Fantasy as you Like It

Originally published in the Chaffin Journal (as Charlie Martin)
Winner of the 2006 Chaffin Award for Fiction
Incredible Hulk #1 (Marvel Comics)

A man in a lab coat stands in the middle of the desert. His mouth hangs open in an extended scream as his body twists and grows. His glasses fall off and his clothes tear at the seams. American soldiers surround him on all sides, their jaws slack in shock as they watch an ordinary man become a seven foot tall gray-skinned behemoth. A giant question mark hangs in the air behind the scene, invisible to all but the reader and posing one apparently all-important question.

IS HE MAN OR MONSTER OR…IS HE BOTH?

It’s May 28th, 1962, about an hour before lunchtime. The first issue of The Incredible Hulk that peers at me from the newsstand promises me that this man-monster is THE STRANGEST MAN OF ALL TIME!! and that the story offers FANTASY AS YOU LIKE IT! I fish a gloved hand inside a pocket and bring out a dime and two pennies – three small coins featuring more Americana than I’ve learned in my few months in the States. I pass the coins to the clerk and take my prize.

“You’ve got pretty eyes,” he blurts out awkwardly before I turn away. I blush slightly, although he can’t see the color in my cheeks. If anyone talks to me, that’s what they say first—that I have pretty eyes. Some Americans are less tactful about it, telling me that my eyes would be prettier if they didn’t have that Japanese slant to them. Whatever the wording, it’s usually just a preamble to asking why I cover my face. They ask if I’m one of those Arabs they’ve heard about, not realizing that their minds are a bit too far west. They wonder if I have scars, or if I’m naturally ugly. One funny boy asked me once if I was in Tokyo when Godzilla attacked. I told him he had the best guess.

I wait next to the curb for a little while until the trolley shows up. It pulls over for me and I step on, carefully working my way to the back of the car through the gauntlet of stares. No one says anything to me, and for that I’m thankful. Once I sit down and the trolley starts moving, I open up my new comic and start reading about this strangest man of all time. The first page shows me an atomic age Frankenstein: Half-man, half-monster, the mighty Hulk thunders out of the night to take his place among the most amazing characters of all time!

Page two begins in a desert, looking at a bomb. Suddenly, the story seems very familiar.

***

Alone in the desert stands the most awesome weapon ever created by man—the incredible G-Bomb! Miles away, behind solid concrete bunkers, a nervous scientific task force waits for the gamma-bomb’s first awesome test firing! And none is more tense, more worried, than Dr. Bruce Banner, the man whose genius created the G-Bomb!

“A few seconds more and we’ll know whether we have succeeded or not!”

“I was against it from the start, Banner, and I still am! It is too dangerous! I still say you should have confided in us your fellow scientists! You should have told us the secret of the gamma ray…”

“Quiet Igor! Here comes General Ross!”

***

“Come on, Chihiro!” My brother Keiji ran for the front door, leaving me in the yard. I shook my head and stood on the wooden balance beam that our father had made. Father was away these days, leaving a nine year old son and seven year old daughter to wonder what it was like to fly for the Emperor. I hadn’t actually seen him for years. Sometimes I wondered if I would even remember what he looked like.

“You’re going to miss it!” I shook my head again, swaying slightly as I almost lost my balance and fell over. Keiji looked back at me and shifted from foot to foot, doing a little dance of anticipation. When he saw that I wasn’t going to follow, he slid open our front door and kicked his shoes off. The door closed again, and I was alone in our yard. I stood motionless, my arms stretched out like wings and my feet cradling the edges of the narrow wooden plank. “Hyaku,” I muttered, barely moving my lips as I reached one hundred. I had set myself a record. I kept counting…hyaku ichi, hyaku ni…I wanted to see how long I could last before I fell.

The door slid open again, and this time my mother stepped out. Her limbs were like long branches. She was thin, but with a full face. I smiled whenever I saw her. She was always so beautiful. Everyone said that I looked just like her, which meant that I was beautiful, too.

“Don’t you want to listen to the radio?” She walked across the yard to me and knelt as I shook my head. We were a fortunate family. Even as the war turned ugly, we had food and property. Every night, we would listen to the news on the radio. Somewhere in the tales of our empire’s success, father was there. His name never got mentioned, but we knew he was out there somewhere as our personal superhero.

I looked at mother, losing my count. I smiled, but this time it was more out of habit than happiness. “I just want to play out here.”

“But Chihiro, you never miss a broadcast.”

“I just want to play,” I insisted.

“Why?”

I shrugged my shoulders, almost falling over in the process. Mother reached up to catch me, but I waved her away. “I just have a feeling,” I said, moving my arms in large circles as I talked. I looked significantly to the south, where black clouds hung low in the sky and threatened to burst into a storm. It was a sign, I thought. A very bad sign.

“There’s nothing to worry about, dear. Your father’s out there making the world safe.”

I still didn’t move. “I just want to play.”

Mother took a very long look at me through eyes that were like muddy pools of water. Finally, she nodded. “Okay. I’m sure your brother will fill you in on everything.”

I shrugged and tried to continue my count. I thought I had reached one hundred fifty, so I started there. I didn’t get far, though. Inside, Keiji turned up the radio. When mother opened the door, a sound like electric thunder echoed through the yard. The broadcast cut off. Mother rushed into the house, leaving the door open as Keiji started screaming.

“A very bad sign,” I muttered as my brother’s crying grew louder. I looked up at the storm clouds, wondering when the rain would come.

Finally, I fell off the balance beam.

***

“Why the delay, Banner? What are you waiting for? My men have been stationed here for weeks, wasting time because of your infernal delays! Are you going to test that blamed bomb or not?”

“Of course, General! It’s just that I must make sure every precaution has been taken! We are tampering with powerful forces!”

“Powerful forces! Bah!! A bomb is a bomb! The trouble with you is you’re a milksop! You’ve got no guts! They should have put me in charge of this test! By thunder, it would have been done by now!”

“Oh Daddy, don’t be so unfair! Dr. Bruce Banner is one of our most famous scientists! I’m sure he knows what he’s doing!”

“You keep out of this, Betty! This is man talk!”

“Don’t mind Dad, Dr. Banner! Ever since he was nicknamed “Thunderbolt” Ross, he’s tried to live up to it!”

“Thank you, Miss Ross! And now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s time for the final countdown!”

***

My stop comes up. I tuck the comic under my arm and step off the trolley, once again weaving through the maze of other people’s curiosity. It’s a nice day, but very hot. My skin itches under small beads of sweat. When I get home, I’ll take a bath. Once I’m inside and alone, I can finally show my skin.

I fumble through my pockets for my keys as I approach the building. The apartment complex rises into the sky like a brick monolith. Luckily, I’m on the first floor. A voice finds me just before I step into the building.

“Hey! Chihiro!”

I turn just in time to see Adelei come waddling up the streets. Adelei is a heavy set man in his mid-forties. If you listen to his stories, he’s been bald since he was twenty-five. My eyes twinkle a little when I see him, and not because of the comical figure he cuts as he puffs his way up the sidewalk. Adelei is my landlord, and my guide of sorts to America. He was one of the few who would even entertain the idea of renting me an apartment. He gave me a break on the first month of rent so I could get a job. So far, America is not so much the land of opportunity as it is the land of bills and short-lived secretarial positions. Adelei is one of the few people kind enough to keep me from wishing I was still in the ruined landscape of Nagasaki.

“Thanks…thanks for waiting,” he breathes when he finally comes to a stop next to me. “How’s Tori-chan?”

Beneath the black fabric that covers my face, I smile. Tori is the Japanese word for bird; Adelei has been making an effort to learn some of my language. “Her name is Keina,” I correct. I’m still getting used to the English language. Contractions give me trouble, and the difference between Rs and Ls still confuse me. “The doctor gave me some medicine for her.”

“Good. That’s good. I’ve got a cousin out in North Carolina, he knows a lot about birds. I gave him a call the other night, but he wasn’t home. I’ll try again today, though. Let me know if the medicine works, okay?”

I nod and open the door.

“Do you need any help carrying anything?”

I shake my head. I only have the bottle of medicine in my pocket and the comic book in my hand.

“What’s that?” Adelei cranes his neck to look at the comic cover. “The Hulk? Never heard of him.”

“This is the first issue.”

“Ah. I thought they were still doing westerns in comics, you know? Me, I was always a Captain Marvel fan. You know…Shazam!”

I cock my head curiously. “What does Shazam mean?”

Adelei’s face folds over itself as he frowns in thought. “You know, I don’t really know. I’ll have to find that out for you.” Wiping a hand across his sweaty brow, he looks across the street. “Anyway, I gotta get going. Let me know about Tori…I mean, Keina-chan, for me, okay?” He turns before he can see my nod and charges down the street for a taxi. I step into the building.

My apartment is small but serviceable, with the bedroom and the living room combined into one area. I still sleep on a futon, but I also have a sofa, two chairs, and a coffee table. A shelf on the wall holds my radio and a wilting bonsai plant. I never seem to be very good at keeping things alive. Setting my comic down on the table, I cross to the far wall, where Keina’s cage hangs from the ceiling. She chirps weakly at me.

Keina is a yellow canary with flecks of orange on her cheeks. She looks at me through glassy eyes and ruffles her mottled feathers. She’s been plucking those feathers out and chewing them lately, a sign of her sickness. I pull the small bottle of medicine out of my pocket a drip three small drops into her drinking water.

“You’ll be okay,” I say in Japanese. “Trust me.”

Keina blinks and chirps again. She wants to see my face. I pull off the mask, revealing withered lips and scarred cheeks. The skin is so twisted and thin on the left side of my jaw that you can see the bone. I dip my head toward the cage, hanging my ragged hair—what’s left of it, anyway—in front of Keina. She pecks at the strands, licking salt out of the thin locks before turning away. I watch her for another moment and sigh. Then I walk to the sofa and pick up my comic again.

***

“In a few seconds we will finally learn what happens when the powerful gamma rays are released! Wait! What’s that?! Good lord! It’s a boy!—A teenager! He’s driving into the test area! Igor! Delay the countdown until I can get to that boy! Hurry, man! Every second counts!”

“Sure…

“What stroke of luck! All I have to do is keep my finger off the ‘Hold’ button, and it’ll be the end of Bruce Banner!”

***

Keiji and I walked the streets like zombies the next day, just like everyone else. People moved slowly, like they weren’t sure if the ground would stay underneath their feet or not. A few of the neighborhoods had been burned out entirely by fire bombings, but for the most part we had grown up in safety from the war. The mountains of Nagasaki kept us blanketed and secure, and most of the enemy’s bombing runs took them toward the larger city of Kokura. But everything that the adults had told Keiji and I about the war and our safety suddenly seemed meaningless.

“I hear that everyone in Hiroshima is just gone,” said Keiji as we crossed the street. “The Emperor doesn’t want us to know, but the bomb turned everyone into dust.”

He skipped over a puddle on the street and reached out a hand to help me across. I turned away, backing up a few steps back and making a running jump across the water. I didn’t quite make it, and landed with a small splash in the shallows of the other end. Still, I stuck my tongue out and pulled my lower eyelid down, letting Keiji know I didn’t need anyone’s help. We traveled on in silence until we could see our house in the distance.

“I felt a little sick this morning,” I whispered to Keiji as we neared our home. “Can the bomb do that?”

Keiji gave my question serious consideration, and then shook his head. “Of course not. It went off all the way on another island. Besides, bombs don’t make people sick. They just blow things up.”

“Some bombs might make people sick,” I said defensively. “You don’t know for sure.”

“I know more than you do about it.”

“Do not.”

“Yeah, I do. You and mom are girls. I take after dad. If I were a little older, he and I would be fighting side by side.”

I looked at my feet and saw a snail making its way across my path. I gave it an idle tap with my foot, and it toppled shell-first into the gutter. “Do we have a bomb like that?”

Keiji bit his lower lip in thought this time, trying to find an answer. “If we need one, we probably do,” he said finally. “But we probably don’t need one. We’ve got the Emperor and all.”

I looked around the city. The storm clouds had disappeared, although smoke from a recent bombing run still painted the skies a hazy gray. Across the street, a pair of children not much older than Keiji and I lugged a heavy bag of rice. Their skin looked unnaturally yellow, and I could clearly see one of the boys’ ribs through the tears in his stained shirt.

“We’re gonna win soon, right,” I asked my brother, who was ever the source of knowledge, whether he knew what he was talking about or not.

“Of course we are,” he said, smiling as we entered our yard. He hopped onto the balance beam and nearly fell over.

The front door of our house slid open, and mother stepped out. Her face had sunk into a dark frown that made me shake a little. I turned my back to her, watching Keiji and pretending that I hadn’t noticed her yet.

“Where have you two been all day?” Her voice was sour, like the fermented beans that we used to eat when father was home.

Keiji hopped off the balance beam and shrugged his shoulders. “Just playing.”

I felt mother’s hand touch my shoulder, but I didn’t turn to look at her. My eyes stayed focused on Keiji.

“I don’t want you disappearing on me like that,” she said. “You’re to stay near home from now on, okay?”

Keiji, usually up for an argument with grownups if our playing boundaries were at stake, nodded his head and remained silent. I still didn’t turn around to look at mother’s face. I opened my mouth and croaked out one word before realizing what I was doing.

“Why?”

Mother’s grip tightened. She spun me around roughly and then grabbed my chin, craning my neck up until I looked her in the face. Her expression was dismal and ugly—the first of only two times that she was ever not beautiful. “I’m your mother,” she barked. “I don’t need to give you reasons. Just do as I say.” Her tone hit me like a switch, and my lips began to quiver. She moved both hands to my shoulders and crouched down, trying to be reassuring. But the dismal seriousness didn’t leave her face, and her next words only made things worse. “It’s dangerous out there.”

The heavy whine of an airplane engine cut her admonishment off, and all three of us looked to the skies. The silhouette of a single fighter plane pushed through the clouds, but it was too far away to tell if it was one of ours or not. Mother crouched over us, muttering something to herself as she blocked out our vision of the plane. We all held our breaths for a moment as the whine became a roar. Then it grew softer, and the plane passed over our heads and moved on over the horizon. No other planes followed it.

My mother stood up, breathing in sharply and smoothing out her dress. “It’s not safe,” she reiterated.

***

“You! Get out of there! You’re in a forbidden test area!”

“Cool it, man! The kids bet me I wouldn’t have nerve enough to sneak past the guards…Hey! What are ya tryin’ to do? Make them think I’m chicken?”

“Come on, you fool! We’ve got to reach the protective trench before the bomb goes off!”

“Bomb??”

Meanwhile, at the bunker, not having been told to delay the firing, a finger touches the fatal button!

***

A crash in Keina’s cage makes me jump. I drop the comic and check her again. She’s plucked another feather from her wing, and she shivers while she chews it. The water dish is overturned, spilled across the old newspaper that makes up her bedding. The medicine inside it is lost.

“Keina darling, what am I going to do with you?”

I take her cage down and move it over to the coffee table. I slip my gloves off, revealing hands as twisted and ugly as the Hulk’s. Three of my fingernails are missing on my left hand, and my right has an ash gray hue to it. Keina and I are used to these disfigurements, and don’t pay them any mind. I change the newspaper, examine her droppings with some concern, and refill her water dish. I put three more drops of medicine in her water before I let my girl be.

“I know you’d rather not drink this stuff, but it’s important, okay?”

Keina drops her feather and starts chewing on one of her bars. I look over to where the cage usually hangs and stare at my butchered bonsai tree for a while. I can never keep things alive. Keina’s my first actual pet, but she’s just another in a long line of living things I couldn’t take care of.

“Don’t think that,” I mutter to myself. If I think it, it will come true. Better to hope for the best, and leave the rest unsaid. “You’ll be fine,” I tell Keina in a cheerier voice. I leave her on the table next to me as I pick up the comic again.

***

“There! You’re safe! And now I’ll—AHHH!”

Altho’ many miles from bomb zero, Dr. Bruce Banner is bathed in the full force of the mysterious gamma rays! The world seems to stand still, trembling on the brink of infinity, as his ear-splitting scream fills the air…! And he is still screaming, hours later, when—

“He’s coming out of it now!”

“Thank heaven!”

“Banner, it’s a miracle that you’re still alive!—You absorbed the full impact of the gamma rays!”

“How—how did I get here?”

“My name is Rick Jones…I brought you! You saved my dumb life…I figgered it was the least I could do for you!… Y’know, it’s a funny thing…I’m an orphan, and no one ever did anything for me before—‘cept you, a complete stranger!”

***

The next night was unusually cold for August, and we all bundled up with a thick mofu in place of our lighter summer blankets. Mother and Keiji fell asleep almost immediately, ignoring the pained groans that our home gave against the hard mountain winds. I stayed awake, watching the ceiling and pondering the mysteries of the new weapon. Since the shock of the original broadcast two days earlier, no one had heard anything about Hiroshima. The news said that no single bomb could destroy a city, and that the war was almost won. But people had started talking, and rumors didn’t die as easily as people did.

I sat bolt upright at what I thought was the sound of a plane flying overhead. I put a hand to my ear and listened, expecting the high pitched whistle of firebombs to tear open our roof at any second. But whatever sound I thought I had heard died with my movement. Some strange wind spirit was playing tricks on me. I lay back down again and closed my eyes, but I couldn’t sleep. The floor seemed harder than usual, even through my usually comfortable futon.

“Keiji…” My brother lay next to me, with my mother on the other side. Mother had her own room, but she hadn’t slept there since father left. Keiji remained silent after I whispered his name. “How many people were in Hiroshima?”

“Gurrurmmmmin…seventhreeteen,” he muttered incomprehensibly before rolling over and going back into blissful sleep. I poked him again, and he flailed an arm in an ineffectual attempt to swat me. Then he started to snore, and I thought that he might be louder than wind and bombs put together. Wasting no more time on my slumbering sibling, I got out of bed and tiptoed toward mother. The floor was cold at first, and my teeth chattered as I pressed my bare feet against it. Despite the cold, I sat cross-legged next to mother’s futon and didn’t move for a while. I watched her sleep, focusing on her eyes as they darted back and forth under closed lids. I wasn’t going to wake her at first; I had resolved to go back to my bed and let my childish musings rest for the night. Then her eyes opened and focused directly on me. She gave a start and opened her mouth to shout out, but caught herself.

“Chihiro, what are you doing up this late?” Her voice was quiet and seemed to have a sense of amused mothering in it. She probably thought I was sleepwalking at first, and was waiting for me to do something silly that she could tell me about in the morning.

“How many people were in Hiroshima,” I asked. The traces of a smile faded from her face as she realized that I was fully awake.

“Honey, don’t worry about those things, okay?”

I stayed silent for a moment, and she closed her eyes. Before she went back to sleep, I spoke up again. “Where’s Dad?”

Her eyes snapped open. “What?”

“Where was he a couple days ago? Did the bomb get him, too?”

Mother sat up and looked at me as though I were a stranger. I must have seemed older than I really was, sitting in the darkness next to her. Asking serious questions and looking worried always makes people seem older. “No, darling.” She smiled, but it wasn’t the comforting look that I wanted. “No, your father was far away from there when the bomb went off.” I scrunched my eyes in an attempt to decipher her expression. It looked too serious to be happiness. “He’s not even in Japan right now.”

“Why don’t you have any pictures of him?”

The wind outside picked up a bit, and my mother gave a startled look at the ceiling, as though the house were about to collapse. “Chihiro, you’re tired. You should go to bed.”

“No I’m not.” My question seemed more important now that mother had dodged it. “Why aren’t there any pictures of him in our house? How will I recognize him when he comes home?”

“Chihiro, it’s very late. We both need our sleep now, okay?”

I shook my head. My face grew pale as a question sprang into my mind from some unknown darkness. I tried to swallow it down and keep it inside myself, but it forced its way out of my mouth. This fear that Keiji and I had never even considered as a possibility suddenly seemed a certainty. I asked the question before I even realized what it meant. “How long ago did he die?”

Even the wind disappeared after the question. Mother and I stared aghast at one another as that verbal bomb hit. A shadow crossed her face, and she got out of bed.

“You’re very tired, and you don’t know what you’re saying.” She grabbed my arm and took me back to my own futon. Then she knelt down and put her face directly in front of mine. “Your father is alive and well, Chihiro. He’s fighting for the glory of the Emperor and to keep us safe forever. It’s all going to be over soon, you’ll see. He’s going to come back and you’ll remember him and everyone will be happy. Go to sleep now.” She didn’t ask—she ordered. I lay back in bed, staring wide-eyed at mother. Her face had an ugliness to it again. The ugliness of a lie, I thought, but I didn’t say anything. Mother tucked me in and stood up again. “He’ll be back soon. Just don’t say anything like that again, and everything will be okay.”

She didn’t wait for an answer and forgot to kiss me goodnight. She just walked woodenly back to her futon and went back to sleep. I stayed awake, staring at the ceiling until morning.

***

“I—I’m beginning to feel strange! My head is throbbing! This must be—the end…”

“The whole world’s going batty! Even this kookie radio—it won’t play! All it gives out is static!”

“That’s no radio! It’s a Geiger counter! It measures radiation! Listen to it! It—it’s going wild! It’s getting louder—and louder!!—Faster and faster!! What’s happening?! WHAT IS HAPPENING??? ARGHH!”

“Hey! Look at you! You—changed!”

“Out of my way, insect!”

***

A knock at the door interrupts my reading. “One minute,” I shout, setting the comic down and hurrying to put on my gloves. I grab my shawl and wrap it around my face. There’s another rap on the door. I move to open it, but double check that only my eyes are uncovered before answering.

“Adelei?” My landlord tries to look coy, but the way he keeps his hands behind the back and the fact that he’s rocking back on his heels gives away his potential surprise gift. “What can I do for you?”

“Well,” he says, his jowls shaking slightly as he talks, “I finally got in touch with my cousin.”

“Oh? Did he have any ideas?” I mentally slap myself for forgetting my manners. “Please, come in.”

I open the door wider, allowing someone else to enter my home for the first time. He stops just past the entrance and starts untying his shoes while I close the door. One hand holds the paper bag he had hidden behind his back. He sets this on the floor as he starts undoing his laces.

“You don’t have to take your shoes off,” I say, hastily looking over the apartment to make sure it’s somewhat orderly. “Can I get you some tea?”

“No thanks.” He takes his shoes off and sets them at the door despite my objection.

“Please, have some tea.” I’m already halfway to the kitchen. In Japan, you never accept the first refusal.

“No, really, I’m actually pretty busy today. I just thought I’d stop by and try to help little Keina here.” He points toward the cage and the only other inhabitant of my apartment. “Is this her?”

Hesitantly, I stop moving toward the kitchen. “Yes, that’s Keina.”

“Is she getting any better?”

“It’s hard to say. She hasn’t drunk the medicine yet. Even when she does, it will probably take a few days to really show any results.”

Adelei starts reaching into the bag. Keina watches him curiously. “Well, like I said, I called my cousin back. I told him that you’ve got a bird plucking its own feathers out, and he said it’s probably a mineral deficiency. So I went downtown and looked through a few greenhouses until I found these. Da-da-daa!” With a bit of fanfare and a smile, he pulls a handful of small branches out of the bag. The wood is twisted but fresh, with bits of green under the bark and small pink buds forming on the twigs. “You put these in little Keina’s cage, and she should be able to get all the minerals she needs. You can give her the medicine, too, but this should help on its own.”

He hands me the branches, and I put one of them in between the bars of Keina’s cage. She doesn’t pay any attention to it at first, but soon begins burrowing her beak into the wood. “What kind is it,” I ask, looking curiously at these supposed miracle twigs.

“They’re branches cut from a plum tree. They have those in Japan, don’t they?”

“Of course. I should have recognized them from home.”

Adelei looks at his watch again. “Well, like I said, I have a busy day.” He moves back to the door and puts on his shoes.

Keina gives a chirp. My eyes look from her to Adelei. “Why are you doing this?”

“What?”

“I appreciate your help, but why do you go out of your way for me?” I bow my head timidly as I ask. Adelei is old enough to be my father. I’ve heard of rich American men who fancy younger women, and I start wondering if Adelei has similar thoughts. After that, I wonder what his reaction would be if he actually saw me naked.

“You’re a tenant. I like to make sure my tenants are happy.”

“Is that all?”

Adelei frowns, and then shakes his head. “No. But it’s nothing as sinister as you might think.” He leans against the door and continues. “I was an officer in the war, you know. I was stationed in Europe, not Japan, but still…” He clears his throat and looks nervously around the room. His uneasy eyes finally rest on mine. “I know why you cover your face. And I know I couldn’t have changed what happened. But I’m still sorry.” He tries to say more, but instead shrugs and opens the door. Before he leaves the apartment, he bows to me. “Good luck to you and Keina. You both deserve to be well.”

***

“As the stunned enlisted men pick themselves up from the wreckage, the mighty thing that was once Bruce Banner turns, and—

“Have to go! Have to get away—to hide…”

Like a wounded behemoth, the man-monster storms off, into the waiting night…

“Wait!! Wait for me!”

One lone figure follows him—and a legend is born!

“You saved my life! You need me now—wait!! I’m goin’ with you!”

***

The sky was a bright blue the next day, and that the sun was shining. Mother had left that morning to get us some rice. The ration lines were long, and she would be out for hours. Keiji was being Keiji, off exploring some nook or cranny of his own. I had decided to help with the chores around the house. I was laying clothes out to dry in our yard. The bright weather had chased away the demons of last night, and I started singing softly to myself as I worked.

“Bokura wa kitto matteru
Kimi to mata aeru hibi o…”

Surely we’re waiting for the day we can see you again…

Keiji came out of nowhere, screaming and running toward me as my eyes trailed across the clear skies. I’m still not sure if he actually saw something or if he was just playing a game of some sort, but he made it halfway across the yard before I even saw the flash. It came from miles away, a blinding brightness that burst in the air and lit up the downtown area. I saw the light first and didn’t hear the sound for a second or two. It was the kind of delay that you get when you watch a fireworks show. When the sound finally did catch up, I dropped the laundry and clasped my hands over my ears. I think I screamed about then—I remember that my throat got sore and my mouth hung open. I’m not sure, though, because I couldn’t hear myself or anything else. The roar of the bomb drowned out all other sound. It was the engine of a plane and the rumble of an earthquake. It was the crash of a tsunami, the screaming of my brother, and the hoarse lying voice of my mother. The bomb took every bad sound I had ever heard and combined them into one chaotic harmony. In the distance, buildings began to crumble. I saw the roof of one shop tear off and fly into the air, breaking into rubble and raining rock back down on the shattered streets. It didn’t turn everything to dust like Keiji said it would. Instead it destroyed things more utterly, crushing buildings and fusing stone together. Trees burned and rivers boiled. The mountains themselves began crumbling around us, bowing before the power of the bomb.

The destruction spread rapidly, beginning above a church downtown and spreading outward and upward into an enormous mushroom cloud. Keiji tumbled into me, and we fell to the ground in a twisted heap. Somewhere on my trip to the ground, I closed my eyes. When I opened them again, I saw that the grass behind me had turned black. The shadow of where I had stood when the bomb went off had actually been burned into the ground. It didn’t stay for long, though, because the grass began to wilt and die as the fallout reached our home. A sudden wash of heat ran over my body. This time I know I screamed. I began to realize what it felt like to be burned alive. My skin itself began melting, peeling off my body and drooping in long loops like old rags hanging off the bone. My skeleton creaked and groaned. My muscles withered as the water in my body evaporated. I was going to die, and I wasn’t going to be turned into dust. My body was going to lie in the sun forever, too withered and charred for even scavengers to touch it, and unrecognizable even to my own mother.

Then the brightness disappeared, and the roaring of the monster bomb went away. I lay sobbing on the charred ground, still pressed against Keiji’s body. I was sobbing, but I wasn’t crying. The burning had dehydrated me; I literally had no tears to shed.

The pain didn’t go away. The aching in my limbs and the scorched redness of what skin I had left seemed like they would be a part of me forever. I finally pushed myself away from Keiji, wincing as our skin that had fused together peeled away in bloody strips.

“Keiji…we made it. We’re still alive.”

No answer. Keiji lay face down in the burned grass. His clothes were torn and his body was as scorched as mine. Some of the flesh on his back had melted away entirely, leaving charred black bone.

“Keiji…” I touched his shoulder and rolled him over, ignoring the fact that his bare skin felt like a hot stove.

I saw his face and immediately curled up into a ball. His mouth hung open, and his eyes were gone. A sticky smear of red on the ground marked where they had burst like runny eggs. Keiji still didn’t move, and I began to retch. But just like before, nothing came out. I was as empty as I could be.

Minutes passed, and a heavy black rain began to fall. It left streaks of darkness down the crumbled walls of our home and formed into inky puddles on the ground. I lay curled up on the ground next to my brother, trying to cry, trying to throw up—trying to get some piece of this experience out of me.

It wasn’t until the black rain had finally tapered and stopped that I realized that mother was still gone downtown. She had been right in the middle of the blast.

***

“Betty! Betty!”

“Dad…it—it was horrible! It was the Hulk! He came from out of the darkness! He—he was terrifying!”

“There, there my dear! You’re safe now!”

“But where did he go? What did he want? Or—or did I imagine the whole thing?”

“I’ll find him, Betty! I swear to you, my child, I’ll find him and destroy him!”

“And yet, in spite of everything, there was something sad about him!! Almost as though he was seeking…help!”

***

Bruce Banner and his sidekick Rick Jones rocket across the Atlantic Ocean after defeating the villain. The Earth is safe for now, and there are more adventures to come. I close the comic and look at the front cover again. Is he man or monster, or is he both? I roll up my sleeve a little, taking note of the scars and boils on skin that never healed. I imagine that it’s bulletproof instead of disfigured forever. Then I try to imagine Keiji transformed into a super hero. Maybe he’s adventuring with mother and father; an entire super family. They’re not really dead. They’re traveling space and fighting Russians. And one day they’ll find me again, their super daughter that they haven’t seen in almost twenty years. And even though I’m grown up now, even though I haven’t been able to show my face in public since 1945, they’ll know who I am. Because I have pretty eyes.

I dream about the blast that night, about parents who I never saw again and a brother who died by my side. Why did Keiji die when I lived? He was right next to me. It’s like fate tossed a coin.

Keina wakes me up early with her singing. Her eyes are bright again, and her feathers are looking better. I smile and stick my nose to the bars. She gives the burned skin a playful peck and begins hopping around in her cage. In the comics, she could be my sidekick.

Later in the afternoon, I notice Adelei on the sidewalk and chase him down.

“How is Keina-chan,” he asks.

“The branches helped. Thank you.” I bow to him, and then hand him my comic. “You should read this. Take it as my thank you gift.”

Adelei looks at the cover curiously. “I haven’t read these things in ages. Is it good?”

The last images of Keiji flash through my mind. “Like the cover says: fantasy as you like it.”

 

Image: The Incredible Hulk #1, Marvel Comics

 

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