Chapter Twenty-One

Wednesday, October 13th, 1993

“Don’t drop me!” Poppy shrieked, flailing her legs.

I rolled my eyes, clutching my new bride closer while I carried her toward the house. The place was not very impressive, it was all we could afford with the money I had snuck from Freeman’s account and her relatively small income, but it was big, enough for the two of us and, eventually, a few kids. For the down payment, we had needed a little help from her parents. But, no matter the way it had come into our possession, it belonged to us now.

“I’m not going to drop you,” I vowed, shifting her to one arm so I could throw open the front door. As so many other couples had done before us, I carried her over the threshold, placing a wet kiss to her mouth. She squealed, wrapping her arms around my neck. I kicked the door shut.

The living room had been filled with furniture while we had been gone on the honeymoon. Photos of the wedding hung, framed, around the room, along with a few others Poppy’s father had chosen. The man had done too much; he had even paid for the honeymoon to Cancun, an experience I hoped to recreate one day, when I made the money on my own. I looked around the room for a moment before I broke away from Poppy, lowering her to the floor. “Wow.”

She looked around for the first time. “Yeah, he really outdid himself.”

“Tell me about it,” I said, looking around the room with a sense of inferiority.

“It’s a wedding gift, Garrett, enjoy it.”

She took my hand, leading me further into the home. The walls were desperately in need of a fresh layer of paint, it was clear that the previous owners had not taken good care of the place, but I could easily complete that task within the hour. “A number of wedding gifts. I’ll never be able to pay him back.”

“He doesn’t expect you to,” she insisted, embracing me and forcing me through the room. Her meek, mortal strength was nothing in comparison to what I was capable of, but I allowed her to shove me around.

“It must’ve cost so much.”

“Oh, relax,” she laughed. “That armchair was in our garage. It’s not all new.”

I suspected she was lying, but I could not call her on it. “If you say so.” She clutched one of my large hands in both of hers, yanking me toward the stairs.

“I do. Come look at the upstairs. It’s gorgeous!”

I grinned, bounding up the staircase. “I know you are. I don’t need the reminder.”

As usual, her face pursed, her eyes rolled, but her smile remained completely intact. “The rooms,” she reminded me unnecessarily. “They’re gorgeous.”

“Oh. Right. Sorry, I forgot.”

She stopped me for only a second to peck my lips. “Love you.”

“I love you, too,” I sang, teeth bared. She did not let me finish before she was dragging me up again. I tripped, catching her foot on the way down, and sent us both sprawling across the floor. She laughed first, shrieking, and I followed, curling her into a hug before I helped her to her feet.

It was amazing to me what difference a single person and a few years could make. All of my life had consisted of misery, responsibility, and caution while he lived with my mother. Before my father had left, I had suffered through the nightly fights, screaming, and cursing between my parents, keeping me awake, giving me nightmares, and ostracizing me from his classmates. Misery was a term I knew well. And that was only before my mother had given up.

Given up on work, given up on sobriety, given up on life, and given up on me.

Becoming a hero had given me a sense of purpose I did not know I would ever feel in my lifetime. Marrying Poppy had made me happy.

It was something so many people took for granted, to be able to feel perfect contentment all day and every day. To look forward to the future. And I could finally say that I was among one of those who could say that I longer looked forward to the end of the day, when I could finally sleep. My waking dream, my life with Poppy, had become so much better than unconsciousness had ever been. And I was loving it, every minute of it.

And I knew without a shadow of a doubt that life with her would only get better.

“I’m sorry,” I said, carrying her to the landing. “Completely accidental, I swear.”

“Sure, sure,” she muttered, tapping my nose. “Put me down!”

I obliged, daintily placing her on her feet. “Fine! Lead the way, baby.”

She did so without a word, bringing me to the first door. “Are you ready for this one?”

“Yes.”

“Are you absolutely sure about that? It’s pretty intense.”

I rolled his eyes, a mannerism we seemed to share. “Yes, Pop, I can handle it.”

She smiled. “Good. Brace yourself.” She struck the door with her shoulder, opening it with more effort than was probably necessary. “It sticks.”

The room was clearly a nursery, and a heavily furnished one at that. An oak crib was front and center, sitting below a colorful mobile of butterflies. Matching dressers, a changing table, and a foldable playpen lined the walls. The walls, again, needed paint, but the place was beautiful. I looked from Poppy to the room around us, halfway between the point of smiling and crying.

“Are you trying to tell me something?” I inquired.

She stroked my face. “I’m not pregnant.”

The disappointment that filled my stomach was a shock. “Okay.”

“But I want to be.”

Words did not come easily, but the look on my face said everything I knew she wanted to hear. I wanted it, too.

I lifted her easily up to my level, peppering her with kisses. She giggled and returned each one with equal fervor. “Bedroom?” she gasped. “Should we move into the bedroom?”

I nodded. “Lead the way.”

She held my hand, bringing mw across the hall to another door. She did not hesitate with another dramatic entrance, we were both beyond that point, and shoved her way in. I was quick to follow, holding her by the waist until we had made it to the bed. I looked up for only a minute through my efforts at removing her clothes and froze.

“Honey?” she whispered, reaching for my face. “You okay?”

“What’s that?” I demanded, pointing to the black box on the dresser.

“A television.”

“Does it work?”

She laughed, sitting up so her shirt would open and fall around her. I kept my mouth closed, but it was a losing battle. “Of course it works,” she said. “Why would I get you a television that doesn’t work?”

“I’ve just never had one in my room before.”

She smiled in such a way that I felt like a kicked puppy. “Well, now you do. I promise it will be the least of the wonderful things I’ll force on you. Now, where were we?”

I loved her enthusiasm. It was contagious. “Can I turn it on?”

“If you’d like. Go ahead!”

As much as I did not want to move away from her, I stood, going to the television. A single button brought it to life. The voices of whatever was playing in that moment greeted me before the picture did, and, whatever it was, it was screaming.

“—at a standstill. Ten blocks have been evacuated on either side of the building and police have diverted traffic away for the public’s safety. The police have advised that everyone in the Newark and Trenton areas please stay inside until the alert has passed.”

The picture appeared, displaying a younger man at a desk, reporting the news. The live footage of a Newark street played in the corner of the screen. Police milled about, setting up barriers at intersections. I stood up straighter, recognizing the news I’d been watching religiously since I had taken on my vigilante responsibility. “How do I make it louder?” I asked.

Poppy threw herself off the bed, running to turn up the volume.

“It is unknown at this point whether this mystery criminal has left bombs anywhere else, but we have been assured by the police department that every effort is being made to locate and end this threat,” the anchor went on.

“Bomb?” I repeated.

“Garrett,” Poppy mumbled pointing to the screen. A building had appeared in the center of the footage, marked off by crime scene tape. The corner of the brick walls was destroyed toward the bottom, ruining the foundation with what must have been a previous explosion. Beside the hole, scrawled in black spray paint, read, Psionic Douchebag.

“Well, I’m sorry to cut our evening short, my dear,” I said, kissing her cheek.

Poppy pulled her shirt off the bed. “Garrett, no! Please, stay.”

“They’re calling me, Poppy, I’ve got to go.”

“Exactly,” she whimpered. “There’s a bomb, and they’re calling you. They’re trying to hurt you, please don’t go.”

I combed her hair with my fingers, hugging her to my side. “They can’t hurt me. No one can hurt me but you.”

“You don’t know that.”

I kissed her nose. “I’ll be back before you know it.” When she tried to protest, I kissed her lips, softly. She kissed back, holding my head in the hopes that it would keep me from leaving. I pulled away only to breathe. “I’ll be back before you know it.”

This time, she said nothing. She could only nod.

“It’s what I do. It’s what I’m good at. I’ll be okay.”

She bit her lip. “You were never okay. You’re always perfect.”

I said the same for her, but maintained my statement nonetheless. I dressed quickly for the event, took the car, and made my way toward Newark.

I had hidden the car in a parking garage a few blocks away, as the police had blocked off anything closer than that. The chief of police stood behind a series of blockades and a wall of cars before the building I was searching for. I went to him first, masked face to face.

“Was wondering when you’d show up,” the man said. “Long time, no see.”

I shrugged. “I’ve been on vacation. What’s the story?”

“The first bomb went off at eleven, killed two. Police investigated, found another, a bigger one, in the basement. Bomb squad’s not due for another hour. I take it you saw the message?”

I chuckled, nodding to my mock name above. “It’s pretty hard to miss.”

“I figured you would. What’s your plan?”

“The building’s trash and it won’t survive, but I want to check out the basement. Whoever it is obviously wanted me here. I want to see what they left for me. I’ll wait for the professionals to deal with the bomb. I wouldn’t want to cause any more damage.”

“By all means.”

I left it at that. I strode, head high, passed the ranks of officers surrounding the building and through the opened door. Dust littered the walls, the floors, and the furniture, all having fallen from the ceiling in the explosion. I ignored the destruction as best I could, wading through the garbage on my way to the basement.

The bomb was easily recognizable against the furthermost wall.

“Damn,” I whispered, approaching the box cautiously, preparing myself to lunge at it, and wondering if I would heal as I normally did if my limbs were torn from my person. I really hoped so; that was likely to be my fate down there. I didn’t regret the decision yet; I took a few calculating steps in its direction. So far, no tricks. It almost wasn’t worth tearing myself away from my wife for.

A fierce beep erupted from the bomb, startling me into stillness. Then, a cell phone rang.

It was easy to find, the light it emitted broke the darkness, but it was an unknown number that was calling. When I did not answer, a voicemail notification surfaced in its place, the next in a line of six. I opened the phone, searching for the voicemails that had been left, all by the same number. I played the first.

An unintelligible scream broke the silence. A scream I knew well. “Get off me! Don’t touch me!”

Poppy.

“Oh my God,” I said as it ended.

The next was of someone else. “Good afternoon, Mr. Daniels. I think you know where I am, and I think you know who I have with me.”

Next. “You should hurry, Garrett.”

Next. “I hope you’ve enjoyed my diversion, Garrett, but you should really get moving.”

There was a loud boom from the box before me. In an eruption of flame, I was propelled across the room and the building collapsed.

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