The Atom: The Ivy Town Project, Chapter 1: The Atom Returns

by JSAGL

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Ivy Town, Connecticut:

Jean Loring looked out the window of her office down to the square below. It was the noon hour, and people were milling about, some shopping, some off to lunch, and others just enjoying their day. In the park, she could see a group of students sitting aroung a tall oak tree with a man standing against it, talking in a very animated way about something. It reminded her of her ex-husband, Ray Palmer. He would often take his students out on various excursions to show them that physics wasn’t just a dry textbook subject — it was real life.

Closing the file she was working on, Jean propped her legs on her desk. Of course, that teacher couldn’t be Ray, she realized. Ray had abandoned her long ago, running off to the South American rain forest with a woman named Laethwen; she was a princess of a microscopic tribe down there. How Edgar Rice Burroughs of him. Not that she could blame Ray, of course. He had come home and found her in the arms of another man. (*)

[(*) Editor’s note: See “Stormy Passage,” Sword of the Atom #1 (September, 1983).]

For a long time, she did blame Ray for that, for pushing her into Paul’s arms, but recently she realized that whatever excuse she might use — Ray being away so much, his work, being the Atom — it had ultimately been her choice to seek out another. She could have chosen to talk to Ray, to work things out, but she realized that she didn’t want to do that. Still, she never should have hurt Ray that way, no matter how much he had hurt her. Two wrongs didn’t make a right.

Jean had read in the newspaper that Ray joined the Justice League of America during the Crisis on Infinite Earths and had fought by their side, but that he had returned to the jungle just as quickly as he left it. She had called Hal Jordan in California, but Ray hadn’t even mentioned her to him. Hal did say, though, that Ray was well and that he seemed happy.

God, what was I thinking, that he’d just come back to Ivy Town, sweep me up in his arms and take me back? That’s insane, and besides, I’m a happily married woman. I love my husband. Ray loves Laethwen. That’s the way it is.

Grabbing her purse, Jean left her office, telling her secretary she’d be back at about one-thirty P.M. She was going to grab a bite and drop a deposit off at the bank. Stepping out into the afternoon sun, Jean saw the rest of Ivy Town go about their business. She passed by the dry cleaners, and Mr. Kwan waved at her. That reminds me, she thought, I still have two suits to pick up from him. I’ll get them on the way back.

She passed by Mr. and Mrs. DiOrio and smiled at them. She had helped them with a lawsuit against their retirement home and won. Married fifty-two years they were; she’d once thought that she and Ray would grow old together like that. Mrs. DiOrio took Jean’s hand and squeezed it as Mr. DiOrio kissed her cheek. They were so very much in love after all these years.

Jean entered the bank and stood in the queue for the teller line. There were only about four people ahead of her, so this wouldn’t take too long, she figured. How wrong she was.

The front doors to the bank snapped open, and a voice boomed out, “This is a stick-up! Everyone put yer hands up!” Dropping her purse, Jean saw four men enter the bank. They were wearing army fatigues and black ski masks over their faces. One man took his gun and hit the security guard upside his head, knocking him out. One locked the door and pulled the shade, while the other two headed for the tellers. They yelled at the other employees to get on the floor as well as the customers, who all quickly complied. They then began their demands of the tellers.

I can’t help but smile a little, Jean thought. A bank robbery in Ivy Town! It’s been years since the last one. Don’t they know that this is… Then it suddenly dawned on her. The Atom doesn’t live here anymore. He’s not coming to rescue me. For the first time in a long while, she began to get scared.

The robbers completed their task, and she saw them head toward the door through the corner of her eye. Please don’t anyone do anything stupid. Maybe they’ll leave, and… Suddenly one of the crooks jerked backward, as though something hit him. He fell to the ground. Within a few seconds, the same thing happened to the others. A quick-thinking employee pressed the panic button, setting off the alarm. What just happened?

Jean was peeling herself off the floor when she saw a quick motion in front of her, like something growing; she’d seen this before. A man took her hand, and she looked at him. He was in black, with a mask over his face, but she could see his eyes and his mouth and the shock of brown hair coming out of the top. He was wearing blue pants, and that belt — it was Ray’s size-changing belt, she quickly realized.

As soon as Jean was steady, he helped the others. My God, he looks like Ray… could it be? She was distracted by the police breaking the door in. She turned back to Ray, but he was gone — vanished.

What in the world is going on here?

***

He had gone out into the jungle in search of a lost child. Using his sword as a machete, the Atom cleaved his way through the dense underbrush of the Amazon rainforest. This was no place for a child, much less one only three inches tall.

The day wore on, and finally the Atom found a necklace. It belonged to the child. He picked it up and examined it carefully. It was broken and blood-stained on part of it. Damn. He was too late. Some predator had the child for lunch. There was nothing more he could do. He headed back home.

The trip back was not uneventful. He had to fight a snack and avoid a colony of army ants, so that by dusk, he was finally nearing home. What he saw, however, filled him with dread. Climbing up a nearby tree, the Atom could see fire and smoke in the distance.

As he ran through the jungle, the Atom finally came upon a vast clearing. It had never been here before. The reality suddenly hit him like a ton of bricks. This had been the village — his home — and everything and everyone was now a smoldering ruin.

Ray Palmer slowly made his way through the remains of the village in shock, until he saw a glint of gold catch his eye. On the ground, he saw Laethwen’s favorite outfit. As he ran closer, he realized that it was not just her outfit — her body was in it as well.

“Oh, God, no…”

The Atom knelt down. The body was burnt beyond recognition.

“Laethwen… no, no, no, no, no, no…”

He awoke with a start, the sweat rolling off his brow. He looked around and saw his room, his house, back in America. The nightmare had haunted him for weeks now, the same one over and over again. Laethwen was dead, and it was his fault.

Grabbing his robe, Ray Palmer opened his patio door and stepped out into the cool ocean air. The stars reflected off the ocean. The beach was empty, the waves crashing against it.

“Laethwen…” Ray choked, and he sobbed silently into the night sky.

***

THE ATOM RETURNS TO IVY TOWN

Jean Loring continued to stare at the front page of the Ivy Town Chronicle. Call after call came in from reporters: CNN, Daily Planet, GBS, ABC, CBS, NBC. It had been a big deal, after all, when the Atom left for South America. Norm Brawler’s book had made the Atom almost a legend, and of course, Jean’s part of the legend was somewhat sordid, from wife to harlot. And when the Atom came back, what did he do? He saved the life of his ex-wife.

“God, I hate him!” Jean yelled, tossing the paper into the trash, “Couldn’t even be bothered to stick around and say a damn thing, and I get stuck with all the reporters and all the questions.”

“Sounds typical, if you ask me…”

Jean looked up, startled. Her husband, Paul Hoben, was standing in the doorway of her office, clutching a copy of the same paper.

“Paul, what are you doing here?”

A smirk crossed Paul’s face as he sat down across from Jean, “Well, I am your husband, or, oh, yes, what was it they said on the noon news? The home-wrecker?

Jean sighed. “Paul, I’m sorry you had to go through this, but it’s not like I asked Raymond to come back, and he did save us all from those bank robbers.”

Paul’s face started to flush red. “Of course you didn’t, but why the hell was he following you to begin with? And why the hell come back from South America, much less come back here? There’s only one reason, Jean — he wants you back!”

Jean rolled her eyes and grabbed her purse. “Paul, I am not going to argue with you. The only one with these answers is Ray himself, and I guess I’m going to have to be the one who finds him.”

Paul grabbed Jean’s arm. “Why not just jump in front of a truck? He’ll be there to save you!”

Jean pulled her arm away from Paul. “Let go of me. I’m sorry that you’re so insecure about Ray, but we’re obviously not going to get any peace until I talk to him. So I’m going to find him whether you like it or not.”

The silence hung in the air for a moment, almost a palpable thing.

“Jean, I… I’m sorry, it’s just…”

Jean put one hand on Paul’s right cheek as she kissed the left. “I know, Paul, I know. I’m sorry, too.”

“Where are you going to start looking?”

Running her hand through her hair, Jean exhaled loudly. “The usual suspects: Norm, Professor Hyatt, Enrichetta Negrini — he’s got to have talked to at least one of them. I’ll try not to be too late.”

***

THE ATOM RETURNS TO IVY TOWN

The headline was on page fourteen of the Gotham Gazette. Bruce Wayne stared intently at the paper, when his butler Alfred Pennyworth interrupted him.

“Anything of interest, sir? Perhaps a personal ad?”

“No, Alfred, just something that puzzles me.”

“As I would imagine a personal ad might, sir, since it requires human contact of a personal nature.”

***

THE ATOM RETURNS TO IVY TOWN

The headline was on page three of the Washington Post. A mysterious figure dropped the paper on a desk, and a finger reached out and hit a button on the phone.

“It’s time.”

***

THE ATOM RETURNS TO IVY TOWN

Ray Palmer dropped the paper to his desk. “Wonderful. Just wonderful.”

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