The Day After You Saved the Multiverse
It wasn’t a dream. Laurie Lemmon knew that it wasn’t a dream.
Lying in her bed that night, not sleeping, she had put all the pieces of the Clark Kent puzzle together. That time they were out on the beach, at the masquerade party, she in a mermaid suit and he in his Superboy costume, it looked to her like he flew, and then fell from the sky. He told her later on that she was hallucinating, and she believed that, because she didn’t want to believe what she saw.
But now Clark had left for a week, come back, and acted like Mr. Secret Agent. On their walk, he had left her at McDonalds, gone off, and come back smelling of smoke.
That night, the TV news talked about the furniture store fire. It had happened at about the same time he left her. It was the one to which the fire engine they saw was going.
And Superboy had been the one to put out the fire.
She didn’t want to admit the knowledge. But there was no escaping it.
Laurie tossed in her bed. How could she face Clark after this? What could she tell him? “I know you’re Superboy, but don’t worry, I won’t tell anybody”? The worst part about it was, she still liked him. Maybe, if she got the time, she might love him.
No, that wasn’t the worst part.
The worst part was, if someone ordinary like her could figure out he was Superboy...
...how hard would it be for somebody else?
Just about as soon as he got into the school building, Clark Kent had been taken aside by Mr. Rasham, his algebra teacher, and given several words and a grim look. “They want to see you in the office,” he said.
Clark didn’t even raise his eyebrows. “Right now, sir?”
The youth sighed. “Okay,” he said, and, after depositing his bookload in his locker, trudged down the hall to the Temple of Doom. A few friends and acquaintances...heck, a lot of ‘em...said hi to him along the way, and asked where he’d been. “Hi,” he said. “Out. Away.”
That was exactly where he wished he was as he entered the principal’s office.
The secretary said, “Go right in, Mr. Kent. He’s waiting for you.”
Why was it, Clark asked himself, that fighting the Zoners seemed a lot less scary than facing a high school principal?
Mr. Kashner, the principal, was a man of few words and fewer smiles. He stood 6' 1" in his brown Oxfords, wore a blue suit almost every day, and had the mien of a drill instructor getting his hands into a fresh crop of victims. “Clark Kent,” he said, without preamble.
“Sir,” said Clark, shutting the door behind him. “It’s about my abscence, isn’t it?” Stupid, but what the hell else could he say.
“Why were you gone for a week, without an excuse?” Kashner’s eyes affected him in a way Kryptonite couldn’t begin to match.
“Well, sir, as, uh, inadequate...” Clark couldn’t get the rest of it out. “I’m not at liberty to say, sir.”
“You’re not what?”
Clark looked Kashner straight in the face. “I can’t tell you. Sir. It was family business.”
“I was in touch with your parents, Clark, and they couldn’t tell me where you’d gone, either. You were absent without an excuse. For a week.”
“Yes, sir. I’m, well, I’m sorry, sir. It was something unavoidable. Involved a cousin I’d never met before, but...”
“You want to tell me about it?”
“I’ve already said, sir...”
“That you can’t tell me about it. Well, young man, you might consider telling me, because if it’s something that could get you in trouble with the police, I might be able to help.”
“Oh, no, sir, nothing like that. Nothing illegal. Quite the opposite.”
Kashner looked him up and down. “Yet, you come back here with bruises. What was it, Clark? Were you abused?”
Clark Kent let out a breath of air. “In a way, sir. In the process of helping my relatives, I had to defend them. I got into a fight.”
“Were you...badly beaten?”
“I got my lumps, yes, sir. But I gave a few back, too.”
“This is not a good thing, Clark. You’ve never been known as a troublemaker, a roughneck. You’ve been a good student, up until now.”
“Well, I intend to go on being one, sir. If you’ll be good enough to give me the chance, that is.”
Kastner pursed his lips, then guided Clark to a seat, sat him down, and pulled up one in front of him and did the same. “It’s not that simple, my boy. Not that simple at all.”
“Have you any idea what the words ‘in loco parentis’ mean?”
“Yes, sir. ‘In the place of a parent.’ It means that from the time we arrive here until we report to our own parents, you stand in our parents’ place.”
The principal nodded. “And like any parent, Clark, we’re concerned when you leave for a week, without excuse, and return with bruises. Even more so, when you won’t tell us about it. Clark.”
“Are you Superboy?”
The question had come out of the blue. Clark was almost blindsided by it, but not quite. Because he was who he was, looked the way he did, and shared a name with the guy in the comics, there would be no way he could avoid this question, now and again. The only thing he could do was give the standard answer.
“No,” he lied.
“Well, I thought I’d ask,” said Kashner. “You have the same name as Superman. In the comics, I mean. Your secret would be safe with me, and it would help explain where you had been for the last week.”
“Sir, I am not Superboy,” said Clark. “And I don’t think the real Superboy would appreciate people asking around about his secret identity. That’s an invasion of privacy, and it could endanger his real relatives.”
“It could,” nodded Kashner. “But a few confidantes, Clark, could make things a lot easier for the real Superboy. If he confided in them, that is.”
“Well, you’ll have to ask Superboy,” said Clark. “I’m not him.”
The principal almost smiled. “I almost expect to hear a cock crow,” he said. “But there still remains: the matter of punishment.”
“Yes, sir,” said Clark, quietly.
“I haven’t decided yet what to do. But I can tell you that you will be ineligible for extracurricular school-based activities for the semester.”
“Don’t just ‘okay, sir’ me, Clark. This is serious business.”
“It is indeed, sir. Wasn’t implying it wasn’t.”
“From here on in, you’re on probation. I expect full attendance from you every day for the rest of the semester, unless you’re sick. And you’d better be really, really sick.”
Clark didn’t give him a “yes, sir”. He waited.
“Clark–“ Kashner sighed. “Family ties are important. But you have to ask youself this: if those ties get you into questionable situations, get you beaten up, cause you to miss a week of school, are they really worth it? Even with family, Clark, one has to use discretion.”
“That’s true, sir.”
“You didn’t even call the school, Clark.”
“I wasn’t in a position to do so, sir.”
“What kind of position were you in?”
“If I could tell you, I would, sir. But I can’t.”
Kashner said, “Have you ever given thought to the possibility of being expelled, Clark?”
Clark didn’t say anything.
“I’m cutting you some slack. But there’s only so much slack I can cut you. Even if you start in another school, that mark will follow you. Forever.”
Clark remained silent.
“That’s it. Stop by the front desk and the secretary will give you a note to let your first period teacher know why you’re late. And, Clark?”
He finally broke silence. “Yes, sir?”
“Straighten up. Last warning.”
“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.”
The rest of the day was a rough negotiation. All of Clark’s old friends asked where he’d been, and to all of them, he had to give the cryptic reply that he’d given to Kashner. That didn’t seem to sit well with them. Larry Beacham said, “Hey. If you’re not going to let your friends in on it, then how are we supposed to be your friends?”
Clark had turned on him angrily. “If you were my friend, you’d know that I can’t tell you everything. And you wouldn’t pry so damn much. Are you my friend, Larry?”
Larry was taken aback for a second, as were the people around him. Then he said, “You know, after that, I’m not real sure. I’m not real sure at all.”
Clark backpedalled quickly. “Oh, geez, I’m sorry, Larry. I didn’t...like, I apologize, man. This last week’s gotten me keyed up. I say things I really, I really shouldn’t ought to say. You’re my friend, Larry, I mean it.”
“Okay, then,” said Larry. “But don’t go so much off the track with me that you can’t find the rails when you’re done. All right?”
“Yeah. All right.” Clark had offered Larry his hand, and Larry shook it. But there was still a troubled look in Larry’s eyes, one born of withheld secrets. At that point, Clark knew there was nothing he could do about it.
Laurie Lemmon only shared a class or two with Clark. After school, though, she made a point of finding him before he left. Algebra 101 and American History textbooks clasped to her chest, she said, “Clark. Can I walk home with you?”
He looked at her, shrugged. “Sure. If you want to. No big sweat.”
She wanted to say something to the effect that there’d be a big sweat when they got finished, but she didn’t. The two of them walked away from school, on a route Laurie had chosen because it would take them past few places where people could hear them. Finally, as they were cutting through a vacant lot, Laurie said it. “Clark. I know.”
He stopped, a pace ahead of her. “You know what?”
“I know, Clark. I do know.”
Facing her, Clark said, “Don’t know what you’re talking about, unless you tell me.”
Laurie held her books even tighter to her chest. “Don’t hurt me, Clark. I don’t know what you went through last week. But I do know who you went through it as.”
Clark tensed, perceptibly, then said, “Stop playing games, Laurie. I still don’t have any idea what...”
“You want me to say it, Clark? You want me to say your other name?”
“My other name? Sure. It’s Kent.”
“No,” said Laurie, in a low voice. “It’s Superboy.”
“Like hell,” said Clark, turning away and starting to walk.
“Clark, don’t do that,” Laurie said. “Please, don’t walk away from me when I’m trying to say this.”
He turned back to her, angrily. “Say what? That just because I’ve got the same name as that guy in the funny books, and my hair is black, all of a sudden I’m supposed to be Superboy? Do you really think that?”
“Clark, you were gone for a week. You wouldn’t tell anybody where you’ve been. You left me at that McDonald’s and Superboy was seen fighting a fire and then you came back smelling of smoke.”
“I went to see the fire,” said Clark. “Yeah, Superboy was there. I saw him put it out. So what?”
“I saw you fly, Clark. I saw you fly when you were dressed as Superboy.”
“I already told you, Laurie. That was a hallucination.”
“It wasn’t. You know it wasn’t, Clark. How many things can you say are coincidence, when they all fit together? How many times can you pretend, and say it’s not true, when somebody knows it is?”
Clark gave her an appraising look, one he hoped wasn’t unkind. “Look, Laurie. Assuming what you say is true. If I were Superboy, would I be likely to admit it to you? Knowing who Superboy is would have to be dangerous. Superboy has enemies. Real enemies, not like some jock who’s out to pound you after class. People who could hurt somebody they think has the name of, well, his secret identity. If you go spouting around where anybody can hear it–“
“I haven’t. I’m only talking to you.”
“Well, we might get heard, even here. But if it was true, and I’m not saying it is, you’d be putting yourself in a position to get hurt. Badly.”
She said, quietly, “Looks like you’ve already put yourself in that position.”
He fingered a bruise. “Yeah. Maybe I have.”
“You need somebody who can help you, Clark. If I can...tell me. If not, then I’ll go. I’ll go, Clark, and I won’t be back.”
“Now, wait a minute, Laurie.”
She turned away from him. “I’m sorry, Clark. I’ve quit waiting. See you later.”
He hesitated only a few moments. Then he made a decision that he knew the comic book Clark would have kicked himself around the solar system for doing.
“Laurie,” he said.
She stopped where she was.
“Come on with me,” he said. “I’ll tell you everything. Or I’ll try to.”
They had to stop more than once during the walk home, so that he’d have enough time to tell her. After he was done, Clark had filled Laurie’s brain with things she knew of which she couldn’t comprehend a quarter. But she caught the gist of it. What she could understand was beyond amazing.
So Clark really was Superboy, the Superboy of their world. He’d been visited by the real Supergirl, and took part in a battle on another Earth and another planet after that. There really were space aliens, and he’d fought against them. Even if she didn’t have a clue as to who this Dark Side really was, or know about this planet Apocalypse.
It frightened her.
Just like it frightened her to know that she was walking beside a boy who had the power to clean and jerk automobiles, or run halfway around the planet inside a minute. Maybe.
A boy who, if he wanted to, could reach out and...
No. Clark would never do that. That was one thing she knew, and one thing she was glad of. No matter how much power Superboy had, he was still essentially Clark.
She had taken his hand as they walked. “I’m sorry for prying, Clark,” she said.
“Maybe you shouldn’t be,” he said, keeping it in the low tone they had used for their conversation. “It’ll hurt me if I lose my friends. But it’d darn near kill me if I lost you.”
Laurie looked at him. “Do you think we’re in love?”
“I don’t know,” he said, truthfully. “But I think I’m about as much in love as I’ve ever been with somebody. With you.”
She squeezed his hand. “I think I might be, too.”
“But there’ll be so many changes after we get out of school,” she said. “We’ll be in college. Probably not the same one. And we’ll meet people.”
“Yeah,” he said, seeing her house in the near distance.
“I hope we can stay in love. But you should know one thing. I’ll keep your secret.”
He put one arm around her shoulders. “Keep it until you’re in real danger,” he said. “If you or your parents are in real danger, if you’re endangered by somebody who wants it, save your life. Tell them. I’ll deal with it.”
“You don’t know,” said Clark. “There are dangerous people out there, Laurie.”
“I’ll keep away from them.”
“You just pray to the Lord that you can,” said Clark. “If the secret ever slips...they might come after you.”
“But I’ll try to be there for you,” said Clark. “If you go missing, I’ll come searching. If you get hurt, I’ll find the one who did it. Don’t expect any secret signal watch. I’m not smart enough to make one. But where I can help, you can count on me.”
“Because you love me?” asked Laurie, in a tiny voice.
“Because you’re my friend,” he said. “Because you care. Because I care. Because I’m Superboy. And yeah, I guess, because maybe I love you.”
She stopped, and before he could react, embraced him with one arm and pressed her lips to his. Before either one of them knew it, they were kissing open-mouthed, their books in a heap at their feet. Their eyes were closed, and if anybody happened to be looking on from nearby houses, they neither knew nor really gave much of a damn.
When they finally broke the kiss, Laurie and Clark stood looking at each other, breathing for a bit. Then she threw herself against him again in a great hug. He embraced her back, so tightly that at one point, Laurie whispered, “Clark, you’re too strong,” and he loosened up.
“I’ve told you,” he whispered back. “It didn’t feel anywhere near as bad as I thought.”
“I’m glad,” she said. “I’m glad we could talk this way.”
“So what do we do now?”
“We just live our lives, Clark,” she said. “At least that’s what I intend to do. And you know all your talk about me counting on you?”
“Count on me, too. But I think you already have.”
“I think so, too.” They were standing before the Lemmons’ door. “Just remember: loose lips sink ships.”
“I’ll definitely remember that. Thanks, Clark.” She bussed him on the cheek just as Mrs. Lemmon opened the door.
Clark flushed crimson. “Oh, hi, Mrs. Lemmon.”
“Don’t be so embarrassed, dear,” Anita Lemmon said. “My mother caught Laurie’s father and I doing the same thing.”
Jerome Kent looked up from his paper as the door shut. “Afternoon, Clark,” he said. “How did it go at school?”
Clark Kent turned his head towards his father. “Hi, Dad,” he said. “About what you’d expect. Got called into the principal’s office. Threatened with a lot of things. Told him I’d straighten up and fly right. In a manner of speaking, of course.”
Jerome said, “You’re really in trouble, aren’t you, Clark?”
“Yeah, Dad. I think I am.”
The older man moved towards his foster son and held him by the shoulders. “Son, don’t you think it’s time you reconsidered? This burden you’re carrying, it’d be tremendous even for a man. For a young man in high school, well, it’s bound to be impossible, just about.”
“Not impossible, Dad. Difficult, yeah. But I can do it. I have to.”
“Do you, Clark?” He looked into the boy’s eyes. “This world got on fine without a Superboy before you came. It could probably manage without one again. For your sake, I’m asking you to, well, at least consider back-burnering this thing until you’re out of school.”
Clark put his hands on his foster-father’s own shoulders. “Point well taken, Dad. I’ll give it a good think. But it would be nice to have somebody to deal with disasters when they happen, wouldn’t it?”
“We have people who are paid to do that sort of thing, son,” said Jerome. “You’re not.”
Clark let his hands down. “Maybe not,” he said. “But I can still do things about it. Like I said, Dad, I’ll think about it.”
“Your mother and I love you very much, Clark,” said Jerome. “That goes without saying. We can’t know what it’s like to have these powers. But we do know what it’s like to be young. That’s one of the reasons why we can help.”
The youth from Krypton couldn’t speak for a long moment. Finally, he said, “Mom coming home at the usual time?”
“Yes,” said Jerome. “She’ll have a lot to say to you, too, Clark. But I don’t think it’ll be as hard to get through as the conversation we had yesterday.”
“I hope not, Dad,” said Clark. “Can I tell you something?”
“Tell me anything. And everything.”
“It’s Laurie Lemmon. I just told her the secret, Dad. She knows.”
Alexander Larson seemed to Norman Fellows like a prissy-assed academic type, the kind that might get played by that guy from Fawlty Towers and Monty Python if he had to do it. He didn’t have a blackboard, but he never went anywhere without a damn portable computer, and that was almost as bad. But the Boss wanted him, and he seemed to know his stuff, so there you were.
Larson, who was bald on top but sported a red mustache and Van Dyke, was lecturing to the Boss right now. “You see, sir, you simply neglected to use the most obvious and accessible research tools. A phone book, available to every citizen in this county. Plus the records that are available for the asking at more stations than you could imagine. It takes no great genius to find such things out.”
“I’m glad to hear it,” said the Boss. “Maybe next time we’ll hire somebody cheaper than you.”
“Ah,” said Larson, with a twinkle in his eye. “But what would such a man do with the information? It’s not just having the data, sir, it is knowing how to manipulate it. How to find out what it means, and how to formulate it to bring forth a Solution. Hence, my sobriquet. Er, my nickname. And I believe I have a solution to your problem.”
“Like what? Kryptonite?”
Larson waved his hand disdainfully. “Even if such a thing really existed, I’ve seen no reports of a glowing green rock anywhere on Earth. But we need nothing so exotic. All we need are the names and whereabouts of his parents, and people to take them when the Boy of Steel is not around.”
“You can guarantee that?”
“You have people who can see that he is in school?”
“Shouldn’t be too hard,” said the Boss, thoughtfully. “But who the hell are his parents, and who is he? And how do you know?”
Larson brandished the phone book.
“Logic dictates that if the Superboy of this world has the powers of the one in those, well, comic books, he may have other similarities to his counterpart. I am willing to stake my fee and match it, if my hypothesis is not correct. His parents, I believe, are named Jerome and Naomi Kent. For, in this entire city...there is only one boy named Clark Kent.”