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The thunder crack of the sonic boom echoed in the halls of the Reinhart home.  It was immediately followed by a shockwave that shook the walls and blew out the front windows.

Charles was expecting it from the moment he saw Colonel Courageous fly off on the television.  He was standing at the door when the windows shattered.

“Gary.” Charles said as he opened the door for the Colonel.

“Charles.”

Dirt, dust, and leaves trailed in behind the Colonel as he entered the home, still caught in the wake of his supersonic flight.

“I didn’t know you were capable of hitting that kind of speed.”  Charles said in an attempt at small talk.  He honestly didn’t know.  Neither did the Colonel.

The Colonel ignored him and walked directly to the sofa where Johnni sat.

“Is it true?” 

“Gary?” Jonni said weakly.  Her voice was hoarse and cracked as she spoke.

“Is it true?” the Colonel repeated.

“Let me explain.”

“Is it true?!” Colonel Courageous demanded.

Jonni’s lips quivered, and tears trickled from her eyes.  “Yes.”

The softly spoken words hit Colonel Courageous like a rogue comet.  He stumbled backwards until he collided with the wall, cracking the drywall and knocking down Charles’ painting of “Summet Heights at Dusk.”  He knew it was true.  The moment he looked into those eyes, he knew it was true; he just had to hear it from Jonni.  Believing it didn’t make Jonni’s validation any easier.

“Gary…” Charles said softly.  His hand sought the Colonel’s shoulder.  “We didn’t want you to find out this way?”

Colonel Courageous batted Charles’ hand away, using a bit more force than he should have.  Charles snatched his injured hand back and cradled it to his chest.  It wasn’t broken, as far as he could tell, but was going to be severely bruised.  He could feel it starting to swell.

The hero braced himself against the wall and tried to stand.  He felt weak, and sick to his stomach.  He wasn’t sure if it was because he just found out that he had a daughter, that his daughter had just tried to kill him, or the volts of electricity she had pumped through him less than ten minutes earlier.  Whatever it was made him suddenly left him without any strength, and his legs wobbled.

“How long have you known, Charles?  How could you raise my little girl as your own without telling me?  You owe me!”

“He didn’t know.” Jonnie piped in.  She walked over to where Colonel Courageous was against the living room wall.  Her hand reached out for the Colonel’s face knowing that he wouldn’t smack her hand away as he had Charles’.

“He just found out a few weeks ago.  I hadn’t told him either.  If anyone w owes you, Gary, it’s me.”

The Colonel reached up and held Jonni’s hand to his cheek.  His eyes started to glaze over.

“Why, Jonni?  Why did you leave?  Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I couldn’t… I couldn’t have her in that life.  It’s… It’s complicated.  I didn’t want her to not know her father, or to make Charles play the role of substitute dad, but she deserved better than the daughter of the world’s greatest hero.  She needed a normal life.  You can’t raise a child in that whirlwind rollercoaster of a world that you live in.  She needed a childhood.”

“A childhood without her father?  You thought that was what she needed, and you made that decision without me?  You thought she would be better off thinking I had abandoned her?  Having her hate me for something I was never guilty of?  This was your grand idea?”

The Colonel didn’t speak his words so much as chew them up and spit them at her.  He pushed her hand away from his face.

“How’s that working out for you?”

Jonni let her hand fall by her side and started to slink away.  The Colonel’s words tore into her chest and stabbed at her heart.  He was trying to hurt her, and she knew it.  But it hurt even more because she knew what he was saying was true.

“That’s enough, Gary!” Charles moved in between his wife and Colonel Courageous.  “I understand you’re upset…”

“Upset?!” blurted the Colonel.

“Look, you’ve got every right to be angry about this, but if we’re going to talk about it, we need to talk about it.  Not do this.”

“Don’t talk to me about my rights.  I’m Colonel Courageous, dammit!  I know all about people’s rights.  Like the right to see their children.  The right to know they even have children.”

“GARY ENOUGH!”  Charles roared at the champion hero.

Colonel Courageous stood, still shaky on his feet, but steady enough to stand on his own.  The two men met eye to eye; neither blinked nor looked away.

“It’s time for you to leave.”

The Colonel stared at the man before him and waited.  He watched for the change in Charles’ shape as he turned into Wooly Mammoth.

He waited; palms sweating.

It didn’t happen.

Charles remained in his human form.  His eyes stayed locked, unwavering on the Colonel’s.  Slowly, the anger Colonel Courageous felt within started to subside.  The man that stood in his face remained a man.  He wanted a fight, but Charles wouldn’t give him the satisfaction.

The hero looked away and stepped back.  His anger quickly turned to shame, and the weight of it held his gaze to the floor.

“It’s not fair.  She’s my daughter.”

“I know.”  Charles said, empathizing with him.

“No.  You don’t.”  The Colonel said defeated.  “You’re her stepfather.  She may not like you at times, but she still loves you.  Both of you.  For me, the love she should feel has become nothing but hate.  I’ve fought men who wanted to exterminate whole races, creatures from other planets, and people who wanted nothing more than for me to die, but I don’t think any of them hate me as much as she does.”

“Gary… I’m sorry.”

“Thank you, Charles.”  The Colonel lifted his head a higher, making brief eye contact with Charles and Jonni.

“I just – Aaargh!”  The Colonel cried out in pain and fell to his knees.  His hands furiously clutched his head

“Gary!” Charles and Jonni cried in unison.

The hero continued to scream, his voice piercing the air and echoing down the usually quiet street.  Dogs howled at the sound, and car alarms began to blare.  Colonel Courageous dropped even lower to the ground, his forehead resting against the softness of the carpet; not that he felt it.  He was beyond feeling anything except the shrill white noise that drilled itself into his brain by way of his ear canal.

The Colonel raised his upper body off the floor; remaining on his knees.  A stream of blood flowed from his nose and down the front of his uniform.  Droplets splashed down on the beige carpet, before quickly being absorbed into the fibers.  A distant hollow voice drifted across his brain like the words of a ghost.  He could only make out a few words, and those words frightened him.

Cyksiks.  Extermination.  Now.

He slowly rose to his feet, as the sound faded away, taking the pain with it, but not the memory.  The Colonel staggered to the front door and threw it open.  His leaden feet drug across the ground, chipping the concrete walk and digging up the dirt.

Jonni and Charles followed him out to the front yard.

“Gary, are you okay?” Jonni called out to him.

The Colonel forced a smile.  “Yeah.  I’ve been having problems with my communicator.  It’s just Doc calling me.  I’ve got to go.”

The hero of heroes dropped to one knee and raised his head to the sky.  Before Jonni could part her lips to say another word, he was gone.  Grass, dirt, and leaves were sucked up into the air by his departure.  They hovered for several seconds before descending back to the ground.

Charles waved to his angered and excited neighbors, most of whom had been waiting their whole lives for this moment – when Colonel Courageous, or any of the heroes, would pay a visit to the Reinhart home.  For them, fourteen years of living next to Wooly Mammoth and Super Slut had finally paid off.

The former hero, turned husband and stepfather, escorted his wife back inside their home.  He tried shutting the door, but found that it no longer fit on the hinges.  He fit it into the frame as best he could, and glanced around the house at the other repairs that were needed.

Jonni walked over to the spot where Colonel Courageous had fallen, and stared at the small puddle of blood in the carpet.

“You lied to him, didn’t you?” Charles questioned.  “I’m sure all that stuff you said was true, but that wasn’t the main reason was it?”

Jonni lowered her head.  She made lines in the carpet with her foot.  “No.”

“Then why?”

“I was afraid.” Jonni said, still looking at the floor.

Charles walked over to his wife.  His hand moved slowly and softly under her chin and lifted her head till their eyes met.

“I was afraid that she would want to be just like him.  That she’d become a sidekick and would be killed before she…”  Jonnie couldn’t finish her sentence.  Her throat began to tighten and her eyes welled with tears.

Charles continued to stare into the soul of the woman he loved.

“This has something to do with Johnny Wonder, doesn’t it?”  he asked.

She couldn’t answer.  Jonni bit her quivering lower lip to try and hold back her third outburst of tears that afternoon.

Powerful arms surrounded Jonni and pulled her close.  Charles’s embrace was so stronger, so loving, that she scarcely knew that her feet were no longer touching the ground.  And in his arms, she cried.  She only wanted to make things better for her little girl.  Give her a better life.  Now, she felt like she had made a mess of everything, and it was too late to make amends.

*****

Blrrrp…

Blrrrp…

Blrrrp…

The phone had been ringing nonstop since the news broke the week before.  At first he answered it, even just to say no comment.  As the calls became more frequent, and more persistent, he stopped.  It was too much.  The only reason he even plugged the phone back in was because of Julian’s insistence.  Of course, Julian wanted him to answer it.  This was the kind of publicity that agents lived for.  And after a decade of  managaing Wally, he felt he was long overdue.

Wally couldn’t do it.  He couldn’t answer their questions.  He didn’t know what to say.

That was a lie.  He knew what he would say, the one thing that both he and Julian agreed that he shouldn’t say.  All the callers – journalist, reporters, producers, editors, agents – they all wanted the same thing.  They wanted to know how he felt after learning Abysmal was still alive.

Wally only had one answer: Scared.

He was frightened beyond belief.  When the news first broke, he was in disbelief.  He was certain that it was a hoax, or a joke in bad taste, but it wasn’t.  When he saw that costume on the TV, and heard the man’s voice, he knew it was real.  Very real.  Abysmal, the man who confined him to a wheelchair, was alive.

Alive.

Alive.

Alive.

Wally didn’t sleep for the next two days.  He watched the TV and saw every news broadcast, and, every recorded image of him; those neutralizing restraint cuffs weighing his arms down.  Going to the police station, the court house, and his eventual transfer to the Locker.  Even after all of that, he was still shaken to his core.

That was when the calls began.  First the calls, then the visits to his home.  It was too much for him.  He wondered how, he could have ever wanted this life.  He had gotten a taste of it after the book came out, but it was nothing like this.  And, just when the calls started to die down, one of Abysmal’s “students” attacked Colonel Courageous on live TV.  Suddenly, the media went crazy with the thought of teens with abilities acting as sleeper agents.  Some media outlets portrayed Abysmal as a cult like father figure, likening him to Charles Manson and Jim Jones.

It was too much for Wally to bear.  It was Julian that kept him from shutting them all out.

Blrrrp…

The phone rang again.  This time it was immediately followed by a knock on the door.  Wally looked at the touch screen on his universal remote control.  The remote operated almost every electronic device in the house, from security cameras to the coffee maker.  Julian’s face appeared bright and beaming on the LCD screen.

“Wal, it’s Julian!  Open up!”

Wally sighed and wheeled over to the front door.  A push of a button unlocked the front door and opened it before he got to the foyer.  Julian came in with his usual hustle and bustle attitude.  He was a firm believer in the saying, “time is a factor.”  He did everything as fast as he could and before anyone even knew what he was doing or what they were agreeing to.  Wally included.

“Wal, it’s two thirty.  Why aren’t you dressed?  More importantly, why aren’t you answering the phone?”

“I have been.”  Wally lied.

“I just called, Wal.”

Wally swiveled his chair around and wheeled back into his study.  Julian stayed close behind.

“I told you, kid, you can’t hide from these people.  Not now.  Not this time.”  Julian was only a few years older than Wally, but called all his clients “kid.”  He used the word kid as superiority over them.  By talking to his clients as if he were older than them he garnered their respect.  They treated him as if he had years of wisdom because he acted that way.  With the exception of Wally, his other clients were his own age if not older.

“I can’t Julie.  I can’t deal with them.  I can’t… He’s alive, Julie.  He’s alive.”

“I know kid.”

“I thought the Holy Avenger killed him.  He killed him, and the anguish he felt is what made him change his name.  That guilt is what stopped him from coming to see me.  You know the story.  He found me lying there on the tarmac, broken.  He stopped long enough to call for paramedics, and then he went after… him.  I never saw him that night, or since.”

Wally clutched the arm of his chair; his fingers digging into the soft leather of the armrest.  He picked the remote control off his lap and pressed the television button.  The flat screen came to life with video of the attack on Colonel Courageous, the Yesterday town heroes, and Abysmal.

The news channels repeated the same video of Abysmal being led away by police.  It reminded Wally of the footage they always showed of Lee Harvey Oswald right before Jack Ruby shot him.  Every time Wally watched it, he hoped that someone would come out of the crowd and shoot him, too.

Julian snatched the remote from Wally’s hands and turned the TV off.

“Watching this isn’t going to help you feel any better.  Getting out in front of the people will.”

“How is that going to help?”

“I know you’re scared.  I know that.  But, you’re already crippled, kid.  He can’t cripple you again.  Look, sooner or later, you’re going to have to deal with your past.  Might as well be sooner.”

“I can’t go there.  It’s too painful.”

“I don’t care.  Van Tortelli wants you on his show.”

“Ugh!” Wally groaned.  “The last thing I want is to be on some celebrity sensationalist gossip show.”

“Uh-uh.  Van’s giving up the tabloid talk and is going back to his journalistic roots.  They’re reformatting the show, and he wants you to be his first guest.”

“I don’t know.  I’m not sure that…”

“Yeah.  Too bad what you think.  I already booked you, a week from Monday.  If you don’t do the show, not only will you be fined three hundred thousand dollars for breach of contract, but you can find yourself a new agent.”

“Come on!  Julian, how could you do this to me?   I can’t do this!”  Wally wheeled away from the man in the six thousand dollar suit.

“I’m tired of your shit, Walden!  All that time you were whining to me about how you never got the chance to tell your side of the story.  How every show you were on, all they wanted to hear about was all the other heroes.  How you were sick of being called Kid Paladin.”

Julian marched across the room and spun Wally’s motorized wheelchair around.

“Stop being a pussy and grow up.  This is the life you asked for.  It’s finally here.  I’m going to give you some tough love here, cause I like you, kid.  Paladin was a failure.  Paladin is the person in that fancy chair, not Kid Paladin.  Kid Paladin is immortal.  He can never grow old, never lose a battle, and never end up in a damn wheelchair.”

Julian scooted back and sat down on the arm of the sofa.

“Any other agent would’ve left you a long time ago.  I stuck in there because I knew, I knew that one day it would all come back around.  Even more, I like you.  Dammit boy, you were a hero!  A lot of people have forgotten that, but I haven’t.  Listen to me while I lay this all out for you.”

Julian put a foot up on the sofa and fished around his inside jacket pocket.  He pulled out a pack of cigarettes, thumped one out and stuck it in his mouth.

“Light?”

Wally kept his hands in his lap.  “You know I don’t allow smoking in my home.”

“For anyone else.” Julian snapped back through pinched lips.

Wally let out a heavy sigh.  He wheeled himself over to the fireplace and grabbed a box of matches off the mantle.

“That’a boy.”  Julian struck the match and dangled the glowing stick before his face before lighting the cigarette.  “Okay, Alexandria publishing wants to go back to print with I’m in the League.    They want a new foreword and a new closing chapter of you fifteen years later.  If the sales are strong, which they will be, they’re talking a new book on those fifteen years.  Now, where’re the legs?  I wanna see the legs the Doc made for you.”

Wally dropped his shoulders and sighed again.  It seemed that when talking to Julian all he ever did was sigh.  Julian wanted him to wear the leg braces that Dr. 253 had made for him years ago. Even over a decade old, they were still the cutting edge of technology.  The braces connected to his central nervous system through bio-electric relays, and allowed him to walk under his own power.

Wally hated them.  They weren’t his legs, and though they allowed him to walk, he still couldn’t walk.

“They’re somewhere.”

“Get ‘em out.”

“They give me a headache.”

Julian conceded.  He knew how much Wally hated the legs and tossed them out just as a concession point.  Wally would feel like he won something, and Julian would get what he wanted.

“Look, there’s one more thing.”  Julian took a long drag on his cigarette.  “To do this… to do this right.  You’re gonna have to talk about all the stuff you wouldn’t talk about before.  All of it.”

Wally looked over at the mannequin wearing the Kid Paladin uniform in the glass case in the corner of the room.

“Yeah.  I guess I will.”

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