dominated the north side of Metroville. The Green River began its southerly course a few miles north of Metroville at Clear Spring Lake. It rambled through farmland and suburbia, picking up unhealthy doses of nitrogen all along the way. The massive algae blooms had helped morph the river’s original name — Greehan River, named for the first European family to permanently settle along that part of the river — into the Green River. Not all the maps had caught up just yet, nor would they as most of the Metroville residents were quickly forgetting that their paper maps still existed in glove boxes and those clever little sleeves on the backs of front seats.

On the other hand, Metroville residents were renowned across the world for their uncanny ability to fold maps back into their original incarnations for storage. Captain Major, of course, was not dwelling on this fact as the sun set behind her and she stared deep into the yawning mouth of the dank cave into which the Borer’s trail undoubtedly led.

The snap of a twig behind her prompted Captain Major to extend her twin falchions of plasmatic justice. She spun into a defensive pose known as the Viper Princess. It made her a small target, crouched over her fully bent left knee, and invited an attack on her fully extended right leg. It was the first position taught in Confederated Justice hand-to-hand combat lessons for none of these reasons. CFJ favored the stance because it looked pretty awesome in photographs and was just suggestive enough to sneak into the subconscious without encountering any cultural or religious resistance along the way.

Winnie jumped back and nearly dropped her tablet when she recognized the response she had prompted. She tried quickly to explain and apologize, but her words got in the way of each other and all she could do was stammer and stumble backwards.

One more thing: despite the danger, the pose, one’s youth and the other’s eternal attractiveness, neither Captain Major nor Winnie was at all sexually aroused by the encounter. Even if either had been, both were fully aware of the seriousness of the moment. Also, too, one of them knew they were both being watched.

Captain Major scanned from side to side for other threats before relaxing into a standing pose. She rested her hands on her hips and softened her countenance just enough to remind Winnie that seriousness of purpose was required, without the steely glint of a deadly gaze.

“He’s near here,” Winnie explained.

“I know,” Captain Major said.

“How do you know?” Winnie asked.

Captain Major started to answer, then regained her guard. “The hero asks the questions in times like these. How do you know he’s near?”

“Well,” Winnie enthused. “I was playing around the website after I finished his ultimatum or whatever, and started looking at the counter on the website that tracked visitors. It’s just some off-the-shelf code. Very standard. But it has this hook where it tracks the real world position of visitors on the web site. That’s just the standard over-intrusion into what we think of as our private digital lives that we’re all accustomed to. What I don’t think the Borer realized is that when he downloaded this code, that website was tracking his position.”

“Go on,” Captain Major said. “I’m following.” This was not true.

“As a feature, the original download site inserted the geopositional coordinates of the downloader, in this case, the Borer or someone working for him, into the JavaScript before it was deployed to the Borer’s site. Looks like it was intended as a feature to track the furthest visitor or some kind of spiral map showing all the visitors using the original coordinates as the map’s center. I wasn’t sure what it was, to be honest, but I thought I’d check it out. So, here I am.”

“Not for long,” Captain Major said. “Leftenant, I need an extract.”

“What’s that?” Winnie asked.

“Also, what’s that?” Leigh asked over comms. “You mean like vanilla?”

“I’m not making cookies,” Captain Major replied. Winnie thought this was a pretty good catchphrase and hoped Captain Major would use it more in the future. Captain Major was on the fence about the quality of the catchphrase as she listened to a rustling on the wind and watched as Leigh Major finished her glide from the Green Bridge. She alit next to Winnie. Winnie started and Leigh tumbled as her feet slipped on the uneven ground. After a moment, Winnie offered Leigh her hand to help her to her feet while Leigh retracted the glide wings in her spanking new costume.

Leigh brushed the sand and fallen leaves from the pebbled black fabric that dominated her suit. Dots of pink added color to the ensemble. The fabric was motion sensitive: the more Leigh moved, the more pink appeared and the brighter it glowed. Leigh’s favorite parts of the costume were the kick-ass knee-high boots which kept her perpetually cold feet reassuringly warm. Her least favorite part of the costume was the half cape hanging from her shoulders. On the one hand, it was a key part of the cool glide mode The Immortal had engineered specially for her. On the other hand, it was childish and sidekickish and broke up her silhouette in an odd way. It was like the cape was always trying to cover the tramp stamp she didn’t have while reminding her of Neal Anderson’s honesty blanket, which she learned about in English literature because Dead Poets Society was literally the only movie with poetry in it that their substitute teacher had ever seen.

The worst part of the cape was that it was a smoky gray. It probably helped her blend in with the clouds on a dark night, but the color really didn’t go with the rest of her costume. Maybe it was a little too brown, which clashed with the perfect ebony that dominated her kit when she wasn’t moving.

She tried not to worry about it, hidden as she was behind a thick black mask which covered her eyes and most of her forehead and cheeks. Leigh thought it looked like a clip art tooth and complained as soon as she saw herself in the mirror. It functioned to cover the scars which were still slightly visible from her encounter with Bo Tannie. A wig of jet black hair fell to the middle of her back. Some of the stands were laced with industrial diamonds which glimmered in bright light and could cut a bitch deep when Leigh whipped her hair around in battle. That was according to the manual, which Leigh had reluctantly read as a precondition for joining her mother this night.

The kit was a good start, but it hadn’t helped Leigh and her mother come to agreement on a name.

“Call me Black Vengeance,” Leigh said as she struck a heroic pose.

“I will not,” Captain Major said. “I don’t know if I can spell ‘vengeance’ and that name suggests all kinds of experience which you don’t have, Leftenant.”

“As if I’m British,” Leigh complained. “Teen Angel! I could have like a 50s theme.”

“You won’t be a teen forever,” Captain Major said. “I hope.”

“The girl dies in that song,” Winnie added.

“That, too,” Captain Major turned to Winnie. “Leftenant will be removing you from danger. Now.”

“I wasn’t actually going to go into the cave,” Winnie said. “I’ve been wandering around listening to all these weird pneumatic noises. I know better than to enter the cave. I’m more than happy to head home now that you’re here.”

“Fine, then you can make sure that the Leftenant stays on the bridge,” Captain Major instructed.

“I should be going with you,” Leigh said.

“But you will not,” Captain Major said. “Maybe this lady can help you think of a name.”

“Oh, god. How rude. What’s your name?” Leigh asked.

“My friends call me Winnie.”

“Can you think of any pink names?” Leigh asked as she started walking toward the bridge.

“We’re walking?” Winnie asked.

“Yeah, I glide, I don’t fly. How about The Pink Glider?”

“That sounds like a lady’s razor.”

“I can cut a bitch,” Leigh enthused. She showed her hair to Winnie as they walked away from Captain Major’s remonstration: “Language!”

Captain Major watched the pair walk away, then turned back toward the cave. She could still hear Leigh’s side of the conversation over comms as they turned a corner and moved out of sight. Drawing her focus to the task at hand, Captain Major walked toward the cave.

 

As she entered the cave, Captain Major extended again her twin falchions of justice. The flickering, focused beams of energy partially illuminated the cave around her. She trod forward carefully, waiting for her eyes to adjust to the dark.

She heard the strange pneumatic noises that Winnie had warned her of earlier. They seemed to be coming from beneath her, from deep within the cave. The noise moved about, sometimes to her left and sometimes to her right, but growing louder. She turned her head, listening carefully to try to understand what she was hearing from where.

Without warning, the floor beneath her gave way. She extended her toes and flexed her knees as she fell, feeling forward for the ground beneath her. As soon as her toes touched the ground she folded her knees and rolled forward. She completed half a roll before her back slammed into a solid dirt wall in front of her. She stood and assayed her surroundings. The hole above her extended further than she could jump and the walls appeared to be nigh unclimbable. She was in something of a dirt hall. The space was no more than ten feet in length and no more than four feet wide. Just a tube of air, eight feet high, in a field of brown, rocky earth.

Captain Major noticed that the radio communications with Leigh were broken and that the hisses from before had been replaced with the clanks and wheezes of heavy machinery working in close proximity. She used her falchions to probe the walls. The dirt was solid everywhere she checked. Looking up the chimney she knew that she could either try to use her falchions to climb out of the tube or find a way to dig down toward the sounds of doom beneath her.

Captain Major, ever the hero, began to probe the dirt floor, looking for a way toward the danger only she could face.

She drove the plasma blade stemming from her right hand as deep as she could into the floor and began to slice through the dirt to make a hole she could peer into.

Before long, her right shoulder was burning with the effort. The heat of the falchion cutting through the dirt warmed the tube. She felt sweat begin to form under her mask. It dripped into her eyes. She had to pause to blink the saltiness away and wonder at the feature The Immortal had left out. Perhaps he had forgotten that a woman could sweat.

The floor rumbled. Dirt shook free from the ceiling and drifted to the floor. Captain Major adopted the Four Vee pose. She looked over her left shoulder, with her left hand protecting her throat and chin. She extended her right hand toward the ground behind her and parallel to the right leg she anchored into the floor. The left hand was her shield, the right was her counterstrike.

The Borer erupted from the floor just in front of her, the widest part of the drill head that was now his left arm chewing into her left foot. Captain Major swung to block the drill even as she toppled to the ground. She rolled into a ready stance just in time to cross her plasma blades above her head to block the drill rushing for her skull. She held the great weight above her, then gathered her strength to stand.

She heard the strange pneumatic clankery clank again just as she threw the Borer’s drill head away from her and prepared to strike him right in his stupid, smiling, over-confident face with his eyes shining with the knowledge of something — and, oh crap! — there it was. A snaky tube shot forth from the Borer’s right hand and plunged into her chest.

A bolus of compressed air shot into her body. She could feel her whole body inflate. A second shot swelled through her body. Every inch of her skin screamed in pain as she was stretched toward bursting in every direction. A third shot hit her and she swore that she was starting to float like a blimp.

Captain Major knew that a fourth blast of air would mean her death, again, and the destruction of the city that, despite everything, she was still more than fond of. Especially since it was still the home for her family and friends. She struggled to overcome the pain and to strike back at the Borer, but she found that her limbs were no more mobile than the limbs on Confederated Justice’s helium balloons as they delighted the tourists on St. Patrick’s Day by parading across the bridge over the River Green.

The Borer leaned further forward, stretching his neck to get as close as he could to Captain Major’s face to taunt her bizarrely inflated body. “I hate to kill you,” he said. “Now that you have perfect tits.”

“You can kill her if you want,” Leigh Major’s voice called from behind the Borer. “But fuck you if you’re going to misquote Captain Major’s favorite movie.”

The Borer turned. Leigh Major threw everything she had into a mighty front kick that caught the Borer in the solar plexus. The wind rushed out of him and he toppled forward to his knees. Leigh spun and chopped through the tube connecting the Borer to Captain Major. A giant rush of air shot from both ends, throwing dirt all around, blinding both Majors. Leigh crawled to her mother’s side to catch her as she deflated while the Borer escaped downward under cover of dust.

“I’ll let that one slide,” Captain Major sighed as she grasped her daughter’s hand and pulled herself up.

 

“You could be a Sith Kicker,” Captain Major coughed.

“Language!” Leigh scolded.

“It’s a kick ball team that ought to recruit you,” Captain Major dusted herself.

“Kill me,” Leigh replied. “Kick ball is for olds.”

“An activity would be good for you. How ‘bout Quartz?” Captain Major suggested.

“Quartz?” Leigh Major repeated.

“Or Crystal,” Captain Major explained. “Because you’ve got such good timing.”

“What does quartz have to do with timing?” Leigh asked.

“The use it in watches, I think,” Captain Major explained.

“You mean like an NTP server?” Leigh suggested.

“What’s an NTP server?” Captain Major asked.

“Network Time Protocol. That’s a triple fail, Captain Major,” Leigh said. “Quartz, crystal and NTP. How about the Dread Pirate Robin?”

“That’s awful long,” Captain Major said. “And Robin might already be taken.”

With that, Captain Major fused one end of the flexible tube to a boulder, wrapped the other around her wrist and dove head first into the Borer’s escape hole.

Leigh waited for a moment, on the lookout for giant rats or possibly round dragons. Seeing neither, she climbed hand under hand down the tube and into the depths of the Borer’s lair.

When Leigh reached the bottom, she found Captain Major crouched behind a rock. Captain Major gestured for Leigh to be silent, then indicated that she should peek around the boulder toward the far end of the cavern. Leigh looked. She saw a collection of computers and industrial mining equipment at the far end. At the center of what appeared to be the command center she saw Bo Tannie manipulating the controls.

“What’s that dick doing here?” Leigh whispered.

“Duh,” Captain Major said. “He’s your nemesis now.”

“But what’s he doing? His name is Bo Tannie. Bo. Tannie. Botany? There are no plants down here at all. Thematically, it makes no sense.”

“What’s in a name?” Captain Major quoted.

“Ooh. I could be the Rose!” Leigh suggested. “Look how I thorn!”

Captain Major held her finger to her lips again, then waggled her hand to indicate that the name still wasn’t quite right.

Winnie’s voice came over their radios. “You have less than two minutes, Captain Major and friend!” Leigh pointed to the inside of her black leather glove where her spare communicator was missing. Captain Major nodded. “And that’s what she said! Sorry, I was on mute before.” Captain Major and Leigh took the time to mentally review their conversation, then groaned inwardly at each other.

“I don’t see the Borer, but there’s no time. Wait here,” Captain Major grabbed Leigh firmly by the shoulders, sitting her down while she stood herself up. “I’ve got this.”

Captain Major emerged from the shadow of the boulder and began to race toward Bo Tannie and the controls he manipulated. As she ran forward, she heard heavy rumbling above her. Dirt fell from the ceiling again. In the next instant, a series of heavy rocks began tumbling through shafts bored into the ceiling. They fell and crashed around her.

Captain Major dodged around the first few boulders. One split as it fell in front of her. She leaped atop the boulder and launched herself over two more. She was close enough to Bo Tannie to see his face turn green and his pants turn yellow as a final boulder fell on her right leg, pinning her in place.

The Borer dropped from the ceiling and landed hard on the rock and Captain Major’s leg. He brought his drill hand to bear, aiming it directly for Captain Major’s heart. Captain Major threw all her energy into her right arm, doubling the normal size of her plasma falchion. She drove it hard into a crack in the boulder, reaching forward until the blade was fully buried in the stone. With a triumphant cry she sent another surge of energy through the blade, shattering the stone and sending the Borer falling backwards.

Captain Major and the Borer gathered themselves. The Borer strafed to his right, trying to move between Captain Major and Bo Tannie. Captain Major knew that time was running out, but her energy was temporarily depleted. Even the energy stored in her new suit was gone, making that feature an entirely irrelevant detail in this tale. She gathered what energy she could, but knew that she couldn’t gather enough to defeat the Borer in time. She looked up and saw that Bo Tannie had turned his attention to the control panel. The countdown was inching forward. The map above him showed a glowing series of dots marking an impossible number of explosives ready to detonate and bring all of Metroville crumbling to the ground.

Captain Major didn’t have time to wonder whether Lou had gotten to safety. She didn’t have to wonder about Leigh. She felt the rush of energy moving past her on the left. “Overload it!” she called to Leigh as she raced past.

“Nut him!” Leigh replied. Captain Major turned her head to see that Leigh had cut a square piece of structural steel from somewhere and was throwing it to her. The Borer lunged his drill toward Leigh, the greater threat. Captain Major caught the steel bulwark and used the last of her energy to punch a fist-sized hole through the middle, racing to intercept the Borer as she did so. She shoved the steel onto the Borer’s spinning drill head.

The Borer staggered under the weight. The drill head spun forward into the warm hole of the heavy steel nut. The moment of inertia suddenly changed as the drill head fused with the bulkhead. The Borer fell to his face, his outstretched drill arm still in front of him, still spinning. The nut at the end of the drill began gouging deep chunks of dirt from the floor as it circumscribed a circle with the Borer flopping at the center.

Bo Tannie stepped away from the control panel as Leigh reached it. She spread her fingers over the panel and sent every joule of plasmatic energy she had into the equipment. Sparks flew wildly and the monitors exploded, but still the countdown beeped toward zero. Bo knew uninterruptible power supplies.

Bo grabbed a steel folding chair by the legs and slammed it across Leigh’s back. She fell forward with the impact, but her head jerked back as her forehead cracked against the metal lip of the control panel.

The timer was at 3 with Captain Major blocked from the control panel by the herky jerky wind-up toy flailings of the still nutted Borer. The timer was at 2 when Bo Tannie slammed the chair onto Leigh a second time as she struggled to her feet.

The timer was at 1 when Winnie’s faint sob was broadcast over the radio.

The timer was at 0 when Lou finished sprinting another quarter mile and began to walk toward the starting line to start another interval. Randy checked his stop watch and called out Lou’s time. They chose to head for the track rather than for the hills. If Randy had been nice to Dee and listened to her in the same week, she would have died of shock before she had a chance to save her city.

The timer stopped beeping and nothing continued to happen. The Borer’s drill finally exhausted its energy supply. Captain Major stepped on the Borer’s arm and wondered whether it would be a kindness or a cruelty to amputate at the elbow.

Bo looked around, confused that nothing had happened until he saw the bundle of wires melted beyond recognition between the control panel and the communications relay. The timer had expired, but the signal to detonate had not reached the charges.

Leigh stood, her head foggy and her power still drained. She walked to where Bo stood, staring agape at the ruined cabling. She spun him roughly to face her and threw a right cross to his jaw. The crack was satisfying as was the pain in her knuckles. Bo refused to fall, so Leigh drove her knee into his damp groin.

Bo groaned and fell to the floor while Leigh lamented soiling her new costume with Bo’s urine.

The Majors stood over their vanquished foes in triumph. They shared a smile. Captain Major called to Winnie. “We’re ready for the cleaners, Winnie. Threat is neutralized, two turds are ready to be flushed.”

After a long pause, Winnie replied. “Great. But what exactly am I supposed to do about it?”

“Nothing, my dear,” The Immortal replied. Winnie looked above her at the sound of a helicopter descending. “Leave the tidying up to me.”

Saturday, November 27, 2011

The city basked in its safety, for the time being at least, and gave thanks for all the other things they had reason to be thankful for. Dee and Leigh Major stood at the final turn in the Metroville Turkey Run watching the runners race by. Leigh spotted Lou, red-faced and focusing intently on the runner in front of him. His costume’s snood and wattle bounced from side to side with each stride. Yes, snood and wattle. Look it up.

“Keep going, Lou!” Dee cried. “I love you!”

Leigh shook her head at her mother. “Run, Lou, run!” she yelled as the racers moved past and headed for the finish line.

In the last ten yards, Lou pulled even with the young man in a pilgrim hat that he was hunting down. For two strides they were even, then Lou leaned forward where the finish line tape would have been, had they been winning, rather than finishing 31st and 32nd overall.

Lou slowed from his sprint to a jog to a walk, which he continued until he was a safe distance away from the finish line. He leaned forward to rest his hands on his knees and panted. He smiled broadly after a volunteer congratulated him for winning his age group (among costumed runners).

Dee and Leigh walked together toward the finish line. From a distance, they saw the young runner who Lou overtook approach him. They spoke and Lou smiled. Something else was said and Lou’s face changed. He was suddenly angry. The other runner took a step away. Lou stepped after him, reaching a hand out to grab his arm.

Randy appeared, as if from nowhere, calling Lou’s name. Lou heard him and turned to embrace his father.

“Oh, God, you smell like shit,” Randy said as he clapped Lou’s back. “Great race, son. Too bad you can’t outrun that smell.”

“Thanks, dad,” Lou said.

“You do smell awful,” Leigh said as she reached her brother. “But great finish.”

“Ten K is your distance,” Dee said.

“Thanks, guys,” Lou said. “I need a drink.”

“That’s my boy,” Randy said.

“He means a sports drink, dad,” Leigh said as she walked away. “I’ll go find one.”

“I think they’re over there,” Lou pointed in the opposite direction from where Leigh was heading.

“On it!” Randy said. Dee reached out and handed him a note before he trotted off in the direction where Lou pointed. After ten steps, he felt a cramp and slowed to an unsteady walk. He unfolded the note and read it as he walked.

 

Randy:

I’m sorry I ruined your favorite stein. I thought it was dishwasher safe.

I’m sorry I didn’t get you Resident Evil IV for your birthday. I know that’s what you wanted most of all.

I’m sorry that I wasn’t always honest with you, especially about my feelings.

— Dee

 

“Anything else you need?” Dee asked Lou when they were alone.

Lou grew suddenly serious. He hugged his mom, but only so that he could whisper in her ear. “The guy I beat knows who I am,” Lou said.

“He does now,” Dee agreed.

“But he knows who you are, too,” Lou added.

Dee held Lou away from her and studied him carefully. Lou nodded slowly, solemnly.

“This is no way to end the day,” Dee said.

“I couldn’t agree more,” Lou replied.

“As soon as we think we’re done with one thing a new thing starts,” Dee mused.

Leigh returned with a drink for Lou. He gulped it eagerly. “I don’t know what you dudes are talking about,” Leigh said. “But believe me: I’m ready to start some shit.”


The Borer: A Captain Major Tale

The second Captain Major story in the series, The Borer details Captain Major's struggles with supervillains and single life. Dee Major signs up with ChooseYourOwnCompanion.com, a 80s nostalgia dating site. When a date goes horribly wrong, Captain Major can't jump into action because her new enemies are just too ordinary. Dee Major tries to defuse the situation, but a new super villain is born. The Borer immediately seeks his revenge against Captain Major by destroying the city she comes out of retirement to protect. The story continues to reward soft-core nerdery, with nods to Dig Dug, Dead Poets Society, GamerGate and super hero tropes from Ben Edlund to Stan Lee. The Borer includes language and themes likely to be appropriate for those fourteen years and older. It's less explicit than the Deadpool movie.

  • ISBN: 9781310907753
  • Author: Jim Scott
  • Published: 2016-03-21 20:50:14
  • Words: 73571
The Borer: A Captain Major Tale The Borer: A Captain Major Tale