by Martin Maenza
Across town in a small but comfortable apartment, the doorbell rang. A young, attractive African-American woman with short brown hair hurried from the kitchen to answer it. She stopped briefly for a second at the table she’d set earlier to make sure everything was perfect. Candles, fine china and glasses, table cloth. It was.
The bell rang again. “Coming,” she said, rushing to the door and opening it. “Victor!” Sarah Charles threw her arms around the large shoulders of the young man, giving him a big kiss.
“Well,” Victor Stone said after they finished their embrace. “If I’d known I’d get that kind of welcome, I would’ve been here weeks ago.” Dressed in jeans and a sweater to cover most of the cybernetic parts of his body, the African-American male followed the woman back into the apartment. “This is nice.”
“Oh, it’s still a mess,” Sarah said. A few packing crates remained unopened, pushed into the corners and out of the way. “I’ve been so busy with work and everything.” She headed over to the table, where she’d uncorked a bottle of cabernet a few minutes prior. “Wine?”
“Sure,” Vic said. He took a seat on the sofa. She joined him a few moments later with two full glasses. “Thanks.” He took a sip. “So, how’s the job going, anyway?”
“Good,” Sarah said. “Real good. I’m making the adjustment to the new facilities. Karen’s been a big help, introducing me around and such. The positions about the same as I had in New York, but the research opportunities should be really good for me.”
“I’m sure,” Vic said. There was a brief awkward silence. “Karen’s really nice. I saw her and Mal and Charley a couple weeks back when they came out for Lilith’s wedding.”
“She mentioned that. Something about some unexpected guest that resulted in the whole wedding being called off.”
“Yeah, turns out that one of Lilith’s former boyfriends, once believed to be dead, turned up alive. Kind of put a whole damper on the festivities.”
“That’s strange,” Sarah said.
“I guess that happens sometimes with super-heroes. Anyway, I thought that Mal and Karen seemed nice enough. They invited Gar out for Charley’s birthday. He managed to convince me to come along, probably to give him someone to talk with on the plane. The kid’s had it a bit rough lately. Girl trouble. Anyway, the party’s today, you know?”
Sarah nodded. “She invited us over, but I really don’t know him that well. Just met him a couple times, and that was a bit of a disaster.”
“Cinco De Mayo?” Vic asked. “Yeah, Karen told me about that, too. Glad to hear you’re OK.”
“It was good to have someone there,” Sarah said, sipping her wine. “To, you know, rescue me. Charley, Hank, Mal, and Karen.”
“I’m sure they’re all really nice folks,” Victor said. “Though I’m glad you invited me to dinner with you instead.” He put down his glass and took her hands in his. “I’ve really been missing you.”
Sarah smiled. “Me, too,” she said, then pulled her hands away and stood up. “Just a sec. I need to check on dinner.” She rushed into the kitchen for a moment.
Victor leaned back. This was not going as good as he feared. The long distance was already starting to work its ways upon their relationship. Sure, they’d been keeping in touch every week by phone, but it wasn’t the same as being together.
“Say,” Sarah called from the kitchen. “How are things in New York? How are your grandparents?”
Victor smiled. “You know Maude and Tucker! In their seventies but act like they’re in their twenties. There are times I’ve got trouble keepin’ up with them!”
“Oh, Victor,” Sarah said as she brought the salad to the table. “You shouldn’t say that about them.”
“It’s true!” Victor said. “You can even ask Sarah Simms.”
Sarah paused for a second upon hearing that name. “Sarah Simms?” she asked.
Vic realized what he had said. “Uh, yeah,” he said, trying to backtrack. Unfortunately, it was already out there. “Yeah, she came by to visit me about a month ago. Tucker was at my place when she came by.”
“A month ago,” Sarah repeated. Shortly after she’d left town to move out to San Francisco. “So,” she said, trying to keep an even tone, “why’d she stop by? Happen to be in the neighborhood? Problem with one of the kids she teaches?”
“No, no, nothing like that,” Victor said. “She just stopped by to say hi.”
“Just to say hi?” Sarah asked.
“Yeah, pretty much.”
“Nothing else then?”
Victor didn’t want to lie to her. “Pretty much. Then she asked me if we could go catch a movie sometime. You know, as friends.”
“Oh. Friends.” If there had been a thermometer in the room, the mercury would’ve been dropping fast. “Well,” Sarah said, faking her way through a smile. “Dinner’s almost ready. Why don’t we sit down?”
Victor rose from the couch and joined her at the table. He couldn’t tell if he was in for a long evening or a really, really short one.
Later that evening, Mal and Karen Duncan sat on one of the lounge chairs together, watching the others from a distance. She sat in his arms, leaning back comfortably against his body. “Not a bad party, Mr. Duncan,” she said.
“Same to you,” Mal replied. He glanced over at Charley Parker amongst his friends. “Good to see him in a better mood now.”
Karen frowned slightly. “I really messed up, didn’t I?”
“No, baby, you didn’t,” Mal comforted her. “You didn’t know what was going on with him and Lisa. How could you know he’d been keeping the secret?”
“I should have asked,” Karen said. “I shouldn’t butt in.”
“Hey! You get involved because you care. You just remember that, honey. See how happy Charley is with Gar here? That never would have happened if you hadn’t invited him to the party and made it a surprise. And I know that means a lot to him.”
Karen sighed. “I guess you’re right.”
“I know I’m right,” Mal said. He glanced over at the guys again. Charley was chugging a beer as his friends cheered him on. “Look, ma. Our boy’s all grown up.”
Karen watched for another moment then turned her face to her husband. “Baby, I was thinking.”
“About maybe we should think about having some kids for real.”
A smile crossed Mal’s face. “Karen, that’s a fantastic idea!” He gave her a great big squeeze.
Everyone else sat around the picnic tables. Gar, ever the entertainer, was holding court. “Oh, I still keep my ears to the trades,” the green young man said. He transformed into a rabbit as he said it, wiggling his long bunny ears. That got a laugh out of the group.
“So, you think they’ll ever, like, make a movie?” Ron, one of Charley’s dark-haired friends, asked.
“They might, Doc, they might,” Gar said in his best Bugs Bunny accent. Then he popped back to human form. “Seriously, if they even consider taking Space Trek 2022 to the big screen, I’ll be busting down their door so fast they won’t know what hit ’em. I mean really, who else can play Tork but yours truly?”
One of the other guys turned to Charley. “Hey, C-man, you’ve got some totally awesome friends here!” said Keith.
“Totally!” said the third, Eddie. “Too bad that Cindy babe had to skate! She was totally fine!”
“She’s really cool,” Charley said with a smile. “But she’s, like, spoken for, you know? She’s dating that guy she was with — Hal.”
“Bummer,” said Eddie.
“Like, tell me about it,” Charley said. He reached for his can, which was empty. “Whoa, I’m, like, out again.” He started to stand but stumbled slightly. He grabbed the table to get his bearings some.
“Dude, watch it!” Ron said. “You so can’t hold your liquor!” The guys all chuckled.
Gar hopped down to help his friend. “Hey, Charley, you OK? You’re not gonna hurl or anything, are you?”
“Ah, he’s fine!” Keith said. “You can tell by his face.” Then Keith turned to Gar. “Say, dude, when you’re about to blow chunks, what color do you turn?” The guys laughed again.
Not funny, Gar thought. “You want some water or something, Charley?”
“No, I’m cool, Gar,” Charley said as he sat back down. He ran his hands over his face and through his long blonde hair.
“I know what’ll help,” Eddie said. He reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a small, white, rolled-up object. “We were plannin’ to, like, burn one out front. You guys wanna join us? It is, like, your birthday an’ all.”
Gar Logan took one look at the joint in Eddie’s hands; his eyes grew wide. “What? No way.” He grabbed Charley by the arm. “Buddy, we’ve got to talk.” He hoisted his friend up and walked him over toward the house.
The other three guys shrugged their shoulders, got up from the table, and headed for the fence gate. Eddie said as they walked off, “Gee, what’s with that guy? I thought he was cool.”
“Yeah,” said Keith. “That’s what happens to, like, child stars. They go totally mondo-weirdo when they grow up.”
“Hey, did’ja hear about what happened to that kid from Differ’nt Strokes?” Ron asked. And the fence door closed behind them.
When they got over to the house, Gar looked Charley in the face. “Man, what’s with those guys? I can’t believe they offered you that stuff!”
“Like, what’s the harm?” Charley said, his words slightly slurred.
“That’s pot,” Gar said, “Dope. Reefer. Mary-Jane. Don’t tell me you’ve done that stuff before.”
“Well,” Charley said. “Yeah, like maybe a half-dozen times or so. I dunno. No big deal. It’s just, like, weed, you know? I, like, never got into it or anything like those guys, though.”
“They’re stoners?” Gar asked. “I should’ve figured!”
Charley shook his head once, then blinked. “Whoa! So, like, what’s that mean? ‘I should’ve figured.’ Should’ve figured what? Where do you, like, get off gettin’ all high ‘n mighty on me? Must be nice havin’ a rich step-daddy to, like, give you everythin’ you want! Mansions, pools, cars! Try livin’ in the real world for once, Gar, if you think you can, like, hack it!”
Gar was about to say something but stopped. “Never mind,” he said. “Not the time or place to talk about this.” He started toward the house and headed inside, passing Dawn Granger and Hank Hall. “‘Scuse me!” The green hero was mad, even hurt, by his friend’s words. He hoped it was merely the alcohol talking and that Charley really didn’t feel that way. But that had to come from somewhere.
Hank looked at the closing house door and then over at Charley. “Yo, Parker! What’s with the walking menagerie?”
Charley waved his hand in the air. “No clue!” he said. His eyes looked a bit droopy, and a sad look came over his face.
Dawn came over to him. “Hey, perk up,” she said. “It’s your party.”
He looked at his blonde friend and smiled. “You’re so nice to me, Dawn,” Charley said. “Like, I wish all the girls could be as totally nice as you.”
Dawn smiled but felt a tad uncomfortable with Charley’s closeness. Then she noticed the fence door across the way open. “Oh, my gosh!” she exclaimed as she recognized the blonde woman who entered the yard. “Is that Lisa?”
Charley’s eyes blinked. “Lisa? Where?” He let go of Dawn, turned around fast, and stared. It was Lisa Morel. Charley rushed over to her.
“I wondered where she was,” Hank said.
“I didn’t know she’d be here,” Dawn said. “That could be a problem.”
“What problem?” Hank asked.
“Well, since you told me Charley was only seeing Lisa in costume, I never suspected she’d be invited to the party,” Dawn said. “So, I kind of told Renee to drop by after work.” Dawn glanced at her wristwatch. “She should be here any time now, if she’s coming.”
“Yeah?” Hank said, cracking another beer. “Now this could prove interesting.”
Lisa and Charley exited the fenced area and walked around to the front porch. “We can be alone here,” he said as they sat down on the stoop. His surfer buddies had taken a long walk around the block; he could barely hear their laughing in the distance. “You said you, like, wanted to talk?”
“I did,” Lisa said with a nod, sitting down next to him. She looked into his eyes. “First, I wanted to say that I’m sorry.”
Charley shook his head. “You don’t have’ta say that!”
“No,” Lisa said. “I do! I do need to say it. I’m sorry about the other night. I’m sorry I flew off the handle with you. I was acting like a first-class raving bitch.”
“S’OK,” Charley said. “But you’re, like, not a bitch.” He stroked her hair in a clumsy but gentle way. “I never should’a lied to you, you know.”
Lisa tipped up his chin. “But you didn’t lie to me,” she said. “I never once asked you who you were behind that mask. Had I done that and you told me something other than Charley Parker, then that would have been a lie. But I never asked.”
“I would’a told you.”
She smiled. “Yeah, I know you would have. You’re a sweet guy, Charley. You really are.” Lisa sighed. “I — I just had such a crap day is all. I was angry and frustrated at the world. I got home a few minutes before you arrived, got the message, and just blew up. It wasn’t fair to you.”
“S’OK. We all have totally crappy days sometimes. Just gotta move past ’em.”
“I know,” Lisa said. “There are just times when I feel like my life’s been so full of it, you know? I lost my mom when I was young. I lost my dad years later, too. Except for my work, I didn’t have much in my life. Then we met, that day last fall.”
“I remember,” Charley said with a smile. “You looked totally beautiful.”
Lisa blushed. “And you were my knight in shining armor,” she said. “I felt something right then and there for you. And you saved me again, when my world was turned upside by the Marine Marauder. You’ve always been there for me lately.”
Charley smiled. “I totally care about you.”
“Me too,” Lisa said. “Me too.” She leaned in and gave him a big kiss. The two were in their embrace for a minute or two. They only stopped when they heard whooping from down near the end of the driveway. It was Charley’s surfer friends, making cat-calls and rude comments.
“Don’t mind them,” Charley said.
“Let’s go back to the party, anyway,” Lisa said, helping him up. “I think you could use some coffee or something, or you’re going to have a wicked hangover come morning.”
Charley smiled. “Nothin’ your Mexican omelet couldn’t cure.”
“We’ll see, tiger,” Lisa said. “We’ll see.”
A few minutes prior, a young woman aged nineteen with long brown hair was driving down that very street slowly, glancing back and forth between a slip of paper in her hand and the house numbers. “Number 108… 110…” Renee Laisaille muttered to herself. “Is that 124 or 129?” She would be mad at Kelly for writing down the number so illegibly, but the roommate did lend Renee her car for the night. Otherwise she would’ve had no way to get to the party. In the passenger seat was a small wrapped gift with a red bow.
I hope Charley likes… she started to think to herself. Then, as she was checking the house numbers, she saw something on one of the porches. It was Charley — kissing another woman.
Renee’s heart skipped a beat, but she didn’t move her foot from the gas pedal. Drive! her brain told her. Just drive! Her entire body was telling her to keep going, don’t look back.
But her heart — her heart was breaking. Her eyes, in sympathy, started to well up. She turned the corner, continued down the street, and then left one hand on the wheel while she brushed the tears away.
There you go again, Renee! she thought to herself. Got yourself all excited that Charley wanted to see you again! Dawn even said so when she invited you to the party! God, how could I have been so foolish? Her foot went heavy to the gas pedal. Just play it cool. That’s what everyone said. Don’t chase after him. And what do I get? Nothing!
She took one hand off the wheel to reach for a tissue in her purse. She caught sight of the present, the one she’d spent all weekend shopping for. The red ribbon matched the anger growing inside of her. “Stupid present!” Renee said, snatching the box. “Stupid present and stupid Charley!” She tried tossing it out the open window, but it hit the frame and landed back on the seat.
Angry, she grabbed for it again and threw it out. This time it passed clear through the opening. She watched in the rearview mirror as it bounced three times in the road behind her. She half thought about backing up and running it over.
By the time she put her eyes back on the road in front of her, the car she was driving collided with a parked car on the street. Renee’s head flew forward, bouncing off the front windshield with a dull thud.
A few moments later, people in the houses nearby started to come out to see what had made a horrible sound. They were surprised and shocked to see the sports car crashed into the parked sedan.
One man ran up to the car and saw Renee slumped over in the driver’s seat. From her forehead, she was bleeding. Another person came up to the car. “Is she dead?” asked the woman.
The man reached in, putting his fingers to the side of her neck. “She’s got a pulse, but it’s weak!” he said. “Quick, call an ambulance!”
Renee’s body lay there, unmoving and oblivious to the commotion around her. That would be the case for a long time to come.