Good Samaritan – Part 1
The road loomed eerily before me as the street lamps went out in front of the SUV. One, by one, by one. The lights popped back on behind me in the rearview mirror. One, by one, by one.
Maybe the alignment in my headlights was off and they were tripping the sensors into thinking it was daytime? It was a rental vehicle on its last legs, so who knew what some joy-rider had done to it.
Deep night hues plunged into the cabin of the Explorer again as another light went out. It was such an odd feeling, like the reverse of a spotlight.
No, don't bother looking at Jake, the halo of darkness seemed to be saying. He's being perfectly innocent right now. Not a darn thing is wrong. Go about your business.
I clutched at the steering wheel, my knuckles going bloodless white. Like hell.
Claire and Annie sat pale and immobile in the back seat, crunched up against the upholstery like small barnacles. Glittering with tears, their eyes were wide with awe and innocence. A few minutes ago they had been jabbering in an incessantly frantic babble that only small children could ever pull off well, but now they were quiet. Hiding in the dark of the back. I could hear a few sniffles, but other than that, nothing. The rampant flurry of questions had stopped. For once in their lives, they had listened to me.
"I'm sorry, but Daddy needs to concentrate," I added over the dull hum of the motor. But I would give them no more apology than that.
The silence from the back seat continued, almost to the point where I was ready to beg them to resume making noise if only to keep the onset of panic at bay, but the man in the seat beside me groaned and shuddered again, ripping my focus away from my children. I glanced over at him. In the dim light, the sheen of perspiration on his skin gave him an apparitional glow, and the fever radiating off him appeared as though it were a living thing. His pallor was even more ashen-white than it had been when I'd helped him into the SUV.
He had assured me then that he'd be fine. That he'd better in a few moments. That he just needed to rest. He had forbidden me to take him to the hospital when I'd found him. The look of fear in the large man's eyes had convinced me then not to question it. After all, when was a man like this ever afraid? It must be real. It must be serious.
But now he looked worse. Perhaps it was my worrisome imagination, but I felt like he was decaying before my eyes. Now, I was wondering how wise the decision to listen to him really had been.
The motor of the Explorer started to complain, growing high- pitched and belching loud, cursing sputters at me. Shift, Jake, a tiny thought interjected. I forced my right hand to bring the vehicle up one gear into fourth, and it stopped protesting. Then I realized I was going way too fast for this suburban street. Way too fast.
The speed limit along here was twenty-five. Wasn't it? Of course it was. Why would it be different from any other residential street? The vehicle jerked as I steeply let go of the clutch, and I shifted back down into third. This wouldn't be good if a cop pulled me over.
What would I do then? There was no rational explanation for my situation. At least, none that I could come up with. Not now. Not when I could barely think straight. I wasn't even a very good improviser when I wasn't pressured.
Was it hot in here?
A lump formed in my throat, but I swallowed it back. Stop it, stop it, stop it. Now was not the time to panic. Not the time to...
My self-flagellation trailed away as I looked at him again. He looked like he was nearly out cold. His eyes were open, but in mere slits.
"Are you awake?" My voice bit at him as I set the air conditioner to full blast. That was good, right, for a fever?
"Please don't pass out," I begged him when he didn't respond. "Please, I don't know what to do!"
I reached across and shook him. Even through his suit, I could feel the heat radiating off of him. My hand came away from the thin material gritty and slick with sweat.
This was very bad.
I heard Annie whimper in the back seat, and I resisted the urge to snap out at her. I should have just left them at school. They would have been taken care of. Somehow. But he had insisted he was fine enough for me to make the small detour to their school on the way home.
The girls had run out from the building and had been in my back seat for all of two seconds before they had started jabbering like wild monkeys. I'd tried to calm them down, but that was when my passenger had taken a swift and visible turn for the worse, and now as I looked at him, he was barely lucid.
I never would have guessed he had absolutely no capability to assess himself, not in a million years, and at the time I had just been assuming he was a little under the weather. Though, now that I thought about it, why would he know that much about illness when his normal state was resistant to something as colossal as a nuclear explosion? Or perhaps it was more an unwillingness to accept weakness. Or worse than unwillingness, just plain denial.
Whatever it was, how wrong I had been was starting to sink in with painful clarity.
His torso jerked and strained with every inhalation, though I couldn't hear his gasping over the roar of the frigid air conditioning.
What if he, of all people, died in my car? What if he died, period? How could he die? He was supposed to be invulnerable. I'd seen him take bomb blasts on the news and shake them off in seconds. This man had flown into space to stop an asteroid the size of Metropolis. And succeeded. He had just carried a multi- ton jetliner down onto our main runway this afternoon, for goodness sake.
With that in mind, it was nearly impossible to conceive of something that could bring him down so definitively.
But something had.
God, please, I begged. Don't let him die in my car. Not in front of my children. Not again...
He panted and turned a dull, delirious gaze toward me. "Kryptonite," he muttered, his voice strained and tortured, as though the act of breathing had now become a sheer act of will alone.
I bit back a gasp. After so many years, it had, of course, been mentioned. Once or twice. Here and there. But for the most part, it had remained a myth, and in reputable news venues like the Daily Planet it remained unmentioned. It was something the conspiracy theorists used to explain Superman's occasional absences and the various other quirks in his usually austere, heroic persona.
"Daddy!" Claire screeched. I brought my eyes away from the fallen hero and back to the road just soon enough to swerve away from a lumbering shadow moving across the road. Possum, maybe.
My knuckles were starting to ache to the point that I wondered if I was putting dents in the steering wheel. I glanced over at him again.
"It's real?" I asked, but he didn't answer.
My eyes darted back to the road as I heard him let loose a tortured groan. And despite my astonishment over the fact that such a ridiculous-sounding chink in his armor actually existed, I believed him.
As I pulled the Explorer out of the final turn and onto my street, another streetlamp failure plunged us into a pregnant darkness. I flicked a glance over to him just in time, I suppose, because I finally noticed that Superman, while he remained whitewash pale, was also glowing dully green. Even the blue of his suit looked slightly off-color. Sickly almost. I recalled the gritty feeling on my hands when I had touched him earlier and looked down to see that my palm was also glowing faintly.
The lamp came on behind the car again, and the Explorer's cabin became bright enough to hide it, but I knew I had seen it.
"This Kryptonite stuff is green?" I asked through gritted teeth as I practically pulled the pavement off my driveway skidding into it.
"Yes," came a warped reply that ended in a hiss.
I swallowed hard and yanked the keys out of the ignition.
"Claire, Annie -- Daddy needs you to get the front door open," I said, tossing my house key into the back seat.
They nodded and skittered out of the car. The key ring jingled as the clicks of their little feet running up the drive spattered the air. But, slowly, the outside noises faded until they were replaced with the thumping of my own heart, and I was brought back to the dilemma at hand.
I took one breath. Then another. But the shaking in my limbs would not subside, and the man slumped next to me needed immediate attention. With one last, sucking breath, I flung the door open, nearly falling flat on my face as I rushed to get around to the passenger side door. I did end up jarring my hip on the left corner of the vehicle as I made my way around, but the dull throb of the forming bruise barely registered.
My stomach churned so badly I thought I would lose what little was in it, but it didn't happen. I bit back on the rising bile as I opened his door and reached across him to pull the seatbelt off. He rolled forward onto the dashboard with a groan as the belt came away.
There was a greenish sheen of dust all over the front seat -- I could see it now that I knew to look for it. Now that we were stationary. It shook down from his hair as he flinched this way and that.
"Put your arm over my shoulder," I commanded. Naturally, he didn't really comply. He fumbled at me, but just couldn't quite manage it.
Somehow, I got him out of the car. What little there was left of him to fade was fading fast. And though I could tell he was trying very hard to help me out, we weren't going to make it inside to get him into the shower. I'm hardly a big man, especially compared to him, not anymore.
And so, lord help me, I let him go. He collapsed onto my driveway in a wheezing, hacking heap, his cape crumpling over him in such a way that he almost looked like a giant red trash bag.
Superman was dying in my driveway.
I tried not to think about it as I ran for the hose.