That night when Maggie got home and saw her daughter's smiling face, she tried to put the day's events behind her. After her mother-in-law left, she fell into the familiarity and peace of her nightly routine, feeding and bathing Erin and then putting her to bed.
By nine, Maggie had changed into a T-shirt and cotton pants and could finally sit down. She wished Ted were home. She wanted to tell him everything that had happened this week. Maybe he could figure out a way to fix things. There had to be something she could do.
The sound of her door buzzer made her jump. Wary of visitors at this hour, she went to the door and peered through the peephole. When she saw who was there, she quickly undid the lock and with fumbling hands pulled open the door.
In her hallway stood Sport, wearing a dress shirt, black pants and tie, his brown hair neatly combed to the side, his hands deep in the pockets of her husband's black wool coat. The formal clothing added several years to his appearance. Amazing what a change of clothes could do, she thought. Especially in his case.
"Hi," he said.
"Why are you... How did you find me?" Her eyes widened. "Did you…" She pointed a finger skyward. Moved it side to side.
He pulled a hand from his pocket, displaying a napkin that bore Jackie's handwriting. "I asked the other waitress for your address. She thought I was your nephew."
She felt warmth in her cheeks. "Oh. Right."
"A good thing," he added, as if to ease her embarrassment. "She might not have told me where you lived otherwise. And then I would have had to… you know…"
He pointed a finger skyward and mimicked her gesture with such an awkward smile that Maggie nearly burst out laughing. It was too absurd, him standing in her hallway, making jokes at his own expense.
"Maybe I should come in?"
"Yes! Of course, yes, please, come in. It's only me and Erin here tonight. My husband's in Jersey till tomorrow." A squeak came from under his foot as he walked into the apartment. She bent down, picked up her daughter's toy rubber duck and closed the door behind him. "Sorry about the mess."
"At least it's just toys. You wouldn't be able to see my floor if my girlfriend didn't…"
He obviously hadn't meant to say anything so personal. "I already knew about your girlfriend," she said, hoping to ease his discomfort. "The perfume. Remember?" After a moment staring at her he nodded, shoving his hands back into his pockets. "Why are you here?" she found herself asking.
"I'm not really sure," he admitted, with a candor that surprised her. "Things just felt… unfinished. I wanted to finish them."
So he meant to stay more than a few minutes, she thought. With an awkward sweep of her arm, she gestured to the couch. They sat down a polite distance from one another upon it.
"I at least wanted to apologize for how I left today," he said.
"You don't need to apologize to me. I'm the one who should be apologizing to you for not telling you the truth from the start."
"Sometimes we have to hide the truth in order to help people." He gave her a knowing smile. "Thanks for all those twenty dollar breakfasts, by the way."
Maggie felt another surge of heat in her face. "It was nothing."
"No, it was something." His voice carried more than a little authority. "And if I'd been thinking straight, I would have known that this morning."
"I don't blame you for running out. I should have known that finding out the truth after so many days would make you… I don't know…"
"Completely freak out?"
"Well, yes, though I was thinking more along the lines of 'feel exposed'."
One corner of his mouth pulled upward. "You'd think I'd be used to that after what happened on the train." At her laughter, he tilted his head at her, his eyes scanning her face. "You know, I never expected to see anyone from that train car again."
"I never thought I'd see you again either. I mean, not as you. I have thought about it though. The others have too."
"From the train. Actually, I have something for you from all of us. I was going to give it to you today, after I told you the truth. And I was going to tell you, before Jackie beat me to it."
He watched her get up from the couch to retrieve a brand new backpack from behind a nearby chair. "You don't have to give me anything, Maggie. Anything else, I mean," he added, and held up a corner of his coat.
"My husband is not going to miss that coat. Trust me, if it doesn't have a Giants logo on it, he won't wear it. As for this, if I don't give it to you, I'm going to have my butt kicked by a couple dozen angry New Yorkers. You don't want that, do you?" She sat down closer to him than she had before. He smelled of the city, a not unpleasant scent made up of cold air and fresh food and wool.
"Thanks," he said, taking the backpack from her. "I really could use a new one-"
"The backpack isn't the main present. That's inside."
He pulled a large black scrapbook from the bag and opened it on his lap. Pasted upon the front page was a newspaper article about the train incident.
"I made some calls last night to the other people from the train. I didn't tell them anything specific," she said at his sideways glance. "Just that I had a way to get in touch with you."
"You all knew each other?" he asked incredulously.
"Not before. After. We exchanged phone numbers at the Red Cross station." A very non-Manhattan thing to do. Funny how almost dying could bring such a diverse group of people together. "Anyway, when I told them about my idea, they all wanted to contribute. The newspaper article is just so you remember where we're all from. The good stuff is next." She turned to the next page for him. A few pieces of paper and handmade cards slid from the book. Maggie retrieved them from the floor. "It's a scrapbook about all of us from the first car. One page per person, though most people gave me more than I could fit. So I pasted the photos on the pages and tucked the cards and other things in with them."
He had picked up a crayon drawing of a man in red and blue holding out one hand to stop a train. Stick figures stood around him cheering. Below them were the words: "Thank you Mister Spiderman for saving Grandpa we love him very much we love you too! XOXOXO"
For a long time he stared at the card, his lips pressed together, his young face softly lit by the nearby lamp.
"The whole book is like that," she said gently. "Pictures of all the people you saved and thanks from all of their families." She leaned forward, elbows on knees, studying his profile. "Just think how big the book would be if everyone on the five cars behind us had a page. Or for that matter, if anyone you'd ever helped in this city had a page. I doubt even you would be able to carry it."
His shoulders rose and fell slowly with a soft breath expelled through parted lips. "I've… never been given anything like this," he said, a touch of adolescence breaking his voice.
"I thought it might help on days like Thursday." The words drew his gaze, and for a moment the ghost of that pain haunted his eyes. "It's what they teach us in nursing school," she explained. "Cope with the ones who don't make it by remembering the ones who do."
He returned his attention to the card he held. With a shake of his head, he placed it almost reverently back into the book.
"I almost forgot to mention," Maggie said, wanting to give him a little emotional breathing space. "At the back of the book you'll find a list of our names, addresses, phone numbers, email, and what we do for a living. A quick reference guide of all the people who can help you."
"It turns out we're a pretty useful bunch. A doctor, a lawyer, a computer guy, a travel agent… a lot of useful types. And I'll be a certified nurse next year, though I'm pretty good with triage already."
He sat back against the couch with the book on his lap. "I have to say that I never expected this when I came here tonight."
"What did you expect?"
He gave her a long, penetrating look. "I guess… I was curious."
"You could have taken my picture," he said abruptly. "You could have called the news."
Maggie unhooked the baby monitor from her belt hoop. Erin's light breathing filled the space between them. "You hear that? That is the sound of a person who would not be here right now if it weren't for you. For that, I owe you. I owe you big. No amount of money or fame would change that, Sport."
He accepted this after a moment with a nod, then returned his attention to the scrapbook on his lap. "I can't believe you did this. It really is amazing."
"Amazing is what you do. This is just a thank you."
He was silent a long time. "Tell them… Tell them I said 'you're welcome'."
He had no idea how much that simple message would mean to her friends. "Almost better than a twenty dollar breakfast, isn't it."
"With or without the pie?"
She laughed at the playful tone. "Without. I made that pie from scratch myself. Actually, I have another one in the fridge if you'd like some."
"I really should be-"
"I could heat it up. Put some vanilla ice cream on it. Cool Whip too," she added, and knew she had him, at the way he licked his lips.
"I guess I could stay for one slice of pie," he said. "I don't have to be anywhere till later tonight." The smitten smile she'd seen before returned now. "Late date with my girlfriend."
"In that case I'll make it to go," Maggie said.
Within minutes the microwave was humming away and she was digging in the icebox for a half pint of vanilla. Only after the microwave had finished and she'd pulled her head from the freezer did she hear the sirens. Her preparations had hidden the sound. Astonishing, considering how many of them there were.
Behind her, the light from the living room disappeared. Maggie checked the baby monitor hooked to her belt hoop. It was still working. The lights in the kitchen lights were still on too. The pie forgotten, she stepped into the dark living room.
A male figure stood by the window, illuminated by the pale light of the city outside.
"I hope you don't mind," came his muffled voice. "I figured… since you know… and it'll save me time…"
Maggie couldn't believe he'd managed to change his clothes so quickly. Even in the ambient lighting she could distinguish the red and blue form-fitting costume, its webbing stretched over the pronounced musculature of his body, its huge black spider spread across his chest.
"It's okay," she said, remembering belatedly what he'd asked her.
"I hope I didn't scare you with the light. It's better if no one sees me leave."
"There's a stairway… to the roof…"
"This is faster," he said, and put a leg over the windowsill. He paused halfway out, to duck his head back under the windowpane. The eyepieces of his mask glowed from the outside light. "I didn't have time to gather the things you gave me," he said. "You could leave them outside your door-"
"They'll be right here where you left them," she said, pulling herself together. "I'll leave the window open."
"It could take a while."
"I'm not going anywhere."
He hesitated, but when a fire truck added its horn to the sirens, he ducked through the window and was gone.
Maggie ran to the window and leaned out into the cool night, searching for any sign of a swinging form between the buildings. At the sound of crumbling stone from above, she grabbed onto the inside window trim and looked up the exterior of her building. Above her, a dark shape climbed with inhuman grace and speed to the roof. From there it launched itself into the air, and then swung off into the night.
She could tell from the fabric against her face that she wasn't in her bed. No, she remembered, she'd lay down to rest on the sofa, and must have fallen asleep. Her head cloudy, she opened her eyes and saw in the dim light of the nearby window that Sport was crouching next to her, maskless but still in costume. According to the clock behind him, he'd been gone almost an hour.
"Sorry it took so long. I didn't want to wake you, but…" He nodded down at her arm, which she'd looped through the strap of the backpack that held his things.
"I didn't want you to sneak off without your pie," she said, and pushed herself up to an elbow. "It's in the refrigerator. I can go get it-"
"There's something I need to tell you."
She sat up, worried by his distant tone and troubled eyes. "What is it?"
"It's just…. I want you to know just how much I appreciate the offer you made to help me. All of you. It means…"
She watched him shake his head, obviously unable to convey what he felt. "We want to help you," Maggie said. "Just like you helped us."
"But that's the problem. I can't let you."
"Spider-Man has many enemies. They've hurt people I care about. People have almost died. Being involved with me means being in danger. You and your families. I can't let you do that."
Maggie's hand strayed to the baby monitor at her hip. Her fingers clutched at its cool plastic case, muffling the soft breathing sounds of her sleeping daughter.
At her silence he nodded. "I should go," he said softly, and reached for his bag.
"Wait." Maggie put a hand on his shoulder, angry with herself that she'd doubted her decision to help him even for a second. It was no decision at all. "Look," she said, "I'll be sure to tell the others. But I don't think they're going to change their minds. I know I won't."
"You don't understand-"
"What it means to be in danger? You're wrong there."
"What happened on the train that day was partly because of me -"
"I'm not talking about what happened on the train. I'm talking about what happened two days before the train." She leaned back against the couch, the baby monitor cradled in her hands. "You want to know about the danger my family is in? How about this: Two days before the train, Erin and I were on the way to her pediatrician appointment. Just a routine outing. Except that two blocks into the ride, a car broadsides us, crushing in the passenger side of our cab. Erin and I were okay, but we might not have been. If I'd decided to sit on that side instead of behind the driver, or if I hadn't put Erin's carseat in the middle…" She shook her head, banishing those thoughts.
"Maggie, being in a car accident isn't the same as someone pointing a gun at you or- or- someone throwing you off the top of a bridge."
"No," she said, sobered by what she sensed were real examples. "It's not. And I won't claim to understand the type of danger you're in day after day. But you can't say that you understand what types of dangers my family faces either. You want to know what my husband does for a living?"
The question caught him off guard. "You mean… his job?"
"He's a construction worker. A nice, normal job, right? Except that every day he climbs around on steel girders twenty stories up to do it. And then there's me. A waitress now, but next year I'll be nursing. Another nice, normal job. Except that I'll be working in an ER in New York City, where I'm likely to be treating gang war victims, heroin addicts and homeless psychotics."
She watched him lower his head, his bangs sliding into his downcast eyes. She wished she could erase the doubt in his eyes. He so clearly needed to trust someone. "Look, I'm not saying that fighting bad guys is the same as… as… falling from ten stories up because of a bad safety harness or getting shot while tending to a kid in a gang." She sent a quick, silent prayer heavenward for having voiced these fears aloud. "But there are parallels."
"Risks of the job, you mean."
"Risks of being alive. Like that damn cab accident. If it hadn't been for that, I wouldn't have even been on the train that day. I only took the train because I thought it would be safer."
He looked at her a long time in silence. "I guess I forget sometimes," he said finally.
"That I'm not the only one who takes risks. I guess I've been doing this so long…" He looked down at the costume he wore. "I forget what it's like. Living a normal life."
Maggie studied his thoughtful expression in the dim lighting. "Boy," she said, "was Gary wrong."
Again she caught him off guard. "Who?"
"One of the men from the train. When he saw your face, he said that you were only a kid. But he was wrong. You're not a kid. But you are young. And you do still have a lot to learn."
He received this bit of unsolicited motherly advice with light laughter that shook his shoulders. "So I keep hearing lately."
She decided to let this rather cryptic statement pass. "So you'll let us help you?"
He hesitated so long that she thought she was going to have to argue the point further. "I don't suppose you could start now?" he said instead, lifting a hand from his forearm to show her the bloody gash in his costume. "Maybe just a bandage for the road-"
"Good Lord!" Maggie almost wrenched her back in her haste to kneel by his side. "What happened?"
"It's not that bad. It just won't stop bleeding." He let her turn his arm left and right to inspect the wound. "I'd take care of it later, but I don't want to stain my shirt. My girlfriend just bought it for me."
This was such a genuinely adolescent statement that Maggie couldn't help but laugh. "Your girlfriend. Well. We can't have that then, can we."
"It's got snaps in the front," he protested, sounding even more like a teenager. "Do you know how hard it is to find a dress shirt with front snaps that look like buttons?"
"I have to say I don't," she said, and stood up. "Come on. I have a first aid kit in the kitchen."
As he stood, the pronounced muscles of his legs and arms altered the topography of the webbing over his body. Jackie would have fainted dead away at the sight.
In the kitchen, Maggie retrieved her emergency medical supplies from under the sink. "Go ahead and have a seat at the table," she said, and turned to find him already there, his arm resting on the table, his gloved hand pressing down on his forearm.
The 100 watt bulb added a strange dimensionality and force of presence to his costume. So odd to see him seated by Erin's highchair, dressed from the neck down in his famous red-and-blues, the black spider stretched out on his chest.
"What is it?" he asked.
"It's just… a little strange. You, sitting there, dressed like that, in my kitchen."
"For me too," he confided. "I feel a little… overdressed."
"If it would make you more comfortable, I could put my nursing hat on."
He eyed the extensive first aid supplies she had set out on the table. "That's okay. I believe you're a nurse."
"Soon-to-be nurse. It's my secret identity," Maggie said with a conspiratorial grin. "During the day, I'm just Maggie the Waitress. Which reminds me." She went to the refrigerator, retrieving from it an apple pie. Within seconds of handing him a fork, he'd already taken several bites.
"Wow," Maggie noted.
"Fowwy." He swallowed what he'd been chewing. "It makes me really hungry. You know." One gloved finger pointed skyward and moved left to right.
"Conducting an orchestra?"
"A big orchestra."
He'd already eaten a whole slice of pie. Based on the eating habits she'd seen this past week, she had no doubt he could finish off the entire thing. "So is that a glove that you can take off?"
It had apparently not occurred to him that she intended to treat the wound. "That's all right. I can take care of it. I've done it before."
She didn't want to imagine how many times. "You're telling a future nurse not to treat an open wound?"
He responded to her tone as any smart young man would, by putting down his fork to pull off his red glove and push up the material of his costume past the gash.
Flecks of paint and dirt and wooden splinters peppered the skin around the wound. "What did this anyway?"
"Broken chunk of the pier. Or maybe the boat that hit it. Not sure, actually."
Maggie began cleaning what was apparently half of the East Side Docks from his arm. "You must give some tailor a lot of work," she said, nodding at his costume.
"Actually I've gotten pretty good with a needle and thread."
Maggie doubted that any other man could have said this with as little concern for his masculinity. "Well if you ever need a professional tailor, there's a woman on the list that repairs clothes for a local dry cleaners. Might be able to help in your line of work. Maybe even figure out an outfit that's a little more durable."
"How about less itchy?"
She realized he was having quite a bit of fun joking about this subject. She wondered how often he had the opportunity to do so. "While we're on the topic of your list of helpers," she said, "I want to specifically mention the name Samuel Kravitz. He's an ER doctor at Saint Francis Hospital. If God forbid you should ever get really hurt, go there and ask for him. He'll take care of you. Confidentially, of course."
The forkful of pie he'd been about to eat paused halfway to his mouth. "What about the more normal things? Flu, blood tests, things like that. Does he do that too?"
"For you he would."
"A real checkup would be nice," he said, as if this were a novel concept.
She picked up some gauze bandages. "You were right about this cut, by the way. It wasn't that bad. You'll be on your way before you finish off the last of that pie."
"Sorry I don't have a dollar fifty for you this time."
"That's okay," she told him, thinking of the envelope she'd hidden in the bottom of his bag, the one with all the money he'd given her in it. "This one's on the house anyway, Sport."
He put another huge forkful of pie in his mouth. "Feetrr."
Maggie glanced up from her work on his arm, saw him wipe his mouth with the back of his gloved hand. Pie crumbs stuck to the black webbing. "What's that?"
"Peter," he said quietly. "My name. It's Peter."
She stared across the table at him. He'd had no reason to tell her that, she thought. No reason except that he wanted her to know. That he trusted her to know.
She wanted to reach across the table and hug him. Instead, she returned to her work on his arm. "Don't talk with your mouth full, Peter," she told him, using her best Mom tone yet.
Any hint of tension at his revelation vanished into a broad grin. "Sorry, Maggie," he said, and started in on the last of the pie.
Fifteen minutes later, Maggie knelt by her living room window, her head and shoulders extended out into the cool Manhattan night, watching a costumed figure wearing a backpack climb up the outside of her building to her roof.
Though his arm was no longer bleeding, he'd decided to stay in costume and take the faster route to his girlfriend. He was apparently late meeting her as it was.
Before he'd climbed out her window, Maggie had touched the sides of his masked face and kissed him lightly on the forehead, the same way she'd kissed Erin goodnight earlier that evening. "Angels watch over you, Peter," she'd whispered.
Hopefully that had cemented this evening in his memory. Hopefully he would keep his promise, and ask for her help if he ever was in trouble. She suspected he would. He was a nice young man. The type of man who kept his promises.
High above, Maggie watched him stretch out a bandaged arm and shoot forth an almost invisible strand of webbing to the building across the street. He swung away with one hand raised in parting, before that arm stretched in front of him too, to shoot forth another web.
"Yowza," Maggie said, and stared after him long after he'd vanished into the night.
March 2005 Author's Note: Another fic is in the works. Should be finished in the next month or two.
loremipsumdolorsit (at) yahoo dot com.