I blink and find the Teen Titans staring at me. “Sorry about that,” I apologize. “My mind seems to have wandered for a bit.”
“For a bit?” Aqualad says. “You’ve been standing there with that blank look on your face for almost ten months!“
“Really?” I ask. “It seems like so much has happened. I haven’t sent you guys to Earth-Two or Earth-X’s past, have I?”
“Nope,” Snapper says.
I breathe a sigh of relief. “OK,” I say, “I’ve got a plan.”
“Tell us! Tell us!” everyone says.
“First,” I tell them, “I need to give Snapper another super-power.”
“Nothing is going to bite me, is it?” he asks, with a touch of apprehension.
“No,” I promise him, as I put my hand in my pocket.
“Ow! What was that?” he yelps, as something pegs him between the eyes.
I stoop down and pick up a small cuckoo clock with a slight glow. “It’s radioactive.”
“What is it with you and radioactivity-induced powers?” Wonder Girl asks.
“I grew up reading Marvel Comics,” I say by way of explanation.
“Ah,” the Teen Titans reply in unison.
“Um,” Aqualad says, raising his hand.
I remind him that we are not in school. “What is it?”
“Is it safe to carry so many radioactive items in your pants pockets?” he asks.
“Lead-lined boxers,” I reply.
“T.M.I.,” Wonder Girl responds. After a pause, she adds, “I’m guessing Snapper can now manipulate time.”
“Close,” I say, allowing the subject to be changed. “He can time travel.”
“Can I say something?” Speedy asks.
“Sure. What do you want to say?”
“Nothing really,” he says. “I just haven’t said anything for a while.”
“Works for me,” I tell him. “What about you, Kid Flash? You want to say something?”
“No,” he says with a smile. “I’m good.”
“Why time travel?” Snapper asks.
“Because I need you to travel through time and bring these three people back here,” I tell him. I hand him a piece of paper with the names and dates on it.
“I’m on it,” he says with a snap, and teleports into the time stream.
“He’s been gone an awful long time,” Kid Flash says.
“He just left,” Speedy counters.
“But,” Kid Flash continues, “if he can time travel, then he should have appeared back here at almost the same instant he left.”
“He’s got a point,” Aqualad says, looking at me.
“It’s simple,” I tell them. “I don’t need him back just yet.” That seems to satisfy them.
“So,” Kid Flash asks, “what now?”
“Now, I need to ask you a few questions about your mentors.”
“Like what?” Speedy asks.
“If you are going to ask Wonder Woman’s bra size,” Wonder Girl says, “don’t expect me to answer.”
“I don’t need to know tha–” I start to say, but Speedy cuts me off.
“I thought you said you didn’t know that!” he cries. “Aw, man…”
“That’s not what I need to know,” I assure her. “What I really need to know is…”
“Well,” Snapper says as he pops back into the present, “that was interesting.”
“You brought back our guests?” I ask before letting him tell us what he found so interesting.
“Sure did,” he replies, “and, boy, was it an interesting trip.”
“So, where are they?”
“They’re right he–” he says, looking around. “Crap. Be right back.”
Snapper pops out and then right back in, this time joined by three individuals. “Sorry,” he mutters, “I accidentally left them in the future. Cyclone said to tell you thanks, by the way. Boy, was that first trip interesting.”
“Who’s Cyclone?” Kid Flash asks as he runs in, accompanied by the Flash, who is carrying a guitar case.
“Somebody I’m reintroducing on Earth-X,” I tell him.
“That sounds interesting,” Snapper says. “And speaking of interesting…”
“Who in tarnation are y’all?” one of the newcomers asks. “And why in tarnation are y’all runnin’ around in yer long-johns?”
“They are heroes,” I tell him. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Hex.”
Jonah Hex looks at me with his good eye and extends his hand. “At least yer wearin’ denim,” he says. “Call me Jonah.”
“And you can call me Lee.”
“Like the general?”
“That was my nickname in school.”
“So,” Jonah asks, “why am I here?”
“I’ll explain it to you and the others in a little bit,” I tell him before moving on to the next person Snapper brought back, an extremely beautiful, and extremely well-built, blonde in what appears to be a one-piece black bathing suit with a knee-length, sheer gossamer skirt.
“Holy mackerel,” Aqualad whispers to his teammates. “She’s built better than Wonder Woman.”
“And Power Girl,” Kid Flash says.
“And Zatanna,” Speedy adds.
“Or Black Canary,” Aqualad says.
“Or Batgirl,” Kid Flash adds.
“Or Superg…” Speedy starts to say, before Wonder Girl interrupts him.
“OK,” she says, angrily, “we get it. She’s a hot babe, and we’d all slap our grandmas across the nose with a fresh tuna just to have a shot at her.”
That got everyone’s attention.
“Wait — what?!” Speedy asked, his being the only mouth not hanging open in shock and surprise.
“Shut up!” Wonder Girl snaps. “I didn’t mean me. I was just saying what all of you guys were thinking.”
“Not me,” I say. “I’m married.”
“Oh, cool. Congratulations,” Aqualad tells me. “When did that happen?”
“While I was staring off into space,” I reply.
“Excuse me,” the blonde says, “but you have brought me to this place with only the smallest of explanations as to what is going on. What is so important as to require the services of Fantomah?”
I look at Snapper, then back at Fantomah. “I beg your pardon, but if you will give me just a moment, I will see if I can explain everything.”
Putting my arm around Snapper’s should, I steer him away from the rest of the group. “Um, where’s Rima, the Jungle Girl?”
Snapper smiles. “This is where the trip got interesting.”
“Well,” he begins, “it all started while I was meeting up with Mr. Hex. I was getting ready to pop out of there when this phone booth appeared, and these two young guys stepped out looking for Billy the Kid.”
“What did they look like?” I ask.
“The shorter of the two was blond and said his name was Bill S. Preston, or something like that. The other one was taller with dark, brown hair. At first, he said his name was Ted, but he quickly changed it to Theodore, I guess to sound more important. If he had a decent haircut, and was blond, he would have reminded me of that John Constantine fellow. Anyway, I told them that they were a few years off, so when they left, I snapped my fingers to take us to that Rima chick. I guess with both of us disturbing the time stream, I got kicked into an alternate universe. That’s where I found her.”
“I can’t use her,” I say. “She’s not a part of this universe.”
“That’s the beauty of it,” Snapper says, putting his arm around my shoulder. “Apparently, Fantomah was in something called a public domain, so she can go anywhere.” He’s grinning as he finishes.
I grin, too. “Not bad,” I say. “So, how did you get back here to this universe?”
“From what she told me, Fantomah is near omnipotent on her world, so she gave us a push in the right direction once I explained that I was in the wrong place.”
“So, other than that, she doesn’t know why she’s here?” I ask.
He shakes his head no.
“Not bad,” I say. “Now, let’s get back to the others and meet our final judge.”
The final name on Snapper’s list is Robot F2324, better known to her life-mate Automan and her boss Star Hawkins as Ilda. What would constitute most of her skin is a golden alloy, and she has a crimson plate that forms a widow’s peak on top of her football-shaped head. Her torso is white with vertical red stripes around the neckline and from the waist down, and horizontal red stripes around her midriff. Her arms and hands, unlike the rest of her skin, are silver. She speaks as we approach, her voice distinctly feminine, yet still recognizable as computer-generated.
“I know why you have brought us here,” she says.
“The reason you are all here,” I tell our three time-and-space-displaced guests, “is to act as judges.”
“Judges fer what?” Jonah asks.
“The Super Friends/Legion of Funk Battle of the Bands!“
“How many bands are going to be in this hyar battle,” Jonah asks, “and can I do some shootin’ of mah own?”
“It’s not that kind of battle,” I explain. “It’s more like a competition.”
“Like that U.S. Legend show from the future?” Hex says.
“U.S. Legend?” Fantomah asks.
“Some polecat sent me into the future once,” Jonah says, “and it weren’t good. Society was in the basement of the outhouse and livin’ under the hole, all because of that thar U.S. Legend.”
“But, what is it?” Fantomah asks again.
“It was a singing competition that dominated television where everyone in the country voted for who they wanted to win,” I say. “We’ve got something like that on my world. It’s a nightmare.” I pause. “Now, Mr. Hex, to answer your question, there will be three bands.”
“Three?” Snapper asks. “I thought we were just… just… what were we doing again?”
I shake my head and sigh. “The Teen Titans are going to bring the Super Friends here, while you collect the Legion of Funk.”
“Yeah,” Speedy says. “I’ve been meaning to ask you about that. Where exactly are we? We’ve been here for months, and all we’ve seen is this big, white room with words appearing on the walls.”
I look around. “You’re right. You are absolutely right. We’ve got the characters,” I say, motioning to everyone. “We’ve got the plot… heh… heh… heh… a plot… sure we do, but we don’t have a setting.”
“This could be interesting,” Fantomah says. “Might I suggest a jungle setting?”
“Or, maybe, a western dancehall?” Jonah adds.
“Or the future?” offers Ilda.
I think for a minute, then smile.
“I don’t think I like that look in his eyes,” Wonder Girl says.
I stare at the white, word-covered walls for a minute with my arms clasped behind my back. After a moment, I stuff my hand into my pocket and pull out a ring; I slide it onto my finger.
“Hey,” Aqualad says, “that’s a Green Lantern ring.”
I hold my fist up in front of my face and begin to speak. “In brightest day…”
“He knows the oath,” the Teen Titans begin to whisper to each other.
“In blackest night…” I continue. “No evil shall escape my sight… Let those who worship evil’s might… Beware my power… Green Lantern’s light!” Using my other hand, I touch the side of the ring and flip the on/off switch. A tiny green bulb begins to glow.
“That’s a Green Lantern ring?” Kid Flash asks.
“It is,” I reply, “sort of. It came with a movie that I bought.”
“So, it’s not really a real ring,” Speedy says.
“Well, uh, no. Not really,” I say.
“Then, what are you doing,” Fantomah asks, “besides wasting time?”
“I really don’t know,” I admit. “I just really wanted to do that.” I look at Snapper. “I need you to bring one more person here.”
He vanishes, then reappears moments later with a very bewildered gentleman.
The newcomer, a tall, slender man in blue jeans and a light green button-up shirt with the sleeves rolled up to his forearms, looks around and runs his fingers through his curly hair. When he speaks, his voice is soft and soothing. “I think what we need,” he says, as he removes a two-inch paintbrush from his hip pocket, “is a few happy little trees.”
In the space of twenty-five minutes, without commercial interruptions, the Painter (who shall remain nameless) has transformed the stark white walls into a hauntingly beautiful summer meadow. Overhead, a sky of Phthalo Blue and midnight black mixed with loving care is filled with Titanium White clouds billowing to the top of the walls. In the distance, or so it seems, a majestic mountain of Midnight Black, Van Dyke Brown, Prussian Blue, and a small hint of Alizarin Crimson reaches skyward to be caressed by the aforementioned clouds. Trees much the same color as the mountain, yet with a healthy amount of Sap Green dominate the far end of the clearing and, drawing closer and becoming more distinguishable, they form the walls of a natural amphitheatre. The floor beneath us has become a mixture of Sap Green, Cadmium Yellow, Yellow Ochre, and Indian Yellow. Off to the left, a stream of Titanium White, Liquid White, and Phthalo Blue meanders toward the opposite wall.
“Well, now,” Jonah Hex says. “That shore is some fancy paintin’.”
The Painter smiles. “I find it is easier to paint when the bottom layer of paint is wet and not dry. Thinner paint always sticks to thicker paint.”
“If’n you say so,” Jonah says with a shrug.
The Painter smiles and nods.
“Can I ask a question?” Wonder Girl speaks up.
“Shoot,” I say, then quickly turn to Jonah and hold my hands up. “I didn’t mean that literally.”
“If this is where we are going to have the battle of the bands,” she begins, “shouldn’t there be someplace for them to plug their equipment in?”
The Painter speaks up. “I can take care of that. Let’s add a couple happy little electrical outlets here, here, and here.” He paints them on three different trees.
“You’ve done a great job,” I tell him. “We can return you home whenever you’re ready.”
“I guess now is as good a time as any,” he says.
I motion for Snapper, and just before he teleports the two of them away, the Painter looks at us and waves, wiggling his fingers. His last words are, “Happy painting, and God bless, my friends.”
In an instant, Snapper is back.
“All right, gang,” I say. “It’s time we gathered the bands. Everyone know what to do? Great. Go get them.”