Sunday, November 1, 2015
When the elevator doors open, I'm seized by the urge to run. They haven't seen me yet. No one will notice if I don't make it in. Just go back to the airport, wait for the red eye back to Tucson, pretend none of this happened write off the seven hundred dollar planet ticket as lesson learned
It's hard when everyone you know is a superhero.
There is a secret elevator in the Empire State Building that fewer than a thousand living people know about. It takes you to the Eighty-Sixth Floor--the real Eighty-Sixth Floor--where once a year the costumed adventurer set gathers to take off their masks and pretend for a little while to be whomever it was they were before radioactive moon rock or mystical snake venom or divine alien heritage hit their lives over the head with strangeness. It's all art deco and modern furniture. Everyone else probably came in rocket cars or invisible helicopters. I took a cab from La Guardia.
Done up in cocktail dresses and dinner jackets, everyone looks different. There's an anonymity here for most of us, at least the ones who still wear masks, who weren't outed by the media or long ago gave up on having a private life. They're all here: Samson, the Hourglass, Immaterial Girl, the Yeoman. If the Tarantulist or Collapsar knew where this annual soiree was..but, then, I suppose Halloween is a big deal for them, too.
I'm late in arriving, which was of course the plan. I blend in to a sea of blandly attractive faces. This is, in fact, the first Halloween I've attended in five years. Where did the time go? Everyone looks so good. Everyone else looks good and I'm offering a silent prayer of thanks to whichever god of fashion deemed the button on my jacket should clasp at just the spot to obscure the nascent pot belly I've been carrying the past eight months.
With what I personally gauge to be a heroic effort not unlike that time I fought Azazel the Undying atop a speeding Amtrak train, I sally forth and try to mingle, first heading to the bar. Whose idea was it to add alcohol to social gatherings? I should ask Samson, he'd know. He was probably at the first one. (As if he knows I'm thinking about him, I hear that booming enfilade of the Antediluvian strongman's laughter. You wouldn't' now it from news footage or blurry cell phone videos, but up close, Samson's hair is all split ends.) Whose idea was it to get a whole scrum of people together and give them each a potion that would render the sullen ones more sullen, the belligerent ones more belligerent, and the happy ones completely insufferable?
Half the attendees don't process alcohol in the normal way. There are cocktails at the bar specially marked, full of more exotic stuff. "What'll it be, kid?" the man at the bar asks me I recognize him at once. It's hard not to with the blue-white hair (a little faded and thinned) and the cybernetic arm peeking out from the rolled-up sleeve of his pressed white shirt. He's put on weight in his middle age and I'm imagining what he looks like under that shirt, now that the rest of him doesn't measure up to the metallic muscular perfection of his robot arm. Back in the Nineties, when I was first starting out, this was Captain Extreme.
"Whiskey and soda," I tell him, and he obliges. Back in the summer of 1994, Captain Extreme was the biggest thing going. Refugee survivor of a destroyed and abandoned future. Teleported to our time to beat the stuffing out of the likes of Deathcount and the Shrieking Violet. Now, here he was, pushing fifty, tending bar. My first Halloween was a couple years after Extreme peaked, when I turned sixteen. Jane and I and the rest of the Freedom Five, on special invitation to the Eighty-Sixth Floor. There were old timers tending bar then, too. The Silver Sentinel, maybe, or Mister Marathon. I didn't know. I swore that'd never be me. Something unsavory and depressing about it.
The Hourglass steps up to the bar. She never wears a mask in public, but nobody, here or there, knows who she is. The great misfortune of The Hourglass' life is that despite the fact that she has complete mastery over all of time, the only thing anyone in the media ever wants to talk about is how amazing she looks in skin-tight Kevlar. the time her suit got ripped on live TV during a fight with The Sideways Man is probably more deeply etched in the collective psyche of the United States than the September 11th attacks. She orders a club soda and Captain Extreme dutifully sets about.
"Know something I don't?" I ask, given she isn't drinking.
"Hello, Danny," she beams. Keep your eyes on her eyes, Danny. Keep your eyes on her eyes. Keep your eyes on her eyes. "You're looking well. How's Tucson?"
"How did--?" I still haven't told anyone. After I got sidelined, I relocated. Best orthopedic surgeon in the Southwest. I could start my career back up once the physical therapy took off.
"You accidentally let it slip and it comes up again in conversation in sixth months."
I'm taken aback but it's hardly anything new for her. She doesn't experience time like the rest of us. I try and recover my footing, telling her that I suppose I should be glad they're stil talking about me in six months. "Wait, I'm not dead, am I?" the thought stumbles out as it occurs to me. "Is that why it comes up? In six months? Am I dead?"
"You know I can't tell you that," she says, dry as the air back home.
"But you can tell everyone I'm holed up in Tucson."
"Tucson?" It's--crap. I don't know who this is. i don't recognize him out of costume. "You meet the Horsefly yet? He runs out of there, I think."
Fucking time travel. The Hourglass just shrugs at me. I tell whomever-this-is I don't know who the Horsefly is but of course I know who the Horsefly is. Tucson, Arizona is a one-cape town. Smallest of the small time. I didn't expect some other mask to show up while I was convalescing. Imagine my surprise when I turn on the eleven o'clock news to find some guy wailing on drug runners out of a home-made ornithopter. I wonder if he's here. If this is him right now, running some sly self-promotional networking. I try my rusty detective skills. looking for traces of conspicuous Arizona sunlight. Probably a long shot. Some of us don't even make the trek. Street-level guys, especially. Guys like me. Like I used to be. Besides, I was never as good at looking for clues as I was at cracking heads
Whoever this is, he's turned his attention (naturally) to the Hourglass asking her if she wants to go out on patrol. I talk over him, chivalrous guy that I am, and ask her how often she gets asked for winning lottery numbers.
"How do you think I afforded this dress?" she asks, and smirks faintly.
"Are you serious?" I-still-have-no-idea interjects. "That's unethical!"
"Whoa, we got ourselves an Ethics in Time-Travel expert!" I interject, probably a touch louder than I need to be, but at that moment it feels cemented: me and her against the world. The Hourglass and The Lariat. All-American Team-Up. It's conceptual.
"I was there," she explains to me and to him and to the Nineties superhero from the 99th Century who's refilling her club soda. "I've been to the future. I already know I did it."
"You're saying there's no such thing as free will?" Seriously, who is this guy? It's maddening.
"Why did you want to be a superhero? she asks him, and before he can stammer out a reply she turns to me. "And, Danny, why did you fall in love with Jane? Out of everyone in your life, what was it about her?" I look for Jane instinctively, hoping she's nowhere close to where her name was dropped. "You were always going to be who you are. That's the way the world spins. There isn't any great mystery to it."
When I was a boy growing up in Oklahoma, my parents were killed. Not long after that, I met a man. The last true cowboy in the West. The Long Arm of the Law. He taught me how to fight, how to look for clues how to pick up the pieces of my life and shape it into something with a purpose. He was the best man I ever met. I was terrified of him.
It wasn't long before I met others like me. Young recruits, the next generation in a story that had been going on for decades, that had deformed and reshaped the history of the world. Our mentors all thought it would be a good idea to corral us together to learn some valuable life lessons while cutting our teeth on third-rate evildoers. It was me, Kid Achilles, Unicorn Boy, Heat Sink, and Jane, aka Skygirl. You never think when you're in it that this is the best time of your life, that this is you peaking. You never see the top of the roller coaster until you're already pointing down.
We grew up. Poor Unicorn Boy died. Kid Achilles became the Hoplite, Jane became the new Laughing Owl when the old one retired, and Heat Sink retired at twenty-one to start a refrigeration company. I still get postcards when he travels.
I went out on my own because that's what you do. Fought crime out of Phoenix until I tore my ACL in a fight with all four members of the Obliterati. All these fucking immortals. The Hourglass has been the same age since 1958. Samson can bench-press a city. What am I supposed to do with that? I look around this room at the demigods in tuxedos and sequins and I see why people hate them. I still limp on damp days, which, thankfully: Arizona. I put the suit on once I got out of the hospital, and I felt stupid. Nothing seemed to sit in the right place anymore. I wanted to wear it under my clothes (some of us indeed do that), but, again, Arizona.
Then six months happened. Then a year. The suit still felt binding and uncomfortable. I drove around the city taking notes. Bought a camera. Field work. Gathering intel. All studiousness and diligence, signifying nothing. I haven't seen Jane in five years, except on the news. I meant to write, scribbled out dozens of torn-up post cards and typed out a hundred deleted emails The pebble of my procrastination became an avalanche of neglect. Once or twice or a hundred times she tired to call and I let it go to voice mail, until one day I saw footage of her with some new guy clobbering a horde of invaders from beneath the sea. The Aquamarine. I'm sure he's here, tonight. I'm sure he's here with her. At any rate, I wish him all the best, the s.o.b.
Why did I come here? In theory I'm invited to these things every year. An envelope appears in my mail box, regardless of my change of address, every year on the first of October. Orange and black. You are cordially invited. I haven't been in all this time.
The Hourglass and Whoever-this-is-seriously-I-have-no-idea are getting into the weeds of free will and determinism and I am, quite without realizing it, on my fourth whiskey-and-soda. God bless you, Captain Extreme. I venture back out to mingle. I rub elbows with refugee alien gods, with cybernetic posthuman adventurers, with mystical strongmen and half-human mutates. Maybe it's the whiskey-and-sodas, but I feel suddenly buoyed by the bonhomie of all all these heroic types. Everyone here belongs here Even me, I tell myself, a good feeling that lasts precisely long enough for me to run into Jane. She slinks up to me in a black, floor-length dress, her arms like sculpted marble, and hands me a glass of champagne, and I, who fought a triumvirate of forgotten Aztec gods alongside the Scariest Old Man in the World, I feel the floor drop out from under me.
"Fancy meeting you here," she says. Her voice is all angles and edges; I can't make sense of it. Or maybe I can but I don't want to. Maybe I want to read a whole story into what was once a high-school crush, but has moved on, left behind like all the other mile markers of youth.
"Anything for free booze," I reply, and drain my glass more swiftly than I suppose is typically called for.
"We missed you at these things, you know. Couple hours in, it's always the same. 'Where's the Lariat?' Then there's the crying and rending of garments."
"This crowd? Sounds like a party."
Jane laughs and for a moment its old times, unrehearsed, and I'm back in time, sipping from a flask of something bitter and smoky we took off one of the Galloping Ghoul's henchmen. The pair of us at nineteen, my red-white-and-blue cowboy outfit and her feathered metal wings. Watch out, bad guys. Everywhere.
"So where have you been keeping yourself? I watch the news out of Arizona and I never see you."
I want to tell her a lie, that I'm still out there, pulling my weight, to tell her the truth, to own up to the truth myself, that I'm giving up,, that its a glacial process but one that is by now inevitable. I want to tell her what those times meant to me, what they still mean to me, but a man in a rented tuxedo who may or may not be the Horsefly interrupts everyone to say there's been an 8.5 magnitude earthquake in Pakistan. All hands on deck. In a few moments, the room clears out Then it's just me and a few of the old-timers.
A while after that, its just me.