AFAR
By Josef Koelbl III
The Hero stood in the shadows of the roof staring at the tiny apartment across the street as he did every night. The girl had not come home yet but it was still early enough and he was not concerned. He scanned the street below once more.
He saw her then in the distance carrying a small bag. She had stopped at the market and his eyes followed her as she made her way down the dark street, lighted only sporadically by the weak glow of the streetlamps.
The Hero thought himself foolish; he had only met the girl once. The Freakshow had attacked the office building where she worked and had taken her and several others hostage. Of course he had rescued them all, but he was somehow affected when she had thanked him.
She was not beautiful but she was pretty, her hair the same flaming color as the fire that flowed from his eyes. And she smelled so…well, so clean. Or perhaps pure. Either way he was taken by the young girl. So much so that he waited for her to leave the building after talking to the police and followed her home, from Steel Canyon to Kings Row, just to make sure she got home safely he told himself.
Then began his daily ritual. As night fell he would stand here on this building, all night, watching over her. He learned more about her as time passed. Her parents had been killed in the war. She was eighteen then. She put herself through school and got a job at a big firm in Steel Canyon. She took this small apartment here in Kings Row because it was what she could afford. The girl had an Aunt that lived far upstate whom she would visit over the holidays and the Aunt would come and stay with her for a week in the summer. And the girl had taken in a scrawny little kitten which had turned into a big fat cat.
The cat disturbed him the most. At night, while he was watching, it would climb onto the windowsill and stare out. The Hero could swear that the cat was looking directly at him. And then it would turn away realizing either that he had no food or wasn’t interesting enough to hold it’s attention.
His gaze followed her as she walked down the street, tensing momentarily as she passed a group of Skulls that had gathered on the sidewalk. But she passed without incident and entered her building stopping to get her mail from the box.
The Hero saw her appear on the third floor, walking down the hall. There were three windows in all: one in the hall leading to her apartment, one that showed her tiny kitchen and living area and one that looked into her bedroom. She opened her door and entered her sparse apartment and turned on the light.
She put her shopping away then sat at the kitchen table to go through the mail. The cat sat on the table staring at her intently, tail slowly swishing back and forth. When she had finished her task she stood and fed the cat and made her way to her bedroom to change from her work clothes.
The Hero looked away. He was not here for that, only to protect this girl. This…good girl. He knew he would never speak to her. What did he have to offer her he thought? The mystics had taken him when Ancient Greece was new, gave him this power and bent him to their will. He performed their evil without thought or question. It had been less than 50 years since he finally escaped their thrall. He had tried to do some good to make up for the past but he felt he could never balance the scale. And although he looked the same age as the girl, by his calculation he was at least 3500 years old, give or take a century and a half or two.
From the corner of his eye he saw the light go out in her bedroom and turned back to watch again. He froze. The Skulls that the girl had passed on the street had appeared in the hallway at her door. Before he could move they burst into her apartment. He could see the look of surprise and fear on her face; the round O of her mouth as she screamed.
He launched himself from the rooftop and crashed through her window not a second later, glass scattering before him. The girl fell to the ground on his left. The Hero turned right facing three Skulls and sent a ball of fire at them. They fell backwards from the force, crashing into the small kitchen, upending the chairs and knocking over the table which landed on top of them.
Another thug rushed at him. The Hero grabbed the Skull’s left arm, spinning him about, then flinging him with all his considerable might at another goon standing near the wall. They smashed into each other and the large potted plant and the end table it rested on. Both sank to the floor unconscious.
The Hero spun about and sent a blaze of fire at the Skull trying to rush up behind him. Engulfed in flame the Skull stumbled backward, tripped and fell out the shattered window, his scream ending abruptly as hit the street with a satisfying thump.
Six hoods in as many seconds the Hero thought as he turned back to the remaining gangsters. A Skull, the leader of the group, had the girl, his arm around her throat and his gun pressing against her. Flame leapt from the Hero’s fingers but fell far short of the criminal.
“Missed, Fool.” The Skull sneered as though victory was already won. His three remaining comrades laughed with him but stopped suddenly as they saw the expression on their leader’s face change.
The sneer became a look of confusion and then one of pain as the hoodlum dropped the gun in agony. The fire the Hero sent at him was not meant for the Skull but for the weapon, turning the cold steel of the gun into molten lead.
When the thug let go of the gun, the cat, who had been watching the events from it’s perch atop the television, jumped up onto the Skull’s shoulder and swatted at his face. Four deep claw marks appeared deep in the hooligan’s cheek. The cat bounded away as the former gunman yelled in shock and pain.
The Hero crossed the distance to him in one step grabbing the girl with his left hand and yanking her from the hood’s grasp. When the Skull looked up the view of the girl’s apartment was blocked by the oncoming fist of the Hero. It sank deep into his face breaking nose and cheek and jaw and teeth. The gang leader dropped like a stone.
Still holding the girl by the wrist, the Hero looked hard at the remaining three Skulls. He said slowly, softly, calmly, “This will not end well for you.” The three fell over themselves fleeing the apartment.
The Hero turned to the girl and finally released his grasp. Now that it was over the girl shook with relief as her fear and shock subsided. “Are you alright?”, he asked hoping the concern he felt was not evident in his voice.

“Yes, yes, I’m fine. I just can’t believe that…”, her voice trailed off as she at last took a good look at her rescuer. “Oh my gosh! It’s you!”
The Hero grasped for words. Did she know? Or even suspect? “Yes…well…I…”
“It’s a good thing you were passing by! There’s no telling what could have happened.”
“Yes…yes…”, the relief almost gave the Hero away. “Yes, I was passing by and saw them from the…um…sky…yes.”
The girl smiled a brilliant smile. The Hero could barely bring himself to look for fear that smile would pull the truth from him. He gazed about the apartment remembering the unconscious Skulls for the first time. He looked back at the girl. “Just give me one second.”, he said as he pulled a communicator from his belt. He made two calls and then returned his attention to her.

She was looking around her tiny home, a frown on her face. The Hero saw the damage, the furniture upended, the broken glass. The Skulls that laid about began to fade away as they were teleported to the local precinct.

“That should take care of them.”, he said.
The girl turned to him. “I don’t have to talk to the police?”
“No, I took care of it.” The Hero smiled. “And someone should be here within the hour to fix the door and window.”
“Really? Oh that’s great!”, the girl exclaimed with another brilliant smile.
The Hero surveyed the scene again and bent to pick up the potted plant which had somehow survived the ordeal. The table it rested on, however, was beyond repair.
“I’m sorry about all the damage.”, he said as he handed the plant to the girl.
“Oh, don’t worry about that. I can clean that up, no problem.”
He nodded and felt something at his feet. The cat was rubbing itself on his legs. “Oh, Mr. Pufferton likes you.”, the girl laughed.
“Mr…Pufferton.”, the Hero said. With a yowl the cat leapt up. The Hero caught the cat and cradled it awkwardly in his arms. He smiled at the girl then looked directly into the loudly purring cat’s eyes.
He could swear he heard a voice in the back of his head. “I know you. You watch/protect the food/girl. I see and I remember.” The cat squirmed in his arms and jumped free.
The Hero followed the cat with his eyes. There was more here than met the eye he thought. He shook himself and looked once more at the girl. She was picking up the glass on the floor. He wanted to stop and help her but he knew he had to remain aloof and distant.
“Look, I really should be…”, he took a step towards the window.
The girl smiled and followed. “Yes I know. You’ve got other people to save!”
The Hero smiled back. “Well if I’m lucky.”
He was almost to the window when the girl called out to him. “Hey! Wait a minute!”
He stopped in mid-stride and turned towards her. She rushed up to him and put her hands on his shoulders. She rose up onto her toes and kissed his cheek. “Thank you for saving me…again.”, she said simply.
The Hero resisted gathering her in his arms. It took almost all his strength and he grinned a lopsided grin.
“It was my pleasure.”. He flew slowly from the window then paused and turned to her again. Then he was off, flying over the buildings. She waved until he was out of sight.
The Hero flew until she turned back into her apartment. Then he flew low over the streets until he returned to his spot in the shadows, staring into the tiny apartment across the street. He watched as she cleaned up and saw the repairman come to fix her door and window.
He watched as she turned on the television, the cat curled in her lap.
He watched as she turned out her light and went to sleep.
Protected by the Hero
Watched from a distance.
Loved from afar.
Alone.



FIN
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