The Day After You Saved the Multiverse
Clark Kent came home from school and stopped dead in the doorway of his home.
Inside, things were thrown around. A wooden chair was broken. The rug was out of place, messed up, the way his mother never allowed. A glass was broken and the pieces were lying on the floor. The couch had been shoved out of place, one end up against the wall.
But the worst part of it, Clark knew immediately.
His parents were not at home, and they very much should have been.
He ran through the house more swiftly than he would have believed himself capable. Clark Kent checked out every room, every drawer, space, closet, nook, or cranny that might have held a secret or a clue. No results, outside of the obvious. Someone had gotten into the Kent home, apparently by persuasion or deceit, since the door had not been forced. Someone had taken Jerome and Naomi Kent away.
At least there were no bloodstains. He was grateful for that.
While Clark was in the basement, the phone rang. He shot up the stairs and, braking, almost set the kitchen floor on fire with friction. Clark grabbed a cabinet with one arm to steady himself and snatched the phone off the hook, taking care not to break it. “Yeah?”
“Clark Kent?” The voice was masculine and unfamiliar.
“Who is this?”
“We have your parents.”
“Who are you? Where are you?” Clark triggered his X-ray and telescopic visions, scanned the area about the house, but could pick up no sight of his parents. The real Superman, he reflected wildly, would have been able to see the transmissions coming to the telephone and trace them. Or he could have traced the source of the voice vibrations. Or something. That was what he always did in the comic books.
But he was not the real Superman.
“If you have super-vision, don’t waste your time,” the voice was saying. “You’ll never find them. If you phone the police, you’ll never find them. The only way you can find them is to keep listening, and do what I say.”
“What super-vision? What are you talking about?”
“Master Kent. Do not insult my intelligence. I wish to take a meeting with you.”
“You’ll take a meeting with my fist.”
“Shut up and listen, boy. Go to the phone kiosk at the corner of Fourth and Main streets. Within five minutes, you will receive a call there. Do not use your car.”
“My car?” Clark hesitated. “How am I supposed to get there in five minutes without using a car?”
“You’ll find a way. We both know that.”
The phone line clicked and the man on the other end of the line was gone.
“My God,” said Clark, aloud. “My God.”
Five minutes. To get halfway across town, without a car, in five minutes. How did they know?
(Simple, idiot. Superboy turns up in town. Who else in town has the same name as the guy in the comic books? Who else looks that much like him? How hard can it be to figure things out?
(And what do you do next?)
They might not be watching. He might be able to use the car, to get where he needed to go. They might think he wasn’t the real article if he used the car. Or he might just stay here, and see what they did next.
(Yeah. Right. You want to gamble with Mom’s and Dad’s lives?)
“Shut up!” He said it aloud, and realized a second later he’d done so. He didn’t really give that much of a damn, though.
Luckily, he’d figured out how fast he had to move to become an invisible blur. Maybe the guys who had contacted him had somebody watching. Clark didn’t have time to worry about that, right now.
He just hoped he was up to invisibility speed by the time he got out of their back yard.
It had been a tough thing to super-speed into the bathroom of the chicken place at the precise time nobody was there, decelerate to visible speed, and then walk out like nothing was wrong in the world. But Clark managed it. The manager, behind the counter, saw him. “Sir. Can I take your order, please?”
“No, thanks,” said Clark, pushing open the door. “Just wanted to use the bathroom.”
The phone kiosk was right across the street. But the five-minute limit was getting too close. Clark jaywalked across, avoided a Buick, and made it over. Luckily, nobody was at the silvered metal phone receptacle. If there had been someone, Clark knew he’d have had to take the phone away whether they liked it or not.
He didn’t want to have to do that. He didn’t want to have to be a thug.
The phone rang, approximately five minutes after the man had last spoken. Clark snatched it off the hook and was glad it had a jointed metal connection with the phone body. “Yeah?”
The voice on the other end chuckled. “Do you always answer the phone that way?”
“I don’t have time for your stupid games. Where are my parents?”
“You have time for every game we wish to play, Master Kent. You know this as well as I.”
Clark gritted his teeth. “What’s your angle?”
“Listen carefully and I will tell you where to go to find out. Superboy.”
The word seemed to pass through Clark’s ear and land in his stomach like a lead weight. But he said nothing.
A few seconds after the connection was broken, Clark Kent pushed the door of a garage open from the side and stepped in. He’d used his X-ray eyes to scope out the place. His parents were not there.
A man with a red beard, wearing a business suit, was. So were several burly guys who were packing heat. He could tell what the guns were, right down to the caliber. Only the shadows of the bullets were visible, though.
The red-bearded man looked up when he arrived. “Welcome, Clark Kent,” he said.
“Go to hell,” said Clark, stopping a few feet away from him. “Where are my parents?”
“In a safe place,” replied Red Beard. “Let’s talk business, Master Kent.”
Before the red bearded man could say another word, he felt himself yanked from his seat with two impossibly powerful arms grasping him in a crude headlock. Larson gasped. To know the boy’s power academically, that was one thing. But to feel it first-hand, in such a situation...to estimate the anger driving him...good Lord, this was something Larson hadn’t a referent for.
“All right,” grated Clark, trying to sound like Dirty Harry. “Here’s the deal. Give me my parents, and I don’t pop your head like a ripe zit. Deal?”
“Mr. Kent...look up.”
Clark did. He saw the two gunsels. Both had their weapons out. They were pointed in Clark’s and Larson’s direction.
“They aren’t...pointing at you,” Larson gasped. “They’re...pointing at me. They’ll kill me. You won’t...learn your parents whereabouts.”
The boy from Krypton tightened the hold a notch. “I can have you out of here before they can fire a shot.”
“Do it, boy,” gasped Larson. “But I don’t think you’ll...”
“...hurt me. Even...to find...your parents.”
“Let ‘im go, kid,” rasped one of the gunmen. “Either let ‘im go, or we do ‘im.”
Clark Kent let Larson go, to land on his hands and knees on the floor, gasping. But his gaze was on the two hoods, now.
“Man,” he said, “are you ever wrong about who’s in charge.”
The two hoods had the guns yanked out of their hands by a blur before either one of them could pull the trigger. They were smacked, and not gently. Both of them flew against the wall of the garage, banged against it, and sustained minor concussions. They were on the far side of consciousness.
Larson was getting to his feet. Clark Kent grabbed him by the collar and pulled him up. He stood, glaring, at the man.
“What’s your name?”
“Alexander Larson,” Red Beard managed to say. “And I can assure you that, if I do not contact my employer within the next ten minutes...”
“Oh, you’re going to contact him, all right. And you’re going to tell him that I’m game for what you’re planning. You’re also going to tell me everything else. Where they’re being held, who you and your boss are, what you have planned.”
Larson coughed. “We hold the...”
“Shut up!” Clark Kent bulled him up against the wall of the garage, not far from the fallen hoods. He held him there, Larson’s feet not touching the floor, one hand firmly on Larson’s throat, putting a bit of pressure on it.
“Get this straight. I am not the Superboy you read about in your comic books.”
Within a short time, Clark Kent, who had by now changed to his Superboy outfit, was standing in the office of the Boss. The man was compact, well-dressed, and tough. His most prominent feature was his nose, which might have been used to plow furrows in the ground. There were no less than five guards in the room, which was about as bulletproof as a room could be made. Alex Larson was also there.
Superboy had time to reflect on how frightening these types might have been to him, a month ago. He still felt a twinge, but he suppressed it. Bullets, knives, and fists? That was all these guys had to offer. They might as well have threatened him with confetti.
“I want my parents back,” said Superboy. “Tell me where they are.”
The Boss leaned back in his chair. “I want reassurance, first.”
Superboy reached across the desk and grabbed the Boss by his lapels, dragging him across it, coming face-to-big nose with him. The guards already had their weapons out. Larson was screaming that them not to shoot.
“I’ve already played this scene before,” said Superboy. “Tell your guys to stand down.”
The Boss tried not to show it, but Clark could tell that his strength was impressing the man. “Freeze, you,” he said, in a loud voice. The gunsels lowered their firearms, but kept them in hand. Alex Larson was breathing hard.
“Now, let’s take it from the top,” said Superboy. “You and I are going to leave here in a minute. You’re going to tell me where my parents are.”
“In a big, fat, fr—“
“Listen.” Superboy held the Boss up so that his feet weren’t touching the floor. “I can take you to the North Pole so fast you might burn up from the air friction. But I won’t do that. All I’ll do is leave you there. No coat, no protection, no nothing. You can walk for days there and never see anything but ice. I’ll leave you there and be proud of it.”
“But your parents!”
“I can get that information from Larson. I could work him up really nice. He isn’t as tough as you, by a sight.”
Larson paled, appreciably. The Boss made a sign with his hand.
Superboy turned his head and five men cried out, their guns too hot to hold anymore. They dropped the weapons.
“Stay where you are,” ordered Superboy. “I can do that to you.”
The Boss drew in a breath, and smiled. “You’ve got more stones than I thought, kid.”
“You don’t know from stones yet,” Superboy promised. “But we’re not done talking. Here’s the deal: we’re leaving with Larson. You’ll tell me where my parents are. We’ll go where you tell me. If they aren’t there, I’ll convince you to tell me. Don’t bother talking, just listen. After my folks are back in hand, I let you both go. You lay off me. You keep my secret. If they aren’t threatened anymore, you’re safe. If anything happens to them, even somebody letting the air out of my mom’s tires, I’ll come for you. And I will find you. Do you understand?”
Larson cleared his throat. “I would advise you to make the deal, sir.”
“Shut up, Larson,” said the Boss. “Is that the deal, kid?”
“That’s the deal,” said Superboy.
“You let us both go, back here, after you’ve got ‘em back?”
“If they’re unharmed, yeah. But the deal extends to anybody I know. My friends, my relatives, anybody. I’ll keep track of you. I have remote observation powers the government can only dream about. Capish?”
The Boss sighed. “Deal.”
Superboy lowered the Boss to the carpet, then, keeping a hand on his arm, dragged him over to Larson and took Larson in hand as well. He looked back at the gunmen, who were looking at him with new respect. “Those guys better not know,” he said.
“Your secret’s safe with me, kid,” said the Boss. “But we ought to talk money. I mean, with your talent, there’s no telling how far you could go in the organization.”
“Shut up,” said Superboy, and pulled the two of them out the door with him.
Jerome and Naomi Kent were back in their home by dinnertime. Both they and Clark knew that their lives would never be the same again.
The three of them sat in the front room and tried to decide what to do with the rest of reality. They were supposed to be talking, but they did more thinking than speaking. Thus, there were long periods of silence.
Finally, Jerome sighed and said, “I never want to go through that again. Ever.”
“God knows, I don’t,” said Naomi. “I won’t. We have to do something, Jerome. We’ll have to leave.”
Clark looked up at them, a jacket thrown over his Superboy outfit. “We can’t do that, Mom.”
“Oh? And what would you suggest, Clark? That we stay here when any gangster can get to us, so they have a hold over you?”
“He said he wouldn’t tell,” said Superboy.
“Then we’ve got a first. A gangster you can trust.”
“Naomi,” offered Jerome. “I believe they have a Code of Silence.”
“Jerome, have you ever noticed how many of them are ratting out their friends to avoid prison, these days? With hidden identities?”
Clark stood up. “That’s what we need. Witness protection.”
“And how do you propose to get that?”
“I’ll go to somebody, the president, maybe, and tell him I’m Superboy. He’ll help.”
“Oh, son.” Naomi shook her head. “Do you really think this is as simple as a comic book? Do you think you can just push your way into the Oval Office like that?”
“If I have to, I will,” said Superboy. “The government’s bound to have investigators down here already, after I showed up.”
“After Superboy showed up, you mean,” said Jerome Kent. He shook his head. “Son. Did you ever think of how this was going to impact your life? Did you ever think of what it was going to do to your family?”
Clark stopped, dead still. Finally, he said, “I...well...I guess, maybe...no. I just thought—“
“You thought,” said Jerome. “You thought you’d be Superboy, just like in the comics. You thought you’d just change clothes in a phone book, fly off, bounce a few bullets off your chest, bring in a few bad guys, change back, nobody would see, and that’d be it. Is that what you thought, son?”
Clark didn’t say anything.
Naomi said, “That only works in the comic books, Clark. In the real world, there are any number of ways to determine a person’s identity.”
“So...what do we do now?”
Jerome said, “We go to bed. In the morning, we talk to a real estate agent about selling our house. Then we find a new place to live.”
“But you have jobs here, Dad!”
“Not after tomorrow, we won’t.”
Naomi looked at her son. “Go to bed, Clark. Or are you going to use your...powers...to defy us?”
Clark turned, and went to his room.
Laurie Lemmon had been half-asleep when she heard the rapping at her window. That was unusual, as it was a second-story window. It went on, varying in tempo enough so that she knew it couldn’t be a nocturnal woodpecker.
She finally forced her eyes open and saw a man-shaped shadow on her window, silhouetted by the moonlight. She didn’t have to ask who it was.
Laurie went to the window and opened it. Superboy, in full uniform, stepped in. “Clark,” she said. “What is this?”
He took a long look at her, a very long look, before replying.
“Don’t say anything, Laurie. I want to look at you, want to smell you, want to listen to you breathing. But if you say anything, I may not be able to go through with what I have to do.”
The girl in the nightgown opened her mouth, about to say anything she could to keep him from doing what he obviously didn’t want to do. But he raised his hand, imploringly, and she held her silence.
“I think I might love you, Laurie. At least, I’ve come as close to love with you as I know I’ve come with anybody. That’s why I’m saying goodbye. No. Don’t talk, please. My family has to make a decision. I’m making it easier for them. I’ve left them a note. I’m going away, Laurie.”
She opened her mouth almost as wide as her eyes. But Superboy was already at the window. He turned back to look at her.
Then he went to her, embraced her, and kissed her as she’d never been kissed before.
Laurie sagged to the floor when it was over. On her hands and knees, she heard him say the word, “Goodbye.”
When she looked up, the only things in the window were the blowing curtains and the moon beyond.
Jerome and Naomi Kent woke the next morning and found their son absent. He left them a note explaining, tersely, the decision he had made. They immediately went to the police. They tried, but they were of no help. The Kents would have gone to the Boss for help, if they’d known where to find him. But they didn’t.
The note said:
One of us had to make the decision.
Please try to understand.
God bless you, Mom and Dad. Don’t try to find me.
And that was the last anyone knew of Clark Kent for a long, long time.
The Al-Can Highway isn’t the worst place to have a tire blowout, really. But there are nights and there are nights, and this was a night Harold LeDoux really didn’t want to be out there fixing his tire. Especially when he didn’t have a spare. The wind was cold, as it almost always was that far North, and he stood there, shivering, wondering when the next truck would be through and if he could thumb a ride.
Then somebody was beside him. “Have a flat, sir?”
Harold looked in the direction from which the voice had come. The speaker was a kid, probably no more than 16 or 17, in worn jeans, waffle-stompers, a plaid shirt, and a jacket that really shouldn’t have been enough to protect him from the elements. “Who are you?” Harold said it before he could have thought about saying it, really.
The boy, black-haired and fairly good-looking, smiled. “A friend. Here. Let me see about that.”
The flat was on the front passenger’s side. The boy bent to his task, his back hiding the view of what he was doing from Harold LeDoux. The tire was flatter than heck, and Harold didn’t see what the kid thought he could do about it.
A few seconds later, the car started rising on the side of the flat, just the way it would if the tire was being inflated.
Then the kid stood up and smiled again. “Try it now. I think you’ll find out it’s all right.”
“It’s all right?” said Harold LeDoux. “What do you mean, it’s all right?”
“Take a look at it.”
The tire was inflated to the proper p.s.i. He felt of it with his hands. No hole. There was a rough place, just rough by a tad, where a hole might have been. But it felt as firm as the rest of the tire, now, though maybe a little warm.
“How’d you do that?”
“I’d rather not say. But if I could...”
Harold waited for the kid to name his price. Whatever it was, for talent like that, he’d probably beat any wrecking service around.
“...I wish I could ride with you as far north as you’re going,” said the youth. “And if you wouldn’t mind, I could probably use a meal.”
“A meal? That’s all you want? A meal?”
“Yeah. Maybe some talking time, too.”
“Climb in, kid. I may be crazy, but...hell...you did fix the tire.”
The kid smiled once again. They were underway inside of a minute.
“What’s your name, kid?”
“Jerome,” said the kid. “Call me Jerry for short.”
“Okay, Jerry. What’re you doing here?”
“Thumbing rides, mostly. Sometimes. Sometimes, I just hike.”
Harold looked at the kid. “You got any parents, kid?”
The kid didn’t answer. Harold tried a new tack. “Where you bound for?”
“About as far north as I can get.”
The kid took his time about answering. “I just feel in need for a little solitude. You know what I mean?”
Harold didn’t. But he shrugged. As long as he hadn’t picked up a killer fruitcake, which the kid didn’t seem to be, his business was his business. By his accent, he was an American.
By his look, he’d been on the road for a little while.
Harold hoped the kid would find what he was looking for, soon. It was cruel to be out in this kind of weather, no matter how strong he looked to be.
But if all it took was a meal and some talk to make him happy, that was fine. What was that old verse from the Bible Harold’s mom used to tell him about? Something about being kind to strangers, because some have entertained angels unawares?
They drove on, into the long Canadian night.