HEART
By Josef Koelbl III



"Son, being a man means always doing things you don’t want to do."

Johnny smiled as he walked in the twilight down the sidewalk in Kings Row. His father had seen life from the negative end of the spectrum. The glass was always half empty, the other shoe was always about to drop and that dark cloud up there didn’t have a silver lining, it was just full of rain. Johnny expected to pick up a dictionary one day and see his father’s face under the definition for pessimist.

"Doing things you don’t want to do."

He shook his head. Dad was right about that. Case in point: tonight. Sally wanted to go, so here he was on his way to a double feature. Tearfest, the theatre was calling it. Two movies guaranteed to make you cry. Some film with Christian Slater and Marissa Tomei and another with Julia Roberts falling in love with some dying guy. He sighed. "Stuff you don’t want to do," his Dad’s voice echoed in his ears.

From the corner of his eye he saw a figure clad in a brilliant green swoop down and hover just above the street. Johnny turned towards what he now recognized as one of the city’s innumerable superheroes and watched as she glided just above the ground, looking intently into the alleys. Seeing nothing of import the super being soared back into the sky leaving Johnny staring after her shaking his head.

"Superheroes," he thought, practically spitting out the word. He hated them. It was their fault things were the way they were. Crime, super villains, fighting in the street without a care as to who was in the way or who got hurt. The Rikti Invasion was probably their fault too. If there hadn’t been so many heroes here to begin with maybe the Rikti would have attacked somewhere else. And maybe his dad wouldn’t have…

"Citizen Heroes," Statesman had called them, talking about the ordinary people who took to the streets to fight for their city, their neighborhoods, against the invaders. Johnny’s father had been one of them. He remembered the look on his mother’s face as Dad kissed her goodbye. And then Dad turned to him and said, "I love you, John. One day you’ll understand." He hugged him and that was the last time he saw his father.

The funeral was a blur. That big woman Valkyrie and that fellow Synapse had attended. They said some nice things but Johnny had hardly looked at them, too blind with grief and anger. He kept his mouth shut for his mother’s sake but he wanted to scream at them "Your fault! All of it!" but he stuffed his hands in his pockets and kept his head low.

Then the call went out inviting the superheroes to Paragon City. "Help us rebuild," they said. "We need you," they said. Johnny shook his head. "Now look what we have." Gangs like the Skulls and Hellions running wild, their membership swelling by the hour, insane doctors chopping people apart, helped by their zombie friends, crazed magicians, the green glow of their magics behind every corner and on top of every rooftop, and the incessant chattering of living machines over every fence.

This is what the heroes brought us. He walked with a frown etched on his face. If they left us alone maybe these…things would just go away. "Superheroes," he thought, "we don’t need ’em and I don’t want ’em."

He rounded the corner and his mood lifted a bit. He saw her there waiting for him on the steps of her building. Sally looked great, like she always did, at least to him. He knew he was hooked from the moment he first saw her. They had both been running down the street, away from another "Superhero Episode" when she had tripped and fell in front of him. Johnny stopped, helped her up, looked into her hazel eyes and was done for. They had been together ever since. "Hooked," he smiled to himself.

He saw her wave when she spotted him coming down the sidewalk. She wore the pink sweater with the huge turtleneck he had given her for Christmas last year. With the pink and gray plaid skirt and tan jacket and calf high boots she looked "Too good for someone like me," Johnny thought with a smile, the memory of his father swirling around him.

Sally greeted him with a brilliant smile. "Hey," she said as she hugged him and kissed him lightly, "are you ready to go?"

"Ready as I’ll ever be," he sighed, resigned now to his fate. She gripped his arm as they walked down the darkening street. The theatre was only two blocks from her little apartment and it took them only a few moments to reach it.

She shook her head and grinned crookedly. "Well, you just try to look interested and eat your popcorn."

"I shall do my best," he said with a smile. He paid for the tickets and they entered the old movie house.



Four hours or so later they emerged from the building with the few others who had attended Tearfest. Sally was still dabbing her eyes with a tissue. Johnny smiled down at her. "Well, looks like you…enjoyed your cry."

"Don’t be smart," she said with a sniffle. "I saw you tearing up a couple of times," she smiled.

"Trick of the light," he told her, staring straight ahead.

"In a dark movie theatre. Riiight." Sally saw him smile in response.

Suddenly the sidewalk in front of them exploded, tossing them back and covering them with dust and shards of concrete. Johnny rubbed his eyes as he scrambled to his feet. "Sally! Sally!," he cried as he frantically searched for his girl. He saw her not ten feet away on her hands and knees shaking her head, trying to clear her mind but only succeeding in shaking the white concrete dust of the broken sidewalk from her hair .


Johnny turned and saw the shallow crater in front of him. A furrow lead away from it and about thirty yards distant at it’s end he saw a man wearing a familiar red and blue costume. The figure lay at the end of the trench moving slowly but obviously dazed.

Then a dark form landed in front of the hero, what was left of the sidewalk cracking under it’s heavy, black boots. He was at least seven feet tall and clothed all in black leather, a cloak swirling about him. His head was covered by a scared horned helmet as black as any night had ever been. His eyes glowed a violent red and were intent on the helpless hero.

"So, Statesman," the dark villain rasped, his voice deep with menace, "our dance comes to an end. Your life is over and this city will belong…"

CLANG!!!!

The villain’s head lurched to his left. Stunned, he yelled out, "What?!?" and turned quickly to face his attacker. The lead pipe in Johnny’s hands was already swinging back to strike the villain again. With no effort at all, the villain snatched the pipe away.

"You dare!", the villain asked incredulously. "Insignificant flea! Now, you die!"

Johnny stood before the black-clad villain, his hands clenched into fists and his teeth gritted together so tightly he feared they would crack. Suddenly a red gloved hand grabbed the villain by the shoulder and spun him around.

"Not today," Statesman growled and struck the villain with a powerful uppercut catching him directly under the chin. The force of the blow lifted the villain from the ground and sent him sailing through the air. He careened off one building and into another before finally crashing to the ground. He tried to push himself up but his arms gave way and he lay there unconscious, covered by falling bricks and mortar.

"Johnny! Johnny!", Sally cried as she ran to him. She practically launched herself into his arms, hugging him so tightly he thought his neck might break. Finally she pushed away from him and, holding him at arms length, her eyes wide with fear, asked, "Are you all right?"

Johnny nodded and said, "You tore your sweater."

Sally looked at the hole torn by the rough shards of concrete. She smiled up at Johnny. "You’ll just have to buy me another one."

Suddenly a shadow appeared over them and they turned to look up into the face of Paragon City’s protector. "Well, er…Johnny," he said, for he had heard the girl call his name, "I think you might’ve just saved my life."

Johnny looked up into what he would later recall as probably the…kindest eyes he had ever seen. He shook his head and said in a quivering voice, "I was so scared."

Statesman smiled at the young man and reached out to put a hand on his shoulder. "Sometimes, son, sometimes a hero doesn’t have strength or even bravery. Sometimes a hero only has heart." He gave Johnny’s shoulder a light squeeze and then began to hover in front of the young couple. With a small salute he zoomed up over the buildings of Kings Row and off into the sky over Paragon City.

Johnny and Sally stood in the middle of the broken sidewalk watching as the city’s greatest hero faded from view. They stared for several more moments at the spot where he had finally disappeared. Several seconds passed and Sally said in a hushed voice, "That was Statesman."

"Yeah," Johnny whispered.

They stood in silence for a few more moments.

"Wow," she said.

"Yeah."

The sound of a commotion behind them broke them from their reverie. They saw the police taking the black clad villain into custody. Already the vans from the city’s television stations were arriving and they saw the flash of cameras wielded by the newspaper photographers. Sally and Johnny looked at each other and, wordlessly, left the scene of the battle, walking slowly down the sporadically lighted empty sidewalk, their arms entwined.

When they reached Sally’s apartment she went to make some coffee and Johnny sat on the sofa, staring at the room and seeing nothing. The little stray yappy dog that Sally had taken in bounded up onto the sofa. Normally the little animal would be yipping and barking at him but now it silently regarded him with a raised doggy eyebrow. Then it laid down beside him, resting its furry little head on Johnny’s thigh. Johnny absentmindedly scratched the little fellow behind it’s ears, still staring at nothing.

Sally came into the room holding two mugs and sat next to Johnny. She handed one to him and watched as he held it in a trembling hand, shaking so fiercely she was afraid the steaming coffee would spill. He sat motionless, still staring into the room and scratching the little dog’s head. At last she sighed and, taking the mug from him, placed it on the small coffee table. Sally looked at Johnny with a sidelong glance and shaking her head asked, "What were you thinking?"

He looked at her and smiled sheepishly, shaking his head in confusion. "I have absolutely no idea," he said with a short laugh. "I guess…I guess it was just the right thing to do."

As soon as those words were out of his mouth he felt his father’s presence filling the room and finally he understood what his father had tried to teach him that day. He heard Dad’s voice in his ear.

"Being a man means doing things you don’t want to do, but you do them anyway because they need to be done. They’re the right thing to do. And the right thing to do is usually the hardest and may end up costing you the most."

He knew now why his Dad went to fight the Rikti that day. Why the heroes fight their battles. Why he did what he did tonight.

It was the right thing to do.

Heart.

Johnny smiled broadly and put his arm around his girl, feeling more at peace with himself than he had in a long time. Sally looked at him with a squinted eye. She knew at that moment something had changed within him and she grinned. Johnny pulled her closer and before her soft lips met his Sally whispered,

"My hero."

The End
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