By Aria <email@example.com>
Submitted: December 2005
Summary: Superman's life is placed in the hands of a stranger when he's felled landing a plane in Washington D.C. But after a harrowing weekend, it may be hard to tell who is saving whom…
This story is my latest project. I started it sometime in late April, though the first glimmer sparkled last year. At about the middle-point of the time I was posting Waking a Miracle, I was reading through another author's story. I believe it may have been Wendy's. But the snippet that sparked my interest was some introspection that involved Clark wondering what air traffic controllers must think of Superman zipping around through their airspace unannounced. From that small seed spawned Good Samaritan which, at this point in its iteration, may appear completely unrelated to said snippet :)
If you're hoping for an action-based plot, you won't find it here, as this is very much a character-driven, more subdued story. It's about the gray areas in life, where rescuing somebody isn't necessarily just about plucking them out of the sky before they hit the ground. If you want a hint at what you're getting into when you read this, you can find the fanfic trailer I made here: http://www.lcficmbs.com/ubb/ultimatebb.php?ubb=get_topic;f=13;t=0 00246
As always, any feedback you wish to give, from nitpicks, to criticism, to gushes, will be happily accepted and devoured. I'm always quite open to revision. If you truly have a suggestion that you think might improve the story, please do mention it! My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Finally, I would like to thank all my wonderful, stupendous, extremely gifted beta readers. To Gary and Nick for being my first and last lines of defense against the evil typo and gaping plot hole. To SaraK, for providing inspiration at times when I thought I would never finish this because I was stuck on a line of dialogue here or there. To all the people on IRC who gave me encouragement when I pasted pieces of this. And finally to Yvonne and Wendy, who are just about the best BRs you could ask for. Without you all, Samaritan would never have come to fruition. Thank you all so very much :)
The road loomed eerily before me as the street lamps went out in front of the SUV. One, by one, by one. The lights popped back on behind me in the rearview mirror. One, by one, by one.
Maybe the alignment in my headlights was off and they were tripping the sensors into thinking it was daytime? It was a rental vehicle on its last legs, so who knew what some joy-rider had done to it.
Deep night hues plunged into the cabin of the Explorer again as another light went out. It was such an odd feeling, like the reverse of a spotlight.
No, don't bother looking at Jake, the halo of darkness seemed to be saying. He's being perfectly innocent right now. Not a darn thing is wrong. Go about your business.
I clutched at the steering wheel, my knuckles going bloodless white. Like hell.
Claire and Annie sat pale and immobile in the back seat, crunched up against the upholstery like small barnacles. Glittering with tears, their eyes were wide with awe and innocence. A few minutes ago they had been jabbering in an incessantly frantic babble that only small children could ever pull off well, but now they were quiet. Hiding in the dark of the back. I could hear a few sniffles, but other than that, nothing. The rampant flurry of questions had stopped. For once in their lives, they had listened to me.
"I'm sorry, but Daddy needs to concentrate," I added over the dull hum of the motor. But I would give them no more apology than that.
The silence from the back seat continued, almost to the point where I was ready to beg them to resume making noise if only to keep the onset of panic at bay, but the man in the seat beside me groaned and shuddered again, ripping my focus away from my children. I glanced over at him. In the dim light, the sheen of perspiration on his skin gave him an apparitional glow, and the fever radiating off him appeared as though it were a living thing. His pallor was even more ashen-white than it had been when I'd helped him into the SUV.
He had assured me then that he'd be fine. That he'd better in a few moments. That he just needed to rest. He had forbidden me to take him to the hospital when I'd found him. The look of fear in the large man's eyes had convinced me then not to question it. After all, when was a man like this ever afraid? It must be real. It must be serious.
But now he looked worse. Perhaps it was my worrisome imagination, but I felt like he was decaying before my eyes. Now, I was wondering how wise the decision to listen to him really had been.
The motor of the Explorer started to complain, growing high- pitched and belching loud, cursing sputters at me. Shift, Jake, a tiny thought interjected. I forced my right hand to bring the vehicle up one gear into fourth, and it stopped protesting. Then I realized I was going way too fast for this suburban street. *Way* too fast.
The speed limit along here was twenty-five. Wasn't it? Of course it was. Why would it be different from any other residential street? The vehicle jerked as I steeply let go of the clutch, and I shifted back down into third. This wouldn't be good if a cop pulled me over.
What would I do then? There was no rational explanation for my situation. At least, none that I could come up with. Not now. Not when I could barely think straight. I wasn't even a very good improviser when I *wasn't* pressured.
Was it hot in here?
A lump formed in my throat, but I swallowed it back. Stop it, stop it, stop it. Now was not the time to panic. Not the time to…
My self-flagellation trailed away as I looked at him again. He looked like he was nearly out cold. His eyes were open, but in mere slits.
"Are you awake?" My voice bit at him as I set the air conditioner to full blast. That was good, right, for a fever?
"Please don't pass out," I begged him when he didn't respond. "Please, I don't know what to do!"
I reached across and shook him. Even through his suit, I could feel the heat radiating off of him. My hand came away from the thin material gritty and slick with sweat.
This was very bad.
I heard Annie whimper in the back seat, and I resisted the urge to snap out at her. I should have just left them at school. They would have been taken care of. Somehow. But he had insisted he was fine enough for me to make the small detour to their school on the way home.
The girls had run out from the building and had been in my back seat for all of two seconds before they had started jabbering like wild monkeys. I'd tried to calm them down, but that was when my passenger had taken a swift and visible turn for the worse, and now as I looked at him, he was barely lucid.
I never would have guessed he had absolutely no capability to assess himself, not in a million years, and at the time I had just been assuming he was a little under the weather. Though, now that I thought about it, why would he know that much about illness when his normal state was resistant to something as colossal as a nuclear explosion? Or perhaps it was more an unwillingness to accept weakness. Or worse than unwillingness, just plain denial.
Whatever it was, how wrong I had been was starting to sink in with painful clarity.
His torso jerked and strained with every inhalation, though I couldn't hear his gasping over the roar of the frigid air conditioning.
What if he, of all people, died in my car? What if he died, period? *How* could he die? He was supposed to be invulnerable. I'd seen him take bomb blasts on the news and shake them off in seconds. This man had flown into space to stop an asteroid the size of Metropolis. And succeeded. He had just carried a multi- ton jetliner down onto our main runway this afternoon, for goodness sake.
With that in mind, it was nearly impossible to conceive of something that could bring him down so definitively.
But something had.
God, please, I begged. Don't let him die in my car. Not in front of my children. Not again…
He panted and turned a dull, delirious gaze toward me. "Kryptonite," he muttered, his voice strained and tortured, as though the act of breathing had now become a sheer act of will alone.
I bit back a gasp. After so many years, it had, of course, been mentioned. Once or twice. Here and there. But for the most part, it had remained a myth, and in reputable news venues like the Daily Planet it remained unmentioned. It was something the conspiracy theorists used to explain Superman's occasional absences and the various other quirks in his usually austere, heroic persona.
"Daddy!" Claire screeched. I brought my eyes away from the fallen hero and back to the road just soon enough to swerve away from a lumbering shadow moving across the road. Possum, maybe.
My knuckles were starting to ache to the point that I wondered if I was putting dents in the steering wheel. I glanced over at him again.
"It's real?" I asked, but he didn't answer.
My eyes darted back to the road as I heard him let loose a tortured groan. And despite my astonishment over the fact that such a ridiculous-sounding chink in his armor actually existed, I believed him.
As I pulled the Explorer out of the final turn and onto my street, another streetlamp failure plunged us into a pregnant darkness. I flicked a glance over to him just in time, I suppose, because I finally noticed that Superman, while he remained whitewash pale, was also glowing dully green. Even the blue of his suit looked slightly off-color. Sickly almost. I recalled the gritty feeling on my hands when I had touched him earlier and looked down to see that my palm was also glowing faintly.
The lamp came on behind the car again, and the Explorer's cabin became bright enough to hide it, but I knew I had seen it.
"This Kryptonite stuff is green?" I asked through gritted teeth as I practically pulled the pavement off my driveway skidding into it.
"Yes," came a warped reply that ended in a hiss.
I swallowed hard and yanked the keys out of the ignition.
"Claire, Annie — Daddy needs you to get the front door open," I said, tossing my house key into the back seat.
They nodded and skittered out of the car. The key ring jingled as the clicks of their little feet running up the drive spattered the air. But, slowly, the outside noises faded until they were replaced with the thumping of my own heart, and I was brought back to the dilemma at hand.
I took one breath. Then another. But the shaking in my limbs would not subside, and the man slumped next to me needed immediate attention. With one last, sucking breath, I flung the door open, nearly falling flat on my face as I rushed to get around to the passenger side door. I did end up jarring my hip on the left corner of the vehicle as I made my way around, but the dull throb of the forming bruise barely registered.
My stomach churned so badly I thought I would lose what little was in it, but it didn't happen. I bit back on the rising bile as I opened his door and reached across him to pull the seatbelt off. He rolled forward onto the dashboard with a groan as the belt came away.
There was a greenish sheen of dust all over the front seat — I could see it now that I knew to look for it. Now that we were stationary. It shook down from his hair as he flinched this way and that.
"Put your arm over my shoulder," I commanded. Naturally, he didn't really comply. He fumbled at me, but just couldn't quite manage it.
Somehow, I got him out of the car. What little there was left of him to fade was fading fast. And though I could tell he was trying very hard to help me out, we weren't going to make it inside to get him into the shower. I'm hardly a big man, especially compared to him, not anymore.
And so, lord help me, I let him go. He collapsed onto my driveway in a wheezing, hacking heap, his cape crumpling over him in such a way that he almost looked like a giant red trash bag.
Superman was dying in my driveway.
I tried not to think about it as I ran for the hose.
The rest of the evening was a slow-moving nightmare, and I was stuck in it. Stuck wishing the moments would start slipping away, but time had slowed to point that a second felt like an era. And a minute was borderline eternity.
As I sprayed Superman with jets of water, I saw the green glowing sheen of that Kryptonite stuff washing away and dribbling down my driveway in what looked to be a minor toxic waste spill. Okay, well, maybe that was my imagination. *Rabid* imagination. Rabid was a much more appropriate word. It wasn't *that* green. I stared at the runoff as it snaked down my driveway and into the dark, leaf-filled gutter twenty or so feet beyond. It barely had a tint to it. In fact, it probably was only shining at all because of the street lamps reflecting off it. But still…
"This isn't toxic, is it?" I asked, thinking suddenly of Claire and Annie. I glanced up and noted my door was still hanging wide open just as I had instructed. Two pairs of eyes were staring out from the living room window. Two pairs of tiny hands were smudged up against the glass.
And then I remembered I had gotten it on my hands. I stopped to inspect my skin. Though I didn't see a glow, I paused to squirt the water at myself. I shivered as the chill shocked me.
"Not to you," he replied. Weakly.
I resumed spraying him. By "you", I got the distinct impression he meant humans. Not me, specifically. I blinked.
I glanced around at the surrounding box-shaped houses. The lights in the windows were all dim, save for the occasional glow from behind closed curtains. I didn't think anyone was watching.
Very few would be home anyway. The neighborhood housed primarily younger couples and I doubted there would be very many at home on a Friday evening like this, not in the last dregs of warmer weather. A few years ago, the surrounding community had been almost all retirees. But when I had moved in with… When I had moved in, it had been the start of a new wave. Nature had oscillated.
Regardless, the tension was still there. The tingling in the back of my neck. All it took was one observant person at a window… I prayed that no one would notice the commotion and come out to discover what was going on. Because how I was going to explain why I was giving a collapsed Superman a shower in my driveway in the dark was not something I could even begin to fathom. I'm not very good at improvisation. I think.
The hose snorted and sputtered. I had been twisting it a bit too hard.
I looked down at him again as I loosened my grip.
In the relative darkness, it was difficult to see if he was doing any better, although now he was moving to help the spray do its job. He did this mostly in silence, though every once in a while he coughed, dry and heaving, which was followed by a rather violent shudder.
"Can you tell if it's gone?" I asked.
His head nodded minutely. "I think so," he replied. His voice was quiet, sheer misery dripping from it.
Superman fell back into silence as I cast the hose aside and ran back to turn it off. He hadn't moved when I returned. He lay there, panting. Twitching. Well, shivering, I imagined. It wasn't cold, but it wasn't warm either. And he was wet and it was dark.
"Can you stand?" I asked.
What was I supposed to do now? What was the proper etiquette for this sort of thing? I was suddenly struck hard with the thought that the world's most well-known celebrity was lying half-dead in my driveway. Now that the immediate crisis was gone, the close proximity with him was quite stupefying. This…
This was *Superman*.
As I watched, he flopped impotently from his back to his side. He groaned — it was a muted, strangled sound. "No," he responded after some amount of deliberation. But he didn't ask for help.
Now what? Maybe get a blanket?
He straightened his huge body out and sighed. His eyes slid shut and he held a hand to his forehead like somebody with a hangover. Aches, maybe?
"Where am I?" he asked.
I blinked. "In my driveway."
"And where is your driveway?" His question was accented with one of those horrific dry coughs I had heard earlier in the car. His whole body curled up off the ground like a wave before it went flat again into a restive state. I got a little nervous that maybe the Kryptonite stuff wasn't as gone as I'd thought. But he would tell me if it wasn't, I rationalized.
Surely he wasn't that concerned with his image that he'd be dying in silence?
Then again, the whole reason he was lying there like a wet rag had to do with precisely that.
"1570 North Oakford Street. I took you home in that Explorer." I pointed, sort-of, in the direction of the parked rental vehicle further down the drive. The navy-blue paint made it hard to see in the darkness.
It finally occurred to me that, with a man who could cross the globe in a matter of minutes, that was actually a very relevant question. "Oh, I'm sorry." I stuttered a weak apology, though breath was slowly leaving me.
God, what must this man think of me? On the other hand, he looked rather like he wasn't thinking much about me at all. "This is Arlington, Virginia. It's about a forty minute drive from Dulles Airport, which is where I found you. I work there."
"And you are?"
"Jake. Jake Lancer."
"I'm sorry we couldn't have met under better circumstances, Mr. Lancer. Thank you, though."
"It's what anyone would do."
"You would be surprised, Mr. Lancer."
"Jake," he corrected himself. I barely heard it.
The conversation ceased.
Well, great. What was I supposed to say now?
I tried not to stare at him in the following silence, but when you have a garishly-colored world icon in your driveway, believe me, it's quite hard to look away. He just lay there, eyes closed, breathing shallowly, coughing every once in a while. In the dim light, his pallor looked very bad, like a proverbial vampire.
I couldn't very well just go inside and leave him there to fend for himself. Could I? Again, I found myself grasping for any smidge of experience that might get me through this, but came up dry. Maybe he was collecting himself to depart and just needed a few moments to catch his breath. He had already recovered leaps from when I had first dumped him on the pavement, although he still looked rather wretched.
Well, I could give him a few minutes.
Distractions. I could do that.
I turned away from him to give him a little privacy. I hated it when people saw me sick, and I was hardly a macho type, let alone a world savior. So I multiplied that by ten and figured that might be how he felt right now. Then, given the fact that he was lying prone like a discarded toy on the pavement, while I was standing around practically on top of him, kind of like a mother hen but, well, more manly, I doubled the figurative value of embarrassment and came away with a large total.
And then, as I thought more about it, it became painfully obvious why people could peg me as an engineering type about five seconds after meeting me.
Anyway, I shook my head and focused on other things.
The shaggy carpet of Zoysia on my lawn had already started to mottle into a golden, straw-colored brown, though the dark made the distinctions muted and hard to pick out. But as I glanced at the tufts draping over onto my front walk and the side of the driveway, even I could see that it was far too long. I stepped from the driveway into the grass. There was a dry-sounding rustle, and my foot sank down way too far for my liking.
Mow the lawn one more time before all the grass dies, I added to my list of things to do tomorrow.
And speaking of the lawn, my gaze trailed to the gargantuan blob in front of the dining room window. The camellia bush had grown several feet this year, and it occurred to me that the old tarp I had been using to cover it from the early frosts the past few years would probably be far too small now.
Item two: buy new tarp.
Buy. Buying. Why did that spark a memory? Oh, yes.
Retrieve credit card bill from the dining room table before Claire started that school project she had mentioned last week. Or had that been the week before and she had already done it?
No matter. The credit card bill needed to be collected regardless, for she would surely have a new assignment soon enough.
Why did every school project consist of popsicle sticks and glue? It seemed a dangerous combination when the catalyst was a six- year-old. And rarely did the assigned subject of sculpture ever look the same when rendered with thumb-sized slabs of wood. But I wasn't a teacher. What did I know? I just put down plastic tablecloths and dealt with it.
I looked back at Superman, realizing he hadn't made a sound in some time. He was still and prostrate, but I could hear his soft, sometimes hitched breathing. Maybe he had fallen asleep? Then I began to wonder what the heck I would do if that was really the case. I'd already demonstrated with embarrassing success that I could no longer lift things in Superman-sized amounts.
"Superman?" I asked hesitantly.
He twitched. "I was hoping my powers would come back in a few minutes."
They obviously hadn't. "How long does it usually take?"
"Depends," he replied noncommittally, though there was an underlying dread in his tone. As if he had had enough exposure to this Kryptonite junk that he knew full and well he wasn't going to be getting up on his own anytime soon.
Honestly, I was beginning to sense a pattern with him as far as injuries went.
The fingers of my right hand found their way to my mouth and I cupped my chin. "Can I? Do anything, I mean?"
"I'm sure I will be fine. I just need a few minutes."
There was a lack of conviction in his tone that scared me deeply, but I remembered the embarrassment quotient I'd arrived at, and turned back around to give him a few more minutes. What could a few more minutes hurt?
And maybe, just maybe, I was wrong, and he would get up at any moment.
"Okay," I said. Maybe we *would* get lucky. Right. Lucky. A horrible, dark part of myself wanted nothing to do with this.
Back to the distractions. I thought back to earlier in the day. I had been up in the flight tower when a plane had called in a mayday. National Met Air Flight 1993. There had been a pin drop of a moment when everyone froze with dread and the silence was a living, breathing animal, and then motion resumed, and everything was business. We had all frantically tried to reroute planes to get the runway clear for the rapidly descending aircraft. And then, for the first time since I had joined the air traffic control staff at Dulles, the call from the pilot turned into an eruption of cheers, muffled and screeching as the small speaker in the cockpit was presumably overwhelmed. There had been a telltale streak of movement moments before on the radar screens, but the tension had been so thick it took me a bit to process fully.
Superman had arrived to save the day.
I had been so excited to finally see the Man of Steel in action. So relieved that he had chosen to venture away from Metropolis skies this day.
But it had all been so distant and clinical. Yay, the hero had arrived. Yay, the day was saved. Cheers ensued. But we have to get planes down every minute, and more than two of those minutes had already passed with no direction to the planes circling. The delays would be atrocious. Back to work! Hurry, now.
Hours later, I had gone to Francine at the Budget desk to borrow a car for myself and my accompanying headache. My carpool buddy had had to leave early with a cold, and I needed a vehicle to pick up my kids from school. But why pay for a taxi when you have connections in car rentals?
I took the shuttle blithely to parking lot twelve, way out into the boonies where they kept all the high-mileage, possibly-ready- to-break-down, only-rent-in-emergency-overload vehicles. After exiting the shuttle, I had walked up a long row of SUVs. And there he was, slumped against the door of my would-be transportation.
That was when my day had become starkly real.
I blinked and shook myself from the memory.
"Anything?" I asked.
I glanced at my watch. It was like Russian roulette. The longer we stayed out here, the more likely it was that somebody would spin the lucky bullet into the chamber and look out a window that had a clear view of my driveway.
He had made it very clear he wanted this kept hush-hush.
His dignity be damned, or perhaps saved. A decision snapped into place. "Okay, put your arm around my shoulder," I commanded in my best Dad-means-it voice.
I knelt down on the pavement next to him, vaguely shocked at the gelid cold that seeped through my pant leg. And I had let him lie there for nearly twenty minutes. I reprimanded myself in silence.
"What?" He sounded dumbfounded.
"You're coming inside." I tried not to let the creeping doubt take hold of my words. Maybe I'd breached some Kryptonian personal space barrier. I pressed on. "This cold isn't doing you any good and you certainly can't just lie in my driveway all night. Sooner or later somebody will see you here, and you've made it plainly clear you don't want that to happen else you would be in the ER right now, and I would be slowly recovering from the shock somewhere in a bar. Because, believe me, I'm quite shocked, and what the Hell am I saying?"
"Mr. Lancer, I couldn't—"
I didn't bother to correct him on my name this time. "Put your arm around my shoulder," I commanded again, and before I lost the courage, I grabbed his arm and slung it over me. "You can fly back to your Arctic fortress or whatever when you can fly."
He actually sputtered. "My… Arctic fortress?"
"It's one of the popular theories."
"Oh." Despite the paleness in his face, he looked positively bemused, as if he couldn't figure out why the scientists hadn't decided he should have a fortress in the Bahamas. How about that?
"Okay, now we'll push up on three," I said. "One… Two… Three…"
He moaned pitifully. And it took several tries. But we finally got off the ground. For a moment as we both stood there panting, I thought it would be an easy time from there, but then I guess Superman realized just how wretched he felt. His weight on my arm felt like it doubled, and I nearly toppled over with him in tow, which would have made twice in one night that I'd dropped the Man of Steel for lack of strength. The whole ordeal made me wish I had gone to the gym a bit more lately. Or at least done some sort of activity. At all.
Self-recrimination saved us both. I made myself bear his near- full weight, despite the developing spots in my vision, and we began to shuffle forward. Foot by very slow foot.
I believe I mentioned before that the moments seemed to be progressing with glacial speed. Well, now, they seemed utterly frozen.
Never had the walk from my driveway to my living room seemed so long.
For all the trouble it was getting him up the front landing, it was an even worse ordeal getting him up to the second floor where all the bedrooms were. On the way up the walk outside, I thought briefly of just letting him collapse onto the couch in the library on the first floor. By the time I got him through the doorway and onto the fraying oriental welcome mat in my living room, I felt like I was trying to lug a very dead body instead of a live one. My shoulders were screaming for relief, and I think the circulation in my arm was all but depleted.
Claire and Annie stayed wisely back, looking silently on from their perches on the dining room chairs as we stumbled forward another step.
One glance across the room through the glass doors that opened onto the library, however, convinced me that a trip upstairs might actually be simpler. Claire and Annie had not cleaned up their toys — the library was traditionally their special room to play in because it was so sunny, and save for the bookshelves around the rim and the sofa against the back wall, very open. I seldom asked them to pick up their things unless I knew we would be having company. Naturally, because of my dire need now for it to not be so, company was a very rare occasion, usually occurring around Christmas and Thanksgiving. Almost nine months ago now.
As it were, Barbie mansion and accessories nearly blocked off the entryway to the room, and I feared what lay further within. I doubted the sofa in there was even accessible. The girls had borrowed bed sheets a week ago, and I had not seen them returned, so there was a very good chance that the sofa had become a makeshift pillar for Fort Claire. Who knew? I hardly ever went in there.
"Stay with me, we're half-way there," I commanded, taking a baby step forward. "I think I'm going to collapse if you don't start helping at least a little."
All I got was a light groan in response. His ragged breaths scorched the air, and with my grip around his stomach I could feel him struggling for much-needed oxygen. But where he lacked in physical strength, he made up for amply in sheer power of will. My tone must have had some effect because, as I took yet another step forward, the weight on my shoulder lessened enough for me to stop wishing my arm would just fall off and be done with it, and he followed. Again, I felt a tugging sense of inadequacy at his sheer determination.
Progress was slow, but later rather than sooner, we made our way up my house's monstrous flight of stairs. Funny, they had never seemed that bad before. At least they hadn't been spiraled or switchbacks. That would have damn near killed me, I think. And possibly Superman along with me because I would have dropped him yet again. This was quite possibly the first time in my life I'd wished for an elevator to go up just one floor.
For one brief moment, I hesitated in the hallway, panting. Three choices lay before me, but only one even entered into consideration. I dragged myself and Superman past the door to the master bedroom and onward to my room. Briefly, I thought about the fact that the sheets in my room were dirty, but no amount of juggling was going to allow me to change them, and if I set him down in my reading chair, I had a feeling he wasn't going to be getting up again anytime soon. He would just have to live with my sheets as they were. It wasn't as if I was a slob or never showered.
Down he collapsed with a groan when I released him, like a puppet whose strings had been suddenly cut. The springs in the mattress creaked and he sank back into an oblivion of pillows. My mouth hung open for several moments, ready and able to explain the location of the bathroom, the towels, and anything else he might need, before I realized my audience was well and truly out, beyond all cares about where he was or any of the particulars.
I lifted his feet up off the floor and onto the bed. Then, I yanked his boots off, first the left and then the right, and placed them beside the bed. For all of two seconds I stared at his suit and cape and decided there was no way in any of the seven layers of Hell I was going to touch those, not even if he had been awake to give me permission.
I didn't know if they came off and had no desire to fumble around trying to find out. The cape was a little damp, but the suit itself had dried quickly and, his personal embarrassment aside, I doubted he would be at all appreciative if I tried to remove it. He seemed very big on personal space and dignity, both of which would be seriously robbed from him.
I blinked. It occurred to me that most of the world's female population, and quite possibly a chunk of the males, would be clawing and hissing to get into my current position.
God, what must it be like to be such a… well… a global sex symbol? Not that he ever used his image that way intentionally, but the public had taken a beautiful face and run with it the way they did any other celebrity… He was regularly a star on all the tabloid pages in the checkout lines at the supermarket. I doubt he ever got much peace.
I swallowed and stopped that debate right there. I really did not want to know what he did in his spare time. Either he was wholesome enough that his projected public self matched the private one, in which case there wasn't much to be found out anyway, or he spent a lot of time… not… having peace. As many celebrities were wont to do. Which I did not want to think about anymore. Really.
After a bit of hemming and hawing, wondering what to do next, I realized he was lying across the blankets and sheets — I hadn't thought about pulling them back until now, when Superman was already acting as a man-sized paper-weight over the top of them. So, quickly, I went to grab a spare thermal blanket from the hall closet, taking only a moment to notice that there were no clean linens left.
Laundry. Had to do that.
When I returned, I draped the blanket across him, hoping that would be warm enough for him.
While he slept, I pulled some of my things out of my dresser and changed into a sweatshirt and flannel boxers, dreading what was to come. Explaining this entire situation to Claire and Annie was not something I looked forward to, not one bit. Hell, I hadn't yet come to grips with the situation myself. Not really.
Somehow, I managed to feed the girls, sleepwalking through the motions of fixing some sort of macaroni concoction. I suppose I should have broached the subject of Superman while we sat in subdued silence at the dining room table. But I was still coming to grips with the fact that the man was even in my house, and the meal had passed by, mechanical, and quickly. As soon as the last bit of pasta had been surrendered to a stomach, I sent them upstairs.
For a long time, I sat in the dining room. I listened to the racket upstairs as the girls shrieked and giggled. Several somethings were dropped. More giggles. And then I heard the thunder of tiny feet across the floor overtop of me.
I suppose I should have wondered what sort of mischief they were making.
Maybe I should have even worried that they would wake our houseguest up.
I shook my head and put the dishes away. Things began to blur a little after that.
Putting the girls down after all the excitement hardly even tried my limited patience, which probably meant I was in for an ambush. I walked into their bedroom, only to find them both under the covers with the lights out. I hadn't even had to tell them to get ready for bed. It'd simply been too easy. Their nightlight was giving off enough of a glow that I didn't bother to turn on their nightstand lamp as I sat down, tensed, and waiting.
It didn't take long.
"Daddy, why is Superman here?" Claire asked, not one to beat around the bush. Annie stayed quiet and watched from her side of the room. Apparently the older of the two had been appointed spokesperson.
I sighed as I pulled Claire's covers up over her chest. She clutched at the bedspread when I released it and pulled it up to her chin.
"Superman got hurt and didn't have anywhere else to go," I explained.
"But Superman can move faster than a… um. A car!" Her arms trapped under the covers in a prison of her own designs, the bedspread leapt up and slowly resettled as she shot her hands up. She giggled.
I leaned forward and stared at her with a serious expression. "Well, sure, but even he gets tired sometimes. You can't move very quick when you're sick, can you?" I countered.
She shook her head. "No."
She nodded, wide-eyed, as though she understood perfectly. I looked to Annie and found her making a similar gesture.
I sighed again. I knew that I was going to have a problem with this part. They were quiet now because they didn't understand what was going on. But that would wear off. And I knew from experience that telling little children to keep a secret was like trying to get them to eat vegetables. Children are extremely honest about the world around them, and it's hard to get them to go against that grain.
We had gotten them to use discretion in the past… I only hoped I could pull it off again.
"Claire, Annie…" I began. I sat back on the edge of the bed, staring over Claire like some sort of judge and executioner. "Daddy needs you to do a *huge* favor. Do you think you can do something really important for me?"
Claire's eyes went even wider if that were possible. "What?"
"Remember when Uncle Will gave you that beautiful glass ornament for Christmas last year to put on your bookshelf?"
She looked suspicious. "Yeah…"
"Remember how I made you swear to be careful with it and not to break it?"
"Daddy, I haven't touched it. I swear. Annie did it."
"Did not!" Annie interjected.
My line of thought was momentarily broken. Annie did it—what? My gaze flashed to the bookcase in question, and I noticed for the first time that the little glass swan Will had bought them was absent.
"When did *that* happen?" I snapped.
"I don't know." Claire sniffled woefully. "I wanted to get a book."
"Why didn't you ask—" Thankfully I'm not very articulate when I'm angry, and when I took a breath to compose my thoughts, I realized I was about to go into a long, red-faced litany about how they should never try to pick up broken glass on their own. How they should have come to get me the moment something had happened.
But the fact was that they hadn't, nobody had been injured, and it had apparently been a long time ago. At that precise moment of clarity, I found myself standing in the center of the room, arms flailing, and reminded myself why I had come up here in the first place. I choked off the growl that crouched deep in my throat.
"Never mind," I grunted.
They looked sufficiently chastised, anyway.
I made myself sit back down with some effort. And then I re- collected silently for a moment.
"Well," I said after a while, though it took some effort to conceal my chagrin at the irony, "This is even more important than that."
Annie gasped, and Claire's mouth formed a little 'o' of surprise. Though I couldn't really tell if it was because I had let them off the hook about the swan, or because they were well and truly amazed. Possibly, it was both.
I glanced back toward the entryway to the girls' room. Just down that hallway, the most powerful man in the world slept, unaware that his fate was being left in the hands of my first-grader and her preschooler accomplice in crime.
Then I looked back at them. They stared right back expectantly, though they were beginning to fidget in the long silence.
How to explain to them that if they opened their mouths about this, it might get Superman killed? Obviously, this was a closely guarded secret. And now it was in the hands of my children. And me.
God, it was in *my* hands.
"Most of the world doesn't know Superman can get tired like this," I tried to explain.
Annie's eyebrows raised. "Really?" she whispered. I guess she forgot Claire was the one who was supposed to be talking.
"Yes, really," I nodded, looking over to her. "They don't know he can get sick. And it is *extremely* important that you never talk about this to *anyone*."
"But—" Claire protested.
"Not even your friends at school can know. This has to be *our* special secret that he was here this weekend. Do you both understand me? Can you keep this a secret for Daddy?"
I prayed silently.
Annie was nodding, but I could see the wheels turning in Claire's head, and I knew this wasn't going to be at all easy. Her eyes squinted and her nose scrunched up as she thought deeply on the matter.
"What if… Ms. Steve asks me? Or… or the principal!" Claire's bedspread leapt up toward the ceiling again. I think she'd kicked it that time.
"Well," I said. "They shouldn't ask you, but if they do, you need to just say that nothing happened this weekend."
Annie interjected suddenly, "What about the police… Or Grandpa?"
I turned to look at her and shook my head. "Not even them."
"How come?" Claire asked suspiciously, forcing me to look back the other way. I felt strangely like a windshield wiper. I tried not to let my annoyance show. This was important, I told myself. Extremely important.
"Bad people could find out and use it against him."
And that was when it hit me. If anyone found out Superman was here, he might get associated with us. Press would be the least of our concerns. What if…
Lois Lane. Lois Lane was associated with him. And… Wasn't Lois Lane at death's door every other week? I remembered thinking several times as I sat over my weekly copy of the Daily Planet that half the time she was considered such a good journalist simply because she had had so many experiences with near-death that it was merely second nature to her to describe them to others.
My heart began to thud with fear, and I tried to calm myself. That was why I had to convince them, and I had to do it now. And I would do it any way I could, because I had to.
"How?" Annie asked. She just didn't understand. Neither of them did.
Claire's eyes glittered in the dim light.
What could I say that would possibly get them to realize? To understand?
The only example I could think of made me sick inside, but I sucked in a breath and forced myself to use it. I had to convince them.
"Well," I began, though my voice sounded strange and shaky, even to my own ears. "Remember when Mommy used to go out with wigs on?"
Claire nodded, though Annie appeared lost. "Yeah."
"It's kind of like that. If people had known she was sick, they might have treated her differently. And you know how she hated that."
Something was burning the backs of my eyes. I took another deep breath, though it shook and seemed to hang shakily in my chest. Claire's calculating gaze was all but gone behind a subdued mask. Her lips were set in a small, thin line, and she nodded.
But then she looked up, and her gaze made me want to lose what little composure I had left.
"Superman isn't going to die like Mommy, is he?"
I blinked again.
"No…" I said, but the word was so garbled across my thick tongue that I couldn't even tell if I had said it or moaned it. I cleared my throat.
"No, of course not. He's sick in a different way." The lump wouldn't go away, but I sounded much more understandable, at least to my own ears.
"How?" she pressed.
"Remember when you swallowed some of that bad stuff from under the sink and I had to take you to the emergency room?" I replied mechanically, trying not to succumb to my urge to look at the door. To flee.
I wasn't going to think about this now. And I certainly didn't want this responsibility. I began to count in my head. Recited my to-do list. Anything but think.
"Yeah," Claire said.
By the time I got to fourteen I was all right again.
"He got some bad stuff on him, and it made him sick," I said.
I saw from the looks in their eyes that we had finally arrived at an understanding. I could only pray that this agreement would remain that way, and not end up like William's glass swan.
Claire nodded and turned over onto her side. Her breaths were heavy and even very shortly after.
When I turned to Annie, however, I saw the light glinting off her pupils. I nodded mutely to her. We shared a moment of silence before I got up and headed toward the door.
"Daddy?" Annie called behind me, her voice small and pitiful.
I was preparing myself to explain why I couldn't read a bedtime story, when she surprised me. "You should tell him not to drink things under the sink," she said.
"I'll be sure and mention it to him," I said, a fake-plastered smile forced across my jaw. "And now, you need to get to sleep like your sister."
She nodded, and I glimpsed her rolling away from the glare of the nightlight as I gently closed their door.
It was only after I was in the hallway that I allowed myself a shuddering, noisy breath. I wiped at my face. Stubble pricked at my palms. A deep, cold exhaustion slipped under my skin. The sharp ache in my muscles returned with a vengeance.
I should have been relieved that the day was finally back under my control. That everything was finally over. But the calm only seemed to make it worse.
So, Jake, what did you do this weekend? Nothing much… Laundry. Cleaning. Watched the next episode of Lost. Saved Superman by making my dead wife into a simile…
The crushing feeling grew deeper as I looked forlornly at the door to the master bedroom. It was the only bedroom left in the house that didn't have people in it. The only place left for me to sleep.
I pushed open the door, which complied with a small moan of protest like a last, dying breath… A dim shaft of light from the hallway sliced the room in half. It was dark and the air smelled stale, unrecycled. As I stepped in and my foot crunched down into the plush, barely-trodden carpet, my chest tightened.
I never came in here. Never.
Maybe I could go sleep downstairs on a chair.
Bile stirred up in my throat, and I squeezed my eyes shut. I couldn't do this yet. Too soon. I couldn't. I couldn't do this now. Short breaths clogged in my throat.
My hand flashed back to the door handle, fishing for it in the soft dark. But I paused, hand outstretched.
It had been a very long time. A very, very long time since I had stepped foot in this room.
I *could* do this now, I told myself, though my sudden bout of courage felt false. My sight slowly unfuzzed as I became used to the dimness, and my breaths slowed to a fanciful calm, though panic still remained, lurking. I could feel it trembling underneath my skin, waiting to explode.
I could do this now, I told myself again. I could do this. I shut the door behind me and took a step further into the darkness.
Maybe I was imagining things, but I could almost smell the perfume she had been wearing the last night we had gone out for dinner. Rosy. Bittersweet. I remember it because she had asked me if I liked it. She had never asked me those things until the end. As if she had wanted every last moment to be perfect…
It was a silly notion, I know, to think I could still detect the scent. That moment hovering in my memory had been months before that last awful night, and years ago from now.
But it was comforting nonetheless. I breathed in the phantom scent again and closed my eyes. Imagining.
I shuffled blindly over to the bed and turned the lamp on. The room illuminated in a dim, haunting glow. Everything was as it had been left.
The room remained nearly untouched, even after all this time. Canyon-like vacuum tracks cut through the carpet, a remnant of the Thursday before last when the cleaning crew had been here. But the maids always did a careful job of not disturbing anything but what they needed to clean. And it showed.
I felt like I was walking into the past.
Shadows cast over the nightstand and the knickknacks on the dresser. Books that she had been reading but hadn't finished were still stacked beside the bed. A pair of her earrings lay at the foot of an alarm clock which had stopped long ago, the second and minute hands halting time just shy of eight. I stared at the forgotten jewelry. They were gold. Hooks. Dangly things. I still don't know what they were supposed to be, but I knew she had worn them more than any other pair. A photo of myself stared back at me from the other side of the table lamp, a smiling ghost from a moment long gone.
Stop chasing me around with that camera, I'd said. She'd laughed and then took the picture anyway.
With a mirthless grunt, I looked away. To the other side of the bed where I used to sleep. A copy of 'Living With Cancer' lay on its back, words offering up to the ceiling, open to page 47. Exactly where I had stopped reading it. That last night before she had had to be taken to the hospital permanently…
My hand shook as I reached out to pick the book up. I held it in my palm cracked open along its spine. But I just couldn't seem to read it. I couldn't hold it still. Words blurred. The sour new-paper smell still drifted up from the pages, faint, but I think my eyes were tearing before I even noticed that.
I splayed my fingers over the page and smoothed the dog-eared edge I'd used to mark my place. I didn't need a bookmark anymore. I sucked in air and blinked, closing it after an eternal pause.
The action felt strangely final. Unforgiving.
But it couldn't really give me any useful information anymore, right? I placed it back on the nightstand and pulled the bedspread and sheets back toward me.
Still, the undercurrent of panic wouldn't leave me alone. It felt like I was breaching some sacred pact. Like I was trying to sleep in an altar that was not to be touched.
For a moment, I stared back at the discarded book. The dim light shined off the laminate cover. Like glass.
With a growl, I shoved the book violently to the floor where it landed with a hollow thud. There was no satisfaction for me at the sound of it.
I turned away from it, back toward the bed. Things got blurrier. I don't remember much. I remember the slow creak of the springs as I sank down onto the mattress. The way the room's soft glow sparked out as I flipped the lamp off. I remember smelling her on the pillows. Tossing and turning. I remember that, too.
Most of all, I remember finally giving up and sleeping on the floor.
In the morning, I heard her breathing next to me, soft and even. Her hand touched mine as light started to filter through the semi-opaque shades. Must be sunny out today.
"Beth," I mumbled and rolled over.
I slammed into the side of the bed and woke with a shot. Everything was stiff and unforgiving as I tried to crawl up off the floor. My neck felt like it had been used as a pendulum for a clock all night. Everything was woozy, and the sharp light gave me a headache.
I stumbled into the little bluebell-colored bathroom she had decorated when we moved in and retched.
After I had recovered enough, I splashed a little water in my face and counted. One. Two. Brushed my teeth mechanically. Three. Combed my tangled nest of hair. Four. Shaved. Five. Six. Seven. Eight.
I walked past and checked on Superman. Nine. Ten. Eleven. His large frame was turned away from me, and he was still, though the blanket I'd laid across him last night rose and fell with each steady breath. Twelve…
By the time I reached twenty and went down to fix breakfast for the girls, I was okay.
"Yes, I'm fine," I heard him say, muffled, through the door as I ambled past with a laundry basket. The words brought me to a full stop, and I stood there in the hallway breathing softly.
The door was open just a sliver, enough that I could see his faint silhouette in the darkness beyond. The blanket was wrapped around him protectively, obscuring my view of the telltale red and blue of his uniform. He faced the opposite direction, perched at the edge of the mattress, slouched and crumpled. Sitting in the dim triangle of light cast through the crack from the hallway.
This was the first I'd seen him awake since yesterday, and I had checked in several times between chores. Everything about him spoke of exhaustion. Of lingering sickness. Like the moments following a fever when you become aware again. Your body aches, and your pupils fix once again on something solid, only to be swept away moments later into the unaware. To rest. To recuperate.
Except Superman hung suspended in the ebb of the tide, being pulled to sleep but wanting to stay awake, and he was paying for it. No, he still wasn't well, and was definitely far from fine. But, in this case, he may well have just meant to say he was alive. Which, at least now, wasn't a gross overstatement.
But who would he be talking to? He'd seemed rather adamant that no one know he was ill, so I found it hard to believe that he was talking to the press or anything like that. Of course, the man had to have *friends*, Jake, I chastised myself. Lois Lane and Clark Kent of the Daily Planet, for example. Lord knew the trio had been mentioned in any number of scandals on the news, though I'd never believed a word of them.
"Really, honey," he continued, "I'll be fine in a few days. I'm just… very tired."
My jaw tumbled open. Honey. An unexpected word.
Superman had someone he called honey?
My heart clenched briefly in my chest, and the images that had been threatening to tumble forth since I'd found him in the parking lot struck me with abandon.
I thought of Beth, pale and swathed in white blankets, her eyes growing dark as the life seeped out of her. Honey, please don't die, I had said. I'll do anything. Don't leave. Honey, please, don't leave me here.
Her hand had been in mine, cold and growing colder. Bloodless. I'm ready, she'd said, and I'd been mad at her for giving up. Mad… And happy that her hurt had ceased. Exhausted. Worried. And then, I had been nothing.
Her hand had slipped down onto the sheets. No grip left. She wasn't holding on anymore. Steady beeping had turned to a moan. Annie and Claire had been so confused, whimpering. How was I to explain?
My back met the wall behind me, and my breath knocked funnily in my chest. I slid down the cool surface like liquid bones as my knees turned strangely gelatin. The laundry basket fell from my grip, muffled and quiet. The overflow came loose, and a few shirts and other things surrendered to the floor along with me in a soundless heap.
I hadn't meant to think of her. I hadn't. Why couldn't the memories go away? Even after so long, after ages of ignoring them, they were still colorful, painful, bright. Sharp like thorns. They didn't fade.
I tried to start counting, but couldn't get past two.
Superman hadn't said it like the person on the line was a simple friend. And he didn't strike me as an individual who would treat an acquaintance so diminutively.
Honey. He spoke like I had once spoken to Beth. Honey.
I blinked furiously, trying to ease the sudden sting.
"I think the plane I rescued was rigged," he was saying. "We'll have to look into it… Yeah, possibly related to what we thought about those gun runners… I got sprayed with it from the engine exhaust, I think. To be honest, I don't remember much."
What must it be like to be honey for the Man of Steel? How to share him with the world? Days ago, I would have thought it a comfort to know that my lover was invulnerable. But now, I knew that even Superman could be hurt. Killed. Invulnerability was a white lie. And that knowledge must have been no comfort to whoever he left at home, not when his entire existence was about putting himself in harm's way to stop harm from happening to others.
God, it must be terrifying. Five minutes away from rampant news footage and he could be dying. Painful. Agonizing. Alone.
He *had* been yesterday.
How could she do it?
How could she?
"No," Superman said, "I barely got it down onto the runway. All those people almost…" He gave a tortured sigh, and his voice had grown wearier with each syllable, as though the weight of the plane were still pressing down on his shoulders, vehement, forcing him to the ground.
There was a strangled sound before he recovered what was left of his voice. "No, I don't think I will be able to fly for a while yet. But really, I'm fine."
I must admit my previous exposure to the Man of Steel had been entirely through the news and occasionally through the radar system at our airport.
"Arlington. The man who rescued me is letting me stay here."
On the radars, he was a blip in my existence, barely worth noting because we had long figured out he knew how to avoid hitting planes, and after the first few encounters, we'd stopped frantically trying to circumvent them around him. Better to let him deal with it.
And in the news, he remained stiff, stoic, and formal. Clinically filtered. Humane and kind, yet cold. Sort of like a room at a hospital. Immaculate.
"It's a suburb of DC… Yeah… Virginia." Superman paused to chuckle, followed shortly by a dry, unhealthy-sounding cough, but he seemed to pay it no mind. "Come on, honey, I know you've been here before… Well, yes, I'm sure preparing for your interview was a bit more important…"
Sure, bits of emotion had slipped through over the years he had been on Earth. Smiles of relief, gratitude, and genuine happiness. Haggard and pale after thirty straight hours of rescue relief from fires, floods, earthquakes. On one occasion I even remember thinking he looked angry. But for the most part, when he was in the public eye he remained distant and aloof, to the point where I had begun to assume it was just his nature.
And now he was in my spare bedroom. Chuckling, sick, and talking to who I could only assume to be his significant other. His wife. Who would have thought?
I certainly wouldn't have thought it. Not before this.
He wasn't from Earth. Who knew what his actual feelings were? He had given more to humanity through his actions than I could begin to fathom. And so I had never thought much more about his rigid disinterest in the warmer things life had to offer.
"Listen. Shhhh. It's okay. I'm fine. I swear, I will be good as new in a day or two."
A flash of Beth nipped at me. It's nothing, Jake. I'll be fine, she'd said, annoyed, despite me asking more than once if she was all right. And then she had collapsed.
"I know you do. I'm sorry."
Now, I knew. I knew just from his tone of voice. His words. His carriage. The fact that he had someone at home, waiting. Hoping. Someone he had to console, and support, and assure, just like Beth had tried to do for me. Someone who would be just as distraught were he to die as I was during Beth's final days. I knew everything he put out on the table for the media to see was a complete facade. All of it was a lie.
My reasoning, perhaps along with the rest of the world, was dead wrong.
In his unguarded moments, emotion poured from him like water through a sieve, his feelings as strong as his famed muscles. And at the precise moment I realized this, I felt that, if there was an alien in this house, it certainly wasn't him.
"I love you, too. So much it hurts sometimes."
Honey. Beth. Slipping away. The sight of her in my mind's eye, raw, refused to go away, no matter what mental exercise I tried. My thoughts raced rampant.
The Man of Steel wasn't quite so alien after all, and the realization of it began to make me feel starkly inhuman.
He had someone who loved him, whom he loved in return. Someone to go home to, like I used to have.
The Man of Steel loved.
And just when I thought I had a vague handle on it all, he blew me away again.
"Yeah, put her on… Hi, sweetheart! I'm so very sorry I missed your recital yesterday."
I sat in awe. Who would have ever begun to think, to fathom? It seemed a miracle that it was even physically possible. Perhaps he had adopted. But then, was it really any of my business how it'd happened? The feelings were as clear as a window in the throes of Windex.
"You did? Oh, I'm so proud of you! Did Mommy take you for ice cream to celebrate?"
His voice grew stronger as he spoke. Full of life. As though whatever force had flowed out of Beth was flowing in reverse for him. Fuel. I could almost hear his smile. Cracking wide. Happy.
I tried to remember the last time I'd even contemplated taking the girls out for something fun.
The inhuman feeling grew.
"Haha. Well, this 'lummox' will be home in a few days, and then we can all go, regardless of what Mommy says."
How could this man who saw death every day, who had a career in policing human cruelty, have room in his heart for all of this? How could he have a family? How did he manage? How did he feel at all?
When he was aloof, he made much more sense.
"Yes, of course there will be chocolate."
Don't leave me, Beth. Don't leave me alone. Cold and growing colder.
Why did I feel like something had been ripped away from me at this revelation? I felt a peculiar numbness where everything used to feel normal.
And it was frightening.
Perhaps because I started to realize just how *abnormal* it really was. Not even Earth's resident alien held the same vice, where before he had been, if anything, reassurance that nothing was wrong with me.
My eyes started to sting again.
On that day, Beth wasn't the only one who had died.
Claire and Annie had sat in my lap, crying, wondering when Mommy was coming home. I hadn't been able to answer. I could remember every crevice and contour of Beth's cold hand as it had slipped away and the last of her heat had spread into my own skin as though I were a siphon. I could remember how her eyes, glassy with pain, had stared into my own, and then her cheek had twitched, and the focus of her gaze had gone away to something far behind me, or perhaps far above. I could remember down to the infinitesimal detail of the moment she left me. I could describe, but how was I to explain?
How was I?
Annie had been two, then. Claire four. And I had felt like eternity in the face of that youth. Like time had seeped into my bones and collected there like toxic waste.
"Okay. Can you put Mommy back on?"
No, I had died with Beth, and never realized it until now. The stark contrast I was now seeing was stirring and churning my insides back to life. Enough to realize something was missing. Something very important.
But I still didn't understand.
How did he do it? Live?
And how did she? Live knowing?
"Hi again. Yeah. Well, I do need to go. I don't want to tie up this man's phone line for too long."
I knew now from experience I would have withered long ago. I *had*.
"I love you, too. I'll try and call later."
I couldn't remember the last time I had said I love you. Even to my daughters. I blinked. I really couldn't. Even when I thought very hard.
As he hung up the phone and sighed heavily, I swallowed, deep in my throat. But the lump wouldn't go away. I couldn't move. My muscles seemed to be sticking their collective tongue out at me, and my knuckles gripped impotently at the laundry basket.
"How," I said, my voice broken, before I could stop myself. "How do you do it?"
Through the sliver in the door I saw him turn toward me. His face was pale and sallow. And his eyes, though slightly sunken, widened in horror. I realized he was terrified.
"You weren't supposed to hear any of that," he said, though there was not much conviction in his voice, and what little blood was left to temper his pallor receded so quickly I thought he might be in the process of fainting. What a laughable pair we would have made.
"I thought I was alone," he added.
It must be hard for a man who could normally hear someone coming from blocks away to suddenly be immersed in insensitivity. But I didn't even feel shamed over my blatant eavesdropping.
I felt detached. And cold.
I made no effort to stand. "How do you do it?" I repeated.
His tired eyes took me in, and I was surprised when the first words out of his mouth weren't, "Do what?" He inhaled deeply, looking very far from the Man of Steel at this moment, and he told me, "I just decided to. And it was worth it."
I felt like an open wound after that encounter. Everything ached. My eyes burned. And I wanted nothing more than to crawl into a dark hole and stay there.
But I couldn't.
I remember sitting there in the hallway like a stunned bird who had just struck a window. Blinking. Dazed.
"I just decided to. And it was worth it," Superman had said.
Well, how did one decide that sort of thing? Flip an off switch and say everything was better?
I wish I had an off switch.
If it were only that easy.
As I blindly fumbled to recollect the fallen laundry, I heard a mumble. A buzz. Somewhere in front of me. It vaguely occurred to me that Superman had offered to assist me with the laundry. Somehow, my brain had translated the confusion into words.
I fought the urge to loose a bitter laugh. Of all the things that Superman would *help* me with, I had never imagined it would have been my laundry. The whole idea seemed absurd to me. Superman Averts Laundry Disaster, headlines would shout. "Colors don't go with whites," Superman said when asked what had prompted the save.
I shooed him away with some sort of wordless grumble before I stumbled down the hall. I had to get this load in or I would never finish my list.
My list. Had to finish it.
Despite the stupor, my breath stopped short for a heartbeat when I passed the door to the master bedroom. Master bedroom. I had trouble seeing it as mine anymore. Not when I could still feel her cold fingertips slipping past mine, letting go…
Why, of all things, did I have to remember that the most?
No, my room was down the hall now. Where I could sleep without the memories. Or at least, before today I had been able to. I didn't know what tonight would hold in store for me, not with everything suddenly so raw, regardless of where I ended up.
Somehow, I managed to drag myself, basket in tow, down to the basement to start the wash cycle for that load. I'd heard the girls playing in the library on my way down, but it had been a distant, dull twitter in my ears, and I'd held no curiosity over what they were doing.
The buzzer sounded, hollow and whining, as I shut the lid on the washer. I stood there for a few moments, staring off into space. The detergent shelf blurred in front of me into a lurid array of neons. I gripped the sides of the rumbling machine. My palms streaked along the cool white metal.
Just like her hands.
But when I blinked, everything was still there. Focus returned. The Tide box hovered three inches from my face. The stinging scent of detergent clipped my nose. A groan stuttered from my lips as I picked up the now empty basket and walked back upstairs.
The girls were still playing as I wandered past.
The hollow sound of water hitting the tile basin alerted me to the shower starting in the hallway bathroom as I trudged up the steps. The lock clicked and there was a thump or two as I walked past the door. At least that meant I wouldn't have to converse with him more about things.
I went in to my room to fetch the sheets for the next load.
The room, shrouded in dark with the shade over the window still drawn, was picked up and neat. The light bedspread, which was normally crunched up at the foot of my bed, smoothly cascaded over the sides to the carpet and cinched up under the pillows as though it were meant for a department store display. Again, I was struck with how, well, how normal Superman was. Beyond normal. He made beds better than I did.
My old bathrobe, which I had left out for him along with a fresh towel and some other things, was gone from the hook. His suit was folded up and laid neatly on my reading chair. The long red cape hung over the back, an elastic-looking harness thing gripping the sides of the wingbacks, I guess so it wouldn't get wrinkled. Getting creases out of that thing had to be an utter nightmare. Though I suppose if he made beds he also ironed.
Without ceremony, I picked it all up and stuffed it in the basket. Lycra body and a cotton cape, I observed with a clinical eye and a quick touch. Very earthly fabrics. Surprising. I wondered why they didn't blow up when people threw bombs in his face? Shouldn't the spandex at least have had the little tell- tale fuzzies of wear?
I sighed and tore my focus away from the basket.
Superman had no space costume. He made beds and folded things. He had a significant other. A kid. He had a life beyond the perils exposed on the news channels and in the papers.
The ache in my joints returned.
He had love.
Somehow, he had love, and I didn't.
It wasn't until I had turned to leave the room that I was knocked out of my humorless mope by an unexpected realization.
It was right there.
The phone which Superman had used just a little while ago.
I stared at it.
It stared back, beckoning.
Laundry basket forgotten, I took a baby step toward it.
No. No, I couldn't. And I didn't want to know. I didn't. The man had a right to his privacy, contrary to media opinion.
How did he do it? Live?
And how did she? Live knowing?
I had wondered those things.
I closed the distance and was reaching for the phone with shaking fingers before I realized what I was doing.
Stop it, Jake.
Leave the man alone.
For several long, impregnable seconds, I stared at it, forlorn. This was the phone I had called 911 from. She had come in here to put some of our spare boxes away, insisting she was all right, though I had thought at the time she looked far too pale. I should have known not to listen to her assurances. It had been almost fifteen minutes before I had come to find her. Collapsed. God, she had collapsed right here.
I reached for the phone, and this time nothing stopped me.
It rang several times before a woman picked up, just as a dry, choked sound fell from my lips.
"Hello?" she said.
Not ten seconds earlier I had been so sure of myself, so ready to seek answers, but now as I heard her, everything froze up inside. My heart thudded, cantankerous, rebelling.
I suppose I was half hoping she would sound like a witch. Like someone I could hate.
Her voice was confident, but it had a soft quality to it. As though she knew she could dish it out in a pinch, but was more mellow under normal circumstances. The pitch of it was not high or annoying or nasal like some women I had heard in my lifetime. It was… Pleasant. Alto. I bet she sang beautifully.
"Hello?" she said again into the din of my thoughts, though her voice lowered in tone to a less friendly realm of greeting.
God, what was I doing? And what was wrong with me? I've never been a spiteful person. And here I was, dismayed that I didn't dislike her immediately.
"Listen, cloth ears," she snapped. "Pick another house to prank call next time, or I'll star six nine you and track you down."
Her sudden venom was at least enough to siphon words out of me, but despite it all, she didn't sound cruel. Just defensive. A fight or flight response that strangely stuck on fight. I decided she must be brave.
"I'm sorry, I…" I somehow managed to stutter. I feared I had waited too long to speak and that only a fleeting moment remained before I would be met with a clack, dead air, and then the whine of a dial tone. But the moment the cadence of my voice fell to a brief silence, she burst in with more questions.
"Yes, what is it? Who is this?"
Rapid fire. Her demanding tone set me so off kilter I answered without hesitation. "Jake. My name is Jake Lancer. And I don't really know—"
She cut me off. "How did you get this number? It's unlisted."
"I… I'm sorry. I hit redial."
Her soft breathing buffeted the receiver. A long, long pause followed, and I had the moment of peace I needed to catch up with the situation. What are you doing, Jake, I asked myself. I didn't know.
I really didn't.
It was one of those instances where you jump into the water so fast you don't stop to think just how you intend to get back out. Perhaps you can't even swim.
Just what was I looking for here?
"You're the Jake that saved him," she said. Not a question.
There was another long pause as she absorbed this. "Did something…" Her voice broke a little for the first time, and I stood there, stunned. What had I said? "Did something happen?" she asked, recovering from the halt. Her voice dripped with a worry I had heard before. In myself.
I'm sorry, the doctor had said, after I was allowed back into the room to see her. She had been unmoving. They had tried to revive her. Shoved me out of the way as soon as she had flat- lined. But they had failed. I'd told the doctor thank you. And that was how I had sounded.
*Just* like that.
"No," I said, sinking. I listened. The shower was still going, mere static noise in the background. Since our discussion, Superman hadn't spoken to me. And, though he hadn't looked all that well, it didn't take a medical degree for me to determine he was on the mend. "No… He seems… fine now."
Her sigh of relief buffeted my ear, and I pulled the phone back just a bit.
"Make sure he gets a lot of sun," she said after she recovered. "It helps." Her former confident voice held just a shade of itself in that soft tone.
"I hadn't even thought about…" My gaze shot to the blinds that still hung gloomily over the windows. "I… I'm sorry."
Stupid, stupid. Hadn't the fact that his powers may be solar induced been speculated time and time again? I moved to open the shades.
"He'll be all right," she said, her voice much stronger. "Is there some reason you called, then?"
"I…" I struggled over the word in a vain attempt to fill dead air.
I didn't understand how she could do it, be so calm. Superman had nearly *died*. Nearly been taken away from her. I, of all people, had prevented that fate, and it had been sheer happenstance. Happenstance had saved him. And, from her immediate worry when she had discovered who I was, I knew she knew it. Knew that he had been dying and there was not a blessed thing she could have done about it. And she knew Superman had been lying to her earlier on the phone when he'd repeatedly said he was fine.
The whole situation had to be terrifying. The not knowing. Being far away. At least that was something I had had. Closeness. Knowing that she was deteriorating right in front of me, because I *saw it*, *saw her*, every day getting closer to an end the doctors assured me over and over might not happen. The doctors had been lying to me, but not my eyes.
How much worse would it have been to have imagined instead of seen? Imaginations are so, so much worse.
How did she do it?
"Are you still there?" she prodded, none too gentle.
How did he do it? Live?
And how did she? Live knowing?
"How do you sleep at night?" I blurted.
"How do you sleep at night not knowing when he'll come back?" I clarified. "*If* he'll come back."
"Sleeping pills work," she answered. Her voice dripped sarcasm like poison.
My fingers turned purple as I wrapped the phone cord around them one by one. One by one. A snake. Constricting around me. "Don't joke about that," I whispered.
"—What?" Genuine surprise that time.
"—Well," she stuttered. "What?"
"I…" I suppose I should have been pleased that I had turned the tables on her and for once brought her to silence. But all I felt was tension. Desperation. She was the one who could tell me, I convinced myself. She could tell me. "I just want to know how you do it. Please."
"Well…" I listened to her breaths as she thought. Soft. Steady. I missed that sound when I slept. So much, I missed it.
"I just do," she said. Vague.
Not enough. "How?"
"… Because I love him," she said, as though I had poked the words out of her with a stick.
"But what does that *mean*? Please," I begged. "I need to understand. Please."
Familiar emptiness clutched at me.
I stared out the window into the sunlit afternoon. Why.
I had had my epiphany back when I had chatted with Superman, I thought. I was dead. Yes, yes, I knew it. I knew it now. I had mourned like I was supposed to, like everyone who lost a great love, and then nothing. Nothing had changed. I was stuck stagnant. For years I hadn't even realized. I could vaguely remember what it had felt like before, when she had been alive, to be healthy and happy. Just enough to know I had never made it back there, not to that place.
So why wasn't it magically better now that I knew?
Why was I stuck?
Where was I?
"Because I look at him, and see what I used to be and I don't know how to get back." And she had to know. She *had* to.
"How to get…?"
"How do you care?" I demanded. Air rushed past my face as I threw myself into a loping pace. Back and forth.
"What do you want me to say, Mr. Lancer?"
She just didn't understand. I don't know, but perhaps I growled in frustration. My skin started to tremble.
"How are you people more human than me?" I was yelling. Pleading. Breathing. Rude. Insulting. If I hadn't been so angry with everything, I might have been ashamed.
But whoever this woman was, she took it in stride. "Do you want me to say that it isn't easy?" she shouted back. "That sometimes I'm scared beyond reason?"
The desperation in her voice struck a chord, and I halted mid- stride. For a moment… A tiny, tiny moment… She sounded like me. Like I was, every day. "I—"
"Well, I am," she whispered. "Sometimes."
My sudden anger fell away like a receding tide. And I felt remorse for making her feel the pain I had wrestled with for years. Sometimes without even realizing I was wrestling. Trying to force reality away from me.
But how do you *fix* it, I wanted to ask. Was there some inner strength that I just lacked?
The only time I got any peace at all was when—
Do you know those dreadful moments where some understanding that has eluded you like the wisps of a dream suddenly materializes? Your stomach clenches up, you blink, and all you can do is think… Oh, God.
"I don't love them," I said suddenly, surprised, before I had time to think further, to consider.
Then I stopped. And then I felt sick.
"My children," I said, swallowing around the thick lump in my throat that was threatening to choke me. "I don't love them. They're mine. But when I look at them, I feel empty. I…? God, what's wrong with me?" My voice deflated further with each word. "You must think I'm an absolute nut job. I don't even know who I'm talking to. I'm sorry to have bothered you—"
This whole idea had been foolish. Foolish. She couldn't fix me. Not Superman's wife. Nobody. Nobody could. I'd walked the phone back to the receiver and had almost dropped it onto the cradle when I heard her voice, small and distant.
"Do you really feel nothing at all? Or are you so used to pushing it away that you just think you don't?"
I scooped the phone back up and clutched it to my ear like a life preserver. "I—"
"Because I used to be like that," she continued, not bothering to pause for me. "Most of my coworkers thought I was a domineering bitch."
My breath hitched. "I—" I wanted her to have a solution. Really, I did.
"There goes Lois, they'd say. Ice queen. Mad dog. And what a horrible lay. That last part was Claude's fault. Not that you know who Claude is. He was French. He had an accent."
Breathless confusion replaced squelching angst. "I—"
But my stuttering had opened floodgates. Large floodgates.
"I just shut down," she breezed onward. "I swore all men were pigs. Chauvinists. And that I'd never let another one touch me as long as I lived. I worked my butt off to get half as far. I kept working, and working, and working. And they kept making their snide comments. I'd go home to my Ivory Tower reruns and my tub of Rocky Road and I'd let myself cry over a bunch of fictitious characters. But do you think I let myself care one iota that there was a running pool on who I was going to chew up and spit out next?"
"Um." The only word I could manage.
"No, I didn't. Heck, I even started to believe the gossip. To revel in it. I was happy I scared them."
"Who could imagine?" I managed to interject, dazed.
"I kept trucking. Do you think my sick leave balance was anything short of epic?"
"Of course not," she replied, as though surprised I could question it. "I was bad. I was MAD. I took no prisoners, and I didn't care who I stepped on in the process. But then you know what happened?"
"I'm sure you'll tell me."
I don't know when I had ambled back over to the window, but I found myself there, and I collapsed in a heap onto the chair.
"Oh," I said.
For the first time since her tirade had begun, she paused. Her words stung, though I doubt she realized it, or she wouldn't have spoken them in the first place. For a moment, when the opening statements had reached my ears, I was hopeful that she would be able to help me.
But she hadn't a clue.
Her solution was finding love.
But I had lost mine.
"I met him," she continued. "And all those snide remarks… All those little side bets. They started to hurt again. And I hated it. But in the end, I was better for it. I relearned how to feel. To love. Superman did all that for me. Do you see what I'm saying?"
I did. I did see what she was saying. It didn't help me, but I did see.
"Not that I'm an expert."
"But is it something like that? I could give you Dr. Friskin's number if you like. She does phone consultations and is really very help—"
Exasperation overtook me as she launched into another monologue, but I had caught up sufficiently with the conversation that I found the courage to interject. "Your lung capacity amazes me," I said with wonder.
The pause that followed lengthened into a pregnant silence, and I wondered if I had managed to offend her. But, far from it, she said, "You know, I can't say I've ever received that compliment."
A compliment. It made me want to chuckle.
Superman being her significant other was making more and more sense to me. She was spirited. He was reserved, but possessed a quiet strength. And I doubted very much anyone other than Superman could temper those long-winded explosions of hers. Both had wills to match.
"Sorry," I fumbled. "I… Thank you."
"Glad I could help," she said after a pause, and then added in a hoarse whisper, "Keep him safe for me."
It was only after she had hung up that I realized… She'd called herself Lois. I didn't have much time to consider that, however, because, moments after I hung up the phone, Superman came back in.
His hair was wet and unruly, and seeing him in my robe, out of uniform, was truly strange. He looked like a regular Joe, perhaps on his way to the breakfast table to read the paper or do the crossword puzzle.
And *that*, I had even less time to ponder, because as soon as he entered the room, his eyes went wide. He clapped his hands over his ears and fell forward a little, making a strange groaning noise as his eyes screwed up in what looked like pain. What—?
Then, I heard it, too. A quiet whine. Almost indiscernible.
A kid was screaming, and it was coming from outside.
He recovered as quickly as he had crumpled. I assume it was because his… extra hearing had decided to kick in. I had never thought it would actually hurt him. Perhaps the shock of it returning so suddenly? Though I suppose, with things that were high-pitched enough, his sensitive ears might very well hurt him. How on Earth did he stand Metropolis, of all places?
These thoughts flew through my head in all of a nanosecond. The time it took my gaze to sweep into his own. I met his wide eyes. His hand clenched tight around the doorknob, like a spring winding up, ready to launch. In his eyes there prowled genuine fear. This was not kids playing a bit too rambunctiously.
"Where are my children?" I asked.
For a moment, he leaned his head back and cocked it to the side. His gaze grew far away. Glassy. Not all there. He was listening.
Then he blinked and he was back in the room again with me. "Not in the house," he said, his bad pallor growing paler.
I stared at him for a long second.
"I don't believe you," I growled. I shot past him and down the hall. He thundered after me.
"Claire!" I shouted. "Annie!" My voice rumbled through the house, and I paused at the foot of the steps to see if they were responding. The thudding behind me stopped as suddenly as I had. All I heard were his and my breaths. And my heart. Thudding like a jackhammer without pause.
"Claire!" I shouted again. Nothing.
I could hear the small whine continuing outside somewhere, intermittent.
I skidded through the living room, stopping only to peek in the library through the double doors before I continued through the living room, the dining room, and then back to the kitchen and through the back door. I flung myself down the steps, looking wildly about the back yard.
The sandbox was empty. The lawn sat undisturbed and freshly cut. Birds chirped. The last remainder of the summer cicadas sent their percussive washboard-sounding greetings through the lazy air. Indian Summer had given us a reprieve from the steadily advancing chill.
The whine had stopped.
"Annie!" I called.
Nothing. I looked to Superman.
His eyes were hooded with pain, though I wasn't sure where it was originating from, his sickness, or just… tension. "My… special vision isn't back yet. And I can't pinpoint the noise unless they scream again," he said, his voice sounding raw and barren.
I looked back and forth. Back and forth. For just a moment, I felt panic seeping through. I felt… strangled. As though icy claws had reached around my throat, and were gripping. Tighter. Tighter still. The world grew narrow, focused, and curved, like I was being yanked into a tunnel slowly.
But his voice ripped me away from my mind's downward tumble. "What now?" he asked.
Everything snapped back into focus.
"You take that side." I gestured to the north side of the house and glanced at Superman, who nodded.
I ran south. The rose arbor was overgrown. Thorns scraped across my skin as I battled my way around the side of the house. I found no sign of them anywhere. I ran the length of my driveway. They weren't in the Explorer or anywhere near it. I jackknifed back toward my front door.
We met up at the landing at the front steps.
I paused for a moment, my chest soaring with hope as he dashed up to me, until I saw him make a minute shake of his head, and the downtrodden look on his face. Nothing.
I wiped the sweat from my skin, trying desperately not to hyperventilate, not to let the crushing feeling in my lungs sweep me away again. Where were they?
Another faint wail seeped through the air.
Superman's head snapped to the right. "It's coming from that way," he said, pointing across the street to Janet Elliot's little Cape Cod-style house with red brick and black shutters.
Again, a scream.
It was definitely coming from Janet's back yard. She was one of the last remaining older people on the block. And her car was gone. She had mentioned something about visiting her grandchildren this weekend.
I darted across the street without looking either way. What would Claire and Annie be doing in the back yard across the street? What reason would they have to go there? I hadn't even been aware that they weren't in the house. They'd been in the library the last time I had looked. And it couldn't have been more than a half hour since I had last laid eyes on them.
I hadn't even heard a door slam. Kids slammed doors. They did. And there hadn't been a slam. There *hadn't*.
What if the screams weren't even theirs? Where would I look next? Where did Claire and Annie like to go?
God, I didn't know. I just didn't.
I tried to hold the panic at bay as I ran through Janet's empty driveway and into her back yard, but it was ripping me apart from the inside by the time I shoved through the little gate that split her white picket fence in two.
I felt like my stomach had fallen out through my feet when I got a good look at Janet's yard. A sigh perforated my chest. Relief.
Annie stood at the foot of Janet's towering magnolia tree, her head tilted up toward the top of the tree, lips parted slightly. This time, I heard Claire's shout, clear as a bell, and I followed Annie's gaze up along the thick trunk. And up. And up.
"Claire?" I shouted as I rushed over to the tree. It seemed taller the closer I got.
Annie yelped and ran to me. She wrapped herself around my leg, almost wrecking my balance and sending me to the ground in a heap. I stumbled, but remained upright.
My earlier relief faded quickly as I assessed the situation. Claire wasn't just up high. She was up *high*. She stood on one of the topmost limbs of the large tree, possibly thirty feet up, maybe a bit more. Through the thick leaves, I saw her clinging desperately to a branch that extended past her chest. The peak of the tree swayed drunkenly in the light breeze, and the fat, oval-shaped green leaves rustled.
"Daddy," Claire wailed, but stayed stock still.
How did a six-year-old climb to a height that rivaled my house's attic? Though, I supposed, if any tree was made for climbing it was Janet's magnolia. The thick branches started nearly at ground level and extended out from the trunk at regular intervals all the way up to the top, tapering only slightly in width until the tree reached its zenith.
Where Claire was perched.
"Claire…" I began, at a loss for words. "What—?" I couldn't even finish the question.
"Baxter was stuck!" she said.
I looked around and didn't see a cat anywhere.
"Well, never mind that now." I ran my hands through my hair. "Are you all right?"
"Can you get down?" I asked, though I knew the answer already. It was one of those questions meant to fill space. While I figured out what the hell I was supposed to do.
What the hell *was* I supposed to do?
I turned to Superman. "Can you…" I gestured weakly at the tree.
He shook his head. "Only my hearing is back."
I wasn't surprised. If he had been able to fly this whole time, Claire would likely have already been down from the tree.
"Don't worry, Claire," I shouted up the trunk.
I stared at the magnolia. Shouldn't the fire department be called for stuff like this? No, that was stupid to waste their time when it was just a dumb tree which was about as climbable as a nice, solid staircase. It wasn't like they could get the truck ladders back here.
And who the heck was Baxter?
No, I was going to have to do this myself.
I directed planes for a living. What was a little tree? Big tree.
"Annie," I said, trying to pry the human barnacle away from me. "I need to go get Claire. Can you stay here with Superman?"
Her tiny fingers clutched tightly at my pant leg. I could feel the waistline grip more substantially on my hips as she pulled at the fabric, desperate. "No," she said, her voice weepy, which was precisely the last thing I needed at this instant.
"I need my leg if I'm going to climb this tree," I tried to explain patiently. I think I snapped instead. I ran my hands through my hair again.
"No," she said again.
Superman looked at the tree, then back to me and down to Annie. "I could try and get her down," he offered.
I looked up at Claire and back to him. He stood there, barefoot, in nothing but my bathrobe. His color was still a bit bad, too — it was especially apparent now that we stood in the glaring sunlight.
My cheeks flushed red. This was *my* kid. I was dressed and healthy, and Superman was more willing to save her than I was. God.
"No," I blurted quickly. "I'll do it, I just need to…" My voice trailed away as I stared down at Annie's blonde head. Her tiny nose was stuck soundly into my knee.
Superman nodded and knelt down. "Annie, sweetheart," he said, his voice gentle, and so far away from the stern superhero I was used to that I was barely able keep it straight in my head that the man kneeling next to my foot talking to my terrified four- year-old was the guy who lifted rockets into orbit.
"Can you please let go of your father?" Superman asked. "I really could use your help."
Annie sniffled. "With what?"
"Well, Baxter must be around here somewhere, right?" he asked. "We should find him to make sure he's okay."
Her grip loosened.
"After all, your sister climbed so very high to rescue him," Superman explained. "We should be sure that he's all right so she didn't do all that climbing for no reason. Don't you think?"
The fixture around my pant leg slowly let go. "… Okay," she said.
As soon as she let go, Superman wrapped his arms around her torso and lifted her expertly to his chest. Her short legs clamped around his waist and he smiled at her. "What does Baxter look like?" he asked.
My throat started to burn as I looked at them. He was so natural with her. He…
"Claire says he's gray," Annie explained.
Superman's brow furrowed. "You haven't seen him?"
"Have too!" Annie protested firmly.
For several moments, he was silent as he held her. I saw his Adam's apple bobble as he swallowed once and looked at me for a moment. It was the minutest of assessments. I could almost feel his gaze prying into me. Perhaps his x-ray vision was back. I felt laid bare.
But just as quickly as I had caught his pointed glance, his eyes were back on Annie, twinkling. A smile tickled the corners of his lips. "All right," he said agreeably, "Well, let's go look around, shall we? Should we go get some tuna from the kitchen? Perhaps we can lure him out of hiding."
"Claire says he likes fruit!"
Superman didn't miss a beat. "Well, that's a special cat right there. Do you keep any fruit in your kitchen?"
"Yes, there's bananas."
"That sounds like wonderful bait. Let's go get it."
With that, they turned to leave. As they departed, I shook the burning sensation away from my throat and the backs of my eyes.
I turned back to the tree. "Claire, I'm coming up now. Hang on."
"Okay," she called down. Her voice sounded trembly. As though she were trying to sound like she was in complete control of the situation, but was so terrified that she just couldn't pull it off.
I got my purchase on the first branch.
"So what happened?" I asked. It was best to keep her talking, right? That was what rescue people did in the movies.
Damp bark crumbled slightly in my grip as I purchased my way to the next set of branches. There was a reason that people stopped climbing trees when they grew up, I thought. There was a reason that I had *never* climbed trees.
"Baxter ran away with Ken. Then he got stuck up here."
One of the thinner branches snapped off in my hands and I fumbled for a thicker one.
"Who's Ken?" I gritted. And why didn't I know about a cat named Baxter? Was it a neighbor's or something?
"Right." I knew that.
Time passed with a painful slowness, until every time I extended a muscle to climb just a bit higher, I felt the sear and strain. It probably didn't help that I couldn't get myself to loosen up. My parts felt like they were grinding together rather than moving fluidly, and clenching at every joint was exhausting me far faster than if I had just sucked it up and relaxed.
But I couldn't. Couldn't relax.
That was Claire up there, still what seemed miles above me.
I was two-thirds of the way there when Claire giggled.
"What is it?" I asked.
"Annie is running around our front lawn with a banana."
"Superman is with her, right?"
"Yeah, he's looking at our bushes."
What? Why would he… Oh. Right. He was looking for the damn cat.
I made it to the top, slightly out of breath, tendons burning. I stared at Claire. This was going to be a bit trickier than I had originally assumed. I was far too big to maneuver well in this tree, and a branch still separated us. Her foot was eye level with me.
"Claire," I asked, "Can you climb down on your own if I go with you?"
"I think so," she said. Her voice had lapsed back into that weepy faux-brave tone she had used earlier.
I reached across, my arm ready to snake out and grab her if she fell. She unsteadily descended to the next lowest branch so that we were even.
"Okay, ready?" I asked.
I sent a foot down in search of a branch. By the time I found one, I felt like my leg was going to fall off from being forced to do splits, which was unnatural enough for me when I *wasn't* twenty-five feet in the air in a tree. I just wasn't acrobatically equipped.
The branches hadn't seemed so far apart on the way up. There was no way she was going to make it down that gap by herself.
"Okay, can you move over here? I'll try and lower you down myself," I explained.
She squirmed her way around to me. I propped myself precariously on one of the intervening branches and clutched my hands around her torso. I slowly took her full weight onto my arms and lowered her to the branch below. Suffice it to say, she had certainly grown since the last time I had picked her up. My vision was going a bit hazy when she finally met with something solid and the weight that tugged down on me lessened.
We followed the same procedure for the next two branches as well. I was panting and achy by the time we had gotten only half way down.
"Can you get down to the next one without me lifting you?" I asked. It looked a lot closer than the past three had been.
Her little arms clutched around the trunk of the tree and she sort of shimmied her way down. I was almost ready to think we might make it with no incident when her foot hit a knot in the trunk and she lost her balance. With a shriek, she lost her grip and started sliding.
"Don't fall!" I shouted. I nearly toppled over the branch that supported my midsection as I leaned forward and stretched my arms out. My feet slipped out behind me and I swung forward like a gymnast going over a bar. In a tangle of limbs and hair and clothes, I managed to grab hold of her shirt. She grunted and stopped, dangling.
"Daddy!" she cried.
We teetered there for a moment.
"Hang on," I said. The wind was nearly gone from me. The intervening branch that was all that held me from a head-first descent to the ground was forcing the air out of me as Claire's weight pulled me down.
"Grab onto my arm," I wheezed as blood rushed to my head and my skull started to feel heavy.
A death-grip encircled my wrist, but the weight pulling down on the shirt clenched in my fist didn't lessen.
"I'm going to swing my legs back down. Don't let go."
I tried to fling myself down to the next branch like a seesaw, only to fail dismally. Claire dangled precariously by my grip, and I couldn't really seem to get enough air into my lungs. I gasped and panted. Too heavy. I was too big to be in this tree. And Claire was too big to be dangling from just one arm.
Time slowed to a halt. Her grip began to slide across my skin, losing purchase to my rampant perspiration. I heard the seams ripping on her shirt, and her breathing sounded really funny. God, the shirt. It was probably cutting into her neck.
"Hang on, Claire," I panted. "Don't let go. Don't you dare."
The breath had bled so far out of me that I think the last words were just spelled with my lips. I had no way of knowing.
"Don't let go," I urged again, though I couldn't hear myself speaking.
Don't leave me like she did.
I let her weight pull me even closer to vertical, and then, with a strength I didn't know I still had, I flopped my legs backward in a sweeping motion until my feet met the lower branch and I was standing again. I scrambled to get Claire out of her dangle. She clawed at my wrist and I felt a searing pain rip at my muscles as I thumped my arm badly against the bark of the branch above me. There was a snap. I think the branch broke. Leaves fluttered down past me.
But I pulled her back.
And she stood under her own power, just as Superman came crashing back into the yard, Annie running a few steps behind and considerably slower. He must be in pretty good shape to move that fast even when his powers were gone.
"Are you all right?" he shouted.
Of course, he must have heard me.
"I've been better," I said faintly.
I think I was starting to see spots, but when I heard a branch below me stutter and creak with someone's weight, I blinked. "No," I shouted down at him. "I can do this."
And I did.
When we reached the ground, my wrist was throbbing so badly that I was growing lightheaded. "Did you find Baxter?" I asked. But my voice was really, really far away.
"Claire, are you all right?" I asked.
In the blur, I saw her nodding. But she wasn't looking at me. She was staring at my wrist, eyes wide.
The last thought I had before I saw my bathrobe smacking into my face was that for the barest, tiniest of moments, when Claire had been dangling from my grasp, I had felt something that I had been convinced was long gone.
As I sat in the passenger seat of the Explorer, listless, my splint cradled in my lap like I was a bird with an injured wing, I was struck with the irony of the situation. Superman was driving me back home in the dark. Lights were blinking out as we went. The kids sat quietly in the back seat though, contrary to last time, they weren't upset.
I snorted loud enough that I diverted his gaze from the road, but he said nothing.
The world had come back to me slowly, earlier. It had been strangely white. And there had been a beeping noise. Beep. Beep. Beep. How annoying.
I'd blinked and inhaled. Antiseptic.
"Welcome back, Mr. Lancer. You fainted again," a disembodied but friendly voice had said.
I'd looked woozily down, only to find that there were stitches on my arm. A woman with a shock of orange hair had been tying them off, and I remember thinking, in my slight disorientation, that she looked rather like a candle. A candle with an extremely frizzy flame. Could fire be frizzy?
"Don't move your arm yet," she'd commanded, though I hadn't been inclined to move much at the time, regardless. "We'll need to put a splint on it, but it's set, at least, and it was a very clean break."
Break. Broken. What?
I'd swallowed thickly, sitting up as fast as the sickening spinning in my head would allow. "Where are my kids?" I'd asked. The room had tumbled back and forth as I'd waited for an answer.
My voice had sounded as though it emanated from some place far away. Underwater.
Candle Lady had smiled. "Don't you worry. Your brother Charlie is out in the waiting room with them. Such little angels they are."
"My broth—" I'd begun, but clipped my words off. "Oh. Super."
The rest of the night had been a blur.
And rather unpleasant.
And now Superman was driving my car. I wondered, did he even have a license? He certainly seemed well-versed in ground travel, which I found extraordinary. What use would Superman have for a car?
Then again, I suppose this entire situation was a perfect example.
He was wearing a pair of my old jeans — the ones that had a hole in the knee except for a few clinging strands of denim that held the leg together — and a loose Metropolis University sweatshirt. One of the only remnants of my college career that I hadn't retired to a thrift store, the trash, or an early grave. My class ring had gone down the drain by accident a few years ago, and I hadn't been back to pick up any new stuff since I had left. College. Back from when I had a lot more muscle volume. I was still surprised he fit into anything of mine at all, though it gratified me a considerable amount.
Out of uniform, his hair not slicked with grease, he looked so completely unlike any preconceived Superman image in my head, I really wasn't surprised the nurse had taken him for his word that he was my brother. Heck, he even had a bit of stubble at this point. He looked rather scruffy for the immaculate Man of Steel.
He was looking a *lot* better, though, regardless. The circles were gone from under his eyes, and he had his color back. Lines of pain weren't pinched around his eyes like crows' feet. It didn't look like it was an effort for him to be commanding my vehicle in the dark. Actually, he looked like there was nothing unusual whatsoever about the situation.
It was hard for me to come to grips with the fact that he had been at death's door twenty-four hours ago.
I looked back to my girls. "How are you two doing?"
"Good," they said in unison.
"And you?" I asked pointedly to him.
"Fine," he replied offhandedly. He didn't sound interested in discussing it.
*Just* like him. I thought vaguely back to the conversation I'd had with his wife. Then I wondered about the fact that I now knew Superman well enough that I knew his typical response to pain: hide it.
I stared at his profile as he smoothly navigated a four-way stop, amazed at not only how lackadaisical I was being that he was in my car, that he was *driving* it, but that I wasn't even particularly worried about my arm yet. Or how I was going to deal with taking care of two young kids this way. Must be the pain medication. Very good stuff, I suppose.
Superman. I wondered what his real name was? Superman couldn't be it.
Cl-Superman. That was what his wife had called him. The start of a name, a syllable, but she'd realized she'd slipped and fixed it before the whole word had gotten out. Cl-. Clyde? Good lord, I hoped not. SuperClyde to the rescue? No. Cliff? Clay? Clive? Or maybe it had been a K. And why was I assuming it was an earth name? Maybe he was the alien formerly known as Klignot. Or Klepto. Or Klatu!
I began to doubt the benefits of leaving myself on Percoset for the remainder of my venture into broken-armdom.
But my mind happily continued along.
Wait. The woman had said her name.
What was it? Lois, she'd said. Mad dog. And she'd mentioned a Cl- name. What had it been. Claude. Right, Claude. But I'd gotten the distinct impression that Claude wasn't the Cl- in question. And I don't care how oblivious I was, Superman was not French. If anything, I detected the mid-western 'non-accent' so typical of, well, Midwesterners.
Lois Lane. Cl-. Clark. Clark Kent.
Oh, sweet Jesus.
I jerked my gaze forward and stared pointedly at the road, watching the divider lines blur in the darkness.
Superman didn't just act like a normal guy.
He *was* a normal guy.
At least all the scandals made more sense now. Though I guess they had to get a laugh out of being accused about having affairs with themselves. Or maybe it wasn't so funny, considering it dragged their reputations through the dumps for something that wasn't even a lie. How many times had they refuted the claims? At least four over the years, though the first time the scandal had hit it had been the biggest doozy, especially with those peace talks on the line.
Again, it struck me that the man sitting beside me had done some truly amazing things.
And he was… he was Clark Kent!
I blinked, forcing myself to calm down.
Why did I find it so surprising? It wasn't like I hadn't been smacked with hints all weekend.
Which was true.
And, all at once, I was dumbfounded by it all. He didn't just manage a wife and a kid, he managed a whole other job. A job where he was expected to have serious product to be consumed by millions, every morning at the breakfast table. By me, even. I got the Sunday edition of the Planet every week. And he managed, somehow. Something I never, ever would be able to do. I could barely take care of my kids without killing myself, it seemed.
The world swam funnily as Superman pulled my car up the drive, interrupting my quickly spiraling thoughts.
Things moved rather blurrily. When my next lucid thought hit me, I was in the master bedroom in my old bed, and he was leaving the room, quiet, agile. And that lucid thought was precisely: oh, God, I'm back in the room. My bones almost skipped right out of my skin and onto the floor, but I was tucked in already, and the flight mechanism flopped into impotency. Moving seemed an enormous task, one I didn't want to tackle right then.
Inertia was fast becoming my friend. And I found it strangely comforting. The sheets were warm. And soft. And I imagined I could smell her. Far from the terrifying feeling that I had been somehow defiling something when I'd almost slept in the bed last night, I was okay this time. And I hadn't even had to count to make myself that way.
He stopped in the doorframe and looked back at me for a moment. Then he looked back out at the hallway. And then back at me. He seemed suddenly small, standing there like he was. His shoulders hunched over. As if he were debating something very important and he just couldn't decide what to do.
As if he thought he were intruding…
"Superman?" I called into the dim blear. Clark, I added in my head.
"Can I…" he began, sounding so ridiculously uncertain now that I had no doubts whatsoever that Superman was a complete facade. Clark Kent was a guest in my house. Superman was gone for the weekend.
"What's wrong?" I prodded. The drugs were making me quite happy to chat, I think.
"I'm not sure this is any of my business."
"Tell me," I said. It was obvious enough to me that this was something he considered to be serious. And I could take a little criticism, especially with whatever the doctors had put me on. Right? I could. Sure.
"Jake," he began, his voice cutting off into silence as he wheeled around and sat in the chair beside my bed. "I'm not exactly sure, but I think Baxter might be imaginary."
I blinked. That certainly hadn't been a topic I'd been expecting. Superman looked very worried. "But…" I began, stuttering, "Well, isn't that normal for kids her age?"
He gave me a placating shrug. "Well, sure. I've had tea-time with my daughter's imaginary playmate at least twice."
Another bit of information to file away in my wow category. My wow category for the weekend was seriously close to exploding. I tried to picture Superman, cape and all, sitting at a little table drinking fake tea out of plastic cups. Despite all that I had pieced together, I just couldn't quite manage it.
"Oh," I replied lamely. And then my thoughts skittered to a different track. Honestly, overall, I think I was handling things quite decently up to this point.
I wondered what he was trying to get at. It did make a lot of sense, though. It would explain why I knew nothing of this Baxter, although I was a little bit miffed that Superman was the one who had to spell it out for me. I didn't think I was *that* oblivious about my daughters' lives.
I wasn't. Was I?
I swallowed. I was.
"In fact, when I was eight or nine, I had one myself," Superman continued. He had a faraway look in his eyes. And the skin around the corners of his face was pinched. "I called him Bob, I don't know why. That was when my speed started to become apparent. And my invulnerability…"
Well, sure, that made sense, I thought dumbly. Though a heaping portion of my brain was beginning to shut down under the weight of so much revelation. Too much for one day, I think.
It had never occurred to me that, far from being just a normal guy, he had actually had an insecure childhood, somewhere. With real parents. Well, I suppose I was making a bit of a leap. He hadn't mentioned parents. But how would he not have them?
How many other people on the planet had been trusted with all this information?
I doubted very many.
Though perhaps it wasn't so much an issue of trust, but rather himself forgetting who he was supposed to be. Maybe he was falling into the natural patterns of his other, more mild- mannered persona. I imagined that sort of confusion would be easy when you had two distinctly different faces to shuffle between and the defining characteristic of Superman — the suit — was decidedly missing. Regardless, I don't think he realized just how much I had pieced together on my own.
Heat flooded into my cheeks.
"I've done some reading on this, when my daughter's friend started making appearances." He pressed onward, oblivious to my musings, though his voice cracked funnily, as though he were still wary of broaching the subject despite my prodding. "Children sometimes make up friends during stressful times in their lives. Or in response to a traumatic event…"
His gaze flicked so briefly to the bedside table where my wife's things still lay that I thought I had maybe imagined it.
But rampant imagination was enough for me to assemble some meaning.
What he was trying to say hit me and sank in. Hit me. Really, really hit me. I felt as though I had been slammed in the gut.
I guess I wasn't so agreeable at the moment after all.
"I get it," I responded in clipped tones. My chest was suddenly feeling extremely thick. Heavy. As though something were sitting on it. I turned my bleary gaze to the earrings that I had looked at yesterday. They sparkled a little in the dim light. The moonlight flecked off the face of the alarm clock behind them. Eternally stuck in time.
He nodded. His lips were drawn into a straight line. He stood, his movements wooden, and he shuffled toward the door with very un-Superman-like lack of grace. "Sorry," he mumbled. And then he was gone. I heard him moving down the hallway, his footfalls fleeting across the area carpet.
Then everything went silent.
How had he known? I hadn't said a word about Beth to him. And it wasn't as if I had photographs of her lying around. For all he knew, I was just the survivor of a bad divorce. Then again, that could be a traumatic event, couldn't it?
No. No, he knew. Somehow.
Maybe Annie had told him.
Or maybe it had been Claire.
They'd both spent time alone in the waiting room with him while my arm was getting set. Perhaps they'd had a conversation. Or, hell, he *was* paid for his investigative skills. It was feasible he hadn't received any clues from the dynamic duo at all.
But he knew.
And the meaning of his words was all too clear. I was a bad father. I was.
Or was that what *I* thought?
He hadn't said anything of the kind.
How had I jumped to that from the thought that an imaginary friend might be the result of a traumatic event?
I didn't know anymore. This whole weekend had turned my life upside down. For months, I hadn't played host to a single thought of Beth, and now I was dreaming of her. Remembering. Imagining her beside me when I woke. Her image was entering every waking thought. As though she were burned into me. Like a brand. And my children…
How was I supposed to care for them?
Beth had left me here.
I threw back the covers and began to pace, agitated, not caring how much noise I was making. My breaths came in heaving, ragged gasps as I tried to gain some control over myself. But it wasn't working.
And suddenly I felt like I was back in the tree, my view-field swinging around wildly as I clutched at Claire. Green leaves pitched across my sight as I spun around the branch. Don't let go, I had urged her. Don't you dare. Her eyes were wide and glistening. Blue with a delicate spiral of green. Just like her mother. Just like.
Don't leave me.
And I remembered, just then, at that moment, when she had been slipping away. When I had thought I might lose my grip on her. There had been a spark. A small one, but a spark. And I had *felt*… well, I had *felt*. Her skin had slipped past mine, and I had been so afraid. So very afraid to let go again. Which would only make sense if I hadn't let go already.
I sucked in a breath.
What was it Lois had said?
Do you really feel nothing at all? Or are you so used to pushing it away that you just think you don't?
Yes, that was what she'd said.
So, did I? Really, did I feel nothing?
I bit back a strange thickness in my throat and stalked out of the bedroom and down the hall. The soft mumblings of Superman once again using my phone drifted through the door to my room as I strode past. The thought of him talking sweet nothings to his wife burned at the back of my throat and pricked my eyes. I wouldn't break down. Not now.
The door at the end of the hallway had no light framing the underside of it through the crack, which meant the girls were sleeping. I suppose Superman had put them to bed for me. Had they behaved for him? Had they smiled at him like Beth used to smile at me?
I tore the door open, but the hallway carpet muted the noise and slowed it down from a horrific rattle to a muffled rasping noise. I plowed into to the girls' room and struck to a halt, harsh energy buzzing just underneath my skin. My hand still gripped the doorknob, so hard that I felt it forming dents in my skin. I breathed in jerky, sucking motions.
Annie was curled up strangely in the corner of her bed, kind of like a cat, whereas Claire was draped across her mattress like a sheet. The haunting, dim glow of the night light sprawled across her back and set the skin of her cheek into a state of almost luminescence. Her mouth was open a little. As I let go of the doorknob and walked over to her, I noticed that there was a small wet spot on the pillow near her lips, and her soft breaths coursed over the pillow, slow and steady. Relaxing. Soothing in the silence.
My thudding heart calmed down.
As I put my good hand on her back, my skin was flooded with the warmth radiating off her.
For a moment, before I spoke, I basked in the feeling. This was someone I had made.
"Claire," I whispered.
She blinked slowly and looked up at me. Her nose turned up, and her pupils dilated as her eyes soaked in the light.
"What?" she whispered back.
"Is Baxter… Baxter…" I stuttered. "He's not real, is he?"
Her eyes widened as the sleep bled away. She raised her fingers, clenched in a fist, to her mouth, almost as if she were intending to suck her thumb, which to be honest, I wasn't sure if she ever did or not. And then she shook her head.
"Did he… did he start spending time with you after Mommy died?"
I felt like something was crushing me. I saw her falling from the tree, over, and over, and over. The image wouldn't go away. "Claire, I want you to promise me that you'll talk to me. I know I've…"
An image of Beth flashed through me as though someone had slapped me, and then it melted away again to the tree. And Claire was falling again. Over, and over, and over.
I couldn't finish what I'd started to say. The words were struck from me as though I had been given a mortal blow. God, I was a complete and utter mess. Bad father, indeed. Self-recrimination tore through me like a lance. I left the room before I broke down in front of her.
How had I messed all this up so badly?
Over, and over, and over, she fell.
I crawled back into the bed in the master bedroom. I was a horrible father. Horrible. It was true. I had left the girls alone for years. So alone that they were making up imaginary cats to keep them company and chasing after them up large trees. And, worse, I didn't even really know how to get the feeling back. It had sparked, sure. But as I lay there, thinking intensely on the subject, I just couldn't conjure it again. I thought of Claire, and Annie, and I was blank. Blank.
Why was I blank?
What was *wrong* with me?
The only thought coursing through me was that I was a horrible, horrible person.
Over, and over, and over, she fell.
A whisper to my left struck me from my nightmare. "Daddy?"
Claire stood there, her hair going every which way, as though she'd been plugged into a socket. Her threadbare stuffed giraffe was clenched in her grasp. The moonlight streaming in from the window framed her in her little white nightgown. She stood there, immobile.
"What is it?" I asked. My voice sounded surprisingly even given my inner turmoil, I thought.
Her little feet padded on the floor as she walked over to my side of the bed and looked at me. "Can I sleep in here tonight?"
"I…" The breath was gone from me. I couldn't speak. I just stared at her.
For long moments, she didn't move or speak. And neither did I.
Don't let go. Don't you dare.
I lifted the covers for her and scooted over, my large body sliding over the sheets. She settled there at my side, and within moments, she was asleep again, as though I had never woken her in the middle of the night to quiz her. Never had a breakdown.
The images of her falling slowly faded away, until I lay there stiffly, thinking of nothing in particular. And several moments after that, I began to feel something softer bloom.
I pulled the bedspread up higher, past my waist and even with her chin, and listened intently to her breaths. In and out. In and out.
Several minutes later, I felt another tiny body sliding into the bed, and Annie's hands curled over my shoulder.
"G'night," she muttered, and then her nose pressed into my breastbone and she was sleeping too.
I couldn't move. Claire and Annie had me pinned. My arm made things extremely awkward. My muscles began to hurt. But I stayed there, staring at the ceiling, my eyes blearily out of focus. The hours stretched onward. I glanced at the clock once or twice, unsurprised to find that it still read just minutes before eight.
The girls curled up more tightly against me. I was almost afraid to breathe. But slowly, as the time passed, the blur became more pronounced.
The sound of them next to me on either side became hypnotic. In and out. In and out, they sighed. In and out. Water creased from my eyes as I blinked once. Twice.
At some point, my eyelids didn't lift again.
And, for the first time in years, I fell asleep to the sound of someone else's breathing.
When I woke up in the morning, it took several moments for me to regain enough feeling in my limbs to shift. Stiffness held me in a vice. It was barely light out, but the ants-skittering feeling across my skin told me it was time to get up. The whole night, I hadn't budged at all. The girls were still draped across me, quiet, peaceful. Annie was making a funny little snoring sound. Claire's breath swept soft across my neck. I hated to move them, but I had to move *me*.
With care, I extracted myself and tiptoed into the bathroom. I threw cool water into my face and took a deep breath, though with only one hand free the process was a little more awkward than usual. But I actually found myself chuckling as I tangled myself in knots trying to get the faucet on and off.
Between swipes with the water, I let myself hang there over the sink, cool water dripping off my skin. The dim hail of daylight streaming through the bathroom window was relaxing, and though my muscles ached, something was missing. And it wasn't a bad thing that was gone. What was it?
I leaned back, ignoring the water that splattered down onto my shirt. I took a deep breath. Everything was light. That was it. I felt as if I had spent my recent memories with all my muscles clenched, and I now I had finally relaxed again. The relief was so intense that I nearly thought I was still doped on the pain relievers, but after a few more moments of self- assessment I realized that I didn't have the trip-happy dumb feeling from last night. Just the euphoria.
I couldn't stop the throaty sob sound that loosed from my lungs. I shook a little. Blinked. Took another breath. Everything was so clear.
I wiped myself off with a towel and walked back out into the main room.
The girls still lay peaceful and undisturbed.
For a moment, I watched them from the doorframe. Things were blank. I couldn't remember a single moment from after I had fallen asleep. No dreams. Nothing that I could recall.
I took one last look at my children and was thrown into quiet amazement by the warmth I felt. I didn't even have to will it there.
It simply was.
"Thank you, Beth," I whispered into the room with a smile.
And then I padded down the steps to the kitchen, still in wonder at the strange levity I was experiencing, only to find Superman already at the table. He was in his suit. Coffee burbled in the pot, filling the kitchen with the bitter scent of ground beans. He was hunched over the morning paper, paying particular attention to a story which, although I couldn't read the title from that distance, I could see that the picture was of a large, disfigured train car.
"All of my powers have returned. I noticed it in the shower this morning. Not soon enough, though," he whispered. "This happened sometime last night."
I said nothing.
He heaved a world-weary sigh and tore his gaze away from the gray pixels, only to place his face in his hands. I sensed what was coming. For several long moments he hung there, suspended over his arms like a bridge about to collapse. But he said nothing. A harsh breath and a blink bottled it up, and the worried expression bled away before my eyes.
The display was an awesome reminder of all that had transpired this weekend. The Man of Steel wasn't so steel.
I sat down at the table.
He peered diagonally across the table at me through the gaps between his middle and ring fingers. "I can stay for a while if you need," he said, looking pointedly at my arm as I rested it on the table top.
I glanced down at it. It was starting to ache, but then, I hadn't taken my medication this morning. Antibiotics and pain relievers. What a cocktail. But not on an empty stomach, the doctor had said. Or I'd regret it. And my stomach was decidedly empty at the moment.
I admit I was touched by his words, and I couldn't stop the smile that came to me. Chronic do-gooder began to harbor a new meaning for me. I don't think I would ever look at Superman the same way again. Not even when he was giving some stiff, practiced, antiseptic speech.
But no. No, I would be fine. I would manage. Single parents everywhere did, somehow. I doubted they all had titanium skeletons. Hell, even Superman managed. Though he wasn't alone, I still considered ability to juggle to be a tremendous feat, more impressive than any of the other things I had ever seen him do. And if worse came to worst, I could ask the neighbors for help easily enough.
"No," I said. "No, you have a wife and a kid who are probably missing you."
A fire sparked in his eyes. I wanted to say it looked almost as if he was homesick. But he quirked an eyebrow and said, "You're sure…"
"Yes," I assured him. "Yes, I'll be fine."
And honestly, I had the strangest idea that I was telling the truth.
I was okay. Really.
The larger-than-life Superhero stood up. In my kitchen. At my breakfast table. "I did want… to say… to thank you for all that you've done for me," he stuttered. "You saved my life when you could have easily just turned a blind eye."
He made no mention of last night. In fact, he looked distinctly uncomfortable. His arms folded over his chest, and he stood there in his classic pose.
I guess the attitude came on with the suit.
But I knew there was a father, husband, reporter person in there now. And I think I understood so much more about him at that moment that it really didn't matter to me anymore who he was, what he did, or how 'normal' he did or did not act.
"Superman, if anyone's life was saved here, it was mine," I stated firmly.
I took his hand and shook it. My thank you. Because, in his own way, he *had* saved my life. His grip was firm and warm.
I added, "Feel free to stop in next time you're landing wayward planes in the area."
A genuine smile crept over his face. "I think I will."
And then his hand slipped out of mine and he turned from me.
"Superman?" I said, suddenly anxious.
He turned back to me.
"I won't tell anyone. Ever."
"I know," he replied with a smile. Bigger than the one before. Though I doubted he grasped my true meaning, amazement heated up across my cheeks at the look of bald trust he gave me.
And then, with a whoosh, he was gone, his steaming cup of coffee the only reminder of his visit.
"Hello, Kent residence…"
Tempered by only a small amount of static, the unmistakable voice of Superman filtered through the line. Only… It wasn't Superman. Not really. There was no pain or worry biting at his clear greeting. His tone was far less stiff. Far less abrasively formal. Smooth. As though he knew, for this night at least, he didn't have the fate of the world resting on his shoulders.
Perhaps this was what Clark Kent sounded like in his element. On the ground. Being perceived as human by fellow humans. Having friends. Having love. Love that I couldn't find myself begrudging him any longer.
Clark Kent. Clark Kent really was Superman. The last shred of doubt in my own ability to add two and two dissolved. I had arrived at four and double-checked my work.
I could almost picture him standing there, his shoulders with an ever-so-human slump to them. Maybe wearing slippers and loungewear. Glasses. Relaxed and informal. Perhaps he had let that sheen of stubble I had seen earlier regenerate.
Which brought me to an unrelated question. Just how exactly did he shave?
"Hello?" he asked again, ripping me away from my meandering thoughts.
I swallowed deep in my throat. Twice. My tongue seemed thick and leaden. The resolve I'd felt when I'd finally picked up the phone drained away as though I were a sieve.
I had meant to say thank you. That was what my plan had been. Because, in the hours after he had left, I realized I really hadn't said it. I had told him his secret was safe, and observed that he had saved me. But I hadn't said it. Thank you. And with the phone sitting there in my bedroom, undisturbed, it had occurred to me that there was still a chance for me to do so. Redial was simply too much of a temptress, and I truly was grateful.
But now I was finding myself without words, and without hope for grasping anything that resembled them. A simple thank you seemed vastly inadequate now that I took a moment to consider. *Vastly* inadequate.
"Who is that?" a feminine voice hissed, distracted-sounding. Barely above the static. It was accompanied by a wet-sounding smack. And another. And a third.
I blinked, associating the words with Lois's alto voice for a sliver of a moment before my cheeks began to feel like they were burning. Before I realized it, my fingers were clutching at my collar, trying to yank it away from my flaming neck, and as my breath choked away, I found myself looking at the floor. My shoes, to be precise.
Oh, lord. What was I interrupting?
"Wrong number, I guess," Clark's rich voice mumbled, softer, muffled, as though he were facing away from the phone, perhaps with his hand cupped over the receiver.
Barely audible, seemingly across a chasm, I thought I heard Lois whisper, "Good, because I have much better things to do with you than play telephone, flyb—"
I blinked. And blinked again.
Then I found myself staring blankly at the phone in my hands. Until the dial-tone began to whine at me. Incessant. Demanding that the receiver be placed back on the hook.
Perhaps I could find their address and send a thoughtful card. Or maybe I would get a chance to say it in person some day. When they weren't so… preoccupied.
When my throat opened up enough for me to breathe again, and the flames that licked my skin cooled down, I immediately dialed the first number that came to mind, erasing all chance of future temptation. They deserved their privacy, both from the world and from me.
"I hope pizza is okay for dinner!" I shouted as I heard a muffled greeting politely asking if I wanted delivery or carry-out.
There was a sudden peppering of return shouts from the girls' room down the hall.
"Relax, I'll get half and half," I called back. "Delivery," I said to the man patiently waiting on the line.
The sounds of the girls' arguing died down as I began to recite my order.