Monday, March 28, 2011

THE OPTIMIST BOOK ONE: You Don’t Know Jack By Chuck Miller - Chapter Two



You Don’t Know Jack

By Chuck Miller


Dead Kings, Many Things I Can't Define

“All of which, I suppose, makes me a sort of optimist.”
Vionna smiled like a goofy little kid and said, “Then I am too. I’ll be what you are. I always did really admire you.”
“You have good instincts, Vionna.”
“Um. Well, it’s so nice to see you and talk to you. I’ve been… I’ve been really lonely for… There’s nobody to… Say, if I tell you something, will you promise you won’t laugh at me?”
“I can’t promise that if I don’t know what it is. I promise you I’ll try not to.”
“Okay. Well, when I was a kid, back in those days, I used to kind of daydream about you and imagine that you were my big brother. Don’t laugh! I never had any brothers or sisters, and you were always nice to me, and I just really wished that I was your little sister.”
Well. I certainly wasn’t laughing. I hadn't expected anything like that. It confused me. I felt as though an indecent liberty had been taken. Then it made me feel something odd. It had been so long since I was actually touched by something someone said to me, it took me a second to recognize what it was. When I did, it felt like a branding iron. It was unpleasant. I resented it.

I looked at Vionna and she looked back at me with no particular expression on her face. I had the sense that she had shown me something important and was waiting to see if I was going to spit on it. I knew I was supposed to say something back, but everything I could thin of seemed unwise.
If it had been something involving a crush or romance or sex, I could have dealt with it. But what do you do with someone who wishes she was your sister? If you‘ve never really had a family, and have been essentially alone all your life, that hits a nerve.
Putting myself in Vionna’s place as best I could, I was in awe of her recklessness, and terribly frightened by it. That, and agonizingly aware of the damage I could do with just a handful of callous words. Part of me wanted to, and not for anything noble like the belief that it would be for her own good. Sometimes people just piss me off for being so needy, and I have a nasty urge to stomp on them.
For a long time, I didn’t do or say anything. I was straddling a fence, and the top edge was sharp enough to cleanly bisect that baby they brought to King Solomon. Vionna looked at me, her face slowly but visibly wilting. I wanted to hurt myself for it. But I stayed silent. We were safe, I told myself. I was safe. I did not have the guts to be actively cruel, and to be kind would be to willingly stick my head into the mouth of a lion.
So, eventually, I started a stupid conversation about nothing in particular. Nothing to do with sisters or brothers or the past or the future. I wanted to get the hell away from her.
The evening died by degrees, in extreme discomfort. I took my leave and went home. I felt guilty and was trying to make it feel like something else.
Back home again, I wasn’t sleepy at all, though I was virtually mummified with whiskey. I wondered if I ought to go out and find some puppies to kick. I wandered around the little living room for a while, then went out on my veranda. I think it was cold out, but I can’t be sure. I paced back and forth trying not to think about anything. I was leaning against the railing when I heard voices coming from below me.
Back in the alley behind the house, a couple of guys stood huddled against the wall, talking. One of them was trying to convince the other that the neighborhood was haunted.
“I seen this ghost, I swear. Three nights in a row I seen it, over behind the old post office on Water Street. At three o’clock ayem in the morning, three nights in a row.”
That caught my attention because the old post office on Water Street had been abandoned since shortly after World War Two. It had been purchased by Johnny Amos, who maintained it in a state of apparent neglect and dereliction. In fact, it was one of many bolt holes he kept in different parts of the city, to be used when a change of costume or an exotic weapon of some kind was needed.
I listened more intently. The other guy replied to his friend, saying, “Ah, you was drunk.”
“Of course I was. What’s that got to do with the price of duck eggs? I don’t see stuff that ain’t there when I’m drunk. Do you? Alcohol don’t cause hallucinations. Now, if I got the DTs, that’s a whole kettle of different colored fish. But I ain’t had DTs in weeks, cuz I been drunk the entire time.”
“Well nothing. I’m telling you what I seen. You remember back when there was all them superheroes living here, running all over the place? They attract ghosts and monsters and crap like that. I seen all kinds of things in my time.”
“These ain’t parts,” his friend replied, “it’s a damn city. And them superheroes ain’t been here for years and years. They all died out or went away or something.”
That was true, and hearing it made me realize that I had no clue what happened to the others.  The whole thing just sort of dried up not long after Johnny died. His death and the thing that  happened to Commander Power seemed to signal the end. I wondered just what had become of Captain Triangle, the Speck, the Red Dagger, the Red Hand, Doctor Unknown, Tomorrow-Man, the Black Centipede and all the rest. Some had been friends, some had been partners, some had been insufferable jerks.
“Ah, well, there’s the thing,” the first guy continued. “This ghost I seen? It was a superhero ghost. I swear to Jeezus. It had on a cape, and one of them cowls like they used to wear, and it was wearin’ a red and yellow suit.”
If I’d been holding anything, I’d have dropped it, just like I did my jaw.
“Red and yellow suit?” the other guy said.
“Yeah, red and yellow suit. I said that, didn’t I? Mostly red. The cape and that, and the gloves and boots was red. The rest of it was yellow. Kind of yellow. He looked like one of them old-timers. I couldn’t tell which one, there was so many of them.”
It felt like my jaw was still dropping, but I knew it had gone as far as it could. The guy in the alley had just described—more or less-- Captain Mercury. 
The two guys got onto some other topic and wandered away in search of more to drink. I just stood there for a minute or two. The guy said he’d seen this specter every night at 3 a.m., and it was 2:45 now. So, before I could think better of it, I lit out for the old post office.
I got there, then started feeling dumb. It was cold and dead out there. The nighttime sounds of the city seemed too far away to be important or even real. I stood in a little alcove on the side of the old building and tucked myself back into the shadows, looking furiously at my watch every three or four seconds.
Eventually, the hands crept up to three o’clock. I poked my head out of my alcove and looked this way and that. Nothing. I waited. About a week later, I looked at my watch again and it said 3:03. I waited a year before taking another look. It was 3:07. I waited long enough for the sun to burn itself out and go supernova, by which time it was 3:10. There is a staggering number of virtues I do not have, and patience is at the top of that list.
“Oh, screw  this,” I said to myself. “That old bastard’s got wet brain. There’s nothing out here. Wasting my time on this…”
Well, my watch, which now said 3:12, must have been fast. Somewhere in the distance I heard a church bell ring three times. And then I saw something. Something the size and shape of a man. Colorless, like an old photograph. I stopped and stared at the thing.
And like any good abyss, It stared back.
Oh God. Oh my Dread Lord.
It was Johnny.  Johnny Amos. He took on some color as I gawked at him. The red and yellow costume I had last seen 12 years ago just before the bomb went off.
The very, very late Captain Mercury.

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