Authors: Preston Norton
Sapphire. Right. I was calling for Sapphire.
“Marrow?” said Specter.
“Sapphire,” I said rather loudly. “Is she…uh…Hey, I need to talk to Sapphire. Well, I mean, I don’t
to talk to her—like save-the-world
—but I was hoping to talk to her, and…um… Hi, Specter. How are you doing today? Fine weather we’re having.”
If this communicator had a function that could stop me from talking right now, that would be the greatest technological achievement of our era.
Specter smiled. “I’ll go get Sapphire.”
A moment later, Sapphire’s face appeared. “Hey, Marrow. What the…? Why’s your face so red?”
“Um. Pushups,” I said. “I was doing pushups.”
“Oh. So…what’s up?”
“This is up.” I pulled the communicator away from my face and directed my wrist at my bedroom wall. I slowly rotated 360 degrees so she could absorb my new bedroom in all its awesometacular glory.
“No way,” said Sapphire. “Is that a Mountain Dew vending machine?”
“That is, indeed, a Mountain Dew vending machine.”
“I thought those only existed in my dreams!”
“Now they exist in your dreams
“Profound. Man, I still can’t wrap my brain around the fact that you’re Fantom’s sidekick now. When Specter told me the news this morning, I practically spewed my orange juice. I mean, it’s what you’ve always wanted. And now here you are, living the dream. With a Mountain Dew vending machine, no less.”
“So when are you coming over?”
“To your bedroom? That exists at the bottom of the ocean?”
“Oh,” I said. I tried not to sound bummed, but that single “Oh” contained in its two-letter, one-syllable existence all the disappointment in the universe. Of course, the Flex situation may or may not have had something to do with my current state of unstable moodiness. I just…like, was it too much to ask to hang out with a friend? Here I was, having what was supposed to be the best day of my life, and a deep, dark part of me just wanted to cry. Was there a delayed side effect of puberty that made you feel like you were turning into a girl?
“It’s just that Specter has me on a really tight training program,” said Sapphire. “I have almost a dozen different routines she has me doing throughout the day. She has a timer that goes off, not only in my bedroom, but throughout the whole house. And then it’s off to mixed martial arts, or off to target practice, or off to torture interrogation resistance training or whatever.”
“What? Wow. That’s…uh…intense.”
“I was just joking about torture interrogation resistance training. But seriously, it is intense. Specter always says that women have to be twice as good as men in order to get half the acknowledgement they get. So in order to be considered equal, we have to be four times better than any guy Superhero. Anyway, that’s that, so I’m not really allowed to leave the compound. Er…house. Whatever. But if
want to come over
tomorrow afternoon, you totally can.”
“Seriously? You don’t have to ask Specter’s permission first?”
“SPECTER!” Sapphire shouted. “CAN I HAVE A FRIEND OVER TOMORROW?”
“DO I LOOK LIKE YOUR MOM?” Specter’s voice echoed back. “DO WHAT YOU WANT. JUST DON’T SKIP THE OBSTACLE COURSE OF DEATH AT TWO O’ CLOCK OR YOU ARE DEAD MEAT.”
Sapphire shuddered. “I hate the obstacle course of death.”
“I can’t imagine why,” I said.
“I have stealth tactics at noon, but that usually only takes a half hour. Can you come at twelve-thirty? That gives us an hour and a half to hang. Longer if you want to watch me get pulverized in a million different ways for your entertainment pleasure.”
“This already sounds like the best day of my life.”
“I’m glad my pain and suffering brings someone happiness.”
“You bet it does. Oh, random question: does Specter have a VCR?”
“Wow, that is random.”
“You were warned.”
she does. Wait, scratch that. I
she does. I saw one in her surveillance room.”
“Specter has a surveillance room?”
“Specter has an
room. Heck, she even has a scrapbooking room. But I’m allegedly not supposed to tell anyone that under the threat that I’ll be murdered in my sleep. So tomorrow at twelve-thirty?”
“Tomorrow at twelve-thirty!”
It was only after Sapphire hung up that I realized I was still technically trapped in a luxurious underwater prison. I scrolled through the contacts on my communicator, selected Gustav, and pressed “Call.” Gustav’s face appeared, and contorted into a magnificent scowl.
“Unless you’re bleeding to death,” said Gustav, “I vould seriously reconsider vhatever it is you are calling me for.”
“How would you like to check out Specter’s
tomorrow at twelve-thirty?” I asked.
Gustav was silent for a long moment. Finally, he said, “You have my attention.”
My name echoed down the empty corridor. There was no mouth to the voice—just a ghostly whisper emanating with a character of its own.
The corridor was an infinite shadow. There was no glass or windows. Just a never-ending stretch of dark, dank metal, running pipes, and the occasional meager light bulb to tease the senses. Aside from the lingering echo of my name, all of the facility was asleep, lost in a deathly rest. The silence was tangible and suffocating. I could feel it in my throat.
A lone figure wandered into my view, his wiry build and dark hair unmistakable—Nero. The only thing missing was his stupid trademark smirk. The lack of it almost transformed him into an entirely different person.
His jaw was tense, and his eyes darted like hummingbirds.
A single door appeared from the shadows, painted in yellow caution stripes. Bold black letters were painted on the plated steel surface:
Authorized Personnel Only
In the place of a doorknob or handle was a numbered security pad. Nero seemed to ignore this, however. Instead he touched the door, his thin fingers grazing the metal. As he did, numbers flashed by faster than I could comprehend them. And yet, even as they vanished, they were engrained in my mind.
Nero’s head snapped up. His eyes shifted to the security pad and he punched the numbers exactly as they had appeared.
The door opened.
Something screamed—sharp and desperate.
No, not a scream. It was a siren, blaring ferociously and accompanied by flashing red lights. For a split second the corridor vanished, and I was falling. I landed on my bed. It took a second or two to register that I had been in my bed all along.
A dream… It was just a dream.
I fumbled to an upright position and glanced stupidly around the room. It took way longer than it should have for me to realize that the siren and the lights were both coming from the wrist communicator that I had set on my nightstand. Fighting my disorientation, I managed to grab the screaming wristband. The words, “Red Alert,” flashed repeatedly across the face.
I tapped the screen, not really knowing what I was doing, and immediately, Gustav’s face appeared. His expression, however, was not tense with urgency so much as it was scrunched with awkward uncertainty.
The screen split a half-second later, filled with a cranky, groggy-eyed Fantom with his hair pushed up on the left side of his head.
“What’s going on?” Fantom mumbled irritably. “It’s not Spine again, is it?”
“No, no, nothing like that,” said Gustav. He seemed reluctant to mention what it actually was at all. “There vas a police report. Apparently there’s a…bar fight.”
Fantom blinked. “A bar fight? You woke me up at two in the morning for a bar fight?”
“It’s pretty bad,” said Gustav. “There’s a…er…Super involved.”
No. There was no way. If my heart wasn’t already on the fritz, this conversation was thoroughly doing the trick.
“A Super?” said Fantom. “Do we have him on record?”
“Yes…vell…that’s vhy the police asked for us specifically,” Gustav murmured. “It’s Flex.”
We broke the surface of the water in forty-seven seconds and hit the coast in three minutes flat. I was too sick with worry to enjoy a second of it.
The cityscape whizzed below us as Fantom followed the coordinates he was given. Neither of us spoke, but Fantom’s disgruntled scowl seemed to say it all. Though Gustav never said it, it was obvious the only reason the police called us was because of me. They thought I could calm him down. Just how worked up was he? I didn’t know how out of control Flex could get, but I
have an idea of how drunk he could get.
The Fantom Wing’s GPS announced that we had nearly reached our destination. Fantom pushed forward on the control rod. The exojet swooped into a deep spiral, slicing parallel to the nearest skyscraper. I managed to catch a glimpse of the Wing’s blurred reflection across the sweeping glass surface before Fantom pulled back up. The force of the lower thrusters rattled us in our seats, causing me to clench my armrests tighter. I leaned into my window and watched a patch of green expand below us. We were descending on the city park. At last we landed with a metallic
. The engines died, releasing a heavy mechanical sigh.
Fantom didn’t waste a second bolting out of the pilot’s seat. He marched to the exit ramp with clenched fists, grumbling profanities that’d I’d never even heard before.
“Wait,” I said, “So what are we…?”
“Stay here,” said Fantom. “I’ll take care of this.”
“But I thought…” I mumbled. “I mean …er…maybe if I just talked to him for a second…”
“I said I’ll take care of it!” he snapped.
I pinched my mouth shut and nodded timidly. Fantom’s nostrils splayed, breathing death. Whirling around, he stomped down the ramp.
As soon as he vanished around the corner I scampered after him.
I was only halfway down the ramp when I spotted the bar in question. If there was anything left to question, that is. Even from twenty-something yards away I could make out the shattered windows, yelling, and flaring police lights surrounding the Sloshed Josh Bar and Lounge.
Tapping into my skeletal structure, I glided weightless across the grass. I clung to the shadows on the off chance that Fantom turned around, although this was the least of my worries.
“Fantom!” exclaimed a police officer as he approached the perimeter.
The officer who was seemingly in charge swept up to Fantom’s side. “We’ve tried communicating with this guy, but he’s plastered out of his mind. I was thinking—”
“I’ve got it under control, lieutenant,” said Fantom. “If we can’t communicate with words, then we’ll just have to communicate with force, won’t we?”
Fantom brushed past the lieutenant and stepped through the broken door, hanging by one hinge.
The time for sneaking was over. I rushed out of the shadows. I slowed only slightly as I drew the gazes of several surprised officers.
“I’m with him,” I announced in a hasty, uncertain tone.
The lieutenant lifted an unconvinced eyebrow. He raised his hand halfway and opened his mouth, but stopped himself. I took that as my cue to keep going. Glass crunched beneath my boots as I entered the shattered building.
I immediately took cover behind a fake plastic tree.
The bar might have looked fancy with its artsy postmodern furniture and ambient, neon blue lights if it weren’t for all the bodies strewn everywhere. Black eyes and bloody noses all over the place. Not all of the people were out cold. Quite a few were still groaning or fumbling on the floor. One guy with his head resting on a table was even singing a Bon Jovi song, although I was pretty sure he hadn’t been a part of the fight and was so smashed that he probably didn’t even know what was going on.
And then there was Flex—doubled over on the bar top, barely balanced on his stool. His dreadlocks were matted over the left side of his scraggly face. He raised a glass unsteadily and puckered his lips to find it but ended up pouring the drink all over the bar top. Flex scowled at the empty glass and dropped his face in the puddle.
“Look at you,” said Fantom, his face pinched in revulsion. “Disgusting. And you call yourself a Superhero?”
,” said Flex, lifting his head disjointedly, his mouth and eyes both wide. His sopping wet dreadlocks dripped in front of his face. “You wanna start with me, hotshot? I’ll show you…I’ll show you what…I’ll beat you so hard you’ll…you…you’re stupid! Where are you, anyway? You wanna start with me?”
“I’ll be honest,” said Fantom. “I don’t want to be anywhere near you. It’s two in the morning. I want to be in bed. Unfortunately, you’re such a
that you need a
Superhero to show you your place.”
Flex’s unsteady, wavering gaze finally narrowed on Fantom. He squinted between his soaked dreadlocks.
“Fantom?” He blinked his glazed eyes which were instantly swallowed in a dirty glare. “What do you want?”
“What do I want? I
to not have to babysit an idiot who thinks he’s a superhero. What do you think you’re doing, anyway?”
“Uh…getting drunk. Duh. What does it look like?”
like you started a fight and caused several hundred dollars’ worth of property damage.”
“He started it,” Flex grumbled, raising his arm to point at no one in particular.
“He?” Fantom repeated incredulously. “Who’s ‘he’? You’ve incapacitated the entire bar!”
“No I didn’t,” said Flex, shaking his head in a woozy sway.
“Flex…they’re all unconscious.”
“Psh! No they’re not.” Flex steadied his head and attempted to absorb his surroundings. “See? He’s just fine.”
Flex pointed to the guy who was still singing with his head propped on the table. The Bon Jovi lyrics had been replaced by a Journey song, and every word was slurred into an unintelligible slush.
“Flex, I’m going to escort you out of here,” said Fantom. “And then the police are going to talk to you. Okay?”
“Oh, I see,” said Flex. “First you take my sidekick, and now you want to take my freedom. Okay, whatever you say, boss.”
My insides tightened. He just had to go there, didn’t he?
Flex extended his wobbly arms, wrists together. “Cuff me, Captain America. I’m ready.”
Fantom’s jaw clenched, drilling Flex with his gaze. He seemed to be deliberating whether it was worth it to argue with someone this drunk.
Marrow. I gave him an offer, and he chose to accept it.”
“You’re just a glory-seeking psychopath who gets whatever he wants,” Flex spat.
“You want to play that game?” Fantom challenged. “Fine. Marrow, come join us.”
Both Flex and I went rigid almost simultaneously.
“Yes, I know you followed me in here, Marrow,” said Fantom. “Come on out.”
Shuffling out from behind that stupid plastic tree, I felt like all the eyes in the world were suddenly focused on me. Flex’s ashamed gaze was almost more than I could handle. He looked at me for only a brief moment before averting his gaze to the floor.
“Flex thinks I took you unfairly, Marrow,” said Fantom. “So I’m giving you a second chance to make your decision. If you want
to be your mentor,” He gestured as though Flex were a ripped open sack of garbage, which honestly didn’t look that far from the truth at the moment, “so be it.”
My gaze shifted from Fantom, whose arms were folded patiently, to Flex, who was glaring holes into the floor like his life depended on it.
“Flex…what’s going on?” I asked, unsure what else to say.
Silence. Flex was winning his staring contest with the floor.
“Flex, talk to me. Please!”
Flex pulled his wet dreadlocks away from his face. His mouth opened only slightly, but he seemed to immediately reconsider the thought. Sliding off of his stool, he staggered past Fantom. He passed without even looking at me, cutting straight for the door.
“Flex!” I said. “What are you doing?”
“Turning myself in to the police,” said Flex. “They’re going to arrest me either way.”
I opened my mouth, but the words didn’t come, and Flex certainly wasn’t going to wait. He stepped outside with his hands up. The silhouettes of several officers emerged from the blinding lights. One was already removing a pair of handcuffs from his belt.
“Wait!” I said, desperate to say something—anything—that would make a difference. “We…we can bail you out. Right, Fantom? We can bail him out, right?”
Fantom smiled, or at least he pretended to. “Of course we can, Marrow.”
“NO!” Flex roared, whipping around. This sent all of the police into a frenzy, several reaching for their guns. “I don’t want his filthy money!”
Two officers took Flex from behind, and not so gently either. One pushed him to his knees, and the other cuffed him.
“Flex!” I cried. I literally cried. Tears were seeping across my mask and down to my chin. I was crying in front of the only male role models I had ever had as well as half of the Cosmo City police department, and I didn’t even care. I didn’t care how weak it made me look. I didn’t care what anyone thought. All I cared about was that my best friend was abandoning me, and yet, in a twisted sort of way, it felt like I was the one who had abandoned him.
“I don’t need your pity, Marrow,” said Flex.
Even as he spoke, however, something glistened in his eyes, betraying his words. But that didn’t stop the police from jerking him up by his biceps and throwing him in the back of a patrol car.