SJF – Chapter 15

This entry is part 15 of 25 in the series SJF Chapters

background-tile3.jpgDarius and Dr. Sam didn’t say much to each other as the elevator moved vertically, then horizontally, and then, it seemed, diagonally. The doors opened on to the eleventh floor of the Tower. Dr. Sam led the way down a long hallway that looked like a hallway in any other apartment building. Except this wasn’t any other apartment building.

“There are one hundred and fifty residential spaces here in the Tower, and I’m guessing half of Super Justice Force lives here. This floor is all transitional housing for Second Chance,” said Dr. Sam, stopping in front of apartment 11-J.

“Use your identification badge to unlock the door,” said Dr. Sam, pointing to the key-card lock on the door.

Darius inserted his identification badge, the door to apartment 11-J opened, and he stepped inside. Dr. Sam remained in the hall.

“I’m going to leave you to get settled in your new home,” said Dr. Sam.

Darius’s new apartment was small, but more than big enough for him. The furnished studio space had a bed, desk, chair, a clock and a small dresser. The kitchen area had a mini refrigerator, a two-burner stove, and a sink with a cabinet over it. The best part had to be the bathroom—his own bathroom. Most of the foster homes only had one bathroom, and it was always a fight just to get a few minutes to yourself.

It took him less than a minute to “unpack” the pillowcase filled with his belongings. He threw his second-hand clothes into one drawer in the dresser, and placed his pictures on top of the desk. The pictures on the desk made Darius’s apartment feel like home.

Darius kicked off his shoes and lay down on the bed. Opening up the Employee Handbook, he started to read, first the introduction, then “A Brief History of Super Justice Force,” which wasn’t all that brief. Halfway through the section “How Things Work at Super Justice Force Headquarters,” someone knocked at his apartment door.

The clock on the desk told him it was a few minutes passed 8:00.

Someone knocked on the door again.

“Be right there,” said Darius.

When he opened the door, Darius almost didn’t recognize the man holding a brown paper bag. Dressed in regular clothes, and not his bright costume, Captain Freedom looked almost like a regular person. Almost.

“Am I disturbing you?” asked Captain Freedom.

“Just reading the employee handbook.”

“Can I come in?”

“Sure.”

“I figured you might not have any food, so I brought you some—sort of a ‘welcome to your new home’ meal,” said Captain Freedom, entering the studio apartment and handing Darius a brown bag.

Darius looked inside the bag. There were two boxes of Captain Freedom Breakfast Cereal—both the fruit-flavored and the chocolate kind—and a half-gallon of milk.

“Didn’t know which you preferred, so I brought both,” said Captain Freedom.

“I like both. Thanks,” said Darius. He hadn’t had Captain Freedom Breakfast Cereal in years—not since his parents died.

“I get cases of that garbage for free,” said Captain Freedom. “You ever want more, there’s a storage closet full of it. Just go help yourself. Personally, I don’t eat it. Tastes like shit to me.”

It took Captain Freedom three steps to walk through the entire apartment. Small as it was, he made it seem smaller. He pulled up the only chair and sat down, letting out a loud sigh that reminded Darius of his own father.

Darius sat on the end of his bed. Less than a week earlier he had been listening to Karlito’s big plans for getting rich. Now he sat across from the man he worshipped as a child. The whole scenario struck Darius as surreal—Captain Freedom, showing up at his new apartment with boxes of cereal and milk. A lot can change in a week.

“You ready to get assigned tomorrow?” Captain Freedom asked.

Darius opened one of the boxes of cereal. He had no bowls in his apartment, so he used his hand. “I just hope I don’t have to be a Scrubber,” he said, stuffing a handful of dry cereal into his mouth. It tasted terrible.

“That’s the last thing you should worry about,” said Captain Freedom.

The momentary surreal feeling passed, replaced by an awkward quiet where the only sound was Darius crunching bad tasting chocolate cereal. He held the box out to Captain Freedom. “You sure you don’t want any?” he asked.

Captain Freedom reached into the box and pulled out a handful of crispy bits of chocolaty nastiness. “I really do hate this crap,” he said, and then shoved the cereal in his mouth. He winced as choked down the dry cereal. “I guess I shouldn’t complain though. The endorsement deal on this garbage alone paid for my kids’ college tuition and my summer home.”

Something about Captain Freedom struck Darius as odd. And it had nothing to do with him being out of costume, or complaining about the foul-tasting cereal that bore his name and likeness. If Darius didn’t know better, he would swear that he smelled a hint of booze coming from Captain Freedom.

“Do you have any idea what it’s like, hawking crap like this cereal, knowing that it tastes terrible and contributes to child obesity?” asked Captain Freedom. “Jesus, I’ve probably killed more innocent people with this garbage than the Jester has with his laughing death ray. I mean, do you know how many people die of diabetes every year?”

Captain Freedom snatched the cereal from Darius, dug his hand into the box, and pulled out another fistful that he crammed into his mouth. “I tell kids to stay in school and keep off drugs,” he said, his mouth full of cereal. “And then I tell them to eat this stuff. You know what that makes me?”

“What?” asked Darius.

“A hypocrite. A goddamn hypocrite.”

They didn’t say a word to each other for what felt like a long time. Captain Freedom continued to eat the chocolate cereal, mumbling to himself about how he’d “sold his soul for breakfast cereal.”

In the meantime, Darius opened the fruit-flavored box of cereal—which tasted much better than the chocolate—and washed it down with milk he drank straight from the carton. He felt increasingly uncomfortable the longer they went without conversation, and the longer the silence lasted, the more Darius wondered if Captain Freedom had been drinking.

“Captain Freedom?” said Darius.

“Call me Jake—at least in private,” said Captain Freedom. “When people call me Captain Freedom, it sounds like bad writing in a comic book.”

“I just wanted to tha…,” Darius started to say, but Captain Freedom cut him off.

“Don’t thank me just yet.”

“Why not?” Darius asked.

“Because it doesn’t mean anything right now. It’s just words. And words without action are empty and meaningless.”

“I just wanted to thank you for helping me,” Darius said. “For getting me into Second Chance.”

“You want to thank me? Don’t screw this up,” Captain Freedom said. “Don’t make me regret going to bat for you like this.”

Captain Freedom reached out and took the box of fruit-flavored cereal. He stuffed a handful into his mouth. “The fruity stuff tastes better,” he said. “At least it doesn’t taste like it fell out of a dog’s ass.”

“Why did you go to bat for me?” Darius asked.

Captain Freedom grabbed the milk carton and took a swig.

“What do you want me to say, Darius? That you’re special? Is this where I give you some sort of pep talk about how much I believe in you?”

“Not if you don’t mean it.”

“When I saw someone falling from that building in No Man’s Land, I didn’t know it was you. I just thought it was another loser. Honestly, I was tempted to let you fall. I’ve seen enough losers to know that one less won’t make the world a worse place,” Captain Freedom said.

Darius snatched the box of fruity cereal from Captain Freedom. “I’m not a loser,” said Darius.

“So you say,” Captain Freedom said, taking another sip of milk. “All I know is that when I recognized you and realized who you were, my heart broke just a little bit. And for a second—maybe less than a second—I wished that I’d let you fall.”

The box of cereal fell from Darius’s hands. He could feel his anger rising. Anyone other than Captain Freedom would be swallowing their own teeth by now.

“Is this your idea of a welcoming party?” Darius asked. “I know you think I’m being an asshole,” Captain Freedom said. “And I’m sure this is the last thing you want to be hearing.”

“Not at all,” said Darius, hoping his sarcasm had come through loud and clear. He grabbed the carton of milk away from Captain Freedom, and raised it in a mock toast. “It’s not every day Captain Freedom calls you a loser, says you broke his heart, and wishes he’d let you fall to your death.”

“You might not believe this, but I’ve thought about you a lot over the years.”

“You’re right. I don’t believe you.”

“I was seriously thinking about giving it all up—the fight for truth, justice and all that other junk. It all seemed pointless,” said Captain Freedom. “And then I met this kid who was so inspired by me that it reminded me why I would put on that stupid costume and fly around and help people, even when it seemed pointless.”

It never occurred to Darius that the essay he’d written might have made some type of impact on Captain Freedom. After all, here was a guy who had his own breakfast cereal—nasty tasting though it may be—a comic book series, line of action figures, animated television show and a hit film.

“Can you imagine what it was like for me, seeing that kid after all these years?” Captain Freedom asked.

“Can you imagine what it was like being that kid all these years?”

Captain Freedom and Darius sat silently staring at each other—no crunching of dry cereal to interrupt the quiet. They both sized each other up—looking for something they could believe in.

Captain Freedom looked at Darius, hoping to see some sign of the child who had inspired him when he had been filled with personal doubts.

Darius looked at Captain Freedom and saw him as something far less than the hero he had worshipped his whole life.

Both wrestled with their own disappointments.

Captain Freedom looked at his watch. “It’s getting late,” he said. “I’ll leave you to study the Employee Handbook.”

He stood up and walked to the door. “Sorry I ate all the cereal,” he said.

Darius couldn’t tell if Captain Freedom was apologizing or talking to himself.

Captain Freedom opened the door and stepped out into the hallway. “Do your time here and make the program work for you. If you can do that, then your thanks will mean something,” he said, and closed the door behind him.

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