Herbert Jackson peered down with hooded eyes at the young man sitting in the hardback chair across from him. In truth, he really wasn’t much to look at. Just past the earmark of two decades, he was of average height (probably about 6 ft. even with his socks on); with a stocky, if somewhat toned, build. His hair was dirty blond and short, matching the two day’s worth of stubble covering his chin; which in turn covered a resilient expression fastened upon the entirety of his face. His only defining feature lay beneath his steady gaze – twin pools of unnaturally zaffre-blue. Dean Jackson cleared his throat, breaking away from those odd eyes and bringing his attention back to the topic at hand.
“Ethan, is it?”
“Yes, sir. Ethan Burkhardt.”
“Hmm… you’re the kid who keeps us sending application letters every year, aren’t you?”
Ethan said nothing to this, only giving a slight nod of confirmation.
“Why not try to get in one of the other colleges around the country? Surely if you’re this desperate to get into an HCP program, there are other options available besides Sizemore.”
“I have tried. You are the first to agree to an interview. Sir.”
Dean Jackson looked once more at the young man in front of him. In all his many years as a hero, and many more years as a dean of one of only five Hero Certification Program colleges in North America, he had come to admire one trait above all others. Honesty. In fact, he had thrown multiple students out of his school for such a lack of integrity, regardless of how powerful they might have been.
Glancing at the open file lying on the desk in front of him; he considered what was known about this young man. 20 years old, five of which had been living on his own after his mother died. Born in the mountains of Wyoming, son of a single parent; he was noted to have spent his early years being raised on the thousands of acres that make up the Yellowstone National Park. His mother was a Park ranger, and by all accounts, they seemed to have been pretty reclusive due to the nature of her work. Her death had occurred at the hands of a mentally unstable villain, and the reports noted this is when Ethan’s powers first manifested. Soon after the accident, the young man had immediately requested emancipation (which was surprisingly granted); and had spent the next few years attending a local high school, graduating with decent if not spectacular grades.
Since then, and for the last 2 years, he had reportedly applied to all 5 registered HCP colleges in America; mainly being denied on the grounds that his lack of finances would be detrimental to his chances at the University.
Dean Jackson grunted at this point. In his opinion, the admissions office had always been a tad strict on the issue of money; likely in response to Chicago’s elite sending their precious and unique snowflakes to the school. Super or not, they believed any chance to rub shoulders with the future Heros of America was too valuable a chance to pass up.
The older hero began to consider the possibilities. Surely there was a way to provide some financial aid to a few select potential students. He knew Overton has been considering something similar when concerning lower GPAs. Perhaps if he got into contact with Dean Jilles, she could begin to point him in the right direction. He grinned then (which seemed quite predatory to those unused to such a sight); as ideas began to form on the edge of his consciousness. Perhaps it was time to shake things up at Sizemore Tech.
“Tell me son, what makes you think you can be a hero?”
“Never stop, never fall. Stand strong, stand tall. My mother taught me to stand by those words, and so shall I, to my dying day. My ability is simple but effective. With it, I hope to make a difference in this world; to leave a legacy, and perhaps carry the memory of my mother to another generation.”
“And what about fame, fortune, or just old good fashioned power? Any of those sound desirable?”
“Only as a side effect of my main goal. I will be a hero, sir, and I hope to accomplish that here at your school. But if you turn me down, I have no problem searching out other options until I find someone willing to teach me.”
Dean Jackson laughed at this, the spunky attitude of this kid sparking a sense of interest and a poignant reminder of his own days as a student. Good Lord, that was a long time ago. He sighed then and pointed an arrow-straight finger at the young man.
“Class starts in 2 weeks. I expect you to be here early and ready to learn. With your current grades being the way they are; you’ll likely have certain restrictions concerning classes. You’re probably going to need tutoring. I noticed you applied for a work scholarship. You’ll receive that, but it still won’t be enough for all your expenses, so you’ll have to get a job off campus to help supplement your income. Which means you’ll have to work twice as hard as everyone else while being beaten down and broken on a regular basis, and yet still continue to keep a passing grade in all your classes. Think you can manage it?”
“Good. I’ll finish putting the paperwork this afternoon. Congratulations Mr. Burkhardt, you’re on your way to becoming a hero. Don’t waste this opportunity.”
“I don’t plan to sir.”
The day’s last light began to fade slowly over the Kensington suburbs just north of Washington D.C. Evening revelries had begun to arise, and the city was settling back into its comfortable routine of night-life and corruption; feeding off the full pockets of the rich and powerful, as desperate interns and the common working man drowned away their sorrows in the dives and bars covering the outskirts of the capital city.
Garrett Jackson was one such working man, and he was upset. For the fifth time this week, he had gotten into an argument with his boss during his day shift. His point was simple if his method of bringing it up was less so. He had tried to explain that because of the rising prices of gas here on the East Coast; it was vitally important that they begin rearranging their call routes. And once again, he had been told to shut up and focus on his own job; leave the company decisions to the higher-ups, or the unions. Disgusted, he finally gave up trying to convince anyone; and now all he was looking forward to was a cool pint to wash away the memory of another awful (and wet) day. As his thoughts continued to drift in circles, he absent-mindedly swung on his heels – and turned to take a quick shortcut through an alley behind the bar.
“Gosh dang it,” he mumbled. “Being a plumber is hard enough in this city, what with all the stuck up politicians ordering everyone around like cattle. Stuck up snobs.”
He gave a harsh kick against the trash at his feet, anger and frustration venting into sudden destruction. The various cans and paper scattered quite satisfactorily across the narrow alleyway; providing a bit of appropriate decor to the underbelly of this corrupt city, Garrett thought with a smirk.
He had just started forward once more when, less than a dozen feet away, a crack edged by lightning suddenly appeared in the brick wall; slowly but surely widening into a gaping maw that only slightly resembled a hole. The jagged oval finally stopped fluctuating and settled into a shape roughly about 6 feet tall by 4 feet wide.
Staring in shock and amazement, the recently distracted plumber waited for a few breathless moments; but, as nothing came forth, couldn’t keep from slowly approaching the odd looking opening. Quietly he crept forward, his eyes reflecting the dazzling colors and shapeless blackness emanating from the void. His hand slowly reached out to feel the surface of… whatever the hell that thing was.
Just before he could touch the edge, his fingers hovering in place inches away; something focused his attention. Was… was that a face!? Gasping in horror, he stumbled back, covering his eyes in fear of what seemed to be emerging from the endless void of space.
Slowly, and violently twitching as if in great pain, something began pushing through the surface of the portal. First a mangled hand, then a crushed foot; then an entire leg, so bloody and broken it seemed to be little more than raw muscle hanging off the bone.
Garrett cowered against the alley wall, the jagged red brick scraping his back as he pushed himself further away from the gruesome sight in front of him. He wanted to run, to scream; but his legs seemed unable able to move, his throat closed to all sound.
Limb by ghastly limb, the human-like creature crawled through the opening; its body wracked with violent jerks and unnatural contortions. Broken, bleeding, and covered in long rags and strips of cloth; it slowly turned its ill-defined head towards the weeping man, staring forward with gaping holes where its eyes should have been. Its jaw seemed to unhinge then, slowly working the opening where its mouth belonged. A quiet hiss emerged from its pulsing neck, then a recognizable sound came softly gurgling out. “Da…?”
“What?” whimpered Garrett, crouching tightly against the opposite wall – his own limbs trembling in fear.
“Dat…?” The creature coughed up blood and something else, hawking a gob harshly onto the ground. Once again its head rose to meet the shaking plumber. “Date…”
“You… you want the date?” Garrett couldn’t understand, didn’t want to understand; but nonetheless, his subconscious began desperately searching for the day and month he happened to be existing in. Was it the 1st? Or maybe the 4th? Was it even August yet!? “Uh… it’s… it’s, um, I’m not sure?”
The creature nodded, seemingly satisfied. “Thank you…,” it croaked once again. Then carefully, and with obvious pain, it rose off the ground – turning away from the quivering man on the concrete and facing the still fluctuating void. It’s hand slowly raised till it barely skimmed the surface; and then with a sudden gasp of relief, the jagged hole collapsed inward.
Sinking slowly to its knees; the still bloodied individual stopped moving. Minutes began to creep silently pass until Garrett finally dared to wonder if he had actually escaped some horrible fate awaiting him. He began to rise off the ground; then froze once more in horror, as the head of the creature snapped back to meet his gaze. The face… it was healing!
“Sorry friend.” A raspy voice emerged from the now apparent human. “I can’t let you leave here remembering this. Don’t worry, I won’t harm you otherwise.”
His memories? Garrett cried in sudden realization, then turned to flee back down the alley; desperation etched across his features. It was going to take his mind! It was going to wipe him clea…
Garrett Jackson stumbled to a halt, confusion on his face. Why was he running away from the bar? And down a deserted alley, nonetheless. He turned back around, winding his way through the trash strewn opening. Turning the corner, he saw his favorite pub just ahead; but paused one last time to peer over his shoulder and into the dark and dirty alleyway. Something… something about that corridor. He shivered then and began walking quickly away. Stupid, he chided himself. He wasn’t no kid, getting scared of the dark, and running to mommy. Still…
“Nah,” he decided. It was just the stress of the job getting to him. And them stupid, stuck up politicians.