Of Masks and Marvels (Part 19)
Of Masks and Marvels
By Bek D Corbin
The next night, I was floating high over the Sileski house. Ma had done a little footwork, and she not only found out where the Sileskis lived, but she found out that Jessie's room was on the second floor, right hand side from the street, overlooking the back yard. Actually, she just walked past the place, and saw the firefighter alert sticker on one of the windows.
Y'know, being constrained by a 10-year-old's schedule really sucks. I had to wait at least an hour, just hanging there in the air. Flying is fun, but just hanging there is so exposed. Finally, the light in her window came on. I waited a few minutes, just in case one of her parents was having a little quality time. I mean, they do on Gilmore Girls, so why not in the Sileski house? Then I carefully floated down to the level of the window, and peeked in. Honest folks, I'm here for the most honorable of reasons!
It was indeed, a 10-year-old girl's room, and the aforementioned pre-teen was sprawled on her bed, doing something that might conceivably pass for homework. Somewhere.
I tapped on the window. No good. Damn bubblegum music! I rapped a little louder. Nothing. Then I set off a very bright spark between my fingers. The girl on the bed looked up, and her eyes went wide with surprise. She skittered over to the window, and her mouth started moving very quickly. Not that I could hear anything on this side of the window.
I gestured for her to open up the window. She did, and "Ohmighawd, itsreallyou, isitreallyyou? Owowimyourbiggestfan andwhattaryoudoninghere? Ohthisissocool! Icantbelieveitsreallyyou!"
"Excuse me, I really don't mean to interrupt, but could I come in? I'd like to talk to you, and it really isn't the kind of thing that you can say hovering twenty feet off the ground."
She opened the window wide and stepped back to let me in. I climbed in and took a better look at her. Jessie was average height for a ten-year-old (I guess- what do I know about that kind of thing?), slim, and had long dark hair. Her eyes were large, dark, intelligent and absolutely sparkling. She was bouncing in place, savagely restraining a giggle with her bared teeth. She was wearing a long flannel nightgown tricked out like the jersey of the local baseball team and bunny slippers. Once I was completely in, she asked- again very quickly, but at least this time, she actually paused for a nano-second between words-, "What are you doing here? Is the house on fire or something? Is there a monster or something heading this way? This is so cool! I just love you! What's going on?"
"Don't worry, there isn't a monster or anything on it's way-"
"Does your mother know that you talk like that?"
"What, you think that I'm stupid, or something? So, why are you here?"
"Okay, this is gonna be a lot harder in light of that last question. Okay, Jessie, here's the thing- I heard through my sources that your mother is very worried about you."
"Why? Have I been selected as a ritual sacrifice by a devil-worshipping cult?"
"No... Nothing like that."
"From what I've heard, your mother is worried, because you've been playing around with heavy electrical current."
Jessie made an irritated noise. "Oh, THAT! I was fooling around with the house wiring, trying to get enough juice for my experiment."
<Nnnrrgg...> "Well, I _was_ worried that you were messing around with Heavy Power lines. But house current isn't anything to play around with, either. What were you doing, anyway?"
"Like I said, I was trying to get enough juice for my experiment."
"What kind of experiment? You do realize that trying to revive the dead is illegal in all states and territories for a very good reason."
"You want to see my experiment?" She rushed over to her closet and dragged out an array of components nailed to a board. She hurriedly set about describing her project. It was a device to control electrical devices at a distance by powering them through induction.
"Not bad, the basic configuration looks good- but where are your project notes?"
"You know, the log of what happened each time that you tried a variation of the frequency."
"Uhm, I don't keep one."
"Then how do you do the math to figure out how well you're doing?"
<nnnnggg> "I'm not that good at Math."
"What? You're into electronics, but you don't do Math?"
"Sure! I like using my hands and getting the stuff to do the right thing. Math just gets in the way."
"Oh, I know what you're talking about! But, take it from someone who's been there, you get a LOT fewer projects melting down if you can use the math." I took the math textbook from her bed, and showed her how each of the basic principles that they were trying to teach her applied to her electronics project. We spent the better part of an hour talking tech-geek. By the end of the hour, she was jotting down notes as if it were second nature.
"So, Lady Lightning-"
"Why so formal? Call me 'Butch'."
"What's it like being a superhero?"
"Well, half of the time it's great, half of the time I'm scared out of my wits, half of the time I hurt so bad that I want to lay down and die, and half of the time I wonder if I'm really doing any good."
"You said 'half of the time' four times. You can only have two halves."
"See? You're doing better with your Math already!"
"I mean, what's it really like, going out and beating up the bad guys?"
"Well, I got it a little better than the cops do- the bad guys that I deal with are pretty up front about it. The cops have to deal with punks who are usually a lot more subtle about it."
She grinned at me, her eyes shining. "It must be great!"
"Well, everyone at AEGIS is constantly complaining about how it messes up their privates lives, especially Iron John, but so far nobody's throwing in the cap."
Jessie almost bubbled over when I mentioned AEGIS. "AEGIS? Ohthatsrightyouramember! What is Titan like? How does Battalion do that thing where weapons pop out of nowhere? Is Sapphire really that beautiful? Can Power Woman really lift a tank over her head? Are you and Justiciar really dating?"
"Uhm, well, let's see, Titan is, well.. Titan. I can't say that much more about him without getting personal, if you see what I mean. We have this teleportation device at AEGIS HQ, and Battalion radios in requests for the teleporter's operator to send him various pieces of equipment. Yes, Sapphire really IS that beautiful. And a very nice person, too. And well, I've never seen Power Woman lift a tank over her head..."
Fortunately, Jessie was on too much of a roll to notice that I'd glossed over about Ted and me. "Oh wow, I would LOVE to be a superhero!"
"Well, I admit that it has its moments." I couldn't help but smile.
"I just can't WAIT until I tell Tamara and Melissa at school tomorrow! They'll totally melt down!"
"Ahhh.. Slow Down, Speed Racer! It's not a very good idea if you go telling everyone about this."
"Why NOT? That snotty Peggy Chisolm will just lay down and DIE! She thinks that she's so hot, just because her aunt is a State Trooper-"
"Jessie, it's not a good idea for one very good reason."
""They'll either believe you, or they won't and neither will be any good for you."
"Jessie, if they don't believe you, you'll keep trying to convince them that I really came here to talk with you. You'll keep insisting that it happened so hard, that people with either think that you're a stone cold liar, or they'll think that you can't tell the difference between reality and fantasy. In the first case, even your friends will stop talking to you. In the second case, you look forward to wasting your time and your parents' money having your head shrunk. And those kid psychologists are good. After a while, you'll start wondering whether this happened or not. And you'll lose your confidence in yourself. Jessie, you are a great kid- I really don't want to see you lose your confidence."
"But, what if I bring them something that will PROVE that you came here? Like a photograph or something?"
"Then, it gets really nasty. If you could somehow prove that I came here, then the word gets around." I got up out of the chair that I'd been sitting in, and walked over to one of the walls. Like most of the other walls of Jessie's room, there were posters, newspaper shots and magazine pictures of me taped up. I pointed to one of She-Devil and me going at it hammer and tongs. I pointed at She-Devil's picture. "And there's the big reason why that would be bad."
"She-Devil? Kewl!" Jessie's eyes lit up.
"NO, not cool! Jessie, she wouldn't just try and grab you as a hostage. You're thinking that that would be fun, an adventure. But believe me, She-Devil wouldn't bother. She'd just hurt you, even if she thought that there was the slightest chance that it brings me any pain. Why do you think that I wear this mask?"
"Because it's cool?"
"Oh yeah, well that too. Jessie, I wear this mask because if I didn't, every member of my family would be at risk. They keep the names of active Navy SEALS secret for the same reasons. There are too many people who would try to get some payback by taking potshots at the family. Or they'd try to get in good with big name slimeballs or try to make a name for themselves or stuff like that."
"Yeah, but Cops go after the bad guys, and they don't wear masks or make a big deal about it."
"True enough, but there's sort of an understanding between Cops and professional crooks. They leave families out of it. Cops don't lean on crooks' families for information about them, and Crooks leave Cops' families alone. If a crook or an organized crime outfit leaned on a Cops' family, the entire police force would mobilize to bust their chops. And most of the crooks in the area would help them. But that doesn't cover superheroes. Jessie, if She-Devil thought that you were special to me in any way, she wouldn't kidnap you- she'd just kill you. That is, if she didn't do something like burning you and letting you live with horrible disfiguring injuries. And Jessie? That's exactly the kind of thing that she would do. And she'd probably kill your parents, right in front of your eyes before she did it, just to be evil." I took She-Devil's picture off the wall and lit it, to make a point.
I looked in Jessie's eyes and saw that she was rattled. Damn! I hadn't wanted to spook her that much! I just didn't want her telling all of her friends and stirring up a mess. I had to get her mind off of it, or she'd be having nightmares. "And, even if She-Devil just decided that you weren't worth the effort, there'd be all kinds of kooks and cranks and slimeballs trying to make a buck off of you." I told her about Conrad Paulsen, the sleazoid who tried to rip me off with his cheapo posters. "Now, you don't want a greaseball like Paulsen to come sleazing around, filling your Mom's head with all kinds of Hoo-Rah, do you?"
Jessie made a gagging face. Her family being burned to death, was more than she could handle, but a lying good for nothing ratsass like Paulsen, she could deal with. "Oh Man, I would love to be a superhero! You don't need a sidekick or anything, do you? I mean, you could give me a few superpowers, and I could be Dynagirl or something!"
<Heh> "Well, first of all, 'Dynagirl' is taken. Old TV show. Believe me, you don't wanna be associated with that. Second, I can't just 'give you a superpower'."
"It's impossible! We don't know how some people get super powers from certain things while the vast majority of other people die. We don't know what the trigger is, let alone the scientific reason why it happens."
"How did YOU get your super powers?"
"Well, I was in a life-threatening situation, and they kicked in. And since convincing you that doing something really dangerous is NOT the way to get super powers is the reason that I came here in the first place, I'm not gonna tell you what the situation was."
"But wouldn't it be safer, if you meant to give me super powers?"
"No. Actually, the statistics are even worse. Experiments in giving people 'super powers' wind up 999 times out of a thousand in killing the poor schmuck on the slab. And that's if they're lucky."
"But what about Captain America?"
"He's a comic book character."
"Yeah, but didn't they base him on a real guy from back in World War II?"
"Yeah, 'Captain Eagle'. But the whole 'Super-Soldier Process' thing was mind-game that the OSS and the SOE, those were the American and English covert operations outfits back then- were playing on the Nazis. There was NO 'Super-Soldier Process'. 'Captain Eagle' wasn't a single guy; he was a whole bunch of guys that they loaded up with amphetamines before they sicced them on a machine gun nest or something. They were so loaded up on Speed, that they'd take several bullets and not feel it until an hour or so later. Even the 'Captain Eagle' guys that managed to walk out in one piece were usually crazier than a Republican during a Democratic administration. There was this one guy who somehow got superhuman strength and speed from the process, but he was stone-cold nuts.
"And even if I could give you super powers, having a 'kid sidekick' is illegal."
"What? Since when?"
"Well, back in the 1950's, there was this guy named Wertham who wrote a book called 'Seduction of the Innocent'. In his book, Wertham claimed that Batman and Robin's relationship was... well... unhealthy."
"Well, you gotta admit that the whole Batman and Robin thing was a little screwy. I mean, the courts are not going to give a swinging bachelor- even a _rich_ swinging bachelor- custody of a kid. And then there's problems with the whole secret identity thing. I can just hear Dick Greyson's guidance counselor: 'Mister Wayne? I'd like to talk to you about Dick's absences. Yes, I know that the Joker was threatening to blow up the city, but what does that have to do with anything? And about those mysterious bruises and abrasions that Dick's always turning up with...' Anyway, after Seduction of the Innocent came out, there were a raft of lawsuits charging various superheroes and superheroines with endangering minors, and then there were a whole bunch of laws passed making the whole 'Kid Sidekick' thing illegal."
Jessie curled up into a ball "So, there's no way that I could ever become a superhero." <pout!>
Dang, I didn't come here to crush the kid's dreams, either. "Well, not necessarily."
Jessie started to uncurl. "While there's no way that _I_ can give you superpowers, or for you to safely get super powers through Weird Science, there IS a way."
She looked at me pleadingly.
" 'The Power', as we in the super-business call it, seems to come to people in forms that are dictated by their field of expertise. For instance, in my civilian ID, I'm an electrical engineer. Since I really understand electricity and magnetism, my powers are electro-magnetic. But that's dangers. People who study the Martial Arts sometimes- very rarely- manifest the Power in the form of superior strength, speed and perception."
"Really? Do you think that my parents might let me study Kung Fu or somethin'?"
Actually they might. But Jessie struck me as the kind who might get impatient and give up on it. Maybe if she built up to it... "I dunno. Martial Arts lessons cost money, and your parents probably won't want to waste money on something that... exotic if it comes straight out of the blue. How about this? Ask your parents if you can join a Soccer team."
"Sure! If you go out for Soccer and keep at it for a while, then your parents will take you that much more seriously when you start talking to them about Kung Fu lessons. AND, you'll be in better shape when you do start taking lessons. Besides, if you do somehow get super powers, being on the Soccer team will be great training!"
"Okay, now I _know_ you're yanking my chain!"
"No, I'm serious! Soccer is perfect training for being on a Superhero team! In Soccer, the action is always moving in different directions; the advantage can suddenly reverse in the blink of an eye; you have to know where both your opposition and you teammates are at all times, and what they're doing; you have to be able to figure out what either side is trying to do without having it spelled out for you; and you have to be able and willing to drop what you're doing and help out a teammate at a moment's notice. And, best of all, in Soccer, you can afford to be learning how to do all of that, because it's just a game. Nobody's gonna blow up the world, if you don't intercept the ball." <Memo to Self: Talk to the AEGIS crew about having Soccer training sessions. Though Titan will probably insist on 'shirts and skins'- with the boys wearing the shirts.>
Jessie looked at me like she wasn't quite sure what to make of it. <sigh> "Tell you what, Jessie- If you join a Soccer club, I'll drop by every so often and see how you're doing."
"REALLY? Jessie's eyes went round as saucers.
"Really, really, really?"
"Okay, now you're doing it on purpose. But if you're gonna be a superheroine in training-" Jessie gave an elated *gleep!* "-then you have to start applying yourself. Besides being fit, if you're going to go toe-to-toe with the like of Berserker and Nasghul, you have to have something going on upstairs, too. I didn't outfight Berserker, I out-thought him! And the other superheroes are gonna expect something of you, too! Hey, Titan may come off as this big goof, but he's a college student, too. He studies Engineering."
"Well, think about it! Even with HIS enormous strength, he still has to know how to do things just right or his strength will do more damage than the people he's fighting. Ms. Hex doesn't just read people's minds- she's also an expert psychologist. And if you're gonna be a superheroine, you have to know about the Law, First Aid, History-"
"Sure! How do you think I knew all that stuff about Captain Eagle? If you don't know what happened way back when, then you don't really know about what's going on now. And if you don't know what's going on now, how will you know what to do when the grit hits the fan?"
"_wow._" Jessie suddenly looked overwhelmed by it all."
"Hey, I don't expect you to know everything all at once. Well, It's like the Math- before I pointed out how you could use it with your electronics project, it seemed kind of pointless, right? Well it's the same with all the other stuff. Just figure out why they bother to teach it in the first place. When you know why you should study it, the rest becomes a lot easier."
"Is it okay if I keep working on my inductive circuit over-ride?"
"I would take it as a personal insult if you didn't. Just ask your Dad to help you with hooking up the house current, okay? If nothing else, it will keep your Mom from worrying."
Jessie nodded her head in that way that is more binding than a thousand signed and notarized documents. We shook on the deal, and spent several more very enjoyable minutes geeking out over her inductive circuit over-ride.
Then there was a knock on the door. "Jessie?", a woman's voice from behind the door said. "Are you in bed?"
The door began to open, and I floated up to the ceiling before Jessie's mother could see me. "Well, you'd better get in bed, Pronto, young lady!"
Jessie's mother helped her put the project away, and then steered her to the bathroom to make sure that her teeth were brushed. As soon as the door was closed, I floated down. I picked up a pen and wrote on Jessie's project notes, 'Remember our deal. L.L.'
Well, that's that. I walked over to the window in the dark and let myself out. But, as I rose up into the sky, a vile thought hit me. I was a guy dressed as a woman (still, more or less, for a while), who had snuck into the bedroom of a prepubescent girl without her parent's permission and was sneaking out again. Hell, it sounded vile and seamy to ME, and I knew that it was totally innocent. Let's face it, I couldn't really enter into this relationship with Jessie without her parents' permission, let alone knowledge. I had to talk to them.
I floated above the house for a while. Then the light in Jessie's room went on for a short time, and went out again. Jessie was in bed. I waited for a few minutes, and floated down into the back yard. I landed on the back porch and gently knocked on the kitchen door.
It took a while, but a thirtyish man in a college sweater came through the kitchen and opened the back door. He looked at me with an amused look on his face. "Okay, who put you up to this? Was it George at the plant? Very funny. Nice job on the costume, too!"
I magno-snagged a cast iron skillet from its hook by the oven and handed it to him. "Thank you, Mister Sileski. May I come in?"
He scraped his jaw up off of the floor and gestured me in. "Ahhhh... Helen? Would you come into the kitchen?"
Helen Sileski came bustling into the kitchen. She was a slim, attractive woman, a few years younger than her husband, with the same coloring as her daughter. If, as they say, you can see a woman's future in her mother, then Jessie would grow up into a lovely woman. She stopped in her tracks when she saw me, and a sharp look crossed her face. "Oh REALLY, Harvey! Did you hire this woman? Don't I have to put up with enough of that idiotic 'Lady Lightning' nonsense from Jessie?"
"Ah, Honey- I didn't hire this woman. I think that she's the real Lady Lightning."
"Oh yeah, RIGHT! Like a real superheroine is just gonna drop in unannounced in the middle of the night for a cup of coffee." Helen crossed her arms and gave me the 'Well?' look that I knew so well from my own mother.
I magno-snagged a chair away from the table and sat down in it. "Y'know, a cup of coffee might just be what the doctor ordered."
Helen Sileski's face went blank, and she numbly went over to the coffee maker.
Harvey sat down at the table. "Why are you here? Is it about Jessie? What, is she some kind of mutant or something?"
"No more than any other ten-year-old. But I AM here about Jessie." Without mentioning Ma, I explained about how I'd heard about Jessie's interest in me, and Helen's worries. I described my discussion with Jessie in her room. When Harvey started to object, I held up my hand and said, "YES, I know that I should have talked with you first. But I didn't want to blow it all out of proportion, or get the media involved. Anyway, tomorrow or very soon at least, Jessie will ask you about going out for Soccer. If you say Yes, then I've agreed to drop in on her on a regular basis. If you say No, well then my agreement has no basis, and you won't have to worry about me dropping in."
Helen and Harvey looked at each other. Helen started uncertainly, "Well, I'm not sure about all of this..."
"In defense of the idea," I interrupted, "If she's trying to impress ME, then You won't have to lean on Jessie so much to do her homework. Her grade will probably improve, and you won't have to be the Bad Guy to do it."
Harvey gave me a look. "And why would she want to impress YOU so much?"
I shot an amused half-smile at him. "It HAS been a while since you were a kid, hasn't it, Harv? Think back to the late Seventies- if Cyberhawk had swooped out of the sky and told you that he thought that you had the potential to be a superhero in training, how would You feel? What would you do to keep his good opinion?"
Harvey leaned back and a nostalgic look crept across his face. "Actually, I was more of a Night Tiger fan, but I know what you mean."
Helen gave me a worried look. "Do you really think that Jessie might become a superheroine?"
I waggled my hand in a 'maybe-maybe not' gesture. "More to the point, I think that Jessie has the potential to grow up into a truly remarkable young woman. I think with the proper motivation, that Jessie could become the kind of human being that this world needs more of. I'm willing to drop by and help keep up her motivation in that direction."
Helen's worried look went sharp. "And what's in this for you, Lady?"
I laughed. "Well, I admit, there's a large element of pure Ego involved. It's rather heady, having this great kid looking up at you like the sun sets on your shoulders and the moon is your belt buckle. Y'know, now I know _why_ those 1940-1950's superheroes had those kid sidekicks. The notion that you could help this young person- and y'know, in this context 'young person isn't so pompous? You see them as a PERSON, an adult in the making. And you could help this young _person_ grow into a really great adult, the kind of adult that leads nations or inspires movements- God, what a challenge!"
Harvey took a deep drink of his coffee. "I want your word that you won't put Jessie in any kind of danger."
I reached up and took my mask off. "Harvey, look into my eyes. See in these eyes, that I would rather rip out these eyes with my own hands, than let any harm, anything at all, happen to Jessie."
Harvey Sileski looked deep into my eyes. Apparently, he was satisfied. He nodded.
Helen let out a deep breath. "Well, I don't have any problems with the Soccer. But the Kung Fu lessons! They're so expensive!"
I held up a hand. "Not to worry. When Jessie asks about the Martial Arts lessons, tell her that if she sticks with the Soccer for six months and her grades improve, that you'll let her go. I'll pay for the lessons out of my own pocket. Hey, they were MY idea in the first place; I'll make good on the expenses."
Harvey and Helen had one of those long, involved discussions with only their eyes. The, wordlessly, they came to a conclusion. "All right. Let's see how it turns out. But I want your word that you won't let anything happen to Jessie."
I raised my right hand and said, "Do you have a bible handy?"
"Just your word will do."
"You have it."
"Well! I'll go upstairs and give Jessie the news."
Harvey smiled. "Oh, don't do that, Hon!" Apparently, his little jog down Memory Lane had him thinking like a kid again. "After all, where's the fun of having a secret relationship with a superheroine, if your _parents_ know about it!"
"But I don't want Jessie keeping secrets from us!"
"Dear, maybe you don't remember, but when you're a kid, one of the great joys is having a super-special secret that's all your own. And this one's a PIP! Do you really want to take that away from Jessie?"
You could see the war between maternal reflexes and rekindled childhood conspiracy wage across Helen's face. She sighed, sat down and nodded.
Then we got down to thrashing out details.
THREE WEEKS LATER
Harvey Sileski pulled his pickup besides the house as he brought his daughter home from her first game. Jessie clumped up the back steps to the kitchen door and went inside.
"How did the game go?" Helen asked.
Jessie stalked by her in grim silence.
"They lost by ONE POINT. And she was busting her hump to get the ball to the goal just as the whistle blew."
Jessie clumped up the stairs to her room and plopped down on her bed fuming. She looked around. There was something about the shadows on the floor. She looked at the window. Near the end of the moving pane of glass was a small dark square.
Jessie got up and went to the window. It was a polaroid snapshot, taped to the outside of the window. She opened the window and reached around to get the snapshot. It was shot from above, a picture of her last minute charge for the goal. On the back was written in black marker, 'YOU WAS ROBBED!'
Continuted in Part 20...