Read an Excerpt
By STEPHEN BALL
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2008 Stephen Ball
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe first thing you'd notice about Billy Winters' room would be the posters. All four walls of his otherwise nondescript room were adorned with posters of his favorite comic book heroes.
Holocaust stood on a blasted landscape, his trademark green cape fluttering behind him, a gleaming steel cannon pointing at anyone who had the audacity to enter Billy's room. Jasmine hung opposite Holocaust, flashing her famous grin and twirling a tornado around her. Her black hair stood out in vivid contrast to the yellow tunic that covered her shapely chest. Backfist occupied the patch of wall beside Jasmine, his red eyes glinting insanely at the room and his long red hair flowing over his blue armor; he brandished a gold claw in place of his right hand and wielded a huge sickle in his left. Assorted lesser lights of Billy's comic book collection stared into the room from fantastical landscapes: Shatter, Two-Tone, Mr. Griggs, Domination, and Commander Khaos.
The place of honor above Billy's bed, though, was reserved for his most revered hero: Red Valor. This character had the longest-running comic book in history; he not only had his own comic book, trade paperbacks, animated television series, and a movie franchise, but he also decorated lunch boxes, clocks, watches, air fresheners, calendars, and at least twenty more items that could be purchased at low, low prices. The esteemed superhero was, according to his comic, "eight feet tall, a wall of solid muscle, indestructible, a brilliant tactician, and the champion of the people." He loomed over the single bed clad in a scarlet outfit, promising sweet liberty for the just and swift justice for the wicked. His blond hair was long and neat, his blue eyes wide and true. The poster showed him reaching forward, the futuristic skyline of Justice City behind him, as if he were about to leap from his two-dimensional world. Stacked in a corner of the room, in a dozen plain, white boxes, was every comic book that had ever featured Red Valor, and a dozen or more items affixed with Red Valor's likeness decorated the room. To say that Billy adored Red Valor would be an understatement, but you have to understand one last thing: ever since he could walk and read, Billy Winters had only wanted to be one thing in his entire life.
A superhero, of course.
* * *
It was from this haven where justice wins every time and the wrongdoers of the world never, ever fulfill their dark purposes—at least, not permanently—that Billy Winters emerged. He thumped down the stairs and wandered into his kitchen, puffy-eyed from another late night reading and rereading comics, his brown hair standing up in spikes. He made his way to the refrigerator, maneuvering more by memory than by sight, and grabbed the milk from the refrigerator. Then he made his way to the table, where he poured milk over the cereal his mother had thoughtfully put into a bowl. Grabbing the spoon that she had set out, he fell into his chair and started to shovel spoonfuls of cereal into his mouth, mechanically opening it just in time to avoid splattering the bran over his face.
His mother stood with her back to him, the smell and sizzle of bacon wafting from the stove in front of her. Julie Winters was in her early forties; her straight chestnut hair showed only the slightest hint of gray. Thanks to her husband's burgeoning career in the field of office supplies, she had had the opportunity of retiring from her job as a women's correctional officer while in her midthirties. Absent-mindedly wiping the sleep from her eyes, she turned around and shuffled to the table to pour her husband a glass of orange juice.
His father, Roderick Winters, was a severe, balding man in his midforties. He sat behind a newspaper that obscured his entire upper body. Billy knew that behind his paper barricade, his father frowned intensely as he scoured the stock market, checking on the progress of his latest acquisitions. Roderick Winters was a man of money—as he would proudly tell you himself—and the more money a man earned, he reasoned, the better a man could do for his family. His stocks never hit huge, but they rarely lost, and between the stocks and his management job, he managed to make enough money to secure a comfortable living for his wife and son.
Roderick finally tired of staring at the market gains and losses and tossed the newspaper on the table. He reached to pick up his coffee and stopped midmotion as he got a good look at his seventeen-year-old son.
"What's this?" he demanded, his solid gray moustache curling into a sneer as he looked at Billy.
"What's what?" Billy retorted, his baby-blue eyes beginning to open as he looked above his cereal bowl.
"Did you get any sleep last night?" his father asked angrily, reaching for his coffee mug again.
"Yes," Billy replied shortly.
"Really," Roderick said, his tone doubtful. "Then how come you look like you just went eighty rounds with the heavyweight champ?"
"It's those comics," his mother chimed in from the stove, where she was scraping Roderick's scrambled eggs onto a plate from a blackened pan.
"Those comics," Roderick repeated, fixing Billy with a baleful look. "What have I told you about those comics?"
"If my schoolwork slips, or—"
"—you get fired from your job because you start screwing up from lack of sleep," Roderick finished. "The comic books are gone. As is the computer, the television, and your video games."
"I'm fine," Billy said irritably. "I haven't gotten any bad marks or any bad reports, have I?"
"No." His father did not look ready to give up the fight, though.
"Then what's the problem?"
"The problem," his mother injected, sitting down at the table now with her own plate of eggs and bacon, "is that you're supposed to be at school in ten minutes, and you haven't even brushed your teeth or bothered to get dressed."
"Now," Julie Winters interrupted. The look in her eyes—the same look she had given the countless criminals who had once been in her care—dared Billy to continue the argument at his peril.
Billy sighed and rose from his seat. Giving both his parents a final disgusted look, he dumped his half-finished bowl of cereal into the sink and stomped toward the stairs, unbuttoning his pajama top. His thoughts had already drifted away from his parents and their unimportant worries. They had returned to the new comic he had pored over last night, the reason he was now viewing the world through half-open eyes. Yes, Red Valor had been at the top of his game last night. He had come within half an inch of ridding Utopia of that blasted Backfist. If it hadn't been for that damned Domination ...
Billy dreamily replayed the comic plot again and again in his head as he automatically began the ritual of preparing for school.
* * *
Ben Coombs sat hunched over his keyboard, glaring at the screen, willing the words to appear as if by magic. He massaged his eyes with a brown hand and then ran it through his short, black hair. He was suffering from one of the worst ailments that could befall a journalist: brain lock. It did not help, of course, that he had been awakened by his boss at 4:00 AM and forced to drive through the Boston night to the suburb of Beacon Hill to interview police and any possible witnesses about a murder/suicide that had taken place in the home of a Boston alderman.
"This is big news, Benny," Raymond Green, his editor, had drawled in his distinctive Bostonian accent. "This could even get you the National Journalism Award."
At that particular moment, Ben Coombs did not give a damn about the National Journalism Award or any other recognition that his paper, the Boston Globe, wished to bestow on him. He had spent four hellish hours at the crime scene, getting very little from the Boston police or from the crowd assembled to look at the impressive home in the upper-class neighborhood. Even his contact in the Boston PD, Ken Gerald, was mum on the whole thing, using the infamous party line of "we're waiting for forensics" rather than taking his usual bold move of telling Ben what the cops were thinking about the case. Now Ben was sitting in front of his computer, staring at the blinking icon and wishing more than ever that it were not frowned upon to have a drink in the morning.
"Morning, Ben," Coombs' neighbor said as he sat down at the desk beside him. Coombs looked up, his red eyes staring, and he mumbled a greeting to Eddie Conroy. Conroy, twenty years Coombs' senior, was a hearty and witty man of fifty-one with thinning red hair and a stomach that crept over his beltline. Eddie sat down in his chair with a grunt and punched on his computer, which began to whirl to life.
"What's up there, Benny?" Conroy asked as he began to extract his rather large lunch bag and his notebooks from the weathered knapsack he always carried. The other reporters on the floor frequently kidded Conroy about the bag, asking him if he was going back to school to be the world's oldest graduate student, but Conroy stubbornly continued to carry it, no matter the weather or circumstance. He was known to carry his lunch in the accessory, as well as his tape recorder, pen and paper, deodorant, and numerous other items necessary for a person who could be dealing with rich and important people at a moment's notice. Now the man who prided himself at being prepared for everything looked over at Coombs and frowned worriedly.
"You okay, kid?" he asked.
"Yeah, yeah, everything's fine, Eddie. A-okay," Coombs responded, looking at his computer screen.
"You don't look so good, Benny," Conroy said.
"Thanks," Coombs shot back, kneading his eyes again with his hands. "You wouldn't be either if you were woken up in the middle of the goddamn night by a lunatic who wanted you to cover something halfway across town."
"At it again, is he?" Conroy asked, grim faced.
"The man doesn't sleep, Eddie," Coombs said. "To boot, I get out there, and no one wants to talk. No one! I got a little bit, not much—certainly, not anything worth my effort—and I come back here and turn on the computer and that's it. I hit a blank; I can't even remember what I had for breakfast this morning, I'm so tired. I swear to God, Eddie, he must think I'm fucking Superman or something."
"Open your shirt. I think I can see an S through it," Conroy muttered, trying to make a joke. Coombs shot him a withering look to show he was not in the mood for their usual banter.
"Listen, man," Conroy said, swinging back to face his screen. "You'll be okay. You just sit there, breathe deeply, count to ten, and don't think of anything. I learned to do that a while back, when I was going crazy just like you are. Just let everything flow through you. You'll be tapping the hell out of that keyboard before you know it."
"Thanks, Eddie, but I think I'll sit here and fume a while," Coombs responded, looking intently at his keyboard. "You have your style; I have mine. Let's leave it at that."
"Suit yourself," Eddie said, clicking on various icons on his desktop. He accessed the word processing program and began to type furiously, glancing at his meticulous notes through the tiny reading glasses that perched on the bridge of his nose.
Yeah, you have your way, I have mine, Coombs thought as his head ached like a rotten tooth. You guys all go sliding by, because you're not the one Green sees as the star of the future. You can sit there and type in peace, Eddie, no pressure on you. You're the vet, you can do as you damn well please, bring in your shitty little backpack and type, type, type, no problem. You don't know what it's like to have the weight of the world on your shoulders. You don't know what it's like to be asked all the questions and not have the answers.
Coombs sat very still, with his head bent forward as if in prayer and his thumbs pressed against his closed eyelids. Thoughts flew through his brain like whirling birds; he waited patiently, hoping against hope that he would be able to catch one, just one.
After a long while, he looked up and began to type.
Chapter TwoBilly Winters walked slowly into his fourth period class, "Introduction to Shakespeare," and slumped into his customary seat at the back of the class. He slung his backpack off and unzipped the bag as he waited patiently for the familiar smell of flowers and honey to fill his nose, announcing the arrival of Isabelle Corbett.
Isabelle Corbett was, without a doubt, at least in Billy's mind, the prettiest girl in the entire school. She was, that is, next to Yvette Frankeur, his one true, secret love, but he would be damned if he told anyone that little tidbit. Isabelle's flaming red hair hung in soft waves down to her white shoulders. Her eyes were as green as emeralds, and her lips, her full, pouty lips—
He was knocked out of his daydream by a hard flick to one of his earlobes. He flinched and looked up at the departing back of John Berry, one of the school preppies who had it in for him. Billy was tempted to say something—to call Berry out—for all the tricks he pulled on him. There were the spitballs, the BB pellets, the kicking of Billy's knapsack across the room, and the comments to his friends about how Billy was going to cry. Billy had a long list of grievances against Berry; more, one could say, than he had with any other bully in the school. The problem was that, as far as the teachers were concerned, Berry was a golden little lamb, studious, thoughtful, and conscientious to a fault. No one would believe him if he revealed Berry's real nature; not Billy Winters, the kid who never put his hand up, who never volunteered to read in class, who never seemed to know the answer if called upon—
But here she was! She walked into the room, glowing as brightly as an angel: Isabelle! Billy could feel his armpits break out in a sweat, adding more moisture to the already disgusting stain permanently formed on the underarms of his T-shirt. He held his breath and waited for her sweet perfume to waft info his waiting nostrils, and as she passed, it smelled as if he were in a garden, full of the sweetest flowers. He pictured a field, full of the sweetest, brightest flowers that ever—
"Good morning, class," Mrs. Constantine's dusty voice called across the room. "Please open your books to page eighty-two while I take attendance."
Billy opened his book and slouched lower to avoid Mrs. Constantine's constant glances in his general direction. On the page in front of him, Romeo and Juliet were in the throes of the star-crossed romance that would soon end in tragedy, but his active mind was already picturing that sweet, sweet field again. He was dressed as Red Valor, and he was running across a field, hand in hand with his paramour, Isabelle Corbett.
* * *
English class went quickly, though not as fast as Billy would have liked, and after a brutally long class in chemistry, for which Billy had absolutely no affinity, lunch mercifully came. He sat in the overcrowded cafeteria, an American history textbook open in front of him as he ate one of the cafeteria's gray hamburgers, a specialty of the cuisine the institution had to offer.
Billy was letting the particulars of Paul Revere's suicidal ride to warn the Americans about the sneak attack already being executed by the British wash through his numb mind when he felt someone punch him hard in his shoulder. He looked up in time to see Eddie "Swoon" Conroy Jr. moving around the table to take a seat opposite him. Billy closed his book with a sigh and leaned back to listen to yet another of Swoon's animated stories.
Swoon Conroy had a million stories, most of which he constantly rehashed to his long-suffering friends. There was the time he had pretended to pass out in French class, causing the already nervous substitute teacher to sprint toward the office while his classmates crouched around him in concern. Vice-Principal Dockerty had dashed to the class with the harried sub after summoning an ambulance, only to find Swoon sitting up and laughing himself hoarse at the chaos he had created. The stunt had earned Swoon a week's detention and two weeks of popularity, after which, he had resumed his career as a target for bullies, and a repellent for girls.
Then there was the time he had cried and screamed when his biology class was assigned to dissect frogs, claiming he could not take part in such an inhumane crime. Swoon finally feigned another faint and knocked over his glass jar, which had shattered on impact, causing numerous panicked reactions from other members of the class and enabling at least three more amphibians to find a temporary freedom.
Excerpted from HEADLINE by STEPHEN BALL Copyright © 2008 by Stephen Ball. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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