By Jude <email@example.com>
Submitted May 2000
Summary: Lois celebrates her birthday, blissfully contemplating her perfect life with Clark and her happy family. But Clark is hiding a horrible medical secret, a legacy from an old foe, and their children's marriages are exhibiting signs of unresolved problems. This story explores what might have happened to Superman as the result of Veda Doodsen's youth exchange experiments in the episode "Brutal Youth."
FEEDBACK: Feedback is solicited and welcome publicly on the list or privately to the above address.
I loved the WAFFY ending of Brutal Youth but was dissatisfied with the way it left questions about Clark's physical future unanswered. I always wondered how Veda Doodsen's traumatic attack on his life force would affect him in later years. This story is one answer to that question.
WARNING: This story contains a giant WHAM and some very unpleasant medical prognosis descriptions.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: My thanks to Nancy Nissen, Nan Smith and Judith Tylke for their invaluable assistance and suggestions as beta readers and to Sue Zabell for her excellent advice in helping me edit my nfic to PG-13 and my Archive editor, LabRat, whose knowledgeable diligence and patience have no end. My special gratitude to Sheila Harper who, early on, encouraged me and helped me to sift through a plethora of ideas so that I could focus on the few essential to the telling of this story.
DISCLAIMER: The characters herein which are from Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman or in the Superman comics belong to Warner Brothers and D.C. Comics, respectively, and no infringement is intended. Those characters, which I have created and delineated for this story, belong to me, as do the events narrated here, and are copyrighted to me.
Emphasized words are enclosed by asterisks, **, and direct thoughts are bracketed within <> marks.
THE ANDES MOUNTAINS OF ECUADOR October 15, 2032
It was 4:52 P.M., Metropolis time, when the mountain blasted from its dormant state, obliterating 1850 feet from its west face and spewing rock, ash, water and downed trees over its apron. Percussion and heat dissolved the snow-covered peak into a devastating flood carrying all of the debris downward in a swift annihilating wave; water, ash and earth quickly became mud slowing the momentum to 175 MPH of suffocating death.
From the depth of the crater, a hole 18 miles in diameter, steam and ash continued to billow. Then, slowly, as though it had been waiting for the sliding mud to prepare a proper carpet, the flaming molten rock began to bubble up from the abyss and spill over the edge, undulating toward the distant ocean. Between the irresistible lava flow and the immovable Pacific, stood seven tiny villages whose inhabitants had barely realized their danger when Nature ordained their inevitable fate.
METROPOLIS 5:00 P.M.
By the time evening newscasts hit the ether, international seismologists had already noted the great cataclysm in the earth's crust and informed the world of another disaster. The news media responded with furious activity as the many reporters and pundits began, in a manner reminiscent of the volcano, to spew out words, sentences, paragraphs describing an event and a remote place they knew nothing about but were unhesitant in discussing.
As darkness swept the sky, above the city two figures floated, waiting. They were soon joined by a third and the three, turning southwest, vanished in an almost indistinguishable streak of light.
THE ECUADORIAN SIERRAS
Throughout the long night, Superman, Ultra Woman and The Defender worked unceasingly lifting terrified Serranos from the smoke and heat that preceded the lava flow. They had no time for the thousands of animals, domesticated and wild, which perished that night, and certainly no way to save the millions of birds whose songs would not return to the region for many years. They pushed from their minds thoughts of the terrible consequences of this savage, destructive waste. It was a self-defense they had learned through hard experience. They concentrated on the task before them thinking only of what *could* be done, leaving behind regret for what could not until, at last, they could turn the rescue operations over to local authorities.
METROPOLIS 3:47 A.M.
Upstairs inside an old townhouse in an aging but still genteel section of town, a lovely dark-haired woman lay sleeping. She stirred without quite waking and backed toward the other side of the bed seeking warmth from the chilly night. Finding only cold sheets, she sighed, curled around the empty pillow lying there, breathed deeply its familiar redolence of shampoo and mint toothpaste and snuggled deeper into sleep.
A few moments later, the bedroom's French windows opened inward; a blue clad man stepped softly over the sill, closed the doors quietly behind him and glided wearily into the bathroom. The sound of the shower was broken occasionally by grunts, betraying sore and aching muscles. Clark Kent stepped out of the shower, whirled gingerly into a pair of sleeping shorts and soundlessly re-entered the bedroom. He carefully eased himself into the space next to his wife, drew her to him and buried his face in her hair. He was asleep even as she nested herself against him.
METROPOLIS 10:34 A.M. OCTOBER 16, 2032
*Mem'ries, light the corners of my mind,
Misty watercolor mem'ries of the way we were.
Scattered pictures of the smiles we left behind,
For the way we were.*
Marilyn and Alan Bergman
Lois Lane Kent sat on the couch in her Metropolis townhouse, looking through the worn scrapbooks detailing Lane and Kent's days as investigative reporters for the old Daily Planet newspaper. In her professional life, she was still Lois Lane, but at home she enjoyed being Lois Lane Kent, wife to Clark and mother of Laura and Chris. Seeing her, one might believe that she was still on the job exposing the hypocrites and criminals of the 21st Century instead of the head of an international relief organization. Her dark hair exhibited a few light strands of gray. Her lovely face, only slightly blurred with age, could still garner second looks. While her figure might be a little fuller than it once had been, it was toned and athletic and envied by many women several years her junior.
From the media unit behind her, the Musikon broadcasting old songs, was playing, "All I Want To Do Is Have Some Fun", by Sheryl Crow.
Slowly Lois leafed back and forth in the book, following no particular order but allowing fate to make the decision about what she would read next. She loved reading these old scraps of newsprint, which reminded her of the days before everything was published electronically. Reading the new Daily Planet on one of their electronic readers just didn't seem to have the same impact as reading the old newsprint edition, and it left her nothing to wash windows with.
A stirring to her left, then a deep breathy almost-snore attracted her attention. She looked over at her husband, half sitting, half reclining at the other end of the couch. He was deep in sleep.
Creases at the corners of his eyes and a slight graying of the hair at his temples signified that his aging process was on a 'normal human' track. The strength of his body was still very evident in the T-shirt and jeans that he was wearing. Lois smiled remembering the first time she had noticed his 'muscular definition', picking him up at his room in the old Apollo Hotel, when they were on their first assignment together, and finding the door opened by a Clark Kent wearing only a towel. Seeing him like that had stirred her more than she had been willing to admit. And he still had that effect on her. Lovingly she placed the back of her hand against his cheek, then turned back to her reading material.
The visi-phone began to chime softly. She answered quickly and saw the face of her daughter Laura on the screen.
"Hi, Mom" Laura said cheerfully.
"Sweetheart! Wait a sec. Let me turn off the speaker and get on the remote-phone. Your Dad's asleep here on the couch next to me, and I'm trying not to wake him. What's up?" Lois spoke softly as she accomplished her tasks.
"Well, one of my questions is already answered I think. I wanted to find out if Dad's recovered yet from last night."
To Lois' relief, Clark didn't often go on these missions any more. When he had begun to show signs of aging, he had reluctantly turned 'Saving the World' over to Laura and her brother, Chris, who were young, strong and more than ready to assume their father's mantle as Defender of Truth, Justice and the American Way. But there would come an occasional tragedy so great in magnitude that a third set of super powers could make a big difference in the scorecard of lives saved and so he would shake out the old cape, whirl into the blue suit (which still fit him *very nicely*, Lois thought) and dash off to help save the day. She had resigned herself and would not worry about what could happen as his powers declined. The erosion, so far, had seemed to 'stabilize and slow', but she and their children were aware of what *could* happen, for they had no idea whether his powers would diminish in a gradual decline or a sudden drain. So they conspired to monitor him surreptitiously.
Lois responded: "He must still be pretty tired, but he won't admit it, and, I think he's a little sore, though of course, he hasn't said anything; but we really haven't had much chance to talk yet. I tried to get him to stay in bed, but he insisted he was hungry and wanted some blueberry pancakes; so we had blueberry pancakes and then he went back to sleep." Her voice was beginning to rise a little as she rattled this off, so she stopped, took a deep breath and continued more calmly. " How about you? Are you all right? Did you have any problems?"
Laura Lane Kent-Forrest's now voiceless face still stared at her mother from the screen. Those who had known Lois Lane when she was a tenacious young reporter often remarked on the astonishing resemblance Laura bore to that beauty, the dreaded 'Mad Dog Lane'. But those who had met Laura, knew that her temperament was like that of her father—calm, imperturbable, deliberative, trusting and friendly.
On screen Laura's mouth moved, but her words were shielded in the earpiece of the remote. "Of course I'm all right. You know I never take chances. It was just a long exhausting slog and I'm not the least surprised that Dad needs to sleep some more. *I* need to sleep some more."
"Then you should be sleeping instead of talking to me. How are my grandchildren? What are they doing right now? What about your brother?"
Ignoring the apparently gratuitous advice in her mother's initial sentence, Laura replied, "Lee and Carla are just fine thank you. They're at daycare right now because I'm at the lab, but they've been driving me crazy for days clamoring to have ice cream and cake with their Gran to celebrate her…"
Lois interrupted. "Yes and I can hardly wait to put on three extra pounds with them too; they're worth every ounce. Tell them their Gran loves them with all her heart, and we'll stuff ourselves with double marshmallow monster chocolate fudge cake slathered in whipped cream and thick white chocolate sauce."
"Mother, do you have any idea how long it takes me to get their bodies back to normal after one of your binges?"
"It can't be as long as it takes me, and anyway, I'm their *grandmother*. It's allowed. I can show you in The Grandmother's Handbook. Besides, they'll *never* be this age again. And you know we only do this on special occasions. You'll understand one day."
"Are we in some kind of weird time warp, here? I thought I stopped having to hear that 'understand someday' rot when I got out of adolescence."
"You're never too old to benefit from your mother's good advice." Thinking that over, "Don't repeat that to your grandmother. Now tell me about your brother."
Like many mothers and daughters Lois and Laura sometimes had disagreements, most good-natured, occasionally acrimonious, but they always found their way back to the deep, abiding affection they had for each other. Laura was Lois and Clark's oldest child, the miracle baby they had hoped for but could never really believe was real until they could hold her in their arms.
Lois loved her with the blinding emotion every mother feels for her first born who reveals the previously unknown result of the reproductive combination of two specific beings.
Laura, resignedly: "Well, you know Chris. He always has to push it to the edge. Last night he kept dive-bombing the crater just to see what it was like to be that close to the melting center of the earth. As usual, he managed to stop short of disaster and avoid turning himself into a fire ball."
"What is he *thinking* of!" Lois' voice began to rise again and to increase in tempo. "I tell him and I tell him, but does he pay any attention to me? No!" Suddenly, Ellen Lane's voice was coming from Lois' mouth. "What do I know? I'm just the mother. I'm not a Super Hero. I don't know anything about it. You're his sister. Can't you stop him? Wait till I get my hands on your father. He'll regret letting my son…"
Laura broke in with, "Yes, Grandma."
Lois halted, mid-sentence, with a horrified look on her face and exclaimed in her own voice, "Omigod, I am. I've turned into your grandmother! They say it happens; that daughters become their mothers, but I never believed it; I mean, I know it happens to other mothers and daughters, but I didn't think it would happen to me because I would never be like my mother in a million years; and now here I am…"
"You're babbling, too," said Laura in a calm, matter-of-fact voice.
Lois 'de-breathed', took another breath to calm herself, and sighed. "You know, if I didn't love you so much, I could put you on my enemies' list for that attitude of yours."
Laura, explaining the obvious: "I know Mom, but you won't. I can always get you with my soulful puppy look, just like Dad."
Laura had inherited her mother's expressive eyes with their explosive ability to move toward the object under question and launch any number of pleasant or unpleasant electrical charges—the renowned Lois Lane Look. But the lighter color of Laura's iris was identical to the soft brown in Clark Kent's eyes, and like him she could use them to affect an' I'm sorry, I didn't mean it' regret that few could resist.
Lois was sure that Clark's look was genuine, but she wasn't always sure about her daughter. Putting on her best 'don't-fool-with-your-mother' manner, Lois said, "Was there something else you wanted, or is this just your 'torment Mom' moment of the day?"
"C'mon, Mom, you know why I really called."
"I don't have the slightest idea what you're talking about."
"Of course, you do. You know what tomorrow is better than *I* do. Wait a minute. What are you doing right now?"
"Nothing." All innocence.
"Yeah, right. You've got those scrapbooks out again and you've programmed all that old music on the Musikon, haven't you?" Silence." Haven't you? And later you'll wheedle Dad into taking you to The Farm for the night. You are *so* predictable."
"What!" This was too much. "Me? Predictable?" Her voice was rising again. "Predictable?!? I have never been *predictable* in my life." Not only was her voice rising to great volume, but the rapidity of her words now rivaled Superman when he achieved vaporizing speed. "I am anything *but* predictable. I'm, I'm…I'm the antithesis of predictable! Why would you say I'm predictable?"
Uh Oh. Laura recognized the signs. It was time to pull back and stop trying to rile her mother. Provoking Lois into babbling mode had become a family game over the years, the kind of pastime that close-knit families develop and practice as a cherished family ritual. Chris was the Master Provoker, but Laura could rise to the occasion when opportunity presented itself. Unfortunately, she didn't have Chris' touch, and often went too far.
For her part, Lois always laughed as much as any of them when she realized what was going on. But when she began to throw her vocabulary around, danger was in the air.
"We-e-e-ll, I didn't mean predictable, *exactly*, Mom."
"Oh? Just what *did* you mean, then?"
"Well, uh, I meant, uh…" Laura had also inherited Clark's penchant for becoming tongue-tied in emotional situations.
"You *meant**predictable*." The loathing scorn Lois heaped on that word reminded Laura of some unpleasant childhood memories. Desperate measures were called for. She blurted,
"Happy Birthday, tomorrow, Mommy, dearest!"
Lois narrowed her eyes, those electrical charges beginning to mass. "You're wishing me a happy birthday and insulting me at the same time?"
Laura sensed that she had made another mistake, but she wasn't sure what it was. "No, Mom, I'm wishing you a happy birthday." Pause. "And, and…and inviting you to dinner at your favorite restaurant to celebrate. That was the other thing I called about."
The atmosphere's sizzling ions hung motionless ready to move in any direction. "Laura, you don't have to do that. You know I don't like to make a big deal about my birthday."
"Sure, Mom, but this is a very special birthday, so it really shouldn't go unnoticed. Chris and I talked and he and Helene and Jack and I want to make it a *memorable* night."
"What? You want to commemorate that I'm finally eligible for Medicare?"
"No, that you're our mother, that we love you and we want you to have a special night." No provocation, no teasing. Just real daughter to mother affection.
Her father's daughter, Lois thought. Makes you mad enough to bite, and then melts you with something so genuinely sweet you could eat it like chocolate. Her anger disappeared with the dispersing ions, and Lois smiled. "Thank you Sweetheart. That's very thoughtful of you and Chris. I wouldn't miss it for a date with Antonio Banderas."
"Never mind. Where are we going? What time shall we meet you?"
"It's your choice, Mom; you tell me and I'll take it from there."
"Well, it's not fancy or fashionable any more, but I've always been partial to Chez Pierre." Lois smiled, glanced left and found Clark grinning back at her.
"Eight o'clock tomorrow at Chez Pierre. Done?"
"Done. See you there. Our love to Jack and those precious children. We love you."
"Love you too. Bye."
Lois looked over at Clark who, still smiling, said, "So why *do* you get out those scrapbooks and listen to that music every year?"
She regarded him with annoyance. "You heard that? Umph, what am I saying. You know you shouldn't listen in on private conversations. You might hear something you really don't want to hear. Now I suppose *you're* going to call me predictable? "
"I wouldn't have missed hearing it. This year's edition of the Lois Lane Birthday Wrangle. But it *was* completely unintentional. I was asleep and my super hearing kind of 'clicked' in, as you were argu…ah, discussing Lee and Carla. And I wouldn't dare call you predictable." He regarded her slyly. " *I* know too much about you. But don't change the subject; you haven't answered my question."
"Oh, Clark, it's just fun to remember those days and listen to music that I love but never get to hear. I'm so busy with CHILD and being a grandmother and tending my roses and visiting Mother and going to the gym and," reaching over to touch the side of his face briefly with her palm, "taking care of you, that I never have time to do something that seems kinda frivolous. It really has nothing to do with getting older, honestly. *That* happens. You just go with it. And is that something new: your super hearing just 'clicking in'? I don't recall that happening before when you were asleep, unless it was some emergency or catastrophe or something." She didn't want him to see that she was distressed at this unusual 'power surge'.
"It's probably one of those functions of getting older that I'll just have to go with, as you say. Being older doesn't seem to have slowed you down though, Honey. You amaze me with all the things you do."
She gave him a lopsided grin. "Well, I have to do amazing things to keep up with this family. Which reminds me, how did things go last night? Do you want to talk about it?" She always tried to be sure he didn't have any residual emotions pent-up after his superheroics. He still tended to keep those things bottled up even after 36 years together.
"It *was* a rough night, Honey, I won't deny that." A pause, then quietly and more slowly, "So many people lost so much. We managed to keep the death toll down…" A longer pause, then briskly, "The devastation of land and the loss of homes and livelihoods were huge, but those are just property and things. They can all be rebuilt and I think WERC will provide the money to help."
When they left the ranks of working journalists Lois Lane and Clark Kent had been much sought after to lend their talents and celebrity to hundreds of worthy causes. But Lois already had a commitment to CHILD, Communities Helping Innocent Lives Develop, an international organization, founded by Lois' Aunt Liz, dedicated to eliminating hunger, homelessness, disease, abuse and ignorance from the lives of children.
Clark had chosen to work with the World Economic/Environmental Recovery Council. Its purpose was to balance the economic needs of the poorer nations with the environmental necessity of maintaining a viable planet.
While CHILD and WERC were separate agencies, their work was interrelated and their executive offices occupied adjacent floors of Gates Tower, space donated to them by the building's owner, The William H. and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Lois looked at him gravely. "Will you go down there for WERC?"
Clark was the council's chief troubleshooter, visiting nations requesting aid and validating their need. His years of travel before joining the Daily Planet and the many languages he spoke made him ideal for the job.
"No, I think I'll send Hector. I've already seen it, and it will give him a chance to visit his folks in Lima."
"What kind of an attitude is that for an ' executive bean-counter'? You'd better watch out; they'll be naming you 'Boss of the Year'," she teased.
"Not if they find out who calls the shots in this house."
She laughed. "If I really called the shots, I'd have made you sleep longer this morning. You don't recover as quickly as you used to, you know, even if you won't admit it."
She had been absently flipping the album pages back and forth as they talked. Looking down she saw the headline NOTED RESEARCHER SEEKING FOUNTAIN OF YOUTH GETS LIFE IN PRISON." Looking at the picture of Dr. Veda Doodsen, Lois asked, "Do you ever regret it?"
"This," she said pointing. "Giving up so much of your life force for Jimmy. You could still be out there catching the bad guys and charming women."
"I have two very capable surrogates catching the bad guys, and I've already charmed the only woman I'm interested in," he said sliding over and putting his arm around her.
She looked at him, laughing, affection shining in her dancing eyes; then she became serious again. "Yes, but we still don't know how many years you may have lost. Dr. Klein never could be really sure. Your metabolism seems to have assumed a kind of human biological clock, and you're aging at the same rate I am, but suppose it speeds up? We've never really talked about this. Suppose all that trauma should suddenly decide to cause a backfire and you started…"
"Honey, Honey. Honey. Don't go looking for trouble." How many times had he said *that*? He touched her arm. "Remember what we said. Live each moment as it comes and don't let opportunities pass you by." A pause. The Musikon began playing Joan Osborne's "Let's Just Get Naked."
Clark looked speculatively at the wall speaker and said, "Speaking of which."
He moved closer and began to nuzzle that very special spot between her earlobe and her shoulder, dropping feathery little kisses in just the right place.
She smiled slowly. "I thought you were tired."
"Not me. I'm wide awake and ready to rock and roll."
"MMMM. That's nice." He had both arms around her now, his hands moving on her body. She leaned back, letting the moment take her, as she closed her eyes.
Kiss. "What do you think?" Kiss. "Wanna go upstairs and *live the moment*?"
"MMHMMM." Suddenly she straightened and opened her eyes. "I think we have a newly decorated kitchen."
Clark lifted his head, blinking owlishly with that 'Where am I? What did I miss?' expression she loved that possessed his face when she took him by surprise. "Wha.. What?"
"I think we have a newly decorated kitchen…a-a-n-n-d …a-a-a… brand new kitchen table."
He sat, still puzzled, for a moment, then smiled, pulled her back into his arms and resumed his pleasurable exploration of her neck and body. Between kisses he said, "A new kitchen table, hmm. Sort of unexplored territory."
"That's righ…hmmmmthere, oh yeah, right there."
He was very familiar with her reaction to his hands touching her *right there* but hearing her say it still excited him.
"You…" kiss, "…might…" kiss, "…even say…" kiss, "…*virgin* territory."
She turned in his arms and began trailing kisses toward his mouth saying, between each one, "You. Might. Say. That." She reached his mouth and forgot about talking.
Scooping her into his arms, he began floating toward the kitchen.
Laughing throatily she murmured, "*Never* call me predictable," then occupied herself with determining how many kisses she could fit on the side of his face.
The swinging doors closed behind them.
*Not a day goes by, I don't think about you.
You left your mark on me; it's permanent, a tattoo;
Pierce the skin and the blood runs through-
O O O O H, ma Baby.*
*The way you move, it's right in time;
The way you move, it's right in time
It's right in time
Lois and Clark broke apart and collapsed on top of their new kitchen table waiting for their rapid breathing to return to normal. Clark, eyes closed, wore a smug "what a good boy am I" smirk. His outstretched left arm pillowed Lois' head. Her eyes, open and sparkling with delight, said that at this moment there was absolutely nothing more in this world she wanted.
"Well," she said, "I was wrong. There's nothing *slow* about the recovery of your powers."
"Oh, really," he said. "Well, as long as I didn't disappoint the lady."
"That's not a word I could ever use about you. You definitely still know how to taxi down the runway and take off, Flyboy."
"So that's what it is. I thought it was my landings you liked."
"*Those* are the *best*!"
She shivered slightly, rolled over and snuggled next to him, her arm across his bare chest. He automatically brought his arm down around her.
"Are you cold, Honey?" he asked.
"A little," she answered; he reached down and pulled a patterned tablecloth over them.
She lifted herself to look at him. "You say the *most* romantic things, Sweetheart. What happened to that silver-tongued Space Man I married?"
He smiled. "He got a house and a wife whose feet turn to ice when it starts getting into chilly October weather. If we're going to turn the furnace on, I need to get furnace filters and probably fuel pellets, too. I don't want *anything about you* to be cold, Baby," he leered mockingly. "So you see, it is romantic in a way."
'Baby' was not a word that Lois Lane had ever tolerated from a man. But with Clark Kent circumstances made a difference. He had many endearments for her that he had affected over the years-honey, sweetheart, darlin', my love, my little tornado— and she had surprised herself by adoring them all. But this one had been the hardest one to accept. Since he only used it in their most intimate moments, and the way he used it wasn't deprecating but teasing or loving, she finally came to tolerate it, and occasionally use it herself for him.
She kissed his chest. "I suppose it *is* romantic in some weird Kryptonian way."
"I haven't had any complaints from all those other women I've charmed."
"They're just fly-by-night-ers; I'm the one with staying power."
"So you are." He kissed the top of her head. "Are you still planning to wheedle me?" She giggled as her finger traced patterns around his chest. "I thought I just did."
"Yes, I'd say, you could probably get pretty much anything you wanted right now."
"A diamond tiara? A sable coat?"
He frowned. " A diamond tiara *might* be do-able, but when and where would you wear it? Definitely *not* a sable coat. I thought you were opposed to, how did you put it, 'adorning your body with the skins of dead animals'?"
"I am. I just wanted to see if you meant it when you said I could have anything. But you men are all the same. *Promise* her anything. Okay, how about a trip to Kansas and a sleepover at The Farm?
"That I can do."
"Good. After lunch?" He nodded assent. "Then I'm headed for the shower. This table is hard and it's starting to get cold in here."
"You'll have to find softer places for your *unpredictable* demonstrations."
He watched appreciatively as she escaped the shelter of the tablecloth, retrieved her clothes and, carrying them, sashayed in that provocative hip-swaying walk through the swinging doors toward the stairs.
"I'll be right up after I check out the furnace," he called after her; he was gone and back from the hardware store in a blur and moving toward the utility room.
Clark sat at *that* table, now covered with a different cloth, reading the Daily Planet's sports page on their electronic newsreader. As the lines of type scrolled up the screen, he reflected, again, that although this way of 'delivering' the news was more environmentally sound, and much more economical, he missed the feel of a real newspaper in his hand.
He missed the smell of ink, the crackle when he turned and folded the page; sneaking looks around it at Lois wearing one of his big sweatshirts over tights, as she stirred soup at the stove. That was probably what he missed most. Of course, he could just look, as he was doing now, but it wasn't as much fun.
The sweatshirt barely dropped below the…*seat* of his interest; the tights clung teasingly to her long legs; on her feet were thick wool socks. The hum of the furnace attested that the house was now warm enough for her to wear her favorite around-the-house leisure outfit.
She always knew he was peeking; catching him at it was part of the game. But no more. <Technological efficiencies don't necessarily make the world a better place>, he thought.
He turned his attention to the scrolling screen, stopped it, ran it back to the point where his mind had wandered and commenced reading again.
"You know," he said, "I really miss having a *real newspaper*."
"I know. I was thinking the same thing today. But we both know that the Planet wouldn't exist any more if they hadn't converted to electronics. Although that was no consolation for all the trades employees who lost their jobs."
"Yeah, well, they could have replaced a few of these sportswriters with people who can actually write English. Sometimes I think those guys are from a *Planet* called Dumb and Dumber. Listen to these leads: 'Metropolis U rolled over Troy today flattening the Trojans by a score of 10-7'; yeah, they were really *flattened* by those 3 points. But this is the worst one. 'Midwestern State, in a hard fought game, squeaked by Utah 28-12.' How can that be a squeak? They've reversed the verbs in those stories!"
"Well, Honey, I don't pretend to understand the mind of a sportswriter, but is it possible that you're just a teeny bit annoyed because you don't like the way they write about *your* team?"
His disgruntled eyes gave her a top-to-bottom scrutiny, which improved his disposition tenfold; so he harrumphed and mumbled something about Superman not getting annoyed by such trivial things.
She turned and looked around the room. "I don't see Superman, do you?"
He got up and advanced toward her. She backed away, wielding the spoon like a sword. Feinting in one direction, he moved quickly in the other brushing, aside the spoon and catching her around the waist.
"You make it hard for me to concentrate on guy things."
"*This* isn't a guy thing?"
He kissed her soundly and said, "You're right. It is. Now serve me my soup, Woman."
She pushed him away, laughing and replying, "Watch it or I'll serve it into your lap. You wanta get the bread?"
Bread and soup are simple foods—wholesome, nutritious, and basic to cultures all over the world. In the Kent household they were not only an enjoyable repast, but also a remarkable accomplishment, because Lois created them.
While she had become an adequate cook through the use of her intelligence and a good cookbook, she had not become an enthusiastic one; preparing a meal was never something Lois looked forward to. She might have persevered to reach a peak of culinary success, but as an achievement this was not an Everest in her range of obsessions. So she never got the knack of that natural sense of *what* to put together and *how* to put together ingredients that made for pleasurable eating. Except for these two things.
She had watched Martha making vegetable soup at The Farm and noted how much Clark loved eating it, but really hadn't wanted to do all that work until Martha told her,
"Honey, all this chopping and pounding is better than 10 sessions on a psychiatrist's couch for getting rid of your frustrations. Try it, you'll see."
So she had tried it and, amazing but true, chopping all those vegetables was better than a dozen cutting remarks aimed, under her breath, at incompetent assistants. And punching and kneading bread dough was far more productive than fantasizing about punching out glory-seeking politicians or CHILD Executive Board members. Whenever problems at the Planet or the CHILD Foundation started driving her crazy, off she would go to the kitchen. Clark quickly learned, when he heard the accompanying mutterings and rants, to find errands outside the house until calm and serenity prevailed once again. Subsequently, the amount of soup and bread dough found in their freezer was directly correlative to the frustrations Lois felt with her working world.
It was a quaint, old-fashioned thing that hardly anybody did anymore. Food preservation and processing were very sophisticated these days, and there were machines to mix, knead and bake bread, but the therapeutic effects were more than she was willing to give up. And, she had finally found a use for those crock-pots.
They ate their meal, cleaned up and prepared to take off for The Farm, quickly packing the things they would need for overnight.
As he carried their bags to the window seat, Clark said, "I have to call Hector to fill him in on the extent of the environmental recovery aid he's authorized to offer the Ecuadorian government from WERC. After that, we can leave, okay?"
Lois responded, "Sounds good. I need to talk with Maria about setting up the logistics for aid to the affected families in the refugee centers. Otherwise, I'm pretty much ready to take off."
Comprised of representatives from the nations of the world, WERC provided advice and economic support to second and third world nations as they attempted to raise their people from poverty. Through aid and funding, it also encouraged those nations recovering from natural disasters to avoid depleting resources whose loss would endanger the world's delicate environmental balance.
The presence of both CHILD and WERC would be vital to the people of Ecuador as they restored natural harmony to their country.
Twenty minutes later, he lifted her in his arms and, departing from their bedroom window, streaked through the bright blue sky toward Kansas.
KANSAS 2:34 P.M.
*And if you and I go wandering
Down the days-imagining—
We will find the things that we hold dear:
Like the shadows on the snow,
Like the light this time of year,
Like the birds that never go,
Like the first star to appear,
Like the coming of the Dawn
Like the running of the Deer,
Like love's old sweet song
With the words that bring a tear.*
Clark timed their arrival in Kansas to coincide with the schedule of an airliner from Metropolis. Now that The Farm was in the hands of a caretaker, they could no longer fly straight in, but had to set down in Topeka, rent a transporter, and drive to their final destination. It was reminiscent of the days before Lois knew the *real* Clark when he had resorted to subterfuge in his travel plans to prevent her from discovering his alter ego.
It was a beautiful October day in Kansas, temperature hovering just at 70 degrees, warm sun shining brightly on the harvested fields no longer green but waves of brown and yellow with occasional splashes of orange pumpkins, harbingers of Halloween. He could have programmed their destination into the Global Positioning Satellite System and let the vehicle take them but he enjoyed the feel of the wheel in his hands, controlling the movement himself. As they floated on an air foil down the transportation corridor, top down on their sport speeder, hoping to put thoughts of Metropolis, their work, the world, behind them for the remainder of the trip, they discussed final details concerning Ecuador.
"Did you reach Hector to let him know about going to Ecuador?"
"Not personally; I left a voice mail and sent e-mail instructions to Margaret at the office to check with him about making his reservations. Did you talk with Maria?"
"No, but I left a message that CHILD would be getting supplies and medical personnel to the area so she should find suitable space for storage and housing. I also contacted Doctors Without Borders to let them know that we would be picking up the tab for their services down there. They told me they would have a medi-plane en-route within 12 hours and were faxing my office a list of the supplies they would need. At this point I feel pretty good about our timetable. I just hope we don't run in to any stonewalling I haven't anticipated."
"What do you mean?"
"Well I know it's hard to understand, but some governments can put all kinds of barriers in our way when we're trying to help them. You've run into that, haven't you? Some places it's even worse if they don't like dealing with a woman. You'd think we could make a little more progress than we have in that arena. Some countries in South America are especially bad; I just don't know about Ecuador."
"So what will you do if there are problems?"
"Maria's very capable. *You've* met her. She's young but she doesn't give ground to any of that old world macho stuff, so I'll wait to see how she does. If necessary, I'll go down there myself."
Lois was CHILD's president and the leader of its fund-raising campaigns. As such she made frequent trips to cities around the world reassuring local government officials and bringing encouragement and hope to many who were living in squalid conditions and who had thought they were completely abandoned. Clark worried about her, but she kept trying to tell him that since she was no longer poking her nose into bad guys' business, bad guys were no longer interested in her.
She interrupted him, "Don't say it. I'm not going unless I absolutely have to. And I'll be on the coast in Guayaquil. The volcano's way up in the mountains, hundreds of miles away. What danger could I be in?"
He looked sideways at her, shook his head and said, "I'm not even gonna touch that one."
"Good, because you know it won't do you any good," she said, laughing.
"It never does. Well, if you have to go, Hector will be there and he can look after you."
"I don't need *looking after*; and really, Hector doesn't strike me as the rugged he-man bodyguard type. More like the bookish, accounting type."
"Looks can be deceiving," he said, grinning at her, "as you should remember. He's very capable; he just prefers to use his brain, rather than his brawn."
"Okay, okay. I want Maria to be working with him anyway, so I guess if it makes you feel better, he can "*look after* us. Besides, I may not even be going, so this whole discussion is moot. What about you? You're going to be content to sit here in Metropolis and let Hector have all the fun?"
"That's what I do— delegate— whenever I can. And I won't be going down there unless there are real problems, which I don't foresee unless a certain little tornado turns everything upside down."
"Well it might be kind of fun to go together. A sort of South American second honeymoon."
"How many second honeymoons do you need? Are you trying for every country in the world?"
"Sounds good to me."
"Actually, I kinda like that idea myself. But sorry, Honey, I can't do it this time. I have a report to the Council coming up and I've got to get working on it."
"Spoilsport. Guess we'll just have to make do with The Farm."
"I'm weak with anticipation."
They smiled at each other, touched hands and relegated Ecuador to obscure corners of their minds. Now free from intruding thoughts, they rode: he, silent, listening delightedly to Lois chatter about the sights they were passing, what a perfect day it was, describing for him what he had already seen; the two of them enjoying the feel of the warm sun on their bodies, the rush of air touching their faces, and breathing in the smell of the soil. As they passed through the heart of the Great Plains, their own heartbeats gradually slowed to the pulse of the farmland.
When they finally reached their destination they were met by Andy Sawyer, their caretaker and longtime friend.
"Good to see you, Andy," Clark said, shaking his hand.
"How're you folks doing? Lois. Clark. "
"Wonnnderful now that we're here again," said Lois spreading her arms wide and pirouetting as she took in the familiar surroundings.
"We won't be able to stay long, but it feels great just to see the old place again," said Clark.
"Here, I'll help ya get these bags upstairs and then you can just unwind", said Andy. "Things are pretty quiet now that the harvest is over. Had a real good Corn Festival this year. Too bad you couldn't make it."
"We really missed being here. The Corn Festival is something really special to us," Lois said, smiling at Clark.
Smiling back, Clark added, "Yeah. We'd never miss it if we had the choice."
By this time the bags were safely deposited in Clark's old room. "Why don't you relax, Honey. I'm gonna walk Andy out. Shouldn't be too long. You can decide how you want to spend the rest of the afternoon."
With that, he and Andy walked down the stairs and out into the yard. Lois knew that they would spend some time discussing the repair of the place and what it needed to get through another Kansas winter. And Clark would find out about Andy's family, his newly married daughter and was there a grandchild on the way yet; and his son now at Clark's old Alma Mater; would he be playing football and what were the chances for the team this year.
Andy's wife had passed away 3 years before, after an unexpected stroke, and it had been hard on him and the children, but they were finally getting past their grieving time and Lois hoped that Andy might even find someone to share, if not his life, at least some happy times. She shivered as the thought fleetingly touched her consciousness of what losing Clark would mean to her.
She unpacked their things, put them away and changed into jeans and a sweater, deciding that she would like to go for a walk, maybe down to the lake. She was just putting on her walking boots when Clark came back into the room. "Everything okay?"
"Yeah. You know, that guy is really something. The Farm couldn't be in better shape, the house is tip-top, and he's worried that we might think he's not doing his job. Also, it seems that Agri-Com wants to re-negotiate our deal even though we have another year left on our contract. Andy thinks another big outfit is nosing around this area and that we might have some leverage to improve on the current agreement. What do you think about that?"
"I think the business world lost another Donald Trump when Andy decided to be a farmer. His family?'
"Everyone's doing fine. No grandchild on the way yet, the football season looks promising, and Andy seems happier than I've seen him in a long time. He mentioned that he asked Sarah Godden to come in and cook while we're here and from the look on his face, I'd say they might be doing a little cooking themselves." Noticing her boots, "A walk?"
"Yep, through the woods and around the lake. Get that spin thing going S-man and let's get outta here."
She had barely said the words when, clad in boots, jeans and a flannel shirt, he was opening the door for her. "Shall we cross Shuster's field first, or coming back?"
"Coming back. I want to go through the woods before it gets too chilly. These sunny days are nice, but they don't last very long."
He nodded in agreement, saying, "Better take a jacket," as he grabbed one for each of them off the coat rack.
Then they were out the door and down the steps, headed past the house toward the woods in back. As they entered the gloom of this 20-acre patch of O-so-scarce trees in the Kansas prairie, the odor of the damp earth rose to their nostrils. Clark breathed deeply as though he were taking sustenance from the smell of the rich soil. Lois, too, breathed in the scent of the cool loam, and smiled remembering that the first time she came through here she had thought something was dead. Where were the carbon monoxide, hot grease, mixed perfumes, garbage, heavy musk smells that said 'life' in Metropolis? Now she thought she would be content to walk this fragrant corridor daily for the rest of her life. <What was that old poem? 'The woods are lovely, dark and deep; but I have promises to keep and miles to go before I sleep.' Well maybe someday, we can spend day after long lazy day, quietly, here. But for now the occasional trip will have to do.>
Clark took her hand and they wandered down the path delighting in the colorful mix of dark evergreens interspersed with deciduous trees' changing hues of red, orange, gold, an occasional autumn bronze, burnt sienna or a startling magenta: an Impressionist's painting capturing their eyes and enhancing their sensibilities.
The path suddenly opened to sunlight shining on still water mirroring the azure sky; they stopped, immersed in the new sensations, overwhelmed with the pleasure of absorbing them. He dropped her hand and put his arm around her shoulders.
"It's almost too much to bear, isn't it?" she whispered. "I expect the world will have to end after such a perfect moment." He squeezed her shoulder in response; he had no words.
They circled the lake and found themselves in Shuster's field as the sun dropped low on the horizon. Arm in arm they walked silently across the grass, down the road and passed by the barn to lean on a fence and watch the sun slowly dip beyond their vision, leaving fiery yellow remnants in a haze of smoke from someone burning leaves somewhere. They inhaled deeply the tang of the smoke mixed with the sharp frost of the night air, freeing childhood memories of piling up leaves, jumping in them, standing with Daddy watching the bright patterns turn to ash.
They continued to stand while the blackness crept upon them; suddenly they could see a single star, then a sky full of stars. A waxing harvest moon nearly a perfect circle dispelled the dark and they wrapped arms around each other gazing at the resplendent heavens, heads touching until Lois shivered and had to put on her jacket. Then they turned and walked into the farmhouse where cheerful lights and a warm fire turned away the chill of the night.
Sarah had left a hearty country meal of chicken and dumplings with green beans and carrots, a salad and a cinnamon apple crisp with heavy cream. Clark loved the warm feeling of the good farm food. Lois concurred except that she would have preferred something chocolate for dessert.
They ate in the kitchen and, afterwards, quickly cleaned up; then, he made a pot of tea. They adjourned to the comfortable family room and sat in front of the log fire, feet up on the coffee table, enjoying their tea— finally decompressed from the vexations of Metropolis living.
He put his arm around her and kissed the side of her forehead. She leaned her head on his shoulder and watched the fire, pensively. Finally she spoke:
"Clark, do you ever wonder if our kids could possibly have found as much happiness as we have? Do you think it's possible that anyone could?"
"I don't know, Honey. I just know that every day we have together is better than the last, and I don't want to analyze it or question its place in the great scheme of things. I just want to live it."
Raising her head, she turned his face toward her with her hand and kissed him gently on the lips.
"How come you always seem to know the perfect thing to say at times like this?"
"It's your influence, darlin'. You just seem to have that effect on me."
It was his turn now and he took her lips in his, lightly tasting them, more loving than lusting. They settled together comfortably.
"I guess it would be a lot to expect for anyone, even Laura and Chris to find what we've found. I just worry that they might have settled for less. Well, not *they*. I think Chris is happy, or will be when he stops playing Peter Pan. He has Helene and they're so *right* together. But I'm afraid Laura may have made a mistake and is too stubborn to admit it."
He looked at her in surprise. "You don't think she and Jack are right for each other?"
"C'mon Clark. She's *my* daughter and she's married to *Ralph*. How could they be right for each other?"
He chuckled at the image. Ralph who had been a reporter with them at the Daily planet might have been charitably described as "obnoxious". On any sensitivity meter applied to the terms "cultured" and "political correctness", he would have ranked several degrees lower than Ace Ventura.
"Yes, Jack *does* remind me of Ralph in some ways, but there must be something solid there, or she wouldn't have fallen so head-over-heals in love with him."
"Well, if there *is* anything worthwhile he sure keeps it well hidden, because I haven't seen even a glimmer, except during their first few months together. And by the way, that expression 'head-over-heels' could be an appropriate description for a very physical attraction that burned itself out."
"You think that?"
"I don't know. I just feel that something's not right, but no matter how much I hint, she won't talk to me about it."
"Honey, you know Laura. When she's ready, she'll tell you everything."
"Sweetie, she's *your* daughter. She needs a *lot* of prompting. This is one secret I don't think I can figure out by myself."
He laughed, bent to kiss her again, when there was a knock at the door.
It was Andy who had come by at Clark's request, to finalize some strategy for negotiating with Agri-Com.
"I'm sorry, Hon. This is going to take a while. Should we go out to the workshop?"
"No, that's okay. I'm a little tired. I think I'll go on up to bed and read. Take your time. Good night, Andy."
"I won't be too late, Honey. See you in a bit."
Later, Lois lay in Clark's old room, waiting for him to join her. He was usually the one waiting, but tonight while he talked with Andy, she had removed her makeup, showered, slipped on her nightgown, brushed her hair 25 times and slid into bed, missing the liquid brown eyes that usually watched her do these things.
She and Clark preferred to use his old room when they were at The Farm, even though the larger master bedroom where Martha and Jonathon had been comfortable for so many years was empty and theirs now by default. At holiday times, with their family gathered, they did use the larger room, but preferred the smaller one when they were there alone.
The familiarity of something that had been only Clark's and the intimacy of the narrow bed comforted both of them. Lying close to each other, forced to touch even in sleep, they shared a chrysalis of renewal, each taking strength from the other, so that when they woke it was to be reborn into a fresh inviting world. The Farm had this effect on them, always: a magical retreat where cares disappeared and everything was possible.
Lois remembered the first time she had seen the room that she loved, when Martha, in assigning sleeping arrangements, had wondered if she and Clark were… and she had quickly said "no…no!" rolling her eyes at the impossibility of such a thing. Clark had blushed and turned his head in embarrassment. But it was on that trip that she had first seen Clark as something more than a partner who had been thrust upon her; as someone she could care for as a friend. Every time she visited The Farm after that, their relationship seemed to have changed, as she grew closer and closer to admitting her love for him. What a foolish waste of time it had been to first deny and then resist those feelings.
Her husband finally came in, smiled at her, closed the door behind him, said, "I'll just be a minute," entered the batheroom and, almost instantly, re-emerged, hair damp from the shower, wearing sleeping shorts.
Lois regarded his well-proportioned body, her in-drawn breath attesting to the effect his physique imparted and her knowledge of how he could harness that strength and power to focus on bringing pleasure to her and satisfaction to both of them. As he aged, his bulk had shrunk slightly, and there were a few sags around his neck, but the force that he radiated erased their visibility.
"Get all the problems ironed out?" she asked. He shook his head. "There really aren't any. We're very lucky to have found Andy to look after this place. I guess Mom and Dad *found* him when they took him on as a hired hand. But to know that he actually *wanted* to stay on here when they finally had to move into Silver Meadows…" He shook his head again in puzzlement.
"I know," said Lois. "Not many people want to live on a farm these days, much less want the responsibility of keeping it up. Even though he doesn't do any actual farm work, he does have to keep this old place in repair and check to be sure that Agri-Com doesn't abuse the land."
"Well, Honey, that's not as likely as it once might have been. You know with 15 billion people on the planet, there just isn't *enough* land anymore. Everyone is forced to take care of what we have. If we hadn't been able to lease our land for conglomerate farming, we'd have had to give up the place long ago."
"I can't imagine our lives without this." She gestured around her, pausing to consider what consequences that would bring. "This place has meant so much in our lives and for our kids. The summers they spent here with your folks kept them in touch with what's good in life and away from the sick influences in Metropolis."
"I thought you big city girls didn't like spending time with all these cows and us hayseeds. And Metropolis isn't the perfect place to live?"
She smiled. "Let's just say, I've learned a few things from a pretty impressive Farm Boy." She continued, speaking seriously, "Anyway, with such an overpopulation problem, I wonder how much longer we can justify having two homes, It doesn't seem fair when so many have to live in 100 story apartment boxes. I'm really trying to make CHILD a force for birth control, but many local communities, where populations are low, just refuse to listen to anything that doesn't meet their particular needs."
"Well you can't force it on them. Isn't that why CHILD has been so successful? Because it leaves autonomy pretty much at the community level, rather than sending directives from the top."
"You're right, but it's still frustrating when the problem is so serious… I know, I know. It's always easier when a few people make the decisions and everyone else just has to go along. I *do* understand the Universal Code; I just don't always have to like it."
"What? You complaining about rules? I'd never have thought it."
"Yeessss, of course," she purred. "And how very bright of you to say so. Now, are you coming to bed, or are you going to continue to stand there showing off your, mmm," she languidly toured his body with her eyes moving over his bare chest, down his washboard stomach and lingering below his waist, before returning to his face, leaving scorched flesh in their wake, "mmm intelligence?"
He looked at her-dark curly hair, lovely face, bare tanned shoulders, diaphanous nightgown and retorted, "*You* have a very smart mouth. I think I need to teach it and you another lesson."
Her voice was low and sultry: "Well I'm always receptive to instruction, if you really think you have something to *teach* me." She gave him a mock defiant look.
He dived on top of her, but controlled his descent so that he landed very gently but firmly, holding her in place as her knees cradled him.
"Now, where shall I start?" He began to kiss her, his tongue seeking entry at her lips. There was no struggle. Her mouth opened to him and their tongues flicked lightly, exploring each other. Her arms went around his shoulders, her hands feeling the taut muscles of his back and moving across and around, delighting in the smoothness of his skin. His response to her touch was instantaneous and his breath quickened. He rolled to his side taking her with him. Helping each other they removed the remainder of their clothing.
Now his hands began to gently search her body, imparting adoration with every touch, drawing from her equal moves and small sounds of appreciation.
He levitated above her, on his knees, and his eyes traveled slowly up the length of her body, following the sinuous curves that lured and entrapped him just as they had done in their first sexual encounters. She was the embodiment of Woman in his eyes and would be at whatever age.
She inhaled sharply as she caressed the completeness of him with her eyes, her gaze crossing over his chest, taking in his powerful biceps, his neck, chin and finally meeting his eyes at the moment he looked into hers.
In his she saw wonder tinged with the modicum of fear and doubt with which he always regarded her in these moments, questioning, "Is it true. Do you really love only me? Are you really mine? Will I never lose you?" In her eyes he saw deep love, constant and sustaining that said, "I love you. We belong together. You will never lose me."
No matter the number of times the act was repeated, the questions were always asked, and the reply always given, in a renewal of commitment exchanged freely.
Now he was kissing down her throat. She took his head in her hands and helped him find the right places. They made love with the sweet familiarity borne of their years together.
They lay, resting; then his need of her and her desire for him flickered again and he began to kiss and caress her, finding the intense reaction he'd hoped for as she responded, moving into his hands and under his body. They loved again, discovering once more the great passion that still burned between them.
Later they fell asleep—he, heavily and deeply; she lightly and intermittently, waking frequently, her brain tumbling over with uncontrolled thoughts. The Farm, the spell it cast, the years of their lives.
It always seemed to be the same, the night before her birthday. Memories, good and bad, crowded her brain and demanded to be taken out and examined before they could be discarded for another year.
She watched him sleep, this man she had fought loving for so long. Childlike, wise; naïve, sophisticated; farm boy, world traveler; the gentlest, most selfless person she had ever known, the strongest man in the world; best friend, passionate lover; alien being and inhabitant of earth with a greater sense of humanity than most of the natives of the planet; Clark Kent, Superman—all of these made up the paradox and paradigm that were her husband.
What a miracle it was, not just that he had found her, but that he had chosen her, and then refused to let her reject him.
And how lucky she was that her Aunt Liz had shown her that she was being foolish about him; that loving and giving were indispensable, too vital to squander. She thought of her Aunt Liz, her life and her death too soon, in a plane crash, and what her life and death had meant to her niece. Perhaps that was the story she would tell this year at her birthday celebration.
Clark shifted slightly, his body warming the length of her. She leaned against him, laying her arm across his waist, listening to him breathe.
<His sleep is so deep these days, deeper but not as long.> She wondered if it were something she should be worried about, or was it, as he said, just another sign of growing old?
<Surely it was *that*, not some signal that his powers were going more rapidly.> No, she was sure that all was right in their world.
But in Laura's world? <Oh, my precious little one, how I wish I could kiss it and make it all better, but you bear your hurts alone these days.>
<How beautiful the moonlight is through the window.> She yawned.
<What a lovely day this has been.> She snuggled against her husband, and closed her eyes, just for a moment. As she wandered into sleep her last thought was <Oh, Laura, please let me help.>
Feigning sleep, Clark lay savoring the warm softness of his wife's body molded against him and thought sadly that perhaps this was the last time they would share this bed.
After endless nights lying here, wondering if he would always have to be alone, or if he would be lucky enough to find someone who could love him; who could share his life; who could belong to him; through some impossible whim of destiny, out of all the women in the universe, he had found *her*. She was here, she loved him, she shared his life and she belonged only to him.
Now he would have to give her up, if what he suspected turned out to be true; he couldn't see any other way. His eyes, open in anguish, closed against the unbearable thought.
METROPOLIS October 17, 2032
*You can look into her eyes and live forever;
She's as restless as the sea;
She's as calm as a summer's dawn
She's that kind of mystery.*
*Love comes in the sound of a dream
In the whisper of a prayer and the promise in a sigh;
Love comes from the corners of a smile,
But it isn't meant for you; she'll only stay a while*
On the night of her 65th birthday, Lois sat looking critically at herself in her makeup mirror. Hair curled attractively and in place, foundation lightly applied, eye shadow blended in evenly, eyebrows shaded lightly, mascara and eyeliner perfectly highlighting her eyes, lipstick shade just right and applied neatly-so what was wrong? She had an unsettling feeling about something.
Rising, she walked over to the full length mirror to see a lithe, attractive woman wearing a deep violet high-necked dress of velvet with a matching short jacket, perhaps a little too dressy for a bistro like Chez Pierre, but she liked to dress up for her birthday and the kids expected it. Her shoes were black leather pumps and her purse a matching Chanel clutch with a gold clasp. Around her neck was a gold heart shaped locket Clark had given her many years ago and her earrings were simple gold teardrops. She had forsaken her watch this evening and wore plain gold bangles on her right wrist. She looked —
"Sensational," said Clark from the doorway of their bedroom. She turned her head and smiled at him.
"Thank you. You don't look so bad yourself," she said, taking in his very nicely-cut charcoal suit, patterned white on white shirt bedecked with a Dali-esque tie and well-shined black oxford shoes.
"And since you look so great, why are you frowning at yourself?"
As she opened her mouth to reply, the doorbell chimed once and then again insistently.
"I'll get it," said Clark. "Hold that thought; I'll be right back."
She turned her attention back to the mirror. <Why *am* I frowning? Everything *looks* okay, but *something* doesn't *feel* okay.> She looked at herself, waiting for that person in the mirror to give her an intelligent answer.
<This is ridiculous. Next I'll be getting out the Ouija board to see if I can get Katie Banks to give me some answers. I know it's almost Halloween, but spooks are definitely not a part of tonight's agenda.>
She heard a crash from downstairs and the sound of glass breaking.
"Clark?" she called loudly. "Is everything all right?"
"All taken care of, Hon. Everything's under control."
<Right. I'd better go see what the damage is.> She walked toward the bedroom door just as Clark appeared carrying a white vase filled with deep red roses interspersed with creamy tulips, folds lined in red.
"Happy Birthday, Sweetheart!" He placed the vase on a table by the door, took her in his arms and kissed her lovingly.
"Oh Clark, they're beautiful!" she exclaimed. "Is this what you were on the phone about earlier?" She kissed him lightly on the lips. "You are *so* sweet!" She gave him a radiant smile.
"If I can get that smile with just a few flowers, I might become a florist." Another smile and another kiss.
"Uh, Honey. You know that big glass vase you had?"
Arranging the flowers. "You mean the Waterford Crystal one the Dublin CHILD people gave me when…" Horrified pause. "You broke it?"
"I'm really sorry, Honey. I didn't know it had sentimental value. Not that that would have made any difference; it just seemed to slip out of my hand."
She stopped thinking about the vase. This was not a normal thing. "What? It was wet, or you didn't get a good grip?"
"No, I was carrying it over to the sink to put water in it, and I couldn't feel the vase for a second; it was like my hand wasn't there. I must have been distracted by something. I'm really sorry about it. I can get you another; it just won't be from the Dublin people."
"Something from you is a hundred times more precious to me than all the gifts in the world from someone else. You know that." She tried to sound matter-of-fact, hoping he would not see her concern. "But how does your *hand* feel now? Is it all right?"
He answered in an offhand manner, "Feels just like always. As I said, I think I heard something from outside that distracted me. It won't spoil your evening, will it?"
She came over and put her arms around him, giving him a tight hug. "As long as you're with me, it can't be spoiled." But she determined, as she turned away to take the vase downstairs, that she would definitely talk with Bernie Klein about this tomorrow.
When they arrived at Chez Pierre, Laura and Jack were already there waiting at a table in an alcove, Laura having made arrangements for a semi-private setting for the party.
Laura greeted her parents with a kiss and a hug, giving a special one to Lois along with a "Happy birthday, Mom."
Jack shook hands with Clark saying, "Hey, Big Fella," and slapping him on the shoulder. From his indistinct speech, it was clear he had already visited the bar several times.
"Lois, Sugar! If you aren't just the sexiest thing I've seen in a month a Sundays. You don't look like a senior citizen to me, heh, heh." He laughed blearily.
Lois tried not to cringe, but Laura did it for her. Clark quickly intervened, taking Jack by the elbow, moving him away from the two women, saying, "Tell me about your last trip, Jack. I understand you were in Moscow. As I recall it begins to get really cold there this time of year."
"I'm sorry, Mom. He stopped at the bar as soon as we got here. He's been really upset about something since he came back yesterday and alcohol seems to be his way of forgetting."
"Alcohol is a very poor way of solving problems, no matter how much you forget. You know you're just making excuses for him, Laura. Is that your way of forgetting?"
"Forgetting what, Mother? Jack and I are going through a bad patch right now. It's nothing serious. We'll work through it."
"Honey, you know I'm here for you whenever you need me. I wish you'd talk to me about it, let me help you."
"Honestly, Mother, there's nothing to talk about. We'll handle it."
"Okay, Okay. I guess I have to apply the Universal Code even in my own family."
"Nothing, just something your father and I were talking about." Lois, looking around, changed the subject by saying, "I really love this place."
At one time in the past there probably really had been a Pierre at home in this restaurant, but he had long ago moved on to another kitchen, in another place—a grand hotel in New York City or on the Continent, maybe even Paris itself. Or perhaps he had gone into the Great Beyond seeking a place as sous-chef at the feet of the great Escoffier.
Chez Pierre itself had undergone many changes through the years, most of them for the worse. It had served time as a Pizza joint, a Chinese take-out, even a Dairy Queen. Eventually, life being what it is, it had come almost full circle.
Where, in its inception, there had been white walls, white tablecloths, gleaming cutlery, sparkling crystal, waiters in black tie— in short a high style Grand Cordon Bleu establishment — there were now the color, warmth and intimacy of a neighborhood Bistro which, nevertheless, counted among its patrons professionals of all ages from all over Metropolis.
At one side of the room, a serving counter of dark red brick fronted an open kitchen whose cast iron stove and stainless steel appliances sat before a similar red brick wall.
On the opposite side of the room was a huge natural stone fireplace in which artificial logs containing fuel pellets blazed brightly. A dark, carved oak mantle encompassed the opening and on it sat antique implements, kitchenware from several centuries ago: pewter plates and mugs, an iron kettle, a long handled warming pan and small black pots with handles for hanging over a fire.
To one side, set into a wall next to the mural of a French countryside, was the door to a hallway leading to the rear entrance. On the other side were recessed alcoves providing semi-privacy for groups of party-goers.
The floor between was home for wooden tables bearing checked tablecloths of white and red matching the color of the brick and chairs of sturdy wood frames with comfortable padded backs and seats covered in pewter colored fabric. Each table was festooned with bud vases containing red and white carnations and votive candles in round glass holders. Most of these tables were occupied by patrons chatting and enjoying their food. The ordered sound of classical music from the Baroque period provided a pleasant background to the low hum of voices.
As frequently happens when restaurants come and go quickly, the original electric sign on the building façade had remained through all of the structure's incarnations, and was now a Metropolis landmark. No matter who the proprietor might be, the place would forever be known as Chez Pierre.
The current inhabitant, Maxim Lavalier, presided from the open kitchen. Beneath a white chef's hat, his round face, setting a tone of comfortable cheeriness, beamed a welcome to friends and newcomers. Since it was a family owned and operated establishment, Maxim's wife Angelique greeted customers and handled the cash register; son, Jean, and daughter, Amelie, waited tables clad in red striped shirts with knotted yellow neck kerchiefs and black wide leg trousers cinched at the waist with soft cord.
From the kitchen, depending upon the evening's Especialites des Jour, came the enticing odors of Bouillabaisse, Ratatouille, Ragout de Veau, Poulet en Cocotte or Cassoulet de Porc et Agneau. A Biftec Bordelaise avec Champignons could be had by those who preferred not to stray too far, gastronomically, from the good old USA.
The food was delicious; the wines, first-rate; the atmosphere inviting; the ambience, comfortable; the small alcoves off the main room made a semblance of privacy possible and she and Clark held sentimental memories of having had their first real date here.
<I couldn't have picked a better place to celebrate. I just hope Jack-ass doesn't get too unbearable> She had mentally bestowed this name upon her son-in-law on another such night when he had been an insufferable donkey, braying crude remarks loudly, drawing glares from strangers surrounding them. But she would never have used the epithet aloud, although she *had* shared it with Clark.
Her reverie was interrupted by the arrival of Chris and Helene.
"Happy Birthday, Beautiful. My favorite Mom is looking terrific as usual."
Chris lifted Lois off her feet and twirled her around while bestowing a big wet kiss on her cheek. She gave him a playful punch to remind him to have respect, but her smile belied any reprimand. Helene followed with a hug and kiss of her own, then greetings were exchanged among all family members, with Jack perhaps lingering a bit too long in his embrace of his sister-in-law. Chris, noting this unwelcome attention, moved in to separate the two; while doing so, he and Clark exchanged raised eyebrows.
Christopher James Kent was 5 years younger than his sister and different in looks and personality. Where Laura was dark like her parents he was fair with striking auburn hair, a corporeal reminder of Elizabeth Curtis, Ellen Lane's sister. His eyes were green with brown flecks and the mischief in them was Lois' own when she was deliberately going *her* way contrary to Clark's precautions. It was Clark's broad smile he bestowed on everyone about him; although it could, upon provocation, morph into Lois' impish grin.
Chris stood six feet three inches tall with muscles of steel and inherited Superpowers. In his persona as The Defender he was forced to cover his hair with a cowl and wear a mask and contact lenses to hide his eyes so that he would not be recognized. He hated the deception necessary to hide his real identity, but chafed even more under the tight rein, which Superman imposed, that prevented the kind of hi-jinks he loved to indulge in. He was a good-natured prankster and found in laughter the zest for life he might otherwise have missed.
At 29, he was still, in many ways, an errant schoolboy playing tricks to keep from being bored. Why this was so was a mystery to his parents. He had been their bonus baby, the icing on the cake, the cherry on top of the sundae. Lois had just about decided that the miracle of conception was not going to repeat itself, when without warning, he was there, inside her, growing, moving, kicking with a fervor Laura had not exhibited. He had continued this frenzied commotion after birth and throughout his childhood and adolescence.
He had plagued his teachers with his tricks and impressed them with his intelligence. A natural leader, he was as likely to lead his friends on a truant adventure angling for bottom fish down near Hobbs Bay as he was to astound with the lightning solution to a particularly difficult math problem.
And always following him in silent attendance was the beautiful little girl, Helene Friskin Klein, only and unexpected child of Ruth Friskin and Bernard Klein. Born six months apart, the two special children had grown up together and she had been under his protection since nursery school.
Quiet, and so intelligent that she seemed almost otherworldly with her still, beautiful face and silver blonde curls, she was a natural target for other less fortunate children: girls who mistrusted her beauty and intelligence and boys, especially, who wanted her to notice them and therefore showed their interest by making her life miserable.
Chris would have none of it and quickly established that anyone who bothered her would answer to him. Since he was capable of inflicting more misery on them than they could on her, her classmates left her alone, which meant that she was virtually without friends. Except for Chris. They became inseparable. Even when she had strayed from academe as a teen to dabble in modeling, he was there on the fringe of the sycophants and panderers who wanted to exploit her beauty and amiability. He steadied her and when she decided to leave the high life to study medicine he was at her side encouraging and supporting her.
She became a psychiatrist conducting experiments in human behavior at STAR Labs and he, following in his parents' footsteps, became a hard-working journalist with the promise of many Kerth awards and perhaps a Pulitzer in his future. It was accepted by both families that they would marry and so they had, fulfilling everyone's expectations and living happily ever after. If there were such a thing…
Now they sat across the table from Lois and she smiled at them, seeing, she thought, a perfect couple. Only…<Well, Clark and I are a perfect couple, so why can't they be? So they've been married three years and still haven't started a family. Maybe they have some of the same problems Clark and I had. Maybe they're not ready for children, yet. Maybe they don't want children. Stop this, Lois. *One* of your children has a happy marriage. Don't look for trouble. Oh, god, I'm beginning to sound like Clark.>
Jean appeared, distributing menus, and Amelie opened a bottle of wine, pouring a taste for Clark's approval. Aware of her mother's preferences, Laura had ordered Lois' favorite red wine, a full-bodied Bordeaux from 2025. There were a number of synthetically produced wines available, but none had yet been able to reproduce the earthy undertones of vintages from real vine-produced fruit seasoned in oak barrels.
Clark nodded consent after tasting and Amelie filled stemmed glasses around the table. Clark looked around, then raised his glass. "To the smartest, loveliest, most exasperating woman I have ever known. Lois Lane Kent, my wife, your mother. Happy birthday, Sweetheart!"
The others raised their glasses joining the toast and saying, "Hear, hear."
Laughing, Lois replied, "Thank you to my husband and children who tease me, ignore my advice and fill my life with joy," and raised her glass and drank.
Clark leaned over and kissed her on the cheek, saying, "I love you, Honey!" Before he could retreat, she took his face in her hands and kissed him soundly on the lips to the cheers of everyone else at the table.
Jean returned with bread and Pate de Veau et porc avec gibier, a Lavalier family recipe highly prized by Metropolitans. The group turned to enjoying the appetizer with their wine while perusing the menu.
Lois noticed Laura and Chris look up with that familiar blank stare. <Oh, dear.> She sighed. < One of these years we'll actually be able to eat this meal together. Looks like no birthday story this year. Aunt Liz will have to wait.> She glanced at Clark and saw that he had also seen them, and, for a moment, seemed surprised. <Why is he surprised? Didn't he hear it too?>
Laura and Chris rose simultaneously. "Sorry, Mom. We might be able to get back in time to eat," Chris said.
"Wouldn't be my birthday without something happening. Just be careful out there."
Clark added. "I'll walk out with you. Use the back way, so it'll look like we're going to the rest rooms."
"Dad, you don't need to come; if we can get back before too long we'll let you know telepathically. You could go ahead and order. Jack can order for me and Helene for Chris," Laura said.
"Sure, Babe. I know what you like," Jack replied, leering suggestively at his wife, whose face turned the color of the brick in the kitchen.
Lois stiffened, narrowed her eyes and opened her mouth, but Clark intercepted disaster by placing one hand momentarily on her arm and saying, "Come on, Jack, you can walk with us," seizing him by the arm and lifting him bodily from the chair.
Chris placed a kiss on Helene's cheek and turned away saying, "Don't worry, Hellie. We shouldn't be long." Lois heard Helene whisper, "Please be careful," and noticed her eyes fill with tears. While she puzzled over this reaction, the others left the table and walked into a hallway at the rear of the restaurant.
Once there, Clark spoke quickly and softly, "Chris, don't take chances. And be sure there's no one around before you spin into the suit. Send me a message, Laura, although I think this party's about to break up, anyway. Chris, if it does we'll take Helene home." Then the Superheroes hurried out the rear exit.
As the door closed behind them, Clark seized Jack's arm and firmly moved him into the men's room, propelling him hard against the wall. After a quick check of the stalls with his Super Vision to be sure they were alone, he turned to his son-in-law. The deceptive softness of his voice did not negate the intensity of his words as he lifted the man to his tiptoes and thrust his face towards him in confrontation saying,
"You've just publicly embarrassed my daughter, and I'm greatly tempted to forget myself and hurt you. But you *are* her husband and a member of this family, unfortunately. For whatever reason, she's loyal to you, but if you ever, ever speak to her that way again, you *will* face the consequences."
As he held Jack against the wall, he suddenly had an almost uncontrollable urge to pick him up and throw him into the mirror whose breaking shards would surely have gashed terrible cuts all over his face and hands. The surge of strong emotion shocked Clark and distracted him for a moment. It was a foreign and at the same time strangely familiar feeling—one he had almost forgotten he possessed, and that he had felt only a few times in his life—the first time when he had fought Lord Nor and allowed his Kryptonian killer instinct to emerge. <What is happening to me? I don't hear the alarms that Laura and Chris hear and now I want to smash… to kill?! …Jack? I can't give in to this.> With great effort he composed himself and returned his attention to his daughter's husband.
"Now put some cold water on your face, try to sober up and be grateful I stopped Lois before she annihilated you. When you're ready, we'll go back to the table, where you'll apologize, say good night and leave."
With that, he released Jack, stepped back, and watched him as he splashed water on his face. To his surprise, Jack faced him and said soberly, "You may not believe this, but I deeply regret my behavior tonight. Please accept my apology."
Clark blinked, taken aback by this unexpected contrition, stared at Jack for a moment, shrugged, and replied, "Very nicely done, but it's Laura you should be saying it to. Now repeat it to my wife and Helene and get out of here." Then he followed Jack back to their table.
After Jack had gone, the three people left attempted to converse while they waited for the promised message from Laura, but Helene had retreated within herself and would take no part in the repartee except for short, terse answers to questions. Lois kept trying to draw her out without success.
Clark was very still for a moment and said, "Looks like they won't be back. Anyone hungry?" Getting no reply, he followed with, "Helene, wanna grab a pizza with us?"
To which, with tears in her eyes, she replied, "No, Clark. I'd just like to go home. Thank you for asking, though."
Exchanging perplexed looks, Lois and Clark accompanied Helene to the door, and made their way out after making excuses to the Family Lavalier and paying the bill. The trip to Chris and Helene's apartment was a silent one and they made quick good-byes leaving a morose young woman to enter her home alone.
Stopping for a pizza, they decided to take it with them, and while they waited, Clark telepathed a message to Laura that the party was over.
Back at 348 Hyperion, as they finished their meal sitting at the kitchen table, Clark commiserated, "Sorry, Sweetheart; that was another fine birthday mess, wasn't it?"
She laughed and replied, "Just another day in the life of a Super family." And then more seriously, "Except that there's obviously some private misery out there that nobody wants to talk about."
"Well, I've given Jack fair warning. He should behave better from now on."
"Yes, publicly, but we have no idea what's really going on between them. And what was with Helene tonight? I feel so frustrated!"
Placing his hand on top of hers, Clark said in comforting tones, "I know, Honey. Being a parent doesn't seem to get any easier, no matter how long you're at it."
She turned her palm over and linked it with his. "Well, you know us. No problem too great for Lane and Kent to solve. Together we can beat any challenge."
He dropped his eyes as an imperceptible flash of painful sadness crossed them; then he looked up smiling. "That's us. Unbeatable." They stood, clearing away the remains of the food, and climbed the stairs to their bedroom.
*The party's over; it's time to call it a day;
They've burst your pretty balloon and taken the moon away.
It's time to wind up the masquerade;
Just make your mind up that the piper must be paid.
The party's over; the candles flicker and dim.
You've danced and dreamed through the night;
It seemed to be right just being with him;
It's time to wake up; all dreams must end;
Take off your make-up, the party's over
It's all over, my friend.*
Betty Comden and Adolph Green
When Clark came into the bedroom, she was kicking off her pumps and shimmying out of her pantyhose, gratefully shucking off those signatures of feminine bondage even as, with her actions, she amplified her inherent femininity. In normal circumstances he would have watched her with the warm satisfaction of the lover responding with growing excitement to the familiar. But tonight he was preoccupied.
He sat on the end of the bed and removed his shoes and socks. She realized that he was not spinning to undress, something he did, or rather did not do, when he was thinking seriously. Walking over to her dressing table to remove and put away her jewelry, she watched sideways as he carefully took off each article of clothing, putting it in its place either in the closet or the laundry hamper until he was wearing only his briefs. As he opened the dresser drawer to get a pair of sleeping shorts, she thought she really enjoyed it more when he undressed this way. As she watched him, the anticipation of their traditional intimate birthday celebration sent a tingle through her.
Clark's thoughts, had Lois been able to read them, would not have left her with such a pleasant glow. <If Klein confirms my assumptions tomorrow, I'll have to leave right away. How can I tell her? How can I leave her? If this is our last night together …>
"Clark, would you unzip me?" She caught him before he put on his sleeping garment and admired him from the corners of her eyes as he walked to her.
"My pleasure," he said, pulling the zipper down deep below her waist. He stood against her then, breathing her, pulling the open dress further apart and placing a hand on her bare back. Her eyes closed as he pushed the material away from her shoulders so that it dropped forward to her waist revealing the black lace bra underneath. He slid his left hand around her and grasping the fold of her dress pulled down until it passed over her hips and dropped to her feet. She lifted her left arm placing her hand back around his neck, arching and stepped out of the dress wearing only the bra and matching lace panties. <She's so beautiful!>
He murmured his approval, moving his hands over her. Her keening moan jolted him like a high-tension wire, entering his body where his lips grazed her throat and coursing through him.
Fingering the front clasp of her bra, he unhooked it with a practiced hand, drew the flimsy lace away from her, turning her around and seeking her lips with his fevered mouth. He covered them, tongue urging her to receive it and she gladly complied, joining her tongue with his tasting, jousting and exploring. Her hands discovered the warm smooth skin of his torso, caressing the shape of his strength on his chest, his arms, his back.
His hands continued their search augmenting the flame within her, drawing from her the helpless sounds of her surrender to him. His mouth left hers and moved down leaving hot kisses in its wake burning a trail across her throat and the soft flesh covering her breastbone. She moaned with impatient pleasure.
He realized through the haze of heightening desire that everything was moving faster than he had intended. He wanted this night to be one long slow memory of unforgettable pleasure for both of them, but there were certain preludes that he wanted for his memories, and to have them he had to delay, for the moment, this roller coaster they had begun to ride.
He lifted his head and pulled back; she grunted her protest moving her mouth toward him. The haze threatened to blur his intentions again, but he tapped into his cognizant being, whispering hoarsely,
"Mmumh." She was raking her open mouth across his chest.
He whispered harshly and with great effort, "Lois, I want to watch you take your make-up off."
Continuing her exploration of his chest, she paused long enough to mumble distractedly, "Later, Clark, later."
He pulled her head up to look into eyes smoky with desire, dampening his resolution for a moment. "No, Honey, now. I want to see it now. Please?"
Her eyes focused on his and she saw within them that pleading little boy she could never refuse, but the fire in her body flamed and she moved against him in lazy insinuation, feeling the respondent movement that gave her hope that he could be persuaded to forget this whim and return to her priority.
He gasped in appreciation of her technique, but refused to be diverted. Pulling her close, he whispered against her hair, "I *promise* you won't regret the delay, My Love. And you know how *good* I am at keeping promises."
With anticipation now spurring her consciousness, she decided that she could do this little thing quickly after which he could fulfill his promise with deliberate expertise all night long. Trembling at the thought, she turned to sit at the dressing table. He stopped her, reaching into the closet for a soft maroon silk kimono, which he slipped over her shoulders. Giving him a one-sided smile of wry amusement, she waved her arms into the sleeves, tied the belt, and sat down.
He sat on the end of the bed and watched the ritual he had seen almost every night since their wedding: the application of the gooey cream, followed by the tissue smearing it away leaving her face pink and glowing—the real Lois that only he saw. The mask with which she faced the world every day was beautiful and he loved it, but it was not that face he wanted to remember. He wanted to brand into his mind the Lois, without barriers or defenses, who revealed herself only to him and whom he loved more than life. It was this Lois he wanted to see beneath him, to turn inside out and pleasure to exhaustion.
She turned to smile at him, surprised to see adoration revealed on his face. "Satisfied?" she asked.
"More than you know." He rose to take her in his arms, holding her close, taking in the familiar scent of her skin, closing his eyes to implant it in memory. His lips and hands moved simultaneously kissing and caressing, slowly sketching the fine bones and soft flesh that made up her body. His arousal was immediate and greater than it had been before; in response her banked embers flickered brighter, the heat suffusing her with a yearning glow.
He tugged at the sash of her garment, loosening it and, drawing the soft gown open, smoothed it over her shoulders letting it drop to the floor as his hands stroked up and down the length of her arms.
Her hands reached to grasp his head lightly and pull it forward so that her lips could find his and search them for entry. Their open mouths embraced in a long kiss, tongues questing for inner selves revealed only to passion's insistence. From deep in her throat came that growl of impatient yearning.
She moaned and gyrated causing him almost to lose control of the planned scenario and complete their erotic dance by ripping the remainder of her clothing away and attacking her without thought or reason.
With this terrible passion to fulfill his hunger, he felt the Kryptonian in him stir again. He had suppressed it for so long, denied its reality because he had chosen not to hurt or inflict pain. But Ching had said it existed within all Kryptonians; that it had no doubts, no heart, no mercy; desired only the kill. As his ability to maintain control over those feelings and protect Lois from them had eroded and become more erratic, he had felt a terror overwhelming him, that if he stayed with her, he would hurt her physically.
Pausing and breathing deeply several times, he regained his control. His desire again became the gentle lover's: not to ravish but to worship her with his body. He lifted and floated them both to the bed; lowering her carefully to lie beneath him, he quickly removed their clothes.
His eyes devoured her body and the Kryptonian strained forward again. She stroked the side of his face and whispered his name with deep love and passion, "Clark…" and his love for her subdued its menace. His touch became soft and gentle as he caressed her in all the secret places for arousing her desire that he had discovered through their years of making love together.
He lifted himself over her and she looked at his face, expecting to see his eyes on hers in their ritual of question, answer and commitment, but his eyes were not there. Her momentary puzzlement was forgotten as she lost herself in the sensate messages that coursed through her entire frame, hitting her heart and brain with simultaneous shocks that returned again and again touching every nerve ending she possessed.
He had told her once that every time they made love, they…made…love and so it was still. The familiarity of years of loving, only enhanced the sensations and desire as they took each other to the edge of their need: he moved, she followed; she moved, he followed in a rhythmic pas de deux that increased in tempo to the point of complete abandonment. He became one with her as she slipped out of herself into the one being they became together and they were surrounded by an aurora borealis of sensation. They became a single being in a circle of uncomprehending giving and receiving, lost in the waves satisfying their mutual desire.. As all barriers fell allowing the intensity of their shared oneness to overwhelm them, he forgot the Kryptonian self he feared.
Suddenly, heat and rage boiled his blood, as it surged through his body in a flood of lust. Attacking without warning, he hurt her savagely, coarsely; her involuntary protest struck him but left no impression. He became the Kryptonian Warrior, without heart or mercy, demanding total subjugation, invoking a surprised cry of pain, "No, Clark, stop!?!"
The sound of his name in her rasping voice snapped him into reality; he stopped himself abruptly. <Oh God, what have I done!> In horror, he backed away from her, hunkering, arms around himself, saying over and over, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry," tears streaking his cheeks.
She curled into a protective fetal ball, hand over her stomach, pressing away the hurt. Deep within her primordial being where only he and she existed she heard his words and raised her head searching for their source. Her reflexive answer to his anguished cry came from where she had no rationality only feeling, and reaction. She could not deny his need for her comfort or her love for him. Dragging herself across the bed she touched him gently, putting her arms around him, cradling and rocking, whispering, "Shhh. It's all right, It's all right."
METROPOLIS October 18, 2032
*A lady stands by an open window
Staring so far away;
She can almost feel the Southern wind blow
Almost touching her restless day.
She turns from her window to me
Sad her smile of apology
Sad eyes reaching to the door.*
*Suddenly it's so clear to me
That I'd ask her to see what she may never see.
So I offer these words of apology.
There's a train every day, leaving either way;
There's a world you know; there's a way to go.
You'll soon believe it's just as well;
This is my opening farewell.*
Still reeling from Dr. Klein's diagnosis, Clark quietly let himself into the front door of the townhouse. He had flown wildly around the world for hours, speeding from pole to pole, circumnavigating along the equator, plunging in out of oceans and soaring almost into the sun's viscous bubbling heat, but he couldn't escape the words that had set his fate:
"I can describe what's wrong with you, Clark, but the treatment we've tried hasn't worked and I don't know what else to do. You seem to be getting worse, not better, and the effect of the symptoms is accelerating. I can't be totally accurate, but it appears that you will lose more and more control over your body, rapidly age and," he stopped, then finally continued hesitantly and with regret, "after a few months, you will die."
In response to the question, "How long?" Klein had reluctantly answered, "Three months at the most."
So that was it. There was no point in debating with himself. He had made up his mind. He knew what he had to do and had tried to steel himself for the ensuing scene, but he knew there was no way to prepare for the pain he was about to unleash.
He could sense Lois' presence and made his way silently up the stairs to the door of their bedroom, where he saw her facing out the window, porta-phone in hand, saying, "I don't understand, Bernie. He left there at 1:30? But that was five hours ago. Did he say where he was going?"
She waited, listening to the response, and then said in an agitated manner, "What do you mean he was upset? Why would he be upset?"
Clark' Super Hearing involuntarily clicked on and he heard Bernard Klein say, "Well, he was understandably shocked by my prognosis," when Lois broke in,
"What prognosis? What are you talking about?"
"Lois, I thought Clark had discussed his condition with you. I don't feel that I should say anymore. Talk with him."
"Bernie don't you dare pull that on me. I know something's wrong. What is it? You *are* going to tell me…" At this point she turned from the window and saw Clark standing in the doorway. "Bernie, I'll call you back." Then she hit the 'off' button on the phone.
They looked at each other without speaking; then Clark crossed to his closet, opened it and pulled a soft travel bag off the shelf.
"Clark, where have you been? I've tried to call you all day. Have you been avoiding me? What's going on?"
After the horror of last night, she had fallen asleep holding him and when he was sure he would not wake her he had dressed and left, not wanting to face her in the reality of morning. He had gone to his office where he found a memo concerning suspicious anti-environmental activity in the Congo, and had made arrangements to leave on an evening flight for Kinshasa. He had instructed his secretary to take messages because he would be in conference and did not want to be disturbed by anyone including his family.
He knew that Lois had called several times, leaving messages that had become increasingly demanding of his attention. He wanted to hold her off until time to leave for his 11:00 A.M. appointment at STAR Lab, because he needed to know the result of Dr. Klein's treatments and tests before he saw her. Well, now he knew, and now he had to follow through with the plan he had decided would be necessary if the results were negative.
He spoke harshly, "It's too bad I came back so soon. A few more minutes and Dr. Klein would have told you the answers to all your questions."
"You were listening?"
"You're right as always, Lois. I finally heard something I didn't want to hear. Go on; call him back. I'm sure you can force him to tell you what you want to know."
"I want you to tell me, Clark. What have you been hiding from me…and why?" She was becoming more agitated and he knew he need press only a button or two more and she would erupt into full-blown anger, effectively blocking rational thought.
"I don't have time to get into it now, Lois. I have a plane to catch."
"What plane? Where are you going?"
"I have to go to The Congo for WERC. My plane leaves in about 3 hours and I have to stop by the office to pick up my ticket and passport."
"Clark, you are not leaving here without telling me about this."
"Talk to Klein. He can explain it much better than I can anyway." He had finished placing underwear and lightweight clothing suitable for the equator in his bag. He now added his jungle boots and several pairs of socks.
"I don't want to talk to Klein. I don't want him to tell me; I want you to tell me."
"Well, it looks like you won't get what you want *this* time." He zipped the bag closed, picked it up and walked toward the door.
"If you leave here now…"
He turned at the doorway and looked at her. "You'll what, Lois?" He paused, but she made no reply. "I'll call you from the airport." With that he turned and walked out of the room and down the stairs. He had managed to maintain a cold, emotionless tone in his voice, one that he knew she hated and would always cause her to react badly. He thought as he went down the stairs, how sad it was that, of all the things they had learned about each other during their years together, how to hurt should be the most important at the end.
She watched him go with furious surprise. When she heard the front door close, she picked up the phone and punched re-dial.
At the sound of the answering voice, she said, "Bernie? Don't leave. I'm coming over."
*Every time we say goodbye I die a little;
Every time we say goodbye I wonder why a little;
Why the gods above me, who must be in the know,
Think so little of me, they allow you to go.
When you're near there's such an air of Spring about it;
I can hear a lark somewhere begin to sing about it;
There's no love song finer, but how strange the change
From major to minor,
Every time we say goodbye.*
Lois Lane roared into Dr. Bernard Klein's laboratory at full throttle, shouting his name, taking the turn around his work table with rpm's undiminished, before braking abruptly in his office doorway, halted by the brief expression of terror her entrance had incited. He was backed up against the bookshelf, hands up, protectively, to ward off her advance.
"Bernie, you can run but you can't hide," she yelled. "I want to know what's going on with Clark and you're going to tell me NOW!"
Klein had known her too long to think he could avoid breaking the doctor-patient privilege, which had never really existed for Lois and Clark anyway. What one knew, the other was allowed to know. It had been that way since Lois' first pregnancy and he had no reason to think it would be otherwise now, especially since Clark had told him that, if it came to such a showdown situation, he should just tell her what she demanded to know.
"Calm down, Lois. I will, of course, tell you whatever you want to know. It has been an unusual and complicated case, complicated by the unusual manifestation of a human disease like Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis in combination with human gerontological acceleration and the retro gradation of Kryptonian Super Pow…"
"DR. KLEIN!" she interrupted.
"What? Oh! Yes. Sorry. How shall I begin?"
"You can start by explaining what you just said in a way that I can understand." She was calmer and less angry now. The scientific words had an ominous sound and she understood just enough of them to be a little frightened.
"How much do you know?"
"Almost nothing except that Clark is not himself and has been acting strangely."
"Clark came to me in March…"
"In March! This has been going on since March and he didn't tell me?"
"Lois," Klein said gently, "*I* can't tell you if you keep interrupting. Why don't you sit down and listen for a while? I promise I'll keep it simple and you'll have a clear understanding of what he's facing."
Now she *was* frightened and she nodded in mute agreement as she sat wide-eyed and tense.
"Clark's symptoms fall into three categories: physical weakness and loss of muscle control; pain, weakness and loss of dexterity caused by hyper-activated aging; and, finally, a declining ability to maintain control over his Super Powers. In other words, he's losing control of his muscles and Super Powers, rapidly aging, and becoming progressively weaker. These symptoms can all be traced to a neuro-muscular origin along the spine.
"I attempted the usual tests to compare with the data that I have on file and made the alarming discovery that his muscular density was so low that I was actually able to capture X-Ray pictures of his musculo-skeletal frame.
"The spinal photos were the most revealing and indicated an advanced stage of a human disease, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, which you may have heard called Lou Gehrig's disease, a condition in which the upper and lower neurons along the spinal cord progressively degenerate creating muscle weakness. In fact ALS could conceivably be the cause of all of the symptoms he is experiencing.
"There are several methods of treatment, but the only permanently successful one involves manipulation of DNA molecules. Lois, we've been trying all of the known remedies including cutting edge experimentations. I'm sorry. Nothing has worked. I was forced to present Clark with a prognosis of continued degeneration to a final stage of helplessness culminating with the inability to swallow and, finally, paralysis of breathing mechanics. He would be unable to move his body, but his brain would remain completely alert and functional. He would be completely aware of everything that was happening to him right up to his final moments, when he would either drown in his own saliva or suffocate."
She whispered, "Oh my God!" Her stricken face turned down into her hands.
"I'm sorry to be so blunt," he said softly, "but there's no easy way to tell you."
"How horrible for him, and how frightened he must have been." Remembering his actions of the previous night and their more recent quarrel, she continued, "I understand what I didn't understand before. He must have been so angry with everything," her voice fell as she responded empathetically, "he had to lash out." Then abruptly, "Bernie, how long does he have?"
"My best estimate is three months. It could be sooner."
"He has to come back home. We have to start figuring out a way to beat this." She turned to leave. "I should get going. He said he'd call from the airport."
"Lois, there is no way to beat this. The only cure is through DNA and his body has rejected everything I've tried. There's nothing we can do."
"You're forgetting who you're talking to, Bernie. Lois Lane here, the female half of Lane and Kent, doers of the impossible, strongest team on the planet, unbeatable and unstoppable. We don't give up and we always find a way."
"I can't stop you, of course, and miracles have been known to happen but…" he trailed off.
"And they will again." She stood with, "Gotta go. I only wish I'd known sooner. You haven't left us with much time." She kissed him on the cheek. "Don't worry. Everything is gonna be all right." And she was gone as quickly as she had come, a determined look in her eye, her step buoyant with hope.
Back at the Hyperion Avenue townhouse, she checked her watch and waited for what should be an almost immediate ringing of the phone. It came. Seated on the couch, she punched on the visi-phone and said, "Clark?"
"Yes, it's me." There was no picture, which meant he was either using his personal communicator or a public phone booth.
"Where are you?"
"I'm at the airport. My plane is boarding so I can't be too long. I wanted to say goodbye."
"Clark, Bernie told me everything. You can't go to Africa; you'll have to send someone else. Sweetheart, you have to come home so we can start figuring out what to do about this, how to get you well."
"If Klein told you everything, then he told you there isn't any way to do that. There's nothing *we* can do, Lois, except say goodbye. You know what's going to happen to me, and I don't want you to see that."
"Stop it. That isn't us. We don't give up and we don't run away."
"Oh, really? Just when did *we* get ALS?"
"What affects one of us affects both of us. Or was that so long ago, you've forgotten?"
"It *was* a long time ago, and it doesn't work any more."
"You don't mean that. Honey, I know you're scared. So am I. That's why we need to be together, helping each other, not hurting each other."
It was getting harder and harder for him to maintain this distance and continue provoking her as he heard the love and pleading in her voice, but the vision of what the end would be like for her if he stayed was in his mind, as well as the fear of a repeat of last night's episode. What if he hurt her again? What if he didn't stop next time? And he was sure that as his control slipped, there *would be* a next time.
"That's easy for you to say, Lois. It's not going to happen to you. I have to go. Just let me say goodbye."
"Clark, please don't do this. I'm here for you and you should be here with me so that we can stand against this together. We'll find a way; I know we will."
"Goodbye, Lois. Tell the kids I love them." He paused. "I won't be coming back. You should start thinking about making a life without me." He disconnected and whispered, "I'll always love you." Then he turned and ran for the boarding gate.
The sound of the click was like an explosion, but Lois couldn't accept what she heard. "Clark?…Clark?!" She stared at the silent phone in disbelief. "Oh, Clark, no! Please come home." And she sat staring at the gray static of the visi-phone screen as the silence of the house pressed around her.
METROPOLIS 8:05 A.M. November 22, 2032
*I get along without you very well.
Of course I do.
Except when soft rains fall
And drip from leaves, then I recall
The thrill of being sheltered in your arms.
But I get along without you very well.*
*I've forgotten you just like I should.
Of course I have.
Except to hear your name,
Or someone's laugh that is the same,
But I've forgotten you just like I should.*
Clark stood on the edge of the grass in Panhandle Park looking across Bridge Boulevard at the entrance to Gates Tower hoping to see Lois as she arrived for her day at CHILD. A month had passed since the world had learned that Clark Kent had disappeared in Zaire after his hovercraft had struck a snag and overturned en route to a remote village.
Inspecting rain forest destruction had become a top priority on WERC'S agenda since the organization had invested billions in African and South American countries with the agreement that this wanton desecration in the name of economic progress would stop.
Observers had reported new offenses taking place near the village of Monobele up the Lulonga tributary to the Congo River and it was Clark's responsibility to inspect the area, verifying or discounting the report and recommending a solution if there were recurring infractions.
He had not planned it that way, but when he went into the water as a result of the accident, he realized that he had an opportunity to disappear without suspicion and decided to take advantage of it. The water was warm and not unpleasant and he could easily have submerged and made his way to the opposite side to disappear unseen into the jungle leaving everyone to believe he had drowned. But he had seen three crocs glide silently from the far bank toward the splashing of the pilot and other passengers traveling with him who, appearing to be unhurt, were swimming toward the near side of the broad reach of water. They had to be safe before he could leave.
Quickly assuring himself that no such reptiles were awaiting the swimmers, he went underwater toward the silent killers, took one by the snout, and rolled with it, struggling to keep the massive jaws closed and avoid the threshing tail while keeping a wary eye on the two remaining man-eaters. The adrenalin surge of the violent struggle invoked his inner Kryptonian which, gaining momentary control, snapped the beast's spine and gave it up as a decoy for the other two to engorge. The delay allowed his companions to reach their destination without harm. As his killer instinct subsided, he went underwater again moving downstream away from the humans and the antediluvian creatures, finally gaining a bank that was around a bend and out of sight, certain that the survivors would report that he had been attacked by a crocodile.
As he dragged himself from the water, he recognized what was getting to be a familiar exhaustion from the depletion of energy that followed an exertion of powers. He needed to rest but he could not stay here because he did not know how quickly a rescue search would be mounted. He felt strong enough to fly a short distance back down the Lulonga and across the Congo to an area remote enough for him to sleep for a few hours. He found a suitable tree, on which two adjacent branches had grown together and become encircled with vines forming a rough platform. After carefully checking for signs of snakes or Cats, he positioned himself on his makeshift cot and was immediately soporific.
When he woke he felt strong again and decided to fly on to Piraeus, the Greek port city for Athens, where he hoped to lose himself among the itinerant dockworkers offering to work at odd jobs for tourists or merchants until his hair and beard grew and he could safely go on to Berlin or Marseilles and disappear permanently into the demi monde subculture.
Air and ground searches continued in the area where he had last been seen, and Clark knew that his ruse had succeeded, that to the world he was dead. But he was equally certain that Lois had not accepted or believed it.
Almost from the moment he left, he had felt her reaching out to him. He could hear her pleading with him, urging him to return to her, to join their strengths and minds to discover the solution she was sure was out there. He felt her love and confidence in the beginning, then her disappointment and hurt when he did not respond and at last the slow and burning anger of her rejection. He had to fight his desire to respond to the fierceness of her determination to bring him back and it made him restless and irritable. Even though his mind refused to answer her call and he knew he could no longer be a part of her life, he had not taken into account his need to see her, to be near her. Finally, while he still had the power to fly, he made the decision to return to Metropolis and live incognito.
Back in the city, he had let his hair and beard continue to grow and as they lengthened their gray strands had become more prominent. Donning surplus military fatigues and a billed cap to complete his disguise, he had blended with the homeless men and women who daily occupied the park and nightly slept under the Hobbs Bay Bridge around its supporting stanchions.
The deterioration of his physical abilities had continued as Dr. Klein had predicted and his aging symptoms appeared to be increasing with rapidity. His mind and memory remained sharp and clear, but he no longer felt Lois trying to contact him. He didn't know if he had lost the ability to receive or if she had stopped sending.
Also continuing to decline was his brain's ability to control any Super powers that remained; these had become more and more erratic, no longer available at his discretion but coming and going without warning. He dared not attempt flying for fear the capability would suddenly vanish mid-air leaving him to plummet to earth, perhaps to be mangled and crushed by the impact. His Super Strength deserted him. He could not, at will, use his Super Vision or Super Hearing, but was at their mercy, suddenly finding himself listening to conversations and sounds he did not want to hear; viewing through opaque barriers sights he had no business seeing.
Occasionally he was able, with painful concentration and focus, to control those powers for a short time, but the cost in exhaustion afterward was always accompanied by an acceleration of the losses he experienced daily.
He saw a Town Car glide to a halt in front of Gates Tower and a slim dark-haired woman emerged through the door being held open by the attendant. <She's here; I didn't miss her this morning!> He watched her with an intense hunger, taking in every movement, unconsciously demanding that she turn so he could see her face. She said something to the uniformed man, and then turned to look at the group congregated across the street.
It was an action she repeated every morning and evening and when he first became a part of this sad fraternity, before his hair and beard grew, he had hidden behind the others in fear of being recognized, but now he was confident that his disguise would prevent this possibility.
Clark knew that she was very cognizant of these downtrodden beings, and it was because of her concern that CHILD had prevailed on various agencies to provide a shelter and soup kitchen in the Gates Tower Annex so that these jetsam of society could have a place to eat, sleep and clean themselves and their clothing if they chose.
Clark watched Lois as she surveyed his companions. It was a typical gray November day in Metropolis, and a light rain had been falling all morning. Soaked through, he shivered slightly from the chill, another manifestation of his physical weakness.
The doorman was holding an umbrella for Lois as he escorted her to the entrance of the building. She turned and, gazing once more at the derelicts in the park, spoke to him a final time before disappearing inside. He wheeled and purposefully crossed the sidewalk and street to the cluster of people. He spoke in a kind manner but loudly so they could all hear, "Ms. Lane wants me to remind you that the shelter is open and there's hot coffee and soup. You don't have to stay here. You can go inside and be warm and dry." He paused and asked, "If you want, I can see you across the street safely." He looked at them expectantly.
The reply was the usual one. They returned his look but said nothing and made no move toward him. After a moment, he shook his head returned to his post.
People of the 21st Century had made progress in curing many of society's ills, but they had not yet found a solution for homelessness. The commitment to the Universal Code and its refusal to interfere with the rights of individuals meant that unless or until persons were physically or mentally ill and a danger to themselves or others, they were left to lives of their own choosing.
Clark knew that one of Lois' greatest frustrations was her inability to help these people find a warm safe haven, a place where they could belong. Perhaps it was the outgrowth of her living so long with an alien who had spent many sad years searching for his own place. Was that why *he* chose to lose himself among these searchers, because he had felt the rejection they suffered? Well, he thought, we can all find comfort for a short time, and he began moving from one to another urging them to cross the street with him.
"How about it, Karl? Let's go get warm for a while. You, too, Violet. No use staying out here all day. They won't bother us about rules, if a whole bunch of us go in together. They'll be too busy feeding us."
Over to one side an older couple was obviously arguing, voices raised. The man was saying vehemently, "Mary, I'm not goin' in there. I don't like feelin' shut in like that and they're always askin' if we washed like we had some kind of disease. We don't need to have anybody lookin' down their noses at us."
"George," she said softly, "You need to eat and get warm. You can put up with it for just a little while. Please; unless you rest and eat you're going to get worse."
Clark had heard these arguments before. Mary and George were clearly from a higher social stratum than most of their companions, but George was dying from a mentally debilitating affliction and had left his home to live in the park. When Mary found him, he would not return with her, so she stayed, refusing to abandon him and doing everything in her power to keep him comfortable and functioning. She did not want to lose him before she had to. The irony of their situation juxtaposed with his own was not lost on Clark, but he kept it deep in his mind, refusing to analyze his feelings about it.
He went over to them saying, "George, Mary. A bunch of us are going over to the shelter. We figure we can avoid a lot of the hassle if we go together. C'mon. We need you to add to the crowd." He took a grumbling George by the arm and, followed by the others, crossed the street. Mary gave him a grateful look and took George's other arm.
High up in Gates Tower, Lois watched through her window as a tall slightly stooped gray-bearded man gathered the vagrants like his flock and shepherded them across the street. <Thank God they were going to the shelter.>
She watched them until they were out of sight down the alley that ran alongside the building to the annex then the river and bridge beyond. The comings and goings of the riverbank's inhabitants disturbed many of those who worked and resided in this part of the Hobbs Bay reclamation area, but Metropolitans of 2032, while struggling to find a solution to the question of what to do about these people, had learned to see the human faces involved and were not inclined to rash or punitive actions unless criminal intent was suspected.
As she turned her eyes back to the park, they filled with tears. <I know you're out there, Clark. Please get yourself out of the rain too.> But she was talking to herself, not sending a subliminal message to him. She no longer tried to reach him. Her efforts had met with a cold blankness too long and she was now too angry at the rebuff to continue trying. <If he doesn't need me, then I don't need him. I have other important things to do.> And she occupied herself with the urgent business of CHILD, her legacy from Aunt Liz.
Elizabeth Curtis, world famous photojournalist, was a multi-Pulitzer Prize winner, Ellen Lane's sister and Lois Lane's inspiration. She had covered the Viet Nam War earning herself a final Pulitzer before turning her prodigious talents to the cause of half-caste orphans left behind after that conflagration by American fathers unaware of their existence.
While Ellen was raising her children, then turning to drink and sinking into the self-pity of a bitter, alcoholic divorcee, Liz, as she was known to her family, was working in miserable centers of filth and despair, washing, feeding and clothing children who had no mothers, or encouraging and showing the mothers they had how to make rotten conditions better for their children and themselves.
She had pestered, bullied and charmed politicians and charitable foundations around the world for money to provide for these disenfranchised souls, and in the end had founded CHILD, so that her work could reach children everywhere. Lois had grown up loving and admiring her, seeing in her aunt the strong woman she wished her mother could be.
It was because of her Aunt Liz that Lois found the additional strength she needed now to concentrate on her responsibilities and push Clark to the back of her mind. But her mind told her that Aunt Liz would never approve as she suddenly heard her saying, "You're letting pride and anger do your thinking for you." But she firmly pushed that deep into her subconscious and turned away from the window.
Sitting at her desk, she picked up a memo about Ecuador. There were children in the world who needed her.
During the day, the light drizzle of the morning became a steady rain, and at 5:30 when Lois again looked out from her office a wind had begun to gust, sending sleet-like raindrops clattering against her window. The grassy space across the street was empty; she hoped that meant the homeless ones were still in the shelter, but she knew it was more likely they had retreated out of sight amongst the trees of the park, or down by the river under the bridge. <The bridge won't be a shelter in this wind and those wet cardboard boxes will be useless.> The frustration of being unable to find an answer for these lost souls filled her with despair. <Oh, Clark, why aren't you here? I need your comfort as much as you need mine.> She had momentarily forgotten her resolve, but it came back almost immediately. <No! He doesn't need me and I don't need him.>
She turned away and took her black evening coat from the closet. She had showered and changed in her dressing room for another of the many soirees she was obligated to attend for CHILD. Ordinarily she would have gone back to the townhouse and taken some time to relax in the happy atmosphere that enveloped her there. But since Clark had left, she was in the place only when necessary because its cold quiet depressed and unnerved her. Her office had become her home.
She checked herself in the mirror, as her assistant poked her head in to say, "Marshall Stewart is downstairs, Lois, and I'm going to leave now if everything's all right?"
"Thanks, Caroline. Sure, go ahead. You didn't need to stay this long."
"I just wanted to be sure you got away, okay. See you in the morning!"
Lois picked up her coat and evening bag and followed her to the elevator.
Clark was standing back in a corner of the building, half sheltered by an overhang, waiting to see her again. He had pulled his cap down low and buttoned his jacket to his chin trying to stay dry and warm, but it was hopeless. The gusting wind was strong and sharp, spasmodically sending the rain in horizontal sheets directly at his corner. Nothing could make him leave, though. His need to see her was too great.
He saw a limousine stop in front of the building and disgorge a tall, silver-haired man wearing a black overcoat covering a black dinner jacket. <Marshall Stewart? What's he doing here? It's too late for a CHILD Board meeting.> He watched as the man entered the building.
Ten minutes later the door opened again and Lois emerged, obviously dressed for an evening social gathering. Following her was Marshall Stewart. She headed for the limo, sheltered by the doorman's umbrella. <What's she doing going out with that… that…jackal! I should have known *he'd* be the first one around. Humph! Didn't take long for *her* to get over her grief!>
Clark knew he was being unfair. That this was probably one of those functions that she used to drag him to because she was required to attend as part of her job. But he had never liked Marshall Stewart and had instantly recognized that this handsome, eligible Metropolis millionaire and man-about-town would have seduced Lois in a second, husband or no, if she had been the least bit susceptible. Clark had told her so, but she'd laughed and said she could handle *that.* But she had needed Marshall's money and contacts for CHILD, and so had found a place for him on her Board of Directors in spite of Clark's warnings.
<Take it easy, Kent. Wasn't that the point of the disappearance, so she could get on with her life without going thorough your decline and death? Wasn't that why you provoked the quarrel when you left-to make it easier for her? Very noble of you, but you didn't think it would be so hard, did you; to watch her go on with her life without you. Especially with that smarmy toad!>
She looked out the window of the car and saw the gray-bearded man from earlier in the day standing in a corner of the building. <What are you doing there in this rain? I thought you were smarter than that when I saw you this morning.> He seemed to be upset about something and she kept her eyes on him as the limo moved away.
He angrily watched the limousine disappear into the rainy night before he moved down the alley toward the river.
METROPOLIS 5:43 A.M. December 10. 2032
*Well, I got a heart that burns with a fever,
And I got a worried and a jealous mind.
How can a love that will last forever
Get left so far behind?*
*What in the world has come over you?
What in heaven's name have you done?
You've broken the speed of the sound of loneliness;
You're out there runnin' just to be on the run.*
Lois was lying, soft and warm, on top of him, her head on his chest in her favorite position for floating. They had just made love and were still suspended together 5 feet above the bed, his arms around her cozy and comfortable. But something was intruding on their idyll; a sound nearby. He was immediately awake and alert.
Someone was in trouble. Carefully he cradled Lois in his arms bending to place her gently on the bed. But there was no bed; his bed was the bottom of a cardboard box, and it was his sleeping bag he cradled.
"Stop it! Leave me alone!" That was no dream and it was so near that Super Hearing wasn't needed. He threw the sleeping bag down and crawled out of the box, looking around to see where the sound was coming from. He saw several figures to his left and knew instantly what was happening.
He leaped to his feet running, but nothing seemed to work right; he stumbled and fell to his knees. Getting up again he moved more deliberately toward the sounds.
Three men confronted a boy of about fourteen who clutched a sleeping bag possessively. Clark recognized the men. Their leader was Big Mac, so called for his size and preference for a particular fast-food sandwich. Real names were not often used down here. He was a bully, a predator taking what he wanted from the weak and defenseless and he never prowled without his gang of two, Earl and Marvin.
They had set upon Mickey, a 14 year old who had just found a place in the camp the previous morning. He had few possessions, but everyone who saw him when he arrived coveted two of them—a heavy fleece-lined wool jacket and a rain-repellent down sleeping bag. He was instantly marked as a victim waiting to be attacked.
Clark saw that he was not going to give them up easily, even though Big Mac held a knife menacingly, and his rat pack had begun to maneuver to get behind the boy.
"Hold it! What's going on here?" Clark said as he arrived at the scene.
"Butt out, old man!" Big Mac barked, barely giving Clark a glance. "This ain't yer binness." Using correct English was not high on Mac's list of priorities, but getting the coat and sleeping bag was.
Clark knew he had to take Mac out. Once he was vanquished, the other two would scamper away. But did he have the strength left? Not Super Powers. It was too much to hope for those. < Just give me dexterity and ordinary strength enough to evade the knife and take down this lumbering dimwit.>
From the corner of his eye he saw that Marvin and Earl were almost in position to take Mickey from behind. He couldn't wait any longer. He had to move now. He began to talk as he inched cautiously toward the big man. "C'mon, Mac, he's just a kid. Whataya wanna go picking on him for? You don't need anything he's got, a big man like you."
Marvin and Earl, apparently fascinated by his words had stopped to listen. Good, he had a few more seconds. He was getting within grappling range of Big Mac. He warily watched the knife while peripherally recognizing that Mac had turned his attention from the boy to him. In an attempt to distract Mac further, Clark put his right hand out as though in supplication as his mind searched through the various strategies of hand to hand combat he remembered learning from Ching when they were preparing for his fight with Lord Nor. Suddenly Mac took all options from him by slashing out with the knife, yelling, "I warned you, you old geezer!"
The blade caught Clark's right arm, ripping through the cloth of his coat sleeve and gashing flesh. He felt searing pain! Unbidden, his seminal Kryptonian warrior surfaced and attacked with a ferocious roar. Mac was startled witless by the sound and was completely unprepared for the old man to leap directly at him. He slashed ineffectively with the blade as Kal-El grabbed his arm and held it with a vise-like grip of steel. Mac yowled with pain, simultaneously dropping to his knees as Kal pulled him forward, using the man's own momentum for the takedown. Bringing his other hand into play, he twisted Mac's wrist and the knife clattered away. Still grasping Mac's now painful arm, he pulled it into a disabling hold high against the bully's back.
Seeing their leader thus disengaged, Marvin and Earl quickly scurried away into the night as other more benign residents of the camp began to assemble, drawn by the noise. They cheered the defeat of the universally disliked Big Mac. All the commotion drew the attention of the beat cop who patrolled at the end of the bridge and who was charged with looking out for the camp. He hauled Big Mac away to the precinct for the night for disturbing the peace and hoped that somebody would come around in the morning to file more serious charges against the man, but he knew that would never happen. These people did not want to have to identify themselves.
Clark stood off to one side, breathing in and out heavily until finally the boiling of his blood subsided and his rage calmed. With the restoration of order, he became himself again, and putting his hand on the youth's shoulder, he said, "Mickey, how about moving your box over by mine, so you won't be so isolated?" The boy gratefully nodded assent, and Clark helped him carry his belongings.
When they reached Clark's box, it had been knocked over, and his sleeping bag was gone. He realized that he had broken the first rule of this jungle: never leave your possessions untended. What would he do now? He could get another box, but not another sleeping bag and the temperature of the December nights usually hovered at freezing or lower.
As he stared despondently at what was left of his 'home', He heard Mary's soft voice say, "Cal, we didn't want you to lose this because you were helping someone. George and I took your sleeping bag over to our box." He turned and saw her kind eyes regarding him with gratitude. "You help so many of us, we wouldn't ever want you to suffer because of it." She handed him the rolled up bag and continued, "Earl and Marvin stomped your box when they ran by. We couldn't stop them, but Karl said he'd seen another one behind the Torrance Building and he went to get it."
Clark could only smile his gratitude and wonder, once again, how this woman, who reminded him so much of Martha, could retain such composure in these surroundings, and it occurred to him that love must surely be the strongest of all ties. He didn't want it to, but his mind flashed on Lois, lying in his arms saying, "I love you, Clark Kent," and he blinked the tears back as his stupidity for leaving her almost overwhelmed him. He had made a decision that was unfair to both of them, but it was too late now; he would have to live—and die—with it.
He heard Mary say, "Cal, you're bleeding!" He looked down to see that Mac's knife had left him with a long cut on his right arm. He didn't think the wound was serious, and he was grateful for it because it had unleashed his warrior self who had probably prevented him from receiving worse injuries.
He knew that down here the wound was likely to become septic quickly, so, after settling Mickey and asking George and Mary to keep an eye on him, he headed for the shelter and medical aid. The cut was longer and deeper than he had supposed and required laser suturing; the nurse advised him to keep the arm in a sling for 24 hours to allow the repair to set.
By the time he returned to the river his new cardboard box was set up and Karl was standing guard over it. Thanking the man, Clark crawled in to sleep for an hour or so before his daily Lois watch. Lying relaxed in the warmth of his sleeping beg, he recognized that the drain of his energy was profound, and, in the cold dark, realization came that he must be getting very near the end of his life. Just the thought of rolling out of his warm bag, getting up and walking up the hill to Bridge Boulevard was almost more than he could contemplate.
He fell asleep and did not wake until noon when he heard Mary calling softly, "Cal? Are you all right? I brought you some soup." He managed to struggle awake enough to thank her, and would have fallen back into a dazed slumber, but she wouldn't leave until he had eaten. <Dear Mary. You've taken on another dying orphan to care for, haven't you? Well, you won't be bothered with this one for long.>
She left him to his rest, but as the afternoon passed, he knew that he had to try to get up to Bridge Boulevard. The weekend was coming and this could be his last chance to see Lois. He had to make his farewell.
Clark had managed to make his way from the river to the boulevard, but the gray of the day was now being overtaken by the dusk of evening bringing bone-chilling cold abetted by a wind. He had taken refuge in the bus stop shelter, where he could sit and maintain his watch through its Plexiglas wall.
He was numb with cold and was learning all too painfully what humans felt when the elements pushed toward the extreme. But he would not give up his vigil.
He saw a taxi arrive at the curb and a few minutes later Lois came out of the building, followed by a man he could not quite see. They walked together to the curb, and Clark recognized Marshall Stewart. <Oh no, Lois, not again!> For two weeks he had watched her come out of the building almost every night with different men, all of them rich, all of them good-looking, all of them available to her as escorts and more if she wanted it that way. But the most frequent had been Marshall Stewart. <What does she see in this viper? Doesn't she know he's panting after her?> In a moment of lucidity he realized how absurd the thought was, but emotion overrode rationality.
Clark edged around the glass of the bus shelter and stood against its outside wall watching as the couple reached the car and Lois turned to speak to Marshall. He said something to her smiling broadly (Clark was sure that was a leer). She smiled back. <Lois, don't. You're just provoking him.> He spoke again and she looked away from him toward the bus stop wall where Clark was leaning.
<Was she blushing?> Clark realized she was looking straight at him and he saw concern cross her face as she took in his tattered sleeve and arm in a sling. <Oh, great. Her last look at me provokes pity for an old guy with a bum arm who's freezing to death!>
If he could have seen her eyes, he might have seen something familiar flash in them as she turned back to Marshall Stewart, put her hand on his shoulder and <She kissed him! On the lips! She kissed him!> Had this gone farther than he had imagined? How close were they? < Lois, you never did have any taste in men… except for me. This guy isn't as bad as Lex Luthor, but he is a 100 times worse than Dan Scardino! Has he given her gifts? Flowers? Jewelry? *Lingerie*?!>
Stewart ran his hand up and down Lois' arm as he leaned in toward her whispering. <That's it! This is going to stop, right now!> He pushed himself away from the wall to hurry over to teach the guy a lesson, but the inability of his body to respond to his commands instantly reminded him that he was incapable of doing what he wanted to do. If he tried, he'd probably fall on his face in front of her, she'd recognize him and her pity would be for *him*, not some unknown homeless man.
Lois turned looked at him again and got into the taxi; Stewart put out a hand to help her. <Did he *touch* her where I think he did? They *are* in the lingerie stage!> He slumped back against the wall. What did he expect? He left her, he told her to forget him, to get on with her life. Wasn't she doing what he wanted? <But why with that slavering hyena!>
Marshall Stewart adjusted his topcoat across his shoulders, touched his tie, and with a self-satisfied smile turned toward 'The Harry Winkler, Jeweler' shop.
Clark stared miserably at his back as Stewart swaggered away. The sidewalk was crowded with Christmas shoppers and he saw an attractive white-haired couple approaching him, carrying packages and a shopping bag from Nordby's.
As they came nearer, he recognized the man as Howard Morgan, a CHILD board member, and while the woman seemed familiar, he couldn't dredge up her name. He knew her, but somehow, did not connect her with Morgan. They were talking animatedly, and the man said something, which caused her to laugh, opening her red-lipsticked mouth broadly. They walked on down the sidewalk behind the bus shelter.
Suddenly his head snapped up. He knew her! No, it was impossible. But if it was who he thought it was? He had to find her! Pushing himself away from the side of the shelter, he hurried as quickly as he could in his old man's gait, around the corner and down the sidewalk, looking ahead to see if they were still there. He saw them but would he be able to catch up to them? He willed himself to walk faster, but his legs could not respond in the way he needed them to. He had to get to her. She could be the key to everything.
<Where could they going, this way?> The walkway dead-ends at the Hobbs Bay Bridge approach. What's down here that they would be interested in?> Then it came to him. The Bay Bridge Bookstore! Of course. Offering 'real books' as well as electronic ones, The Triple B was the best place in Metropolis for first editions and those special one-of-a-kind book purchases that they would be looking for. They were probably planning to sit in the comfortable coffee room and have an espresso afterwards. He would find her in the bookstore!
He hurried after her, the woman who at this moment was the most important person in his life. The woman who could be his salvation: Dr. Veda Doodsen!
METROPOLIS 8:27 A.M. December 11, 2032
*If you could see me now,
The one who said that he'd better roam;
The one who said he'd rather be alone;
If you could only see me now.*
*If I could hold you now,
Just for a moment really make you mine;
Just for a moment turn back the hands of time;
If I could only hold you now.*
*But I've been too long in the wind and too long in the rain.
Taking any comfort that I can;
Looking back and longing for the freedom of my chains
Lying in your loving arms again.*
The phone rang in Laura Lane Kent Forrest's office at STAR Labs distracting her from the DNA computer model she was carefully studying. She picked up the porta-phone on the lab table next to her, saying absently, still watching the model, "Laura Forrest."
From the phone came a familiar voice, "Laura? It's Bernie."
<Bernie?> He never used that name here. In these environs they were Dr. Klein and Dr. Forrest to each other, maintaining a completely professional relationship. <Something's wrong!> "Bernie, what is it? What's happened?"
"I think you'd better come to my lab right away, Laura. I have your father in my office."
"Dad's here? I'm on my way." Turning off the computer, she was out the door and down the hallway, barely controlling her urge to Super move, although she was unlikely to be seen on a Saturday morning.
Laura and Chris had learned the truth about Clark's disappearance from Lois but like her, neither of them had seen or heard from him in the two months since he'd been gone. <And now he turns up here! And what a strange thing for Bernie to say. Not 'he's in my office', but 'I *have* him in my office.' What's going on?>
When she arrived at Klein's laboratory, he ushered her into his cubicle where Clark, sans glasses and barely recognizable with his long gray hair and beard, lay unmoving on the couch, eyes closed. "Is he all right? What's happened? How did he get here?"
Klein had the fleeting thought that there were times when Laura sounded very much like her mother. "First things first," he answered. "I think he's falling into a coma and he appears to be having trouble swallowing. We need to get him into an isolation room where we can connect him to a Bernini Suctionator. If we don't he could choke to death. When we get him stabilized, I'll explain everything."
Moving swiftly, the two hurried to the medical wing of the facility and confiscated the equipment they needed, wheeling the apparatus along with a hospital bed, back to the laboratory. Leaving the BS in an isolation room used for classified experiments, they wheeled the hospital bed into the office to retrieve Clark. An older woman, a stranger to Laura, appeared to help them transfer his inert body, and followed as they hastily moved him to the off-limits room. She watched as they suctioned Clark's mouth and throat and set the machinery in place to monitor and continue the procedure when necessary. They also attached him to an instrument that would monitor his heart function, breathing, and blood pressure, and which would sound an alarm if any deleterious changes occurred.
When it was clear that the patient was no longer in distress, the three of them moved back to Klein's office, where, after placing the alarm receiver on his desk, the good doctor poured coffee for everyone from a beaker and, as they sat down, began to explain the events that had led to his telephone call to Laura.
"This is Dr. Veda Doodsen, of whom you may know from the scrap books your mother has about *Superman's* past. Apparently, *he* walked up to her in a bookstore yesterday, looking as you just saw him, and said he needed her help because he was dying."
Laura immediately understood the meaning of the slight emphasis on 'Superman' and 'he' and compartmentalized her mind to think of Superman and not her father. Years of training had conditioned her to be able to think of herself, her brother and her father and their alter egos as different people and she shifted into that mode now.
"What's wrong with him? Why did you call me?"
Bernard Klein continued his narrative. "Last March Superman came to me with some alarming symptoms which included accelerated decrepitude and a mirror of a 20th Century disease called Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis. As you know, Laura, for the last few years, we've been able to correct the onslaught of this affliction and in some cases reverse it through DNA manipulation. Since you've been integrally involved with the research and development in that area, I thought you could help us."
"When he came to you, what did you do?"
"As you might think, diagnosing and treating Superman has always been a challenge because his physiology is different from humans. But the greatest problem has always been that his dense molecular structure defies any attempts by our current technology to X-ray, scan or in any way invade his body for information. While I always try, I have, in the past, had to give up and rely on him to peer into his own body and describe or draw what he saw. This time, to my surprise, our machines were successful in penetrating, and what I found was alarming."
Klein took a file folder out of his desk and handed it to Laura. "Look at these results and compare them with these drawings that Superman did of the same areas a few years ago."
Laura spent a few minutes studying the physiological maps and felt her heart sinking. Klein continued, "There was an obvious loss of motor neurons along the spinal cord, a loss so great that it would require immediate DNA therapy to stop a rapid degeneration into the cessation of all physical functions."
"He must have been experiencing muscle weakness and loss of control that would have alarmed him. What treatment did you prescribe?"
"I immediately began a course of various chemicals by mouth to decrease the number of free radicals, to increase the growth of neurotrophic factors, to prevent auto-immune disorders from spreading; and added caspase inhibitors to prevent any further oxidative cellular injury or death. At the same time I attempted to infuse him with DNA traces to combine with and alter his present structure. Nothing worked."
Veda Doodsen interceded. "A long time ago, I took some of Superman's life force to revitalize a friend of his. In doing so, I traumatized his molecular structure, and altered his DNA, which apparently began to unravel a few months ago. I've spent many years regretting those experiments and trying to atone for the damage I did. This is one result I was completely unaware of. I believe that if we can somehow revert the spirals to their original likeness, we can save him, and perhaps even reverse much of the ageing."
Klein nodded in agreement. "The DNA does appear to be the key but his body has rejected everything I've tried. That's why we need you."
"Where did you get the DNA strings?" Laura asked.
"Superman has left sample items here for various reasons throughout the years, but the ones we have to work with only date back to some time *after* Dr. Doodsen's experiment. The others were destroyed when the freezer unit where they were kept broke down one Friday night and wasn't discovered until the following Monday."
Suddenly the alarm on the desk began to jangle. The three leaped up and hurried to the closed room, where they found Superman gasping, obviously having breathing difficulty.
Laura, speaking sharply to Klein and Doodsen said, "Keep him breathing. I'll be right back."
As soon as she was out the door, she moved at Super Speed to the medical wing, retrieved a trans-esophageal respirator and returned to the lab. The doctors worked together to swiftly put the appurtenance in place and start it working. Soon the man in the bed was again breathing with regularity.
Dr. Klein turned and spoke gravely to the other two. "This is the final stage. He's dying. I don't know how long he has, nor how to stop it." He paused for a long moment. "Laura, I believe your mother would want to know."
Laura blanched, but kept her composure, remembering that secrets must still be kept. Turning to Veda Doodsen she explained, "My parents have always been Superman's closest friends. My father is missing in the Congo, but he would want my mother here and she would never turn her back on Superman. I'll call her from my office."
Lois had just taken clothes from the dryer and was folding them at the table in the utility room when she heard the phone ring. <Drat! I never remember to bring a porta-phone with me when I come in here.> Sprinting for the kitchen, she picked up the instrument kept there and answered breathlessly, "Hello?"
"Mother, it's me. You need to come to Dr. Klein's lab right away. Dad's here."
"Clark is there? Why do you need me?"
"Mother, he's dying. We don't know how much longer he has."
Lois felt her heart wrench and stop for a beat. <Oh God, please no!> "I'll be there as soon as I can."
"No, stay where you are. It'll be faster if I come get you."
Before she left to pick up Lois, Laura also called Chris, told him the situation and admonished him to show up as Superman's friend, The Defender, *not* as her brother, Chris.
During the interim while Laura was gone, Doodsen and Klein discussed what, if anything, might still be done to save Superman. "Dr. Klein, there must be something we can do. I believe you were on the right track, but we have to figure out why he keeps rejecting his own DNA."
"Perhaps it isn't that he's rejecting it, but that the DNA we're using has the same characteristics that are causing his dysfunction and so they are not making a proper correction."
"That's a good hypothesis! But if it's an accurate one, how can we obtain specimens that *will* achieve the desired change?"
"I don't *know*, but if anyone can figure it out, Dr. Forrest can."
At that moment, Lois ran into the room saying, "Where is he, Bernie?"
Laura who was following said, "Come with me, Mother. I'll show you," and they disappeared in the direction of the confidential room where Superman and The Defender awaited them.
When Lois saw Clark, she gasped, tears filling her eyes. To see him lying helpless with the paraphernalia linked to him, surrounding him, a *part* of him, shook the foundation of her equilibrium, but there was no time for weakness. *Something* had to be done. As she took his hand, she said, "Laura, what can I do? How can we save him?"
Chris placed a chair next to the bed for Lois to sit on, as Laura replied, "We don't know yet, Mother. We're working on it. When he reached this final phase, Dr. Klein and I thought that you would want to be here."
"Laura, you have to figure it out! We can't let him die!"
"If it's possible, I will. Sit with him and try to let him know you're here. I know that will help."
After Laura left the room, Lois placed the back of her hand on Clark's cheek saying, "Oh, Sweetheart, why did you wait so long to come for help?" as she felt Chris's comforting hand on her shoulder.
Klein and Doodsen apprised Laura of their surmises and the three of them began to discuss possible means of altering the DNA mechanism.
"What we need is a method to change the samples that we have so that Superman's body will receive them and begin to modify his current molecules, or we need to construct artificial strands and somehow deceive his body into believing they are real and capable of transforming his resident structure."
The computer model she had been studying flashed before Laura's eyes. "I have an idea that just might work! But we need 24 hours to develop it. Do you think we have that long?"
"Only Superman can determine that; it depends on his will to stay alive," said Klein.
Lois was bent over, her forehead touching Clark's hand, her cheeks wet with traces of tears, when her daughter entered. "He seems so remote. I think he's hanging halfway between life and death. It's not too late is it, Laura?"
"I hope not, mother. We may have found a way, but we need 24 hours. I think you can give us that."
"Me? I'll do anything, but…how?
"Even though you're not Kryptonian, you and Dad have always been able to contact each other across time and space. I could feel how strongly you were trying to reach him when he first left, but lately I've felt nothing. I think you've closed yourself off from him. I don't know why; it doesn't matter, but now you need to open up and connect with him again. Dad's told us a million times how you saved him from that virus before you were married. You have to give him that strength again, to keep him alive for another day." The urgency in Laura's voice clearly expressed the crisis of the situation.
Almost as she said the words, Laura felt a powerful force emanate from Lois as she opened her heart and mind, reaching out to Clark. He instantly stirred and shifted his face toward his wife.
Laura slipped silently away, certain that they would have the time they wanted.
The scientists, having brought up the computer model they needed, surrounded the screen studying it, while Laura explained.
"If we construct a Bionic Cell Chip and place on it a simulation of the healthy DNA configuration that we need, then use a scanning tunneling microscope to set up a quantum corral to mirror the formation as a ghost molecule, a kind of phantom doppelganger, and implant the chip on Superman's spinal cord, his body should read these phantoms as real and begin to replicate them. Create enough of these 'quantum mirage' chips and we can quickly stop his decline and, in time, restore his strength. We must have a quantity of them to implant now, because we may not be able to invade him again surgically, if his molecular structure re-densifies."
"It's brilliant!" Veda Doodsen exclaimed, "and we don't need any clumsy machinery to make it work."
"Yes," said Dr. Klein, "but neuro-surgery is extremely delicate. None of *us* is qualified. Who can we get to do it?"
Childhood hours spent with her Grandfather Lane in his laboratory, hearing stories about robots and experimental leaps of faith had prepared Laura for this moment. She was a formidable combination of her father's analytical brain, her mother's curiosity and daring and her grandfather's faith in the power of science. She already knew the answer to the question. "I'm going to program a cyborg to do it. That's one of the reasons we need so much time. I'll need to design it and download it from the computer."
"I told you she could figure it out," said Klein to Doodsen. "How do we proceed, Dr.?"
"Since you're familiar with Superman's physical being, and have mapped his healthy DNA genome, you should be the one to construct the computer simulations. Dr. Doodsen, you and I will work on the cell-chip together until you understand the manufacturing process and can work on your own. Then I'll set to work programming the cyborg. I think The Defender may be able to help me with that."
They worked through the day and into the night as Lois kept her vigil at Clark's side. By midnight, the trio of scientists, with The Defender as onlooker, was ready to combine the results of their efforts and find out if the idea worked. Using the computer to send electrical impulses to the cell chip, they triggered the cell's membrane to activate and open up to receive the bogus DNA, which was carefully inserted onto each chip. Then with the scanning tunneling microscope, they herded the atoms into the quantum corral, and found to their elation a swarm of phantoms mirroring back on each chip. Their excitement fathered a rowdy but brief celebration of hugs, back slaps and high fives. Thus far they had succeeded, but there was still delicate work to be done.
Lois, having heard the commotion, came from the confidential room to find out what the noise was all about. "What's going on?" she enquired, hoping to hear some good news.
Going to her, Laura gave her a big hug and said, "It's working, Mother!"
"Thank God," Lois breathed. "How soon will you…?"
"We'll prepare for surgery right away. Let's go have a look at how he's doing."
Back in the clandestine room, Clark was once again inert and comatose. "What's happened!" Lois cried. "He was fine when I left." She took his hand and his color returned; his breathing came more deeply as he responded to her touch.
"Mother, I can see that it's going to be important that you stay with him, in *touch* with him through this operation. Do you understand? Can you stand up to what will be going on?"
"I'll do what I *have* to do. I always have."
Laura thought that she had never known, never understood the measure of strength her Mother possessed, as she responded, "Good. I'll let you know when we're ready."
When she returned to the lab, Dr. Doodsen said, "I hate to bring this up at the last minute, but what kind of anesthetic are you planning to use and who's going to administer it? I'm certainly not qualified. Are you?"
Laura said, "The cyborg should be able to work fast enough that we can use a local, but I'll be busy monitoring it. If you can't do it, Dr. Klein, do you have any idea who can?"
He thought for a moment, then his countenance brightened, and he replied, "Helene can do it."
"Helene! She's a psychiatrist! How is she qualified?"
"She did an internship in anesthesiology, because she wanted to be able to use various drugs on patients involved with her experiments. She wouldn't be able to do anything complicated, but I'm sure she could handle a local, especially with Dr. Doodsen and me watching the monitors and standing by to help if there's an emergency."
"I hope you're right. We need to contact her immediately."
"I'll take care of it, and have her here in half an hour, " said The Defender rushing out the laboratory door.
At 3:00 A.M. on a Sunday morning, no one would be around to question what they were doing in an operating room of the medical wing, especially after Dr. Klein had informed the night guards that he was in the midst of a revolutionary experiment for the National Security Agency and that absolutely no one was to wander above the first floor for at least 12 hours.
Superman was placed on the table; Lois held his hand; Helene administered an epidural spinal anesthetic; Klein and Doodsen stood by as observers ready to assist if necessary; The Defender stood as guardian outside the door in case someone did perchance make his way into the area; and the cyborg began the operation under Laura's watchful eye.
Laura's programming was impeccable, and the robot worked swiftly and skillfully. Within two hours' time, the procedure was completed and Superman was back in his secret chamber, lifelines attached, sleeping peacefully suspended on a circle frame that elevated him so that his back was not compromised by bed pressure. All that remained was the waiting. After 4 hours they would remove the Suctionator. If he could swallow normally, then they would remove the respirator. If his breathing function was unimpeded, they would have their first sign that they had reversed his death throes.
In the laboratory the top half of a large view-screen displayed Superman's still form while his vital data scrolled across the bottom. Each of those waiting checked the screen while engaging in some preoccupation to pass the time. Lois paced; Laura checked and rechecked her data to be sure they had not overlooked anything; Dr. Klein shuffled lab equipment and made coffee; Dr. Doodsen tapped a pencil against a Petrie dish occasionally writing something on a yellow pad; from varying positions Chris flipped rubber bands around test tubes held upright in a rack; Helene sat quiet and still watching Chris, then the view-screen then Chris again; and the digital display clock on the wall clicked off the minutes.
The Defender went out for food and came back with an elaborate array of takeout fare; no one was very hungry, so most of it went into the cold storage unit. Someone turned on another view screen to watch the football game, but it was too early. They switched to a documentary about the havoc in Ecuador as a result of October's volcanic explosion, and they stared at the moving figures of heroes and Superheroes who now seemed like specters from a life long past. But truthfully, lost in their respective thoughts, they didn't really see or hear anything.
Lois, needing more space, went into the hallway to walk its length and back again. As she approached the lab door for the third time, Veda Doodsen stepped out and stood before her. "Leaving so soon," Lois said sarcastically.
"Ms. Lane, I can imagine that you have very bitter feelings toward me and I know that I deserve them."
"Dr. Doodsen, you can't begin to imagine the feelings that I have toward you, and yes, you deserve them and much worse."
"I know this is probably very confusing for you, how I came to be involved here, and I would like to tell you what's happened to me since we last saw each other." Lois opened her mouth to protest, but Doodsen continued, "Please just hear me out. If nothing else, it will help pass the time."
Lois answered, "I'm passing the time by walking up and down this hallway. I can't stop you from walking with me or talking to me."
And Veda Doodsen began to tell Lois of her life since being sentenced to prison. "The first few months I was still bitter, hating all men and hating you, your husband and Superman for preventing me from completing my experiments and reclaiming my youth.
"Because of my scientific background, the prison authorities put me to work in the prison hospital, and after a while I began to really look at the women who were incarcerated with me and to see how pitifully they were cared for. I worked with the prison doctor, the Warden and the women to devise a program of diet and exercise to build their health and strength. Not everyone was interested in participating, of course, but many were. The diet and exercise regime was later expanded to include educational and vocational training programs to prepare the women for returning to society and claiming jobs in Information Technology fields.
"After several successful years, I was asked to take the program to other women's prisons and eventually earned an early parole through my efforts. I was able to move outside myself and think about others and how I could help them.
"When I was released, I came here to STAR Labs to work on a research project to determine if my prison program had any effect on the recidivism of the women who participated in it compared with those who did not. One day I met the man who funded the study, a gentle, caring man who made me feel like a valuable person and a desirable woman in spite of my age. He's someone you know, Howard Morgan. Two years ago we were married.
"Years ago I let anger and bitterness ruin my life. I've been fortunate enough to get a second chance. I don't expect you to forgive me, Ms. Lane, but I hope you can understand how much I regret what I did. I hope that what we've done here will enable Superman to forgive me one day."
They were approaching the laboratory again, but before Lois could respond, the door opened and Laura poked her head out, saying, "It's time."
It was 9:00 A.M., on Sunday morning, when they removed the Suctionator and waited. Everything remained quiet and normal. After a 15-minute delay, they removed the respirator and watched in suspense. Superman's breathing continued, steadily and without difficulty. His heart beat in a Kryptonian sine rhythm. Another 15 minutes passed. There was no change. In silent relief, Lois and Laura held each other for a long time. Doctors Klein and Doodsen smiled at each other with satisfaction, and Chris and Helene spoke their happiness to each other with their eyes. It was over and they had been successful.
Five very tired people emerged from the sanctuary. Laura had stayed behind to be nurse/monitor. Dr. Doodsen would relieve her at 6:00 P.M. and would be relieved, in turn, the following morning by Dr. Klein and then Helene. They would spell each other until constant surveillance was no longer necessary.
As they separated to return to their respective homes for the rest they all needed, Lois looked in on Clark one last time. Taking his hand in hers she watched him carefully, kissed his forehead softly, took a deep breath and turned away. "Thank you, Laura, thank you." She hugged her daughter, then stepped back and said, "What happens now?"
"If everything goes as I think it will, we'll be able to move him in just a few days. A little sunlight and he should be recovered in about two weeks."
"Where will you move him?"
Laura gave her mother a startled glance. "I thought …don't you want to…shouldn't he go home with you?"
"Because that's where he belongs! You can't just leave him alone."
Lois answered quietly, "You forget, Laura. He's the one who left. I don't know that he *wants* to come home with me. Even if he does, I'm not sure I'm ready for that…or if I'll ever be."
"Mother, don't say that! You know you love him. You wouldn't have been able to help him through this if you didn't!"
Lois regarded her daughter gravely. "Yes, I love him; I'll never stop loving him. But, as I think you're finding out for yourself with Jack, sometimes love isn't enough."
Shocked, Laura could only watch her mother's retreating figure in mute astonishment. As Lois approached the laboratory exit, she saw that Veda Doodsen was there ahead of her. The woman saw her, looked away and reached for the doorknob. "Dr. Doodsen, please wait!"
Veda Doodsen stopped and looked at her again with tears and remorse in her eyes. Lois said, "What you did for Superman today was a remarkable thing. I think he would say that you have lived with the consequences of your actions, and you've done what you could to make up for them. That's all he would ask for proof of your rehabilitation and atonement."
Lois went on, "About what I said earlier…I have a bad temper; I get mad quickly and I stay mad for a long time even when I know I should give it up and go on. Superman is right; you've more than made up for your past mistakes."
"Thank you, Ms. Lane."
Lois put her hand on Dodson's arm and said, "Nothing to thank me for; and it's 'Lois'."
"And I'm Veda."
Opening the door, Lois said, "Come on, Veda, I'll walk you out and you can tell me all about you and Howard Morgan."
Superman's recovery followed the script they had hoped for, and as soon as he was alert and cognizant of his prognosis he was asking for Lois, had she been there, when would she be back, how soon could he see her? But she did not appear, and he soon understood that she would not. Laura took him home with her, where the sun and the verve of his grandchildren invigorated him. He was quickly up and ambulatory, but he did not have Lois, and he needed her.
His strength and his powers returned rapidly, although they were not completely what they had been. He would continue to age in a human fashion, and his Super Powers would gradually lessen, but there would be no catastrophic eclipse. The Kryptonian impulses that had so frightened him were dormant and under control and likely to remain so, although only time would reveal that answer.
During his recovery period, he talked with Laura and Bernard Klein about Mary and George and the prospect of their being able to help him. He did not want to abandon this wonderful woman who had been so good to him and eventually the three of them arranged for George to receive experimental treatment that they had great hopes for.
At the same time he contacted an environmental youth camp that operated under the umbrella of the Superman Foundation and negotiated for Mickey to be accepted there, where he could work, attend school and learn to regard himself as a worthy person.
As soon as he was able to get out, he was down at the Hobbs Bay cardboard camp persuading his friends to take advantage of what was offered to them. George and Mickey were reluctant but agreed to give it a try. He settled Mary and George in a small apartment within walking distant of STAR Labs and delivered Mickey to the fatherly director of the environmental camp, leaving them with the promise that he would see them frequently and would follow their progress.
Meanwhile, his X-ray vision and Super Hearing had returned and he used his Super Vision to shave off his beard and cut his hair. He had regained his muscular density to a lesser degree, but he was once again impervious to injury. He could float and would soon be flying.
But he did not have Lois, and he needed her.
Finally, he decided that he would take the bull by the horns, an appropriate cliché, considering how mad Lois was at him. It didn't matter. He was ready to confront her wrath; in fact, he had to because he didn't want to spend any more time away from her.
As dusk fell on a good day to test his flying power, he lifted off and set a course for 348 Hyperion Avenue. It was the Monday before Christmas and he wanted to see her, make amends, spend Christmas Eve in her arms, and Christmas Day with his family reunited.
She had not yet come home, when he settled on the doorstep. He tried the door but it was locked, and his keys were at the bottom of an African river. So he waited. At 6:30 he saw a taxi approach and pull in at the curb. He stepped forward in anticipation.
Lois, looking through the cab window, saw him and looked away. "I've changed my mind," she told the driver. "Keep driving." Clark watched with a sinking heart as the vehicle pulled away. He floated upward, following. With his Super Hearing he picked up the sound of a personal communicator being activated. Lois was calling Chris. "Hi, Sweetie. It's me. Your father is camped on my doorstep and I don't want to see him. Would you please come take him away and explain to him that when I'm ready to see him I'll let him know."
"Mom, why don't you just talk to him? What can that hurt?"
"Because I'm not ready yet. And it doesn't help to have you and Laura pushing at me. Don't interfere in our business."
"You just asked me to!"
"That's not interfering, that's helping. Now are you going to do it, or do I have to go check into a hotel?"
"Okay, Okay. Give me half an hour. But this is not cooperation, it's coercion."
"Whatever it takes. Thank you, Sweet Boy."
Chris grimaced at the use of her baby name for him, and set off to find his father.
Clark sadly returned to the front porch of his erstwhile home and waited for his son.
KANSAS 2:37 P.M. December 24, 2032
*I can feel your body when I'm lying in my bed;
There's too much confusion going around through my head.
And it makes me so angry to know
That the flame still burns;
Why can't I get over? When will I ever learn?*
*I can see your face but I know it's not real.
It's just an illusion caused by how I used to feel.
And it makes me so angry to know
That the flame will always burn.
I'll never get over; I know now that I'll never learn.*
*Old Love, leave me alone.
Old Love go on home*
Eric Clapton and Robert Cray
Lois had decided to leave Metropolis that morning when she had heard Clark's voice on her message machine for the 25th time saying, "Lois, please talk to me."
She answered the porta-phone herself a few times and hung up without speaking when he tried to talk with her. His persistence finally persuaded her to turn on her machine so she could skip over the countless messages beginning, "Lois, pick up if you're there," "Lois, please pick up," Lois why won't you return my calls…" She was tired of it all: of hearing his voice, of hardening herself against the emotion in his voice, of being angry with him and hating herself for it, of enduring her children's interference in their lives <We're supposed to meddle in *their* lives not the other way round!>. She wanted to forget it all, leave it behind and go somewhere where she could think.
The house had become an impossible place to be. When Clark had first left, not finding him when she came home, knowing that he might never be there again, had been unbearable. But worse had been trying to sleep in their bed alone, without the expectation that he would return from a late night sortie and fall asleep in her arms. She would exhaust herself at the office or at a late social gathering or at the gym and throw herself on her pillow hoping for quick oblivion. And she would sleep as in a coma for two or three hours, then wake suddenly and spend the rest of the night at the mercy of her memories. She could cover the dark circles under her eyes with make-up, but there was no way to disguise the shadows *in* her eyes or her obvious weight loss. Now she had an understanding of why her mother had dropped into the habit of drinking herself into a stupor every night after her father left them. But Lois could not, would not allow such a destructive weakness overwhelm her. Instead she made a reservation for Topeka.
Lois had flown to Kansas and driven to The Farm in a rented utility airfoil, the current equivalent to her old Jeep Cherokee, guaranteed to withstand the weather onslaught that was predicted for the area. Airfoils were comfortable but could be squirrelly in high winds and heavy weather; the utility models were rugged and could hug the ground with practically zero clearance. The ad-men had revived an old 20th Century slogan for this model: "Rain, sleet, snow? They can't stop the Carrier. It delivers!" And it did deliver her safely.
The weather was holding off and when she arrived she hurried inside, hoping to be enveloped by the calm serenity of the aging farmhouse, but the comfort she expected to find was missing. Instead there was the disquiet of Clark's presence wherever she turned.
Looking around she tried to relax in the old-fashioned atmosphere of the room. They had left the place exactly as it had always been. There were shelves of books instead of electronic readers; there was an old radio instead of grilled wall speakers and buttons for programming Musikon reception; a battered old television set instead of view screens in every room. These outmoded devices would still provide a link to the outside world, but would not make the world ubiquitous.
She could keep the world out; that was easy. But she couldn't keep Clark out. Lois had come to The Farm looking for a chance to figure out how she really felt about Clark's overtures to coming home. There had been too much distraction for clear thinking in Metropolis. What she hadn't counted on was that there might be too much *quiet* at The Farm. Here the distractions were painful memories.
He was everywhere she looked: laughing as he stumped her in Trivial Pursuit; grabbing her for a roughhouse when she called out "Gin" for the fourth straight game; sitting before the fire, holding her and kissing her neck and her mouth…<No! I won't go there.>
Falling back on her usual remedy for anxiety, she decided to go for a walk, putting on her walking boots and bundling against the cold with a wool sweater, heavy jacket and muffler wrapped warmly.
Outside, the clouds lowered and there was the smell of snow in the air, but she *had* to move, nervous energy driving her. Setting off, she found herself through the woods and by the lake before she really knew which direction she had taken. Confronted with the dark water and gray landscape, she stood for a moment, gathered a pile of small stones to place beside her and sat on a nearby rock to confront her thoughts.
<Okay, I'm here, he's not. There are no distractions. So…think! About… Yeah there's the rub. Thinking about him makes me so mad!> In an unwelcome flash she heard Clark's voice saying, "You can't stay mad forever," and her voice answering, "Oh, yes I can. You can fly, I can stay mad. It's a gift." <Where do I want to go with this? What do I want? I will *not* just get over it and forgive and forget. Not this time.>
She was working herself up to a real explosion, but, she realized, there was no one to take it out on. She needed to calm down and be rational. <Well, I just need one of my meddling Kryptonian offspring to show me how!> She picked up a stone and, standing, threw it violently into the water. <That felt good!> Another stone, another hard throw. Ten stones later, all aimed at imaginary targets some distance out on the lake, she found her rage deflated, and she was ready to think calmly.
She settled again on the low flat rock with her back against a looming boulder and focused her mind. This had *not* been just another argument or disagreement, of which there had been many in their passionate relationship; this was a wrenching, searing pivotal break, and the rest of their lives would depend on how it was resolved. Suddenly, as clearly as though she were sitting next to her, she heard her Aunt Liz say, "You have to decide which is more important, Lois, pride or love. No one can do that for you."
Lois and Liz did not see each other often, but they shared a bond, which they renewed at every opportunity. And it was Liz, more than any other person, who had helped Lois to make up her mind about her feelings for Clark.
Lois had been barely speaking to him after he dumped her "for her own good" and then wanted to reverse his action and reclaim a place in her life. She hadn't been ready for that and wasn't sure when she would be. And then Aunt Liz came to town to speak at a CHILD fundraising dinner.
Liz met Clark at the dinner, which Perry, an Elizabeth Curtis fan, had assigned his two best reporters to cover, and afterwards, as was her custom when in Metropolis, she went back to Lois' apartment for the night.
Lois remembered her, standing before the bookshelves— tall and attractive with long legs, auburn hair, and green eyes— reading the spines of the volumes and saying, "I never knew you were interested in poetry, Lois. What a collection you have!"
Lois chuckled. "I had an adviser in college, a wonderful woman, who told me that if I really wanted to be a writer, I should learn how to put words together to say 'precisely' what I wanted to say. To do that, she said, 'Study Latin and read the great poets.' So I did. She was right about both, but I enjoyed the poetry a lot more than the Latin."
"And now you're a world famous writer. Is it all you thought it would be?"
"How can you ask that? You, of all people, know how it is." Lois did not quite meet her aunt's eyes when she said this.
"Ummhuh. That's an answer, but not to the question I asked. Let me ask it another way. Is your life full and complete, or is the fact that Clark Kent is very much in love with you making you feel you're missing something?"
"It's that obvious, huh?"
"Well he's like an open book. You're not so easy; you never were. But this is Aunt Liz here, and I can tell you're not happy. So tell me about it."
And Lois told her as much as she could without bringing Superman into it, pouring out her anger and frustration and feelings of betrayal. As she talked she paced, sometimes gesturing vehemently with her hands, other times stopping, one hand on her hip the other clenched, finger pointed and jabbing in front of her. Liz watched her carefully, especially when she spoke about Clark.
When she had finished, Liz looked at her appraisingly and said, "That's quite a story, and Clark, from what I've seen of him and heard from you just now seems to be a wonderful caring guy. So what's your problem?"
"My problem is that he thinks that just because I love him and he loves me, he can run my life and make decisions for me like I'm a child or something. *Nobody* runs my life but me."
"Yes, he does seem to have a lot of arrogance which you seem determined to best with your anger. If you want to destroy your relationship you've both set off in the right direction."
"This isn't my fault; I didn't start this!"
"No, but now that you're in it, you're certainly determined to move it on down the road."
"Hey! You're supposed to be on *my* side!"
"I am, and it seems to me that the best thing for you is to make peace with Clark and move ahead."
"You *don't* understand!"
"Oh, I understand…all too well." Liz looked at her thoughtfully, then asked, "Do you by any chance have any of Andrew Marvel's poetry?"
"What? I've just bared my soul and you ask about a l7th century poet?"
"Trust me, Honey. Just get the book of poems and sit down and listen. I think it's time I told you a story about me and Viet Nam and the man I met there."
Surprised, Lois did as she was told and waited with curiosity, because, except for her journalistic dispatches, Elizabeth Curtis had never revealed her experiences in Viet Nam to anyone.
"Can you find a poem by Andrew Marvel called, 'To His Coy Mistress' and read the first line?"
Lois found the verse and read, "Had we but world enough, and time." She stopped and looked expectantly at Liz.
"The first time I ever heard that line it was read to me by a young Captain I met at military headquarters in Da Nang. He changed my life forever."
And Liz told Lois about falling in love, really in love, for the first time. In the midst of hell, she had found someone who made her happier than she had ever been in her entire life. He had wanted them to marry right away, but she had demurred, not being certain that marriage was right for her and not being sure of him. Nor would she become his lover for the same reasons.
She had a job to do and so did he, but they were together as much as possible. He was the Judge Advocate General's officer in Da Nang and so was never in danger out at a firebase. He spent his spare time getting to know the Vietnamese people and to understand what terrible things had happened in their country over the past 50 years. He saw the effects of those years on the families, and he became a Good Samaritan helping as many as possible in every way he could. When she wasn't out on assignment, Liz went with him delivering supplies and giving comfort.
One night, after a particularly exhausting and depressing trip to a nearby orphanage, as she sat with him in his quarters he told her how much he wanted a family of his own someday, and how, after this war was over, he wanted to spend his life doing whatever he could to aid its helpless victims. He would never be able to offer her wealth, but he would give her his complete love and devotion for all of his life. When she hesitated he had quoted that line of poetry to her and told her that the poem was about a man who loved a woman who would not say yes to him; then he read the poem to her in a voice filled with passion and longing. He told her that they had so much to give each other that it seemed foolish to delay starting their lives together. He gave her the book and asked her to take it back to her quarters read it and think about what could be.
"When I read it, I realized that waiting *was* foolish. There were some particular lines that he'd marked that I thought about all night. When I saw him the next morning, I knew that he was right. I had to say 'yes'."
During the time it took for the military red tape to unwind itself, they became passionate and joyous lovers. While they were waiting for their permission papers to be approved and forwarded, she was going out to cover assignments in-country, and he was traveling to ancillary headquarters for brief legal hearings on various crimes and misdemeanors that occur in any military occupation. He was called to Hue for a Court Martial, and on the way his Huey had been blown from the sky by Viet Cong machine gun fire that made a lucky hit on the fuel tank.
In the aftermath, when she wanted to die, she would read the poem again and again, hating herself for wasting even a moment of their lives together because of her indecision and fear. Finally when she knew she was not going to die, she began to look for a reason to live; in a revealing epiphany she realized that she could do *for* him what he could not and she began the odyssey that led to CHILD.
"Oh, Aunt Liz, I'm so sorry," Lois said, as she put her arms around her and hugged her tight.
"It was a long time ago, Lois. I still love him, and I miss him; it makes me sad sometimes, but I don't grieve anymore. I would rather do something to honor him than sit around feeling sorry for myself. I told you this story to help *you*, not for you to feel sorry for me."
"I don't understand. What does it have to do with me?"
"Don't you see? You're in danger of making the same mistakes I did, of wasting the time you could have together. You're hesitating, delaying; afraid it won't be prefect. Nothing is, Lois." She placed a finger under Lois' chin and turned her face so that each was looking into the other's eyes. "Do you love Clark?"
"Yes! No! I don't know!"
"Why don't you know?"
Lois stood, answering with agitation, "Because he's so dumb, and he makes me mad and I'm afraid to trust him again."
Liz rose and stood beside her. "You're letting pride, anger and fear do your thinking, Lois. You have to look deep within yourself and decide what you're going to do about this. Don't wait too late the way I did. You have to decide which is more important, pride or love. No one else can do that for you.
"Honey, we *never know* how long anything will last. It's better to live with all the hurt and go forward than spend years alone slowly dying because you're afraid. You can *exist* without knowing that loving and giving are the most important things in life, but you owe yourself more than that; you *deserve* more."
Lois looked silently at her aunt, her conflicting emotions playing across her face.
Liz said, "I'm going to bed now, but I wish you'd take this," handing her the book, "read it and then think very carefully about you and Clark. Do you really want the kind of life you would have without him?" With that, she gave Lois a hug and went into the bedroom.
Lois had stood for a long time looking at the book in her hand. Then she sat, opened it and began to read.
Now as Lois looked out at the water, bits and pieces of the poem floated through her mind, all so appropriate to her decision then and, she could see, to her decision now.
Had we but world enough and time, This coyness, lady, would be no crime.
But at my back I always hear Time's winged chariot hurrying near.
<Time *is* catching up with us. I can't keep ignoring Clark; I have to decide if I can forget this and go forward with him. Or is this the unforgivable and final end? The questions are still the same, Aunt Liz. Didn't I learn anything all those years ago? Do I still want what I wanted then? You were right; arrogance…anger… pride…fear-they will kill a relationship, even one that's lasted 37 years.>
Lois shivered, and with a start, realized that the sky was beginning to darken; evening was coming on and she was getting stiff from the cold and from sitting for so long. Gathering the last of her stones, she threw them one by one into the lake, but the punch from her anger was not there and they did not go far. Looking in both directions and at the threatening sky, she turned toward the woods, opting for the shortest, quickest way back.
When she walked through the front door of the farmhouse, to her surprise she found Laura and Chris waiting. Her reaction must have played across her face because Laura quickly said, "We're not here to bug you. Mother. We were worried and we just wanted to be sure you were okay."
"Okay? Of course, I'm okay! I realize that it probably escaped your notice, Laura, but I'm perfectly capable of taking care of myself *and* the both of you. I can also walk and chew gum at the same time."
"Hey, Mom, truce!" Chris broke in. "We're here because we wanted to tell you we're sorry. We know you didn't like us interfering between you and Dad; We love you both and it hurts us to see you hurting each other, but you have to work it out yourselves."
"That's right, Mother. We still think you should see Dad and talk with him, but that's the last time we're saying anything. The rest is up to you. We wanted you to know that," Laura added.
Lois looked at the two of them. Finally she would get some breathing room from them, and since Clark didn't know where she was, she *would* be able to focus on her decision.
"Thanks, you two. I really need to know that you love me and you'll accept whatever I decide. You just need to give me some space so I can work this out."
"You've got it Mom," Chris said as he gave Lois a hug and a kiss.
Laura did likewise saying, "You know we love you, Mother, whatever happens. We'll leave you alone for as long as you need." She moved toward the door, Chris in tow.
*On a Winter's night
Some time when we're all alone,
We'll sing every song we know
Turn off all the lights;
What will we do when the music ends?
What will we see when the lights go out?
How can you feel when a friendship ends
*We're far away, lost in dreams,
High above any clouds we see.
But who knows when the storms will come?
Who knows when the winds will rise?
Who knows what those snows will blow
In our eyes?*
*Who knows who'll be the first to go
On their way, alone, with a frozen tear,
In search of a better year, or just a warmer night?
Who knows when clouds will come?
Who knows if the sun will rise?
Who knows what those winds will blow
In our eyes?*
*So just for now we'll stay by the radio;
We'll sing every song we know,
Turn off all the lights,
Wrap a blanket warmly, shut the window tight.
Put your arms around me;
For all we know, it may snow tonight.*
Lois stood on the porch, arms folded to warm herself, watching Laura and Chris fly off toward Metropolis. Dusk was approaching and anyone who might have been around to observe this phenomenon was safely inside keeping warm and involved with Christmas preparations. When they were out of sight, she hurried inside to stand before the heat of the open fireplace.
As she placed her hand on the mantle, her eyes were drawn to a photograph of Clark standing between his parents. <It was a mistake to come here. It's impossible to think rationally in a place that has so many memories of him. I should have thought of that.> She shivered involuntarily and moved closer to the fire and the photograph. <There's no way I can stay here after tonight. I'll leave first thing in the morning.> Having made at least one decision, she felt better for it and stirred up the fire with the poker.
From the adjacent bookshelf, she took an old English Literature textbook and found the poem as she walked over and turned on the radio hoping to find some appropriate music to cheer her mood. A voice from the radio was saying, "…on the way. Temperatures will drop to 18 degrees as the cold front approaches. We expect 10 to 15 inches of snow over the next 24 hours. Drivers are warned to watch for possible drifts that may cover open roadways because of high winds." She changed the station looking for music and found Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons" playing. <Thank goodness for the utility airfoil. Barring a complete blizzard, it would still be able to take her out of here tomorrow.> Placing the book face down on the coffee table, she checked the wood box, grabbed the wood carrier and went out to get a few more logs.
As she turned to go back inside with her load, she saw someone standing by the fence looking at her. Night was dropping quickly and she could barely make him out, but she would have known the form and face had they been but black shadows. The two of them looked at each other, saying nothing, for the space of ten or a thousand heartbeats—she didn't know which— then she continued into the house.
He watched her, the hollow inside him expanding, and he dropped his head. She was without make-up, wearing a maroon turtleneck and dark wool slacks with an old baggy gray sweater she loved to put on to ward off the Kansas cold. She had never looked so lovely or so desirable and he desperately wanted to put his arms around her, to have her hold him and love him again. It was the first time she had looked at him since he came back and he had seen everything in her eyes. The hurt and anger in them had massed to flash point before she moved and left him alone in the dark. She had looked at him, but she had yet to speak to him. He continued to stand, not knowing what to do, but refusing to leave even if it meant remaining there through the night.
Furious with Laura and Chris for their subterfuge, Lois watched him through the window, hoping he would go away, but he did not. <Thank you, so much, Laura and Chris. This is what you call leaving me alone? Where did they learn to be so devious?> But she didn't want to face up to *that* answer. She looked angrily out the window until finally, she threw open the door, took three steps and snapped belligerently, "Well? Are you coming in?"
He looked up surprised and, strangely, felt a little warmth invade the hollow. She had spoken to him. "I…I wasn't sure you'd want me to," he replied in a low voice.
Anger suffused her face but her words were icily calm. "This was your parents' house, Clark. You grew up here. *I* can't keep you out." She whirled and stormed inside slamming the door.
<What did that mean?> Was he supposed to follow? He hesitated, unsure of his next move. Then he crossed the yard and climbed the steps. Standing before the door, he waited a moment, turned the knob and went in.
She stood waiting, arms folded, facing him, chin thrust out aggressively. "It took you long enough. Why are you here?"
He took off his coat and hung it on the peg by the door and turned to her. He was wearing blue jeans and his old familiar dark navy blue double knit shirt that she loved, the one with the Henley collar.
"I wanted to see you, to talk with you."
"Do you really think we have anything more to say, Clark? I thought you said it all when you left." She was leaning forward now, fists clenched in defiance, one foot in a half step toward him.
He looked at her, scarcely able to keep the admiration from his eyes. She was magnificent! She fought with the same all-out passion that she brought to their lovemaking, giving no quarter and expecting none. There wasn't a temperate bone in the woman's body when she was excited, whether in pursuit of a story, or saving a child or exploring ecstasy with him; and especially not when she was fighting *for* something. Was she fighting for something now? Without realizing it, was she looking for a way for them to be together again?
She wasn't finished. 'You kept silent for months while Dr. Klein was treating you. Talking to me wasn't so important then, was it?"
"Oh, you mean I should have talked to you about *that* the same way you talked to me about how worried you were that I was losing my powers and you had Laura and Chris watching me?"
"Okay, okay. *Neither* of us was talking."
"Honey, please let me explain why I did what I did. If you understand maybe we can…"
He heard her mutter furiously, "Who are you to call me Honey!" and he winced as he remembered another time she said those words, and followed them with some very vicious, strategically placed kicks. He wondered if she would like that opportunity now. But he also heard just a little bit of a stumble in her voice, and the tiny bit of warmth in the cavern inside him grew a little more. Was he making some progress?
She went on. "For two months you were with those lost people, watching me. You didn't want to talk to me then. You didn't want my help; you didn't want *me*. You think things have changed because you're not sick anymore?"
"You knew I was there? Then what were you doing kissing Marshall Stewart?"
"Hoping to get enough of a reaction from you to bring you to your senses so you would come home. Clark, you could hide behind a ridiculous disguise 38 years ago, but certainly not now. Or have you always thought I was stupid?"
"Lois, you know I don't think you're stupid!"
"Do I? I don't think I know *what* you think or feel, any more."
"Then let me explain it to you, please!"
She walked to the couch and sat down, arms folded, stiffly facing front and said, "You want to explain? Okay, explain."
He went to sit beside her but decided the other end of the couch was as close as he should attempt. Her body language was not encouraging, so he had to say this just right. "When I left, I thought it was the best thing for *you*. When Bernie told me what was going to happen to me, I couldn't put you through that."
She turned her head to him, eyes blazing, saying, "How typical of you. Such noble self sacrifice! Is that supposed to make it all right? What do you think I'm going to say now, 'Oh, well, as long as you were thinking of *me*, then it doesn't matter'? Ogh!" She faced front again and her mind was racing, <What is the matter with him? Does he think I'm a pathetic little creature who has to be guarded and protected or I'll fall apart at the first crisis? Doesn't he know how tough I am? Didn't watching me go through childbirth make the least little dent in his brain? Or is his ego so big he thinks he's responsible for everything and everyone in the world? If Martha and Jonathon were alive, she'd have pulled his ears good and they would have sent him home to me where he belongs!>
She turned her face back to him and said, in heated exasperation, "You know, that argument has *never* worked. Why do you think it would now? Is that the best you can come up with?"
He stood and walked to the fireplace, turned and said, "I was afraid I would hurt you. Hurt you badly. Remember? I did, that night, and it scared me so much I couldn't be around you. I didn't know what I would do to you… so I left."
"That's ridiculous, Clark. You stopped when I called out to you…"
"Yes, *that* time. I heard you *that time* and it *stopped* me, but I couldn't be sure it would the next time. As it turned out, it was a good thing I left because I found Veda Doodsen and we were able to turn everything around."
The words hit her so hard, she felt as though he had kicked her in the stomach. She looked at him in sad disappointment. "And you didn't have enough faith in me to believe that the two of us together could have found a way to do that? Don't you think we would have come round to the idea of Veda Doodsen and her youth-transfer machine if we'd worked together?"
"I don't know, I guess we might have; but Dr. Klein and I didn't think of it."
"Well, *we* would have. Especially since I'd just been looking at those clippings." She looked directly into his eyes for a moment before she looked away. "You threw it all away, Clark. You threw *us* away because you had no faith in me." Her quiet voice held bitterness.
She had gone from icy calm to blazing anger to quiet bitterness. He felt a surge of hope. He *was* making progress. Perhaps, now was the time to close the distance between them.
He returned to the couch and sat near her. "It wasn't lack of faith in you, Lois. It was my despair, my certainty that there *was* no solution to what was happening. If I let my fear for you overwhelm everything else, than I plead guilty for loving you too much to stay."
<How does he do it? He says something, or looks at me and it's as though he reached right in and grabbed my heart and turned it over. He's still in there and he won't go away… I can't let him keep doing this to me. I *won't* let him keep doing this to me. I've put him *out* of my life; I've displaced him. Whatever he does, it doesn't affect me anymore.>
He spoke softly, "Can't we find a way to work through this. To get things back to the way they were? I love you so much."
She rose abruptly, snorting her astonishment at his words and began to walk in an agitated manner back and forth in front of the coffee table shouting and punctuating the words with her hands, "*Back! Back?* There's no way we can go back! Things aren't the same, Clark. *We're* not the same. You took something beautiful and smashed it, and now you think you can just glue it back together?" She stopped and her eyes pinned him with their blatant hostility. Then her voice was suddenly quiet and far away. "It doesn't work that way." She burned him, then shifted her head to gaze away.
He rose and strode to the fireplace again, running his fingers through his hair. "Give me a break. I'm trying to find a way for us to be together again." Pleading now, "What can I say, what can I do?"
Unwillingly, her mind flashed on a young Clark, standing in the rain shouting at the skies, "Give me a break!" and a young Lois, laughing and waiting breathlessly as he said, "If the earth opened up at my feet I wouldn't move until I've said this." <No! I won't remember that.>
She continued to look away from him, still speaking quietly, "After you left, I thought I would die. I wanted to die. Maybe, once I would have, but all those years together, even if they were a lie, made me too strong. For me all the love we gave to each other wasn't for nothing. We both knew that someday one of us would die and leave the other. Maybe I didn't think it would be you first, but I could go on without you if I had to."
Now she looked directly at him. "*Were* all those years a lie? I didn't think Superman *could* lie, but it's Clark I've loved and Clark I've lived with. Maybe he can."
He wanted to put his arms around her and hold her and show her it wasn't a lie. But he knew she wouldn't tolerate his touch. He looked straight into her eyes and said, "It wasn't a lie, Lois. You know I've loved you from the beginning; I just keep getting lost every once in a while. I lose sight of what's most important about us."
"I thought what was important about us, Clark, was our being together; the strength we brought to each other; the strength we created *together*."
"My strength has always been my biggest weakness, Lois. I know that sounds strange, but it's made me feel that I have to be in charge because I can make things right. All of a sudden I was looking at losing all that. I was afraid like I'd never been before. Before if I was in danger of dying it was from Kryptonite, and I could get away from it and be out of danger. Almost always, it was *you* who showed me the way. But with this *thing* that was happening to me…I didn't understand it and I didn't know how to handle it. Neither Dr. Klein nor I really knew *what* would happen or *how* it would happen. I was more frightened than I'd ever been in my life. I was frightened not just for me but for you. I wasn't thinking rationally any more, just acting on instinct; and my instinct always has been to protect you even if it means running away. So I left. No matter how many times I've found out how wrong that is, I guess it doesn't really sink in."
"Holding his gaze, she said, "You've never really understood, have you? That your going away hurts me more than anything that could happen when we're together. I'm not a yo-yo, Clark. You can't keep throwing me away and pulling me back when it suits you. It makes me feel like I'm a thing and not a person to you. You don't do that to someone you love." She turned and walked to the couch, sitting and looking away from him.
"Lois, please believe me. I'm here because I love you, more than I've ever been able to say. Maybe because you mean *so much* to me, I've never been any good at telling you. I want us to be together again. I'm trying to figure out how to do that, to make you want that too."
She turned her eyes to him and said with passionate impatience, "Just be honest with me, and stop looking for some way to soften me up. Be straight with me…don't work angles." Her voice dwindled as she spoke. "I don't care anymore what crazy reasoning sent you away. Just tell me how you feel…right now…right this minute."
He leaned against the mantle and gazed into the fire. When he spoke, haltingly, his voice was so soft she could barely hear him. "I feel…empty. As though whatever life there ever was inside me died and left nothing to hold me together. I feel like a hollow reed waiting for a strong wind to blow me into bits of straw." Pause. "There *is* no me, only some solitary clay shell, waiting to disintegrate to nothing." A long silence was broken only by the crackle of the fire.
"That's what I am without you, Lois. I knew it as soon as I left. I couldn't come back, but I couldn't stay away. So I hid from you. I stood outside Gates Tower and watched you coming and going. It was torture to be so close to you and not be with you, but the greatest torture would have been not seeing you at all." He looked into the fire. "That was the way I found Veda Doodsen, you know. She was just walking down the street in front of me."
Watching him as he spoke, she felt her eyes fill with tears and she looked down, so he would not see them. She thought, <Now what? What am I supposed to do now? I've proved I can get along perfectly well without him. I'm busy; I have a life. It'll be a little incomplete, but I can be content with that… can't I?>
Clark went on, "I'm sorry for what I did to us. I know that's pretty weak, but I don't know any other way to say it. If I could take it all back, I would. If we could go back to the day I left, I would stay and lean on *our* strength; I wouldn't run away. But we can't go back…and it's not like we haven't been here before… I know I haven't learned very much, but I know that if you give me another chance, I can get it right, next time." He waited as silence surrounded them.
Thoughts tumbled over in Lois' mind. <Yeah, we've been *here* how many times before? *Neither* of us seems to have learned much.>
Lois spoke in a hollow voice. "You went away because of your arrogance and your damned nobility. But I can't blame you for it all. I let you go because of my anger and pride. I should have gone after you and refused to leave you, but I didn't. We didn't talk and we played games to avoid being honest. We were devious, hiding things and manipulating each other and all because we were afraid. I'm *still* afraid; afraid of being hurt again. We thought our love, our marriage were perfect. We took them for granted while all those ways to destroy our relationship were just lying in wait for us." She laughed mirthlessly. "You know what we should call them? We should call them the 7 deadly sins of Lois and Clark: my pride and anger; your arrogance and nobility; our silence; our deviousness; our fear. How many lifetimes do we need to understand what terrible things we can do to each other if we turn away just for a moment?" Looking down, she leaned forward, elbows on her knees, hands clasped in front of her.
At the fireplace, he said, "I guess we both have a lot to make up for." When he turned to her, he saw her figure now sitting straight and unyielding, hands together, eyes downcast. His shoulders slumped. < I don't know what else to say.> He sighed and walked dejectedly to the window, staring out into the night.
She stood, noticing the book on the table in front of her, and walked to the fireplace to return it to the bookshelf. Turning his head at the sound, he watched her, reaching out to touch her somehow—-with his mind or with his heart —- but she was closed to him. Whatever affinity they once had seemed to be disconnected now. He let go a long breath and turned again to the window, head down.
She was aware of his glance and had seen the sadness on his face. She looked down at the book, open to the poem, and read again.
But at my back always I hear Time's winged chariot hurrying near; And yonder before us lie Deserts of vast eternity.
<What happens when soul mates break apart? Is he right? If we don't have each other, are our lives empty? Do I really have a *life* without him? I fill my days and nights, but I keep stumbling over him—in a sound, in a familiar place…in my heart… 'Had we but world enough, and time…' Well, Aunt Liz, *that* lesson didn't stick, did it? …>
<Maybe we're both the empty shells he talked about lying in a vast desert waiting to crumble into dust. Maybe apart we *are* just half a person.> She heard the voice in her head: Aunt Liz saying 'You have to decide which is more important, pride or love. No one can do that for you. It's better to live with all the hurt than spend years alone slowly dying. You can exist without knowing that loving and giving are the most important things in life, but you owe yourself more than that. You deserve more.' Resolve filled her eyes and she set her jaw in a determined line. <I won't just exist, waiting to die.>
Clark said softly, "It's starting to snow." Turning, she raised her head to see him standing, hands in his pockets, strong and solid, shutting out the dark and cold. And she knew that what she wanted was to feel the circle of his embrace, holding and sheltering her, to fill his shell and the hollow of his arms making the two of them one, together, against whatever came.
She looked at him for a long time, opening her heart to him again. Her own thoughts came echoing back, 'Martha and Jonathan would have sent him back to me where he belongs.' <to me, where he belongs!> With a rueful one-sided smile, she shook her head as if to say, "Why am I fighting this?" and without hesitation strode over to him.
Possessively placing her right hand on his shoulder, she ran it down his arm and moved up to stand beside him, looking out with him to watch the snowflakes swirl in the light shining from the house. With hope filling the empty space inside him, he took her hand from his arm; turning it over, he raised it to his lips, and softly kissed the palm. She closed her eyes and breathed deeply.
He returned the hand to his arm, but she tucked it underneath, bringing her soft breast up against him. He felt a happiness he had not known for a long time; he was almost home. He carefully put his arm around her shoulders drawing her against him. The thin wire that connected their hearts grew taut and a hum resonated as the circuit closed and electric current began to flow between them again. She laid her head against his shoulder and he bent his, so that his cheek was touching her hair. Her left arm went around his waist; her fingers spread out on his ribcage and pulled him closer against her.
Assurances of love, apologies and promises, sweet passionate kisses would all come later. For now they stood together watching the snow, letting The Farm work its magic as the healing between them began.
*And the seasons they go round and round
And the painted ponies go up and down,
We're captive on the carousel of time.
We can't return, we can only look behind
From where we came,
And go round and round and round
In the Circle Game.*
1. While the basic ingredients for 'curing' Clark may seem to be science fiction, they are actually real science. The channeling tunneling microscope, the quantum corral, the quantum mirage, phantom doppelganger and ghostly reflections are all a part of an experiment conducted by IBM scientists at the Almaden IBM Research Center in San Jose, CA. Researchers at UC, Berkeley, are currently developing a Bionic Cell Chip which has "brought engineering into the field of Biology" and is the precursor to cell chips which will be used to electronically activate human body parts and correct a variety of health problems. I read about these breakthroughs in separate newspaper articles, several months apart but found that putting them together provided the ideal ta-pocketa-pocketa whiz-bang to give my story a happy ending.
2. While this story is set in the future, real futurists will recognize that there is nothing new about most of the details I've put in. They are all pretty much already in use now and I have no doubt that 2032 will be far more different and revolutionary than I have portrayed it. I just wanted to give the illusion of a changed world without having to work too hard to create one. However, I did create CHILD and WERC as portents of the Utopia that L&C's descendants will found. Their legacy would include not only fighting against the evils of the world but also assertively fostering good.
3. The song lyrics that introduce each chapter were a challenge I set myself: to see if I could find something that would be commentary or illumination on what I had written. It proved to be easier than I thought. They are all old and new favorites of which I am particularly fond. When the story began to be overlong, they also made excellent chapter markers for editing. Since they aren't essential to the story, if the reader doesn't like them, s/he may skip right over them without losing anything.
4. About Veda Dodson's age, we only know from BY that she was dumped by her husband of 23 years. Using that as a beginning, I decided (author's prerogative) that if she had been married at 23, she would have been 46 at the time of BY; then add the 36 years L&C had been married, she would be 82 in 2032. Maybe add a year or two for her to get her experiments going, she would still be in her early eighties. There are many healthy, active people today in that age group. Given the current studies on aging and the idea that life expectancy and youth expectancy will continue to be extended, it's not unreasonable to believe that in 2032 Doodsen would be a vital, alert octogenarian and that L&C would still be active and youthful.
5. The Liz story was actually the story I set out to write originally, but I got sidetracked and it became a catalyst in The Circle Game. I have left dangling stories about Laura and Jack, and Chris and Helene because, as Sheila Harper so wisely advised me, if I included them I would have something the size of Gone With The Wind. I do plan to write their stories as concentric with the never-ending circle game.