Chloe would get the call between classes. She would stop, cell phone still pressed to her ear, maybe drop the books she'd been carrying. Clark and Lana would probably take a few more steps before noticing her absence, before turning back, all dark eyes and bland, curious expressions. They would be wearing matching red jackets, too-bright and ugly through her tears.
The funeral would take place the following weekend. They would attend, of course, for her, dressed in identical black and shining hair.
Years later, her own daughter would buy her a set of ivory bookends for Christmas: a pair of tall, oddly serpentine Siamese cats with wide, obsidian eyes. She would hate them on sight, but motherly duty would force her to place them on the dining room table, next to a wilting poinsettia and a bowl of candies in green foil.
Jim would never understand why the cats made her cry, but by New Year's Eve, he would be forced to entomb the bookends in a dark, dusty corner of their basement.
Lana crawled into the bedroom, closing the door behind her as quietly as she could. Her hand was slippery with blood, but the lock turned easily enough. She pressed back into the corner, trying to fit inside the darkness, willing herself to be smaller. A trail of long, red streaks followed her across the floor like breadcrumbs; the blood looked almost black in the moonlight.
She couldn't feel the broken bone in her arm, or the knife gripped in her shaking hand. Pure panic gnawed at the edges of every thought, somehow dulling and sharpening everything at once. A small, animal noise was building in the back of her throat; she could feel it pulsing with her heartbeat, like sobbing inside her chest. She bit down viciously on her lip, hoping to quiet it.
Her gaze jittered around the room. On the other side of the door was the telephone she'd been trying so hard to reach. The second line, just installed a week ago; hopefully, he didn't know about it, and it would still work. For a single moment, a relieved smile threatened at the corners of her mouth.
His shadow stopped outside the door. Lana stared, holding her breath, tears brimming in her eyes. The moment stretched, like a scary movie, his shadow gliding back and forth as he shifted his weight. Finally, the doorknob turned slowly, then twisted with more force as he fought against the lock. The door bowed and creaked when he began to throw himself against it. It wouldn't last long.
When the flimsy frame cracked and broke inward, it was then that Lana opened her mouth, and screamed.
The fire was slowly dying, the logs barely glowing orange. They broke apart in ashy chunks, soft thuds and sizzles when they hit the ground. Pete watched it fading helplessly, and tucked the sleeping bag a little tighter up under his chin. It was so cold on the mountain. The cold was like a predator, consuming him slowly, starting with his toes. Not that he could feel it; the broken leg was almost completely numb now, probably from blood loss, he figured.
Despite years of experience with his brothers camping in the Kansas wilderness, he couldn't remember why he thought coming here alone had been a good idea. He felt so stupid, so angry and lost. Clark hadn't returned his email. His mother knew he was camping, but last minute changes to his plan meant that she thought he was about fifty miles south of here. His cell phone was locked in the glovebox of his car, parked at the base of the mountain, which no one would even see until the office opened on Monday.
There was no moon overhead, only an endless canopy of brilliant, twinkling stars. Just before his eyes slipped closed, the stars began to shift, swirling and beautiful. He thought they looked frozen, a million tiny shards of ice.
It's a nightmare, he thought. This has got to be a nightmare, and soon, I'll wake up. I'll drink some of that imported coffee, and while the sun is shining bright and cheerful through the window, I'll laugh about all this. Then, I'll yell at someone - or better yet, fire someone - and I'll feel worlds better. This is just a nightmare, and I just need to Wake Up.
It was a hard lie to believe, however, when he could feel the stiff, stained wool pants rubbing at the tender flesh of his thighs, and the stench of urine and trash wafted through the door from the alley. The man behind him in line coughed wetly, and Lionel folded further in on himself, the discomfort of the itchy jacket worthwhile, really, when compared to disease.
He still had no idea how he ended up in this godawful situation. The previous night, he'd gone to sleep at his normal time, in his normal bed, with his familiar down pillows and expensive sheets, and yet he'd woken up on a cot, sharing a room with fifty or so sleeping others. He'd sat bolt upright, and stared, aghast, at the dirty child next to him gripping a doll with no head, as though someone might want to steal it.
The fat woman at the desk had refused to tell him anything useful; had, in fact, she had even threatened to call the police when he began to yell. When he agreed, even offered to call the police himself, he was Lionel Luthor, dammit, and someone was playing a very dangerous game, she had nearly fallen out of her chair with laughter. A rather large gentleman had then taken him by the arm, despite his continued protestation, and had shoved him, quite brusquely, through a steel door into the foul-smelling alley.
That had been several hours ago. Lionel was still uncomfortable, but now he was also pissed off, and frankly, frightened. He'd passed a window earlier, and the only thing that stopped him from falling down as he saw his own reflection, his dirty clothes and his wild hair, was stumbling backward against an overfull trashcan. His hand had landed squarely on top of a half-eaten sandwich, smearing him with mustard and possibly tuna salad. Now, as the gaping hole of hunger in his stomach spread wider, he found himself almost wishing he'd thought to grab the remains of that sandwich.
No one would speak to him. He had no money, no identification. He didn't even recognize this part of Metropolis, with buildings lined up so closely together that he couldn't see the downtown skyline; he'd wandered a few blocks in either direction, but the shoes he was wearing, like the rest of his clothes, didn't belong to him, far too big and difficult to move around in. Finally, he'd ended up back at the shelter, where this whole horrible day (nightmare) had started.
The dirty woman in front of him finished her hushed conversation, and hung up the phone, casting suspicious looks at him over her shoulder. He had to wait as she collected several bags of belongings, what mostly looked like empty aluminum cans and bits of plastic and string. Lionel wondered if she was planning to build a nest; it had to be better than sleeping in this place. He pulled a dangling string from his shirt, presumably where a button had once been, and slipped it into his pocket.
The cab driver had refused to take him anywhere - hadn't even let him in the car - but he had given Lionel enough change to make a call. The handset was warm and slightly damp when he put it to his ear. He grimaced, and wiped it gingerly on his jacket. He dropped the coins into the phone, and dialed the number for his office.
He wasn't wearing a watch, but it was a Tuesday morning, and LuthorCorp should be brimming with employees, eager to help out their boss in a tight spot. The phone rang once, twice, three times, and then a beep and a recording told him the number had been disconnected. Lionel stared at the handset for a long moment, and then slowly hung it up. He heard his change rattle down further into the phone, and then turned, walking passed the line of waiting people, and back out onto the street.
She turned off the radio, and the wave quiet it had kept at bay finally flooded the kitchen. Outside, a lone cricket sang from beneath the steps. When Clark had still been at home, Martha had sometimes known the songs, but these days, it was all unfamiliar and harsh to her ears. And she couldn't listen to the oldies station for fear of crying, so quiet was all that remained.
One dish, one fork, and one empty glass sat lonely in the sink. A thin layer of dust had formed on the windowsill. There was a place on the wall, just above eye-level, where a framed photo had been, recently removed; the paint there was vibrant, like a fresh wound in the otherwise faded room. She couldn't stand it.
The screen door slammed behind her when stepped onto the porch. A cold wind blew dead leaves around her feet. The sound of the ringing telephone inside was not enough to draw her back, and it was easy not to care as she down the long drive for the last time.
You find the gears easily enough. This only sticks out because it's been so long - two years? three? - and you had expected it to feel foreign, as unfamiliar as the complicated padlocks and chains had been. But your hand has not forgotten this; you maneuver the gearshift easily, just as you had the ignition and the headlights in this rusted-out heap.
You had started driving, not knowing or caring where you were headed. Just away, away. The more distance between yourself and that place, the better you feel, despite the blood still drying on your shirt and the bruises on your neck. The cool air through the open window cascades over your bruises with a delicious sting; you're alive.
The sun is hovering just below the line of enormous pine trees on your left, and you can't be sure if it's early morning or early evening, but… it feels like morning. It feels as though you're waking up, vision burning clear with the fading mist, like someone wiped the two years of dust off your brow. You almost feel, unbelievably, good, and you wonder if that means you're in shock. And then you wonder, if you were in shock, would you wonder if you were in shock?
The tire had blows out near the intersection of two narrow dirt roads. You can't see anything here but long, empty roads and trees and sky. There aren't any street signs; there aren't even any power lines this far out.
You look first for a spare, which isn't there, of course. As you close the trunk, you remember his phone; one of those portable monsters that plugs into the cigarette lighter socket and looks like a small suitcase. You search and find it wedged under the passenger seat, next to a Whopper wrapper and a leaking bottle of oil. You pray it still works.
You plug the phone in, and lean onto the passenger seat. Nothing happens at first, but then the little green light flickers on for a second. You wiggle the plug around some, and the light is on again, and stays on. The excitement threatens to choke you, emotion rising in your throat.
You run one hand through your hair over and over as you dial with the other. You wait, and then hear a distant click on the other end; before you even hear a voice, you start babbling. Your voice is scratchy, your throat raw, and you don't realize you're really crying until you feel the wetness on your cheeks.
"Oh, my God, help me, please," you say frantically. "I shot him, my name is Nell Potter, and I shot him, I got away, God, he kept me in that room, but I...."
And then you stop. It doesn't matter, because there is no one at the other end. The phone has gone dark, dead and useless, and you can hear another engine approaching behind you. It's getting darker; the sun is setting after all.
The rain comes suddenly, in large, heavy dollops rather than simple drops. They pound on the windshield of the truck until Jonathan is almost afraid they'll break right through. The wiper blades cracked and old, certainly not up to the task of a monsoon, so he pulls over to the side of the road.
Too late, he realizes his mistake. The shoulder is soft, muddy; the truck lilts to the right, his tires slowly sinking down into the mud. There is no umbrella in the truck; cursing, he grabs his jacket. He pulls his cell phone from the pocket, and holds the jacket over his head as he opens the door, climbing out of the truck without looking behind him first.
Across town, the phone rings only twice in the Kent family kitchen. Clark moves to answer it, but it falls silent before he can reach it. He shrugs and returns to his homework, pleased to find that the brief distraction was all he needed; the answer to the formula with which he's been struggling is suddenly clear.
To Lucas, it seemed the desert was nothing but shades of brown. Sand, dirt, dust… nothing but varied flavors of brown. Everything was baked and cracked, ground and trees and telephone poles all equally parched. He walked slowly, his boots kicking up little clouds with every step. By his estimation, it was nearly one o'clock. The sun was high above him, small and white and hot, and even his skin looked brown.
Mexico was miles behind him now, and the car somewhere between him and the border. He'd learned just enough to hotwire a car, maybe put gas in her if he was keeping her around a while, but this bitch was broken beyond his limited ability, so he left her on the side of the road. He was under a bit of a deadline.
It was probably just his imagination, but it seemed to him he could still feel the knife sliding against the bones in his wrist with every step he took. That fucker Chase better not have done any permanent damage, he thought; the punk was only supposed to cut enough to draw blood, prove a point to the customers, show they were serious about this shit. Then he remembered what happened to Chase, the memory still so fucking fresh, and he kicked himself. He pulled his wounded arm, wrapped in shreds of what had been his best dress shirt, closer to his body, trying not to be bothered by the smell of blood. There was brown sand stuck to the shirt where it had once been wet.
Ahead of him, the empty service station, the drop point, shimmered and waved in the heat. Between his thirst and the blood loss, his first thought might have been mirage, but he'd been in this same place almost two days ago, and he knew it was real. The rusted metal sign advertising a brand of cigarettes they didn't make anymore drifted side to side, and Lucas felt deeply cheated; if there was a fucking breeze, he didn't feel it.
The payphone was around the corner, mounted to the side of the building that faced the desert, in a small strip of blessed shade. Your average tourist, if they made a wrong turn at Albuquerque or some shit, and ever wound up this far out, they'd wouldn't see it. And even if they did see it, they'd never believe it still worked. Lucas knew better.
He picked up the handset; the black plastic was hot against his ear. There was no dial tone, just a series of clicks, and then a quiet buzzing. "It's done," he said, and hung up. He dropped down onto the dusty ground and leaned against the stucco wall. Now he just had to wait.
You wanted to know, and looking back now, I can tell you exactly where I messed up. Well, there were couple times, I guess. And I don't mean like, everything, my whole life or something so profound, cause I'm pretty sure just one of the nights I spent in Amsterdam wiped out that memory completely. I couldn't tell you that story if I tried. I'm just talking about that one damn day, the day that landed me here. I think it was a Thursday.
See, Tyne gave me the address, but he didn't tell me what the job was. He was never good for details anyway, but there were some days, you know, where you could tell by his face that it just wasn't right to ask. Sometimes he was cool, but mostly he scared the hell out of me; he was tough and beat the shit out of a couple dudes we knew, but he never laid a hand on any of us girls. That was part of what kept us coming back, I guess. He was always real good about giving us our cut when we completed a job, without getting all grabby and gross. Maybe he just didn't like girls, I don't know, but whatever, it was good work if you could get it.
Anyway, that day, the Thursday, he gave me a piece of paper with nothing but an address. It was downtown someplace, I don't remember now, but I do know it was raining, and I could smell the fish from down on 52nd street, where that open-air market is; when it rains, everything down there smells like tuna, so I guess it had to be near there. I went through the alley to the back door, and even though the door looked like it could stand up to a nuclear blast, it sounded hollow when I knocked. Three times, then wait, then once more, just like Tyne said. Christ, it was fucking cold.
There was a minute when I thought no one would answer, and I'd have to drag ass all the back up to Tyne's, soaking wet and freezing in that stupid fucking leather skirt, and empty-handed on top of everything, and who knew if Tyne would ever give me another job, but then the door swung open the tiniest bit, sending this brief stream of warm air out.
There was a real rat-faced guy behind the door, poking his little rat face out like it was a hole in the wall. I'd seen this guy around before; he beat my friend Cadie until he broke her nose and that bone around her eye, the jerk. She still doesn't sound right when she talks.
Anyway, he looked me up and down, like I'd surprised him. I knew Tyne had arranged all this, and that gave me a bit of leverage, so I did my best to look tough and stood up a little straighter, which made a stream of cold-ass rainwater drain right down my back, and I could tell by the way he was looking at me that my nipples were showing through my shirt. I hated to seem weak, like a kid, but I hate sleazes like that guy even more, so I folded my arms over my chest.
The vibe was off, all wrong for something that should have been so simple. I should have left, right then, I should have just turned around and got the hell out of that alley, but I needed the money, all fifty thousand I got in Smallville gone, and honestly, I just wanted to get the out of the rain as soon as I could.
"What the fuck do you want?" God, he even sounded like a fucking rat; it freaked me out.
"I'm Lucy." I stopped, because I wasn't supposed to use my real name. I bit the inside of my cheek, and it made my eyes water, not that anyone could tell with all the rain.
"Whoop-de-fucking-do, Lucy," he said, making my name sound all slimy and gross, twirling his finger around like he was having a party. Asshole. "What the fuck do you want?"
"Uh, my uncle…" I had started to shiver, my lips and fingertips numb, and the rain was coming down so hard I knew he didn't hear me. Behind him, I could barely make out a dim light bulb at the end of a long hallway, and from someplace inside, at that exact moment, a phone started to ring. He turned for a minute, and I knew I had better get on with it; Christ, I wish I'd just let him shut the door, now, just let the whole thing drop, but I had a job to do. "My uncle wanted me to pick up his dry cleaning. My uncle Carl."
He eyed me for another minute, and then smiled. I could see his disgusting, yellowed teeth. "Wait here. I'll get it."
Yeah, that's right. Rat-face left me standing out there, in the freezing rain, shaking and soaked to the fucking bone. It was ridiculous, and I was so pissed off and I wish, wish, wish I'd just left. He wasn't gone that long though; he probably had the package near the door since he knew I was coming. When he got back, he still only opened the door a little bit, enough to shove this hot pink Hello Kitty backpack at me. The phone was still ringing. I didn't look inside the bag, I never did, those were the rules, but I figured it was just coke or smack or something; I'd had enough by then, and I swear, I was actually thinking of quitting drugs altogether. Not that it matters now.
When rat-face shoved the bag out at me, his stained shirt swung open; I reached out, and that's when I saw it: a badge. He was so stupid, he must've forgotten to take his badge off before answering the door for the hand-off. When I saw that, I think I gasped or something, and I know I backed away because my foot landed in right in this big puddle. I kind of half-turned, half-stumbled, and I saw the door swinging open further. I started running down the alley, limping on my twisted ankle, and I could hear him yelling behind me. "Freeze! Stop now, Lucy!"
That was when the police car blocked the alley; there was nowhere else to go. I dropped onto the ground, and really the next thing I remember, I was being dropped into the back of the car, my hands handcuffed behind me. As the car was pulling away, I saw rat-face talking to a couple uniforms, his face even uglier in the flashing blue and red, the Hello Kitty backpack stuffed up under one arm. He pointed in my direction and nodded a couple times. I figure he probably remembered me, too.
In a situation like this, everything moves in slow-motion. It sounds like a cliché, like cheap Hollywood machinations, but it's true; Lois moves through the front door like moving underwater. She looks around her apartment as though seeing it for the first time. It is her haven, the only safe place she knows in a city that often confuses and shocks her, despite whatever bravado she straps on for the Planet.
All her things, the delicate crystal menagerie that was her mother's, the quilted pillow Mrs. Kent made for her before she moved, they all seem suspect somehow, traitors by proximity. Obviously, there could be a camera anywhere; these days, they could embed them clocks, candlesticks, even jewelry. She uses that trick often enough, she should know. She remembers suddenly that the landlord left a note a few weeks before, informing her that he would be entering her apartment during the day to inspect her pipes, and even though it's what he's supposed to do, that action, too, seems less than kosher now.
Better to start with the obvious, she figures. As she crosses the room, she leans down and flips the stereo on, turning the volume a little higher than she might normally. Telephone in hand, she drops down onto her sofa, eying the coffee table carefully as she sits. With a pen, she pries open the receiver.
Sometimes, the obvious answer is the right one, and that's the shit that trips her up, throws her for a loop every time. There, beside the caller-id mechanism, is a tiny chip, out of place even to her mostly untrained eye. She sets the pieces down on the table, narrowing her eyes and staring at it like a scientist would stare at a dissected frog with exceptionally fascinating innards.
This is it, Lois thinks, shocked and angry. This is what got Jimmy killed, what nearly got Clark and me. It came from her own house, and on some level, she knows it must've been something she said or did. She is shaking as she leans forward, towards the tiny chip, and a single tear slides down her cheek. It is her fault.
Whatever happened to all the phonebooths, he wondered. Flying over Metropolis, the sidewalks were broad and clean, trashcans and benches and flowerbeds marking off the miles of smooth gray concrete. Phones were stuffed in shadowy alcoves now, hidden away inside lobbies or around corners, out of the way and out of sight, the idea of having a private conversation in public so unappealing that people would no longer tolerate it.
Or maybe it was cell phones. People were too busy to stand in one place and have a conversation. What was the point of being still, of simply calling someone when you could multitask. You could get that report done a little faster, or catch that train leaving five minutes sooner.
When he'd asked Chloe about it, she seemed uninterested, unconcerned. She probably didn't realize what it meant to him. How could she?
The last time he'd seen a phonebooth had been that summer, the one he'd like to pretend he doesn't remember. The sound of his mother's voice that night, full of some bizarre combination of fear and hope, or maybe despair, it haunted him. Without her, all he had were his memories, and of her voice, he only had that one. He had hoped that somehow, someday he could replace that memory with something better, but the phonebooths had all died away, too.
My eyes are open. I can see. I replace the handset gently. It seems the right thing to do, somehow, to imbue this moment, the one following that all-important moment, with a sort of dignity, some sort of gravity. I suppose in the end it doesn't matter; I am alone here.
There was a commotion outside the door already, but no one will be admitted. Even now, my staff, the ones I hired personally, they will obey me; they understand what is to come.
I close my eyes, and imagine it all happening, so many miles away: the soldiers scrambling into action, sirens blaring, lights flashing. The silos, those sleeping giants, grumbling to life beneath the soil. Long tendrils of white smoke spiraling up and across the sky.
In my mind, it is beautiful.
I rise slowly behind the desk. Outside the light is already changing, and I can feel the energy sizzling over my skin, sneaking under the glove to my hand, and I smile. The world around me is sharper, cleaner, and unnecessary colors seem to dim.
I cross the room, carefully stepping around the eagle on the floor, out of respect and habit, and I open the door. The screams, the sound of traffic screeching to a halt, the sirens wavering in the distance… none of it matters.
This feels so right. It is what I was born to do.
I close my eyes, and breathe fire.