James. As in, James Jordan. And The Spectre. You could say they’re different people. I know that he says that. But I know better. I know because I know both of them. They’re only different in looks. It’s the same boy under that mask. He’ll always be James to me.
I suppose if I’m speaking so highly of this guy that I should probably explain how it came to be that way. Otherwise it just sounds like I’m spouting some sort of psycho-babble. That might be a lost cause in itself, though. By the time I’m done explaining how James and I met, you’ll probably be thinking about how crazy I must have been…well, still am. I guess you can say we met unconventionally and we maintain our friendship in a less than ‘normal’ way as well.
The best way to explain this is probably to start from how we even came to be within a few feet of each other. I’m not the kind of girl to just find randoms and bond with them. I never really had time to. My family, the Trents, had assisted the US in the Gulf War, and we were rather famous for it. It managed to get the family a rather lucrative income, but despite that we still moved a lot. I think we moved ever since I was born. Memphis was the first city that we settled in long enough for me to actually care about anything extensively. It wasn’t long before I started carving out those sweet straight A’s for myself at school. I even managed to hook myself as the science club president. I don’t really mean to brag, but I’m a bit of a science whizz, so it’s probably a bit of a given that I got it. But I didn’t think people actually liked me that much. My personality can come off a bit coarse…I guess, maybe? Despite me holding that rather prestigious position, I still wasn’t managing to make any proper friends. That’s where James comes in, though.
Now we’re getting onto the unconventional part, that is, how we actually met. I can’t remember exactly what I was doing, but I do know that I was walking home from somewhere. Some twat got me alone in an alleyway, and started demanding my money, my phone…in short, I was being mugged. Of course I wasn’t going to just give them to him…who the hell does that? That doesn’t mean I didn’t feel the adrenaline making my heart pound. You always play yourself as a badass in the ‘what if’ scenarios with your friends, but you learn the hard way that’s not how it plays out in real life. I certainly didn’t think I was done for, but I was pretty damn scared. That’s when the cloaked crusader stepped in. I won’t lie, I thought it was a Batman wannabe. But when I brought it up, he vehemently denied that, and instead called himself ‘The Spectre’.
I won’t go into too many details, to preserve his dignity, but long story short, he messed up, but it turned out alright in the end. I was indeed grateful for his attempt, but I was damn curious about who it was behind those oversized shades. For someone who was meant to be badass, he didn’t do very well to try and stop me. That’s when I saw his face. It was dark skin, like chocolate, but it was smooth and rather baby-faced, so I guess he can’t have been older than sixteen. I’d seen him a few times around school, passed him in the hallway, given him a nod and a ‘hi!’, nothing too much. But this…this made me see him in a whole new light. Naturally I demanded to be in on his crime-fighting adventures as his companion. Every front man’s gotta have a glamorous assistant on the side, right?
Though, of course, I’m not content to just sit on the side as if I’m some sort of a war widow-to-be. Well…I’m not really one for the ‘front lines’, either. Think of me as the support class in an RPG. James is out on the field, doing the physical stuff. Meanwhile, I’m right behind him, buffing him up with any gadgets I’ve managed to construct for him. I usually end up staying in the Spectre Kart, but I keep track of him using our communicators. I also guide him, like an extra pair of eyes. I like to think that I’m actually useful…he’s not said that I’ve been a nuisance or anything of the sort.
There’s been one time in particular I felt horrendously useless to James. I’m sure he felt useless, too. It’s been eight months since it happened but it’s still shaken us both, James more so, of course. There was this…villain, I guess, his ‘nemesis’, the Joker to his Batman, if you’ll excuse the comparison. She named herself Mad Rabbit. If anything she said made sense, it was that. She was crazy obsessed with James. It’s a rather…gory affair, so I won’t go too much into it. But to give you an idea of how crazy this bitch was, she not only tried to kill James, but she killed for him. She’s like a yandere or whatever those stalker girls are called in anime. If I’m weirded out by this, I can’t imagine how James must feel. I know he thinks it’s his fault that those people died, or almost died. And Mad Rabbit got away, so he knows better than anyone that he’s probably going to have to face off against her again at some point.
It was eight months ago, and we still haven’t really tried to deal with it. It’s kind of been stewing in the back of our heads, like a rotten casserole.
She’s got the brain of a nuclear scientist but the body of a supermodel. She’s literally the bestest friend I could ever have asked for. I never thought in my entire life I’d meet a girl like Tara Trent. There are a lot of things that in my life that I never dreamed would happen.
I guess I lived a more or less ordinary life in Chicago for a while. I was a typical teenage boy; I liked my comics, my movies, games, and all that jazz, and my sport of choice was basketball. I was pretty damn good at it too, the basketball thing, if the things my gym buddies said to me were anything to go by. My mom is just a waitress, but that’s OK, she’s still a cool mom. Dad does something a bit more exciting. He’s a police captain. Luckily, Dad’s such a stellar captain that when we had to move to Memphis to look after his grandma, he was able to find another position quick enough.
My life could be very different right now, as in, it would still be ordinary, if my father had decided to move as soon as he had previously wanted to. Being a police captain, he saw the crime in Memphis first hand, and at one time, it got so bad, he wanted to leave. I’d heard him mention it a few times to Mom over the dinner table, but I learned that a gang called ‘Code Blood’ were responsible for the sudden spike in crime. I remember a sense of dread creeping up on me when Dad mentioned that we might have to move if it got any worse. I hadn’t been in Memphis very long, but I really liked it already! I didn’t want to move, especially since we’d just gotten here.
The reason why we have role models is because we’re meant to draw influence from them. If we can’t solve a problem, we look to them for guidance. This situation was a little trickier for me. Mom was a waitress, and I don’t think killing them with supreme service would work. And Dad was involved with the police, so he was my best bet, but damn, if I knew Dad like I knew him, he’d never let me go out on patrol with him. Not to be mean, but just to protect me. I was quite strong and tall, well-built for my age, but by the time I would be able to join the police force, I would have been long gone from Memphis. So I looked to the next major influence in my life: comic books. Namely of the superhero variety.
I think crime fighting must run in the genes or something, because throughout this whole thing I’ve felt my true call to duty. If I told anyone what I was doing they’d probably call me crazy, but it still just felt so right. I went through the classic steps of designing my costume, and then crafting it, all myself. Next was equipment, but if I was careful with what I took from Dad’s non-lethal stash, and how often I took it, that wasn’t a problem. A few tonfas, a few tasers, a few smoke bombs, and it was all good. It wasn’t long before my alter ego manifested itself, and I called him ‘The Spectre’.
My first major exploit as The Spectre was badass to say the least. A great introduction to my saga! It was what made Dad change his mind and keep us in Memphis, after all. I found a bunch of that Code Blood scum celebrating their latest heist in an alleyway, and I confronted them. It ended with me firing a taser into a puddle they were standing on, and it wasn’t long before they were out cold. After that, the insane spike in crime dropped, not by much, but enough for Dad to choose to stay in Memphis. Of course, there was still crime happening in and around Memphis, so there were reasons for The Spectre to hang around.
My next exploit was not as badass. But it did lead to my rock solid friendship with Tara, so I can say that at least covers the embarrassment of the moment. I still physically cringe whenever I think about it…but basically, she was getting mugged. Me, or rather, The Spectre, jumped in and tried to save her, and bungled it horribly. Lady Luck smiled upon me that day because Tara and I came away from it more or less fine. I mean, we still had all our limbs. For some reason, unknown to me and probably her too, I let her take part of my disguise off, revealing the face of James Jordan under the mask (shades) of The Spectre.
I underestimated just quite how clever Tara was. Something tells me she kind of worked who I was before she even saw my face, but I don’t mind. She demanded to be my sidekick, or as she put it, ‘partner in crime-fighting’, and honestly, how could I say no? Her mega science brain has been extremely useful. She’s thought up gadgets for us, like my communicator. She makes stuff that I can barely dream of, let alone attempt to manufacture myself. Tara’s been amazing. Especially since…
With Mad Rabbit.
Mad Rabbit…she’s something else. Out of this world, and not in a good way. Her obsession with me, to the point of killing for me…it makes my stomach quiver, makes me want to hurl until I pass out. It was eight months ago but when I close my eyes I can still see it all. Those two people, forced together and frozen, entwined in death’s embrace. The sickening crack as bits of them just…broke off. Literally. It was my fault. Tara says it’s not, but my gut says it is. I felt like there was something I could have done, should have done. I think my hands are shaking.
Batman always triumphed over Joker, Spiderman would always kick Green Goblin’s ass, and Superman would always find some way around Lex Luthor’s tricks. I mean, it might have taken a few chapters, a few issues, but they always won in the end.
What kind of superhero am I if I can’t rise to the challenge when I’m really needed?
I had to shield my eyes when I adjusted my watch since it was so bright out today. I had to adjust it in the first place because I couldn’t believe that James was late again. We always met on this one street corner, the one with this Mom’n’Pop bakery that looks like it popped right out of the fifties. James found it. We’d gotten into the habit of grabbing some sort of pastry or bread (nothing sweet, though, that’s gross) for breakfast on the way to school together. It meant leaving slightly earlier than we needed to, because we’d both take ages picking what we wanted. But lately James had been arriving later and later. It’d gotten to the point where we’d stopped meeting for breakfast, and we were just using the bakery as a meeting place.
I knew why he was late, of course. It’d been steadily declining over eight months, because of…well, her. I don’t need to say her name. James was usually good at keeping his life and the life of The Spectre separate. But he was starting to let it completely wreck him. He was becoming emotional jelly. If he kept this up he’d be rumbled for sure, especially with his dad working in the police as well. I care about James, I really do, but this thing was just so bizarre I really didn’t know how to approach it. I’ve been trying to work it out how to talk about it with him since it happened. I didn’t want him to keep it bottled up, because that lid wasn’t going to last forever.
I was yanked out of the pool of my own little world by that familiar voice. “Hey, James!”
I stopped fiddling with my watch, something I’d been absent-mindedly doing since my thought train had started. I looked up the path, and saw James jogging down it towards me. One hand was on his backpack strap, the other pumping as he ran. He slowed before he reached me, timing it so that he came to a perfect stop by the time he reached the corner.
“Sorry, I’m late again…” James mumbled, gesturing to the bakery. “Did you still want to…?”
“Nahh, it’s OK,” I said, giving him a playful pat on the back. “I figured it might be the case, so I grabbed some toast or something before I left the house this morning. Did you still want to get something?”
“I’ll pick something up in the canteen during morning break, I think I can last for a few hours.”
While we made the trek to school, I ran through several scenarios in my head of how to bring up the whole thing as casually as possible. Nothing seemed to work, though. ‘So James, about that crazy chick…’, ‘Are you still feeling messed up about Mad Rabbit? Of course you are’. Something tells me that it wouldn’t have been the best time to bring it up, anyway. Instead, we made small talk, like lamenting about the cute cat we didn’t have time to stroke, or wondering if any in-school drama would have carried over from the weekend. It wasn’t long before we arrived at the gate with the rest of the five-minutes-lefters, being passed by stragglers who had more sense of urgency than we did. When we came to the T-junction in the hall where we usually parted ways, we simultaneously turned to look at each other, smiling sympathetically and shrugging.
“Are we still meeting up for lunch?” James asked, shifting his weight from foot to foot.
“Oh yeah!” I nodded, grinning and giving him a thumbs-up. “I’ve got a surprise planned…so you better not stand me up, you hear that?”
I watched the expression on his face change to ‘it’s too early in the morning for school’ to ‘oh wow’. His eyes opened slightly wider and his mouth hung open slightly. It wasn’t a look of ‘oh no’ surprise, it was happy surprise. I saw the hint of a smile tugging at the corner of his lips.
“Oh…oh, really?” The smile became more prominent on his face.
“My dear James, would I lie to you?” I gave him a friendly punch on the shoulder. “Now have a good day, I’ll see you at lunch.”
“Alright…see ya, Tara!”
James headed left, towards his homeroom. Right before he went in, he turned and gave me a mock salute, which I happily returned. When he ducked in through the door, I let out a breath that I didn’t know I was holding. As I turned to head towards my own homeroom, I felt a smile spread across my own lips. Damn, that boy sure has an infectious attitude.
“Mr. Jordan? Mr. Jordan!”
“Huh? Sorry, Sir?”
“I asked you a question.”
“Oh, I’m…I’m sorry, Sir, I didn’t hear you…”
The tyrant in the gingham sweater turned back to the blackboard, chalk in one hand and the chunky textbook in the other. “I didn’t think so. You’ve gotten into a bad habit of ‘not hearing me’. I guess there’s no point in ‘pursuing a cold lead’, as it were, so…moving on.”
This was science class, but not one of the interesting ones where you put explosive chemicals in beakers or cut open a frog. It was one of those ones where the teacher was getting paid to read to us from the textbook. To be honest, though, it was probably something even Tara could find exciting. It’s a shame Tara’s slightly older and in a different grade to me. It’s not as if I struggle for a lab partner if I need it. It’s just that a friend like Tara can make the best out even a dull moment, with a witty comment, or even with just the quirky movement of an eyebrow.
I jumped a little as my phone vibrated in my pocket against my leg. Who was texting me at this point? Curiousity was getting the better of me at this point. But I’d already pissed off the teacher once, so having my phone out on the desk bold as brass was probably going to worsen my situation. I timed my movements carefully, like I was playing a non-lethal Corvo in ‘Dishonored’. I waited until he’d turned his back again, before pulling my phone out by the corner. Not all the way, but just enough to see the message.
Meet me on the roof for lunch. Don’t disappoint me!
The roof? Why there? I snuck a peek out the window. Well…it was a clear day, so maybe it’d be nice to eat lunch al fresco. At least that’d be something to look forward to after this lesson. I remembered to quickly shove my phone back in my pocket and look up so that the teacher didn’t confiscate my phone, or worse…accuse me of daydreaming again.
I was cursing myself and that blasted science teacher by the time I’d finally made it to the stairs to get to the school roof. I was cursing the teacher because he’d given us a surprise pop quiz at the end of the class to make sure we’d been paying attention. I was cursing myself because I’d only managed to finish it five minutes after the bell had rung for lunch. I was hoping Tara wouldn’t be mad at me for making her wait. Hopefully there’d be some good stuff left in the canteen by the time we made it down there. Which is why I thought it was weird she wanted to meet on the roof first. I was also wondering why she hadn’t texted me telling me she was hungry and to get here faster, or something along those lines.
I found myself having to jog up the stairs to the roof just to shave the minutes off the time I was already late for. When I flung the door open, I was rather thankful to see that the roof was empty save for one person. Tara. She was standing on the far side by the fence. Her bag was at her feet, the fingers on her left hand gripping the links gently, while her right arm hung slack by her side. There was only a light breeze up here, but it still managed to catch strands of her hair and make it look like strands of gold in the sunlight. She looked beautiful.
“Tara!” I called out, heading over in some form of a speed-walk.
“There you are!” Her head snapped as she turned to look at me, picking up her bag and walking over. “Where were you?”
“Oh, it doesn’t matter,” I said, waving my hand and smiling. “We got lynched by a surprise quiz but I’m sure I did fine. Do you want to go and grab lunch now?”
“We don’t need to.”
“We…don’t?” I heard my stomach gurgle in protest, and I prayed she hadn’t heard it.
“No.” Tara hung her bag on her wrist and shook it at me. “I made our lunch for us. It’s right in here.”
“Oh, great!” I reached out my hands, expecting a box of some variety to get dropped into it, but Tara just put her bag back on the ground. “Uh…Tara? Are we eating or not?”
“James…” Tara sat down on the ground, shuffling up against the concrete hut that surrounded the stairs. She pulled the bag to her side, patting the free space next to her with her other hand. I took her cue and sat down. “I’m worried about you.”
“Worried? Why would you be worried?” I knew exactly why she’d be worried. I could feel the heat rising in my body.
“It’s been nearly a year and we still haven’t talked about…it.”
“I don’t know what you…”
“Mad Rabbit, James…” Tara tapped the soles of her shoes on the roof. I watched, mesmerised. “I know it’s…it’s hard to talk about it…but we really should. You can’t keep it all bottled up like that. Sure, you’re doing fine now, but what happens if…well…” She sighed. “It’s a pain in the ass to find the right words for this…maybe there aren’t any. But…talk to me, James. Something. Anything. Please…?”
Tara’s normally pleasant features were contorted. Not in an ugly way, but with concern. I couldn’t look her in the eyes, so I straightened my back against the wall. I drew up my knees, resting my forehead on them. “I’m…sorry…” I mumbled.
“I want to talk about it. I know I should. I mean…it’s what you’re supposed to do, right? But I can’t…well…It’s not you at all, I swear. I’m just…still trying to process this thing. I promise we’ll talk about it…I’ll do something about it…I’m sorry…”
I felt Tara’s arms rope their way around me, pulling me into a tight hug. She rested her head on top of mine, her blonde hair falling like a curtain in front of my face. “You don’t have anything to be sorry for. I know it’s been hard for you…I’m just worried about you…” She pulled away and looked me in the eyes, smiling. “I guess I just became so wrapped in how I felt about how you felt…that I kind of forgot the reason I was worried in the first place. We’re both shaken by this but as your partner I’m going to support you as best I can. I promise.”
I grabbed her hand and gave it a firm squeeze. “Thanks, Tara…you’re the best.”
“Heh!” She pulled her hands away and delved into her bag, taking out two Tupperware boxes. They were packed with sandwiches of various kinds. “Maybe save that until after you’ve tried my food, eh?” She passed one to me.
I didn’t have to retract my statement. They were simple sandwiches, but they were more delicious than anything the canteen could have come up with.
I didn’t get to see James again, not even in passing, until school ended. It was a rather pleasant surprise to see him there at the gate as I left the building. Usually I’d be the one waiting for him, but this time he was there first. And he wasn’t staring at his feet, pretending to be distracted by something on his phone. His face was bright, alert, and it lit up even more when he saw me come off the main steps at the entrance. He waved, and I waved back, even giving him a fist-bump when I reached him by the gate. I liked this James. I missed this James.
He was more lively in conversation on the way home as well, even leading it most of the time. I mean, I was pleased that he seemed to be feeling better…but I was wondering whose sake he was really doing it for. Had I been too emotional on the roof during lunch? No…no, I had every right to be emotional. He was my friend and I was worried about him. But looking back on it I’d probably come on a bit heavy. Admittedly, I could have chosen my words a bit better. But he was on his way, that’s all that mattered.
“Someone’s in a good mood!” I threw the comment in there, a little offhand. I coupled it with a friendly jab in the side with my elbow.
“Well, of course, I am!” James pushed back, laughing a little. “Maybe I didn’t ace the surprise test today, and I didn’t do well in gym, but now I’m walking back with my best friend. It’s not all bad. Why wouldn’t I be happy?”
“Well…you know.” I gave him a slightly sheepish smile. “It got a little…heavy on the roof today.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a couple of younger looking girls looking over at us. They were covering their mouths and giggling, but as soon as I locked eyes with one of them, they quickly turned back to their little huddle. What were they finding so funny…? But a quick backtrack allowed me to pinpoint the cause of their tittering. I didn’t expect people to be listening in. That didn’t stop that last part of my sentence to James from being misconstrued by eavesdroppers.
“Why don’t you mind your own business?!” I snarled, actually rolling up my sleeve. “Clear off, or you’ll miss your curfew!”
“Tara, stop!” The girls scattered as soon as I even took a step towards them, but James still hooked his strong arm around my own and pulled me back. He took the arm I’d rolled the sleeve up on, pulling the cloth back down, and slung it over his shoulders, forcing me to walk with him. “Just ignore ‘em…they’ll probably tweet about it or something and then no one will care by dinner time.”
“Whatever…” I puffed out my cheeks and blew upwards, my bangs splaying. “I just keep messing up today, don’t I?” I sighed.
“What, because of those little kids? And you had an in-depth conversation with your friend today?” James raised his eyebrows and smirked. “I’ve seen lots of examples of ‘messing up’, but trust me, I think you’ve safely swerved any of that.”
“You think so?”
“My dear Tara, would I lie to you?” He couldn’t even finish the sentence without laughing. He said it in a slightly mocking tone, echoing what I had said to him that morning. “In all honesty, though…” James’ face that had become creased with laughter smoothed out and I saw that familiar smile again. “Yeah, that whole thing on the roof, it did kind of blindside me a little bit, but…I’ve had a good day today. I’m feeling good for once.”
A little lightbulb went off in my brain. “Well…it doesn’t just have to be a good daaaay…”
“…Tara, why did you say it like that?”
I reached over to his hand that was slung over my shoulder. I was about to squeeze it but I instead tickled the inside of his palm, making him jump back temporarily. It earned a small chuckle from me. “Why are you acting like a deer in headlights? It’s almost as if you don’t trust me!”
“I trust you!” James spluttered in protest. “But you can really be mischievous sometimes, you know!” He pointed to his tickled palm as if to show an example.
“Well, OK, yeah, maybe I misbehave sometimes,” I said, waving my hand at him as if to say ‘whatever’. “But hear me out.”
“OK, I’m listening…”
“Why don’t we have a good day…and a good evening, too?”
“Let’s hang out tonight! We’ll…I don’t know, grab some food, chill with some games. Whatever you want!”
James glanced off to the side, scratching the back of his head. To my dismay he looked less than enthusiastic. “I-I’m not sure, Tara…”
“Why not? Do you have a lot of homework from today? Something better to do.”
“I was planning on going out on patrol, or something tonight. Y’know…I don’t want to fall out of practice…maybe if I get some sort of rhythm or routine going I can-”
I tossed my hair over my shoulder and folded my arms. “James…”
“Did what we…not really talk about, but at least discussed…today not mean anything to you?”
“I’m not cottoning on here.”
“Fine then. I’ll stop being cryptic and I’ll spell it out for you, plain as day!” I coughed, swallowed, cleared my throat. I generally made a big show of myself like I was preparing for a speech. I walked in front of James, planting my feet and halting his movement. “James Jordan!” I pointed my finger at him, one hand on my hip.
“You work far too hard! This evening you have one mission and one mission only…” I turned my wrist so that my hand was no longer pointing at him, but was instead extending itself towards him. “Take the night off and chill out with your partner!”
Of course, I was only expecting one answer; the one I wanted. I could see it bubbling beneath the surface of his face. The little twitches of the muscle in his brow, and the way his eyes focused on imaginary objects, gave it all away. He was debating with himself, almost fighting himself. Saying that has little significance, though. He’s probably doing that with himself all the time anyway, regardless of whether or not I was trying to convince him to spend the evening with me. Just as I felt my arm beginning to ache, his slapped his hand into mine, gripping it and giving it a firm shake.
“It’s a deal, partner.”
“So let’s see what we got…chicken, rice, stock, mixed vegetables, all-spice…” We were in Tara’s kitchen. She said she didn’t really want to go to my house because it might be crowded, and she just wanted it to be a ‘party for two’ as she put it. Her parents were out and she’d manage to wrangle at least the kitchen and the living room to herself. “Is that everything we need?”
“…what do you mean is that everything we need?” I was just sat on the counter, watching her unpack.
“Well, I thought you had an idea of what we should cook!” Tara put her hands on her hips and turned to me, looking indignant. She cocked her head, her hair cascading to one side. “That’s why I got all this stuff, because you can make pretty much anything with this stuff.”
“With the way you were sweeping the shelves like a speed demon, you seemed so confident!” I hopped off the counter, moving over to the pile of ingredients, picking them up and studying the labels. “I thought you knew what you were doing, so I didn’t say anything.”
“You wanna know why I was such a ‘speed demon’, mister?” She gave me a poke in the chest. “Coz there was this old grandpa-looking fellow who giving me the ‘eyes’. I didn’t want him to actually start perving on me, so I just chucked whatever into the basket.”
“Tara! Why didn’t you say something?”
“There’s not really much you can do about it really, unless you were going to gouge his eyes out. And besides…” She shrugged, rolling her shoulders back, before winking at me. “…I don’t mind people looking at the menu, just as long as they don’t try to order anything!”
“Oh…oh, Tara, don’t be gross.” I didn’t even see the old man she was supposedly talking about, but just the image of some old fart drooling over Tara was disturbing enough. “I haven’t even started cooking yet and you’re already putting me off my food.”
“James, take a joke will you?” She gave me a friendly slap on the back. Well…more than a ‘friendly’ slap, she actually made me stumble forward a bit. “Anyway, if we want to have dinner before Christmas, we should probably start cooking something, right?”
We started deboning the chicken and seasoning it, but then we realised that we still had no idea what we were going to actually do with it. Tara briefly went scouting and found a cookbook. We liked the look of a dish but we didn’t have all the ingredients for it, so we improvised and decided to make do with what we’d managed to grab from the supermarket. Tara’s hands are slightly more delicate than mine, so I read out the instructions for her while she worked away at the meat. After about twenty minutes and much debating, we’d made a pot of something that smelled somewhat appetising, so we popped it in the oven.
“Phew!” Tara pretended to wipe sweat from her brow, pulling up a chair from the table and sitting down on it. “Good work, partner. We make quite the team!”
“Yeah we do,” I replied with a grin. I reached over and made sure not to leave her hanging when she put her hand up for a high-five. I leaned back on the counter, staring up at the ceiling for a few moments. “…do you want some tea or something?”
“I prefer coffee, but yes please!”
I didn’t actually know how Tara took her coffee, but she always turned her nose up at sweet things, so I added just a splash of milk to hers. I debated making some for myself but I really didn’t feel like something as hardcore as coffee. But I felt the need to at least have something in my hands to fiddle with if Tara did, so I just filled a mug with water and brought both of them to the table. We sat in silence for a few moments, with me staring at the ceiling.
“Yeah?” I was about to take a sip of my water, but Tara had caught my attention. My mug was balanced precariously by my lips.
“Can we talk about something?”
I put my mug down. “Is it about…that…thing?”
“I think you’ve had enough of me rattling on about that for one day!” Tara laughed, but it felt just a little bit forced. “No…no, I was thinking about us.”
“Well, more like our career.” Tara peeked into her cup, and then she put it down again. I think she’d emptied it. That gave me a small sense of satisfaction. “I mean…it bears thinking about, right?”
“I know we spend a lot of time together anyway, but maybe we should…I dunno how to put it…I want to say ‘dedicate more time’, but we already dedicate a lot of time to it…so maybe ‘dedicate some time’ would be better.”
“What kind of things were you thinking of?”
“Nothing in particular when I really put my mind to it…not at the moment, anyway. But…” Tara turned her fingers into a steeple, peeking at me over the top of them. “Why don’t we take, say, one night a week, just to sit down and discuss it. Like, plans of action, new gadgets you’d want to me design, stuff like that.” She nodded. “Yeah…yeah, stuff like that! Then we’re not having to squeeze it wherever we can fit it, like we’re forcing it or something.” Her eyes glanced up to the ceiling temporarily as she thought, but they quickly came back to my face. “Of course, we’d still go out on patrol, and take up missions when we needed to. But…maybe, just maybe, we take one night a week off where we’re off duty…if we can help it, of course! We’re not going to just toss the public to the wind if they really need us. Even then, it’d be nice to have it there as an option, if we can afford to.” Tara realised how much she’d spoken, and she looked a little sheepish. “So…those are just things that spring to mind…but…what do you think?”
I hadn’t said a word for the entire time she was talking, but boy was I listening. Had she really thought up all that stuff on the fly? This is why I needed someone like Tara by my side. Not just a sidekick, but as a friend, too. I’d been so distracted lately by…well…you know…recent events…that I’d basically stopped considering my future. Not in a nihilistic way or anything like that, but just because it hadn’t crossed my mind because I already had so many things in it. Unfortunately it wasn’t just my future that was suffering, it was my present as well. I wasn’t doing great. I realised that now. I was going to do something to fix it, or at least start to…now that I knew that Tara would be there to metaphorically hold my hand. Or, literally, if I really needed it.
I’d been staring at Tara for a few minutes, while she was waiting for a reply, and now she was starting to look worried. “Oh…uh…that sounds great!” I swirled my finger around the edge of my mug. “Maybe we can wait a little bit before we-” I noticed a black tendril sneaking over my hand. I jumped back, pulling my hand away. “Tara, what is that?”
“What is wha-” She followed my gaze that was still centred on the black tendril, tracing it back to the oven where our dinner had gone beyond cooking and was now burning. “Oh shit, the…the thing!”
We found some oven gloves somewhere and I managed to dig my way through the black fog pouring out of the oven. Tara opened a window, then ended up standing on a kitchen chair to fan the smoke alarm with her hand. She kept peering over cautiously as I tried to figure out what exactly had gone down inside that pot while we’d been sat at the table.
“How is it, James…?”
I peered into the pot. What was inside resembled a black, sticky tar, with rather ambiguous blackened objects floating about in it. I looked back to her and I shook my head. “Inedible. If we picked the burnt parts off, we’d be left with an empty pot.”
Tara let out a groan of exasperation, hopping off the chair when she was satisfied with the lack of smoke in the kitchen. “And it was going so well! What are we going to do for dinner now?”
“Well…the convenience stores are going to be shut at this time…all the good ones, anyway.” I poked what was inside the pot with the end of a spoon, and it was worryingly solid. “But we could still go out, I guess?”
“Yeah, maybe…” Tara took the spoon from me to poke at the abomination, and quickly tossed the spoon in the sink when she’d confirmed for herself how dire the situation had become. “But where?”
I tried racking my brains for any idea of where we could go to eat. There were a lot of restaurants in this area, but that didn’t necessarily mean there was a lot of choice in itself. Thankfully, unlike most of my thought processes that day, it didn’t take forever for me to reach some sort of conclusion. There were empty stomachs at stake here.
“How do you feel about Chinese food?”
“OK, so, anything I can fit in the box I can take home?” Tara gestured to her takeaway box that was already overflowing with noodles, rice, various vegetables, and an even wider variety of meats.
“Yes!” The cashier nodded enthusiastically. “As long as you can close the lid, everything inside it is yours!”
“And all for five dollars, right?”
“…yes.” The cashier nodded with significantly less enthusiasm.
“Tara,” James whispered, tapping her shoulder. “You’ve asked the poor woman the same question three times now.”
“I know, I know!” Tara said, waving her hand at him. “I just want to make sure that it’s five dollars and not a cent more.”
“Are you ready to pay now?” The cashier had a smile like a Barbie doll, but the voice had an edge of impatience to it.
“Yep! …actually, hang on.” Tara put the box on the ground, placing the lid on top, and then proceeded to stand on it. James looked away, almost out of politeness, but it was mostly to hide the grin that was fighting to appear on his face. A couple of noodles and slithers of meat unfortunately got snipped off as Tara performed some sort of wiggle dance on top of the box, and the lid snapped shut. “There we go!” Tara stepped off the box, passing it to the cashier with a grin.
The woman had been rendered slightly speechless by Tara’s performance, and didn’t respond until she shook herself out of the daze. “Five dollars, please.” She really didn’t get paid enough for this job.
They made it back to Tara’s place, once again congregating in the kitchen. Tara went digging through the cupboards to find some sort of bleach to try and salvage the cooking pot. James was, in turn, tasked with dishing out their prizes they’d procured from the buffet. His was easy enough, as he’d stuffed it as much as he could but it could still fit on a regular plate. He wasn’t quite sure what law of physics Tara had defied, but her box almost sprang open like a can of those paper snakes when he’d opened it. Her ‘meal’ ended up spilling out onto two plates.
“I still can’t believe you stood on the box!” James said incredulously. He tried to sound incredulous, but he still couldn’t help but laugh. “You know everyone was looking at you, don’t you?”
“So? I don’t care!” Tara pointed at the two plates her food was occupying with a rubber-gloved hand. “Look at that. I think I’m the real winner here!” She turned back to the cooking pot, emitting a heavy sigh. “I don’t think I’m going to win with this pot though…” Tara gingerly pulled the rubber gloves off and tossed them onto the counter. Then she went over to James, draping her arms around him and jokingly crooning. “Jaaaames! I need cheering uuuuuup!”
“Tara, get off!” James chuckled, trying to wrestle with his friend’s arms. She had the advantage of being a little taller than him, and she was taking that advantage and running with it. “And what do you mean you need cheering up? Look at all this food you got!”
“Yeah, but I want something else now.”
“Oh yeah? Like what?”
“I want to play some games! I think you still owe me a game of Smash Bros.”
“Fox, Final Destination, no items?”
They both grabbed their respective plates to head into the living room. Tara balanced hers like she was the human personification of a set of scales, while James had a slightly better grip on his. Tara set her plates down on the coffee table first, and then went to set up for the gaming session. James followed suit with his plate before heading back into the kitchen to get glasses and cutlery. He nestled himself into the couch, holding a cushion to his chest with one arm while his free hand scrolled through his phone. James looked up and smiled when he felt the familiar weight of Tara settled next to him on the couch, freeing his hands so he could grab the controller that had been tossed into his lap.
“Yeah?” He turned to look Tara in the face.
She had one hand on her controller, while the other was tucking some hair behind her ear. Her brow was slightly furrowed, but she had a smile on her face. “I’m sorry if…today…I was too much. About the…the whole thing. I’m just-”
James held up his hand, bringing her sentence to a halt. Tara blinked, as if she was in shock. Then her expression hardened, looking slightly annoyed at being cut off, and opened her mouth to retort. James got there first. “Listen, Tara, the thing is…” He paused, and when Tara didn’t speak, he sighed heavily, and continued. “The thing is…I’m always going to have something on my mind. Something’s going to have me worried, or disturbed, or just generally unhappy. But I’ve come to realise something. It’s part and parcel with this kind of lifestyle, isn’t it? I can’t be fearless, because that’s impossible. If I want to be a real hero, I have to have fear in the first place, and face it. You know what I mean?” Tara nodded, listening in earnest. “The thing at the moment…yeah, it’s messed me up. I realise that now. Maybe I was in denial or something, I don’t know…” He looked up at the ceiling, transfixing him himself with a particular mark on it. “But I will deal with it…no, I am dealing with it. It might take a while for me to ‘fully get over it’, or whatever, but I will fully come to terms with it. I promise.” He turned his head back to Tara, looking her in the eyes. “I just hope that you’re willing to hang around for long enough…and beyond that.”
James had barely finished his final sentence when Tara dropped her controller and reached over, pulling him into a tight hug. His head was resting on her chest, and once again her hair had fallen like a golden curtain in front of his face. One hand was around his shoulders, while the other gently stroked his hair. “Oh, James…you’ve grown so much…as a hero, and a person. I’m so proud of you…” They sat in silence like that for a while, until Tara pulled away and had her trademark grin plastered across her face. “You don’t need to worry about me ‘hanging around’ or whatever…you’re not getting rid of me that easily!”
Tara offered her fist, holding it in the air in front of James. He looked between it and Tara, before laughing, and bumping his own fist against it. With that, the two sat back and resumed their comfortable gaming stances on the couch.
“May I?” James asked, gesturing with the controller.
“You may,” Tara replied, bringing her legs beneath her on the couch.
His thumb wandered over to press the ‘start’ button, bringing the game to life on the television screen before them.
It was, indeed, the start of a good evening.