- SJF – Chapter 1
- SJF – Chapter 2
- SJF – Chapter 3
- SJF – Chapter 4
- SJF – Chapter 5
- SJF – Chapter 6
- SJF – Chapter 7
- SJF – Chapter 8
- SJF – Chapter 9
- SJF – Chapter 10
- SJF – Chapter 11
- SJF – Chapter 12
- SJF – Chapter 13
- SJF – Chapter 14
- SJF – Chapter 15
- SJF – Chapter 16
- SJF – Chapter 17
- SJF – Chapter 18
- SJF – Chapter 19
- SJF – Chapter 20
- SJF – Chapter 21
- SJF – Chapter 22
- SJF – Chapter 23
- SJF – Chapter 24
- SJF – Chapter 25
The suburban home of Otto Rekker was not what Darius expected. It was just a plain house—nothing fancy or sinister—with a minivan parked in the driveway. A bumper sticker on the minivan read, “Proud Parent of an Eisner Elementary School Honor Student.” Certainly not the sort of thing you would expect from a notorious supercriminal.
Darius felt nervous about going to the barbecue. He wasn’t the most social person in the world, and he didn’t feel comfortable in large crowds, especially with food being served. To him, large crowds and food meant the cafeteria at juvenile detention, where someone might try to stab you with the business end of a plastic spoon or the handle of a toothbrush that had been sharpened into a knife. He had a scar on his left forearm from blocking such a knife.
Despite his apprehension about socializing and his concern about being stabbed, Darius had been cooped up inside HQ ever since he arrived—confined to the two-block radius dictated by the security tracker around his ankle. Cabin fever had set in. He needed to get out, and had promised Manny and Dr. Sam that he would go to the barbecue.
Besides, if I’m really going to start a new life, I need to get used to being around other people, he told himself.
He heard the sounds of a party coming from the backyard—people laughing, children running around playing—and worried that he wouldn’t fit in. Darius stood there, on the sidewalk in front of Otto Rekker’s house, terrified of going around to the backyard.
“Sounds like a party to me,” said a familiar voice.
Darius turned to see Z-Boe landing in front of the Rekker house. Dressed in a pair of baggy shorts and loud Hawaiian shirt instead of his Galaxus uniform, he looked more like someone who had just gotten back from a day at the beach than a cosmic-powered champion of justice.
“You flew here?” Darius asked.
“Course I did,” said Z-Boe. “Why wouldn’t I?”
Darius didn’t have an answer. It just seemed weird to him to see superheroes and crime fighters walking around dressed up like everyday people, but still doing superhero things.
“What’re you waiting for, bro?” asked Z-Boe. “Food’s ’round back.”
Darius followed Z-Boe to the backyard. He felt a little bit more comfortable showing up with someone else, especially someone who could divert attention.
There must have been close to fifty people in the backyard. Darius recognized a lot of them from HQ, but there were just as many that he didn’t recognize. He figured some of the people must be the families of his co-workers, or neighbors of Otto Rekker. Everyone looked like they were having a good time—like they belonged. It all made Darius feel that much more out of place.
Z-Boe wasted no time jumping right into the mix. He disappeared into the crowd, leaving Darius standing by himself, wondering what he should do.
Otto stood in front of a grill, cooking up hamburgers and hot dogs, using a bizarre-looking metal spatula attached directly to his bionic arm. He wore a large apron with a floral design that said, “Kiss the cook.” The apron looked ridiculous on him, what with one of his arms being mechanical, the other covered with a dragon tattoo, and Otto looking like he could rip someone’s spine from their body and not give it a second thought.
A black woman stood next to Otto, barely coming up to his shoulder. She held a large plate and looked to be arguing with Otto about something. He waved his real hand dismissively, while removing sizzling hamburger patties from the grill and dropping them on the plate. Otto leaned down to kiss the woman, and caught sight of Darius standing near the entrance to the backyard.
“Big D!” yelled Otto, motioning to Darius to join him at the grill. Otto had started calling Darius “Big D” at their first meeting, and he seemed intent on making sure the nickname stuck.
Darius walked over to Otto and the woman. “Big D, I’m glad you made it,” said Otto, grabbing Darius and giving him a hug. Darius worried Otto’s bionic arm with the odd cooking utensil attached to the hand would crush him.
“Darius, this is my wife, Anna,” said Otto, introducing Darius to the woman holding the plate of food. “Anna, this is Big D.”
“Nice to meet you, Big D,” said Anna. “You want a hamburger?”
“I’m not too hungry right now. Maybe later.”
“Well, we’ve got plenty of food. And you look like you could use some meat on your skeleton,” Anna said.
Anna left Darius and Otto at the grill, taking the plate of hamburgers to the picnic table in the middle of the backyard.
“You want something to drink? Lemonade? Soda?” asked Otto. “I would offer you a beer, but you’re too young. Besides that, I don’t keep beer around the house—4,682 days clean and sober.”
Darius tried to do the math in his head. “Thirteen years?” he asked.
“Almost thirteen years—still have a few months to go.”
Darius watched as Otto flipped the hamburgers using the attachment on his bionic hand. Up close, Darius saw that Otto’s bionic hand had been replaced altogether with the odd cooking tool.
“You like the hand?” asked Otto. “Check this out.”
Otto pulled his mechanical hand off, separating if from the bionic arm. “It’s detachable,” said Otto. “I’ve got a whole bunch of these things—a fishing pole, flashlight, leaf blower. I’ve even got one with a buffer, if I want to wax the car.”
Darius studied the detachable hand more closely. The spatula extended out from a housing unit that attached to Otto’s arm at the end of his wrist. He pressed one of the buttons on top of the unit, and the spatula retracted into the unit itself. Darius pressed another button, and barbecue tongs extended out. “This is pretty cool,” said Darius.
“I build junk like this with my kids,” said Otto, reattaching the hand to his arm. “It beats playing video games or watching television. My daughter thought this one up.”
“How old are your kids?” Darius asked.
“They’re both eight. Twins. They’re running around here somewhere—you’ll meet them soon enough. They look like their mom, thank God.”
A man Darius didn’t recognize walked up to him and Otto. Dressed all in black, wearing a baseball cap and dark sunglasses, he looked strangely out of place among the other partygoers. “Otto,” said the man, his voice a deep whisper. He looked at Darius, and nodded his head ever so slightly. “Darius.”
Who is this guy? Darius wondered. He had no idea who the man was.
The mystery man handed Otto a paper bag. “Veggie burgers. Make sure they don’t touch any meat,” he said.
“Are you sure you even want me cooking them on the grill? There’s meat on the grill,” said Otto, sounding annoyed.
“Just make sure they don’t touch any meat,” said the man. He walked off to join the others at the party.
“I swear, he’s such a pain in the ass,” said Otto.
“Kaebel giving you a hard time again?” asked Manny. He had arrived at the party unnoticed by either Otto or Darius.
“That was Kaebel Kaine? Nightwatcher?” asked Darius, trying to spot the serious-looking man in the sunglasses. Darius saw him talking to Anna Rekker, and even though she was smiling and laughing at whatever they were talking about, his expression never changed.
“That’s him,” said Otto. “He gets on my nerves so bad. I swear, there are times when I just want to…”
“Break his back?” said Manny, finishing Otto’s sentence.
“No, I already did that once,” said Otto. “I just want to serve him some red meat, and see the look on his face when he realizes he’s chewing a piece of cow.”
Manny and Otto both laughed, but Darius didn’t quite get the joke. Most of the time he didn’t get the joke. “If you hate him so much, why would you even invite him over?” Darius asked.
“It’s more of a love-hate relationship between Otto and Nightwatcher,” explained Manny.
“Yeah, we love to hate each other,” said Otto with a laugh. “But I’ll tell you what, when I decided to clean up my act—to lay off the drinking and go straight—there’s not a person on this planet who did more for me than that man. I owe him my life.”
With that thought, Otto put one of the veggie burgers on the grill, and took extra care to make sure it touched one of the hamburgers.
Darius still didn’t understand the dynamic between Otto and Nightwatcher, but gradually it started to make sense to him. He’d read enough comic books to know that every superhero needed an arch nemesis—someone to balance them out. He just never thought about what it would be like if two sworn enemies ever decided to stop fighting and make peace. Darius supposed that the relationship might be like that of Otto Rekker and Nightwatcher.
“Big D, can you go get a plate for the food?” Otto asked.
“Sure,” Darius replied, leaving Otto and Manny to talk about a baseball game that had been on television earlier.
Not knowing where to find plates, Darius instead looked for Anna. She stood by the picnic table, talking to a small group of people, including a woman standing with her back to Darius.
The woman talking to Anna had curly dark hair that flowed to the middle of her back. She turned as Darius approached, and his heart skipped a beat. He’d thought about her a lot since first seeing her in the employee cafeteria. And there she stood, in the backyard of Otto and Anna Rekker.
“Um…,”stammered Darius, too nervous to speak in front of the beautiful girl. “Um…Otto…um…Otto needs a plate for the…um…food.”
The pretty girl smiled at Darius, just like she did when she caught him staring at her. He felt like a fool.
“Oh, can you get a plate for Big D out of the kitchen?” Anna asked the beautiful girl.
“Sure,” said the beautiful girl. She tugged on Darius’s sleeve and said, “Follow me.”
Darius followed behind her, more nervous than he’d ever been in his life. He wanted to say something, but couldn’t think of anything cool or clever. When they made it into the house through the back door, and into the kitchen, he finally asked, “Do you live here?”
“No, I live across the street with my uncle,” said the beautiful girl. “I babysit sometimes.”
“Uh huh,” was all Darius could think to say.
“Haven’t I seen you at HQ?” asked the girl.
Darius wanted to say that she caught him staring at her in the employee break room, and that he wasn’t doing it to be rude, it was just that she was the most beautiful girl he’d ever seen. That’s what he wanted to say, but all he could muster was, “Uh huh” for a second time.
“I’m Elladia,” she said.
“I’m Darius,” he said, fighting to get the words out.
“Oh, you’re Darius,” said Elladia, as if the name meant something to her. “My Uncle Manny told me all about you.”
“You’re Manny’s niece? The one he talks about all the time?”
Elladia reached inside one of the kitchen cabinets and pulled out a large plate that she handed to Darius. “That would be me. You better get that plate out to Otto before the food starts to burn.”
Darius turned to leave the kitchen, and was almost out the door before he thought to say something. “Um…it was good…um…meeting you.”
“It was good meeting you too. I work in the gift shop after school. You should come by sometime.”
Darius didn’t know how to respond. He could only think of Manny mentioning his niece and threatening to kill anyone who even tried to talk to her.
“And don’t worry about my Uncle Manny,” said Elladia, as if she knew what he was thinking. “I’ll protect you from him.”
Darius left the kitchen with a smile so big his face hurt. He had just met the most beautiful woman in the world. He felt like he was on fire and walking on clouds at the same time. He didn’t know what it felt like to be in love, but it had to be close to what he was feeling. And if he could just get the courage up to have a real conversation with Elladia, life would be perfect.