JUSTICE LEAGUE

61

Storytellers
 

They said you were in here,” Sera said. When this didn’t elicit any response, she said, “They said you wouldn’t mind if I came in.”

“Whatever,” X-Raytor replied, his voice low. He went on staring at the rows of framed newspaper clippings that lined the walls of the Justice League’s trophy room.

“So, um, I heard about your little vacation,” she said, with a hollow laugh.

“And do you believe me?” He didn’t turn around.

“Well, uh, all I know is that you went into another dimension, and that’s pretty much it…”

“Doesn’t matter anyway.”

There was a lengthy silence. This is just ridiculous, Sera thought. Bite the bullet, already.

But, if she knew James-and she did know James, quite well-he was liable to get cranky if she raised that particular subject. After the Elena break-up, for example, he’d been particularly nasty.

Then again, he’d changed in the years since she’d last talked to him. He’d changed a lot.

“James,” she said, “I heard about Cara.”

X-Raytor didn’t reply at first, but took a few steps to his side, examining a new set of newspaper articles. From where she was standing, Sera could read a headline: “Oreo Avenger thwarts Black Coal!” Clearly a Daily News headline.

“Really,” he said at last. “Well, I’m impressed. That must have been some serious investigative journalism. I mean, me, it took, like, a year to find out anything, and I was one of her friends.”

“Okay, sorry I brought it up. Look, I really came here to talk about our family.”

“Hm, and the hits just keep on coming,” X-Raytor mumbled.

Sera decided to ignore that. “Well, you talked to Sampson, right?”

No response.

“James.”

“Yeah, I talked to him.”

“And…?”

“And what?”

“And what did he say?”

“He didn’t say anything.”

“He didn’t say anything?”

“Yep, you’ve got it.”

“Nothing?”

“Well, he said something along the lines of ‘that’s classified,’ but, no, nothing else.”

Sera mulled this over for a moment. “Well… well then we need to start looking somewhere else. If he won’t tell you anything, at least that still means they’re out there somewhere, right?”

“Whatever,” X-Raytor said.

“James,” Sera said. “Come on.”

“Look, you want to know where they are? Fine. Here. I’ll tell you: they are locked up in some government sweatbox, gibbering and drooling and dripping irradiated snot all over the place, while a bunch of yutzes in labcoats monitor their brain waves. That’s what’s happening to them.”

Usually when X-Raytor snapped like this, the person he was speaking to would try to, gently, get him to talk about what was really bothering him.

Sera, however, had grown up with him, and thus knew that there was absolutely no logical excuse to take his crap.

“Okay, then,” she said. “Go f*** yourself.”

A few moments later, the double doors of the trophy room slammed shut behind her.

“Whatever,” X-Raytor mumbled.

***

“Ram the Blade Ship!” Midnight shouted again. He ran into the cockpit. “It’s our only hope! I’ve seen these things in action! Well, I saw one on TV once…AniTV…”

The pilot pushed Midnight aside and ran for the open hatch. “You ram the Blade ship! I’m outta here!” He threw himself into the open sky. Seconds later, he exploded into green light, leaving nothing behind but a thin cloud of dust. The Blade ship zoomed through, scattering the particles into oblivion.

“Little deuce coop’s behind us, dude!”

“Hang on!” Midnight yelled, yanking the wheel sharply left. “We’ve got to hit the bridge and, I don’t know, maybe that’ll distract them enough for us to get to the ground and get away. Ack! Dracon cannon fire! Hang on! Okay, here we go!”

Midnight ran for the open hatch and pushed Jo out ahead of him. “Jump!” he yelled.

The plane plowed into the Blade Ship, setting off a series of explosions that culminated in a giant blast that demolished the engine. The final explosion was loud and green and spectacular, and if Midnight hadn’t been in it, he might have appreciated it more.

“Cowabunga!” Jo slipped his feet into the special loops on Barbara Ann and surfed though the air, dodging debris. Meanwhile, Midnight frantically tugged on the chute release rope.

“Jo!” he yelled when the other hero drifted near. “Jo, my chute won’t open! It must’ve got damaged in the explosion! I’m going to die!”

“Chill, dude!” Jo yelled. “Did you try the back-up chute?”

Midnight immediately pulled another cord. He pulled it again. And again.

“That’s broken, too! I’m going to die!”

“Bummer,” Jo said, searching thought his zippered pockets.

“I’m never going to have another MLT, you know, mutton lettuce and tomato, when the mutton is nice and lean and the tomatoes are ripe. They’re so perky. I love that. Love! Oh! I never told-“

“Catch!”

Midnight looked up in time for a can to bounce off his helmet and land in his hands. “Ack! What is it?”

“Red Bull!”

What the-“

“It gives you wiiiiiiiings!”

Midnight glared at Jo. “I hate you so very, very much.”

“Just try it!” Jo said.

“But Red Bull’s so gross! You can’t just drink it straight!”

“It works in the commercials!”

“I heard that if you drink a whole Red Bull your heart’ll burst out of your chest. Or maybe that’s a whole case.” He looked at the can for a long moment. “You know, it’s so crazy it just might work.”

“Awesome!”

They fell in silence, Midnight drinking, Jo twirling upside down.

“Well?” Jo finally asked.

“It’s got a weird metallic tang.”

“Yeah, it’s a couple years old.”

Midnight sighed. “Once again television has lied to us. I should know that by now. When I was little I tried swinging over the top bar to become Inside-Out Boy, but all I got was a concussion. Wait! I was watching a show last week about extreme sports accidents and this guy I went to school with, Cooper, he was the host of the show. I always knew he’d end up in TV.” Midnight looked down. The ground seemed much closer. “So he said if your chute malfunctions to hook your arms in the straps of someone else’s chute and you won’t die!”

“Only one problem, dude.”

“Yeah?”

“I don’t have a chute?”

Midnight took a deep breath. “Then what’s in that thing strapped to your back?”

“Pie,” Jo said happily. “Dude, what’s that look for? I figured we’d be hungry after the jump and all. Besides, what’s the point of doing anything without the threat of messy death at the end? I’m kidding! I got a plan.”

“Like your Red Bull plan?”

“Even better,” Jo said. “Just be quiet. I gotta concentrate.”

The breeze started from below, unnoticed in the wind from the fall, but growing stronger and stronger until, by the time they reached treetop level they’d almost stopped completely. Jo carefully returned Barbara Ann to her place on his shoulder. The wind set him lightly on his feet. Midnight bellyflopped into a nearby pond.

“Yeah!” Jo punched his fist into the air. “How awesome was that? We have to do this again! You want some pie?” Midnight walked toward him, eyes fixed on a point somewhere behind Jo’s shoulder.

“Dude?”

“I think I’m hallucinating.”

Jo turned around.

***

“And that’s when the first cow hit,” Jo said in the same monotone he’d used for the rest of the story, staring at a point two inches in front of his nose. The three of them sat in the hospital waiting room, Scarlett next Jo, one of his hands in her own, Oreo across from them, glaring at her feet.

“The wind picked them up or something, I don’t know. It’s like that movie, with the cows, and the wind.”

“With the tornados and that one girl?” Scarlett asked.

“Maybe.” Jo sighed again and leaned back in the hard waiting room chair. “Midnight tried to get away, of course, but the cow just gave this huge moo of death and that was it. I tried to do something, I know I could’ve done something, but that’s when the lightning hit me. And then…and that’s…” Jo took a deep breath, tears in his eyes. “The second cow hit Barbara Ann. I tried to find all the pieces, I really did, but she shattered all over and the lightning strike weakened her and the wind stole some of the fragments away.” Jo hung his head. “I-I did all I could for her but it wasn’t enough.”

Oreo rolled her eyes. “It’s just a surfboard,” she said, her first words since she and Scarlett rushed to the hospital. “Get over it.”

“Oreo!”

“She wasn’t just a surfboard!” Jo leapt to his feet, glaring down at Oreo. “She was everything! She was my everything!”

“Midnight’s in surgery after getting squashed by a cow, a cow which, I might add, was blown there in a wind Jo created, and he’s more concerned about a surfboard! That’s messed up.”

“You didn’t even know Barbara Ann!”

Oreo crossed her arms over her chest. “It’s a surf-freaking-board.”

Jo lunged at Oreo. She jumped up, fists ready.

“Hey!” Scarlett yelled, pushing the two apart. “Calm down, both of you! Now is not the time to be fighting! Oreo, go get some coffee or something.”

“I hate coffee.”

Scarlett sighed. “Just get away from here before-“

A polite cough interrupted her. They looked at the white-coated doctor standing a respectful distance away.

“Excuse me,” he said. “Are you the guy who came in with Benjamin Dover?”

Jo nodded. “I couldn’t remember his real name,” he whispered to Scarlett.

The doctor moved closer to conversation distance. “I’m sorry,” he said. Oreo sat down suddenly.

“I’m sorry.”

***

This story isn’t about me.

I’m in it, sure, but this story isn’t about me. Not really. It’s about a guy I used to know. Used to work with, you could say. And lived with. And… well, you get the picture.

His name, when I knew him, was Midnight Chatter.

I’ve never liked funerals. I mean, I can’t really think of anyone who does… but most people are able to, you know, distance themselves. Most people can just go to a funeral and treat it as business and be somber and truly sad during it, and then go on with their day afterwards. Not me. Funerals just wreck me, always have. I just stand there feeling miserable the whole time, and I don’t want to offer an condolences or anything, because I’m afraid that I’ll just hurt someone’s feelings, and I’m always the youngest person at these things anyway, so what does a kid, this stupid teenage girl, know about loss and all of that?

I know that it’s supposed to be a memorial, remembering this person’s life and how much it meant to everyone. But I can never get over the fact that this person is gone, just gone and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.

Not that I’ve been to too many funerals, thankfully. In fact, the most I went to were after I joined, which isn’t that much of a surprise-Dragon Girl, Superdude, OMEGA. Scarlett and Violet, even if they weren’t really dead. That poor Walton kid.

Neomatrix.

But, before that, there was Gram’s, when she passed away, and the one cousin of my mom’s. My mom, I think, is the only person who had a worse reaction to funerals than I did. She got smashed, cranky, and then really, really guilty, and I’d have to call a cab to take her home.

You know, maybe that’s why I don’t like funerals.

When I got to the front gate, there was this frumpy, yet kind of pretty, old woman acting as a receptionist or something. She had a guest list and a little remote control to open the gate with. I’d never seen her before-I guess they hired her after I left.

“Hello, dear,” she said. “May I have your name or your party’s name?”

“Um, I’m Charlotte Fyre,” I said. She started to scan her guest list, and then gave me a look.

“Dear, please tell me you didn’t just give your name as Scarlett Fyre. I may be an old woman, but-”

“Oh, no, it’s Charlotte. Like… like the spider.”

She cocked an eyebrow guardedly. “You’re not the twin sister, are you?”

“No. No, I’m not related to Scarlett.”

“Right.” She went back to checking her guest list. “I’m sorry, dear, but I don’t see…”

“Twisk,” I said. “I used to be Twisk.”

She let out a little, “Ah,” and flipped to another piece of paper, beneath her initial list. She checked something, and then gave me a broad smile, like the last few moments were completely erased.

“Ms. Fyre. We’re so very glad you could join us this morning. Park in the circular drive, immediately behind the first car you come to. Try to squeeze in, too, please, we have a lot of people to fit in here today.”

“Thank you, ma’am. I will.”

She opened the gate and I drove through. This was the first time I’d been back since October, since when I quit. It was still weird introducing myself as “Charlotte Fyre” after being Twisk for two years. I hadn’t even really been Charlotte before-before I was “Charlie.” I don’t know why I didn’t pick that nickname up again after I left. I just… didn’t. Things change.

They were holding the funeral in that big, grassy yard behind the Hall. It was a really wet day; not raining just yet, but wet anyways, with big, gray, saturated clouds and a dampness that clings to the grass and everything. They had a few awnings set up out there, in case it did start raining, which really didn’t make much sense to me-Jo Surf could control the weather, right? So why not just have him clear the skies? Why keep it overcast as it was?

Don’t get me wrong, I like wet days. I like anytime when there’s lots and lots of water around, water that I can sculpt and twist and dance with. It’s just not my favorite weather for funerals.

The coffin was in the middle of the yard, on this little stage, with flowers and pictures and stuff lying around it. There were two framed pictures-a photo of him, much younger, without the costume, and a portrait of him in costume. The portrait would end up in the trophy room, on the wall with all of the others. People milled around the coffin-this was the viewing, I guess-but I didn’t recognize most of them. Scarlett was there, though, and Oreo Avenger. I decided not to go up to the coffin just yet.

I’d never been all that close to Midnight Chatter. He got on my nerves some times-he was always, and I mean always, talking. Like his name. But the thing I remember most about him were his stories. He’d always tell us about this aunt of his, and all the crazy stuff she did. How she had a wooden leg, and how she ate squirrels, and how she’d once secretly married Kevin Costner. I never acted like I was listening, because I was still tough and cynical and stupid then, but those stories… well, they’re some of my nicest memories from my time as Twisk.

There were, as the receptionist or whoever had said, a lot of people, all in suits and dresses, and, of course, a few in masks. The mayor was there, and a few military guys in full uniform. They were kind of making Midnight into a patriot, seeing how he’d died taking out a Blade Ship and all, but I didn’t see any big-name politicians.

I only really knew the Justice Leaguers, who were scattered here and there. I’d never been really close friends with any of them, so I milled around a bit until I found someone I felt like talking to. Netic and Drew were standing near one of the awnings. I walked up, and, about a yard away, they stopped talking.

“Um, hi guys,” I said.

“Twisk,” Netic said. If she was trying to hide her surprise, she wasn’t doing a very good job. “Hi.”

“It’s Charlotte,” I said. “I’m not… anyway. How are you guys?”

Netic and Drew exchanged glances. They were both wearing black dresses and you really wouldn’t have known they were super heroes unless, well, you knew them. Not that either of them had ever really had much of a costume. Not like X-Raytor, or Studmuffin, or Pinzz.

Or Midnight.

Or me.

“Fine,” Drew said. She didn’t look surprised to see me, but there was this accusatory glint in her eyes. I could feel my ears getting hot. Back in the day, back when I was Charlie, and, I guess, in the early days of Twisk, I would have just glared back and done my “tough girl from the streets” act, but now I just felt embarrassed. Like I said, things change.

“Comparatively fine, at least,” Drew continued, “with any other super hero group in the country who’s lost a member and has an entire City hating its guts.”

“Ah. Sorry to hear that.”

Drew’s frown became more pronounced. “I’m sure you are.”

“So, how’s civilian life?” Netic asked. Her brow was furrowed, and I could tell she was worried about there being a fight. But there was something else in her eyes, something brittle and helpless and despairing. Netic had never played peacekeeper before-she was a girl from the ‘hood, like me and Drew.

I remembered what I’d read in the papers last month, after that whole thing with the new guy, Julian. About how he’d attacked Netic.

And I felt so sorry for her, and I wanted to give her a hug or something, but I knew that if I betrayed even the slightest amount of pity, then whatever was so bright and fragile behind her eyes would break, and she’d be really hurt.

So I said: “Oh, well, it’s great. I bought an apartment and my mom’s… well, I haven’t really talked to my mom, but she’s staying out of my business. I’m going to be 18 next year, so I won’t have to worry about anything then,” I paused, thinking hard. There had to be something more impressive than this. “Um… I got a job. At this music store in South Side. It’s kind of a rough neighborhood, but it’s a great job, and the people are cool, and, um… yeah.”

“Oh,” Netic said, nodding. “That’s cool.”

Which meant: “Oh. You used to be a super heroine, a member of the Justice League, and now… you work at a record store? Oh.”

Not like this was news to me. It’s not easy to just go from super life to, well, ordinary life. I had a hard time of it, and a few times I’d put on my costume and go out at night, just… I don’t know, looking for crime or something. It was stupid, and I don’t do it anymore. I spent some time in this ex-super hero support group, and they were nice and all… but after a few weeks, I felt like I had a different problem than everyone else there. Everyone else was having such a hard time letting go of the old life and, aside from those few little night trips, I didn’t have any trouble with that.

What I did have trouble with was not having a life to go to once I let go of the old one. I just wanted to, you know, just be me, just be myself, who I am at my core. And I didn’t think it really mattered whether I was wearing a costume or not. Well, to me it didn’t, but that wasn’t the case for everyone else. Like, a little after I quit, I called this guy I’d kinda-sorta dated a while ago, Joe Bertinelli. The conversation went like this:

Me: “Hi, Joe? It’s Charlotte Fyre!”

Joe: “… Who?”

Me: “Charlie Fyre? … Twisk. It’s Twisk.”

Joe: “Oh, Twisk. What’s up?”

Me: “Hey, I was just calling to see if, well, if you’re not busy, if you maybe wanted to- ”

Joe: “Didn’t I hear that you quit the League?”

Me: “Yeah. I’m out. Anyway, I was wondering if you wanted to maybe hang out sometime, if- ”

Joe: “Hey, listen, I’ve got to go. I’ll call you, okay?”

Three guesses as to whether he called or not.

Sorry. I guess I am still a little cynical, even now. I don’t know.

In all of the biographies they do of supers, in all of the “Behind the Mask” specials and tell-all interviews and stuff, they never really go into what happens once you leave that life behind. I mean, I guess that’s because most of them retire, and by then they’re old and can afford to sit around in these big nostalgia rooms and do interviews. But they aren’t even really leaving the life-they’re still defined by their super identities, even if they’re not fighting crime; that’s still who they are.

But what about when you do leave, completely? What about when you’re young and you still have your entire life ahead of you? I guess they’d say that you just move on to something else, but how? I couldn’t go to high school-I’d be a junior by now, and I only have an eighth grade education. I’m smart, but I’m not smart enough to skip two grades. I couldn’t just go home-that part of my life is over, it ended when I became Twisk. Back in the day, way back in the day, before I developed (and long before I shed) my thick skin, I did some writing. Poetry, song lyrics, occasionally paragraphs of just… stuff. But I didn’t feel like I could just start writing again. I mean, after so many years of not doing it? And why would anyone want to read my stuff, anyway?

So, I’m not Charlie Fyre anymore, and I’m not Twisk… who am I?

I’m Charlotte Fyre. And I’m not exactly sure who she is.

“That’s his family over there,” Netic said.

“His family?” I looked over my shoulder at the people standing around the coffin, talking quietly with Scarlett, Oreo, and now Rosma. “I thought he couldn’t remember his family.”

“He couldn’t,” Drew said. “Some sort of amnesia. But, after he died, they published pictures of him without the mask, and his parents eventually stepped forward. They’d been looking for him for years, apparently. They said his uncle was murdered by the mob, and they thought maybe he’d been kidnapped or murdered…”

“Who was he, then?” I asked.

“His real name was Christopher Gillette. He registered here as Topher Gill, so… maybe he hadn’t completely forgotten everything.”

I nodded, and then paused. “Wait. He had amnesia. So, all of those stories he told, about his family…”

I suddenly felt sick. All of those stories, all of those wild, entertaining stories he’d told… they’d been a fantasy, a fiction to help him deal with not remembering anything. We’d all been a part of it, as his audience. We’d all helped him, in some way, create the strange world of his identity.

It’s strange to say, but I felt like my heart broke for the first time at that moment.

“Maybe not,” Netic said. “I hear he did have something of a whacky aunt, but she passed away years ago… so maybe some of it was actually memory. I mean… who knows?”

“I sure don’t,” I said, and then I couldn’t talk anymore.

I sat in one of the back rows of chairs during the actual funeral. It didn’t feel right to sit up front with the rest of the Justice League, and since none of the other former members were here-Crystal or Firehop or Super Shibes-I decided it would be best to just remain in the back.

It was a nice service. I know what I’ve said about funerals, but… it was a nice service. His dad talked, and a friend of his from theater talked. I never knew Midnight did theater. But, then again, neither did he.

Scarlett said a few words, and Oreo said a few words, Scarlett looking desolated, Oreo trying to be stoic, both of them crying. Some girl, another one of his theater friends, I guess, sang that song from Cats. “Memories.”

And then they bore the coffin out to the hearse, and we all drove out to the cemetery, the same one where Dragon Girl and all the rest were. They laid him down beneath a marble marker that said:

R.I.P.
Christopher Gillette
Midnight Chatter

I saw that and I thought-what’s mine going to look like? Isn’t that silly? But, see, I was thinking: What about Topher? I mean, he was Topher Gill for the entire time that I knew him. And even if so much of that life was just stories, just fantasies, what makes Christopher Gillette any more real than Topher Gill? Just because that’s who other people wanted to remember him as? As this kid who vanished years ago, or this “super hero” persona? What about how Topher thought of himself? What about the person Topher thought he was? Isn’t that what really matters in the end?

And I thought: What name will they put on mine? Charlotte Fyre? Charlie Fyre? Twisk? Who, in the end, are they going to bury? Who are they going to say goodbye to, and remember?

And who do I think I’ll be?

After the burial, we drove back to the Hall for the reception, and, finally, it started to rain. Fat drops of water began to burst on my windshield, and I flipped the wipers on. Usually I’d just use my powers to wipe them off, but my mind was on other things.

I was thinking that I should start taking correspondence courses, so that I could catch up with high school, or at least get a diploma. I was thinking I should put the money I had left over from the Justice League and work towards going to college. I was thinking I’d like to start writing again.

Maybe identity is just the stories we tell ourselves to make the world make sense. I don’t know. I don’t know a lot of things.

But I do know that I’m Charlotte Fyre. And it’s time that I started telling my own story.