It was 1993, August, and Jordan Arnaz wouldn’t be more excited than if he could fly. The eleven-year-old was presently stuck on an old school bus. One so old that it could go without seatbelts or the authority to care about such things. It smelled of a kind of cheese to Jordan that he could not place. They had been on the bus for almost two hours now, and all manner of talking points and tired old car games had been worn dry. Instead, he clung to one of his prized possessions, a graphic novel.
There were tears in his eyes, though he was not crying as much. Just moved, even though he had read through this story a million times before. It was a collection of his favorite comic series, brought together in a graphic novel adaptation. Superhero nonsense, his best friend TJ had called it. Jordan would be just as quick to call TJ’s obsession with football boring and unimaginative.
This would prompt a hearty laugh from Frank, if he was paying attention, Mia pointing out that Jordan had been quite good at football himself. Mia often liked to play the devil’s advocate in his and TJ’s arguments, Frank usually busying himself with a book or a paper.
“Well of course I’m good at football. I’ve been playing soccer since forever! They’re not that different, why do you think it’s called football all over the rest of the world!”
TJ gave him a strange look. “That’s not why it’s called football, moron.”
“Oh yeah, and why is that?”
“It’s because we haven’t shown the rest of the world what real football is!”
Mia would chime in as usual. “Isn’t the real reason because we use the whatever system and they’re metric?”
“Why do they use metric? They should just be like us. Make things simpler.” TJ crossed his arms, nodding.
Jordan shook his head. “That doesn’t work. You can’t make people change. If they want to be wrong, let them.”
Frank then signed something. TJ was no good at sign language, Mia was fairly good with it, Jordan was the best. Especially Frank’s sign language, given that the two had known each other most of their lives. Frank had been born deaf and so had to compensate. At least that’s what Jordan had been told by his parents. Jordan wondered if he didn’t lose his hearing in those alien attacks, back in the 80s.
“Frank says, soccer is football in the rest of the world because it came first. We didn’t start practicing soccer as a serious sport until, something about dates, one second.” Jordan clapped at Frank, the motion getting his attention. “Slow down man, we don’t need the whole history of the thing. Anyways, Frank says soccer came first, football got made later. ‘Cept here.”
“Frank says this, Frank says that. Yeah, yeah, whatever. You’re still a geek, Jordan.” TJ had opened some chips, sneaking them out of sight of their supervising teacher.
Jordan smiled, deciding to continue reading. It was the Death of Superman. A storyline about the far future human, Superman. A hero was sent back to the past by his parents on the eve of the Earth’s destruction, and how he died living up to his own ideal. Jordan had a soft spot for tragic hero stories, stories where heroes gave their all, their very lives, in the name of their cause.
John Henry was a personal favorite tall tale of his. It was a big reason he liked Short Circuit 2 more than the original. Of course, it was an event that could be found often in comics, which he devoured as many eleven-year-olds would. One thing that always hung up Jordan was Superman’s origins. Supposedly, according to Frank who was almost never wrong on things like this, he was originally planned to be an alien and may have been in the early days. Only then the real alien attacks happened in the 1950s, and the idea of the greatest hero being like them, well. That just didn’t work anymore. Definitely not since the far worse attacks in the 80s.
Jordan at times entertained the fantasy of being an alien himself. Left on Earth for his mom to find, with some hidden power yet unseen. Maybe not with a grand destiny, but a purpose. A reason to exist. Jordan wanted, above all else, to be a hero. Being of otherworldly origin would be a first step to that, he believed. Would make him unique, separate of his peers.
He wished he could remember the last major alien attack, the subject of their field trip today in-fact. They were going to Houston, one of many cities that had come under the plague of the Megulon Swarm. They had come from the stars, little more than rabid animals seeking food and a place to procreate, as Jordan had heard it explained time and time again. He had been alive at the time, as it was only 1984 when it had happened and wrapped up in 1985, but he had only been two.
At times, he liked to think that his father’s death was also caused by those monsters. Yet he knew the truth there, as mundane as it was tragic. His father, never having gotten the chance to marry his mom, died in a car wreck three weeks before she even knew she was pregnant. Any time Jordan asked about his father, whom he apparently took after in his features and eyes, his mom would just smile and say that he was a man in search of a purpose. Jordan was never really sure what she meant by that.
Maybe he could have been some great hero, in another life. Jordan wouldn’t be the one to ask. He settled in next to TJ, who had immersed himself in a comic of his own, the hypocrite. Looking around, he found Mia chatting with one of the twins that were in their grade, he wasn’t sure which, and then he saw Frank ahead of him. Frank was watching out the window, letting the scenery go past. Beside him, oblivious to it, was a slightly older boy, maybe 13 or 14. Which, at their age, might as well have been an adult for the size difference.
Jordan had to strain to hear him over the various noises of the crowd, but the older boy was talking animatedly with one of his friends.
“You see this spaz next to me throwing his hands around? What a joke!” His friend got a laugh out of that, the older boy grinning. “Bet he made it up himself too, some kind of stupid imaginary bullshit.”
TJ wasn’t fast enough to catch Jordan, who stormed into the walkway of the bus. He gripped the seats to keep balanced, glaring down at the larger teen.
“Don’t talk about him behind his back like that!”
The teen stared at up him, incredulous. “Seriously kid? Go sit back down before you get hurt.”
“You want to say something about Frank, you say it to his face. You say it to my face.”
The teen stood, standing a full head taller than Jordan, nearly twice as wide. Jordan’s glare did not lessen in severity. “Look, dipshit, you can take that attitude of yours back to kindergarten where you belong. If I’m going to talk shit about some retard, you ain’t going to be the one to stop me.”
Jordan’s hand balled into a fist, muscles tensing. He felt no otherworldly powers, no inhuman strength swell. That was fine.
“What are you two doing!”
Their supervisor. A teacher in Jordan’s grade, though not one he had personally. The teen quickly changed seats, no longer looking or apparently feeling quite as big as he had. Jordan stood his ground, though his gaze had softened.
“That kid was making fun of Frank for being deaf. I was telling him to knock it off.”
Frank’s attention had been gotten by this point, Jordan realized. Almost everyone’s had. The usual chatter of the bus had changed to murmurs. The supervisor, Mr. Alden, shook his head.
“While it’s a very brave thing to do, to stand up for your friends, next time get an adult. All you were going to do would have been to get yourself hurt.” Mr. Alden turned his attention towards the teen. “We’ll talk after the bus stops, Mr. Chambers.”
Jordan took his seat, now next to Frank. Jordan glowered at the seat in front of him, knowing that what he did was the right thing. Standing up to what’s wrong must be, by default, the right thing. If he had taken the time to get a teacher, what would have changed? Then he felt his sleeve being tugged, Jordan turning to see Frank trying to get his attention.
“No, Frank, it isn’t fine if they say things behind your back.” The young man was signing at Jordan faster than Jordan could read. “Maybe I could have taken him in a fight, maybe not. That’s not what matters.” Frank stopped signing for a moment, before signing one thing. “Anytime, Frank. You’re my best friend.”
“What about me you hot head!” TJ’s voice carried from the next seat over.
“Glad to be so loved back here,” came Mia’s sing song voice.
Jordan laughed, the anger and frustration bleeding away quickly. Very soon the almost a teenager was forgotten as ribbing and joking around won out. Seats were traded, comics were read, and insults were shared.
Wherever Jordan went, his three best friends followed, and vice versa. Jordan knew, could feel it in his bones, that it would last a lifetime.
At the same time, but in a very different place, Rick Damon felt he had almost no one in his life worth anything to him. Far from the cozy if not cramped interior of a school bus, Rick was hiding out in the ghettos of New York City. At 14-years-old, he was almost at his most awkward phase of having a good start on his height, without any of the mass to back it up. A fact that his old man reminded him of daily, pushing him around and calling him names.
Well, it had been daily. Rick had run away a week or so ago, unable to put up with his old man’s bullshit any longer. Wasn’t the first time, either. His mamma wasn’t any better, bitter about her place in life and willing to lash out at whoever caught her eye the moment the mood struck her to. Wasn’t his fucking fault that they got stuck with him as teenagers, that his piss-poor fat ass dad broke his knee on some job and ended up disabled.
Well fuck them and their bullshit. He had been hanging out at a mechanic workshop for the last three days, and that was going fine. He had lied about his age to the tune of four years, but the guy running the place couldn’t officially hire him either way. So mostly he worked for a hot meal and a place to sleep. He didn’t expect the police to be out looking for him so soon.
He wasn’t too worried about them though. The people that lived in this part of town were either in some gang or scared to death to be seen talking to cops by one of those gangs. So, when Sargent O’Hara or whatever came swinging his billy club, no one was gonna go tongue wagging. If he stayed out of sight, he was golden. All the same, Rick hated it here.
Those very same gangs were full of meth head wastes who wanted nothing more than to snatch up teens like him and drag them into their shitty groups. More goon workforce for the goon society that was daily life in New York City. Maybe it had been on the rise to improving itself a decade ago, but after the bug hunt things got real bad real quick.
Jordan Arnaz may have been enamored with taking a visit to a city that had been attacked. Not Rick. He lived in one, had all his life. He could dimly remember the monsters, giant multi limbed horrors with gnashing jaws and horrible compound eyes. Whatever name they’d been given, he didn’t really give a damn. The damage had been so widespread, so severe, that a lot of the surface stuff hadn’t been touched yet.
Rick was distinctly aware of this as he ducked into a crevice one of the bugs had carved into the side of a building. The light of the police car went by, missing him easy enough. They weren’t looking all that hard, he knew that for a fact. Just doing enough to say they did. Who cares if one 14-year-old fuck went missing? Just one less problem to deal with later far as they were concerned.
Bullet holes scarred the pavement and stonework of the city, almost as much as the markings of the monsters themselves. The Supreme United Nations, reformed from the useless original United Nations back in the 50s when the xeno-bastards started showing up, spent months trying to clear up all the mess. Body count was in the millions, civilian and military. There were rumors that one or two batches had survived, were roaming around but who really gave a shit at this point? Not Rick.
Only other thing he had to look forward to besides falling in with a bunch of druggie assholes was sticking with this dead-end mechanic bullshit. Not exactly the most appealing life choices. Be a jerk off or be a man that is paid to jerk other people off. What a fucking life.
“What’s a rat like you, hiding in a hole like this?”
Rick’s entire body seized up. Looking back, he found the owner of the voice. Lean, leather and chains, and a half-shaved head, it was Rog. Short for Roger no doubt, one of those wastes of space. Rog was looking at him like a dog that had eyed a rancid steak. Sure, that dog is gonna eat the stake no matter what, but that don’t mean the dog is going to like it.
“Trying to get away from your ma, shithead.” Rick didn’t take kindly to the idea of getting eaten, either.
“Far as I heard, it was your own that you got away from. Ran so far away, only to end up in the heap all the same. You going to be a loser like your old man too, Ricky?” Rog stepped aside, revealing more people with him.
There were always more with him. “Or you want to join a real family? Family that’ll watch out for you. My brothers here, they’ve always got my back. Just in case we run across any rabid animals.”
A chorus of laughter.
“Glad to see the pussy patrol is well stocked.” Rick was never the smartest person in the world, he knew that better than most. Pushing things like this, he felt, may have been his dumbest idea. “Sure, I see why, would have made you real sore, being the only one getting fucked!”
The first blow came at the back of his knees, driving him into the asphalt below. Pain exploded across his body as two more heavy blows rained down on his back, forcing him onto all fours. Rog’s voice followed.
“Listen, kid. Here’s the thing about animals. You have wild animals, those little shits that think they know a thing or two about how the world works. From there, you either get domesticated, where you’re brought into a fold and raised up right. Or you get rabid, where in the good shepherd,” he brought his foot up into Rick’s face, sending the teen falling backwards. “Has to put the poor thing down. I’m giving you six hours to decide where you fall, Damon.”
Rick clutched his bleeding nose, feeling one of his teeth crack from the blow. “Fuck you, asshole.”
“Say that again in six hours, Ricky. We’ll see what happens then.” Rog motioned to his group, the ones that had come up behind Rick now visible to him.
They moved away, back into the gutters like the trash they were. Rick’s head was killing him, and he wasn’t sure if the blood was slowing any. Six hours, was it? Maybe he could still find that police car.
No. That wouldn’t end any better.
There was an old arcade. He could hide out there, it was closed. Had been for years. Maybe he could avoid them long enough, they’d lose interest.
He would have punched the ground if he felt like it’d do anything but hurt himself. Damn it all, was this really all he was worth? Didn’t he have a greater purpose in this life than to be an accident and then get shit on for the rest of his existence?
Rick dragged himself to his feet, tearing some of his shirt to use as a rag on his nose. He hated this place. He hated all of this.
What he would give to have it all blown away.