Caesar moved haltingly through the halls of Lincoln High, oblivious to his gleeful classmates and their conversations. His last year of high school had ended just a few minutes ago, but he wasn't celebrating yet. He had been too shocked by a simple sentence he'd overheard during eighth hour, in the calc room. Two junior girls he didn't know very well, whispering in the back row.
"I hear Marta d'Angelo is back in town," one of them had said.
Marta d'Angelo. The junior girl hadn't needed to specify; everyone knew who she was. Marta was somewhat of a legend in the tiny municipality of Lincoln Heights, Ohio. She was the town's only claim to fame, ever since she'd dropped out of school and run off to Hollywood to become an actress. Her beauty and talent rocketed her into the highest levels of stardom almost instantly, and after her first movie opened to nationwide critical acclaim she never came anywhere close to Ohio again.
Caesar was completely and totally obsessed with her.
She was his idol. He saw every movie she appeared in as many times as he had the allowance money for, and after he ran out of cash he stole enough from his dad's wallet to pay for one more ticket. He bought girls' magazines, fashion magazines, tabloids, anything that might have a picture of her in it. Anything he found went up on his wall. He liked to arrange the photos before he went to bed, making neat rows of identically gorgeous faces that watched him as he fell asleep. Finding out that she had returned to Lincoln Heights was like being told that Christmas had come early. No, it was better. It was like a dream come true.
An expression of absolute elation came over his face as he stood outside the school, breathing in the sweet summer air. A few rowdy kids knocked him aside, as he was still too dazed to take note of anyone around him.
"Out of the way, Julie." a nasty fellow senior named Garrett hissed in his ear.
"Don't call me that!" Caesar yelled after him, but either the bastard was already out of hearing range, or he was ignoring him. Probably the latter. Garrett and his cronies had been tormenting him with the nickname since middle school, but they were the only ones who still used it. 'Caesar' wasn't the best of alternatives, but when your given name was Julius Smithers, you didn't have much choice.
His brother was better off. Harrison wasn't a bad name by itself, and at least it shortened into an appropriately male name. Harry had always been the kind of guy that nobody messed with, anyway, but Caesar wasn't like that, and never had been. Usually he was lucky if everyone ignored him, the weird guy in the corner, the one talking to himself and to the walls, the one who stared too long and jerked away if anyone tried to touch him. Like he cared what anyone in this dump of a town thought. The only one he really cared about was Marta, and he knew in his heart that she'd love him anyway.
"I heard she's back in Lincoln Heights," he mentioned to his brother that night after dinner, trying to sound casual. Harry knew about his brother's fixation, and he wasn't fooled for a second. Even he thought Caesar was crazy.
"Yeah. Why?" he replied, his eyes narrowed suspiciously. The brothers didn't talk much. Caesar only started a conversation when he wanted something, and today was no exception.
"You know where she's staying, right?" asked Caesar. Harry had been working a stint as a junior editor for a local paper, and as such he knew everything of interest almost before it happened. "I have to know."
"I don't know if I should even tell you. You're bound to do something stupid."
"I wouldn't!" he protested. "I swear. I just want to see her. Nothing else."
In the end, Harry told him. Anything to keep his irritating little brother occupied, right? Caesar ignored the obvious slight, listening to the name and number echoing like music in his head. The Mirage Hotel, room 604. The Mirage was just down the street from his house.
That night he had trouble sleeping. The pictures on his walls suddenly didn't measure up to his mental image of the real thing, and it distressed him. Finally, at the ungodly hour of three o'clock in the morning, he got out of bed and dressed as quick as he could, making sure not to wake anyone else in the house. Outside, the streets were unnaturally silent. Even the soft tap of his bare feet against the sidewalk felt like cannons booming, elephants charging, a police siren wailing, taking him away from Marta forever. He told himself to stop being so anxious, that this wasn't illegal. It didn't work. His hands shook so much that he almost dropped his binoculars onto the concrete.
There was a hill behind the hotel, perfectly situated for a nighttime watcher, but it was covered in trees so thick that he couldn't see a thing. After contemplating his situation for a moment, Caesar began ascending one of the tallest trees with his bag hung around his neck until the bright neon lights of the Mirage's roof sign came into view. A little repositioning, and he could see the entire sixth floor. He held his breath, starting from the end and counting over; one, two, three, four. The fourth window showed a light still on inside despite the late hour, blazing merrily away and revealing to a teenage boy with a beat-up pair of binoculars what Marta d'Angelo, A-list actress, was doing at that very moment.
She was standing near the window, so he could tell it was her. Even from this far away, he could tell she was just as beautiful as in the movies. He long black hung past her shoulders and down her back, and a fashionable red dress clothed her slim frame. Caesar watched breathlessly as her elegant, slender arms gesticulated wildly. Abruptly she turned away, and Caesar saw the man in her hotel room.
He knew who the guy was, of course. The tabloids were full of candid photos of Marta and her rocker musician boyfriend, and his face was almost as familiar to Caesar as Marta's own. He always cut him out of the pictures, though, before they went on the wall. It was hard -- sometimes photo-Marta ended up with a disembodied hand holding hers, or an extra leg, depending on how close they were standing.
The couple certainly didn't look very close at the moment. Caesar had no idea what they were saying to each other, of course, but it looked like an argument. Marta and her boyfriend were standing about two feet apart, mouths open, looking like they might be yelling in each others' faces. Caesar watched them go at it for another few minutes, his smile growing with every second the argument went on. Soon, though, both celebrities moved away from the window, and the lights in their room went off.
What happened? Had they just gone to bed? No, it had been too heated a fight for that. Maybe they had gone outside. Maybe she was going to break up with him right then. Caesar's eyes widened and his smile faltered a bit. He had to be there when she did. It was the perfect moment to profess his eternal love to her.
He almost fell out of the tree in his haste to get down the hill and over to the hotel's entrance, bag left forgotten behind him, binoculars still hanging from his neck. Just as he was rounding the corner of the building, they stepped out the door. Caesar scrambled behind a nearby bush instinctively. He could hear their argument now. Marta's normally suave voice was high-pitched and shrill as she berated the boyfriend about forgetting something, and he in turn raised his own voice to drown her out.
"I can't believe it! You asshole, how could you do something like that to me!" she screamed. "You know I didn't--"
"Oh, come on, like I haven't been putting up with your crap all these months."
"At least I didn't sleep with another guy!"
"Well, maybe if you weren't such a--"
She slapped him before he could get the last word out, slapped him hard. From where Caesar crouched hidden in the vegetation, it sounded like the crack of a whip.
When the boyfriend pulled out his gun, it didn't make any noise at all.
One instant she was standing tall with her hand snapping across his jaw, and then in the next she was huddled and screaming on the ground while he waved his gun around in her face. "Yeah, how do you like that?" the boyfriend yelled at her. "How do you like that, huh?"
Caesar's heart was pounding in his throat. The guy had his back to him. No one else was close enough, but he was. He could save her.
He crossed the pavement in a few quick strides. The heavy binoculars swung and smashed satisfyingly into the back of the boyfriend's head, and he dropped like a sack full of wet cement. The gun clattered onto the ground and skidded a few feet from them. Caesar walked over and picked it up. He stared at it for a long second, then threw it as far away as he could. He couldn't believe he'd actually done it.
"You killed him. You killed my boyfriend!"
Instead of the gratitude that Caesar had expected, Marta's voice was panicked and angry. He turned. She'd managed to stand up and run over where her fallen boyfriend lay sprawled, visibly unhurt though her crimson dress was torn and dirty. Her makeup was smeared all over her face, making her into a raccoon with a bloody mouth. Caesar longed to wipe the lipstick off. It was bothering him.
"He was going to kill you!" he said defensively. "And anyway, he isn't dead. Just k-knocked out." Stirring from his position on the ground, the boyfriend groaned faintly. "See?"
"Chris would never hurt me," said Marta, pouting. She crossed her arms like a child who'd just been denied dessert, completely oblivious to the world around her.
"He had a gun!"
"Chris would never hurt me," she repeated. Her eyes focused on Caesar, and that whiny voice came back, hurting his ears. "You've, like, totally ruined my evening. Ten seconds, and then I'm calling the police." He stared at her, stunned. Here he was, finally meeting the famous Marta d'Angelo, but he felt nothing. There was no spark anymore. "I mean it. I'll call them. Get out of here."
It was surprisingly easy to follow her advice.
When his brother came into his room the next morning, Caesar was sitting on the narrow bed, still fully dressed, shoes on, staring at his feet. Harry didn't comment on the newly bare walls, or the pieces of grass still sticking out haphazardly from his younger sibling's disheveled hair. He didn't comment on the muddy stains on the floor, or the cracked paint where something hard and forceful, about the size of a fist, had slammed into the wall.
"D'you want to do something today?" Harry asked, watching Caesar intently.
"What?" Caesar said dumbly. That was something unexpected. Since when did his brother want to be seen with him in public?
Harry looked embarrassed. He shrugged and rolled up his sleeves. "It is the first day of summer and all."
"I mean, if you wanted to go see a movie or something. Angel's Kiss is still in theaters. It's got that lady you like in it..." Harry let his sentence trail out expectantly. When his brother didn't immediately answer, he sighed and turned to go. "Forget it. Whatever."
"Can we go to the park and play tennis?"
Harry stopped. He chuckled a bit, moving his hand in a backward wave. "Yeah. Sure. Let's go. I'll see you downstairs."
Alone in his empty room, Caesar raised his head and stared at the walls. His gaze caught a tiny ripped corner of once-glossy paper, still resolutely clinging to his dresser by a shred of scotch tape. He reached up and plucked it off with two fingers, letting the scrap flutter to the floor. He smiled, a half-smile, almost a smirk, but it was still something. A warm breeze came through his open door, pushing the scrap of paper under his bed. There was a magazine left forgotten on the floor, its cover page ripped away. Caesar picked it up and opened it up to a glossy ad near the back, showing an athletic young woman in tennis whites holding a racket. He regarded it silently for a moment with his head cocked to one side, and then nodded decisively once. Tomorrow he'd put it up on the wall.
"Thanks," he whispered, "but I'm not that into movies."