The soft knock was followed almost immediately by the door opening. Ralph Chapman didn’t bother to look up from his desk at first. Given that today was Christmas, and he was sitting in his Washington office, there were really only two possibilities for who’d be barging in. It was either Derrick, or it was some crazed Super who’d tracked him down to kill him, in which case his murderer could damned well finish this paperwork while Ralph traipsed off to the afterlife. When he finally looked up, it was Derrick standing before him. Pity, the idea of passing off his work was quite appealing.
“Merry Christmas,” Derrick Conner said, setting a small gift on Ralph’s desk. “It’s your year with the stapler.”
Derrick and Ralph had been re-gifting the same ancient stapler to one another every Christmas for nearly thirty years. It had begun as a small prank when they were both starting out, working a campaign for some now-long forgotten minor politician. Though much had changed since those early years, at least this tradition had persisted.
“Did you stuff it with anchovies again?” Ralph set his pen down and motioned for Derrick to sit.
“Gummy bears that I soaked in old salmon juice,” Derrick said as he slid into the wooden chair. “Jen and I would love to have you for dinner tonight. Place isn’t the same with the last one off to college.”
“I forgot that Pepper left this year. What college did she end up choosing?”
“Sizemore University, over in Chicago.”
Ralph felt his hand clench involuntarily, a response he tried desperately to hide from his only friend. There was no reason to react that way, Pepper was a Super, true, but her ability didn’t lend itself to being in the Hero Certification Program. Though Ralph worked to keep his feelings concealed, Derrick still easily saw through them.
“Relax, she picked it because the girls’ volleyball team is nationally ranked, and they offered her a scholarship. Thankfully her power doesn’t have any athletic applications, so she doesn’t have to go through the SAA. Changing the way food tastes might be a great dieting aid, but it wouldn’t get her into the HCP.”
“I know. I’m still sorry for my reaction. Even if she were enrolled, you’ve raised a fine young woman; she’s not the sort I’d be worried about. Forgive me; this recent job just has me a bit frazzled. I keep hitting walls at every turn.”
Ralph reached into his desk drawer and pulled out two sodas; offering one to Derrick, who declined. He put the other in his desk and then poured himself one. Ralph didn’t drink, hadn’t for so very many years. Carbonated beverages were his only real vice. There was no time to be muddled, to have his thoughts broken. He had too much work to do.
“Try not to let it get the best of you,” Derrick advised. “If they’re hiding something, they’ll make a mistake, sooner or later. Everyone does.”
“All too true. So, how are things over at the Treasury Department?”
“Oh no, not going to work. You still haven’t responded to my dinner invitation,” Derrick said, leaning forward ever-so-slightly in his chair. “Jen’s even making the tiramisu cake you liked so much last time you were over.”
“I appreciate the invitation, I do, but I’ve got a lot of work ahead of me. I have to find some sort of new venue for attack before school resumes. If I don’t think of something then they’ll keep boxing me out.”
Derrick gave his friend a long, measured look. When he spoke again, his voice was much softer. “Ralph… look, you know I understand, right? Even if no one else does, you know I get it. I was there when you got the news; I was there when you first decided to apply for the transfer. I’m always on your side, but you can’t go at this so hard that you forget to live in between. That’s not what they would have wanted.”
Ralph stared at the slowly popping bubbles bursting up from his soda. “I know, Derrick, and I thank you for all the support you’ve given me over the years. Maybe you’re right; maybe they would have wanted a different, happier life for me. Sadly, this is the only one I can manage. When I’m doing my job, when I’m hunting down Heroes who think they can skirt the system, that’s the only time I feel any sense of peace. Otherwise, whenever I shut my eyes I just see them. Them, and that damned bridge.”
“My brother was the one driving the car. I won’t say I know how you feel, much as I loved him I can’t imagine our pains are the same, but I at least have an idea.” Derrick rubbed his hand across a chin that once been masculine and pronounced, though age and weight gain had taken much of its grandeur. “Sometimes, when I’m in the area, I’ll go look at where the San Rafael Bridge used to be. I’ll check out the new one, read the plaque they have at its base, and reflect on what happened. You know what I feel when I do that?”
“Nothing. Not a damn thing. I still miss my brother just as much, but at this point it’s just become this background pain that never really leaves or intensifies. It doesn’t give me peace, or closure, it doesn’t even stir me up enough to get pissed. I get literally nothing out of it, but I still go once or twice a year all the same.”
“You think I’m holding onto my pain too tightly.”
“No, Ralph. I think it’s holding you. These gestures, these habits, these compulsions: they aren’t ours. They’re what the holes in our heart demand from us for the ability to fall asleep at night. We’re slaves to them, but that doesn’t mean we have to be obedient ones. You need to fight back on occasion. Come live a bit, if only for tonight.”
Ralph sighed and downed the rest of his soda. “With that tongue of yours, I’m shocked you never made a run for Congress.”
“Who knows? I still might. We’re not dead yet, there are still years of potential in front of us. That’s kind of the point I was leading up to anyway.”
“You win,” Ralph said, putting the papers in his desk. “At least the rest of the office is out this week, so I have peace and quiet to work in.”
“Way to see the bright side,” Derrick replied. He and Ralph headed out the office door, still hanging slightly ajar, and clicked the lights out as they exited.
The office went dark, though a stuck blind allowed in a small amount of illumination from the pale-yellow street lights outside. This rogue light was just enough to cause a glare on the single picture that sat on Ralph Chapman’s desk. It was at least a decade old, taken in a park that had been paved over to create a smoothie shop. In it was much younger Ralph Chapman, wearing a smile that would have seemed entirely out of place on the face he now possessed. He was crouched down in the grass, his wide arms outstretched as he hugged a pair of young girls, the eldest no older than five years old.