The town car zipped through the city on its way to Ronnie’s house. He was disappointed that it stayed firmly on the ground this time but still marveled at the car as it managed to navigate its way through all manner of traffic, continually changing routes to find the most efficient path. It wasn’t long before he was out of the city center and headed west. Ronnie watched out the windows as the neighborhood became more familiar. Modest houses lined up and down the street, each with their own small fenced in yard. A couple of children played on the sidewalk, their caretaker watching them from the stoop. It was about 8:30 on a Monday, and those who worked the day shift were already off to their jobs.
As the car pulled onto Ronnie’s street, he realized it would be tough to explain why a robot car was taking him home. He called out in the empty cabin, “Um, stop here, please?”
The familiar happy chime rang out, and the car slowly drifted to the sidewalk. Ronnie gathered his stuff and left the back seat. “Thanks?” he said to no one in particular. He felt like an idiot, but it seemed rude to not say anything at all.
“Brrrrring!” The car answered, which Ronnie took to mean, “you’re welcome.” He swung his messenger bag over his less sore shoulder as it pulled away from the sidewalk.
The walk to Ronnie’s house wasn’t far. He racked his brain, desperate to come up with a reason why he was so late getting home. When Ronnie arrived, he paused for a moment at the foot of the driveway. The house was modest, a small two-bedroom ranch. It had pale blue siding that was a little faded with age, and a roof that Ronnie’s father had meant to repair before he got injured. The small lawn was trim and tidy, as his father still did what he could to keep the place looking nice. Even if it left him in pain for the rest of the day. Ronnie could see that the window shades were still drawn shut. He hoped that meant that his father hadn’t woken up yet. Everything would be so much easier if he could just sneak back to his room. With a deep breath, Ronnie marched up the driveway
and gently opened the front door.
The door squealed on its rusty hinges, and Ronnie winced. “Jesus, that was loud.” he thought. He held his breath and listened for any signs of life in the house. He could hear the sound of the TV in the back room.
“Law enforcement was dispatched to Allegra Park last night, as radical group Children of Promise staged another protest against Liberty City’s affiliation with the Syndicate of Heroes...”
“Shit.” Ronnie’s dad watched the news every morning as he drank his coffee. There was no way he was getting into the house unnoticed. “Well, might as well get this over with,” he muttered.
“Dad?” Ronnie called out as he closed the door behind him. “Dad, I’m home!” There was a flurry of activity from the living room. The TV switched off, and he heard the couch squeak as his father lifted himself off of it.
Greg Nolan came around the corner and stood at the opposite end of the kitchen. Even hunched over, he stood an inch or two taller than Ronnie. They had the same sandy brown hair, though Greg’s was severely thinning on the top of his head. He was wearing a well worn LCPD sweatshirt. It fit tighter than it had during his days on the force, but an unexpected retirement and lack of mobility made him fill out more than he had ever planned. His police officer’s frame hadn’t completely disappeared, however, and there was still a hint of muscle on him. He was a big friendly bear of a man until the pain in his hip got too bad. Ronnie noticed that it seemed to happen more and more often lately.
“Ronnie! Where in God’s name have you been? I woke up and I found your bed empty. Then I called the diner and they said you left from your shift at the normal time! Why didn’t you answer your phone?!” He hobbled a few steps closer and got a look at Ronnie’s face. He gasped, “And just what the Hell happened to your eye?!”
Ronnie gulped a breath. “Phone’s dead, Dad. I’m so sorry. A work friend invited me over to his place after our shift, and there was a party. I ended up a little too drunk to come home so I stayed the night... I tripped and fell, and my eye’s all bruised from taking a stair to the face,”
He braced himself for the fallout. It was a ridiculous lie on a few levels. Ronnie had never been into drinking, and certainly not to the point of falling down drunk. He also didn’t really have any close friends still in town, which Greg knew. “You always told me if I ended up drunk to not try and walk home.” Ronnie knew he would only be able to play this card once, and he looked at his father meekly, doing his best to feign innocence.
“I’ve always told you to call me, and I would come get you after I murdered you for bein’ so stupid!” His father’s eyes were watery, and they had giant bags under them. Ronnie imagined Greg sitting around all morning, worried and alone. Guilt flared in his chest.
“I didn’t want to bother you, Dad. I know you’ve been having trouble sleeping.” That part was genuine, at least. His father’s old work injury often left him lying in pain and unable to sleep. It also left him in no position to drive at night on account of the painkillers his doctor prescribed.
“Yeah, yeah,” his father waved his hand dismissively at him. “You just tell me the next time you pull something like that. And enough with the drinking, you know better!” He limped over to the refrigerator and pulled an ice pack out of the freezer door. He tossed it to Ronnie, who caught it and put it against his eye. “So was this a boy you were staying with? Is he just a friend, or is he more than that?”
“Oh my GOD, Dad!” Ronnie yelled, his cheek growing hot under the ice pack. “I do NOT want to have this conversation right now!”
“What, what?” His father said, leaning against the kitchen counter. It was difficult for him to stand for very long without his cane. “You know I just want you to be happy. You need to find a nice boy. Maybe he’ll keep you from falling on your face.” He chuckled at his own joke.
“I do not need to find a boy to be happy, Dad.” Ronnie tried his best to sound indignant, but he couldn’t help but smile. He had told his parents he was gay a few months before his mother’s accident. They had not been particularly surprised at the news and taken it in stride. Greg had gotten to the point where he was now harping at Ronnie to get out there and find someone. “Easier said than done, Dad,” he always told him. “No one wants to date the awkward superhero nerd,” Ronnie knew that not every gay kid was lucky enough to have such understanding parents, even if it did lead to awkward conversations when stumbling home early in the morning.
“Bah. You’re a good guy, Ronnie. I’m glad you’re home safe. But you better call me next time, or you’re in deep shit!”
“A good guy. Everyone keeps calling me that today.” Ronnie thought to himself. “Dad, I’m gonna go lie down, my head is killing me. Do you need anything?”
“Nah, I’m good. You go sleep it off, but we’re gonna talk about this later!” Ronnie was halfway down the hall when his dad called out, “Love you, kiddo!”
“Love you too, Dad.”
Ronnie’s bedroom was in the far corner of the house. He closed the door behind him and sighed. That actually went much better than he expected, all things considered. “That’s the perk of not normally being a liar,” he thought. “No one has a reason to think you’re up to something.” Ronnie sat at the edge of his bed and pulled out the card that Silver Cyclone had given him. His fingers traced the phone number as he sat with his thoughts. He had powers. If he were to call that number, he would become a Syndicate trainee. They would teach him to become a superhero. It was the dream he had as a little boy, the one that filled countless hours of daydreams and imaginings. He finally had a chance to make it come true.
The doubt crept in at the back of his thoughts. Calling that number would eventually mean more lying to his father, wouldn’t it? He’d have to keep a whole part of his life hidden. Would it even be possible to keep a secret that big? What would happen if Ronnie wasn’t able to? The questions just kept coming, and his head spun.
But then he thought of the long nights he’d been working at the diner, only to come home and try to take care of things for his dad. The phone calls to doctors, begging to get his father into a new physical therapy program. Writing up grocery lists and making sure that all of the bills were going to get paid that month. His father’s pension from the police department kept the lights on, but there was so little breathing room. They were one emergency away from major financial issues. Ronnie was doing everything he could, but it still seemed like they were barely above water. He hated that feeling, and he knew his dad hated it just as much.
Maya had been so nice and welcoming at Syndicate Headquarters, and Silver Cyclone promised to help him. He had the chance to protect others. To make sure that other mothers were safe from car wrecks and that other fathers weren’t shot by violent nutjobs. If he truly had the ability to keep tragedy from befalling another family, what kind of person would he be if he didn’t try?
“And if you try and fail, then what?” he thought out loud. Being a superhero was probably the most dangerous job in the world. The penalty for failure was death or crippling injury. Not to mention the harm to bystanders. There were no second chances to get it right. Was he prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice for total strangers? Ronnie set the business card down on the edge of his desk, and put the melting ice pack back under his eye. His head throbbed, and he suddenly felt like he hadn’t slept in ages. He laid down in bed and stared at his ceiling, more unsure than ever.
Ronnie wished his mother was still alive. He thought it every day, but especially in times like this. She had been the person he went to for advice, and she always seemed to know exactly how to get to the root of his feelings. She would have had all the answers for this situation, he was sure of it. Ronnie imagined his mother’s words of wisdom as he drifted off to sleep.