Legend – Prologue
By Ryk E. Spoor
It’s going to be a chilly night.
Virginia shivered, even though it wasn’t cold yet. But she knew she wouldn’t be able to go back to the apartment; her father might be chasing after her or he might have given up for now, but either way, going back there was asking for more bruises or worse.
She grimaced, looking down at the darkening streaks that were the imprints of Daddy’s fingers. A part of her still ached more than her arm at the memory of his anger . . . no, not at him being angry. Because he wasn’t, not always, not before . . .
She bit back a sob. No. Not crying. I’m in the park where I wanted to be anyway. I . . . might have to go back tomorrow. I guess I have to. He’s my father, I have to live with him. But tomorrow he’ll go to work, he’ll remember tomorrow….
But I’m in the park now, and it’s the Fourth of July.
This year, Troy had decided to go all-out for the Fourth and was actually attempting a fireworks display to compete with the State Capital’s usual celebration. Virginia swallowed, then put on a bright smile and walked into Riverfront Park. She glanced up at her favorite landmark–the tall and dynamic statue of “Uncle Sam”, gleaming even in the deepening twilight, and saluted.
People were gathering from all over. She could see vendor stands set up all around the park, and smells of everything from popcorn to roasting pork mingled in the air. Her stomach growled. Have to ignore it. I’m a big girl now. Almost eight. I can go without dinner. There’s other people who didn’t have breakfast and won’t have dinner either.
Virginia was here for the celebration. She wanted to eat, yes, but that wasn’t the important part. She was here to celebrate America. She loved the country, she loved the words her teachers read–and that she’d read, later, from the books on her own. Her father didn’t understand, really, even though he had a flag on his usually-broken-down truck. She was pretty sure Mother hadn’t understood, either; if she had, maybe she wouldn’t have left.
Most of my classmates don’t, either. They’d laughed at her name when it came up in class. But she was proud of her name, even though there were a lot of bad things the Europeans had done when they came over. She still loved the country, the country she imagined. The one that she sometimes saw in stories, in books, in movies, and once in a while on the street–in her favorite statue, and in the fireworks, and she believed that there really was something there. That there really was, not just a bunch of arguing people, but something better, something to send a tingle up your spine and straighten your back when you heard the anthem start up.
She’d even learned all the verses of the anthem, just because Morrie said that no one knew them, but she loved the tune. She was glad that her chorus teacher had taught them how to sing right, because it was a little hard to hit all the notes.
She pushed through the crowd; being a little girl made that a lot easier than for bigger people! There was a big podium, a stage, set up near the water’s edge, and there were bands playing music. Suddenly the music shifted, swelled to a very patriotic-sounding fanfare, and she saw something up above, descending . . .
Oh, my g . . . goodness! Is it . . . ?
She pushed her way to the front in time to see the impossible. Red and silver, with touches of blue and a stylized “S” emblem, the hero called Superlative landed gently on the central stage. “Hello, Troy!” he called out.
“Hello, Superlative!” she shouted back; so did a lot of other people, but quite a few were simply staring.
“I’m stopping by to wish you all a wonderful Fourth!” he continued. His deep, calm voice carried easily across the park. “I couldn’t celebrate July Fourth without seeing the home of Uncle Sam, could I?”
Virginia had never seen any of the new Heroes up close; after all, it had only been a couple of years since they first appeared. Now she couldn’t do anything but stare. Superlative seemed . . . just bigger, brighter, more than everyone else. And she could hear in his voice that he meant what he said–that America was something he believed in, too. His eyes caught hers for a moment, and she knew that he really did see her, and that the smile he gave there was for her, for her belief, for who she was, and for that instant she felt warm all over.
If only—if only I could feel this way forever–
But the speech was short, it was almost over, it was over, and Superlative leapt up and streaked away into the sky; he was going to Philadelphia, then to Washington, she heard someone say.
Still, the cheerful feeling lingered on, and she wandered through the crowd, listening, hearing, watching. It’s almost time for the fireworks!
“Hey, little girl, are you lost?”
The question came from a woman walking with what was obviously her boyfriend . . . no, husband. They’ve got rings. She noticed rings; sometimes Mommy had come home with hers off, and that was when there were big fights.
She smiled. “No, not lost.”
“Where are your parents?”
Virginia had known that question was coming. It wasn’t like she hadn’t heard that question a hundred times before. “Oh, around. We live near here, so Daddy knows I can find my way back if I have to.” She felt tension, an odd, tight feeling, in her stomach, throughout her body.
She gave the look–the one that said that she didn’t think much of any Daddy that would let his little girl run around in a crowd like that. And . . . I guess she’s right. He should be here with me, if . . .
Thinking that way was a mistake; she felt her cheerful smile waver, the strange tense feeling winding even tighter. Virginia immediately forced the grin back on her face and skipped off. Have to get near the waterfront again–the fireworks will start soon!
She wriggled her way through the crowd again, this time to get a place near the railing. It was getting quite dark, but there were some lights so it wasn’t hard to find your way around.
She felt the shock in the air and through her toes as the mortar launched the first firework shell skyward. BOOM!
She laughed, and as the next shell burst in brilliant red, she cheered along with most of the crowd. The odd tenseness within her did not . . . let go, relax, but the lights and the celebration made it seem less urgent.
Then there was a shout not far away: “Ginia!”
She saw her father, shoving people aside with ease. Gordon Dare was a big man with a furious glare, curly black hair that was now an untidy mess, and brown eyes that were as hard and unyielding as oak.
She turned and ran. Why now?
“Knew you ran away here!“ he bellowed after her. “Now get back home! Right now!”
The crowd was thick, but that meant that it was still easier for her to get through than him. The peculiar tightness within her worsened, making her lightheaded. Maybe the police will get him. But . . . then where do I go? I’ll just have to wait for him to come back . . . and then he’ll be really mad.
She screamed involuntarily as the rough hand grabbed at her again.
“Hey, you! Leave her alone!”
The words came from a young man–maybe from the high school, thought Virginia as she tore herself free. He was skinny, not anything like the size of her father, but his angry words made her father hesitate, and she took the chance, ran, ran as the fireworks burst in flashes of red and white and blue, ran, looking for somewhere she could hide . . .
A huge figure loomed up in front of her. For a moment she thought it was a man, an impossibly huge man–but then she realized it was the statue. She ducked around the front of it and then scrunched herself up behind Uncle Sam’s legs and the cast-aluminum barrel that stood next to him.
Please, please let him miss me . . .
“Virginia! Ginia! Damn you stupid . . .” her father swore and she covered her ears.
A shadow moved out into view, and then one of the fireworks flashed; she saw her father silhouetted not ten feet away. Inside, she felt taut, a string stretched to the breaking point and then stretching farther, and her head seemed to spin. She was barely able to focus on her father as he stared straight at her.
But he looked around, then away. Another flash and bang, and he was thirty feet away, walking, back to her, stumbling a little. She heard another curse, fainter, but he was sixty feet away, crossing the street. . . . heading for home.
Still, she stayed there, unmoving, unbelieving, pressed up against the statue. It was actually slightly warmer here; the heat of the day had not entirely left the huge mass of metal and the stone base. It was a comforting feeling, even with the hard metal and stone. Maybe because of that, too, because she knew nothing . . . like her father . . . could sneak up and grab her THROUGH all that metal.
Daddy shouldn’t have missed seeing me. She was sure of that. And that inexplicable tension was now unbearable and dizzying. Something told her that her father should have seen her. He was looking, he had been barely beyond arm’s reach, the statue didn’t give that much cover. Yet . . .
She looked up, feeling the warmth, and that strange tension.
Red, white, and blue light flared with thunder, like the guns of the Revolution, and for a moment the colors danced along the statue.
And . . . for just a moment . . . she believed, even as that indescribable tension or pressure seemed to shatter within her.
She found herself lying on the ground next to the pedestal, dazed, but somehow certain. Something had kept her from being seen.
“Well, now, young Virginia,” said a strong, tenor voice with a faint twang of an accent, “the ground’s no place for a young lady. Can I help you up?”
She looked up, and felt her face . . . her whole life . . . suddenly igniting with a joy that she had never felt except in the dreams that she kept secret.
He stood there, tall and spare, cloak billowing out to one side, his colors of red, white, and blue striped along his pants and his impeccable top-hat. The white hair and beard were just as she had known they would be, and his blue eyes twinkled at her like those of Pa Ingalls in the books she had read last year. “That’s right,” he said as she rose slowly, staring at him with incredulity. “You’re not hurt, are you?”
“You . . . I . . .” she couldn’t think of what to say. It’s like . . . like meeting Aslan in Narnia. “Who are you?”
Even as he smiled, she realized with a shock that there was no longer anything standing on the pedestal. “Why, Virginia, you of all people ought to know that.”
“You . . . you protected me.”
“You protected yourself,” he said with another smile. “I just helped.”
She could feel, somehow, that he was right, at least in some way that she couldn’t really understand. But the fact that he was here, that he was real . . .
And then the joy began to fade. “I still . . . well, tomorrow. Have to go back.”
The tall man shook his head. “Now that we can see to, right now. You come with me, Virginia.”
She didn’t think of questioning him. She just put her hand in his and followed as he strode down towards the waterfront.
People laughed and pointed and some saluted or clapped as he passed, obviously thinking he was someone in a costume celebrating Independence Day in the most colorful way. But the crowd also parted, almost without thinking about it, and so they were hardly slowed until they approached the riverfront railing, the finale of the fireworks now fountaining up in a cascade of flashing beauty and thunder like triumph.
“Beg your pardon, ma’am,” he said, the mellow tenor somehow cutting easily through the echoing din of the explosions and cheers.
The woman who turned around was an older woman—the word Virginia thought of was “matronly”–wearing a dress so brilliantly colored that it stood out even in the semi-darkness, and a hat so extraordinary it was obviously hand-made. She had her hair done up under her hat, and her eyes were gray-green. She looked up and raised an eyebrow, giving him a severe “and just who are you?” look. “Yes, sir?”
“This little girl has a problem,” he said.
She looked down and her face immediately softened. Instantly Virginia liked her. “What can I do for you, honey?”
Virginia looked up at her companion, who smiled. “She’s got nowhere to go. Nowhere safe, anyhow. Look at her–“
“I see it,” the woman cut in, seeing the marks on her arm. “Sweetheart, who did this?”
Normally she wouldn’t say . . . but she trusted him. “My . . . my father.”
The woman still spoke to her kindly, but she could see anger–not directed at her–instantly flare up. “Has he done this to you . . . before?”
She suddenly couldn’t look into that sympathetic, angry face; she dropped her gaze to the ground. “Y . . . yes.”
“Are you afraid to go home now?”
Do I answer?
She looked up at him, looking gravely at her now from under snow-white eyebrows. “The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, Virginia,” he said after a moment.
All right. “Yes, I’m afraid. He’ll . . . hit me. Hard.”
The woman straightened up and looked back to her companion. “You know this girl? What’s her name? Who’s her father? Where’s her mother?”
“In order, Ma’am, I certainly do know her, her name is Virginia Dare, currently resident at the address you’ll find on the card in her lefthand pants pocket, her father’s Gordon Dare, and her mother has seen fit to depart from their household and her whereabouts are not known–to her father, at any rate. You can do something about her, can’t you, Eleanor Pilgrim?”
“I certainly will try–but who are you and how do you know my name?”
He bowed to Eleanor and took Virginia’s hand. “You stay with Ms. Pilgrim here. She’ll make sure you’re taken care of.” He straightened and tipped his hat. “She needs a good home, Ma’am. You’ll find that there’s some people just right for her, coming by your office probably tomorrow morning.”
Eleanor Pilgrim’s lips tightened. “That’s fine to hear . . . and for some reason, I actually believe you, though I have absolutely no reason to do so. Who are you?”
He smiled, tipped his hat again to both of them, and strode off, whistling. Virginia’s mind filled in the words:
“Oh, I’m a Yankee-Doodle Dandy
A Yankee-Doodle do or die
A real-live nephew of my Uncle Sam
Born on the Fourth of July . . .”
And as he reached that line, striding away from them into the crowd . . . he simply faded away, leaving the crowd and Eleanor Pilgrim staring in awe . . . and Virginia smiling.