I got the White Knight back to the ambulance, and Jack and I took him to the hospital. My healing venom kept him alive, and put him on the mend, but he still needed time and rest to recover from nearly dying. I didn’t tell him what I knew. How do you tell a man that he is one of the creatures he’s on a holy mission to kill? He figured out that I’d done something to heal him, but I didn’t tell him anything about that either.
The dog, Rocky, rode with us. We couldn’t just leave him out there, and the local shelters were already overwhelmed with pets separated from their owners. Tamara couldn’t take him. She said her apartment didn’t allow pets.
Oh, right, Tamara Perez is the firefighter with the blue streak in her hair. I did, finally, find out her name. She’s pretty cool. When I told her about Knight on a white horse not knowing how to ride, she got it, and she gets Jack’s Monty Python quotes, too. We exchanged numbers. Next time something like free time happens for all of us, we’ll go take in a movie together or something.
Liberty gave me her number, too. I know, weird. She’s like the second in command of the entire national Protectors group, and the local Austin head. Knight told her about how I saved his life (again) and she seemed well, thoughtful, like I was a puzzle. I thought she was going to pressure me to join the Protectors again, like the Devastator did when he was in town, but she said no. She said that if I needed someone to talk to, that I could talk to her.
Um, yeah, right. Because we have so much in common. I don’t know what she has in mind, but I might use that number at some point. If nothing else, it’s nice to have one of the world’s most powerful superheroes on speed dial, just in case.
Jack and I were both dirty, beat up, and just plain exhausted by the time we delivered the Knight to the hospital and called it enough for now. I gave Jack an extra big hug in the parking lot, just for being awesome, and we drove to our separate apartments, his in Pflugerville, mine in downtown Austin.
I hadn’t even staggered in my front door yet when my cell phone rang. It was Jack.
“Hey. What’s up partner?” I asked, half asleep on my feet.
“Dee, I .. um…” He sighed on the other end of the phone, sounding incredibly tired and sad.
Instantly, I was wide awake. “Jack, are you okay?”
“I just don’t know who else to call. My mom and dad live in this little assisted living place. They don’t have any room and …”
“What’s wrong? What happened?”
“My apartment building burned down.”
I had absolutely no idea what to say for a few seconds. While Jack and I had been fighting the big fire, a smaller one had come and taken away everything he had.
“Oh, Jack. I’m so sorry.”
“It’s okay. I just need a place to stay for a few days until I can find something. I know it’s a big imposition, but …”
“You don’t even have to ask. Ma would never forgive me if I didn’t drag you home with me. We’ve got a big couch and plenty of spare blankets.”
Jack sighed again and it sounded relieved this time. “We’ll be over at your place in about an hour, then. Thanks, Dee. I won’t forget this.”
“What are partners for, huh?”
It wasn’t until after he hung up that I realized he said “we.” Oh, right, Rocky, the dog with burnt paws. No biggie. I’d just have to see about paying the pet deposit if he ended up staying for more than a day or two.
I let Ma know as soon as I got up the stairs to our place. She was making chili and the apartment smelled like heaven. She flavors it with ham and just enough cayenne to give it a little afterburn, without killing your taste buds. I told her the situation with Jack, and that we were having company for a few days. She added another pound of hamburger to the chili and mixed up a double batch of cornbread. When I was a kid, Ma used to win prizes with her pies and chili and such. She’s an amazing cook forced to work with a really limited set of recipes cooking for carnivores like me and Dad.
She was practically dancing around our little galley kitchen at the thought of being able to cook for someone who could eat food that didn’t previously moo or cluck.
I had to admit I was a little excited about the idea of Jack staying with us, too. With our work schedules so busy, and me moonlighting as a superhero, we hadn’t had a lot of ‘us’ time lately. When Ma went to bed, we might get a little more practice in the fine art of kissing.
So, as tired as I was, when I answered the door a few minutes later, I had a big smile on my face. That vanished when I saw who was standing there. “Brad?” It was the big, obnoxious drunken jerk who slammed me into the ambulance door last time I saw him.
“Um, hi,” he said, holding a gimme cap in his hand that said Crippen Steel Works, and wearing a sweaty Longhorns t-shirt with soot stains and a few burn holes. “It’s real nice of you and your mother to let us come stay with you like this.” He didn’t have to duck under the doorway, but he did have to turn sideways a little to come in. He wasn’t as tall as Fafnir, but he easily outweighed Fafnir’s human form.
Jack came in behind Brad with Rocky on his heels.
I was still a little stunned about Brad the Troll showing up to come live with me, but the look on Jack’s face made me just open my arms and pull him into a hug that he obviously very badly needed.
Ma turned around and smiled. “Damson, you didn’t tell me there would be two young men coming.”
“Uh, yeah, sorry Ma. I forgot Brad was staying with Jack.”
Jack pushed away from the hug, a horrified look on his face. “I didn’t think about …”
“It’s no biggie,” I told him. I’d have said anything to make him feel better right then. “I’ll just get some more blankets.”
I dug Ma’s best quilts out of the cedar chest at the foot of her bed. She calls it my “hope” chest. It’s an old custom for mothers to make things and put them in a chest. The custom is to give the chest full of homemade quilts, baby clothes, lacy linens, stuff like that, to their daughters when they get married so the daughter can use them in her new family. Since I’m nearly 64 and haven’t made it past second base with a guy, Ma’s had lots of time to make things to fill it up. I guess she still has hope for me, in any case.
The boys took turns taking showers to get the grime and soot off, and I made up a pallet on the living room floor for Brad. He was too big to fit on the couch, so Jack got that.
Ma stuffed them both full of chili and cornbread when they were cleaned up. I ate my fair share of the chili, too, and Rocky got the leftovers.
I was all kinds of nervous that Brad was going to make an ass of himself, but he was shockingly polite to Ma. He called her maam and said thank you a lot, and complimented her three times on her cooking. I realized it was probably the first time I’d seen Brad when he was sober. Apparently, he works at a steel mill with heavy, dangerous machinery that frequently slices off workers’ hands. With his invulnerability, he doesn’t have to worry about that, and his extra strength comes in handy to his employers in a shop with thousands of pounds of metal coming through every day.
I asked him if he ever considered being a superhero. He certainly had the abilities for it.
He shook his head. “I’m not really the hero type. I just couldn’t do the kinds of things y’all do all the time. I’d get scared.”
“You might rethink that, buddy,” Jack said. “Brad saved an old couple and a guy in a wheelchair from the burning apartment building.” It was weird. The words were complimentary, but Jack sounded pissed off when he said them. I filed that away in the mental “figure it out later” file.
The troll saved lives. Wow. Okay, then. Time for a different nickname, I guess. “Do people call you something besides Brad?”
Brad chuckled. “Folks call me all kinds of things, but I wouldn’t repeat most of them in polite company.”
After I saw Brad shirtless, I decided maybe I’d just stick with Troll. You could skin that man and make a rug. He had a pelt like a bear. I gave him one of my giant sleepy T’shirts to wear that fell to mid-thigh on me. He could just squeeze into it.
When everyone was settled, I thought I’d sleep like the dead, but I lay awake in my bed for a while, thinking about a lot of things. Brad, the not so terrible troll, Jack’s place burning down while we were off fighting a bigger fire, White knight’s comment about heroes only being able to be in one place at a time, the White Knight being both a dragon and a Georgian, lots of stuff.
One question pounded on my brain the hardest, even thought it was probably the least relevant to my current situation: How in the world did my warrior grandmother end up getting skinned and turned into armor?
Then I heard something odd, a soft sound somewhere underneath Brad’s chainsaw snores. My eyes and ears are a lot more sensitive than they used to be. I tilted my head to listen and it sounded like ragged breathing and a small whimper. Maybe Rocky needed to go outside and water the landscaping.
I tiptoed out of my room, carefully avoiding the sprawl of giant on my living room rug.
Rocky looked up from the folded towel in the corner that was his personal pallet, and thumped his tail on the floor a few times. Then he put his head back down with a sigh. I apparently passed inspection as a non-threat, unworthy interrupting his beauty sleep. Couldn’t blame him really. He’d had a rough day.
Speaking of rough day. My sensitive eyes that make me blind as a bat in broad daylight without special dark glasses let me see just fine in nearly pitch darkness. What my super duper dragon vision saw was Jack furtively wiping his eyes on Ma’s quilt.
Oh, Jack. No way you’re going to lay there on my couch and cry quietly alone in the dark where no one will see. Not on my watch.
Jack’s been my rock, the one person I could always count on to stay calm and sensible and even cheerful when I was about ready to walk in front of a bus, or run screaming in circles. I’d leaned on Jack so much I’d all but forgotten what it was like to stand alone when things got bad.
That road goes two ways, partner.
I didn’t want to wake up Ma or Brad. So I took Jack’s hand, pulled him gently up and guided him to my room.
He couldn’t see probably much more than a silhouette of me, just as well since I wasn’t exactly a super-model in my old Beatles T-shirt and baggy sweats. I could see him perfectly, the red around his eyes, the way his shoulders drooped.
I curled up in my twin bed with him spooned in front of me. The blanket tucked up under his chin and me plastered around him should have been uncomfortably warm, but he sank into it like I would a hot bath at the end of a long day.
I stroked his shaggy dark hair away from his face and whispered in his ear stupid, meaningless things like, “It’ll be okay.”
He barely made a sound, but my arm got wet where it curved under his neck.
“What did you lose that you can’t replace?” I asked him. I knew Jack. He wasn’t crying over losing his couch or his new TV.
“Brad saved three people. But I just want to punch him because he didn’t save my cat, Cam. He said he couldn’t find her.”
I held him tighter. I hadn’t had a pet in a lot of years. Too difficult if we needed to move suddenly. But I grew up surrounded by animals. I was one little girl whose dad really did buy her a pony. When that pony, already well on in years when I got her at 3 years old, died when I was 10, I bawled for weeks. I still tear up sometimes when I think about her.
I could tell Jack that maybe his cat made it out. I could tell him that she was in a better place, as if I knew where cats went when they died. I could tell him he could get another kitten. But in the end, I didn’t tell him anything, because none of it would have helped.
“What was she like?” I asked him.
He went from tears to laughing and back to tears a half dozen times. He told me she loved to cuddle, jumping on his lap the moment he sat down usually, even being a pest about it when he was trying to put on shoes in the morning, but she would get mad at him and refuse to cuddle if he stayed out too late. He told me she thought a freshly made bed was a perfect playground. He’d play with her with one of those fluffy things on a string that the pet stores sell. He told me she would stand on his chest and lick his chin and nose until he got up if he ignored his alarm clock. That’s why he was never late to work.
He described his tiny orange tabby with the super soft fur and the purr so quiet you could only tell by the vibrations, until I felt like I knew her.
When he finished, he finally fell asleep.
I slipped out of the bed as quietly as I could, tiptoed to the balcony, stripped off my Beatles T-shirt (no way I was letting that get shredded), tucked it in the back of my sweats, kicked off my fuzzy slippers, and jumped off the balcony. It was like 3 in the morning. No worries about anyone spotting me.
I flew to Jack’s apartment. I knew where it was, although I’d never been inside, and now I realized I never would be. I felt a pang of regret that I’d never seen what his place was like, never learned that little bit more about him.
I soared over the area, super duper dragon eyes watching like a hawk trying to spot a mouse in a wheatfield. After an hour or two, when the sun was just starting to mess up my night vision and make me worry about getting spotted, I saw what I’d hoped I might see: A tiny, orange striped cat with soot-smeared fur scrounging furtively through the contents of a spilled garbage can four blocks from Jack’s apartment building.
Cats are smarter than people give them credit for. I figured, if all the people got out, probably the cat made it out, too. But all the noise, the fire trucks, and the people and dogs wandering around would have been pretty scary to a cat not used to spending much time outdoors.
When I picked her up, she cuddled up in my arms and purred so soft I could barely hear it. Even though I’d never seen her before, I knew, without a doubt, I had the right cat.
I’ve never felt more like a superhero than when Jack got woken up later that evening when it was time to get ready for our next shift by his cat licking his nose and chin.