The Big Story

by Chicago

Chapter Seventeen

I found myself over Suicide Slum before I realized where I was heading. I stopped in midair, still invisible, and felt my stomach wrench.

Two years could be a long time, even in the slum. Long enough, at least, for the blackened shell of a former warehouse to be pulled down and carted away. From the air, nothing in the weed-choked lot below me recalled rum-fed fires that rose 50 feet into the night sky.

I made myself descend, forced myself to remember the layout of the building.

Last year's stalks of burdock and thistles rose almost over my head when I finally settled to the ground. Grass and dandelions greened the ground, and a hard beaten path cut the corner of the lot.

I closed my eyes, fighting the memory of smoke and flame even as I reconstructed the building in my mind. I had landed nearly dead center in the lot, not more than 10 feet from where Douglas Canberra had killed Hortense Arroyo and might as well have killed Batman.

I moved through the weeds, disturbing a scrawny cat who hissed at me despite being unable to see me. I knew when I reached the spot.

I knew because my knees buckled and for a painful moment, I once more felt the searing of my flesh, my hopeless, helpless effort to stretch my mind past the flames and save Hortense.

I gave up on invisibility, focusing instead on catching my breath. There was no fire now. The air smelled like wet earth, not roasted meat. I had survived, and I still didn't know why.

I dug my fingers into the sandy soil and wanted that night back to do again, even though if I were honest, I knew I wouldn't do things differently. I couldn't have. Not with the flames dancing.

I leaned my face down and kissed the ground, a gesture for spent funeral pyres from another life. "I'm sorry, Hortense," I whispered. "Good-bye."

It took me a few moments to stand up again, and when I rose, I felt a startled reaction from someone walking along the sidewalk. He didn't look at me, and I felt him rationalizing my sudden appearance as I made my way to the foot path across the corner. By the time I got there, he was gone.

I spent an uncertain moment on the path, looking to the corner of the lot it cut off. That was where I had left Bruce, but he had already heard my good-bye.

I was done, but I wasn't ready to go yet. I had told Superman that I needed a drink, and standing on the site of the fire, I decided I had been right. One more for the road.

I made my way up Rider Street, my hat pulled low. The few people I met gave me wide berth, and I was grateful for it. I stopped at the first bar I found.

Five of the eight stools were occupied, and a couple argued in low tones at a booth. No one looked up as I entered. I looked like a man who would drink at noon.

I took a seat and the bartender came silently over. "Jack Daniels, neat," I ordered, and in a moment, a rock tumbler of my old friend was sitting in front of me.

I lifted the glass and studied the amber liquid. It seemed dark in the smoky bar, as if it were drinking the light from the day. Dark, but warm.

Like Hortense's eyes.

She wanted to be my gal Friday. She thought I was a hero.

Down the bar, someone lit a cigarette, and the flame was reflected by the whiskey in the glass. Just the way the flames around my body reflected in Hortense's eyes as she tried to beat them out. I made myself close my eyes until I was sure the fire was gone.

Hortense thought she loved me.

She did love me. I put her off, told her she was too young to know her heart, and I was right, but I was wrong, too. "You're noble," she told me one evening with the seriousness that only comes from youth, "and whatever your secrets are, I bet you never hurt anyone on purpose."

She believed in John Jones, not a drunken sot who was running away.

"What I need, this world has not seen fit to give me. That was what I had said to Superman, knowing it was a lie.

I had gotten what I needed in spades, and just like home, it had gone up in flames.

I was ashamed.

I set my glass down and rose from my bar stool. I left the bar without drinking a drop.