Very few things in this world are as frustrating as waiting for someone. As every moment passes, with every footstep on the pavement or car tire squealing around a corner, there's that constant mix of anticipation and dejection as whatever's making the noise turns out not to be the long-expected person.
Sandy had been waiting on the rooftop for a whole day, counting the minutes until its new friends showed back up. There hadn't been much to do up there. It had tried to make friends with a pigeon, it had tossed pebbles at a TV antenna, and it had done the hundred-and-one other pointless activities available to someone trapped on a deserted rooftop.
As the sun slowly drifted down below the buildings, casting shadows into the streets, lights began to flick on one by one in the building across the way. Ah! A chance for entertainment! Sandy leaned forward, resting its head on the edge of the roof, and started trying to guess which window would light up next. That one? No, the one below it flipped on, revealing an excess of fat man with a minimum of clothing. Maybe this one? No, it was two floors up, illuminating a woman with a cluster of children cavorting around her like cannibals around a stewpot.
Sandy watched with interest as the woman deftly avoided being accidentally kicked, hit, and bodyslammed by the impatient youngsters as she manuevered a large box to the table. She opened it, revealing a beautiful fluffy cake with icing in every color of the rainbow.
Food! People ate food, didn't they? Sandy had forgotten food. It wondered if maybe it could try eating something. Could it make sand into tastebuds? It giggled as the woman picked up a toddling infant and gave him a kiss on the cheek before exaggeratedly showing him the cake.
The woman gestured to one of the older children and said something. The boy in the bright blue shirt obediently dashed to the window and pulled it open. "...and make sure you feed your hamster!" the mother ordered.
"Mamamama!" a little girl chirped. "Can we listen to the radio? Pleeeeease?"
The mother smiled indulgently. "Sure, honey. You remember how to do it?"
"I know," she said, indignant that her four-year-old competence was being questioned. The girl scampered across the room to a cheap-looking radio and spun the dial. Music wafted into the evening air.
Sandy wasn't listening. Instead, it was staring wide-eyed at the stereo. It had had a stereo like that! It remembered playing with the dial to try and find a good radio station on hot summer days, back home in...in...It growled with frustration. The memory was right there!
Maybe if it got a little closer, it could figure it out. With a slight frown of concentration on its face, it sent a tentative stream of sand across the road to land softly on the rooftop. The long tube of sand swayed gently as the breeze slipped across it. Then, as if it was being siphoned, Sandy slowly transferred itself to the neighboring roof.
Pleased at its success, Sandy lowered itself on two slowly lengthening arms down to the woman's apartment. It found itself dangling in front of a bedroom filled with pictures of men and women in brightly colored, tight-fitting clothing. Superheroes, it remembered. They're called superheroes. Oops. The window it had wanted must have been a little further to the left...
The boy in the blue shirt strolled into the bedroom, carrying a large container of something labeled Ham-Treats. "Hey!" he gasped, noticing Sandy dangling outside like a curious pinata. "I know you!"
"You do?" Sandy said, excited.
"Yeah! You're the Sandman! I've got a picture of you on my wall!" The boy pointed at a six-by-three mural of an armada of caped and masked figures, posing heroically on a variety of backdrops. "This is so cool! HEY MOM!" he bellowed into the other room. "The Sandman's here!"
"I'm coming, Jake, hold your horses." The woman from earlier, still toting the baby, came into the room. "Now, what's all the - oh!" She tucked an errant strand of her hair behind one ear. "Um, can I help you?" she said shyly.
"Yeah!" the boy said enthusiastically. "Are you chasing down a villain? I could help! You need a sidekick, right? I've got a cape right here-"
"Jake, honey," his mother interrupted. "Let him talk."
If Sandy had had a lip, it would have been biting it. It was pretty sure that it wasn't a superhero, but...well, if the fib would get it inside, that was really all that mattered. "Can I look at your stereo?" When both the mother and the boy gave it disbelieving looks, it added "It's important."
"Okay," the mother said. "Come in."
Sandy flowed inside. "That is so cool," the boy gushed as Sandy reformed into something vaguely human. "C'mon, the stereo's over here!" He grabbed Sandy's hand and tugged him through a little hallway into the main room, where the stereo rested on a wobbly table.
Sandy reached out and spun the dial. "Hey!" the little girl protested. "I was listening to that!"
"Shh!" Jake hissed. "Don't worry about my dumb sister, Sandman. She doesn't know what she's talking about."
"You're the dummy, you stupid-head!" The pair of siblings started squabbling. Sandy ignored them, focusing on the feel of the dial in its sandy fingers. It was...well, it was familiar, certainly, but no new memories were springing up. Sandy sighed with disappointment and turned away. The rest of the apartment was filled with things - toys, pictures, a television - but nothing that seemed familiar.
"Get off me, Christy!" Jake snapped to his sister, who was wrapped around his leg and endeavoring to bite his kneecap off. "Well? Did you find what you were looking for?" he asked Sandy anxiously.
"No," Sandy said disconsolately.
"Oh," Jake said. "Do you want to stay for dinner? It's my birthday," he added, pointing to the cake. "Mom's making sloppy joes!"
Sandy peered at the cake. A sky-blue Batman swung over a sugary skyscraper, with a cherry-red Robin close on his heels. "Hey!" it said, perking up. "I know those guys! I met them last night!"
"But you work with them all the time!" the boy said, surprised. "Don't you?"
"Are you really the Sandman?" the boy demanded, a suspicious squint scrunching his little round face.
"I'm made of sand, aren't I?" Sandy said desperately.
"Sandman turns into sand. Turn back into a guy if you're really him," Jake commanded.
Oh drat. "I, um...I can't."
"So you're not a superhero?" the little girl said, disappointed.
"Well...maybe..." Sandy said defensively. Being a superhero wasn't entirely out of the question, after all. It did have no idea where it had come from, and wasn't a superhero even sort of likely?
The woman was looking at Sandy with a touch of panic now. Mutants in Gotham were never harmless. They were either villains or heroes, without exception. No mutant had ever acquired superpowers and kept working at Burger King. "What do you want with us?" she asked shrilly.
"I just wanted to look at your stereo!"
"Well, you did," Jake snapped. "Now go away if you're not really the Sandman. I shoulda known no one cool would ever come here."
Sandy, stung, slouched back over to the window. "Happy birthday, anyway," it muttered as it flowed back outside. It heard the woman slam the window shut behind it and rattle the blinds closed. With drooping shoulders, Sandy readied itself to stretch back up the building and return to his perch on the neighboring rooftop.
Wait! If that lady had a familiar stereo...someone else might have something familiar too! Sandy brightened. Just because it'd been kicked out of one place didn't mean that it might not be welcome in others...and that key memory was certain to be lurking somewhere around here!
"I told you to stay here," Batman growled, pacing around the quivering heap of sand on the rooftop.
"I was just trying to remember!" Sandy whined. "I wasn't trying to scare anyone!"
Batman gave it a look that could have scorched liquid magma. "You broke into fourteen different apartments," he pointed out.
"I didn't break anything! The windows were open!"
"Tell that to the police," Batman said, arms folded.
"Look, I'm sorry! They made those loud noises and scared me, and I fell!"
"Right onto one of the cruisers," Batman growled. "And you crushed another two when you were running away, not to mention the streetlights, the fire hydrant, and the hot-dog stand."
Sandy melted into a dejected puddle. "I didn't mean it," it protested softly. Sand shifted in a little mound, revealing a jingling bunch of slightly warped bullets. "I didn't remember what the bangs were until they shot me. Why's everyone so afraid of me?"
Batman, never a source for sympathy, ignored the question. "You've got to be more careful," he warned. "You're already on the waiting list for Arkham, innocent intentions or not."
Arkham. Memories fireworked in Sandy's head. Oh, yes, that sounded very familiar. Something about going to Arkham.
"I know!" Sandy yelped, surging upward. "I know where to go!" It wrapped sandy psuedopods around Batman and took off, arcing from roof to roof in a sandy shower as fast as it could manage.
A full twenty minutes later, they arrived in a seedy, filthy part of town. Sandy dropped into the alley behind a ramshackle bar, with a gloweringly angry Batman buried almost to the nose in its sandy arms.
Sandy snaked a bit of itself through a hole in the grubby window and looked around. The bathroom was caked with every sort of dirt imaginable. Spiderwebs clustered on the ceiling acted as largely ineffective fly-traps while little brown dots on the floor indicated the presence of larger, furrier vermin living under the sink. The room's lone occupant was swearing quietly to himself as he attempted to roll a dollar bill into a small tube.
Sandy rattled the window with a tiny tentacle. The man looked up from his work, saw a sand-creature and Batman looming in the alleyway outside, and scrambled out of the room as if he'd seen a ghost. Sandy unlatched the window from inside and oozed in, carefully easing Batman through so that he didn't bump his head. It set the vigilante down and pulled the sand back.
Batman, once more able to talk without a gag of sand, glowered at Sandy. "You brought me to a bathroom?" he demanded coldly.
Sandy flung an arm out and pointed at an address scrawled on a broken tile. "I went there!" it declared. "I went there so I would go to Arkham!"
"You went there," Batman repeated slowly, "so you could go to Arkham." He frowned. "What does that mean?"
"I...don't know," Sandy admitted. "I just remembered that to go to Arkham, you had to go here first." It tilted its head to the side quizzically. "What's Arkham?"
Batman examined the address. In scribbly Sharpie underneath were the words Ask for Cigarettes. "This isn't far from here," he muttered. "Come on."
2978 Third Avenue turned out to be a lavish-looking apartment building that had fallen into disrepair. Batman ran his gloved hand down the list of names, looking for the right one. "There," he said, pointing at the occupant of the penthouse. "Philip Morris."
"Yeah...but how'd you know that?" Sandy said. "I mean, I remember it, but...you've never been here."
"Can you climb up there?"
Sandy looked up at the rotting building, full of balconies and cracks in the brickwork that could lend a toehold. "No problem."
"Then follow me." Batman retrieved a grapnel gun from his belt and fired upward, catching the hook on a protruding cherub just below the penthouse. He clipped the gun to his belt and shot upward like a rocket.
Sandy followed, swarming up the building like a pile of mice. "What the-" a young, redheaded woman gasped as it set a foot on her balcony.
"Sorry," Sandy called, proceeding upward. When it finally reached the top, Batman had already pocketed his grapnel.
"Go in," he ordered.
"What? Me?" Sandy protested. "Why?"
"You're invulnerable, and they probably know you," Batman said. "Go on. I'll be behind you."
"Well...okay," Sandy said tentatively. It slipped through an open window and looked into the darkened room. "Hello?" it called.
"What? Who's there?" a voice snapped. Lights flared brilliantly as someone pounded into the room. "What do you think you're - oh, it's you." The man sounded let down, as if a promise made to him had been broken. He smiled. "Back for your things?"
"I have things?" Sandy asked, intrigued.
"Sure. Back in the lockers." The man tugged on his labcoat and waited for Sandy to move. It didn't. "You remember where they are, right?"
"I don't remember anything," Sandy admitted. "Who am I? Who are you?"
"Oh," the man said softly. "Well, it takes them like that sometimes. It's so hard to pin down the side effects before they happen..."
"Side effects? Them?"
"You paid us to become...more than you were," the man said, sliding his hands into his pockets. "I wasn't around for your particular...transformation, but I do remember your request going onto the books. It was tricky, certainly, particularly since one of the chemicals was rather hard to obtain." He smiled. "We've sorted out our supply problem now, thanks to some...generous ex-patients of ours with a little more time on their hands."
"Oh," Sandy said, still confused. "But who am I?"
"What you have to understand is-" the doctor said. He was unfortunately interrupted by the sudden burst of shattered glass that marked the Batman's entrance into the conversation. "You brought him?" the man howled.
Batman, meanwhile, had swooped behind the man and grasped him firmly by the collar. "You're going to tell me everything you do here," he hissed.
"I won't tell you...anything," the man squeaked as his feet left the ground.
"Tell me," Batman growled.
"Okay! Okay! We just wanted to make some money!" the man screeched. "It's not a crime to help people! They wanted to be changed!"
"You turned half-a-dozen men into squids last week," Batman accused.
"Yeah! I mean, they paid us five grand each, we did what they told us! I - erk!"
"And you were responsible for the giant iguana three weeks ago?" Batman tightened his grip. "The one who went into a coma across Dini Drive and died two days later?"
"Sort of! I mean, we did the change, but we didn't know he was diabetic!" The man squirmed as Batman threw him onto the ground. "Everyone wants powers! Everyone wants to be special! And we only charge what's reasonable!" he wailed. A sudden look of cunning came into his eyes. "Even you could use superpowers...right?" he asked. "For free?"
In the blink of an eye, he was on his stomach with a very heavy boot on his neck. "I don't need superpowers," Batman growled.
"Right! Right! Whatever you say!"
The subtle squeak of rubber on tiles sent Batman whirling around to bat the raised syringe away from the man's sneaky cohort. "And that trick is overplayed," he snarled, sending the new man to the floor with a solid kick to the solar plexus.
Sandy, meanwhile, had disappeared into the door labeled Locker Room. There were two rows of lockers lining the walls, and it was methodically opening each and looking for its belongings. The doors were locked, but what did that matter?
It calmly wrenched another door out of its hinges and tossed it on the pile. The locker was empty. Sandy reached out, tugged another door free, and stared at the contents of the little locker.
This was it. This was what it had been looking for! A small, silver pendant gleamed on a tiny thread of a chain. Sandy slipped it onto itself and dug into the pile. Pants, a shirt, tennis shoes...it slipped itself into them and trotted over to the nearby floor-length mirror.
No...the shirt was baggy where it shouldn't be, and it bulged in weird places, too. Sandy smoothed itself out beneath the fabric, letting its body fill the clothing like jelly in a mold. It blinked.
There, in the mirror, was a rather statuesque woman. "I'm a girl?" Sandy whispered to herself, running gritty hands over her clothes. A finger found the bulge of a wallet crammed into a pocket. She flipped it open and pawed through the contents.
The memories burst open like milkweed pods. She knew where she lived, who she was, and most importantly, why she'd come to be changed. Her sizeable family had been gangsters - all of them - even her little brother, only thirteen but a crack shot with a handgun. They'd taken over half of Gantry before anyone knew they were there. And to teach them a lesson about upstart families moving in on their turf, the Falcones had wiped them all out in one explosive evening of violence.
Sandy had been knocked unconscious and left for dead in the vicious fighting. When she'd come to and discovered that her family was gone, she'd sworn revenge. And what better way to fight the sprawling hordes of Falcones than by becoming a shapeshifter, someone who could be different every time she killed one of them? They'd be jumping at shadows and suspecting each other every moment. It would have been perfect.
She hadn't intended to be turned into sand, though. How was a giant blob of sand supposed to disguise itself as anyone? She gently stroked the locket on her neck. Well, at least they'd gotten the invulnerable part right...
Sandy crept back into the main room, where Batman was repeatedly banging a doctor's head on the floor, and slid out the window. Go there and go to Arkham? Yes, indeed, particularly once Batman found out her identity. Mutants went to Arkham as a matter of security, and ex-gangster sand creatures would definitely find themselves on the padded bus to the nuthouse if they let Batman catch them.
Maybe she'd kill the Falcones, maybe not. But first, in order to honor their memories, she had to remember her family. With all the loneliness in the world weighing down her shoulders, Sandy slipped down the building and finally went home.
Author's Note: Thanks to Ghost in the Machine for letting me know about the existence of DC's Sandman.
Tune in next time for the final chapter in 'Reciprocity' followed by 'Reinventing'. Thanks for reading!