Chapter Five – Losers
Eight Years Ago
The Fantasticar zooms away from The Great Refuge.
"What a tragedy that such a powerful and noble race must keep its existence hidden from the outside world," opines Reed Richards. "If only –"
"You've got to be kidding me, Stretcho," Ben Grimm says, interrupting Reed's potential soliloquy. "They're a bunch of losers. One's good at shouting, one stamps his feet, one breaks things, one can swim, and one tosses her hair around. Could they be any more lame?"
"Do not underestimate them, Benjamin," interjects HERBIE. "Remember they have a teleporting dog."
"'Nuff said," says Ben. "Now can we get back quick. I'm late for an arm-wrestling match."
Robert Bruce Banner sits in a near-deserted bar, wearing torn sweat-drenched clothes, wondering which of two radiation-spawned monsters will arrive first. He fears it will be the one inside, as the stench of alcohol takes his mind back to his childhood and his father. As he tries to suppress the thoughts, the door opens and The Thing, dressed in a trench coat, hat and sunglasses, walks in.
"Hi, Doc," The Thing says, grabbing the sturdy seat opposite Banner. "No offence, but I was really hoping for the big green guy. We're about due a rematch."
"None taken, Ben. Sure he'll be along soon."
"It can wait till tomorrow, if need be. Doesn't have to be the exact same day each year, not like with Reed and his chess match. I've got other things I needa sort out. After all, it's just an arm-wrestling match."
"Sounds like you're chicken to me, Mr. Grimm. You don't really think you can beat him, do you?"
Ben smiles. It's not often he sees Banner rooting for The Hulk. "Nah, to be honest, I think it'll be the same loser as always."
"Nah, the table."
"Have you talked with Ben about this?" Sue asks.
Alicia shakes her head. "I've tried, but he just won't listen. More interested in his arm-wrestling match with The Hulk."
"I know what you mean. Reed's stretched over his chessboard now. Boys and their games… I really think you should talk though, or get help."
"I tried to get him to go with me to see this guy Samson that Betty Ross recommended, but he refused." Alicia grabbed a piece of clay up and shaped it in her hands. "Doesn't want to talk about our relationship with strangers, wouldn't feel comfortable. As if I'd be any more comfortable, the only person I talked to growing up was my over-protective father."
"So, what happened?" Sue asks. "What's changed? Why are you leaving?"
"Well, our love life's kind of on the rocks, no pun intended. It was great at first, but as time's passed the stone around him's got harder and thicker, literally built a wall between us. He can't feel anything anymore, the only time he feels anything now is when some muscle-bound supervillain hits him."
"Why didn't he mention anything? Why didn't you mention anything? I'm your best friend."
"I know, Sue, and I've tried to tell you so often, I really have. Just feel embarrassed about it, especially since you and Reed are so much in love, him wrapping himself around you, you making bits of your costume invisible when you think only he can see."
"What? How do you know that?"
"Ben's seen it a few times. He feels like a gooseberry on the team; you and Reed have got each other, your powers making things better between you if anything, and he's stuck on the sidelines with that annoying machine." The clay between her fingers molded into HERBIE.
"Yeah, HERBIE is kind of annoying. But you love Ben, you can get through this together."
"Of course I love Ben. And I know that he's afraid to touch me, because he can't feel me, because he thinks he might break me. We love each other, but we can't touch each other, and I know how that's ripping his insides out day after day after day and I can't bear it, Sue, I really can't. I'm doing this because I love him, love him so much."
Sue takes a tissue and wipes Alicia's tears away.
Ben gets back and the lights are off, but that's the way Alicia usually has them.
"Hi, honey, I'm home," he yells. "They don't build tables like they used to."
And then he finds the note she's left and reads it, and even if he can't feel anything on the outside, he feels it on the inside, like a kick to the stomach, like a punch to the heart, and, from his eyes, water flows down stone.
He falls to the floor and his head falls into his hands. It hurts so much, so much more than any blow any villain ever delivered, because this time, the pounding's to his heart. She's left him, she's gone, and she's not ever coming back.
It's clobberin' time.