Galactic Fleet Admiral (site admin)
Joined: 14 Dec 2013
Location: North Carolina
|Posted: Wed Apr 15, 2015 1:06 am Post subject: The Hero Experience - Chapter 24 (Conclusion)
The setting sun was a flat red disk, burning brightly in a color that no artist would ever duplicate. And I was watching the show from the very best spot in the whole world, seated on the largest rock at the edge of our field. Some famous field this was. The world’s first honest-to-goodness Fortress of Solitude, a sanctuary for weary superheroes.
Too bad nobody would ever know it but us.
Stan squatted on a boulder to my right, Doug stood on the one to my left, and Carl lay back on the boulder in front of me. Stan held a copy of the Constitution, the afternoon newspaper. He had just finished reading the account of yesterday’s epic event. Nobody spoke as Stan lowered the paper and joined the rest of us in contemplating the western horizon.
We were awed by ourselves. The Journal — the morning paper — had also featured a spectacular account of the incident. We had made the front-page headlines in both editions. The whole thing caused me to feel a curious sense of displacement, like walking into the wrong classroom and wondering why all the faces were strange. Surely these newspapers couldn’t be talking about me.
But the hot, aching pain in my side was a constant reminder that it was indeed little old me the papers were talking about. Or little old us, to be exact.
Doug had carefully combed his hair to cover the cut and the lump on his head. Stan had repeatedly told us that he would never be able to have children because of his injury — but we suspected he was exaggerating.
After we’d made our getaway last night, the guys had taken me to Fulton County Hospital’s emergency room, completely convinced that I’d bleed to death at any moment and leave them with the difficult task of explaining how I’d been shot while cruising around with my best friends.
A multi-car accident had occurred on I-85, and the medical personnel at the emergency room had been extremely busy when we arrived. So, I sat in a chair in the waiting room for thirty minutes, surrounded by my friends. They studied my pallid face, my glassy gaze, and the dried blood that caked the right side of my shirt while they all silently told God that if I didn’t die they promised to remain virgins for the rest of their lives.
God must have been mighty impressed with their loyalty to their friend and fearless leader, because I didn't die. In fact, Stan discovered that the wound on my right side had already coagulated again and the bleeding had stopped. He suggested that the wound had bled so profusely earlier because I’d insisted on leaping around like a gazelle after being shot, and then I'd gotten yanked about like Howdy Doody by the tall man on the roof of the Regency Hyatt House.
In other words, he suggested that the wound was sort of like a shaving cut that an idiot had slapped every ten seconds instead of allowing the cut to clot by applying a small piece of toilet paper.
Carl realized that the police might check all the hospitals to see if my friends had tried to get treatment for me. He suggested we clean the wound so we could see how bad it really was. We went to the restroom and used about thirty paper towels to carefully clean the wounded area. We discovered Stan was right — the groove in my side had already clotted over and stopped bleeding. The blood above and below the wound had dried, and it was very difficult to clean off without tugging on the wound and causing it to bleed again. So, my friends put wet paper towels over the dried blood until it softened, then they cleaned up the area gently, like three midwives attending to the birth of the next king of England.
They kept asking me how I felt.
Actually, I was the wrong guy to ask. I told them I felt fine. I smiled the same way I had on the night Stan and I had gotten drunk. Being in shock is remarkably like drinking three beers on an empty stomach for the first time in your life. After twenty minutes they helped me as we made our way out to the Jeep and snuck off into the night for the second time in one evening while the entire Atlanta Police Department was searching for us.
I’ll bet that’s a record.
My parents were out with a few friends, so I was taken to my house and given even more first aid before being put to bed. They poured alcohol over the bullet groove in my side and then bandaged it carefully. The alcohol actually hurt worse than being shot. But the bump on my forehead was much less swollen than Doug’s, and the cut was located just above the hairline.
The places on my face where the fiberglass splinters had pierced it were surrounded by red skin. Explaining those wounds to my parents tomorrow was going to be a real challenge.
I was tucked into bed by well-meaning friends who knew less about how to treat the trauma of a gunshot wound than they did about being superheroes. They left me to rest in my comfortable bed while they hurried home to hide from the frightening consequences of what we’d done during the last three months.
I slept until eight the next morning when my mother finally insisted I get up, eat breakfast, and get ready for church. I desperately wanted to sleep until eight on Monday morning, but I forced myself to walk from my bedroom into the kitchen like a normal human being, gritting my teeth with each step. A black t-shirt covered the dressing over the wound on my right side. Mom served me a hero’s breakfast of scrambled eggs, sausage, biscuits, and milk.
I ate every bite. I figured I needed it. My voice was still hoarse from the savage attack by the tall man when he tried his best to choked me to death, so I spoke very little and nodded quite a bit. I smiled and claimed I had laryngitis.
My throat got better during the day. It promoted itself from a husky whisper to a hoarse baritone. During church, I lip-synched along with the singing congregation. The rest of the day, I was a very quiet fellow. Even if my golden voice had not been damaged, I doubt I would have had much to say. I kept seeing an old man’s face asking for help, and an old man’s head being —
"How did you explain all those scabs on your face and arms?" said Carl.
"I told them I tripped and fell into a thorny rose bush."
All three of them stared at me for a moment, then Carl said, "You're kidding."
"No, really, that's what I told them. I said we were horsing around in Cindy's front yard and you pushed me."
Stan started chuckling. "And they believed you?"
"Hey, could anybody make up a story like that?" I said.
"Right," said Stan. "And if they say they don't believe you, just tell them that a murderer shot your bow and it exploded in your face. Who could possibly doubt a story like that?"
Everyone became quiet again for several minutes, then Doug said, “If that wound in your side doesn’t heal right, you’ll have to go to a doctor.”
“I know. I will.”
“It would be tough to explain,” he continued. “But you’d be making a big mistake not to get it treated.”
“Okay,” I answered unemotionally. “Thanks, Doug.”
Doug went back to watching the sinking sun. A few minutes later, Carl spoke. “Does it hurt?” He was studying the sky straight over our heads from his reclining position.
Still gazing at the setting sun, I chuckled softly and pondered my answer. Then I said, “Shucks, partner. It’s just a scratch.”
Everybody managed a faint smile at my wit, not to mention my stoicism. Actually, it hurt the most when I laughed. But I was reluctant to give up doing that.
Stan seemed equally mesmerized by the setting sun, so he didn’t face me when he spoke. “Do you think you can hide it from your folks until it heals?”
“Sure,” I replied after a thoughtful pause. “I just won’t bathe.”
Stan contemplated the answer and then replied in kind. “Uh-huh. I’m sure Ann will love that.”
Ann. I had promised her we'd go out for ice cream after we had dinner with our families. But I knew it would be foolish to be seen by either her or her farther. They would both know that the captain of the Bowmen had received several pinprick wounds in his face last night and a raw groove in his right side from a bullet. If I showed up with a face full of small scabs, they would be suspicious, to say the least. And if Ann put her arm around my waist and felt eight inches of gauze held in place by adhesive tape, her suspicions would be confirmed.
It would be like Clark Kent showing up for work without his glasses.
So I had cancelled our date, claiming that my parents needed the car. We talked for a while on the phone, during which I acted excited about the Bowmen's latest adventure and all the fuss the newspapers made over it. Ann had done most of the talking, thank goodness, while I demonstrated my love and devotion by saying, "uh-huh" at all the right moments.
I was worried about what would happen when I saw Ann at school tomorrow. I wondered if several small Band-Aids and a story about shaving in hurry might get me through the day. Or maybe I could eat enough candy bars to have a convenient epidemic of acne.
On an unrelated note, a thought had come to me during the day. I had been wrong to say that there were no real-life counterparts of the masked crime fighters of fiction. There were actually millions of costumed crime fighters in the world. They drove specialized vehicles, carried sophisticated equipment, and risked their lives every day to capture people like the man we had stopped last night.
The superheroes were the police: men and women who, like Officer Wilkerson, had decided to do something besides read comic books, watch movies, or just sit around and dream about what the world needed.
Dreaming is fine if it isn’t allowed to become an exclusive diet. We had dreamed the Bowmen into existence. But now the danger was in letting it become our only claim to fame, an act too tough to follow. We needed to move onward and upward — we needed to do something more practical. My experience as one of the Bowmen had given me confidence and a new self image, and I knew these would both help me be successful in life. Maybe I would become a writer. Or an artist.
Why not both? Ann had said a person's limits are largely self-imposed. We had proven her right.
Carl broke the strange silence when he stood up and said, “Well, Bowmen, I guess we’d better go.” He rose from his granite throne and stepped into the grass in front of us.
“Ex-Bowmen,” I said.
“Sure,” said Stan as he got to his feet painfully, still favoring a sore groin. “But we’ll always have our memories.”
“And our scrapbooks,” said Doug.
“And our scars,” I added.
Doug smiled at all of us and said, “To quote Don Quixote, wounds received in battle more give honor than take it away.”
“I’ll try to remember that,” I said as I stepped down off the rock with a grunt of pain.
Carl looked around at each of us with an odd expression. He surprised us with his next remark. “Well, I guess it’s time to say good-bye, guys.”
Stan looked surprised. “Good-bye?”
“I meant good-bye to our superhero alter egos.” There was a faint smile on Carl’s face, but there was visible pain in his eyes. I suddenly knew what he meant. He put out his hand to me. “Good-bye, Captain. Thanks . . . for everything.”
I gripped his hand and shook it slowly. We looked each other in the eye as if we’d never see each other again. In my still-ragged voice, I said, “So long, Wheels. Nobody could have done it better than you.”
I turned to Stan and offered my hand ceremoniously. “Cowboy? What can I say?" I couldn't think of the right words, so I had to let my eyes tell the story as I mumbled, "Happy trails, partner.”
He gripped my hand briefly, his face uncharacteristically somber.
Carl turned to Doug and held out his hand. I had never seen Carl look so serious or so sad. He spoke slowly and with obvious sincerity. “Duke . . . it was a royal honor. Thanks for every minute of it.”
“Same here,” said Doug. There was a long pause while he thought about what to say. Finally his heart found the right words. “I don’t know how you do what you do — but I’m sure glad you do it so well.”
Doug smiled at Carl, and Carl smiled at Doug — and I knew exactly why my eyes suddenly began to sting.
We all turned and started the long walk toward the distant Jeep. The setting sun had disappeared. The show was over. The stars would soon be out, glowing like the house lights in a theater at the end of a performance. I tried to walk tall, knowing that somewhere in the world a hard rain was falling against the green earth, making a sound like distant applause.
It was a sound I would carry in my heart forever.
Is there no man on Earth who has the wisdom and innocence of a child?
~ The Space Children (1958)