A light snow had just begun to fall as Charlie Cavanaugh left the Red Line Diner on Roosevelt Street. As always, he ran -- the fastest runner in the fifth grade, so quick he hardly felt the cold -- through the gloaming of early evening. He turned left on Main, then right at Adams Avenue, and went into a dead sprint as he rounded the corner for Taylor Street and home.
He broke through the front door. "Mom! Mom! Th-th-this guy down the Red Line..." He stopped to take a deep breath, just like Grammy said. Charlie almost never stuttered any more. "He had a gun and he held up Mr. Higby! I was right there, I saw his face and everything! We gotta call the police..."
But Mom didn't answer, and Charlie found a handwritten note taped to the icebox:
Dear Charlie,Charlie scowled. Jeez, a guy makes one little prank call and nobody trusts him anymore. But Mom didn't realize how important this was. Would Batman give up chasing a criminal just because he couldn't make a phone call? Well, if he couldn't use his own phone, maybe he could use the Jurrisons' instead. And he was off at a run, cutting across the front lawn to save time.
I'm on call at Mercy tonight. There's food in the icebox if you're hungry. If I'm not back before 10, you may sleep over at the Jurrisons. DO NOT TOUCH THE PHONE.
"Mrs. Jurrison!" He barreled right past Dickie's older sister Betty, who was always on the phone, and into the kitchen where Mrs. Jurrison was fixing dinner. "'Scuse me, Mrs. Jurrison, I really gotta use your phone. There was this guy down the Red Line Diner and he had a gun..."
Mrs. Jurrison didn't gasp. She didn't chide him about bursting in without knocking again. She kept right on chopping onions as though Charlie weren't there. "Hey!" Charlie yelled, but she didn't bat an eye. Confused, he wandered back out into the front room.
"Hey, Betty, lemme use the phone? It's an emergency..." Betty studiously ignored him, but Betty ignored everyone under the age of fifteen. He'd just have to get Dickie's help.
Dickie was eight, and a born hero-worshiper. The kid had been following Charlie around since he was in diapers. Most of the time Charlie put up with him because Dickie could be counted on to do whatever Charlie wanted. He was just where Charlie figured he'd be -- on the floor behind his bed, reading one of Charlie's old Action Comics.
"Hey, Dickie." Charlie flung himself across the bed. "Help a guy out, wouldja? I really gotta make a phone call. This guy at the Red Line held up Mr. Higby with a gun and everything and I was right there..."
He stopped, puzzled. Dickie was usually so excited to see Charlie that he could hardly sit still. But there he lay, turning over pages as though he didn't notice Charlie at all.
"Man, I'm getting sick of this!" said Charlie. "I expect the silent treatment from Betty, but what'd I ever do to you?"
Dickie said nothing, turning another page.
"Fine! Just be like that. I was gonna let you borrow my copy of The Flash, but you know what? Buy it yourself. Good luck sneaking it past your mom." He slid off the bed and stomped out, equal parts furious and frightened.
By the time Charlie got back to his own front door, fright was taking over. What was wrong with Dickie and the Jurrisons? Had he made them angry, or had he somehow turned invisible?
Well, whatever game the Jurrisons were playing, he still had to call the police. For three full minutes he stood beside the black desk phone, hesitating, as the kitchen clock ticked steadily. Finally, he decided that in this case, making the call was more important than obeying Mom. He sighed and reached for the receiver -- and couldn't pick it up. He tried four or five times, but some invisible power kept him from taking it off the hook.
A chill went through Charlie. He backed away from the phone, then turned and ran down the hall to his bedroom. Everything there, at least, seemed normal -- his bed, his desk, his bureau all in their regular places, his window overlooking the front yard, his stacks of comics all over the room.
Whenever adults asked Charlie what he wanted to be when he grew up, he always gave the standard answer of "a fireman" or "a policeman," but he was lying. Charlie wanted to be a superhero. He followed all the big comic heroes -- Superman, Batman, Green Lantern -- but his newest favorite was the Flash, with his police scientist background and his super-speed. When Charlie ran, he thought about the Flash, and when he daydreamed, it was usually about how he was going to acquire his superpowers. He wondered what Barry Allen would do in his place.
The new issue of The Flash was waiting on his bed. He'd bought it yesterday at the newsstand, but Mom had kept him so busy with chores he'd only been able to glance through a few pages at bedtime. All through school he'd wondered what the Mirror Master was up to. But as he sat down on the bed and tried to pick up the comic, Charlie discovered that he couldn't do it. It was like the phone all over again. Panic began to flutter in his throat.
He couldn't open the drawers of his bureau. He couldn't budge the roll-top on his desk. He couldn't even pick up his pillow. Charlie began to shiver. On an impulse he went to the window, looking out into the snow-covered street, just as the streetlights began to flicker on.
The snow was falling heavily now, really starting to stick. It had covered the stairs to the front porch, the walkway, the dormant lawn. And in the bluish-white glow of the streetlights, Charlie saw that in all that blanketing of snow, there was not a single footprint.
Charlie slumped to the floor. He was not going to cry, he was going to think. He'd had a perfectly normal day, right up to his visit to the Red Line after school. He'd sat on a plush red stool right next to the counter and Mr. Higby had made him a malt and some onion rings. Behind him, in a booth, a shifty-eyed stranger in an old bomber jacket had been wolfing down a cheeseburger. When the man came up to the counter, at first Charlie thought he was just going to settle the bill. Then he saw the revolver.
"Empty it out," said the stranger. "Put it all in the bag." He cocked the revolver, and Mr. Higby had hurried to open the cash register. At first Charlie hadn't moved. He had just stared at the stranger, at his face, recording every line and curve and scowl as though his eyes were spy cameras. And then it had struck him: never in a million years would the Flash have just sat there and let Mr. Higby get robbed.
"Hey!" he'd said.
"Shut up, kid," said the stranger, without looking at him. "This ain't your concern."
"Maybe you'd better go home, Charlie," said Mr. Higby, his voice wavering.
"Like hell he's going home!" the stranger yelled at Mr. Higby. "You think I'm gonna let this brat run straight to the police? He's stayin' put until I say so!"
Tears were starting to form in Mr. Higby's eyes -- Mr. Higby, who was the kindest man Charlie had ever known -- and suddenly a fury overtook Charlie. "You -- you leave Mr. Higby alone!" he'd yelled, and he'd thrown himself at the stranger, and
and then he was on the floor, and everything had gone dark all of a sudden, and it didn't hurt exactly, he'd just felt numb. He'd heard Mr. Higby holler, and the stranger had yelled back, "If you don't want to join him, you EMPTY IT OUT NOW!" And then the numbness was gone and Charlie could get up, and he'd gotten out of the diner and immediately run for home...
Oh no. No, no. This couldn't be real.
He was going to turn 11 in April.
Charlie began to rock back and forth on the floor, softly chanting, "Please God make this not be real, please God make this not be real, please God..." over and over. And when he felt familiar arms wrap around him in a hug, at first he thought God had answered his prayer. "Mom?"
But instead he was looking up into Grammy's speckly hazel eyes, with the twinkles in the corners. She didn't look stiff and stern, the way she had in the hospital bed. Instead she was her old smiling no-nonsense self, the way she'd been before the cancer, wearing the same old blue button-up house dress and slippers she always put on to do the laundry.
"Hello, Charlie dear," she said.
Charlie's tongue froze. "G-g-g..."
"Wait, wait. Remember, take a deep breath. Relax and think about what you're going to say."
"Grammy... I don't want this to be happening. I'm really scared."
Grammy hugged him again. She smelled of roses and cinnamon. "Oh, Charlie," she said, "it's not as bad as you think." She smoothed his hair. "Remember what I said, about the soul and the body being like a hand inside a puppet?"
"Well, you've just taken the puppet off." She smiled. "That's nothing to be scared of, is it?"
"But Grammy, if I... I mean, I was gonna do all kinds of stuff..."
Grammy sighed. "There are always things we still want to do," she said softly. "I didn't want to leave my little Charlie, or my dear Helen. But sometimes we have to let those plans go."
Charlie shook his head. "No," he said. "No, I'm not ready."
"Charlie, dear, all your obligations here are finished --"
But Charlie didn't hear the rest. Obligation. That had been a spelling word last week, and he'd gotten it wrong. Mrs. Quinlan always made them write definitions next to the words they misspelled. A binding promise, contract, or sense of duty. "There's something I gotta do first," he said.
"Charlie, wait --"
"It's OK," said Charlie. "I'll be right back." And he got up and ran.
Now that he knew what had happened, he didn't have to worry about going around buildings. He flickered through the neighborhood as fast as thought, passing through walls as though they were mist, elated with the feeling of being able to move just like the Flash. Then he was standing outside the Red Line. Several police cars were clustered around the entrance now. But one pair of footprints, rapidly filling with snow, led away from the back door. Charlie hesitated, thinking about going inside for a moment just to see... but on second thought, he didn't really want to know. Instead he followed the prints.
* * *
Bill Simmons cut across a vacant lot, heading for the tracks. Well, he'd royally screwed the pooch this time. A measly twenty-seven dollars and forty-three cents in the till, and then that damn kid had decided to get in his way.
He'd never shot a kid before. The diner cheeseburger turned over in his stomach.
Best not to think about it. Best would be to skip town and lay low for a while until the whole mess blew over. If he could manage to hop a freight, he could ride it over the state line and...
At that moment, something made him reach into the inner pocket of his bomber jacket and pull out the revolver. It was still loaded. There was a thought in his mind, a foreign thought: Grammy was right. Just like a hand inside a puppet. And he found himself raising the gun to his right temple.
"What the hell?" Simmons squeaked. He tried to pull the gun away, but his arm -- his body -- wasn't cooperating.
I wasn't ready to die today, Bill. How 'bout you? He felt his thumb pushing down on the hammer, heard a precise click as his hand cocked the gun, ready to fire.
Simmons began to shake uncontrollably. Scenes from his life began to flash through his brain: Pop coming home drunk again, vomiting on the kitchen floor. Pop not coming back any more, and his aunt and uncle grudgingly taking him in. The screaming, the beatings, the constant accusations. Being left out in the cold all night as a punishment. Never getting enough to eat. The day he'd reached the end of his rope, beaten his harpy aunt with a broom and run off before they could call the cops. And the only thing that had let him escape the pain: the stories in his old Detective Comics, with their hardboiled private eyes and mysterious caped crusaders, and the promise that eventually the villains would get their due. The hand that held the gun began to waver.
No. His arm suddenly went slack, and something made him put the gun down in the snow of the vacant lot. You're a bad guy, Bill. I don't want to be like you. He felt his spine stiffen. But if you read all those comics, you already know bad guys don't win. Now march. And although he struggled against it, the foreign presence in his mind and body forced Simmons to turn and walk back downtown.
* * *
Since everyone else was at the Red Line investigating the murder and robbery, there was only one officer on duty at the station house when Simmons walked in the front door. He was still struggling hard against the inner force steering him, but the force was stronger, and like a hooked shark at the end of a line, he was starting to tire. Simmons stared dully at the officer, whose name was embroidered in white letters across the breast pocket of his uniform shirt.
"Officer Hanlon? My name's Bill Simmons, and -- and I want to confess," he said, through clenched teeth. "I robbed the Red Line Diner tonight... and I shot --" He'd meant to say "some kid who got in the way," but then a name came clearly into his head. "Charlie Cavanaugh," he said, slowly, and exhaled. "I sh-sh-shot Charlie Cavanaugh." His shoulders sagged, and he began to cry. And all the while, as Officer Hanlon cuffed and booked him and locked him into the station's only cell, Simmons wept like a boy.
By that time Simmons was so shaky with exhaustion that he couldn't tell exactly when the presence left him and he was back in full control of himself, but the feelings of remorse and self-loathing weren't coming from anyone else. "I shot a kid. God forgive me, I shot a kid. I -- I didn't mean to, I just..."
"I know," said a voice. "But you did."
Simmons looked up at the blurry outline of the officer outside his cell. He wiped his eyes. Something about the cop was different now. His movements were eager, fluid, and his eyes were bright and curious.
"I can't stay long," said Officer Hanlon, in a voice that seemed familiar. "But listen, this is important." He leaned in. "You hafta go to jail for what you did, Bill. That's how it works. But you don't hafta stay bad. You could be a good guy if you wanted to."
Simmons' stomach clenched with nausea. "Kid," he muttered, "don't you get it? How am I even going to learn to live with what I did to you?"
The presence inside Hanlon was quiet for a moment. "I don't know, Bill," said the familiar voice. "But I think I oughtta tell you something. I know you didn't mean it to happen, but because of... because of what happened at the diner... today I got to be invisible, and run through walls, and make people do and say things with my mind, and I even got to help the police solve a crime. I got to be what I wanted more than anything in the world." Hanlon grinned hugely. "Just for today I got to be a superhero, Bill. And it was so cool."
Simmons looked at the boy inside the officer. "I can't give you your life back, kid," he said. "But what do you want me to do?"
"You already know," the familiar voice insisted. "Just do good things. Practice 'til you get better at it. Then you can teach the other guys in jail how to be good too." Hanlon smiled. "And don't worry about giving me my life back. As long as you make your life better, I guess we're square." Then he twitched. "Cripes, I promised Grammy I'd be right back. I gotta go. Bye, Bill! Don't shoot anybody else!" And the voice and the presence were gone.
Bill Simmons sat staring through the officer, trying to wrap his brain around everything that had happened, but he had to give up. It was too much. The only things that remained clear in his mind were the kid's words, still glowing softly inside him. If the kid -- if Charlie -- was willing to forgive him, even after what he'd done...
Officer Hanlon seemed to settle back into himself by degrees. He blinked, staring dully at Simmons. Finally his eyes dropped. "I don't wanna talk about this," he murmured. "Ever." And he went back to sit at the desk. Even when the rest of the force returned from the crime scene to peer at the suspect and ask questions, Hanlon just sat there, not saying a word. He was thinking about the bright spirit that had lingered with him for a few brief minutes, and then how it had left -- not vanishing, not stepping away, but tensing like a spring, then suddenly rocketing straight up and out into the starry darkness.
He sighed, and wondered what it must be like to be able to fly.
For Erik Martin—Electron Boy