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The Hero Experience - Chapter 14

 
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Bud Brewster
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PostPosted: Fri Mar 20, 2015 9:39 pm    Post subject: The Hero Experience - Chapter 14 Reply with quote



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Chapter 14


The Atlanta Police Department made sure Matt Daniels got all the details concerning the Bowmen’s blatant disregard for public safety when we reenacted Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride through the heart of the downtown district while exceeding the speed limit, endangering lives, and thoroughly terrifying women, children, old people, and small high-strung dogs.

Daniels’ article made no attempt to defend our actions — and we didn’t blame him a bit. We all wondered if Officer Wilkerson now regretted letting us sneak away from the accident scene instead of cuffing us, reading our Miranda rights, and throwing us into jail before we could run over an adorable troop of Girl Scouts trying to cross Peachtree Street.

To say this wasn’t our proudest moment would be like describing Custer’s Last Stand as a valuable experience in how to deal with agitated Indians.

For the next two weeks we were reluctant to even talk about the Bowmen, much less make a public appearance. Carl didn’t even want go to the grocery store in the red Jeep. He certainly didn’t want to drive around with the four of us and risk having outraged citizens rush out of their homes and exercise their Constitutional right to bare arms by shooting at our tires.

None of us wanted to proclaim the Bowmen dead and buried, but it made sense to lay low for a while until the heat was off. Secretly we all figured about five years would do it. The bows and arrows were hidden in Carl’s backyard tool shed, wrapped in a blanket, and we each hid our t-shirts and masks under our mattresses.

We became heroes in hiding, fugitives from the very justice system we were supposed to be supporting. Apparently, the road to hell is, in fact, paved with good intentions. And it also has a speed limit.
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The second Wednesday in July was a gray and dreary day, afflicted with rain and a very un-summerlike chill. It was as if the dismal light that comes before dawn on a cloudy day decided to just hang around and wait for sunset to finally put it out of its misery.

Stan, Carl, and Doug all had plans for the day. To hang around the house on a day like this was just too much torture for a young man to bare, so at four o’clock I begged my mother for the car until she gave in just to get rid of me. I headed for Greenbrier Mall to shop for windows and gaze at girls.
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The drizzling rain misted my hair and soaked my sneakers as I walked from the car to the big shopping complex. Once I was inside, the substitute neon sunshine helped me forget about the depressing weather. I strolled along the wide main promenade, wandering aimlessly, looking at various window displays. I passed a store called Dave’s Toy World (populated by excited kids) and a store called Frederick’s of Hollywood (populated by excited adults). I stopped to stare at the display window of the latter for a few moments until I realized I was having lustful thoughts about mannequins, so I moved along with a red face and a smirk that was tough to hide.

I haunted the B. Dalton Bookseller for nearly an hour, taking free looks at comics, magazines, and books that the annoyed sales clerk couldn’t quite get up the nerve to insist I buy.

The whole mall was only two years old, first opened in 1965, including the restaurants in the food area, one of which was called Chick-fil-A. I’d heard of It, but I had never tried their food. However, I figured they’d do pretty well because the aroma of their chicken sandwiches made be drool uncontrollably. I resisted the urge to buy one, because I knew Mom was cooking dinner. If I didn’t eat a reasonable amount of whatever she fixed, she would give me one of those hurt looks that would come back to haunt me when I got older and started fully appreciating all the sacrifices my parents made while I was an ungrateful brat. All that guilt just wasn’t worth a chicken sandwich, no matter how good it was!

I restricted myself to a Coke, and I took it to one of the little tables the mall had set up along the front of the fast food restaurants. I sat just as far as I could get from the aroma of those sinfully seductive chicken sandwiches. I tried to take my mind off the food by thinking about what I’d seen in the window of Frederick’s of Hollywood. That worked pretty well until I realized I was just substituting one maddening craving for another. I was beginning to wish I had stayed home and helped Mom with the laundry or something.

The afternoon shoppers were multiplying, and I suddenly felt very lonely and conspicuous sitting there all by myself. Groups of shoppers sat together at the other tables, talking with animated energy about their purchases, their neighbors, or their favorite television shows. I tried to tune in on isolated conversations, but only fragments came through. There were periodic bursts of group laughter, followed by bits of secretive comments spoken at low volume. The philosopher in me picked up on this interesting observation, and I began looking for other mysteries of public conversation.

I discovered that the most meaningful, serious discussions took place at the lowest volume, with the fewest hand gestures and the slowest conversational pacing. For example, a young couple sat several tables away, huddled close together with their heads bowed and their arms folded. I couldn’t hear them at all, but I was pretty sure neither of them was missing a word the other was saying.

Conversely, the most light-hearted conversations took place at high volume, with much hand-waving and plenty of interruptions.

Routine conversations about daily matters took place at medium volume with a small number of hand gestures and very few facial expressions.

I wondered if anybody had ever written a book on the subject. There just might be a market for that kind of thing among people who had too much free time and wanted to be pompous know-it-alls on a subject that normal people couldn't care less about.

A group of young girls approached the table next to mine. They precariously balanced their armloads of shopping bags and lunch food as they selected places around the table. I recognized three of them, but I couldn’t remember their names.

However, the fourth girl was someone I knew all too well — by name, by face, and by several late-night erotic fantasies. Her name was Ann Dixon, a lovely blond with emerald green eyes and a face that looked like it was fashioned by the guy who taught Michelangelo everything he knew about how to make statues that people went nuts over hundreds of years later. She was a girl of poise and dignity who seemed to speak only when she had something worth saying. She made me yearn to do something to earn her approval — like taking a bullet for the president or inventing an affordable cure for cancer that anybody could mix up using toothpaste and dandelion pollen.

None of the girls even glanced in my direction, and I told myself they hadn’t looked at me long enough to recognize me. They chattered amongst themselves about friends I didn’t know and things I hadn’t heard about. Somehow, Ann’s chatter was more controlled and more pleasing to hear. I eavesdropped shamelessly.

“So, what time did they finally get home?” Ann asked one of her friends.

“I think it was about 2:00 a.m.,” one of the girls replied.

“Oh, God!” the other two girls said in unison.

“What did her father do?” said Ann.

“He hit the roof. He had already called the police, so he tried to have the guy arrested for kidnapping.”

This got a big group reaction. Even I was interested by this time. This sounded like a juicy scandal. One part of me wanted to find out the name of this racy young lady so I could ask her out — but another part of me was scared to death of her ferocious and devoted father. Checkmate.

“Well, it’s her own fault for going out with a guy like that,” said Ann.

Atta girl. I smiled and told myself that Ann would certainly never go out with a guy like that. Then I wondered if Ann would go out with a guy like me. Wonder, wonder, wonder . . .

Ann turned in my direction and caught me staring at her. She looked annoyed and started to look away, but then she recognized me. Her annoyed look was replaced by a heart-stopping smile. “Oh . . . hi, Brad!”

“Hello, Ann.” I spoke quickly before I could choke on the lump in my throat. Her friends turned and greeted me with great surprise, as if I was the Invisible Man and the serum had just worn off. All those female eyes trained on me at one time made my Adam’s apple go up and down like a kid on a pogo stick.

“What are you doin’ here all alone?” said one of the girls. She would certainly get no award for tact with remarks like that.

“Just catching up on the latest gossip,” I said, trying to smile in a way that didn’t look like a bad actor following a script's stage direction which said, Nervous man smiles.

“I didn’t catch the name of the girl who got kidnapped,” I said.

“Ruth Gillette,” said Ann. The other girls giggled. Ann’s level gaze had a hypnotic effect on me.

“And her father actually called the cops?” I was trying to keep the conversation from stalling out.

“Yep, he sure did,” said one of the girls whose names I still couldn’t remember. She was giggling and wiggling and looking at everybody involved in the conversation without ever focusing on anybody more than two seconds. “He called the police and he called all her friends and he called the parents of the last two boys she had been out with. I mean, jeez, he had everybody out looking for her except those crazy guys with the bows and arrows!"

The other two nameless girls looked puzzled, then one of them said, "What crazy guys?"

Miss Overactive said, "The ones the police were chasing a few days ago."

The other two girls just started at her, but Ann finally cleared up the mystery and demonstrated her superior knowledge of current events.

"The Bowmen."

"Oh, right!" said Miss Fidgety. "That's what they call themselves!" The other two finally realized who she was talking about, but they didn't look very interested in the subject.

Meanwhile, I froze and wondered if I’d slipped into an alternate dimension. I stared at the girl, still wearing my bad actor’s smile, wondering if I was paranoid for thinking that she knew exactly who I was and why I was suddenly pale and dizzy. I felt a wave of the Superman Syndrome wash over me: the frustration Clark Kent always felt because he couldn't brag about being Superman. I yearned to casually and proudly mention that I was Captain, the leader of the Bowmen. Please, folks, no autographs.

My momentary pride was followed by the realization that only two of the four girls had known anything about the Bowmen — and neither of them had acting very impressed.

Ann noticed my strange expression, and she gave me a puzzled look. “Have you been reading about them, Brad?”

Uh-oh. What should I say?

No, never heard of them.

Sure I’ve heard of ‘em — aren’t they cool?

I think I’ve heard of ‘em, They sure seem crazy.

Finally, I said, “Yeah, I’ve read the news articles. I wonder who they are.”

Chatty Cathy said, “I don’t know who they are, but I know what they are,” shaking her head slowly. “They’re nuts. They shouldn't be running around loose.” I realized that the girl bore an uncanny resemblance to Goofy. She had big horsy teeth and a knack for saying dumb things. Huh-yuck!

Ann leaned back and put a symbolic bit of distance between herself and her companions as she gazed at them and said, “Why do you think they’re nuts?”

“My God, Ann!” said Goofy. “How can you ask that? All they do is run around in masks and shoot arrows at people!”

Ann shot a critical look at the girl and said, “That’s not all they do! Didn’t you read about that terrible automobile accident where they stopped and helped those people?”

“I saw the news on TV,” said Goofy. “So what? That just proves how stupid they are.”

“Stupid?” said Ann. She was looking at her friends in disbelief.

“Yeah, stupid,” said Goofy. The other two girls, alias the Ugly Stepsisters, were nodding in agreement. The more they talked, the less I liked them.

Ann held her ground. “Well, I don’t think what they did was stupid. I think it was . . . well . . . heroic. I mean, they knew they’d be arrested if they got caught, but they helped those injured people until the police arrived.”

She said the last few words in a soft voice that positively plucked at my young heartstrings. I sat there with an open mouth and two eyes filled with adoration. Luckily, nobody noticed. Ann had called the Bowmen heroic. Wow. She was getting prettier by the minute.

“Okay, fine,” said Ugly Stepsister Number One. “But I still don’t think they have the right to go around shooting people with arrows and running from the police while driving so fast.”

“Right,” said Ugly Stepsister Number Two. “My daddy said the police should shoot ‘em on sight before they hurt somebody!”

I was suddenly very grateful that her daddy was not the mayor or the chief of police. Ann opened her mouth to reply, paused for a thoughtful second, then closed it again. Finally, she looked down at her food and said, “Well, I don’t think that would be right.”

It was obvious even to her dimwitted companions that she wanted to end the discussion. After an awkward moment of silence, they all tried to change the subject, making little effort to include me in it. I had become invisible again. I studied Ann slyly while she wasn’t looking. Her passionate defense of my superhero alter ego had bestowed me with new courage. I was inspired by her praise of the Bowmen. Such praise from one so lovely had been known to win the hearts of stalwart heroes throughout history. For the love of Juliet, Romeo had died. For the beauty of Helen of Troy, the Greeks had launched a thousand ships. For the honor of Maureen O’Hara, John Wayne had beaten the crap out of Victor McLaglen across half of Ireland.

I noticed that Ann was standing up and gathering her things.

“Well, my mother is picking me up outside JCPenney in five minutes, so I guess I’ll see you later.”

“Bye, Ann,” said Goofy and the Hideous Twosome.

“Bye-bye.” She turned to give me a quick smile. “See you later, Brad.” It was little more than a polite afterthought, and I felt my former resolve slink away. Ann rose and started making her way toward the distant JCPenney at the far end of the promenade. I watched her thread her way gracefully through the tables of the dining area, and I knew that this day was going to be even grayer and more depressing from here on out.

Just then I heard my own voice.

“Hey, Ann, wait up!”

I surprised myself by calling out to her just as she reached the outer edge of the dining area. I left the three girls without a backwards glance and hurried after Ann. She stood her ground and looked back at me while the serfs of this poverty stricken province milled about, pretending not to notice the presence of royalty in their midst.

“Yes, Brad?” Her Highness said as I approached. She looked as if she couldn’t quite remember my name. When I reached her, I didn’t know what to say — so I said something desperate and unimaginative.

“I’ll walk with you for a little ways.”

She smiled politely and said, “Okay.”

This is it, Casey. Hit a home run or leave Mudville forever.

I said the first thing that popped into my head — and instantly regretted it. “So, you don’t think the Bowmen are crazy, huh?”

She was gazing at the floor as she walked along slowly. Obviously, she didn't want to talk about the Bowmen anymore. But I couldn’t take back the remark.

“No, I don’t think they’re crazy. But I have no idea why they’re doing it. In one way it seems so silly. But in another way . . . “

Her voice trailed off, and we walked along in silence for a moment. I was itching to explain exactly why the Bowmen did what they did, but I knew I couldn’t. And yet, I had to say something.

“Maybe they’re just teenagers who are goofing around. You know, doing something crazy during summer vacation.”

Ann kept staring straight ahead as she mulled over the idea. She apparently didn’t like it much. The suggestion that it was all just boyish shenanigans wasn’t very romantic. Maybe she wanted the Bowmen to be a group of young war veterans who were using their deadly combat skills to fight criminals.

I wished we could change the subject, but I didn’t know how. Fortunately, Ann did it for me. She shook her lovely blond head and said, “Could we talk about something else, please?”

“Sure. Sorry. Ummm.“ I desperately searched for a subject that would keep the fair Ann interested while I enjoyed her delicious presence. Nothing came to mind.

Suddenly Ann said, “I need to stop in here, Brad. I’ll see you later.” She turned into a craft store, and I just stood there staring at her retreating form with a hopeless expression. It was obvious that she didn’t really want to talk to me, so I strolled down the promenade and tried not to think about how badly the situation had gone.

The funny thing about trying not to think about something is that it never works. So I gave up and faced the problem. Ann thought I was a nerd. Everything I had said so far had confirmed this. Obviously, I needed to say something to convince her otherwise.

That was only strike one, Casey! You've still got two more swings.

Just to kill time, I turned down a short hallway that led to a water fountain and the rest rooms. I hadn’t realized how dry my throat was until I started gulping down the cool water. I stood up, wiped my mouth with my sleeve, and then leaned against the wall while I watched the section of the mall visible at the end of the hallway. Three minutes later, I saw Ann pass by. I waited fifteen seconds and then hurried after her.

“Ann?”

She turned when I called her name. Her expression showed obvious annoyance — not the reaction I was hoping for. But I didn’t let it stop me.

“Yes, Brad?”

“I just remembered that I have to go to JCPenney.”

I felt a dumb smile wrap itself around my face, and I couldn’t pry it off for love or money. Ann turned and walked beside me with the stoic resignation of a cat lover who notices a dog following her home. We moved along with the crowd while I composed a half dozen clever comments and witty remarks — which I quickly rejected because they were neither clever nor witty. I knew I had one last chance to do this right before she decided to call a policeman and have me arrested for being a public nuisance.

Finally, I decided to shoot myself cleanly in the foot by saying something that would either offend her or make her want to talk to me.

“Ann, do you really like those girls you were with?”

I held my breath and stared straight ahead, waiting for her to tell me to mind my own business and stop bother her. After a few moments of total silence from her direction, I glanced over — and discovered she wasn’t beside me anymore. I stopped and looked back to find her standing ten feet behind me with her head cocked to one side, studying me with a puzzled expression. I didn’t know whether to grin and claim I was joking or hang my head and apologize. The inner conflict produced a blank look on my face as I held her gaze and waited for her to say something. Finally, she did — and it certainly wasn't what I expected.

“No, actually . . . I don’t, now that you mention it.”

She walked up and peered at me with green eyes that burned into my brain with their emerald intensity.

“I’ve known them for years, and I used to enjoy being with them, but lately it just hasn’t been the same.” She looked wistful for a moment. Then her face hardened, and her eyebrows dove downward, crowding in on each other until two little creases appeared between them. Her eyes suddenly looked dangerous.

“But I’m warning you, Jones — if you ever tell anybody I said that, I’ll call you a liar and make sure your mother knows your dirty magazines are hidden under your mattress.”

I stared at her in shock. “I don’t have any dirty magazines under my mattress!”

“Don’t be silly,” she said casually. “All teenage boys have dirty magazines under their mattresses.” The hard expression softened a bit, and the dangerous eyes lost their threat as her eyebrows relaxed. A smile started to hatch around the corners of her mouth.

I matched her fractional smile and said, “Actually, I keep my dirty magazines in the basement, on top of a heating duct. It’s safer there.”

Ann’s smile hatched out completely and gave a silent crow of victory, emerald eyes filled with Irish mischief. Softly, she dropped the bomb. “Not anymore, big boy." She gave a low chuckle. "I know your secret.”

All the blood drained out of my face and caught the first train to Chicago.

She turned and started strolling slowly toward JCPenney, knowing full well I was following along with the hook set deeply and the line just taut enough to prevent me from getting loose. I hurried to catch up and walk beside her while I debated whether or not I should take the next step and ask her out. I pondered how to do it until the awkward silence threatened to kill my nerve. Finally I just blurted it out.

“Would you like to play Putt-Putt this weekend? Or go roller skating, maybe?”

Time went into slow motion. Ann glanced down at the floor as she walked next to me, and I saw the two creases reappear between her eyes, but it wasn’t from anger this time. She was trying to think of a nice way to say no. After a thoughtful pause, she spoke.

“I appreciate the offer, Brad, but . . . thanks anyway.” She glanced over and gave me a quick look of obvious sympathy. Frankly, it would have hurt less if she’d just kicked me in the shin and run off cackling maniacally.

Ann stopped at the mall entrance to JCPenney and turned to give me a nice, forced smile. “Well, my mother is picking me up outside the entrance near the women’s clothing department. I’ll see you later, Brad.”

She turned and headed into the store, disappearing from sight when she made a sharp left at a rack of jeans that were on sale, 50% off. There goes my heart. Here comes the heartache. Rejection petrified my ability to move. I stood rooted to the spot, as immobile as the mannequins in the nearby window — but not as well built, and certainly not as well dressed.

Strike three, Casey. There would be no laughter in Mudville, tonight.

I turned slowly and started shuffling toward the mall exit which would take me out into the wet night and the long, lonely walk to my car. As I did, a tiny nagging voice started buzzing in my ear, like an angry umpire shouting from a phone located three feet from my head. I had to stop and listen carefully to what the irritating little twit was ranting about. Something about the strike count being wrong. I puzzled over this strange claim for a moment — and then I realized he was right.

It was only strike two. I had one swing left.

I jogged through JCPenney, weaving my way through the racks and rows of clothing, searching the landscape ahead for blond hair and a petite figure that the overweight women I passed would have sold their souls to possess. As I came in sight of the exit leading out into the parking lot, I saw Ann with her hand on the door, right on the verge of walking out of my life forever.

“Hey, Ann!” My voice echoed in the large open area like the voice of Zeus. I zigzagged around the bewildered mortals. Heads swung around to see who was shouting rudely in such a classy joint. Ann turned to face me at the open door just as a car pulled up at the curb outside. The faint smile she wore was not the expression I expected. Outright anger at my pesky persistence would have been legally justified at this point.

“Yes, Brad?” One creamy eyebrow rose up in the Vulcan gesture of curiosity. I steeled myself to make that third and final swing, even though I was certain the ball would whistle by and smack soundly into the catcher’s mitt, forever shattering my dreams of membership in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

I drew a deep breath and poured my heart and soul out in one quick question that had a snowball’s chance in Death Valley of receiving anything but a firm and frosty “no.”

“Is there any movie playing somewhere you’d like to see? Anything at all.”

And there’s the pitch! It’s a curveball, low and outside. Casey tenses up for the swing. It’s now or never, folks!

Ann seemed to look at me very carefully for a long moment. She glanced at the car that waited by the curb.

“Have you ever seen a movie called The Sea Hawk?” she asked in a silky voice.

“Ummm . . . no.”

“Do you know who Errol Flynn is?”

I desperately wanted to say yes and that he was a close personal friend of mine and he owed me five dollars. But I sensed that deception would be punished unmercifully, so I gave a fearful, honest reply.

“No.”

“Do you like old black-and-white movies?”

Okay, this one I could honestly answer yes — but at this point, I would have said yes if she asked me if I liked liver and onions.

“I love old black-and-white movies!” I told her with a large, relieved grin, happy to finally earn a few points in this complicated game.

“Good. Let’s go see The Sea Hawk this Saturday night. It’s playing at one of those art house theaters downtown. Call me.”

The car at the curb honked impatiently and shattered the moment. Ann turned and went striding out of the store and into the cold, cruel world. Meanwhile, I just stood there like a badly sculpted Greek statue wearing a wacky grin.

Crack! He did it, folks! The Mighty Casey connected with that third and final pitch. The ball is sailing across the field, over the stands, and right out into the wild blue yonder. We may never see that ball again! The fans are storming the field and carrying Casey away on their shoulders. Ladies and gentlemen, this is baseball history!

All of that was just fine for the Mighty Casey, but when I looked at my watch I realized that the Humble Brad Jones was late for dinner.

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Is there no man on Earth who has the wisdom and innocence of a child?
~ The Space Children (1958)
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