:from the Chronicles of Purgatory Station
Scott William Foley
In the early evening, Franklin Trover looked very forward to Sophie’s meatloaf for dinner. He loved her meatloaf. So much so, in fact, that he even momentarily considered closing up shop a bit early in order to dig into that meatloaf sooner. However, Franklin’s father hadn’t closed early during the twenty-one years of Franklin’s life before he took over the shop, and he wasn’t about to be the one to break that streak. Trover’s Fine Literature remained open until its posted closing, as always.
Consequently, if Franklin actually had closed his doors early, it would have been the greatest unknown regret of his life … and his brother’s.
The familiar jingle of a bell older than most of his patrons signaled the arrival of what Franklin postulated would be just that—a patron. The well-read storeowner looked up from his ever-present book and nodded at the young man who entered.
Franklin was accustomed to people wandering about his store rather aimlessly, especially around closing time when many of them were just an hour or so off work. Once upon a time, Franklin stayed open well past nine o’clock at night, but the city since devolved into something far too dangerous since. Now the door shut and locked with the gate down no later than six-thirty.
The nomads were obvious. They’d come in with a look on their faces that Franklin always interpreted as wanting something more from life than sitting behind a computer. After drifting through the shelves for twenty minutes or so, they’d ask the storekeeper what he recommended. The conscientious booklover would suggest whatever title he thought would best help them find what they sought in life, they’d typically buy it, and then they’d be off to take hold of their destiny. At least, that’s what he hoped.
This one felt different. Different by a long shot. When the mysterious figure ambled in, he acted as though the sheer number of volumes shocked. Franklin experienced, frankly, surprise at this unusual customer’s child-like wonder after pulling books from the shelves and sporadically leafing through them.
As Franklin took stock of the young man, he realized that his characteristic wariness abated. When one owns a shop in a city such as Purgatory Station, it’s a matter of survival to remain cautionary with anyone entering one’s store. The present patron should not have been an exception. It was, after all, obvious that the young man acquired across his clothing through unconventional means. His shirt fit too tightly, his pants were gargantuan in the waist, his shoes did not match, and the haggard, though handsome, man clearly avoided bathing for days. The only asset belonging to the man that seemed valuable proved to be a large black satchel thrown over his shoulder.
Franklin assumed the new arrival must be a down on his luck athlete of some sort, for defined muscles rippled beneath the ragged clothes. Franklin could also ascertain from across the shop that the man easily towered over six feet tall. Considering his own slender, short frame, Franklin risked his well-being by letting down his guard.
The man’s face, though … the stranger … his very countenance elicited calm.
Finally, after the visitor unsystematically devoured books for almost forty-five minutes, Franklin realized closing time awaited, as did Sophie’s meatloaf.
“Young man,” he called from behind the ancient register, “I surely hate to cut your shopping short, but I’ll be closing up soon . . .”
Franklin felt his heart skip a beat as the tall, lean man turned his ice-blue eyes to him for the first time. They demanded both respect and serenity.
“Will you be here tomorrow, sir?” the stranger inquired.
Franklin appreciated the man’s courtesy, but noticed that “sir” contained a customary manner.
“Yes, I’ll be open tomorrow. I’m open everyday of the week but for Sunday. Sunday’s reserved for my boss.”
“You’re not ‘Trover’ then, sir?” the customer asked in genuine interest.
“No, I’m Trover,” Franklin chuckled, “but being an owner of your own business doesn’t mean you don’t answer to someone else.”
“May I ask to whom you answer, sir?”
“Well, my boy,” Franklin began with a sincere smile, “if you’re made of flesh and blood, then you answer to the CEO of the sky, whether you want to admit it or not.”
Franklin watched the dark-headed man nod without comprehension.
“So you know my name, youngster. Mind if I ask you yours?” He felt a connection to this outsider. Why?
Franklin watched the powerful figure almost imperceptibly glance to a row of books, then felt his heart plummet when he heard, “Sir, my name is Hemingway. Allen Hemingway, sir.” Franklin fought against allowing his disappointment to show. How can one trust a man who will not reveal his real name?
“Well, that’s a rather big name to live up to. So, Mr. Hemingway,” Franklin continued while striving to maintain his cheery disposition, “can I help you find anything before I close?”
From across the room, Franklin watched the young man’s sculpted shoulders slump as he slowly shook his head. Allen looked up at Franklin with something akin to hope, but then looked back down at the floor once again. He drew in a breath before looking up again. He nodded once before walking toward the door.
“Where are you going, Mr. Hemingway?” Franklin called out at the last possible moment.
Allen turned his gaze back to Franklin, seemed to calculate the best possible response, then gave up and mumbled, “I don’t know, sir.”
“Do you have somewhere you’re staying in the city?” Franklin asked.
“Do you have anyone you can call?”
“Do you know where your next meal’s coming from?”
“Do you like meatloaf?”
The next morning Franklin walked into Carmah’s Cup, located directly next door to his shop, and approached the register. This was the first time in eleven years, the first time since his brother, Walter, died, that he was not actually tending his store during operating hours.
He saw Julie standing in the back making some pastries. He caught the corner of her eye, and when she nearly fell over, he grinned to himself.
“Franklin! Did the store burn down?” Julie cried out as she sprinted to him.
“No, Julie, the store’s fine.”
“Then, what are you doing here?” she demanded while wiping flour from her hands. She returned to the kitchen, but called over her shoulder, “Nick will be down in a few minutes; he’ll bring you your usual six forty-five coffee. You sure everything’s okay?”
“Yes,” Franklin confirmed. His pearl-white mustache lifted up when an irrepressible smile formed. Franklin made a habit of opening his store at six-fifteen in the morning. He found he could draw a lot of pre-workday business between then and nine. Of course, he stifled the urge to question the ethics of those who bought books before they went into work, for he knew what he’d do to that type of an employee. Consequently, an employee is something he never had the luxury to hire. “Everything’s fine,” Franklin continued. “I’ve got somebody watching the register for me.”
Julie’s rich, smooth voice burst forth with, “Since when do you let Sophie watch the register?”
“Ha! Since never! That woman is the best cook I’ve ever met, and the best woman since my Mary, but I wouldn’t trust her to make change from a penny.”
“That feels a little sexist, Franklin,” Julie admonished. When she saw the old man simply shrug, she let it go. After repositioning herself among her pastries in waiting, she asked, “So, who’s the mystery helper, then?”
Franklin helped himself into Julie’s kitchen and nodded at the coffee maker. When Julie offered her approval, he poured himself a cup while answering, “Name’s Hemingway.”
Julie snorted before joking, “Does he have a first name, or is it the obvious one?”
“No. He says it’s Allen,” Franklin answered.
“You don’t believe him?”
Franklin placed his cup onto her perfectly clean counter and took on a dreamy look as he asked rhetorically, “Is it possible to know that someone is lying to you, yet trust him completely?”
“What time is it?” a cracking voice interrupted from the stairwell leading to the above apartment.
“Twenty ’till,” Julie called back up the stairs. The hard working brunette never would have done this had any other customers been in the shop, but Franklin was like family to the Carmahs. “Don’t worry about taking Franklin’s coffee to him,” she added, “he’s standing right across from me.”
“What? Did his shop burn down?” the squeaky voice returned.
“No,” Julie responded, “he’s found help.”
A sudden barrage of thumps occurred, and before Julie and Franklin knew it, Nick landed.
“You found help?” Nick appealed in disbelief.
Franklin picked his coffee back up and then mumbled, “Of sorts.” He next took a deeply satisfying sip.
At that exact moment a very modern buzz exploded, which alerted Julie to a new patron. Nick, Franklin, and Julie all turned their heads to see a gigantic blonde-haired man with a dark complexion enter the shop. He held a newspaper under his arm, had the left side of his collar turned up and the right side turned down, and did not so much as nod at them as he sat in a cushioned chair to their left.
Julie cheerfully let him know she’d be right over, though he didn’t seem overly concerned one way or the other.
“You better get moving,” Julie prompted Nick. “You don’t want to be late for school.”
Julie and Franklin watched as the pimply faced, red-haired boy said his goodbyes to them and then bounced out the door. He moved with the exuberance of youth, but it was apparent to both of them that there weighed a very heavy burden upon the boy’s heart—the same burden Franklin knew Julie bore as well.
“It’s a fine thing you’re doing …” Franklin offered as he reached out and touched Julie’s red, dry hands.
“I wish I could do more,” she rejoined. “He’s actually a Godsend. I could never keep up with the evening business if not for him. He waits on tables for me, cleans the bathroom, even takes out the trash. He does anything I ask of him. Just like he did for Trent.”
“Trent was his hero,” Franklin said with a solid voice. “Trent was a hero to everyone in this neighborhood.”
Franklin kept his hand on Julie’s and pressed it even more gently as he noticed her eyes tearing.
“Well, just because Trent’s gone, that doesn’t mean Nick isn’t my family. I’m all he has.”
“We,” Franklin corrected in a very serious tone, “are all he has. And we will be all he needs for the rest of his life. Trent was like a son to me, just like you’re the closest thing to a daughter I’ll ever have. That makes Nick like a son to me as well. As long as I’m alive, Julie, you won’t have to take care of that boy on your own. I swear that to you and Trent both.”
Julie reached over and took Franklin in her arms.
Franklin didn’t notice the blonde man scowl at them.
“Would you like some coffee?” Franklin asked Allen as he re-entered Trover’s Fine Literature.
“Yes, sir,” Allen answered. Franklin noticed Allen had not moved from the exact spot he held behind the register before Franklin stepped out.
“How do you take it?” Franklin asked without really listening for an answer as he tossed down several packets of creamer and sugar. His hazel eyes alit when he heard Allen answer “black,” and Franklin gushed, “A man after my own heart!”
Then Allen did something unusual, something Franklin had yet to observe … Allen chuckled.
The men allowed a few moments to pass before Allen said, “I sold a book.”
“Really? Did you do it the way I told you?”
“Yes, sir. Exactly,” Allen returned.
“Good. You’re a fast learner,” Franklin praised. He next asked, “How are those clothes working out?”
Allen wore a plaid shirt, a loose tie, a gray vest, and a dark brown pair of pants. “They’re very nice, sir. It is good to have clean clothes again.”
Franklin stood with surprising comfort on the customer side of his register and watched as Allen took a long swig from his coffee. He never understood why he saved all of Walter’s old clothes, but was glad he did. Franklin figured Allen now had a whole wardrobe, so long as he didn’t mind what would politely be referred to as “vintage” clothing.
“They’re a tad out of fashion,” Franklin apologized.
“Fashion is of no consequence to me, sir. I’m grateful for your kindness. That being said, sir, I shouldn’t intrude upon you any longer. Thank you for your hospitality.”
Franklin watched in shock as Allen picked up his black satchel from behind the counter, shook the elder’s hand, and then march toward the door.
“Now wait just a minute, son,” Franklin blurted out. “You didn’t have anywhere to go last night, so what’s changed between then and now?”
Allen stopped without turning and confessed, “Last night I needed rest. You gave me what I needed most after my long journey. You’ve also given me shelter, food, clothes; I can ask no more of you.”
“You’re on the run, aren’t you, son?”
Allen revealed nothing.
“I don’t know what you’re running from,” Franklin stated, “but there’s a reason you came to my shop. What is it?”
Again, Allen remained silent.
“You don’t know, do you?”
Allen still did not turn around.
“But I do,” Franklin said at last.
“Sir?” Allen asked while he faced the shop owner anew. Franklin could see the questions upon the younger man’s face, but Allen’s self-discipline would not allow them to be voiced.
“Come have a seat, please,” Franklin requested while motioning for Allen to join him at one of the reading tables. He experienced relief when Allen did so without hesitation.
Once they both settled, Franklin began, “My brother, Walter, told me long ago that one day a man would walk into my store without a clue as to what he was doing there. Walter made me promise that whether he was still alive or not, I would take that man in with no questions asked and treat him as though he were family.”
Franklin noticed a spasm in Allen’s throat at the mention of his last word.
He continued, “He didn’t give me any way of recognizing this man. He just told me that he’d be the only man I ever felt I could trust completely. He said I wouldn’t know this man from any other, but that the trust would be there, like a lighthouse to a lost ship, if I paraphrase correctly. I think you’re that man, Allen. Are you?”
Franklin was not surprised to see the tall man’s head drop between stalwart shoulders in response to his question.
“What’s your real name, son?” Franklin asked pointedly.
“I don’t have one . . .” a shamed voice replied.
Julie heard the buzz of her door so she left her perpetual in-progress pastries and approached the front register. As she walked from the kitchen, she noticed that several of her mid-morning customers needed their cups refilled, including that strange blonde man. He made her uncomfortable in a way rarely experienced, yet he displayed the portrait of civility whenever she cautiously refilled his coffee.
She perceived a broad-shouldered man approach, so she asked, “Can I help you?”
“Yes, ma’am,” the tall stranger. “Franklin brought me some coffee from here a few hours ago. May I have another cup?”
“You’re the help Franklin had this morning?” Julie guffawed.
Ma’am? Ma’am? Julie didn’t think she’d been called “ma’am” at any point during her entire life. “You look like you might be a bit younger than me, but I don’t think I’m old enough to be called ‘ma’am’ just yet,” she chided with a smile. “Call me Julie.”
“Yes, Julie. Thank you. I’m Allen.”
“Hemingway, right?” Julie grilled with a wink.
Allen shifted uneasily from foot to foot, unsure how to respond.
Julie eventually offered, “So, is Franklin giving you a coffee break?”
“He relieved me from duty for the duration of the day, ma—er, Julie.”
“You mean he gave you the rest of the day off,” Julie said with a nod.
“You’re military,” she deducted kindly, but sharply. “Don’t bother to argue, I know the way you all talk. My husband is, too.”
“Your husband serves?” Allen asked with unmistakable curiosity.
Julie finished pouring what she presumed Allen wanted—black coffee, the Franklin Special—and handed the Styrofoam cup to him with, “Was, I should say. He was military. He died six weeks ago.”
Allen averted his eyes and whispered his condolences. He noticed her head drop only for a second, and then it was right back up again. “Ulrakistan?” he probed almost inaudibly, already knowing the answer.
“Yes,” Julie answered with her shoulders nearly slumping. “Some kids caught them off guard. It’s funny, Trent would never shoot a kid, no matter what the child’s intention. It’s like he knew it would happen someday. He always told me that if he had to defy direct orders to keep from killing a child, he would, no matter what the outcome. I guess it’s good he was never put to the test,” she said with a sigh. “They never saw it coming. At least, that’s what I’ve been told.”
Now lifting his eyes to the ceiling fan above him, Allen questioned, “But would that have been the right decision? To defy a direct order?”
“I think so,” Julie replied after a moment’s contemplation. “Yes, I think so. No matter what the order, if you can’t live with yourself afterwards … Well, I guess someone would have to decide that for himself. Like I said, I’m just glad Trent never had to choose.”
Allen heard her voice crack, he saw her eyes become flooded, but not a single tear fell. “You’re being very strong for him,” Allen validated while staring into the deep, dark brown of his coffee.
“He made me promise, just in case,” her voice trailed off.
Allen’s voice suddenly became very deep and authoritative and Julie could not help but meet his gaze when he said, “Julie, I’m sorry for your loss. Without men like Trent, this nation could not be the light of hope that I know it is.”
“Thank you, Allen. But it’s not your fault Trent died. It’s war. Until the war is over, we’re going to lose more ‘Trents’ than we can bear.”
Allen winced at the words “it’s not your fault.” He mumbled that he’d better get back to the shop.
“Why?” Julie asked.
“Why do you need to get back to the shop? Franklin gave you the afternoon off, remember?”
Julie could see that Allen grew more distressed by the second. She’d seen that same look from people who felt as though they were in the wrong when they truly were not. Julie knew if she didn’t mend this mysteriously broken fence right now, Allen would never feel comfortable around her again.
“Judging from that bag of newly bought toiletries,” she began as she leaned over the counter and pointed down to the sack next to Allen’s feet, “I’d guess that we’re going to be seeing more of each other.”
“Yes,” Allen answered in agony.
Why the discomfort so suddenly? Julie could not understand. “Does this mean you’re staying in Walter’s old room?”
“Did you know him?” Allen suddenly asked.
“No, he died before Trent and I met. Trent knew him though, always thought the world of him. Are those his clothes?” Julie asked as she looked Allen over. She could actually smell the mothballs on him and knew they were Walter’s clothes without having to ask, but anything to keep the conversation rolling.
“Out of fashion?” Allen grinned despite his unease.
“Tremendously, but on you, they look debonair,” she teased.
And with that, a bond formed.
Allen looked around and offered, “You look busy. Would you like some help?”
“How much do you charge?” Julie questioned with a smile.
“One cup of coffee.”
Later that night, Franklin knocked on the door to the room that once belonged to Walter. Now it belonged to Allen for as long as he wished it. Franklin heard a strained call through the closed door to enter, and so he did.
He saw a perfectly made bed, clothes neatly arranged within the open closet, and several hygiene products arranged methodically upon the oak dresser. He also saw Allen engaged in a set of pushups that were taking place nearly too fast for his aging eyes to follow.
“Just a second, sir,” Allen gasped between pants.
Franklin sat down on the edge of the bed, careful not to crease any of the covers. He knew how to navigate these waters, for while no one could ever accuse him of being a neat freak, Walter had been the tidiest man in all of Purgatory Station. He watched Allen finish his set and explode from the floor to his feet with no aid from the legs.
“You keep in shape,” Franklin commented as he observed the sweaty Harvard shirt that Allen wore.
“I try, sir,” Allen responded before picking up a folded towel from a nearby rocking chair.
“Is the room okay? Sorry there’s no television. I could pick one up for you, if you’d like. I know a guy down the street who’d sell me one cheap,” Franklin offered.
“No, thank you, sir. I don’t watch television. If I did want one, I’d acquire it on my own. You and Ms. Sophie have done enough already.”
“I’m sorry I can’t pay you, Allen,” Franklin groaned remorsefully.
“Sir, offering me meals, room, clothes, and board in exchange for my work in your bookstore is beyond generous. For me to accept or expect anything more would be egregious.”
Franklin stood up and adjusted his navy robe a bit. Allen sat down in the chair. The two studied each other for several long moments.
“You remind me of my brother in so many ways,” Franklin whispered.
“Was he a good man?” Allen questioned.
“He was a great man,” Franklin answered.
“You both owned the store?”
Franklin let out a hearty laugh and responded with, “Goodness, no! He was a G-Man—”
“Sir?” Allen interrupted.
“Oh, right,” Franklin remembered, “that’s not such a common term any more. He was a government agent. They plucked him up as soon as he graduated.” Franklin paused a moment and pointed to Allen’s shirt. “He went to work for them. Stuck with them for years.”
Allen leaned forward in his chair and asked, “What was his duty?”
Franklin grunted as he lowered to his knees before stretching out belly down upon the floor. The old man attempted a few pushups of his own as he replied, “I don’t know what he did for them. He said it was confidential. He was some kind of a scientist or psychologist, I know that much. I heard him talking in his sleep once on my way to the john, kept shouting out something about a map.”
At this, Allen’s eyes widened.
“How did he escape the position?” Allen demanded.
“That’s kind of a strange way to put it, Allen, but he retired after he got mauled by some kind of a dog—part of his experiments, I guess. Darn thing put him in the hospital for six months. I didn’t even know he’d been hurt!” Franklin cried.
Allen noticed Franklin executed his fourteenth pushup.
“He lost a lot of vision in his left eye,” Franklin continued, “and didn’t have great use of his left hand any longer, so I guess the government let him go. Can’t say for sure, he just showed up one day in the shop and asked if he could have his old room back.”
“You both grew up here?” Allen asked.
“Yep. Dad owned this place my entire life and we all lived right here, above the store. It’s pretty common for folks who own a business in Old Downtown to live above it. Julie and Nick do the same, next door. Have you met Julie?”
“Yes, I had some coffee after I picked up some items. I then assisted her with the shop until her employee arrived. She’s a very strong woman,” Allen remarked.
Was it only admiration, or something more? Neither Allen nor Franklin knew the answer to that for sure.
“Nick’s not her employee, Allen! Nick’s her brother-in-law. The boy came to live with Julie and Trent after his parents died in a subway accident. He was only there for about a year before Trent got shipped off to Ulrakistan. It’s just he and Julie now.”
Franklin finally wore out after doing twenty-five pushups. Allen offered his hand and helped the bookseller to his feet.
“Poor, Trent,” Franklin uttered. “A good man. We don’t have many of those, especially here in Purgatory Station. God rest his soul, God rest his soul.”
“The CEO of the sky—correct, sir?”
Franklin walked to the chair and gestured at the clean towel. After Allen nodded his permission, Franklin dabbed the sweat from his temples and asked, “You a religious man, Allen?”
Allen’s responded simply, “One nation under God, sir.”
“Yes, I figured that much where you’re concerned, but do you practice religion?” Franklin questioned while folding the towel back neatly the way he had found it.
Allen paused for several moments, as though once again searching for an appropriate reply. Franklin could see that he seemed to have catalogs of things to say, volumes of yearnings to express, but he only heard Allen, “No, sir. I do not practice any religion to speak of, sir.”
Franklin contemplated as he gazed past Allen before saying, “I’ve got to get to bed, Sophie can’t fall asleep without me next to her, but … ” Franklin walked past Allen to the nightstand next to his bed. “Walter left you a gift, something he knew you’d want.”
Allen stared in disbelief as Franklin pulled out the Holy Bible from a drawer and handed it to him. Allen held it in his palms without knowing what to do, so Franklin opened it for him.
Inside the front cover read, “To the man I knew would come. For the man I knew I could trust. Believe in what you read, as I believed in you. Sincerely, Walter Trover.”
When Allen lifted his eyes from the inscription, he saw Franklin beginning to shut his door. He heard, “You know to shake the handle on the crapper from last night’s adventure, and try to get some sleep tonight.”
Franklin winked at Allen and then shut his door.
Allen read ardently until sleep overtook him.
“The usual?” Julie asked as she saw Franklin walk into Carmah’s Cup. This proved an occurrence that still required adjustment.
“You know it,” Franklin answered as he approached the front register. He noticed that peculiar blonde-headed man in the corner of the shop once again reading a paper and drinking a cup of coffee. Other than he and this man, the shop held no one. “Is Nick sleeping in?”
“Yeah, it being Saturday and all, I figured I should let the kid sleep in for a little bit. I read that growing boys need lots of sleep so they can adjust to their growth,” Julie answered.
“Boy’s growing like a weed … ” Franklin affirmed while he took his coffee from Julie and leaned on her counter.
“Well, it doesn’t help that he stays up all night reading. He can’t get enough of this city’s freaks. We’re the only city in the nation that seems to have a stock-pile of weirdoes, and Nick won’t rest until he knows everything there is to know about each and every one of them,” Julie groaned in dismay.
Franklin responded with, “Oh, it’s perfectly healthy, Julie. I was the same way. Heck, I think I knew more about Billy the Kid, Calamity Jane, Al Capone, Doc Holiday, Bugsy Malone, and that sort than the best scholars in the country! Even as a grown man, when the Nocturnal Knight first showed up on the scene a few decades ago, I read every news article and book on him I could find. We’re always attracted to the unknown and the fantastic. If it weren’t this, Nick would be obsessed with UFOs, or ghosts, or whatever. Besides, you know his number one hero is Trent. Nick’s firmly rooted in normal life; don’t you worry those curls of yours about it.”
“Well, lately all he can talk about is that government character that’s gone missing. It worries me, Franklin, that he seems more concerned for the loss of that guy than his own brother.”
Franklin couldn’t help but notice the ears of the blonde man in the corner. They perked just a little at the mention of “that government character.” Did it mean anything? Probably not. Nick wasn’t the only person in the nation to wonder what in the world happened to its only government sanctioned Colossal.
“He knows his brother is gone forever, Julie,” Franklin consoled with his hand on her shoulder. “We should both hope that his number two hero resurfaces for the boy’s peace of mind. Imagine if he lost both of his heroes within the span of two months . . .”
Julie whispered something in agreement. She then said she had to get back to making pastries.
“Would you like some help?” Franklin asked.
“Don’t you have to get back to the shop?”
“I’ve got Allen watching it for me. The man’s a workaholic if I’ve ever seen one. By the time I woke up at five-thirty this morning, he’d already fixed the toilet that’s been plaguing Sophie and me for the last few years,” Franklin stopped and began to laugh. “When I asked him how he knew how to do it, he said that he had a basic knowledge of plumbing.”
“Really? Maybe he could fix the sink in our bathroom …” Julie mused.
“He could do more than that. After I showered and got dressed, I walked past his bedroom on the way downstairs and saw that he had installed those closet doors I’ve put off for the last fifteen years. When I got downstairs and found him opening the shop up a little early, I asked him how he knew how to hang them. He said that he had a basic knowledge of carpentry! Isn’t that a hoot? I swear, if Sophie didn’t do all the cooking for us, I bet the boy would fire up the stove and then say he had a basic knowledge of the culinary arts!”
Julie giggled at this as they entered the kitchen and began working on the pastries. After fifteen minutes of Franklin proving he had no basic knowledge of anything involving pastries, Julie commented that maybe he should go get Sophie to come help them.
It was at that moment they heard a single, thunderous gunshot.
The blonde man no longer haunted his corner.
Allen busily read the gift Walter left him when he heard the old bell signal a customer’s entrance. Allen looked up to see a rigid blonde man invade the shop. He dressed as any civilian would, in a tan barn jacket and blue jeans; however, his body language was anything but that of a civilian. Allen closed the gift and stood at full readiness without changing his body’s expression whatsoever.
“May I help you?” Allen offered, seemingly unconcerned.
“Yes, I’m looking for a book on Benedict Arnold,” a cold, raspy voice responded. “I’m fascinated with the psychology of traitors. Why would someone ever betray his own country? I can’t understand it.”
“Perhaps you have a faulty understanding of the word,” Allen responded warmly. On the inside, consequently, his blood turned to ice.
“There is no gray area for betrayal,” the man retorted as he roamed about the store without meeting Allen’s eyes. “You either are a traitor, or you’re not.”
“Moral convictions play no role?” Allen inquired while still maintaining an air of indifference.
The stranger found what he apparently looked for and approached the store worker, this time locking his hateful eyes with Allen’s for the entire jaunt.
“Staying in one place? Did you really think we wouldn’t find you?” he asked. “Why be so stupid?”
“This is my home now.”
“I’m not a particularly romantic man, but I’m sure you long ago surmised the irony of calling a place named after Purgatory your home,” the stranger stated.
“As I see it, my very existence is now a case for irony,” Allen informed.
“Well, we weren’t trained for things such as romance,” the man answered. “You were trained to obey rank and orders.”
“I received an unthinkable order,” Allen enlightened.
“It is not our place to think.”
“I couldn’t follow orders that contradicted what I stood for. If they had such intentions for me, they never should have made me what they did,” Allen lectured with his lips drawn tightly.
“If you had followed orders eight weeks ago, the war would now be over,” the man expounded in return.
“MAP had other agents. There are specific agents.”
“They were on assignment elsewhere,” the man dismissed.
“Doubtlessly,” Allen replied. “They realized I was becoming a Colossal; I was no longer simply a meta-agent. I grew out of them. They gave me that order to remind me where I came from, and, in their eyes, what I was . . .”
“And now look at you,” the man snarled. “You’re neither the Colossal that the people so desperately wanted you to be, nor are you a meta-agent. You’re just a rogue, a runner, a traitor, a villain.”
“You’re from MAP, obviously, but who are you?” Allen hissed with a trembling voice.
“I’m Agent 0104. I’m your replacement. My handle’s going to be ‘Anthem’ when I’m unveiled. Can’t say I’m going to enjoy having to act the clown that you did, but I am going to enjoy the completion of my first mission.”
“What’s that?” Allen seethed. He realized his end neared.
“The location and termination of Agent 0099, code name: Freedom,” Agent 0104 replied. “In other words, killing our nation’s greatest traitor.”
“I’m no traitor . . .”
“I’ve gathered intelligence for the last thirty-two hours, traitor. As soon as Agent Cyber-Spy determined your position, they sent me to verify. Imagine my surprise to see a member of MAP serving coffee and flirting with a widow.”
“I wasn’t flirting,” Allen muttered.
“Calm yourself, traitor,” Agent 0104 demanded. “You are currently within the crosshairs of Agent Shootdown. Make any sudden moves before I give the order for your termination, and the agent will take matters into his own hands.”
Agent 0104 grinned as Allen slowly turned his head and looked out the great window. Agent 0104 followed Allen’s eyes until he knew his enemy saw the barrel of Shootdown’s rifle atop the roof across the street.
“It’s not easy to kill members of MAP, traitor. My superiors know this, of course. That’s why they designed a special caliber just for you. It’ll pierce even our hides, if you believe any small arms fire can do such a thing. A shot to the temple—a guaranteed kill.”
The agent finally perceived Allen display anxiety—a hard swallow—before Allen turned his attention back to the outsider.
“You know, the widow, Julie, I picked her name up easily in her shop while engaged in reconnaissance, she wouldn’t be a widow right now if you followed orders.”
“Shut up,” Allen commanded.
“The war would have been two weeks over around the time her husband got killed. He maybe even could have been home by now. But you had to believe what the people of this great nation were saying about you. You believed you were the greatest of the Colossals. You ceased to be a soldier. Do you know how many men have died in Ulrakistan since you mutinied? Do you know how many men’s deaths are directly your fault?”
“I feel that weight on my soul, on my conscience, Agent,” Allen answered. “I’ve thought of nothing else since.”
“Don’t talk to me of souls and conscience, traitor. We don’t have them. If we did, you’d never be able to look that woman next door in the eye.”
Allen calmed himself by allowing a deep, long sigh. Finally, he said, “Get this over with.”
Agent 0104 pulled his collar up to his mouth and murmured. Allen quickly seized the gift left from Walter and held it to his chest, against his heart.
The sound deafened.
Franklin and Julie bolted from Carmah’s Cup after the eruption. They were horrified after they saw the hole in Franklin’s window. The “V” no longer remained in Trover’s Fine Literature.
“That’s impossible,” Julie heard Franklin mumble while gaping at the bullet hole.
They raced into Franklin’s shop to find it completely empty.
“I’ll check on Sophie,” Julie uttered before she meant to sprint to the back of the shop and up the stairs to the above apartment.
“She took a ferry into Boston,” Franklin moaned. He clutched the nearby counter and looked away.
Julie felt momentarily relieved . . . until she saw what caught Franklin’s attention.
A trail of blood peeked from around the corner of the front register counter. Julie propped the old man up and they both fretfully leaned over the counter.
Allen Hemingway lay upon the floor with the Holy Bible held to his chest and a bullet hole against his left temple.
“ETA in seven minutes, sir. You have orders to suit up and await further orders . . .”
Agent 0099 grimaced at the soldier relaying orders. He released his straps and took his black satchel down from the overhead. He’d made quicker changes into uniform than this—seven minutes was an eternity. The agent unzipped the satchel and pulled out the red, white, and blue uniform that his home country loved and trusted.
He had a bad feeling about this mission since the moment they called him in twelve hours ago. After a debriefing that revealed nothing other than the fact that he’d be going overseas and then given orders at the location, he geared up and moved out.
Now he found himself in what could only be Black Ops. They wanted him to wear his uniform, which did not bode well. They meant to disgrace him. Agent 0099 loved his status as his nation’s favorite Colossal. Unlike the other agents of MAP, he reveled in playing hero and thought his purpose a calling. Thus far, the Superiors used him only for moral boosting within the homeland. In the past, he handled any MegaMal that crawled out of the garbage, and, in doing so, saved lives. His actions were successfully meant to garner trust in the government that produced him. He sometimes wondered what would happen when he received an order that compromised his status as a Colossal. He knew it inevitable. He knew there existed no easy decision when the day arrived.
Today, that day indeed arrived.
Agent 0099 finished fastening his G-Repulser when the solider said: “Your orders just came through, sir.”
“Proceed,” Agent 0099 ordered.
Although the soldier wore a standard black visor, and though Agent 0099 could only see the red lights of the hold reflected upon it, he somehow knew those hidden eyes were wide in disbelief.
“Sir, you are to jettison in sixty seconds and reach this location,” the solider said as he handed Agent 0099 a device lit with green numbers upon a glowing grid.
The solider could not face the tall man’s eyes after he looked up from the coordinates.
“I know this place … What are my orders?” the agent asked through set teeth.
“Sir, after reaching the coordinates, you are to infiltrate the facility, then terminate target.”
At the completion of his information, the soldier reached to Agent 0099’s device and pushed a button. The green numbers disappeared instantly and a picture of a man appeared.
This is that day.
He knew the Superiors’ intent. He served the people, not the program, and they wanted to reel him back. During his tour as a Colossal, he meticulously avoided killing a single soul. Even the worst MegaMal suffered arrest and detainment, but never execution. They knew he valued his reputation as a heroic Colossal, and soon that reputation would die when it broke internationally that Freedom assassinated political leaders at the behest of his government. Though they lurked in the shadows, he would have to get just as dirty as Agent Shootdown, Agent Hell Hound, Agent Cyber Spy, and all the rest. Even if they all didn’t enjoy their assassination assignments, they all followed orders. Did he dare not?
“You’re positive orders were relayed correctly?” Agent 0099 demanded.
“Yes, sir,” the soldier answered. “Agent 0099 . . . Freedom … I know you’re a hero to the people of America. Hell, you’re my hero! But, you’ve got to understand, you plug this monster and the war will be over. In the end, lives will be saved, sir.”
“Where are the other agents?” Agent Freedom queried.
He saw the soldier’s head sink and that was all the answer he needed.
The Superiors were sending Freedom a message. In their eyes, he should act as any other lap dog. Was he just another soldier, beholden to any and all orders? Or was he also something else? The world looked up to him over the last few years, virtually since his unveiling. Would the world ever forgive him for this act? Did he have any right to act differently from any other soldier?
“Ten seconds, sir,” the soldier alerted.
Agent Freedom grabbed his now empty black satchel and approached the door of the jet. The soldier counted down and on “mark” rolled the door open. A whoosh of wind ripped through the vessel. Agent Freedom perceived the soldier mouth “good luck” while counting down with his fingers. When the last finger dropped, Agent Freedom flung himself into the star-filled night sky.
Hiding in cargo trucks.
Stowing away in ships crossing oceans.
Swimming the final few miles to shore.
Why must he reach Purgatory Station?
Living on the streets.
Where was it?
Why was it so important that he get there?
What was the meaning behind Trover’s Fine Literature?
Slowly the tiny blue slits opened for the first time in days. He saw a female figure hovering above him.
“Julie?” he mumbled.
A laugh that immediately informed that, no, it was not Julie. The voice sounded just as sweet, but far too aged. It could only be …
“Sophie,” he whispered with a smile.
“That’s right, Allen,” Sophie crooned while brushing the hair from his face, careful not to disturb the clean bandages she just applied.
Allen reached up with a trembling hand and felt the dressings upon his left temple. It’s not the first time he’d been severely wounded, and he could tell simply by touch that someone doctored him proficiently.
“Who dressed my wound?” Allen croaked while struggling to keep his eyes open. They locked upon Sophie’s.
“I did,” Sophie answered. The regal woman could see the surprise in the eyes of her patient and quickly informed, “I’m more than just Franklin’s live-in gal pal, you know. Before I retired, I worked as an emergency room nurse. You don’t honestly believe this is the first gunshot wound I’ve treated during a lifetime in Purgatory Station, do you?”
“You’re very good, ma’am, at field dressings.”
Here proved Sophie’s sure sign that Allen would be fine. When he first gained consciousness, many things troubled her—his shaking hands, his weak voice, and his drooping eyes, for example. However, most of all, she felt most distressed by the fact that he called her simply “Sophie.” She’d been either “ma’am” or “Miss Sophie” since Franklin brought the young man up for meatloaf. After hearing herself referred to once again as “ma’am,” she knew he recovered.
She attested, “I think you’re going to recuperate as long as you give yourself a few weeks to heal.”
“It will be sooner than that,” Allen said aloud without thinking. Sophie saw his eyes shoot up to her in alarm as he realized his mistake.
“Don’t fret, child,” she cooed. “I figured that your sort would heal up quite a bit quicker than a normal person. I won’t tell your secret to anyone, don’t worry.”
“Ma’am?” Allen rejoined, feigning guilelessness.
Sophie emitted a long chirp of a laugh before voicing, “Oh, now, don’t play that with me. Frankie doesn’t remember that night, but I’ve been waiting for you since Wally spilled the beans all those years ago.”
Allen sprang up even more, which resulted in fireworks that forced him back down to his back. He peered through the starbursts, pleading to Sophie with his eyes alone.
“Oh, I’ve got your attention now, do I?” she teased. “Well, I suppose I’ve just spilled the beans in a way myself, so I better get it out before that wound re-opens with your eyes as wide as they are.
“Oh, how to begin?” she continued. “Frankie told me he shared with you how Wally came to live with us all those years ago—”
“Wally, ma’am?” Allen interjected.
Again, a big flash of white dentures, a laugh, and then Sophie replied by saying, “Those two are so formal with their ‘Walter’ and ‘Franklin.’ They’ll always be ‘Wally’ and ‘Frankie’ to me. You’re lucky I’m not calling you ‘Alley.’” Sophie stopped giggle and even Allen smiled before she continued.
“Frankie hadn’t been with us but a few weeks when those two yahoos got drunk off their buns for one of only a handful of times. I forget the occasion; I think they convinced some big shot author to agree to a signing in the shop. I can’t remember.
“Anyway, the two boys were quite incapacitated, so I decided it was time for both to go to bed. Frankie needed more help than Wally, so, of course, big brother had to help me put his little brother in for the night. By the time we’d taken care of Frankie, the juice had caught up with Wally. He was a huge man, about your size, in fact, but even he couldn’t drink all that whisky those fellas guzzled without feeling it eventually, so I found myself tucking Wally in also.
“Once I finally settled him into bed, he started chatting like a drunk parrot. He jabbered all about his job with the government.”
Allen remained inert while listening to Sophie recount the past, but now he grew even more rigid as he guessed his connection to this “Walter.”
Sophie sensed the young man’s anticipation, so she hurried with, “Walter gibbered on about how he used to be a bio-engineer and a psychologist or some such with the government. Said that he’d been recruited to help with a soldier program of sorts. It’d been going on since the forties, he said, but they needed new scientists to carry on the program.” She paused a moment, uttering, “Now, what did he call that program?”
She ceased speaking altogether to ponder over her thoughts. Allen could see her searching the databanks of her brain and thought it rude to interrupt, although it took every effort on his part not to do so.
“MAT? No,” Sophie corrected. “NAP? That’s not right, either . . .”
“MAP,” Allen finally said when he saw her gray eyes asking him to help her remember.
“MAP! That’s right! Mega-Agent Program, as I remember.”
“Meta-Agent Program, actually.” He realized he could be court-martialed for revealing such classified information, but since the government already attempted an assassination upon him for, as they see it, treason, he didn’t see the harm. How had he survived that gunshot, anyway? Agent 0104 guaranteed the bullet used would kill even a member of MAP, so how—?
“Meta-Agent Program, that’s right,” she confirmed. “Anyway, he was talking about how he had done the work of the devil. He got very emotional about it, and I could tell he was greatly troubled by whatever work he did. I guess that’s why he got out after he’d been attacked by some sort of dog.”
Hell Hound sprung into Allen’s mind. It had to be Hell Hound. Allen heard Hell Hound maimed several scientists during his development. It couldn’t simply be a coincidence.
“He didn’t agree with the work … from a moral standpoint?” Allen inquired.
“That’s right, he didn’t agree with it at all,” Sophie answered. “He said reared the killers of tomorrow. He said it would all be in the name of truth, justice, and the American way, but they were still nothing more than killers.”
“So he felt damned,” Allen muttered.
“Not exactly,” Sophie corrected. “In the midst of his tears, and that was the only time I’d ever seen Wally cry, by the way—I’m still waiting to see Frankie shed some of the waterworks—anyway, in the midst of his tears, he said that no matter how many killers he’d helped to develop, he had made a champion as well.”
“Yes, a champion—those were his exact words,” Sophie reaffirmed. She could see the longing in Allen’s face and hoped this would give him the peace he so craved. “Wally talked about the men and women he helped create who had no conscience and felt no guilt. They were bred to follow orders, no matter what they thought of them. But there was one, he said, who, even as a child, showed signs of a rare characteristic.”
Sophie watched Allen lean forward.
“He said that there was a little boy, not even five years old, who could never be a killer. The boy rejected all the psychological tinkering the lab rats attempted. Wally said the boy seemed perfect in every way but one—he had a conscience. He made it sound as if his bosses would never allow the child to continue, but Wally told me he hid that imperfection until it was too late. Wally understood one way or the other, he’d suffer damnation. He chose what his own conscience demanded, so he lied on the boy’s evaluations.”
The gray haired woman could see the workings of Allen’s mind go into overdrive.
“Wally finally began to drift off to sleep that night, Allen. Before he did, though, I asked him whatever became of the boy with the conscience. Walter mumbled that he lied for years about the young man, then eventually recommended he become the first of the Public Figure Program that his bosses were developing. With all the Colossals springing up, apparently they thought they needed one of their own.
Walter said it would only be a matter of time until the boy was given an order that he couldn’t follow, so he placed a post-hypnotic suggestion in his mind that, if he ever found himself at odds with his commanders, the young man was to seek out a specific location.”
Allen fought to control his emotions as he asked, “What was the location?”
Sophie reached her hand out and lightly touched the young man on his cheek. She next tested the bandage upon his left temple, and after finding it to her satisfaction, whispered, “Trover’s Fine Literature.”
Later that evening, Allen awoke to see Franklin leaning over him with that old mustache of his partially framing a ripened smile.
“Good to see you, sir,” Allen mumbled with a grin.
“Good to see you, too, son,” Franklin returned while patting the injured man on the shoulder. “I thought we’d lost you when I saw all that blood.”
“The temple area tends to bleed profusely,” Allen informed while gently touching the bandage next to his left eye. “But I shouldn’t have survived.”
Franklin’s slender eyebrows arose upon hearing Allen’s rather matter-of-fact comment and exclaimed, “Preposterous! That bullet never should have hit you in the first place!”
Allen could only presume this was Franklin’s way of demanding to know why his front window now had a large hole in it. However, Allen had some things he needed to know first, such as how he survived a bullet specifically designed to kill MAP agents.
“Sir,” the wounded man began. “I realize that you need to know why I was shot—”
Allen stopped a moment as he saw Franklin start to protest, but he would not be deterred, “—but I first need vital information. Describe the exact circumstances of my being found. I can only assume it was you who brought me up here.”
“Well,” Franklin began uncomfortably, “I’m afraid that I couldn’t lift you alone, you’re an awfully big guy. I had to have Julie help me—”
“What!” Allen cried out in astonishment.
“Not to worry, Allen,” Franklin consoled. “I told her you were simply grazed by the bullet.”
Franklin could see frenzied thoughts behind Allen’s eyes so he quickly reported, “When we came into the store, she started to run upstairs to find Sophie, but I told her that Sophie had gone to Boston. I said this as I leaned over the counter to find the source of all that blood. That’s when I saw you laying on the floor with the Bible held to your chest.”
Allen looked to his nightstand and saw his most cherished possession, left to him by Walter. It now had some rust-colored stains upon it.
Franklin continued, “Julie screamed, put hands over her eyes, and stumbled back, so I’m relatively sure she didn’t see what I did. I saw this sticking three-quarters out of your left temple.” Franklin reached into his pants’ pocket and pulled out one of the biggest bullets either man had ever seen. “I’ve got no idea what caliber this monster is . . .”
“There is no name for its caliber. That bullet doesn’t even officially exist,” Allen hissed. He wasn’t angry with Franklin. He was angry with himself. Although he knew Agent 0104 only targeted Allen, the vile agent surely would have terminated any else had they been in the store. MAP left no loose ends.
“Yeah, you’re probably right. That’s why I went ahead and took it out,” the clever old man admitted. “I figured we wouldn’t be able to trace it anyway, so my fingerprints wouldn’t hurt it any.”
“Sir,” Allen tested with hesitation in his voice. “Aren’t you curious as to why that bullet didn’t kill me? You seem unusually calm considering the situation.”
“Actually, young man, I was just thinking the same thing about you!” Franklin let out with a huff.
Allen Hemingway could not fathom Franklin’s meaning.
Franklin smirked and continued, “I slid the bloody bullet into my pocket and yelled at Julie to call Sophie. I knew she’d be able to patch that wound up. If it’d gone any deeper, I don’t know what I’d have done.”
“Not that I’m complaining, sir, but why didn’t you take me to the hospital?” Allen inquired.
Franklin laughed while saying, “Julie argued that same point. She demanded we call 911 instead of my Sophie. I’ve never had any children, Allen, not of my own, but I used the best parent voice I had, and I told Julie to go call Sophie and trust me. Well, that got her moving. I didn’t mention the fact that a man with a fake name probably wouldn’t appreciate waking up in a public hospital. Am I right?”
“She knows I use an alias?”
“Julie’s a smart young woman, Allen. Smart enough to know when not to ask a man why he’s covering up his real identity. But I like to think she knows the good guys from the bad guys. I figure that’s why she doesn’t badger us about who you really are.”
Allen winced. He thought of Trent, Julie’s husband that died weeks after he defied orders. Trent, who in all likelihood, would still be alive today if Allen fulfilled his obligations to the government. Trent—a man who left a widow and a kid brother. Trent—a man who did the right thing and followed orders.
“I tried to haul you upstairs while she called Sophie, but you’re too darn heavy! I had to wait for her to get back and even then it took us twenty minutes to get you up the steps. We did our best to stop the bleeding, but I won’t lie, I really thought you might bleed to death. Sophie finally arrived after taking a cab all the way from Boston. She stitched you up just in time, according to her. She does tend to have a knack for the dramatic, though, so who’s to say for sure . . .”
Although he already knew the answer due to the fact that Franklin and Julie still breathed, Allen asked anyway, “No one was in the store or the apartment after you and Julie arrived?”
“Well,” Franklin replied with a trembling voice. He rubbed the back of his head before taking a seat on the side of Allen’s bed. “No. No one was here. But your room was a disaster, as though someone sifted through all of your things. Your window was open as well. I think whoever it was, we just missed him . . .”
“Thank God,” Allen whispered to himself. “Was anything missing?”
Franklin could hear the concern in Allen’s voice and said, “No, son. Everything seemed to be here, just out of place. Of course, I didn’t see that black satchel of yours, but I haven’t seen it in quite a while.”
“It’s fine,” Allen interjected harshly, though he instantly regretted his tone. He couldn’t hide the rage he felt with himself for putting his friends at risk. It’s obvious what Agent 0104 sought. He didn’t just have orders to terminate Agent Freedom; he had orders to retrieve some very expensive equipment as well. A belt that allows a man to fly is not something the government merely writes off.
“I’m glad you’re all safe,” he said with his eyes down and his hand on Franklin’s shoulder.
“We’re glad you’re safe as well, young fella,” Franklin returned. “Julie’s going to come see you later. She’s very happy you’re going to be fine. She’s a beautiful young woman, isn’t she?” the old man hinted.
Allen grew sick to his stomach with self-loathing and wished to change the subject. He said, “So, you seem to have a theory as to how I survived. May I hear it?”
The shopkeeper began to shake his head back and forth in puzzlement and revealed, “You never should have been hit in the first place!”
“Until you walked into my shop I never had a clue as to why, but years ago Walter insisted we install the highest quality bulletproof glass available. And when I say available, I don’t mean on the open market. He knew some people from his old government job that owed him a favor, as he put it.
“I guess there must have been a weak spot where the bullet hit. That’s all that I can figure. Otherwise, a bullet fired from a handgun or rifle, no matter how big it is, should never have breached the glass. ”
Allen knew better. MAP agents were built tough, and their skin definitely could withstand more than any known bulletproof glass. It must have been a combination of the two that saved his life. Once again, Walter, a man he had no recollection of knowing, proved his savior.
He knew she entered before he opened his eyes. Her perfume always made an impression upon him.
“Hi, Julie,” he greeted while sitting up.
Allen couldn’t help but notice that Julie appeared as though she had a date later. Her curly hair hung loosely about her shoulders. She wore a lovely black shirt with a khaki skirt. Allen even noted that her fingernails exhibited a fresh coat. He hated himself for it, but his heart grew envious of whomever awaited her.
“Hi, big guy,” she offered playfully. She sat on the edge of his bed, and he tried very hard not to notice her arm brushing his leg as she propped herself to one side. “How are you feeling?”
“I’m feeling better.” Nearly twenty-four hours passed since his injury. His engineers conditioned him to heal quickly. Of course, he thought it unwise to share such specifics with Julie. He also realized, consequently, that any nagging pain seemed to alleviate in her presence.
“We’ll need to get you a new one,” Julie whispered as she pointed to Allen’s tarnished Bible on the nightstand.
“No, that one has sentimental value. I’ll never replace it,” Allen returned.
Julie simply nodded. She then reached out and touched the bandage on his left temple. After inspecting it to her liking, she took her hand away and rubbed his cheek gently while doing so. Allen loved it and loathed himself.
“Do you have a date later?” Allen asked, trying to district himself.
“No, why?” she answered.
Allen found himself speechless.
Julie, however, did not, and so she said, “Allen, I’m sorry, but I’m not like Franklin. I have to know. Why were you shot? Why do you use a fake name? You’re obviously in some kind of trouble. Just what is going on?”
Julie saw Allen’s jaw clench tightly. His blue eyes stared deeply into hers.
“I know that I have no right to ask you anything. We just met, after all—”
“Julie—” Allen tried to interrupt.
“—but I always assumed I’d never find anyone else after Trent. I never wanted anyone else. Trent was my hero. I loved him more than life, but now he’s gone. I feel like I haven’t grieved long enough, but—”
“—please don’t do this,” Allen moaned.
Julie continued anyway, “Allen, I don’t even know your real name, but I’m feeling something for you that I haven’t felt for anyone but Trent. I don’t know why I have these feelings for a man who won’t even tell me his real name, but I do. Please Allen, tell me what’s going on. Who are you?”
Allen let out a deep groan. He knew this moment would come. Ever since he saw Julie and then learned of her husband and his death, he knew only a matter of time existed—the confession. However, he never dreamed she’d have feelings for him.
He could hang up his uniform forever. As far as the Superiors were concerned, Freedom expired. Agent 0099 was targeted by Anthem and terminated by Shootdown. As long as the G-Repulser never resurfaced, he could live a life with Julie. Freedom was dead. He could stay that way. Allen Hemingway could live on.
No. He owed Trent the truth. Although he never met the man, Trent deserved at least that much. Like all those others, Trent died defending the nation. Allen couldn’t take his life and then his wife as well.
“Julie,” Allen said hesitantly. “There’s something I have to tell you.” His eyes locked with Julie’s and he declared, “I’m a fugitive of the government. I was ordered to kill someone eight weeks ago, but I defied orders.”
Julie’s eyes grew huge. “Who were you supposed to kill?”
Even though he wanted to avoid eye contact, he wouldn’t let himself. He replied, “If I killed this person, the war in Ulrakistan would, in all likelihood, be over right now. I’m certain it would have ended two months ago.
“I got shot because I’m considered a traitor by the government. They think I’m dead now, and as long as I keep a low profile, they won’t bother me again.
“I’m not a killer, Julie. I never have been. I couldn’t follow that order, even though it meant—”
“Trent would still be alive … ” Julie mumbled as she tore her gaze from Allen’s.
“Not just Trent, Julie. Hundreds. Hundreds would be with their families today. It was the hardest decision of my life, but I couldn’t carry out that order—”
“Why?” Julie bellowed while bursting to her feet. “What makes you so high and mighty? Trent followed orders all the time that he hated, because that’s what a good soldier does! That’s what loyal soldiers do! They follow orders to keep other soldiers alive!”
“I was more than just a soldier, Julie . . .”
Julie’s mouth dropped open in disbelief as tears rolled down her red cheeks. They left black trails behind them.
“No, you weren’t more than a soldier,” she returned. Because if you were, that means that you were better than Trent, and you’re not half the man that Trent was. I can’t believe I almost tainted his memory by thinking you were even close to being what he was to me . . .”
Allen tried to stand from his bed, but immediately grew lightheaded from the sudden effort. “Julie,” he started as he fell back, “please, don’t go. I can’t make it up to you, but try to understand—”
“No!” Julie screamed. She turned in his doorway and burned hatred through him with her eyes. “You understand this: you are a traitor! Whether you’re a traitor or not to the government, I’ll let God decide. But I know you’re a traitor to Trent, and a traitor to me! If I ever see you step foot in my shop again, I will call the FBI, or CIA, or whoever it takes! I’ll turn you in, whoever you are, so stay away! Don’t ever talk to me or look at me again!”
Allen suffered a fresh wound, one that all the engineering he received would fail to help overcome.
“It’s been days … ” Allen muttered.
“I know, Allen, but things take time. You sure you don’t want to tell me exactly what happened?” Sophie asked as she handed him his coffee from across the breakfast bar.
Allen reached out and felt the warmth against the palm of his hand. He sat on a stool with his back to the living room and faced Sophie while she prepared lunch in the kitchen.
“I’m sorry, ma—er, Miss Sophie, but telling Julie what duty dictated was hard enough. I prefer not to get into it again.”
“You always do your duty, don’t you?” Sophie stated rather matter-of-factly as she dropped noodles into boiling water.
“Unfortunately, no, I don’t.”
Sophie turned around from the stove and reached her hand out to Allen’s. She took hold of his, saying, “You’re an honorable man, Allen. Walter believed in you, and so do we.”
“I don’t feel very honorable.”
“Sometimes you have to follow your own heart,” Sophie enlightened. “If you’re meant to be something, and you succeed at that something, your heart will be at ease. If you’re meant to be something else, your heart will ache until you are that something else. You are what you are, Allen; whatever Julie thinks, you must remain true to your calling.”
“I no longer heed my calling,” Allen said below his breath.
“I hope that’s not true,” Franklin’s voice interrupted.
Allen and Sophie turned to see Franklin climbing the steps from the shop below. He quickly ran to the television set and demanded that Allen and Sophie come see.
“Who’s tending the store?” Sophie asked.
“Store’s closed!” Franklin exclaimed.
“Why?” Allen inquired.
“Because the mayor’s ordered all of Old Downtown to close up and take cover!”
Franklin found the channel he wanted and pointed to the set. Sophie and Allen peered at the screen and saw a huge, human-shaped rock trudging along, tossing cars, busses, and anything else that got in its way to the side.
“What is that thing?” Allen interrogated.
“That, young man, is what Purgatory Station dubbed ‘The Nether Man’ long before we were born,” Franklin answered very seriously.
“What is it?” Sophie questioned.
Franklin shrugged his shoulders and returned, “It’s just what it looks like—a giant rock-man!”
Sophie guffawed, “It’s not possible!”
“You’re in Purgatory Station, dear,” Franklin said, “anything’s possible.”
“Is it hostile?” Allen asked with narrowed eyes. He could feel the calling.
“Depends on your idea of ‘hostile,’ Allen,” Franklin answered. “This thing shows up every once in a while and wreaks havoc on the city. Last time Purgatory Station saw him was in 1901, so when I say every once in a while, I’m serious! He’s never been stopped; he just surfaces out of the Atlantic, crosses our island, and walks right back into the ocean!”
“What’s his purpose?”
“He doesn’t appear to have one,” Franklin said in reply to Allen’s question. “You know I’ve been known to keep up with this city’s Colossals and MegaMals—”
Sophie interjected with a huffy, “That’s an understatement!”
Franklin chose to ignore Sophie and continued by saying, “This fella first showed up in the late seventeen hundreds, back when this city was just a dumping ground for what the Puritans felt were the worst of irredeemable sinners. He’s never been seen anywhere else but here. Legend has it that he was a fella who killed himself on the north side of the island in what’s now Wilderness Park. Problem is, he supposedly committed suicide on a cursed rock. According to the myth, his soul became trapped within the rock and he’s been stuck inside of it ever since, doomed to wander the island and the surrounding ocean floors for all eternity.”
“You’re serious?” Allen asked incredulously.
“I’m as serious as bulletproof skin,” Franklin responded with a smirk.
“Can it be stopped?”
“Never has in the past—”
Franklin stopped talking as he noticed Allen focus on the television. On the screen, the reporter spoke about a new Colossal dubbed “Anthem” who showed up a few minutes ago to challenge the Nether Man.
Allen saw the black-suited agent with a big red “A” on his chest and a blue cape punch the Nether Man. The creature responded with a solid roundhouse and sent Anthem flying against an adjacent building. Though not proud of it, a smile spread across Allen’s face.
With his forearm mounted semi-automatic weapons, Anthem next opened fire against the monster. In response, the Nether Man grabbed the front of a nearby bus and threw it at Anthem.
Allen wondered how long it would take Anthem to regain consciousness.
“Fella’s going about it the wrong way,” Franklin mumbled.
“What do you mean?” Allen asked.
“The Nether Man can’t be stopped. You just have to get out of his way and hope his walk through the city won’t be a long one. There’s no record of it being a murderer outright, to kill simply for the sake of killing, but it has killed. Lots of folks in the past died simply because they couldn’t get out of its way. That Colossal should be trying to clear a path for it, not taking it on man-to-man.”
“He’s no Colossal,” Allen snarled.
“Well, if that’s the case, I think we could use a Colossal on the scene who actually respects life,” Sophie said before glaring at Allen.
“Don’t you think Allen’s been up too long? He could probably use some rest,” Franklin said to his live-in lady-friend.
“Yes, I think so,” Sophie agreed. Allen, why don’t you go take a nap and rest that head up of yours. We won’t wake you up for a few hours, so don’t worry about us coming into your room. Be sure to take the bandage off before you get into bed, though.”
Allen smiled at the old couple as he got up from the couch.
“You’re sure there’s no way that thing can be stopped?”
“Allen, I’ve told you everything I’ve read about it. How do you stop a soul encased within a cursed rock? I have no idea. I just hope whoever helps this
‘Anthem’ fella can get the people out of its way!”
A soul within a cursed rock. Allen could relate.
He entered his room and slid the bed off to the side. Once out of the way, he removed the loose floorboards and gathered his black satchel. After unzipping it, he pulled out the red, white, and blue uniform. He then pulled out his gauntlets, followed by his boots, and finally, the G-Repulser.
They’ll kill him to get it back, but not before he saved lives.
The skylight atop Franklin Trover’s building thrust open and Freedom burst through it towards the mayhem of the Nether Man.
The bus weighed upon him in such a way that he could get no leverage. He needed some sort of a foothold in order to budge it.
“Damn it,” he muttered to himself. “First time out in this clown suit, and I’m trapped by a freak. Black Ops is where I belong, not this garbage.”
He gave one last push with all his might, and the bus lifted from his chest. It quickly tipped to the right before Anthem found himself staring up at a big red “F.”
“You’re dead,” Anthem growled.
“I guess I’ve been resurrected,” Freedom answered with an uncommon arrogance.
Anthem brushed the debris off and stood. He beat Freedom’s height by an inch.
“I’ll deal with you after the weirdo,” Anthem assured as he turned and walked away from Freedom, the overturned bus, and the rest of the chaos in the Nether Man’s wake.
“You won’t be able to stop him with sheer force,” Freedom shouted.
Freedom knew exactly what was happening when he saw Anthem stop in his tracks, glance back at him, and say, “I’ll stop him. By any means necessary.” The more experienced Colossal realized this was a make or break mission for Anthem. He had to stop the Nether Man. This man intended to take Freedom’s place as America’s greatest Colossal, and so he couldn’t afford to botch his debut. This made Anthem very dangerous. Anthem would win, no matter what the cost, even if it took the deaths of a few civilians to guarantee his victory.
Freedom lifted off thanks to the G-Repulser and landed directly in front of Anthem. He stared into the man’s star-shaped visor and proclaimed, “I won’t let any innocents be harmed during this mission, Agent 0104. Whatever you’ve got planned, you clear it with me first.”
Anthem shoved past Freedom and laughed. “You hold no rank, traitor, so don’t give me orders. But if you say that nothing can stop that thing, well, that leaves me no choice. I’m calling in an air strike.”
Freedom’s eyes quickly took an inventory of the human loss that would occur. There were camera crews and reporters everywhere, not to mention all of the people taking cover in the buildings along the surrounding blocks. When he returned his attention to Anthem. The vicious agent turned his back on Freedom while pulling his communication link in closer. Without a moment’s hesitation, Freedom grasped Anthem’s shoulder, spun him around, and tore the link loose from Anthem’s headpiece. Any communications with Anthem’s handlers were terminated.
Anthem raised his weapon to Freedom’s chest and stuck the barrel right against his heart.
“Look around you, Agent,” Freedom muttered. “You want to be these people’s hero? I suggest you don’t open fire on their favorite Colossal.”
Anthem slowly turned his head and saw the camera crews filming his
every move. “You’re lucky, traitor . . .”
“It’s so great to see him again!” Nick shouted with joy.
Julie, Nick, Sophie, and Franklin sat in the living room of Julie’s apartment above her shop, Carmah’s Cup. Franklin insisted they take refuge together, regardless of her feelings about Allen. Julie didn’t even ask Allen’s whereabouts.
“This is Sydney Attwater with WPUG news, where the legendary Nether Man has finally returned, along with Freedom, the long-absent Colossal. We also have a new Colossal on the scene, but we have yet to learn his name. It would appear that this new Colossal and Freedom are acquainted, but, judging from their body language, they are not on friendly terms. Indeed, the blonde man in black went so far as to level his weapon against Freedom’s chest.”
“I wonder what caliber the fella’s got in his gun,” Franklin whispered into Sophie’s ear. Sophie gave him a concerned look in return.
“Julie, isn’t it great?” Nick yelled with glee to his sister-in-law. “I knew he’d be back! Just when Purgatory Station needed him most!”
Julie released a disgusted sigh.
The news reporter continued, “Apparently having settled their differences, Freedom and the other Colossal have both lifted off and are heading south on Geoff Avenue to catch up with the Nether Man. The mayor is urging all citizens in Old Downtown to seek refuge. Remember that it has been over one hundred years since the Nether Man’s last appearance. There are many in the city who doubted its existence at all! Well, as this reporter can attest, the Nether Man is very real. This is Sydney Attwater—”
“South on Geoff Avenue? They’re heading right for us!” Nick smiled widely. “Maybe we’ll get to see them in person! I’m going down to the shop for a better look!”
“You’re staying right here!” Julie barked.
“But, Julie, it could be my only chance to see a hero! Besides Trent, I’ve never seen one,” Nick said.
Julie mumbled, “You won’t see a real one today, either.”
Franklin and Sophie squeezed each other’s hands.
Freedom and Anthem flew in low at thirty miles per hour. Anthem wanted to hit the Nether Man high from behind and have Freedom hit him low, but Freedom convinced the other man it would only result in a concussion for them. Anthem seemed to have difficulty accepting the idea that the Nether Man was truly comprised of pure rock. Freedom supposed for the uninitiated that it would be difficult to digest MegaMals like the Black Hole or the Fog Master. All of Anthem’s previous enemies were no more than flesh and blood wielding manufactured weapons.
“What is your tactic, then, traitor? After all, if you hadn’t destroyed my communication link, this thing would already be a pile of rocks.”
“And so would most of Old Downtown, Anthem. Do you even think of the lives at stake?” Freedom argued.
“This coming from the man who kept the war raging?” Anthem commented with an obnoxious smirk.
Freedom did not retort.
Anthem and Freedom soared over the Nether Man’s head and landed twenty meters beyond. They both turned and faced the monster while waiting for its approach. Freedom could see the creature was not angry, it was not in a rage. It simply walked. If an empty vehicle happened to be in its path, it moved it aside with a shrug. Freedom made sure nobody found themselves in the Nether Man’s path, but, unfortunately, he noted several faces pressed up against the windows of the surrounding buildings. They looked as though they were watching a sporting event. Should the Nether Man deviate from its course and crash through the buildings, the casualties would be catastrophic.
“What this thing’s story, traitor?” Anthem yelled over the explosion of a car’s gas tank igniting. Freedom could not see if the other agent was shocked to observe the Nether Man emerge from the flames.
“Supposedly, it’s a cursed rock with a man’s soul trapped within.”
Anthem turned his head and stared at Freedom.
“I’m serious,” Freedom assured. He then screamed, “No!”
Freedom saw another car tossed out of the creature’s path, but this one headed straight for a diner with many patrons pressed to the windows. In an instant, Freedom left the ground and sped to intercept the car. He opted to ram it from the side and force it to land harmlessly on the sidewalk. The plan worked perfectly, except for the fact that when he thought ‘harmlessly,’ he failed to take into account the impact damage to his shoulder. By his count, though, no one died . . . yet.
Freedom waved to the people in the diner with his remaining good arm and then raced back to the Nether Man. As he neared, he grew disgusted to see Anthem pick up a motorcycle and throw it into the Nether Man. It burst into a hundred pieces without slowing the creature a single step.
“Follow me!” Freedom cried as he swooped past Anthem. Anthem lifted off thanks to his own G-Repulser and followed in Freedom’s slipstream. They finally landed and turned toward the monster again. Because it remained a quarter of a mile away, they had time to regroup and develop some semblance of strategy. A long shot of an idea entered Freedom’s mind.
He realized they stood directly in front of Carmah’s Cup.
“First Redeemer is two blocks west of here, Agent. Bring me back a priest!” Freedom ordered.
“What?” Anthem blurted out in confusion.
“We’ve got to stop this thing. The city’s only getting more populated; if we let it run its path, it could return later and cause even more loss of life. Today we stop it.”
“What does a priest have to do with that?” Anthem demanded.
Just then Freedom watched a fire truck speed into the Nether Man at the intersection of Geoff and O’Neil. He heard the sirens, but there were sirens going off everywhere from the damaged vehicles and buildings, the fires left in the creature’s wake, and as a general warning to the civilians. The truck engulfed the creature, and Freedom mourned those lives lost to the Nether Man.
“Get the priest!” Freedom directed and then hurled himself towards the truck.
Freedom did not see Anthem give him the finger before flying west in search of First Redeemer and the priest. Freedom only saw those men still alive within the fire truck. He had to dislodge the vehicle from Nether Man before it started thrashing, for then the casualties would be even more horrendous.
Freedom banked right and then turned sharply left. He planned to strike the truck’s front and push it backwards, dislodging the monster stuck within the grill. He reminded himself to lead with his left shoulder, the good one.
The impact ravaged that other shoulder, but the truck broke free, the Nether Man moved on, and firefighters lived. Freedom overcame his own pain in order to pull back the mangled frame so the men and women could retrieve their fallen comrades. They quickly covered their friends and then went to work on the surrounding fires. Duty called them to action, no matter their emotions. Freedom knew they were the true heroes of the world. He quickly bent to one knee, prayed for the fallen, and then fulfilled his duty as well.
As Freedom approached the Nether Man again, he experienced an unknown form of fear. The Nether Man ambled mere meters from Carmah’s Cup and Trover’s Fine Literature. That is not what put fear’s icy scythe through his heart, however. The true fear came when Nick popped out the front door of Julie’s coffee shop. The true fear came from seeing the Nether Man hurl aside yet another car, this time headed directly for the redheaded boy who waved at Freedom too frantically to notice. Freedom pushed the G-Repulser to its limits, and he hoped he could go three for three.
He knew his shoulders couldn’t take another shot, so he’d have to do this the old fashioned way. Could he catch a car standing flat-footed?
“Oh my gosh, Freedom, I can’t believe it’s you—ahhhhh!”
Freedom landed, pushed the boy into the coffee shop as gently as he could, which in this case would surely result in bruised ribs for the teen, then turned to face the impending car.
He didn’t even have time to get his hands up.
The car hit him directly in the chest and pinned him against the doorframe of Julie’s shop. Between the bullet wound to his head, his devastated shoulders, and now the car, Freedom suffered pain like never before.
He heard the boy crying from inside the shop, but he knew the fifteen-year-old would be fine. He entertained no such feelings about his own outcome, though.
The Nether Man stopped dead in his tracks after Anthem dropped the priest in front of the creature. The agent looked at Freedom for further instruction, and Freedom could sense it killed him to do so. Freedom inherently understood this would be the last time the men even pretended to work together.
Inexplicably, the priest raised his fists expertly as though he meant to combat the rocky behemoth!
“No, Father! You’re not here to fight it!” Freedom yelled from the wreck of the car surrounding him.
“What the hell’s he supposed to do, then?” Anthem shouted back while reloading his gauntlets’ weapons.
“I’m a pastor!” the holy man hollered immediately after Anthem, and then followed with, “And you watch your language.”
Freedom would have laughed if the situation were less serious and if his vision didn’t begin to dim.
Freedom managed to garble, “Pastor, tell it to move on!”
The middle-aged man known to his congregation as Pastor Irons replied, “What are you talking about?”
Freedom, fighting to stay conscious, stammered, “It’s got the soul of a man who killed himself stuck inside. Tell it to move on; tell it that its time in Purgatory is over!”
A light seemed to brighten in Pastor Irons’ eyes. Anthem, on the other hand, seemed more confused than ever.
Freedom watched with dimming eyesight as the pastor lifted his cross up into the air while the Nether Man hefted its great, stony arms high above the pastor’s head. Anthem also raised his arms, prepared to let loose a volley of useless bullets.
And then Freedom went dark.
“You may address me as Anthem, and you’ll see me whenever a MegaMal such as this one appears.”
“Anthem, are you and Freedom partners?” he heard Sydney Attwater ask.
Freedom slowly opened his eyes to see Anthem granting an interview to a reporter. He saw this over the top of the car that still pinned him against the doorframe of Carmah’s Cup. Anthem had him. He was trapped. They wouldn’t have to terminate him in public now. They’d just show up, haul him away, and no one would ever see him again.
It was worth it, though—saving the child was worth it. He would never again allow a Carmah’s death.
Apparently his plan worked. The Nether Man remained motionless. The eerie brimstone light no longer glowed from its eyes. Freedom hoped that meant the soul powering it left as well.
Freedom closed his eyes and awaited his outcome.
“Negative. Freedom is no partner of mine,” Anthem informed in response to Sydney Attwater’s most recent question. “In fact, there’s something you all should know about Freedom. This man is nothing more than—”
“A hero!” a new voice shouted out. “This man, Freedom, is a hero, and we should all thank him!”
He grinned without opening his eyes.
“This man saved my brother-in-law’s life. The least we can do is free him from that car!”
Freedom perceived Julie crawling out from her storefront window. She navigated the debris before finding a spot to push with all her might against the wreckage.
He next heard a groan and saw that Pastor Irons had been pushing on the car all along, but to no avail. Still, he wondered why a middle-aged pastor would have biceps the size of his own. Freedom took note.
He next saw Franklin, Sophie, and a bruised Nick crawl through the window as well. They all fought to move the car off him. Even Sidney Attwater stopped her interview with Anthem so that she and her camera crew could lend a hand.
“Don’t I know you?” Freedom heard Franklin ask. He assumed it was directed towards him as an inside joke.
“I don’t think so,” he heard Pastor Irons return.
“You could help, you know,” Julie called out to Anthem.
Freedom watched in amusement as Anthem realized that while his interview with Sidney Attwater may be postponed, there were still plenty of cameras recording the situation. How could the nation’s newest Colossal not help the nation’s favorite?
Anthem ordered the civilians to move aside before tearing the mangled car, rather barbarously, from Freedom’s body.
Finally, Freedom could breathe again.
Sydney Attwater immediately took advantage of the situation. “So, Freedom and Anthem, seemingly a rather patriotic pair! I wonder if you might give me an exclusive interview about your battle with the Nether Man?”
“Why don’t you continue with Anthem?” Freedom prompted with a smile. “After all, he did all the real work. I just caught a few cars. Besides, I think I need to say hello to a friend.”
Freedom chuckled after reading a rather rude command aimed at him upon Agent Anthem’s lips.
“How are you?” Freedom asked as he approached his friend.
“Oh, my gosh! It’s you! It’s really you!” Nick stammered.
Freedom beamed at the boy even though his insides were on fire. The child seemed to forget his own bruised ribs in Freedom’s presence.
“Nick, try to calm down,” Julie coldly said to her brother-in-law.
Nick looked at her in confusion as she stood with Sophie and Franklin, and then questioned, “But Julie, he saved my life! This is my hero!”
“I’m not a hero, Nick,” Freedom clarified. “I’m just a man who tries to do the right thing. Sometimes the consequences of my decisions are good, sometimes they aren’t. But my conscience is my only compass, and I have to live by it.”
Nick looked up at Freedom in obvious bewilderment. Julie, on the other hand, could not bring herself to meet the eyes of the Colossal.
“But you are a hero, Freedom,” Nick affirmed as he admired the towering man. “You’re just like my brother, Trent. I want to be just like both of you someday!”
Freedom put his hand on Nick’s shoulder and replied, “It’s an honor to be put in such company, Nick, but trust me, Trent’s the real hero. Remember that.”
Freedom looked at Julie one last time and felt his heart drop after she refused to meet his pleading eyes. He then nodded to Franklin and Sophie. He looked at Nick one last time and said, “This country owes men and women like your brother for the sacrifices they make on a routine basis, Nick. And don’t forget you’re a hero to us. You and others like you give us your loved ones. We live free because of the losses you all endure.”
A tear fell from Nick’s eyes and he whispered something that only Freedom could hear.
Freedom pulled the boy in close for a moment, squeezed his shoulders, then eased him away.
Once Nick cleared his space, Freedom jettisoned into the air disappeared high in the evening’s glowing sky.
“This interview is over,” Anthem snapped at Sydney Attwater. He prepared to lift off as well.
“Nick,” Julie began as she took note of Anthem’s impending action, “why don’t you go ask our newest Colossal for his autograph?”
“Great idea!” Nick replied as he ran off towards Anthem.
Julie, Sophie, and Franklin watched, bemused, as Nick and several other neighborhood children delayed Anthem’s pursuit. Sydney Attwater even kindly offered the children paper so that each and every one of them could get a coveted signature.
Anthem looked as though he could spit venom.
A few days later, Julie heard the buzz signaling the arrival of a new customer. She left her pastries to approach the front counter. The man nearing her through the throng of construction workers did not prove a welcome sight.
“Thank you, Julie, for helping me out with Anthem the other day. You saved me from being taken prisoner. I’ll always remember that.”
“I did it for Nick,” Julie answered. “I couldn’t stand the idea of him losing you and Trent within the same year. I didn’t do it for you. Just remember that.”
Allen shifted uncomfortably, but he continued nevertheless, “What I said, about the nation owing you and Nick a debt of gratitude for giving up your loved one to us, I meant that.”
Julie said nothing.
“You know now why I couldn’t kill that man. Maybe I am just another soldier, but what would children—kids like Nick—think if their hero became an assassin? I know that Trent had to kill, but he killed in battle against forces that were fighting back. I don’t think Trent was the sort of man who could have been an assassin, either. I don’t think he could have been a cold-blooded killer.”
Julie said nothing.
“I’m so sorry, Julie. If I could trade spots with Trent, I would. I would in a heartbeat. I wish with every fiber of my being that he stood in front of you right now, instead of me. I’d give up anything to make that happen. But even with all my abilities, there’s nothing I can do to bring him back.”
Julie said nothing.
“I can’t change the decisions I’ve made. Trent is gone. If you want to think it’s my fault, then I will bear that burden. I owe men like Trent that much. But, Franklin and Sophie insist that I continue to stay with them. Now that Anthem has made his official debut and they botched one attempt on my life, I don’t think I need to worry about them coming back. They’ll still pursue Freedom, but I think they’ll leave Allen Hemingway alone. I need to find out more about Walter. I need to find out more about myself, and I need to see what it’s like to try to live a normal life. But I can’t live next door to you, Julie, knowing that you’re hating me the entire time. Please, I’m begging you, can you forgive me? I’m not saying that you have to like me, I just have to know that you don’t hate me. Can you do that?”
“Get out of my shop.”
Allen turned and left Carmah’s Cup.
Julie turned and went back to her pastries.
To be continued …
Copyright © 2004, 2015 Scott William Foley
All Rights Reserved
Also published in the short story collection
The Imagination’s Provocation: Volume I (iUniverse, 2005)
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
All rights reserved. No part of this story may be used or reproduced by any means, graphic, electronic, or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, taping or by any information storage retrieval system without the written permission of the author except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews or articles.
Also By Scott William Foley …
Short Story Collections
The Imagination’s Provocation: Volume I
The Imagination’s Provocation: Volume II
Dr. Nekros Electronic Serial
Dr. Nekros: The Tragedian (1 of 18)
Dr. Nekros: Phantasms and Chicanery (2 of 18)
Dr. Nekros: Bloodied Pistons (3 of 18)
Dr. Nekros: An Unforeseen Calamity (4 of 18)
Dr. Nekros: A Nightmare Realized (5 of 18)
Dr. Nekros: An Abhorrent Culmination (6 of 18)
Dr. Nekros: Monstrosity’s Dawn (7 of 18)
Dr. Nekros: The Demons Within (8 of 18)
Dr. Nekros: Lineage (9 of 18)
Dr. Nekros: The Inevitable Demise of Anton Hall (10 of 18)
Dr. Nekros: Diatribe and Divulgence (11 of 18)
Dr. Nekros: Peripeteia (12 of 18)
Dr. Nekros: The Realm Within (13 of 18)
Dr. Nekros: The Depths of Fate (14 of 18)
Dr. Nekros: A77 (15 of 18)
Dr. Nekros: A Catastrophic Convergence (16 of 18)
Dr. Nekros: The Devil’s Ashes (17 of 18)
Dr. Nekros: Requiem For the Redeemed (18 of 18)
About the Author
Scott William Foley is a proud husband, father, educator, and writer. He earned his Bachelor of Science degree in English Secondary Education and his Master’s degree in Reading from Illinois State University. Foley currently lives in Normal, IL.