Superman: Civil Rites

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#11 - “Aftermath”

By David Marshall

The crisp dawn air was a welcome change from the record heat afflicting Smallville but the quickly rising humidity was a sticky reminder summer’s fury would soon return. Lex Luthor bent down and retrieved his copy of the Smallville Ledger from the front porch. There was no doubt the headline would scream in thick, black printer’s ink about his father’ involvement with the Ku Klux Klan and subsequent suicide. More importantly it would explain Lex’s heroic role in bringing his old man to justice. It was the kind of sacrifice that could launch a public career. What else could the local rag possibly lead with?

Lex tucked the rolled up newspaper beneath the left arm of his silk robe and shuffled inside.

The mansion was unusually quiet with his father’s lackeys no longer buzzing the halls like a hive of angry worker bees. Their ridiculous strutting and cheap, five-and-dime suits reminded Lex of preening roosters begging for his father’s attention.

A recently-hired maid turned away when she saw Lex approaching. The domestic servants seemed unsure how to interact with the new master of the house.

Lex strolled into the kitchen at the back of the house and took a seat at the table.

“Good morning, Lex,” beamed Geraldine, the plantation’s long-time cook and his primary caregiver since his mother’s death. It was good to see some things hadn’t changed. “The usual this morning, sugar?”

Lex nodded and Geraldine got to work at the stove. She was nearly as wide as the appliance itself, sturdy on her feet as she whipped the pancake batter. The routine was a welcome respite from the previous day’s events. “There’s nothing I would like more, Ms. Geraldine. Your pancakes and Vermont maple syrup are as close to heaven as a man can get on this earth.”

Geraldine accepted the compliment with a chuckle as if it were the first time she’d heard it. “You know that’s right, master Lex! You sit right there and read your paper. I’ll get you some coffee.”

Lex slid the Ledger out of its plastic sheath and removed the rubber band that rolled it into a half-crescent. He discarded the rubber band and spread the paper across the table. The local advertisements were front and center as usual. Lex often swore he’d buy the paper one day so it wouldn’t need to prostitute itself to every mom and pop shop in the county to stay open but his righteous indignation usually passed by the time the first cup of coffee was half gone. He paused before setting aside the advertisements. How would the Ledger report the events of the day prior? Reporters could be a self-serving bunch, unafraid to twist a story into a headline more likely to advance their careers than tell the truth. Would his father’s scandal diminish his own sacrifice?

Geraldine poured Lex a cup of coffee while he stared at the ad for Binkley’s Sporting Goods, one of the few specialty stores in downtown Smallville.

“Afraid of what you’ll see, sugar?” Geraldine asked.

Lex nodded his head. “What if they call me a monster for turning Dad in or blame me for his suicide?”

Geraldine lifted his chin. “You listen to me, Lex Luthor. You did a very brave thing yesterday. Your father could be a very harsh man and with his money could buy his way out of just about anything. For all you know he would have walked away without even a slap on the wrist and taken his anger out on you. You’re a hero. You hear me? A real hero!”

Lex sipped his coffee and returned the cup to the table. “Thank you, Geraldine. Now let’s see what the Ledger has to say…”

With a deep, anxious breath in his lungs, Lex spied the most damning headline imaginable. In two-inch bold font, the Ledger trumpeted - “Superboy Saves Dr. King’s Life!”

Lex slammed his fist against the table. “No! This is an outrage!”

His outburst caused Geraldine to drop her bowl of pancake batter. It shattered on the floor and sent batter flying in all directions. Ignoring the mess, she ran to Lex’s side. “What’s wrong, Master Lex?”

Lex held up the paper for her to see. “This! Can you believe it?”

“I know! Isn’t that boy wonderful?” Geraldine asked, oblivious to her boss’s boiling anger. “Good thing he was there or Dr. King would be a goner for sure! I shudder to think where my people would be without that man! The Lord was watching out for him!”

Lex slung his coffee cup against the large bay window. It too shattered into pieces and rained coffee all over the glass panes and the white, lace curtains. “You don’t get it! This should be my headline, not this … flying monkey!”

Geraldine grabbed a dish rag and patted at the dripping curtains. “But… he saved Dr. King’s life.”

Lex slammed his fist against the table once more and stood. “I don’t give a damn about Dr. King or Superboy! What about me?” His right thumb poked his chest.

The house staff rushed into the kitchen to check on the commotion.

“Are you okay, Master Lex?” asked Sollie, a long-time handyman who maintained the mansion grounds. “We heard loud noises.”

Geraldine shot Sollie a worried glance and shook her head to quiet him.

“No I’m not okay, Sollie,” Lex shouted. “My father is dead and my great sacrifice has been kicked to page….”

Lex flipped through the Ledger and discovered his part in the saga on page three.

“Page three!” Lex shouted, holding the paper up for all to see. “The story of the damned century and these backwoods hicks relegate it to page three! Can you believe it?”

“My my, that sure is awful,” Solly agreed.

Lex tossed the paper aside and stepped out from behind the table. He slugged Sollie across the jaw.

The blow sprawled the old man across the counter behind him. From there he stumbled over the table and both he and it crashed to the floor.

“Lex!” Geraldine shouted. “What’s gotten into you, boy?”

Lex shook his finger at Sollie. “Don’t you patronize me, old man! Do you hear me? Never again!”

Sollie held up his hand to shield himself. “I meant no disrespect Master Lex.”

Lex kicked the old man in the shoulder. “And that’s for lying to me.”

A weeping Sollie balled up to protect himself.

“That’s enough, Lex Luthor!” Geraldine shouted. She wrapped her strong arms around Lex and pulled him away. “Your behavior is inexcusable!”

Lex struggled against the old woman’s hold but it was like a bear trap. “Let go of me or you’re fired!”

Geraldine positioned herself between Lex and Sollie before loosening her grip. “You do what you have to do, Lex Luthor! But I will not allow you to take out your anger on a man who has treated you like a son since the day you were born! Do I make myself clear?”

The staff helped Sollie to his feet and tended him.

Lex took a deep breath and looked into Sollie’s sad eyes. “I’m sorry, Sollie. These last couple of days… I guess I’m not myself.”

Sollie nursed his bruises. “It’s okay, my boy. I understand.”

Lex turned to Geraldine. “And Geraldine, you know I would never fire you.”

“You’ll find my forgiveness harder to earn,” Geraldine shot back as she removed her apron and threw it on the counter. “Get your own pancakes this morning!”

“You quit?” Lex stammered. “But… you can’t. I mean… what would I do without you? Who would…”

Geraldine shook her head. “Of course I can’t quit but I got better things to do than to clean up after you acting the fool! I’m taking the day off.”

Lex nodded. “Go ahead, all of you. Inform the rest of the staff too.”

“You’ll be okay here alone?” Sollie asked.

Lex nodded. “I didn’t inherit my father’s incessant need for attention.”

Clark and Lana’s Field

“Thank you for meeting me here. Superboy,” said Perry White.

Superboy smiled. “It’s my pleasure, Perry. A promise is a promise.”

Perry laughed. “It isn’t often in this profession a promise for an exclusive is kept.”

“Guess I’m different like that,” Superboy replied. He liked Perry and made him a promise early on to allow the cub reporter from Metropolis to break his story to the world when the time came to do so. “I hate I had to reveal myself before we had this opportunity.”

“Saving the kids on that bus was more important than my exclusive to say nothing of saving Dr. King’s life,” Perry replied. He retrieved a cigarette from his shirt pocket and placed it between his wiry lips. He reached into his pocket once more but failed to produce a lighter. “Great Caesar’s ghost, I forgot my lighter!”

“Please allow me,” Superboy replied. A concentrated beam of heat vision touched the exposed vein of tobacco hidden at the cigarette’s tip and caused it to glow red.

Perry sucked on the cigarette until the faint glow spread to smoky embers. “Laser beams?”

Superboy shook his head. “I call it heat vision, similar to welding.”

“What all can you do?” Perry asked with utter astonishment in his voice.

“My powers you mean?” Superboy clarified. He’d never catalogued them for anyone before. His father warned him before the interview to not lay all his cards on the table but it felt dishonest to withhold information from Mr. White after nearly breaking a promise to him.

Perry nodded and pulled out a pen and pad and began writing.

“Let’s see… there’s super-strength obviously and the flying thing. Telescopic vision, super-hearing, x-ray vision…”

“You can see through things?” Perry asked. “Must come in handy with the young ladies.”

When he was younger Clark Kent once used his power at school to spy on the girl’s locker room. He felt so guilt-ridden afterwards that he didn’t use the power again for nearly two years. Superboy shook his head. “Oh no, I was taught to respect the privacy of others. I would never use my powers in such a way.”

Perry looked at him as if he were the one with x-ray vision. “Taught by whom?”

The question flustered Superboy. “My folks, but that’s information I’d prefer to keep hidden to protect them.”

Perry nodded. “Fair enough. Can’t blame a man for trying. Go on.”

“Super-speed, super-hearing, invulnerability…” Superboy continued.

Perry coughed. “Let me stop you there, kid. Word is that Hourman saved you during the Cleansing event. Why would you need saving if you’re invulnerable to harm?”

The Cleansing wasn’t a pleasant memory. The Klan unearthed strange, glowing rocks at the Lang farm that stripped Superboy of his powers. They beat him and hung him on a burning cross. If not for Hourman’s timely intervention he would have died. Was he remiss to say he was invulnerable? “I don’t know,” Superboy admitted. “I’m still trying to understand that one myself but bullets bounce off me and I can survive the extreme temperatures of low earth orbit, maybe space itself but I haven’t tried that one yet.”

“Impressive,” Perry admitted. “Anything else?”

“Freeze breath, super-olfactory senses, eidetic memory, stamina far beyond that of mortal men, and my body heals much faster than that of humans,” Superboy replied.

Perry eyed him carefully. “Do you really want that information made public, son?”

“I don’t understand,” Superboy replied.

Perry took a final drag from his cigarette and tossed it to the ground. He ground it into the dirt with the toe of his shoe. “People may fear you if they learn you’re… not from here.”

“Look around Mr. White,” Superboy answered. “If I wished to go Orson Welles on the world, I would have done so long ago. My earthly parents raised me to serve my God first and others second. I am last.”

“Once more for clarification then… you won’t be upset if I reveal your… immigration status?” Perry asked.

Superboy shook his head. “Just don’t make me look like a monster.”

“Fair enough,” Perry replied. “You’ve certainly earned that much respect. What is it you want Superboy?”

No one had ever asked Superboy that question before. “I want a world where the measure of a man is how well he treats others.”

“Do you believe that will happen in your lifetime?” Perry asked.

Superboy nodded. “I do… one person and one heart at a time.”

Perry flipped the page on his pocket notepad and continued scribbling. “Were you surprised when Lionel Luthor killed himself?”

“It made me sick to my stomach,” Superboy answered. “Another senseless tragedy in this bloody war of hatred. I wish I could have saved him.”

“So even a Superboy has limits?” Perry wondered aloud.

“My heart’s as human as anyone else’s,” Superboy nodded. “I can’t imagine what Lex must be going through. He’s the real hero in all of this. His difficult choice dealt the Klan a staggering blow. It will take years to recover without Lionel’s leadership and financial backing.”

“And how does that make you feel?” Perry asked.

Superboy smiled. “The people of Mississippi have a fighting chance now but I hate it for Lex. He showed remarkable character. I wonder if I could have done the same.”

“A sobering admission,” Perry countered. “Very human.”

Superboy floated upward and smiled. “A truthful one. Excuse me, Mr. White. I’m needed elsewhere.”

Luthor Mansion

Lex laid the scissors aside and admired his neatly-trimmed handiwork. The black and white newspaper photo from the front page of the Smallville Ledger upset him but it was destined for a prominent spot on the wall behind his desk. The seething hatred burning in his heart didn’t require additional fuel but Lex was determined to feed it anyway.

A knock on the study door interrupted his framing.

“Come in,” said Lex.

Sam Marcus slinked into the room wearing a brown sport jacket and mustard yellow shirt. His plaid pants and worn loafers did little to pull the hideous ensemble together. He was the one who recommended the hired muscle that turned on Lex and beat him up when he was trying to impress Lana Lang. “Putting your own touches on the place, eh?”

Lex looked through the adder of a man. “Something like that.”

“Sorry about your old man, Lexie boy. He was always good to me,” said Marcus.

Marcus was a low-life but the kind Lex’s father liked to keep around. He usually came sniffing for a payday if he wasn’t called first. “What do you want, Marcus?”

“Just wanted to return the dough you gave me for sending those two goons to you. I didn’t know they’d turn on you like that,” Marcus replied. He pulled out his wallet and retrieved three one-hundred dollar bills. He reached them to Lex. “That ain’t how I do business.”

Lex couldn’t help but laugh.

“What’s so funny?” Marcus asked. “I don’t get the joke.”

Lex pushed the money away. “An information man with a conscience?”

Marcus looked uncomfortable. “In light of what happened I…”

“Keep the money, Sam,” Lex insisted. “You earned every penny of it.”

“I don’t understand,” said Marcus. “Are you sure?”

Lex nodded. “I learned a valuable lesson that day. Perhaps I should double your pay.”

Marcus shook his head. “Oh no, Mr. Luthor. Your generosity is much appreciated.”

Uncomfortable silence filled the room.

“Is there anything else?” Lex asked.

Marcus eyed the article on Lex’s desk. “Superboy, huh? He’s sure shaking things up around these parts, eh? I didn’t realize you were such a fan.”

“I’m not,” Lex replied. He flipped the clipping over. On the back was half an advertisement for canned beans at the Buy For Less Supermarket. For some reason it made Lex uncomfortable for Marcus to see the article even though it would hang behind the desk in plain view.

“Keep your enemies closer?” Marcus asked.

Lex nodded. “Sun Tzu.”

“It may be none of my business but I have some information that may help you with your… Superboy problem,” Marcus volunteered.

Lex rolled his eyes. “Imagine that. And how much is this information going to cost me?”

Marcus waved off the suggestion. “Not a dime my young friend. Consider this one a friendly tip.”

“Go on,” said Lex. “I’m listening.”

“Word is there’s a mysterious rock that can sap Superboy’s powers,” said Marcus.

Lex’s ears perked up. “A rock? How can a simple rock hurt him when bullets bounce off his chest?”

Marcus shrugged. “I don’t know but a group of your father’s … associates nearly offed him the night they… you know.”

“A rock?” Lex asked again. “How’s that work?”

“No clue but a stick of dynamite broke up some ground at the Lang place while he was fighting with the Klan and exposed a vein of this weird mineral. Within minutes the boy was so weak he couldn’t stand. From what I hear they beat him up pretty bad and would have killed him if Hourman hadn’t shown up,” Marcus explained.

“Were you there?” Lex asked. “Did you see it with your own eyes?”

Marcus shook his head. “Of course not. In my line of work it pays to keep your ears to the ground and your mouth shut. I deal in information, my boy. I can’t afford to chase old prejudices.”

Lex smiled. Perhaps Marcus was more decent than he thought. “The Lang place you say?”

Downtown Smallville

Superboy hated to cut short his interview with Perry White but his super-hearing picked up bedlam in downtown Smallville. A billowing cloud of thick, black smoke blanketed the town square and made it difficult to pinpoint its origin but the rapping of gunfire from within made it obvious something big was going down.

Shrill sirens split the air with their mournful cries as emergency vehicles raced back and forth at the scene below. Police officers shouted to one another as Superboy descended beneath the dark, wraith-like canopy. Once he was below the plume, he noticed their eyes fixed on the skies. For once he wasn’t the center of attention. The Boy of Steel landed and approached Chief Parker who was hunkered down behind the driver’s side door of his squad car. “Anything I can do to help?”

Parker looked annoyed with him. “Stay the hell out of the way, kid! This is police business.”

The square was almost unrecognizable. Multiple buildings were engulfed in flames, even the fire station itself but no one was fighting the fires. The firefighters who arrived moments before were pinned down by gunfire from above.

The windshield of Parker’s squad car splintered and scattered shards of glass all over the dashboard.

“I want Superboy!” demanded a voice from overhead. “I’ll tear this town apart until the chicken shows!”

The wind shifted south and swept away the shadowy pillar of smoke. A masked man wearing a jetpack hovered above the wanton destruction. His full-faced mask was blue with white circles outlining the eye holes. Above his eyes was an insignia with two crossed military sabers. His short-sleeved shirt was Confederate red and bore the stars and bars across the chest. His gray pants were form-fitting but not at all flattering. A handlebar-style control mechanism extended from the center of the jetpack to his hands. Twin machine guns were mounted on turrets at the top of the device on either side and peppered the ground below at random as he fingered the controls.

Superboy took to the air and looked down at Parker who cowered behind his bullet-pocked driver’s side door. “Sounds like the crazy flying guy just made it my business.”

“I said it’s police business! You can’t just…” said Parker as Superboy rose into the air to meet the masked man’s challenge.

“Decided to show did you?” the man asked.

Superboy nodded. “I have a habit of doing that when nutcases wreck my town.”

“You think you’re special because you can fly?” the man asked.

Superboy shook his head. “Nope, it looks like you stole my patent.”

The man’s eyes filled with anger just before he fingered buttons on the jetpack. A volley of machine gun fire exploded against Superboy’s chest.

“Didn’t you get the memo?” Superboy asked. “I’d make a joke about how bullets tickle but it’s getting old at this point. Besides it would probably go over your head anyway.”

The turrets shifted clockwise and the machine guns disappeared into the body of the jetpack. As they descended into the jetpack flamethrowers emerged and took their place. Again the man fingered the controls and this time fire erupted from his weapon.

Superboy blew out the flames like a child blowing out a birthday candle. “You know how this goes down, right? I fly over there and destroy your jetpack then we join Chief Parker for a nice, long chat that ends with you going up the river for a ten to twenty vacation at tax payer’s expense.”

The man smiled. “I don’t think so.”

With the press of yet another button, a compartment opened at the bottom of the jetpack and a large object plummeted towards the town below.

“Bomb,” the man sneered as she shot high into the sky. “Catch me or catch it. You can’t do both.”

The man was right. Nabbing him was easy but public safety was far more important. The bomb could not only blow up whatever it hit but if it damaged a gas main it could take out a city block or more. Superboy plunged earthward to catch the falling explosive. He was genuinely worried he wouldn’t reach it in time but managed to nab it just above the bank’s roof. He cradled the crude explosive to his body like a football player taking a handoff from the quarterback and rose into the air as quickly as he could. Seconds later it exploded and shot Superboy earthward into the sidewalk near Bentley’s jewelry store. He slammed into the concrete with such force he went through it and into the sewer main below. A geyser of waste water shot high into the air. The rough landing also shattered Mr. Bentley’s large display window and showered Superboy with shards of glass.

A police officer ran to check on the Boy of Steel.

“Are you okay son?” the officer yelled over the noise of the broken sewer main. His badge identified him as Winslow. Superboy didn’t recognize him. He was probably new in town. He too was covered with dirty water but reached into the crater in the middle of the sidewalk and offered Superboy a hand.

Superboy could have stood unaided but he accepted the kind gesture anyway. “Thank you, officer. I appreciate it.”

Officer Winslow pointed skyward. “Looks like he got away.”

Superboy nodded. “I wasn’t sure what else to do. I was afraid the bomb…”

Officer Winslow patted Superboy on the back. “You made the right call, son. Don’t let anyone tell you differently.”

“Superboy!” Chief Parker yelled. He was headed toward the destruction and looked angry enough to spit a bucket of nails. “What’s the meaning of this?”

“Excuse me?” Superboy asked.

“Don’t play dumb with me kid! This wouldn’t have happened if that maniac wasn’t after you!” Parker shouted at the top of his lungs. “What did you do to make him so mad?”

“Sir, Superboy saved countless lives here today. I don’t see how you can blame him for…” Officer Winslow explained.

“Stow it, Winslow,” Parker ordered. “I don’t know how they did things in Hattiesburg but as long as you’re on my payroll you won’t encourage juvenile delinquents who play hero in their pajamas! Do I make myself clear?”

Winslow looked apologetically at Superboy and nodded. “Yes sir.”

“Are you saying I’m to blame for this?” Superboy asked. He couldn’t believe his ears. All he did was try to prevent a madman from creating an even bigger hole in downtown Smallville. How could anyone say it was his fault?

Parker poked his index finger into the insignia on Superboy’s chest. “You’re damned right it’s your fault! If you weren’t here this wouldn’t have happened! You’re a trouble magnet!”

Superboy never considered that his very presence could put others in danger. All he wanted to do was help but was it worth it if he placed a target on the backs of innocents? “At least allow me to help with the mess.”

“You don’t get it. Do you boy?” Parker asked, stressing the word “boy”. “We don’t want your help! The people of Smallville have endured floods, fire, droughts, swarms, and tornadoes. We can clean up your mess without you endangering us further.”

“At least allow me to do this,” said Superboy. A burst of heat vision shot from his eyes and repaired the broken sewer main. Amid thick, malodorous pillars of steam Superboy rose into the air with a heavy heart.

Was Chief Parker right? Was he a menace to Smallville?

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