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Excerpt: 'Hero'

From Chapter 34:

I knew it must have been important when Uberman asked me to meet him on top of the observation deck of the Wilson Memorial. I hadn't been there since we saved the world.

"It's good to see you, Thom." Uberman flashed me a half-smile. I hadn't seen him smile since before the news coverage of the heroes' possession at the hands of one of their own, and the death and destruction they had unwittingly caused. Their names had been cleared ultimately, but their bravado had eroded along with the world's confidence in them. After she recovered from her injuries, Warrior Woman had returned to her island and vowed never to visit Man's world again.

I'd ridden a wind current down to the observation deck and spotted Uberman sitting on the ledge with his legs dangling off the side. He stared off in the distance, his mind somewhere else. It was strange to see him slouch.

"I have something to ask," he said. He kept his eyes on his hands, folded in his lap, and he picked at dead skin around the nails. "It hasn't been easy ever since, well, you know. I don't think people have much faith in us anymore."

His muscles had grown noticeably softer in the stomach and around his neck. He wiped a greasy streak of blond hair from his forehead.

"What I'm getting at is we really need you, Thom. People know what you did, what your father did, and well, you'd really help us out here if we could add you to our permanent roster. Now that you're A-level."

His nose started to drip. Jeez, what a mess. I pulled a tissue out my pocket and handed it to him. He blew his nose, loud as a foghorn, and tossed the wadded tissue off the side of the building. A draft caught the tissue and carried it up. Uberman incinerated it with a weak blast of heat vision.

"Can't be seen littering," he said.

I thought about what he was asking, what it really meant. There was a time when all I dreamed of was an offer to join the League, when all I wanted was for the world to think I was special.

But everything had changed, and I was becoming more and more of who I really was, and less of this person I had thought I wanted to be.

"I can't join permanently." I tried to let him down easy. "I have plans, commitments."

He slumped even more and sighed.

"But I'd be honored to be included as a permanent reserve member."

He perked up, even smiled a little. They could use this with the public, with the media. And while I was in good standing I was happy to let them use me. But I didn't delude myself that it would last. Wheel of fortune, round and round and all that. The trick for me was to keep it in perspective, to know in my heart what was really important. I had my eyes fixed on new things. There was so much to do.

Then I raised my index finger and told him, "On one condition."

The doorbell rang as I carried the last box downstairs. I'd been packing all through the night, and I was glad that it was almost finished. I opened the door and Scarlett handed me a cup of green tea and a bag of fast-food breakfast. She walked in, grabbed the bag back, and pulled out an Egg McMuffin.

"Look at you," I said and pointed at her new costume.

"Hell," she said, chewing with her mouth open, "this is nothing, you oughta see the benefits."

New uniforms were part of the League's revamped image and Scarlett looked great in clean threads that fit her. They'd even arranged for a celebrity hairstylist to come in and give freebies to the new members. Scarlett had been reluctant to let the stylist see under her wig, but to her pleasant surprise, her hair had started to grow back.

"I'm curly now, who knew?" She pulled a layered piece over her ear.

She wore an oversized League jacket over her costume, though. Some things never changed.

"Why don't you take your coat off," I said. "Stay a while."

"Can't," she said. "I've got practice."

"So what'd I miss?" I asked.

I'd been out of commission for over a month while I was recovering in the hospital from having strained my powers so much. Patching up the tower, healing Scarlett, Golden Boy, and Dark Hero had taken a real toll on my system. The final straw that broke my back, though, was putting Larry back together after Golden Boy had raced around to find all his pieces.

One day when Golden Boy came by, I had gathered up my courage to ask him something that had been on my mind. "Did you find anything else when you were looking for Larry?"

"What do you mean?" Golden Boy asked. "Like what?"

"Like maybe . . . anyone?" I was reaching, and he knew it. "Like my mom." I finally admitted.

Golden Boy shook his head. "I'm sorry, Thom."

A body is very difficult to recover when it's invisible. Or atomized. I know my father would never have stopped looking for her, but she's been gone from my life for so long with so many unanswered questions, I've accepted that I simply may never know. She may be gone forever, or one day I'll smell a hint of gardenia and maybe it will be her.

"I don't know about what you missed," Scarlett said. "But I'll tell you what I missed." Scarlett reached into the bag and pulled out a hash brown and stuffed it in her mouth. "My period."

"You're kidding."

"The doctors said my remission is nothing short of a miracle. But this . . . if it's true, I can't wait to see the look on their faces."

I sipped on my tea and thought about how I had hugged Scarlett so tightly that day, the way she let my warmth envelop her.

"I never thought I'd have another chance at life," she said. She reached for my hand and squeezed it tight. "Thank you," she said in a quiet, throaty voice.

"I've got to go." Scarlett glanced at her watch. "Golden Boy said if I'm late for practice I'll get demerits, no exceptions, especially for his girlfriend. Can you believe him? He's such a tight-ass." Scarlett threw her empty wrappers in the bag and balled it up. She stood to leave.

"By the way, if I really am late, you're the godfather."

I watched Scarlett heat up and lift off of the driveway. I called out to her in the sky.

"So what would you name my godchild?"

"Someone once told me I'd have a girl. I thought she was full of shit at the time."

She flashed me a proud grin over her shoulder and shouted back in midair.

"I'd name her Ruth."

"Do you think she could really be pregnant?" I asked Goran.

"I don't know," he said. "Anything's possible."

I'd learned that much was true.

Goran reached into the cooler and dug through the ice. He fished out a Pabst Blue Ribbon and tossed it to me. I felt the can and it wasn't very cold.

"How about a cold one?" I said. Without thinking I shook the tepid can and tossed it back in the cooler. I wished Dad had been there to open it, to spray it everywhere.

Goran shoved a deviled egg in my mouth and shut me up. He made great deviled eggs. I watched him dig down deeper into the cooler. His jersey traveled up his back and revealed the very top of his butt, firmly muscled and peeking out from his jeans.

"Keep looking." I leaned back on top of the picnic table to bask in the warm sun and enjoy the view.

He reached behind the cooler into his backpack and tossed something at me. I put my hand in front of my face and grabbed it. Goran could really throw and whatever it was had edges.

I looked in my hand and saw that I'd caught a carefully wrapped gift. It had been Goran's idea to stop for a picnic lunch on the way out to visit Dad's memorial site. He prepared all the food, and even bought flowers for the monument.

It had been my idea to have the picnic in the parks by the railroad tracks where my dad used to take me to watch the trains when I was a boy. I wanted Goran to know everything about my dad.

"Go on," Goran said. "Open it."

I tore the paper open and found a simple box. I lifted the top and couldn't believe what I saw inside.

Goran smiled at me.

I pulled my father's mask out of the box and held it in my hands.

"You'll carry on his legacy," Goran said.

I carefully set the gift down, hopped off the picnic table, walked over to him, and placed my hands on his face. I had to make sure he was really there. With one palm over his forehead and the other palm over his nose and mouth, I looked into those deep, dark pupils and saw the way he used to look at me when he was Dark Hero, when I didn't know. Goran took my hand off his mouth and held it. He raised it to his mouth, placed his warm lips in the middle of my palm and kissed it. Everything I love about Goran was in that kiss. Equal parts soft and strong, tender and scary. Infinite.

I heard the whistle of a train as it approached the crossing. I reached my arms around Goran, pulled him in, and our lips met.

It felt like flying.

Excerpted from Hero by Perry Moore. Copyright © 2007 by Perry Moore. Excerpted by permission of Hyperion. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Perry Moore
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