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BATS

 

BY STEPHEN GRAHAM JONES

 

A boy on the cusp of puberty walks out of a theater with his parents one night, and a mugger’s waiting in the alley for them. He only wants money and jewels, but, because this particular mugger has a gun, he takes more.

An orphan now, this morose boy retreats to his family estate away from the city and its now-obvious dangers, and the family butler does his best to give the boy room to grieve, space to grow. Taking a break from the studies and training that are supposed to eventually explain why what happened to his parents had to happen—the world no longer makes sense—the boy takes one of his rambling walks around the property. Not really going anywhere, just putting one foot after the other, and running through the paces of that night again: What he could have done different. What he should have done.

Because he’s not paying attention, the boy wanders onto the rocky slope he’s been warned against, and falls through a weak part in the ceiling of what must be a monstrous cave. It's a darkness that’s been there waiting for years. The fall is forty feet, onto a floor of jagged rock.

Upon impact, the bones of the boy’s legs shatter into gravel, along with his pelvis, his right arm, most of the ribs on his left side. Because of the devastating violence of the skull fracture, however, the boy is spared the pain. The blood now coating his brain catches him softly in a continuation of his daydream instead, and time dilates for him, allowing him not just to live through adolescence and adulthood in a rush, but to graduate from that as a spirit of vengeance, a crusader in an elaborate costume, leveling the scales of justice but never resorting to guns. Over the barrel of a gun, this grown-up version of the boy would only ever see two people, he knows.

So he patrols the city every night with his unlikely boomerangs and grappling hooks and his endless menagerie of vehicles, waging an endless battle, fighting for the weak at great personal cost—the hematoma is pushing through his right cortex now, and somewhere above the faithful butler is scrambling over rocks, calling a name desperately, insisting with his tone that the young master be there, please—and when the thugs and repeat offenders are no longer enough to sustain this last brave act of imagination, the boy calls on the radio shows he listened to once upon a time, and paints his foes gaudy and larger than life. He paints villains that are grand enough to be worthy of the injustice he felt outside the theater that night, and then he battles them tooth and nail night after night all across the city, diving from building to building, falling again and again only to get up one more time, one last time, and his story, his life, it lasts just as long as he can keep coming up with more capers to foil, just as long it takes for his eyes to register that the sharp-edged splotches flapping and screaming and swirling up to the light have a name, one he can almost hold onto.

 

Stephen Graham Jones is the author of sixteen novels and six story collections. Most recent are Mapping the Interior, from Tor.com and the comic book My Hero, from Hex Publishers. Stephen lives and teaches in Boulder, Colorado.


Image: Ralph Carlyle Prather, The Saturday Evening Post, November 20th, 1920

Published June 13th, 2018