Flashbacks, Fireworks, and Old Friends
A Fourth of July One-Shot
New Mexico, now
He's on her mind at least three times a day. It's something that was bound to happen—when someone is as much a part of your life as he was, for as long as he was, that someone becomes a part of who you are. He pops up in her head from time to time, when she's driving to work or dropping her son off at school. She rarely thinks about it with any serious depth, but all the same, he's there in her mind.
Some days, though, she thinks about him more. Days like today.
Bernie Rosenthal has been a lot of things in her life. She was a student and an activist, an art teacher and a glass blower, a lawyer and, most recently, a mother—to the most beautiful little boy anyone could ever hope for.
A little boy that, right now, is lighting off firecrackers in the grass.
"John!" she shouts, "What did I say? Keep them on the driveway."
Bernie sits back in her porch chair and sips her ice tea. It's six o'clock in the evening in Santa Fe and the heat of the day is beginning to give way to the breeze of night. That's the good thing about living in the desert, Bernie thinks. Hot days always have cool nights.
She still remembers New York in the summer, a place where all the steel and concrete only served to hold in that sweltering heat overnight. Her apartment was like an oven. She spent nights huddled by her one window unit, water from the air conditioner dripping down the wallpaper and pooling by her mattress. Steve used to mop it up with a towel—a futile battle, if she'd ever seen one.
The thought makes her smile. In the distance, over the treetops and shingles of her suburban neighborhood, a starburst goes off in the dwindling light. The Fourth of July. Bernie leans back and, one practiced eye on her son and his ten little fingers, allows herself to think back to a less-quiet time of her life.
New York, then
The alarm clock growled awake, kicking its pitch up to a shrill whine, before a hand snaked out from the bed sheets to pound it into silence. The hand retracted and an eye opened, staring out at the clock.
"What time is it?" asked a man's voice.
"6:30," replied a woman.
"Alright." The man sat up and swung his body out of bed, bare feet smacking the hardwood as he walked to the bathroom. Back in bed, Bernie Rosenthal slowly pulled herself upright. She threw the covers aside and let her body breathe in the stagnant heat of the apartment's one bedroom.
"How do you do that?" she asked, rubbing her eyes.
"Do whad?" asked the man, leaning against the bathroom door. He spoke around the strokes of a toothbrush.
"Bounce out of bed like that." Bernie looked at him, hand running through her tangled hair. She needed a brush. And a shower. And coffee.
"Dunno." He walked back into the bathroom, spat in the sink, gargled. "I'm just a morning person, I guess."
Outside, there came the sound of something bouncing out of a tube and detonating, followed by secondary crackles. Bernie groaned and buried her face in the pillows.
"Why this early? Why?" she moaned.
"It's the Fourth," said the man, dropping into bed next to her. She felt his hand on her back, rubbing out small circles. "Can you blame them?"
Bernie looked at him, half her face still pressed into the softness of her pillow. "You, Steven Rogers, are completely unbearable."
Steve grinned. "Would coffee make me bearable?"
"It would help."
"I'll get coffee," he said.
"You do that. I'm going to sleep."
Steve laughed and left the room, padding down the hall to the kitchen. Outside, another firecracker went off, this one louder and buzzing as it spun through the air. Bernie groaned again.
"I hate independence," she mumbled.
She found him in the kitchen, once she finally worked up the gusto to crawl out of bed. He was at the stove, frying pan in hand, and something was sizzling. Two cups of coffee were on the table, sitting on a very unconventional plate.
"Does this have to be here?" she asked, pointing.
Steve looked back. "Oh, no. Just put it wherever."
Bernie moved the coffees and picked up the shield with both hands. She waddled it over to the living room and dropped it on the couch. "Damn, that's heavy," she muttered. The shield stared back at her, starry.
"Sorry about that," Steve called.
"It's okay." Bernie scooped her coffee off the table and leaned against the counter next to him. "Bacon, huh?"
Bernie sipped. "Any particular reason? Or are you just feeling pork today?"
Steve shrugged. "I was thinking about this guy I once knew. Joe Henson. Cook for the 101st. He preached bacon above all other breakfast. Said it was healthy for the heart."
"This was, of course, before the advent of modern health sense," she said.
"Of course," Steve said, unfazed. "Still, I thought about that this morning, and decided 'I want bacon'." He motioned at the skillet as if to say, and thus, we are.
Bernie put a hand on his back. "You ever catch up with Mister Joe Henson? Find out how that worked out for his heart?"
Steve's expression didn't change. "He died thirteen years ago. I was still on ice."
"Oh," Bernie said. It sometimes caught her off-guard, whenever something like that cropped up—a detail that brought into painful focus just how out of place Steve was with the world around him.
One moment, he was firmly in the here-and-now, a modern boyfriend. The next, she remembered that he was objectively in his seventies and that most of the people he grew up with were either dead or too old to have anything in common with him.
The greatest thing was that he didn't let it get him down, and that an awkward hiccup in conversation just ten seconds ago was already forgotten.
Steve scraped the bacon from the skillet onto a plate, clicked off the stove, tossed his utensils in the sink, and looked at her. "You want some?" he asked.
"In the interests of cardiovascular health, yes," she replied.
New Mexico, now
There was no one moment that did it in for the two of them, no one big fight, or a critical crisis of conscience. No masked madman or dead family member or sudden visit from their future child or anything like that. Their relationship fell apart over time, weathered down by the very thing that made it seem so good to begin with. He was consistently upbeat, and she was inherently wary. They were too disparate, and eventually their lives took them to different places.
Still, she thinks about it, and wonders. The past always seems greener.
"John, I'm going to get a refill," Bernie says. "No fireworks until I get back."
Bernie walks inside and into the kitchen. Her house is a far cry from the apartment she'd had all those years ago in Brooklyn Heights. Two bedrooms, a full kitchen, living room, dining room, and a two-car garage—a real house, fit for a family. She supposes that she and John are enough of one, despite there being no father in his life. The tragedy of adoption.
Maybe it would be different if she could ever find someone worthwhile, but up until now there hasn't been anyone. And she doesn't think she's being unfair, but after Steve… Well, there isn't much that can compare.
She refills her glass, watching the ice tumble under the pouring tea, and hears a crack from outside. She sighs, heads back through the house to the porch.
"John, what did I tell you about—"
What she sees stops her at the doorframe. She watches through the screen door as another firecracker is lit and tossed into the street, bouncing twice and exploding. The hand that tosses it isn't John's, and the firecracker couldn't be thrown that far, that precisely, by any ten year-old boy.
"See," says the man, "it's all in the wrist. Like this." He demonstrates, flicking his hand in and out, Black Cat between two fingers. "Simple."
He lights the cracker and flings it, through the air and into the side of the mailbox, where it bounces off and pops in mid-air.
"Cool," John says, eyes wide.
"Now you try," the man says, handing over the punk and box.
John fishes one out, squares his feet, lights it, throws. The firecracker lands in the driveway, not even half the previous distance, and pops. John's smile dims slightly.
"That's okay. Keep practicing." The man pats him on the shoulder. "You'll get it."
"Thanks," John says.
Bernie opens the door and steps out, bare feet on the wood planks. She stares at him. He stands, looks back at her.
"Hey, Bernie," he says.
"Hey Steve," she replies. "Uh, want a drink? I'm going to have a drink."
He smiles. "Sure."
They have a drink, maybe a few more, and talk about old times. They speak honestly, about the good and the bad, and there is no amnesty. Bernie doesn't ask what he's doing in New Mexico, or mention the vibranium disc on his back, hidden beneath his brown jacket.
When he leaves, she walks him out to his motorcycle. John is already in bed, but she's sure he is watching them from his bedroom window.
Steve seems to agree. "Who is his father?" he asks.
"I don't know," she says, then catches his look. "He's adopted, Steve."
"Good God, Rogers."
He shrugs. "Well, the way you said it…"
"Oh, shut up!" She punches him in the arm, smiling.
"Okay, okay," he says, holding up his hands in mock surrender. "I get it."
They are silent for a moment, looking at each other.
"Thanks for stopping by," she says.
"Hey, I was in the neighborhood," he replies. "But I'll try to pop in more often."
She smiles. "I think I'd like that."
"Yeah. I'm sure John would, too."
Steve smiles. "He's a good kid."
He slides onto the bike, zips up his jacket. "It gets cold at night here."
"That's one of the benefits." She grins. "No more mopping up after air conditioners."
He laughs. "Take care of yourself, Bernie."
"You too, Steve."
He starts the engine and slides back down the driveway, kicks it into gear, and rumbles away down the street. He stops at the corner, looks back and waves. She waves back, and then he turns right and is gone, the noise of the engine echoing away down the canyons of suburbia until nothing is left but the chirp of crickets and the pop of distant fireworks.
In the driveway, Bernie Rosenthal watches the display, shaded in alternating bands of red and blue.
"Later, Captain America," she says, then walks back inside.
Author's Note: My second Fourth of July Cap story. Last year's was The Dozen Skulls of Castle Corbo, a straight up-and-down Cap story fighting the Red Skull in WWII. This year's was a little shorter, more relaxed, and character-driven. Plus, Bernie rocks. Go read Stern and Byrne's run if you don't believe me. You owe it to yourself.
Review if you can. Later.