by Martin Maenza
By the time Iris Jacobs returned from the changing room dressed in a sweater and pants, the two men had been going back and forth for a few minutes. Kwai Chang was showing signs of a good workout, while Val Armorr had barely broken a sweat. When she joined the others on the side, one of the other women turned to Iris and said, “Wow! That friend of yours is really good.”
Another of the women, a blonde, chimed in and added, “And he’s hot-looking, to boot!”
Iris felt a bit uneasy about the whole thing and was hoping it would end soon. Luckily, her prayers were answered that afternoon. Val made a misstep out of the square, barely with his heel, thus ending the contest.
The brown-haired youth bowed to the instructor out of respect and thanked him for a good workout. Val then joined Iris along the side, where he put on his footwear quickly. “Ready to go?” he asked her.
Iris nodded, and the two walked out the door and headed down the steps. She waited until they were down on the sidewalk and moving away from the martial arts school before she said, “So, you threw that sparring match, huh?”
“What do you mean?” Val asked, trying his best to act surprised.
“Don’t be coy with me, future boy,” she said playfully. “I’ve seen you in action. I know how good you really are. You’ve taken on the likes of Major Disaster, the Revenger, and Master Hand. (*) The only way you could have lost to my teacher is if you were holding back… a lot!”
[(*) Editor’s note: See “The International Dooms of Major Disaster,” Karate Kid #2 (May-June, 1976), “The Revenger,” Karate Kid #3 (July-August, 1976), and “The Rage of Yesterdays Lost,” Karate Kid #4 (September-October, 1976).]
Val smiled. “Well, maybe just a little.” He took her hand. “Come on, I’ll walk you home.”
“Actually,” Iris said hesitantly, “I need to head to the train stop instead.”
“Train stop? Why?”
“That’s part of the reason why I wanted you to meet me after class,” Iris explained as they walked. “With the school kids on break, I was going to head home upstate for the holidays. Spend Christmas with my family, you know.”
“Oh,” Val said, a bit surprised. He and Iris had been so inseparable since they had met that he hadn’t even thought of her going off for a few days alone. “Well, that sounds like fun. OK, the train stop it is, then.”
“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you sooner,” Iris apologized. “It just kind of came up; the plans, I mean. Not the holiday.”
“No need to explain,” Val said. “You go and have fun. I’m a big boy. I can take care of myself.”
Iris smiled. “I wanted to give you something,” she said as she rummaged through her large duffelbag that contained her travel items, her gi, and other belongings. Val held the bag for her at the bottom while she dug. Finally, she pulled out a round item wrapped in colorful paper. “Here, this is for you.”
Val put her bag down on the sidewalk for a moment and took the offered gift. The item felt soft, and the wrapping was tied with a red ribbon. He pulled away the paper to reveal something balled up inside. “What’s this?” he asked. Letting the item unroll and dangle, he saw that it was a multicolored strip of woven material about a foot or so wide and four feet long.
“It’s a scarf,” Iris announced. “I made it myself. Do you like it?”
“It’s nice,” he said, putting it about his neck. He certainly appreciated the token. “I think this is the first time someone actually made something for me.”
Iris took the ends of the scarf and wrapped them around a bit. “There,” she said. “Much better.”
“Thank you,” Val said a bit awkwardly. Then he paused. “I, uh, don’t have anything to give you in exchange, right now. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be silly,” Iris said. “You’ve saved my life a number of times over these last few months. It’s the least I can do. Besides, Christmas is just as much about giving as it is receiving.”
“Still…” Val said.
Iris leaned over and gave him a peck on the cheek.
When she pulled away, he put his hand to where she kissed, surprised. “I… what was that for?” Val asked.
Iris bit her lip slightly. “Mistletoe,” she said. And with her gloved hand, she pointed to a sprig of vegetation hanging in the doorframe where they stopped. “It’s a tradition here. If someone is standing under the mistletoe, you’re supposed to give them a kiss.”
Val nodded. “Yes, I’ve heard of that tradition,” he said.
“Consider that my gift,” Iris said shyly.
“Until I can get you a proper gift,” Val said as he picked up her bag. “I think perhaps we should go, though, so you don’t miss your train home.” He took her hand, and they walked on down to the station.
Val later returned to the apartment building on New York City’s West Side, where he had taken up residency the last few months. Just as he closed the heavy wooden front door behind him and stepped into the stairwell, the apartment door in front opened suddenly.
“Mr. Armorr!” a familiar voice chirped. It came from a woman in her early fifties, rather full-figured with extremely curled grayish hair. She was dressed in a blue dress with a white frilly apron. “I thought I saw you coming up the front walk.”
Val stopped and smiled at the woman. “Mrs. Geichman, hello.”
She approached him and put her left hand on the scarf that draped down his chest. “Why, what a beautiful wrap,” she said, rubbing the material a few times before taking her hand away. “Wherever did you get it?”
“Iris made it for me,” he said. “It was a Christmas gift.”
“Oh, what a sweet child she is,” Emily Geichman said. “You two make such a lovely couple.”
“Uh, we’re not…” Val started to say.
His landlady interrupted him. “Speaking of Christmas gifts, I have something for you!” She ducked into her apartment door and came back with a round decorative tin. “These are for you.”
“Oh,” Val said, surprised by her gift. She stood staring, waiting on him, so he felt obligated to open the container. Carefully prying the metal lid up with his fingertips, he opened the container to see a large number of cookies inside. Shaped like stars, trees, and bells, the pastries were frosted colorfully and included some sprinkles. “Why, these look lovely.”
“I made them myself,” she said proudly. She reached into the tin, grabbed one of the trees, and raised it to his mouth. “Here! Try one!”
All Val could do with the oncoming assault was to take a bite of the offered item. She watched as he chewed it in a rather prolonged way. “Well?” she asked. “Are they to die for, or what?”
“Mmm, yesh….” Val said with a full mouth, not even swallowing, “…to die forfff.”
“Well, I better get back to my baking,” Mrs. Geichman said as she dropped the half-eaten cookie back into the tin and waddled back toward her apartment door. “My son Sidney, the doctor, just loves to give these out to friends, so I better finish getting things together. Happy holidays, Mr. Armorr!” Her door closed loudly behind her.
Val looked around the foyer suddenly and then darted up the stairs. Quickly he fished out his key, jammed it into the lock, threw open the door, and rushed for the kitchen. He spit the remains of the cookie out into the sink, turned on the water, and let it run the evidence down the disposal. “Oh, boy,” he said to himself softly. “I couldn’t bear to tell Mrs. Geichman how bad those things are.”
He looked at the tin in his hands and tossed it on the counter as if it were toxic. “Yuck. I doubt even Tenzil Kem, with his Bismollian digestive system, could stomach those.” He opened the refrigerator, pulled out a can of carbonated soda, and popped the top. He quickly downed the can, hoping to further wash the taste from his mouth. The bubbles in the drink caused him to belch loudly. He chuckled to himself. “Then again, Tenzil has been known to eat some rather nasty things in the past without the least bit of indigestion.”
Val moved to the living room area of his apartment, settled into one of the chairs, and continued reading a novel he had gotten out of the public library. He was growing rather accustomed to reading books that were physically in his hands, page turning and all, rather than on holo-screens as he did growing up.
A sudden knock on the door stirred Val from his sleep. He was slightly disoriented, and it took him a few moments to realize he fell asleep in the chair reading.
The knock came again.
“Coming,” he said aloud as he sprang to his feet and rushed to the door. Val checked the peep hole first before reaching for the knob, given the late hour of the visitor. When he saw who was on the other side of the door, he exclaimed, “What the…?! No way!”
As he flung open the door, a group of eight individuals, five males and three females, were standing there in long coats, their arms full of boxes and bags. Val recognized them instantly. “What are you guys doing here?”
“Hey, buddy,” said the red-haired Dirk Morgna, AKA Sun Boy. “You going to invite us in, or what?”
“Come in, come in,” Val said as he opened the door wide. “But we have to keep it down. Don’t want to wake the neighbors.”
“Don’t worry about it, Val,” said the black-haired Rokk Krinn, AKA Cosmic Boy. “Just tell them you’ve got unexpected visitors from out of town.”
“Waaa-aaay out of town!” added the brown-haired Gim Allon, AKA Colossal Boy, with a smile.
“Good to see you, Val,” said the dark-haired Tasmia Mallor, AKA Shadow Lass, as she gave Karate Kid a kiss on the cheek in greeting. “Lar told to give you his best.”
Val knew she was referring to Mon-El, the current Legion of Super-Heroes leader. “Thanks,” he said. Then he did a double take. The woman did not have her usual blue skin tint that was common of the natives of Talok VIII. She appeared to be a normal, light-skinned Earth woman. “Tasmia, that’s a new look for you!”
“You have to thank Brainy for that,” she said with a smile.
A male with short blond hair and equally colored light skin followed Tasmia into the apartment. “It was nothing really,” said Querl Dox, AKA Brainiac 5, with his usual tone of superiority. “Simply a modification to our flight rings to generate a field of illusion, allowing us to blend in anonymously with the natives of this century.”
“Don’t mind him,” said the red-haired Garth Ranzz, AKA Lightning Lad. “You know how cranky Brainy can get, especially after a trip through the time-stream.” On his arm was a beautiful young woman with long blonde hair.
Imra Ardeen, AKA Saturn Girl, nodded in agreement with her boyfriend. “We figured since you were going to be here during the holiday season, we would bring a little joy to you.”
“Yeah,” Garth added with a smile, “even though it’s hardly summer from when we came.”
“Boys,” Imra said, dismissing Garth’s comments. She followed him into the room.
That left one person standing in the hallway. Val turned and saw the young woman with full, flowing white hair standing with such poise and dignity. “Jeckie, hi,” he said, leaning forward to give her a kiss. It landed on her cheek as she turned her head slightly. “Won’t you come in?”
Princess Projectra, Jeckie to her close friends, stepped into the apartment and looked around. “Very quaint,” she said. “Given our years together, I didn’t realize you had such an affinity for pink.”
Val shut the apartment door, but a chill seemed to remain in the room. “Uh, it came this way,” he said about the furnishings. “My landlady had it decorated this way for her son. When he moved out, she rented the room, and, well, I needed a place to stay that I could afford.”
“Charming,” Projectra said coolly.
Val realized this was going to be an interesting visit.