And We Can Be Heroes
I catch the I-Beam, but only barely.
The force of the explosion throws me into a brick wall, and I hear a nasty popping sound. A couple of nasty popping sounds, actually.
There's no pain, of course. Not while I'm using the power. The pain comes after.
Looks like I'm going back to the chiropractor. I think to myself, bitterly. I know I can't afford another visit this month. I also can't afford to miss work. Ben needs new shoes.
I shrug off the impact, just in time to catch another falling beam. This one is heavy enough to get my attention, but I've caught a crashing plane before, so even a few tons of steel doesn't actually drive me to the ground.
"It's Quasar!" Someone yells, below me. "We're saved!"
"Hooray, you're saved!" I shoot back, seeing four men standing uselessly between the burning tank and the burning building. "Good, now get out of here!"
The men seem confused. Like maybe they didn't think a superhero would speak to them, let alone sound snarky. I can't help it. People in catastrophic danger are idiots, and they piss me off.
"Look, I catch heavy things and fly really fast, but I cannot put out this fire!" I tell them.
I think, in all the years that he was Quasar, Cal Sorensen probably never admitted to having any weakness at all.
Maybe he didn't. Maybe he was just better at this than me.
I sigh heavily, and drop one of the I-Beams on purpose. When the beam lands right in front of them, the men take the hint and scatter.
"Bye-bye!" I wave.
That's when I realize one of the men hasn't moved. He's just lying in the rubble and staring at me.
The man looks small, but everyone looks that way from fifty feet in the air. As I descend, I realize that he's actually quite tall and fairly attractive, with a Roman nose and dark curly hair. His face is just a little scruffy without seeming unkept, and he's got nice, straight teeth. Of course, he's also covered in black shit from the fire... oil, chemicals, and God knows what else. I notice a distinctive wet spot on his refinery coveralls, and I realize that he pissed himself.
I don't blame him. I really don't like the idea of dying in a fiery explosion, probably because I already know that's how I'm going to meet my end. It's inevitable. If I continue to use the power, it'll eventually consume me. Sorensen warned me about that, before he completely ruined my life.
As I dwell on my own mortality, the power starts to sputter a little, and I feel some of my own mind creeping back. I realize, belatedly, that I know the man I've just saved.
He doesn't recognize me as Quasar, but I almost wish he did.
Distantly, I hear "No Rest for the Wicked" playing. Two miles away, the alarm on my phone is going off, which means it's time for me to pick up my son from school.
I throw the I-Beam I'm still holding about seventy-five feet in the direction of the tanks. Another tank explodes. The tank fire like a hair dryer on the back of my neck. It doesn't even make me lose my position in the air, though I can tell from the sweat dripping down Jared's face that it's really hotter than hell.
"Get up," I tell my ex-husband, in a voice that definitely doesn't sound like my own. "Get out of here!"
He takes off running. I fight the urge to yell after him, something like "Stop being such a dick to Abbie, and maybe come see your son once in a while!"
I don't. I don't say anything.
I console myself with the thought that it would be stupid for me to reveal my secret identity to the one man in my life I'm absolutely sure I cannot trust.
Ben's father owes me about twelve-thousand dollars in child support.
At least now I know where he works.
I'm thirty-five minutes late. I break the sound barrier to get back to my car, and break the speed limit to get to Merriman Street.
Of course, I get pulled over by the cops two blocks from the school. No ticket, thankfully, but I feel like a terrible person for using "my son has a disability, and there's been a problem" as my excuse. I feel that karma will make me regret that lie, probably very soon.
Ben, unattended, is sitting on the concrete near the front door when I arrive. He gets up, slowly, when he sees me pull in. "You're late," he tells me, in the same accusatory tone he always uses when he's annoyed by my inefficiency. There are two versions of Ben. One is a quiet, sweet, very bright boy. The other, "Robot Ben", is always frustrated, always condescending, and virtually impossible to deal with.
"Refinery fire," I tell him. Ben knows I'm Quasar. Sometimes I think he understands what that means better than I do. "How was your day?" I ask.
I always ask, even though I know he never wants to discuss it. Ben hates school, with the exception of computer science and math.
He doesn't respond to my question. With an irritated snort, he throws his backpack over the seat and buckles in. As I drive, Ben silently and sullenly stares out the window, opening and closing his left hand over and over again.
I can tell he's agitated. I wish he would talk to me. That, probably, is wishful thinking. Even if he didn't have any disabilities, Ben would still be a fourteen year old boy.
There's a car wreck on the 365, backing up traffic not four blocks from our house. Being in the car with Ben and so much silence between us drives me crazy. I take a deep breath, trying not to focus on the line of cars in front of me, at least a dozen people who should probably have their licenses revoked. Range Rover with "My Son is a PNG Honor Student" bumper sticker, bleach-blonde bimbo mom yacking away on her cell-phone, ignoring the ten-year old Toyota with no front bumper right behind her.
Yeah, fuck you lady.
Everything feels stupidly slow. I realize it's no worse than usual, but I was flying at Mach II ten minutes ago. The more I use the power, the more it infects me.
I can't ignore it though. Not knowing the consequences.
"Mom," Ben says.
I think, for a moment, that he's actually going to talk to me. "Yes, Ben?"
"Mom, Mom, Mom," he repeats. Then he covers his ears. When he turns to stare out the window, I can see his face contorted in distress, and a sick feeling wells up in my stomach. It slowly spins into a sort of fluttering sensation in the back of my mind.
I know it's the power Ben reacts to. For some god-awful reason, my son is more in-tune with it than I am. Maybe it's his autism. I don't know. But it seems monumentally unfair, and if I'd had any idea that helping Sorensen would cause Ben pain, I would've rejected him outright.
Even if the whole world had to suffer as a result.
Ben starts banging on the window.
"Goddamnit Ben, please don't!" I start to scold him, but then the images he's already seeing start to crystallize in my own mind. The refinery fire has spread to the train yard. There are two men in a box car, fighting the smoke.
I pull up to our house not a moment too soon.
"Come on, Ben," I say, when he doesn't get out of the car. "Inside."
He doesn't look at me. I wait. I know how to get him to move, but I don't want to say it.
Unfortunately, the power won't be ignored.
"Damnit, Ben!" I say. "Quasar needs to go get that train."
Ben gets out of the car.
I try not to look at the piles which make up most of my house... the piles of laundry still in baskets on the couch, the piles of unpaid bills on the table, and the piles of dirty dishes everywhere. If CPS made an impromptu visit, I'd be in serious trouble.
"Mom?" I shout.
There's no response. God only knows where she is. Probably shopping with money we don't have, for things we don't need.
I pull out a frozen french-bread pizza and pop it in the microwave. Ben likes the pizza better when it's warmed up in the oven, but the microwave turns itself off.
I strip off my work shirt, and notice that it's got a black mark on the back, picked up no doubt at the refinery. Using the power destroys my clothes, so I try to pick up the cheapest workout stuff I can find, knowing it won't last me more than a few days. I've no idea what other superheroes make their suits out of, but they sure don't sell it at Goodwill.
"Pizza is in the microwave," I tell Ben.
He ignores me, a movie in his hand.
One thing Ben does know how to do is operate the DVD player. I know it isn't good for him to spend hours in front of the television, but at least if Superman is on, he won't go anywhere.
I've really come to hate that movie.
I spray some Clorox on my shirt, and pray the gunk will come out when I get home. I shut myself in the bathroom, take a deep breath, and strip off the rest of my clothes.
It's unsettling to watch in the mirror how my body changes when I let the power wash over me.
I think that's why I make a point of doing it as often as I can, to remind myself that I'm not really Quasar. I'm a nurse from East Texas, a single mom to a fourteen-year old who lives in a world I will never understand, and presently host to an extraterrestrial entity with phenomenal power, fuzzy morals, and baffling objectives – an entity that will one day destroy my body, but will most certainly take my mind first.
Unfortunately, none of that is important because there are people out there who need help. People who will die if I hesitate, or god forbid, turn my back because it's all gotten so damned hard and I don't know if I can do it anymore.
A whitish light flows out of my skin, and as it envelopes me, I feel all of my bottled-up emotions dissipate, replaced by a sharp, alien focus like a razor in my mind. I can hear the fire crackling miles away, and I'm no longer in doubt. For at least thirty seconds, I know exactly what I need to do.
I use that time to fly out the window.
Three Months Ago...
"Hey, Abbie," Jimmy, our new CNA says, interrupting me while I'm sorting Mrs. Landry's pills. I lose my count immediately and set down the bottle. I'm not supposed to be doing the pills anyway. That's the pharmacist's job, but I know how to do it, and if I cover for Beth sometimes, she covers for me.
I slowly look up at Jimmy. I'd be irritated with him, if not for the smile always on his face.
Jimmy Davis is a genuinely good kid with a big heart. The residents love him. Eventually, I think he'll be good at his job. However, he tends to get flustered for no reason, which usually makes more work for Beth, Lanisha, and me. To be fair, Beth could stand to work every once in a while.
"Mr. Sorensen isn't in his room," Jimmy tells me.
That gets my attention.
Cal Sorensen is Oak Grove's resident geriatric ninja. He routinely gets out of the building, and off the property. On more than one occasion, he's somehow found himself all the way across town.
Nobody knows how he does it, least of all Mr. Sorensen himself. Among other things, the eighty-six year old former accountant has dementia.
"Mr. Sorensen's gone again?" Beth observes, coming down the hall from the kitchen. "Isn't that the third time this week?"
"Should we call the police? Contact his family?" Jimmy suggests.
"He hasn't got any family," Beth replies. "And don't bother the police. He'll come back. He always does."
"I still think we should do something."
Jimmy is obviously not happy with Beth's answer. This doesn't surprise me. Like I said, he's a good kid, and Beth is more or less a terrible person. She holds her position only because no one knows what she's actually supposed to be doing, and the pay where we work is abysmal.
Beth sighs. "If we call the police, we're going to have to do paperwork. Besides nobody can find Mr. Sorensen if he doesn't want to be found. He was missing for five days last year. Every cop in the county was out looking for him. And then, there he was, right back in his bed. Like he never left."
"Well now, speak of the devil," I smile slightly despite myself. I point to the window, and Jimmy's eyes follow my finger. Just out back is Mr. Sorensen, sitting in his wheelchair under the mimosa tree, soaking up the sun.
"I'll go bring him in," I tell Beth. "You can finish sorting Mrs. Landry's pills."
Jimmy takes a deep breath and shakes his head as he walks away.
The first thing I notice when I open the door is how nice it is outside. It's a little cool, with a slight breeze and the sky is clear. I'm not sure when the last time I just enjoyed the outdoors was, but it seems like it might have been a long while.
"How are you doing today, Mr. Sorensen?" I ask as I approach him.
He smiles, but doesn't say anything.
I know Mr. Sorensen likes me. He told me once, with a sly sort of grin, that his first wife was a redhead, so maybe that's what makes him sentimental. I don't have the heart to tell him that my usual color comes out of a bottle.
Today, for some reason, I feel that something is wrong. Almost immediately, I notice the oddest thing.
Mr. Sorensen does not have any shoes on.
"Where did your shoes go?" I ask. "Aren't your feet cold?"
It isn't exactly freezing, but it's a brisk sort of morning.
"Let's go back inside and at least get you some socks," I say.
He holds up his hand to tell me "no" and then taps my arm, coaxing me to look up without a word.
There's a beautiful little bird sitting in the tree branches right above my head. It's red, blue, and green all at once. Even as colorful as it is, it almost disappears in the pink mimosa flowers.
"A painted bunting," I observe.
Mr. Sorensen nods.
I know what the bird is called only because my mother has a plate with two of those little birds painted on it. I've never actually seen a living one before, though I've heard there used to be a lot of them in our part of Texas, before all the refineries.
"It's beautiful," I say.
He nods. We both watch the bird in silence, until it decides to fly away. My neck is stiff by the time I wheel Mr. Sorensen inside. I help him into bed.
"Thank you," he says. "You're so good to me. What was your name again?"
"Abigail Walker," I tell him. He asks me my name three or four times a week. "Abbie."
"Why aren't there any women called Gail anymore?" Mr. Sorensen asks.
"I don't know," I confess. "It's old-fashioned, I guess." That name reminded me of some actress from the thirties or forties that might have played a femme fatale in a film with Humphrey Bogart. My mother, if her name had been Abigail, would've been a "Gail". I was definitely an "Abbie".
"I think it's more refined. It sounds like a lady's name. An elegant lady. Abbie is a little girl's name," Mr. Sorensen informs me. "How old are you, anyway? Twenty-three?"
"Thirty-nine. But compared to you, old man, I am a little girl," I reply.
Mr. Sorensen chuckles. "I like you, Gail," he tells me.
I don't correct him.
Four days later, Mr. Sorensen is missing again.
While he's gone, Jimmy gets especially motivated and starts searching his room for some sort of P.O.W. tunnel, maybe dug with a plastic spoon. What he finds is a huge amount of medication stuck in the ceiling. As Jimmy sweeps another dozen pills onto the floor, Beth grimaces.
"I think that's the last of it," Jimmy says.
"Jesus, how long do you think he's been skipping his pills for?" I wonder.
"From the looks of this mess, I don't think he's ever taken them," Beth admits.
"But I watch him take them! Every day! I swear!" Lanisha looks worried. "And tell me, how does an old man in a wheelchair get his medicine into the ceiling?"
None of us can answer that question.
"Mr. Ricker can't know about this," Beth says.
Mr. Ricker, our boss, isn't allowed to know about anything bad that happens at Oak Grove. According to Beth, that's because Mr. Ricker will overreact. In reality, it's because Beth will probably get fired.
I keep my mouth shut either way. Without Beth, Mr. Ricker's eyes would be on me, and I need her to cover my ass on the days I have to leave early to go get Ben.
"What do we do?" Jimmy asks.
"Nothing," Beth says. "Lanisha said she watched him take his pills. So, obviously, he took his pills."
"Except that he didn't," Jimmy corrects her.
"Look, do any of you have any idea how we can fix this?" Beth demands.
"If you can't solve the problem, then it becomes my problem. And I don't need more problems," Beth finishes. "Mr. Sorensen's got dementia. He's been here for five years, and nobody has ever come to check on him. Nobody has ever even called. If he doesn't want to take his pills, who is going to care?"
"That's cold, Beth," Lanisha says.
Lanisha is a lot quicker to speak her mind, but I find myself thinking the same thing.
I feel especially guilty for not protesting when Jimmy also starts to argue with Beth, though I don't know why. Truthfully, Mr. Sorensen shouldn't be special to me. He doesn't even remember who I am most days. But he likes me anyway, and I feel that there's a goodness in him that Beth just doesn't see. Like anyone else, he deserves a little empathy.
I find Mr. Sorensen alone in the common area, watching television. It's dark. Somebody turned the lights out, and of course, Mr. Sorensen can't get up to turn them back on again. He doesn't seem to mind, maybe because he's alone. He seems to enjoy solitude more than company, and right now everyone else is in bed.
It's starting to rain outside, which fills the room with a faint blue glow. That glow is rivaled by the television screen, which shows a white blur zipping across the sky.
It's a news broadcast of a terrorist attack in Hong Kong yesterday. The same thing has been on since six am, ten minutes of footage playing over and over again. Nobody seems to be getting tired of it, and I don't blame them. The superheroes and even some of the villains behind bars are on television too. Most of the white masks seem to be commenting on how one of the very first, oldest, and greatest of all heroes influenced them to take up the cape. The black masks are adamant that Quasar isn't what everyone thinks he is. What kind of "hero" vanishes for a decade when the world still needs him?
I could already picture the headlines. Has Quasar Returned?
I realized that I couldn't clearly remember the last Quasar sighting. It seemed like it had been at least ten years since he'd been on television. Before that, it had been constant. One day he'd save a crashing plane or hold up a collapsing building. The next, he'd stop a runaway freight train or confront some crazed supervillain. Of course, those sort of things always happened in distant parts of world, not sorry little Beaumont, Texas.
Surrounded by white flames in high definition on that really good, brand-new television, Quasar looks as beautiful as I remember him. He delivers four men to the police, says something profound in perfect Chinese, and then rockets off into the sky.
Mr. Sorensen coughs several times, and that gets my attention.
"Are you all right?" I ask.
"A lot of pollution in the air yesterday," he tells me. "Doesn't smell like money to me."
That was an old-timer joke about the refineries, never mind that the smell of money could give you cancer. What troubled me was that I didn't think the pollution had been very bad myself. In fact, the rain we'd been getting left the air a lot fresher than it normally was. "I don't think it's been too bad lately," I admit. "The rain is actually nice."
"Oh, I'm not talking about here," Mr. Sorensen sighs. "Hong Kong. Lots of smog in China. It always gets into my lungs."
"I think you're confused," I say. "Mr. Sorensen, you're not in China. You're watching China on television."
"Today I'm watching China on television," he replies.
"Yes," I agree, though I'm not sure what he's getting at. "Today you're watching China on television."
I help Mr. Sorensen settle into his room, and am surprised by how I find myself wondering where he went after lunch yesterday, and why I still can't find his shoes.
Ben is not in bed when I finally get home. He's in the living room, curled up on the couch watching Superman for the seven-hundredth time.
Normally, I'd scold him, and remind him that he has school in the morning.
Instead, I make us both cocoa and settle down next to him, thinking of Quasar.
The next morning, Mr. Sorensen is gone again, and my son is in the principal's office because he beat the snot out of another student. A bully, probably.
The school must think I don't know how badly some of the kids treat Ben. But I'm not stupid, and Ben isn't either. Nevertheless, I must now come pick Ben up because he's going to be suspended, and of course my mother can't go get him, because she's had her license revoked. And somehow, despite that, she can get out to play bridge or go to the store just fine.
I'm glad she isn't driving, honestly. The woman hasn't been able to see the broad side of a barn in ten years. It's safer for the world if she sits at home watching soaps and drinking mimosas.
"I need to go get Ben at school," I tell Beth.
"I'll call Lanisha and see if she can come in early. Could you maybe work for her on Friday? She wants to do some Jeep thing with her loser boyfriend," Beth says, sipping on her coffee. Her level of misanthropy is impressive some days. In fact, I'm not sure there is anything she doesn't hate on some level.
I'm still angry at Beth for what she said about Mr. Sorensen, and her general distaste for her job and all of our residents.
I nod anyway. "You're a godsend, Beth," I tell her. It's a total lie, but I need her to like me.
"Just don't let it get back to Mr. Richter," she tells me. She gives me a halfhearted smile, and for the first time I think I see how tired she actually is.
I don't feel sorry for her though.
I'm tired too. Lanisha's tired. Jimmy's tired. Mr. Richter's probably tired, and he mostly sits at a desk. We're all tired, all the time.
It occurs to me that maybe sheer exhaustion is the real reason nobody's seen Quasar in a decade. Maybe being a superhero isn't too different from being a nurse.
I'm not even three steps out the front door when I suddenly see Mr. Sorensen lying face-down in courtyard. I immediately forget about my son being in trouble at school, and run over to him.
His clothes are shredded and burned. His skin hot to the touch, and when he weakly glances up at me, his eyes are silver and they don't have pupils.
Two seconds later, I wonder if I'm hallucinating. Beth and Jimmy help me get Mr. Sorensen inside. Beth takes his temperature. He's burning up, so hot and so fast that the digital thermometer won't display correctly.
"Call an ambulance," Beth tells Jimmy. "I'll get Mr. Richter."
They're both gone in an instant. Mr. Sorensen grabs my arm. His grip is impossibly strong and his fingertips are burning white hot. Literally, his touch is causing my skin to pucker, and it's all I can do to not start screaming in pain.
It isn't that it doesn't hurt.
It's that I've figured out, finally, why we can't keep track of Mr. Sorensen.
"I need your help," Mr. Sorensen tells me.
"We're going to take you to the hospital," I reply.
"No, there's nothing they can do," he says, with a certainty and lucidity that I've never associated with him. "It has to be you, Gail."
I want to protest. I don't know what's wrong with him. I'm not even an RN, let alone a doctor. But with the fear I see in his eyes, there's only one thing I find myself able to say. The right thing.
"What do you need me to do?" I ask.
"Take both of my hands," he tells me, and I do it. Stupidly, I do it just because he needs me to.
It hurts. It hurts like nothing I've ever felt, and I realize I'm just barely touching the pain Mr. Sorensen has been living with for a very long time.
Light wells up all around us, and for a heartbeat I'm looking at Quasar, not an old man at all, but an alien being completely made of solar fire.
"It will burn through anything. You, especially," he tells me.
"What is it?" I ask, suddenly aware of something strange fluttering around in my veins.
"I don't know," he replies.
And then he explodes.
I fly across the room and hit the television. I think I've been electrocuted, but that's nothing compared to the jackhammer in the back of my mind, all kinds of information suddenly thrown at me that I don't know how to process. Almost all of it seems to be math.
Jesus. Of course. Mr. Sorensen was an accountant.
I have a million questions, but there's no one I can ask. Where the old man had been lying only moments ago, there's now a scorch mark on bed and the smell of ozone.
Beth, Mr. Richter, and Jimmy all arrive at the same time. They see me lying on the floor, and I realize I'm as scorched as the bed. I've no idea why I don't feel pain. It's like I'm watching myself on television instead of living in my own body.
"What happened?" Beth demands.
"Spontaneous human combustion," Jimmy says, in awe.
Beth cuffs him upside the head.
There's worry in her eyes. Probably, when the truth comes out, all of us are going to lose our jobs.
That is… if anyone would believe the truth.
I'm not sure what to say, though I distantly feel as though I've just lost something far more important than a steady paycheck.
Jimmy drives me to go get Ben, and then takes me home. Ben looks horrified when he sees me cut-up, bruised, and burned. I find that I can't explain anything, and so I say nothing at all.
I doze off in the car after insisting that I don't want to go to the hospital at least a dozen times. The jackhammering in my mind slows to a steady pounding, like a migraine headache. I'm able to sort out some memories that I guess have just been added to my own, memories of flying through space, and somehow averting disaster over and over again. A large part of what I've been given seems focused around some secret order of psychopaths who Quasar fought in Moscow back in the 1970s. And even earlier than that, maybe. I also seem to be remembering something important about Attila the Hun.
Ben does his homework, walks the dog, and decides to play some video games before going to bed early. We eat frozen pizzas again, but my mother actually cleans the kitchen, patches up my wounds, and apologizes a dozen times for not helping me more. She tells me what a good daughter I am, how proud of me she is, and how much she loves me and Ben. I feel like I'm listening to someone talk that I don't even know, so I just nod over and over again. It seems to make her feel better, but nothing she can say will actually help me.
I've just been at the bedside of a dying superhero, and I still have no idea what that means.
Even after everyone else goes to bed, I can't sleep. I see Ben's math notebook on the kitchen table, and I take out a sheet of paper, just one that I don't think he'll miss.
I'm not sure what I'm writing, but I start jotting down something, and before I realize that my son's going to be very upset with me in the morning, I've pulled out two dozen pages, scribbled numbers all over them and scattered them across the room. It's a message of some kind, and I sense its urgency, but it doesn't mean anything to me at all.
As if I'm still watching the news, I keep seeing flashes of chaos around the world. More trouble in Hong Kong, a ferry sinking in the Mediterranean, a bomb at a school in Tehran…
The visions don't stop, and I keep writing until I have blisters on my fingers.
I've destroyed Ben's entire notebook, and the sun is rising.
My mother is a sound sleeper, but Ben wakes up.
He doesn't say anything when he sees me sitting there in a pile of crumpled paper, my face still stained red from the tears I didn't want to cry while he was still awake.
Very slowly and deliberately, he picks up a piece of paper. He looks at my scribbles, and then picks up another piece. He seems to be arranging them, and as I watch him in silence, I feel as though he's doing something important. He can see something in the mess that I can't.
Finally, when both of us are sitting in the middle of a spiral of paper, stretching from the front door to the refrigerator, he turns to look at me.
Ben almost never looks anyone in the eye, so this feels very important.
He actually reaches for my hand, but remembering what happened earlier, I find myself pulling away from him.
"It's okay, Mom," he says. "It's okay."
I don't know if I believe him, but I hug that boy as if my life depends on it. He doesn't burn. I don't burn. And for some reason, what was perfectly clear to Ben starts to make more sense to me, when I'm physically holding him close.
"What does it mean?" I ask.
"It means you have to do something," Ben admits.
"I don't know how," I confess. "He didn't explain it."
"Who? Who didn't explain?" He wants to know. Or maybe he does know, but he wants me to say it.
It's obvious to me that I need Ben's help, though I'm still not sure why.
"Mr. Sorensen," I told him. "Quasar."
Ben's chief obsession is Superman, but that boy is an encyclopedia of every real or fictional hero ever to zip across the skies. His eyes widen.
"He died this morning," I say. "I was there."
"He gave you the power cosmic?" Ben gapes at me.
"He gave me the what?" I eye him suspiciously.
"The power cosmic! Mom, it's Quasar's power! I can't believe you don't know that," he informs me, as if I am an absolute imbecile.
I certainly feel like one.
"So what do I do?" I ask. "How do I get rid of it?"
"Why would you want to get rid of it?" Ben demands. "It's the power cosmic!"
Despite my mother usually sleeping like the dead, Ben had been getting progressively louder over the course of our conversation, and at that moment he finally woke her up.
Bleary-eyed, she staggers into the kitchen and sees us both sitting on the floor.
"What's going on?" My mother demands.
"Mom's a superhero," Ben tells her.
"Ben, I'm not a superhero," I sigh.
"Yet," he informs me.
It is not lost on me that I've just had more of a conversation with my son in five minutes than I've had with him in the last five months. This makes me feel like a bad mother, but it also drives home the undeniable importance of whatever has happened to me. If Ben believes it's important, I feel certain that it is.
My mother does not bat an eye. I get the impression that either she is still half-asleep, or she doesn't have any idea what Ben is carrying on about.
"I'm going to put on some coffee," she says.
Four hours later, I'm using up a precious sick day without being certain that I still have a job to return to. I have no idea what will happen when the investigation into Mr. Sorensen's freakish death turns up nothing anyone can comprehend.
Ben, being suspended, stays home and gives me a crash course in high school math, which I haven't done since high school. Apparently, what made so little sense to me as I was writing it is some kind of alpha-numeric code or cypher, where every number or series of numbers represents a letter or a word.
The message, when we finally sort it out, is not as long as it seems.
Ben reads it to me.
If you are able to understand this message, I have chosen a better successor than I might have hoped for. You must know by now that I am – or rather, I should say "I was", Quasar.
You, for good or for ill, carry that burden now. I want you to know, first and foremost that I choose you. I might have gone anywhere to die – surely, the US government would have appreciated it if I had come to the Pentagon, and the Heroes Society would have preferred that I stay at the Hall of Justice in New York. Trust them at your own peril – none of them are what they'd like you to believe they are. This is part of the reason why I decided that coming home was not only right, but necessary.
I do not regret my decision. It is my opinion that the power I have given to you should never be in the hands of someone who truly desires it.
I wish I could have explained all of this to you, but communication by normal means is difficult for me now. As I have fused more completely with the power over the passing years, I discover that the distance between myself and the rest of humanity has increased exponentially.
At some point I suspect, I will no longer be able to speak to anyone – though I still see very clearly what goes on around me. These days, I am often a prisoner of my own failing mind and body. The power is a death sentence. It will make you strong, fast, and nigh invulnerable. It will expand your perception to a degree you cannot imagine. But in the end, it will destroy you, slowly and painfully. I am sorry for that most of all.
As you surely know, the general public considers Quasar to be one of the earliest "superheroes". What they do not know is that there have been three Quasars since 1927, and how many before that, I cannot say. If you have inexplicable dreams of sword-swinging warlords on horseback, I believe you may be witnessing what the power saw when it first came to Earth.
There is a safe deposit box somewhere in Paris under the name Pierre Laforte which may be of use to you. Unfortunately, I cannot remember what bank it was left at. The power has peculiar priorities. It obsesses over some things it has seen, but does not seem to believe that its hosts have a right to know anything about its origins or its nature. Fortunately, the power's three most recent hosts – Laforte, Michael Wells, and myself – have each gone through great pains to document everything we have learned about the power, so that hopefully this knowledge may be of use to our successors. You have a long and difficult road ahead of you.
I myself have carried this burden since 1952. And it is a burden. The power is not a thing of this world. It needs what it needs, and wants what it wants. It does not always explain itself, and is capable of great evil as well as great good.
Last but certainly not least – how does it work?
It seems to be different for everyone. A word, a gesture. I suppose the particulars are up to you, but the crux of it is that you need to perceive the need for the power, and with that need in mind, allow yourself to be a conduit for it.
Most of all, you must believe that you can be the hero I have already seen in you.
All my love,
My mother sits in silence with her cup of cold coffee. Eventually, she looks up at me.
"Couldn't he have left you some money?"
"Mother!" I sigh, exasperated. I'm not exactly surprised.
"Well, you already work too many hours! I don't think you should take a second job," she informs me.
"Superman works at the Daily Planet," Ben tells her.
"Superman is fictional, Ben dearheart," my mother replies. "Perhaps there's some money in that safe deposit box?"
"I... don't get that impression," I pause. "And even if there was, how would I get to Paris?"
"You fly, duh," Ben informs me.
I bury my face in my hands. A piercing pain shoots through my skull, right behind my eyes and I realize that a car is teetering over the edge of the Rainbow Bridge, a little girl bawling her eyes out in the back seat as blood dribbles down her unconscious mother's face.
It's the closeness of what I'm seeing, not even twenty miles away, and the child's fear that gets me.
I realize that I can get there. That I can, somehow, make a difference.
Before I consciously consider what I'm doing, I'm right out the front door, papers blowing everywhere in my wake. I feel much too hot, so I tear off my bathrobe and pitch it in the direction of the porch.
I don't see where it lands.
All I can feel is the ground tearing away from me at a dizzying speed. It seems backwards somehow, like I'm falling up, but then I realize that what I am actually doing is flying.
"Oh god. Oh god, that's so dangerous! Be careful, honey!" my mother shouts.
I'd like to say that it's impossible for me to be careful when I've never flown before – not even on an airplane, but I realize that somehow I do know. Information that I need about how I'm moving is somehow being rapidly fed into my conscious mind as a string of incomprehensible numbers. I don't really understand it, but I know that it works. And I know that Ben understands it, which is enough for me.
"Go, Mom!" Ben hollers. "Up, up, and away!"
It's the last thing I hear before I'm miles from home, and it makes me smile.