I suggested swimming, piping up with the idea as we sat in the air-conditioned comfort of the Talon, sipping iced capuccino and wondering what we would do with ourselves that summer. It was the summer before our senior year of high school. The next one would see us getting ready to go our separate ways. I wasn't ready for that. I wanted nothing to change, ever.
It was an unrealistic notion of course. None of us were the same as we'd been three years prior, right before starting high school. Chloe was quieter, more introspective, keeping to herself more than she socialized. Hurt piled on hurt had distanced her from us. Clark realized what she was doing too late, when even he didn't seem to be able to get through anymore. He blamed himself, and in a way, he certainly deserved it. I watched their relationship deteriorate. Neither of them was entirely innocent. Neither was I. I could have done something, but at the time I respected Clark's feelings toward Lana, so I stayed out of it.
Lana changed too. Her smile had become a little sad, and there was something in her laugh that rang a little false. She and Clark were trying to get through some trouble that summer. They'd been unsuccessful at being a "couple," despite their best efforts. It was obvious they held a great deal of affection for one another, but Clark was afraid to tell her his secrets for fear she'd reject him. Lana was afraid to hear his secrets - for the same reason. She'd fallen in love with him, but she was also afraid of him, and had he known, it would have broken his heart.
Of all of us, though, Clark had changed the most. Unless you really knew him well it was hard to see, but I'd known Clark since childhood. I saw it very clearly.
When we were kids Clark was a lot of fun. He was cautious, and given what I know now it's understandable, but he never backed down from anything. The fields and wooded tracts around the Kent Farm were our playground. A thousand dangers lurked within them, but Clark was never worried about it. We climbed trees, dug holes, ran races, and went swimming in the river with reckless abandon - well I did anyway. I never realized it until many years later how much Clark looked after me then. He never let me get hurt.
In school Clark was never popular, but he was well liked. Nobody ever said anything bad about him. He was teased for being a geek like a lot of the smart kids, but took it in stride. Clark was the poster child for turning the other cheek. I'd seen him actually tangle with someone only twice, once in first grade when I got in trouble with the class bully, who Clark shoved through a door. (Oh, and I was there for a little bit of the parental smack down. He was grounded for nearly a month for his trouble. I think I would have allowed myself to be beaten up if I could have spared him that.)
The second time Clark fought back was also in defense of someone else. Chloe was always getting razzed by the popular girls when she'd first come to Smallville. She viewed them all with obvious and very vocal disdain, which got her in trouble. In response to being called a "bitch" by Marcy Majors, Chloe let loose with a very verbose, intellectual, and utterly scathing insult right back. It gained her the wrath of Marcy's boyfriend, who's name now escapes me. We were in middle school. Marcy's Neanderthal boyfriend was a sophomore at Smallville High.
The guy was huge. Chloe barely came up to his chest. He came at her one day after school and according to her, threatened bodily harm. I wasn't there that day because I'd gained detention for some reason or another and had to stay late. The grapevine was swift though, and before my detention was over, I'd found out Clark had busted Neanderthal's nose. Neanderthal got a warning from the cops for threatening Chloe (Ethan always had a soft spot for Clark) and Clark got shredded by Jonathan Kent. I felt sorry for him. At school they were patting him on the back and calling him a hero. At home he was in deep doo-doo, literally, because his dad put him to work on some of the nastiest jobs you could think of as punishment. Control was a big issue in the Kent household. The number one rule was that Clark was not to lay a hand on another person in anger - ever - under any circumstance. We always assumed it was because Jonathan himself was so volatile. Nobody realized how close Marcy's boyfriend had been to being killed.
Beside the odd situations such as those, Clark was pretty laid back and fairly cheerful. It was only after we started high school that he started withdrawing. We've talked about it since. He had a lot dumped in his lap that fall, and that's when Lex came into the picture. Clark really hit it off with Lex. I hated them both for it. I'm not ashamed to admit it. I never mentioned it to Clark until very recently, but I was really crushed by the defection. Maturity has lent me another perspective; at the time Clark and Lex were very much alike. The friendship was pretty sad if you really looked at it. They were like orphaned puppies with no one to cling to but each other. I'd say their friendship got both of them back on their feet again after some pretty hard reality checks.
Our friendship was renewed just as Lex was starting to slide out of the picture, and regrettably, Chloe too. Clark and I had always been part of a trio for as long as I can remember. Before he got weird and turned into a bug, our third Musketeer had been Greg Arkin. Greg always had something interesting going on, from his treehouse to his tadpole excursions. I hated the tadpole excursions. Tadpole hunts always resulted in leech encounters. The first time I ever got a leech on my leg I totally freaked, sending Greg into hysterics and Clark into a panic. Greg had them too, but he just calmly pulled them off. I made Clark do it because I couldn't look. Clark never got leeches, or poison ivy, or mosquito bites. I got all three and it sucked - no pun intended.
When Greg split from us, Chloe moved to Smallville. Now talk about fun. If there was trouble to get into, Chloe was there. Clark kept both of us alive I think, especially that first summer when we totally ran amok. Chloe was the first to get her driver's license, and that set us free, to a certain extent. She drove on the berm more than she drove on the pavement. Clark didn't know he was invulnerable then and frequently refused to get in the car with her. He always had to ride shotgun when she was able to coerce him to ride along. I think he kept his eyes shut the whole time. The bad thing about Chloe was her driving, the cool thing about Chloe was she never took us anywhere where there were leeches.
Now Chloe will claim she started the Wall of Weird, but in actuality it was me. I told her the whole meteor story, which she'd read about, but had never heard described by a local. I laughed and said we blamed anything weird that happened in Smallville on alien influences. She took off running with the idea. It's a dubious honor, but Lana's Time cover was the first thing to grace the W.O.W. She wasn't happy about it, which leads to another secret I'll let you in on - Lana knew about the wall before Clark did. Chloe had steadfastly insisted on Clark being left out of it.
"He won't approve," she'd say.
I fretted, but continued helping her gather clippings.
Our timing was horrible when we did spring the W.O.W. on Clark. He bolted, and he was more upset than I'd ever seen him. To this day I wonder what he might have done if Whitney hadn't nabbed him in the parking lot, but he won't say. I've asked, and all I get is "I don't remember" which I think is so much bull. Clark's got the memory of an elephant. After that day though, he started to change.
Lana says Clark wears the weight of the world on his shoulders and even he can't keep up with it sometimes. He took on the burden at the age of fifteen. Three years later, during the summer of our junior year of high school, he was beginning to get used to carrying it around with him, and as a result I wasn't sure I truly knew him anymore. If I were asked to name a point of time when Clark seemed very alien, it would have been that summer.
At my suggestion everyone first balked, which I sort of expected.
"Oh come on! It's the first day of summer vacation! Chloe's leaving for Metropolis in two weeks, and Clark's going to be busting ass at the farm. Let's do something fun," I said.
It was true. Chloe had started taking some classes at Met. U. during the summer to get a jump start on college, and the Kent Farm was still struggling along with only Jonathan and Clark running the show. Lana was also kept busy, still playing manager, accountant, waitress and sometimes bus boy and dishwasher at the Talon.
"It will be just like old times," I persisted. "Clark?"
He looked up at me. He'd been staring moodily into his coffee cup while Chloe and Lana and I discussed Chloe's upcoming trip. Clark wasn't doing much smiling those days, but he managed a wry upturn of his lip.
"Sure. I haven't been down there for a while."
"I can't," Lana said. "I have to work." She avoided looking at Clark, who sipped his coffee quietly, watching her as she moved away.
Of course Chloe was relieved Lana wouldn't be tagging along. It would be the trio again, definitely like old times.
"I guess I'll go. I can get some sun before I have to be locked up in the dreary lecture halls of Met. U."
"At least it's air conditioned," Clark said.
The tone was flat, monotone, and the comment added out of the habit of trying to be "normal." He seemed to have lost his enthusiasm, not that Clark was ever enthusiastic about hedging the truth. It was more like he'd grown tired of it all. He'd made his prerequisite comment, a remark due to the fact he should have complained about the heat because he worked outside in it, and just wanted to move the conversation along to other things, or not converse at all. There were times that summer I would wonder if Clark weren't simply tired of the human race in general, if we grew more febrile and boring to him as he matured. Sometimes, even now, I think that may have been an accurate interpretation.
There was something definitely going on between him and Lana too, because when he said that, she looked back over her shoulder at him. Their eyes met and Lana's narrowed.
"It is hot out there in the fields, isn't it?" she said. "You must sweat up a storm."
Clark didn't sweat, at least not in hot weather, which was the point of his diversionary comment in the first place. Lana acted like she knew about him, but when I raised an eyebrow in his direction, he shook his head at me. To Lana he simply said,"Yes."
Just, "yes," nothing more.
"If we're going to go," Chloe said, interrupting what could have been a very uncomfortable pause in the conversation. "I think we should go now, before it gets too hot." Taking up her bag, she dropped down off her stool. "Come on."
"I'll meet you there," Clark said.
Chloe and I both gave him a hard stare.
"I mean it. I promise. I'll be there in a few."
I knew why Clark broke promises. I knew why he was always late. I also knew he needed desperately to unwind, and I didn't want him to hang around fussing with Lana all afternoon instead of coming with Chloe and me to the old Kent swimming hole. He seemed to be getting worse too, as his wanderings took him further and further afield. I'd read about a mysterious stranger thwarting a home invasion in Kansas City, Missouri. Supposedly this "young man" had appeared out of nowhere, grabbed an elderly lady's assailant by the collar, and chucked him out a window, before vanishing abruptly. I knew it had to have been Clark. The same day he came in a half-hour late to a Torch staff meeting and Chloe was not at all happy about it.
"You can't be responsible for everything and everybody, Clark!" I always told him.
"If I'm there, and I have the ability to help, I'm gonna help, Pete. I can't just sit there and watch things go down without stepping in."
"You're going to get your alien butt locked up in a lab if you aren't careful."
"You sound like my Dad."
"Yeah, and how often is your Dad wrong?"
So I gave him a look and said, "I'll give you twenty minutes to get yourself down to the river, and if you aren't there I'm coming to drag you there."
When Chloe and I left, I paused at the door to look back. Clark was looking off toward the back of the coffee shop with a scowl on his face, and Lana was crying.
We took Chloe's car. The A/C was busted in mine, and at least hers was a convertible. She was pretty quiet on the way to the car, but perked up a little once we were on the road. Despite her earlier problems with driving "between the lines" she'd turned into a good driver. Clark and I mocked her after she got the convertible because the summer sun forced her to put sunscreen on her nose when she drove or she'd have a nose as red as the car itself. I thought she looked very Marlena Dietrich in a scarf and sunglasses but the white sunscreen sort of ruined the effect. Chloe wasn't pretty like Lana, nor cutesy like other girls. She had a classic look to her, like an old movie starlet. Chloe was handsome.
I can't say Clark was a moron for liking Lana so much; that would be exceedingly stupid on my part. I can say he was stupid for dismissing Chloe like he did. Chloe wasn't innocent in the whole mess either. She'd screwed up herself. She should have come right out and told Clark she liked him way back in middle school.
"Then we wouldn't be friends," was Chloe's argument.
I asked her why then was she so upset when Clark accepted her more willingly as a friend friend than a girlfriend. Never did get a good answer.
"All right," she said. "What's up with you? Swimming? Pete we haven't gone swimming in a long time."
"And so that's why I suggested it."
"Uh-huh. I'm believing you, she says with much sarcasm. Give."
I shot her a grin. "So I could see my favorite lady in her bathing suit?"
Chloe rolled her eyes. "Suuuure, Pete. Seriously."
"Seriously is the point," I said after a minute of thought gathering. I wasn't as cautious as Clark, nor as quick as Chloe. I fell somewhere in between. "We've all been much too serious lately. I'm afraid after next year, we'll never be the same. We may never see each other again."
"It's called growing up, Pete," Chloe replied quietly. "Everybody does it."
"Growing up doesn't mean growing apart."
"Sometimes it does."
"Well it sucks."
We came to a stop sign and Chloe half turned to look at me. She grinned. "Pete, I swear, if you start talking nose jobs and skin bleaching, I'm sending you to therapy. I'll tell you right now, there is no such person as Peter Pan, and you are not him."
Chloe always knew how to crack me up.
I pretended to be offended. "Just drive."
We didn't say much more for a while, until Chloe sighed and said, "Do you think he'll show?"
"Yeah, but he probably won't be much company. He and Lana aren't getting along."
She snorted. "Why am I not surprised." Then she paused. "She's really getting tired of his hedging you know. She really made an effort not to be for a while, but...."
Sighing again, Chloe added a shrug. "Lana knows more than she lets on Pete, she always has. In fact I wouldn't be surprised if she knows everything he's hiding from her."
This was news to me. "Really? What has she told you?"
"Nothing, but my instincts tell me she's on to him. Can you imagine keeping a secret for someone who won't trust you? I don't blame her for being frustrated, Pete. Yet I do blame her for torturing him with it. She should just tell him."
"Chloe, isn't that the pot calling the kettle black?"
She pressed her lips tightly together. "Clark doesn't want me."
"Maybe he would if you'd be honest with him."
"You know what, I really don't want to talk about this, and you're the one who wanted things to lighten up. This isn't lightening up."
I saw her hands tighten around the steering wheel and knew I was pushing it, but knowing Clark's secret myself, I wanted to go a little bit further.
"Does it bother you?"
"This subject? Yes."
"No," I said. "The fact that Lana might know Clark's darkest secrets."
"No," she said promptly.
"No, because unlike Lana, I don't really care what Clark's secret is. Whatever it is doesn't change who he is. He could be from a whole other planet and he'd still be Clark." Under her breath she added, "And he'd still be in love with Lana, not me."
We stopped by Chloe's house so she could change, then did a fly-by at mine. Dad was a little surprised when I told him where I was going in such a hurry.
"You haven't hung out at ye ol' swimming hole in ages, Peter. What's the occasion?"
"No occasion. It's just a nostalgia thing."
He went back to reading his newspaper. "Well, just remember, no skinny dipping!"
Yeah, right. Skinny-dipping. Clark would have swallowed a meteor rock before he got naked in front of a girl, especially Chloe.
The hysterical thing about Clark is that he's still like that. I saw him at some sort of political press gathering recently. He was, as he had with the flannel of old, wearing a suit at least a size too big for him. It made him look positively obese, like a professional wrestler gone from muscle to flab. I used to lecture him in high school about his wardrobe. So did Chloe.
"Clark, man! If you got it, flaunt it. You're built! Show it off to the ladies a little, and maybe you'll snag a winner."
"Clark, the grunge look went out like, a century ago."
At the press dinner I couldn't resist teasing him. "You know," I said. "My secretary has a pin-up picture of Superman hanging up in her cubicle."
"Yeah. She says he's drop dead gorgeous and wants to have hot horny sex with him."
I thought his head was going to explode he turned so red in the face. I told him that's what he got for parading around in his underwear all the time. He didn't think it was funny.
Chloe and I were lounging around on the riverbank when Clark finally showed up about twenty minutes later. I was bored out of my mind and extremely glad to see him because my company wasn't providing me with much company. Chloe had laid out a blanket and was reading a book beneath the shade of a very large, floppy straw hat. Her nose was smeared with sunscreen. She'd maybe said two words to me the whole time we'd been sitting there.
She didn't look up from her book when she sensed Clark hovering over us. "You and Lana kiss and make up?"
Clark pulled off his shirt and rolled his shoulders. "Sorta," he said shortly, obviously not wanting to discuss it. He'd exchanged jeans for a pair of cutoffs. "Have you guys been in yet?"
Chloe turned and glanced at him from under the brim of her hat. "No, we were waiting on you. We figured if there are any snakes we'd let them bite you first."
"Since when has anyone gotten snakebit down here?"
She shrugged. "It could happen. This is Smallville after all."
I laughed. "In that case we need to be checking for mutants, not common everyday snakes."
With a chuckle, Clark headed for the big oak tree hovering over the water. It leaned in from the riverbank, looking for all the world like it was going to fall into the river at any moment. It was, however, rooted quite some distance away. It had just grown funny. From one of the overhanging branches hung a tire swing. The swing had been there since our grandfathers' grandfathers were kids - well, at least in some way, shape or form.
"I'll check for mutants, then I'm gonna come down there and dump your smart butt in the water Chloe Sullivan." Clark grinned. It was the first time he'd actually smiled for a while, and we all knew it would crack through Chloe's armor.
Her face twitched, and she hid her smile behind her book before shouting up at him, "Yeah, try it Kent."
"Oh, I will."
Clark continued up the tree to the swing. I knew his intent was to make sure the rope hadn't rotted, since to our knowledge no one had been out there since the summer before. Sometimes Jonathan Kent let the neighbor kids come down when the weather got really hot. He usually kept them out for their own safety. There were places just beyond the actual swimming hole where the water ran pretty fast and some nasty currents could suck a tired swimmer down. Last summer he'd opened it up for Billy Paul from down the road. He had been throwing a birthday party for his eldest and needed a venue. As for Clark and any of us, we'd not been swimming for a couple of years at least.
Standing precariously on the branch, Clark hauled the tire up by the rope, looking for weak spots. He gave it a tug here and there to make sure it would hold, then suddenly jumped, his feet landing on the very top of the tire. It fell, twisting and bucking under Clark's weight like a rodeo bronc, before hitting the end of the rope where it was jerked back towards the bank. Clark shifted his weight and the swing straightened out, then he bent his knees and pushed, sending the tire further and further into the sky as it sailed forward and back.
What sort of freaked me out that day, among other things, was the look on his face. There was no joy in it at all. Used to be he got a big kick out of the swing because it was one place where his fear of heights never came into play. He said it was because he knew if he fell, he'd just fall into the water. Needless to say, the fear of heights no longer exists, unlike his horrible fashion sense and his modesty.
But that day the expression on Clark's face was one of fierce concentration, with a scowl, making him look as if he were venting all his frustration onto the swing. It didn't seem like it was Clark up there at all, but some stranger. I shuddered as I watched him.
It was me looking at Superman for the first time. I know that now. Superman rarely, if ever, smiles. He never laughs. He keeps his mind on his business and nothing else. He's always seen with that same cold look of concentration on his face as if his entire being is focused on nothing but duty and responsibility. There's no emotion in it, nor humility. It holds a level of arrogance harkoning back to the ancient Kryptonian people who totally screwed up their planet in their quest for perfection.
It's inhuman that look, and that's the only way I can properly explain it.
In years past Clark would have shouted when he let go of the swing. He always did, whether it was a "yahoo" or a "cannonball" or some other goofy thing. This time he let go in complete silence. I held my breath as I watched him arc up into the sky, twist his body around into a pike position, then stretch out to dive straight down into the water like an arrow. There was very little splash, just a quiet "fwoossssh" as he pierced the surface and vanished.
Chloe applauded. I stood there feeling really uneasy about the whole thing, and suddenly wished I had never made the suggestion to go swimming at all.
I was pretty rattled by what I'd seen, or thought I'd seen, and kept replaying Clark's flight over in my head trying to understand why it stuck me as being so upsetting. I didn't notice that Clark hadn't come up until Chloe stood up beside me and took off her hat.
"Pete," she said, then repeated herself. "Pete."
"He's not coming up."
I looked out over the water. It was perfectly still. Chloe reached out and grabbed my arm with one hand and I could feel her grip starting to tighten the longer we waited. I wasn't particularly alarmed. I knew Clark could hold his breath for damn ever, and the odds of him diving in and breaking his neck were slim to none. If Clark hit a rock, the rock would be in serious trouble. Additionally, there were no big rocks in the bottom of the Kent swimming hole, only sandy silt, and it was fairly deep.
"Clark!" Chloe called. "Oh, God! Pete he's not coming up."
"It's okay. He's just foolin' around." I raised my voice out over the water. "All right Kent, fun's over. You're gonna give Chloe a coronary, stop goofing off." I pried my arm out of Chloe's grip. Her nails had left little half crescents in my skin. "He's gone further down stream and is probably going to sneak up behind us," I told her.
"It's not funny."
I shrugged. "You know Clark, he's got a weird sense of humor."
When I mentioned Clark's sense of humor was when I started getting worried myself. Clark has a really dry sense of humor. Sometimes it's hard to tell when he's kidding about stuff because ninety percent of the time he's as serious as a heart attack. Practical jokes were not his forte, and he certainly wouldn't stage something that would not only scare Chloe, but potentially expose to her the fact he could hold his breath longer than human norm.
"Clark! Come on, man. Cut it out," I yelled.
The surface of the water rippled, boiled, churned, and suddenly Clark burst through it, sucking in a long draw of breath with a gasp. His arms flailed, clutching at the water as if trying to pull himself out of its grasp.
"Puh-Pete! Cruh..." He went down again, and came up coughing. "Cruhp..."
"Oh cripes!" I stripped off my shirt and launched myself off the bank a split second after Chloe did.
I came up and started swimming towards him. He was trying, I could tell he was trying, but the Kryptonite hidden somewhere in the murky water was sucking every last bit of strength out of him. He was going to go out and when he passed out, he'd drown.
Chloe reached him first just as his eyes rolled back and he stopped struggling. She made a lunge through the water, and closed her fingers over his shoulder, but her small hand could find no purchase on his water slicked skin. He slid from her grasp, disappearing silently into the darkness. We both dove after him.
It was the silt that created a problem. Clark's dive and subsequent splashing had stirred up the sandy bottom, making the dark, muddy silt rise upward into the water like smoke from a fire. It swirled around us, blackening the water. I could make out the pale flash of Chloe's legs as she followed Clark down, but that was it. Visibility was next to nil. I lost sight of Clark, then Chloe, and was swimming blind. I groped around frantically, trying to keep my sense of direction intact. It would have been easy to get turned around and forget which way led to the surface.
I found the bottom, grabbing up handfuls of slime as I searched by feel. Chloe and Clark were nowhere to be seen nor felt, but the cause of all the trouble was there. We figured out later that it must have come loose from further upstream somewhere and was swept down with the spring thaw - a huge piece of Kryptonite, almost the size of a basketball. It lay in the muck sending out a sickly green glow into the swirling silt all around it. I jerked away, out of reach of the unnatural light. I was fairly safe, but that stuff has a bad reputation and I didn't want to mess with it. Besides, by that time my lungs were burning. I had to get back for air.
Breaking the surface I palmed water out of my eyes and turned around, searching for Chloe, Clark, or both. Chloe came up next to me gasping, her eyes wide and frantic. She was as white as a sheet.
"Help me! I can't lift him!"
I followed her back down, straight down, and we found Clark lying on the bottom. We each grabbed one of his arms and hauled him back up, striking out for the bank as soon as we got his head clear of the water. It was rough going. Clark weighs a ton, and I mean it. It's something about his molecular density. He's at least twenty pounds heavier than he looks. We used to play the "Guess Your Weight" game at the Lowell County Fair all the time and bilk them out of prizes right and left, until Clark found out he wasn't human. Then he decided it was cheating.
"Like those guys aren't crooked anyway!" I protested.
"Doesn't mean we have to be," he argued back.
But I caught him doing it again once, when he won a stuffed pony for Lana. I guess he was rationalizing using the "all is fair in love and war" theorem. She was really impressed and he was able to steal a kiss from her at the top of the Ferris wheel later that day. I decided not to harass him about it.
We dragged Clark up onto the bank, but before either of us had caught our breath enough to start CPR, he was already rolling over to cough out lungfulls of brackish water. Chloe plopped down on her butt in the mud, sucking in air and whimpering in an effort not to cry. I shivered. For the longest time none of us said anything, then Clark pulled Chloe into a hug and kissed her forehead, letting her dissolve into tears on his shoulder. He looked at me over her head.
"Did you see it?" he mouthed silently.
I guess I should have expected some unpleasant end to the swimming excursion. Sometimes in life you reach a point where no matter how much you want to, you can't go back to who you were before. Clark and Chloe had reached that point a lot sooner than I had, and now it was my turn. I suddenly realized the carefree days of tooling around in the woods, swimming, and coming home with poison ivy and skinned knees were officially over and there would be no turning back. Clark realized it when he found out his true origins. Chloe realized it when Clark chose Lana over her. They weren't the same. Now neither was I.
Chloe went home after Clark managed to convince her he was okay. Clark and I went to the Kents, and I wished I'd gone with Chloe from the minute we stepped across the threshold.
Clark exploded once we got into the house. He'd had enough, he said, of Smallville, Kansas and its problems. He was sick of running into Kryptonite every time he turned around. He was sick of lying to people, hiding like a scared rabbit, and wasting time waiting for some unknown thing to happen, something which never did happen. He couldn't stand it anymore, and as soon as he graduated from high school he'd be leaving. Period.
That went over like a ton of bricks. Mrs. Kent started crying and I thought Jonathan was going to blow his stack. I'd been through this sort of argument before in my own family when my brother chose to enlist in the Army for a couple years before going on to college. You just want to sink into the floor when stuff like that happens, because you hate seeing the people you love fighting. The Kents were like a second family to me, and it killed me to see them in an uproar. They always seemed to get along without a hitch - a modern day Cleaver family.
The last time I saw Clark and Jonathan get into it, Clark had been wearing that stupid red Kryptonite ring, but this wasn't some warped version of Clark screaming at his father. This was the real thing and it was even more frightening. At least under the influence of the ring he could be stopped by removing the source of the problem. Clark losing his temper for real - well, I myself pity anyone who gets on the wrong side of it.
It was pretty brutal, that fight, and very one sided. When Jonathan realized Clark was seriously losing it, he backed down. Clark raged on, saying some pretty mean things, accusing Jonathan of using him, lying to him.
"Protecting me? You aren't protecting me! You're keeping me chained up like a dog!"
The only casualty was the kitchen counter. Clark slammed his fist down on the edge and pulverized a fist-size section. It looked like a shark had come along and taken a bite out of it. This event brought everything screeching to a halt. Clark and Jonathan stared at each other in silence for a very long time. I found myself holding my breath, listening to Martha's quiet sobbing.
"I'm leaving, Dad. I'm sorry. I can't stay here anymore," Clark's voice was shaky, so were his hands. "I'll stay through harvest next summer, but then I'm going."
"Clark, where?" Martha asked softly. "Please...."
"I don't know yet," he said, turning to walk out the front door. "Anywhere but here."
We didn't try to stop him. Who could stop him? When he was gone I told Martha and Jonathan what had happened. They seemed to be in shock though, and I'm not sure they fully understood how close Clark had come to drowning. If either Chloe or I had been alone with him, instead of both of us being there, we couldn't have saved him.
I was unable to make them understand, and I knew trying to talk to Clark at that juncture would be next to impossible. I felt miserable, helpless, and could only let myself out and head for home. I avoided the loft where Clark sat brooding. The fight had only underscored my feelings of guilt for suggesting we try to reenact "the good old days" by going swimming in the first place. It also reaffirmed that I was now at the beginning of what would be and uphill climb into adulthood, a place where I really didn't want to be.
I cut across the south pasture. Another pasture over and I'd be at the Fertilizer Plant, which had a bus stop. I didn't want to stay at the Kents' any longer. I certainly didn't want to ask any of them for a ride home, wherein I would have to sit silently with whomever while they stewed in their own private angst. I didn't want to call Chloe either. She'd been pretty shaken up by her daring rescue. It was one of those "post traumatic stress" incidents. Until it was all over she'd remained pretty cool, but she'd lost it when her mind started giving her flashes of what could have been if we'd not been able to drag Clark out of the water.
So I walked.
I didn't get very far before I saw it. The sun was just starting to go down, and rays of light were streaking across the tops of the cornfield, turning the tassels golden. They were well over my head. I knew from instinct how to find my way across even when the corn was that high and I couldn't see over the top, mainly because I'd been cutting through cornfields all my life. I used landmarks to guide my way. One landmark was the Kents' storm cellar. When I reached the storm cellar I needed to turn left, and from there I could find the access road that separated the Kents' property from the Hendersons' next door.
But when I got to the storm cellar, the doors were open, and there was no way it could have been any of the Kents. I knew Clark was still in the loft. Even if he'd left it I would have noticed him cutting through the corn. When he ran he did disrupt things around him, but if you weren't looking for it, you could easily miss him. I was used to looking. The storm cellar doors being open was not a good sign and it caused me to stop in my tracks.
I probably should have gone back to the house and fetched someone. I knew from experience that people who snooped around the Kents didn't always have benign intentions. I'd almost been mutated by Hamilton. I wasn't about to get in trouble again. Of course I wasn't always the best decision-maker back then, and I let my curiosity get the better of me.
With my heart beating Timpani in my chest, I edged toward the opening where I could see footprints in the dirt. From below I could hear the familiar rustling sound of a tarp being pulled across something metallic, followed by a sharp intake of breath. There was definitely someone down in the cellar, and they had definitely discovered the ship.
I went down the stairs quietly. If it were someone potentially dangerous in the cellar, I wanted to go unnoticed for as long as possible, giving myself time to high tail it back to the house and get Clark. Sneakers are great for just that - sneaking - and aside from the soft creak of the stair treads beneath my weight, I made very little noise.
At the foot of the stairs I stopped, and looked back toward where the ship usually sat. It lay there uncovered in the light of a bare bulb. She stood beside it, running her hands over its surface.
When you first see the ship it's easy to mistake it for a fake. You think, "Oh, it's just some weird piece of farm equipment," or "What a cool model!" Despite all the people who claimed that UFOs and aliens were real and living among us, back then we were still in the dark about it. You simply didn't want to believe, no matter what anyone told you. Hell, my best friend flies, and I'm still lookin' for the damn string. I'm a product of my generation.
The proof was at the tips of your fingers though with Clark's ship. If you touched it, you knew it was real. It's hard to describe the feeling. It's like putting your hand into a very low electric current. It doesn't hurt, but you get this weird tingle all the way up your arm and into your muscles, like it's wrapping itself around your bones. The surface is hard and metallic, yet there is something about the feel of it against your fingers that makes you think of something organic and alive. There is nothing about the ship that isn't alien. When you touch it, you just know.
I sat down on the bottom step and watched her. Her hands were shaking. When she stepped back, I could see she was holding back tears.
"Kind of a hard pill to swallow isn't it?"
Her head jerked up and she stared at me. For a minute she seemed as if she didn't believe I was there.
"Pete," she said finally.
"Clark know you're here, Lana?" I asked.
She wiped at her eyes. Her voice was hoarse. "No," she said quietly. "I came on my own."
I didn't say anything to that, but waited for an explanation.
"Is it true?" she asked finally.
"What has he told you?" I got up from the step and went to her. I made the mistake of brushing my fingers against the ship, and I jerked back my hand as I felt the telltale tingling.
"Nothing." In a nervous gesture she maintains to this day, she rubbed her hands on her thighs. "I - I guessed a lot of it. I've seen some of the things he can do. I heard rumors - I overhear a lot at the Talon sometimes. Lex is looking for this."
I nodded. "I know."
"You've known." Her tone was slightly accusatory.
"Just since last year." I shrugged. "We got in a big fight about it, until I ran into someone who convinced me of the benefits of not knowing. It's a dangerous secret, Lana. I hope you realize that."
Crossing her arms over her chest, she looked down at the ship. "He's been lying to me to protect me."
"Partially?" She looked up at me again.
"Well there's the gross-out factor. How's he supposed to know you wouldn't freak."
Lana's eyes narrowed. "Because he should know me by now!" she said. "How many times do I have to show him I trust him before he trusts me? I'm tired of it Pete. Why do you think I'm down here now?"
"He also blames himself for your parents," I said bluntly.
She stared at me, uncomprehending.
"Come here," I held out a hand to her, and after a minute pause, she took it. I guided her over to the steps where we sat down together.
I told her about Krypton, the whole story, as much as I knew of it. I told her how Clark was the only survivor of a cataclysmic blast that destroyed a whole planet, and how when the ship came through whatever hole in space had been opened as its escape route, the meteors came with it. Clark hit the Earth, and so did giant pieces of shrapnel left over from the explosion of his birth world.
"The Kryptonian people are responsible for the meteor shower. They killed your parents. Clark thinks because he's the only surviving representative of his people, that it's his responsibility to repay the karmic debt." I stopped her before she could say anything. "Don't argue this with him, Lana. I've tried. You'll never get him to stop thinking that way, no matter what you tell him."
"It's not his fault," she insisted. "Just a bad set of circumstances all coming together at once, and my parents were at the wrong place at the wrong time. It's not like Clark stuck a knife in them."
"I know, but Clark doesn't see it that way." I was still holding her hand. I gave it a little squeeze. "All his reasons still boil down to the same thing though. He loves you."
She didn't say anything more for a long time, but sat staring at the ship. I wasn't sure what to do at that point so I just kept holding her hand and watching her. Raising her free hand, she wiped at her eyes again, not allowing me to see her tears fall.
But when she turned her face toward mine, her eyes were moist and her eye makeup was smeared all around them. Prior to that afternoon I might have chuckled at her very raccoon-like look. I didn't then. I thought she was even more beautiful than she'd ever looked before, because I could see into her heart through those tears, and her grief was no laughing matter. It's been a long time since that day, but I know that's when I first fell in love with her.
"He's going to leave," she said.
I was startled. It was hard to believe she hadn't overheard the argument between Clark and Jonathan, but she hadn't. She just knew Clark better than any of us did.
I couldn't lie to her. "Yeah," I said. "Probably. I think he's outgrowing the nest."
"I don't think he'll ever outgrow you."
"Doesn't matter," she said, getting to her feet, disengaging her hand from mine and walking back over to the ship. She stood there staring at it. "Clark believes he has a destiny. Maybe he does. Maybe he was sent here for a purpose only some higher power knows."
"It could be," I admitted.
"How can I keep holding him back? Who am I? A selfish little girl who always wants her own way." Her tone mutated from grief to anger, anger directed at herself, which flamed flashfire bright before fading away again.
"I have to let him go," she whispered.
Her tears finally fell when she turned to look at me over her shoulder. It was the most heartbroken expression I'd ever seen on anyone's face up to that point in my life. Sometime later I would see it again, mirrored in Clark's eyes when he told me she broke up with him. Her rejection wounded him deeply and he never recovered from it. He still has the scars. She would not explain to him the reasons behind her decision, but had the decision been something else, there might not be a Superman today.
I myself have never forgotten the pain in her voice when she looked at me and repeated her words.
"I have to let him go."
Senior year was rough. I kept pretty busy due to the fact my mom got me a job at the courthouse. I worked in the mailroom and helped stock supplies. When I wasn't in school I was working, but I kept up on events via Lana and Chloe. I didn't see much of Clark. No one did. He started to withdraw even more after Lana put an end to everything. Chloe tried to keep him going, but I remember a tearful interlude wherein she told me she just didn't know who he was anymore.
I think he was preparing us for things to come.
He made one last effort to rekindle his relationship with Lana. He asked her to the senior prom, and I was really surprised that she accepted. It ended badly, with Clark storming out and Lana going home in tears. She still didn't tell him what she knew. He didn't feel like he could trust her anymore. I kept my mouth shut. I had to, because I couldn't betray one without betraying the other, and both secrets were not mine to tell anyway. Sure, maybe I could have spared them some hurt, or maybe I could have made things worse. I didn't feel like it was my decision to make.
Two weeks after graduation Clark left Smallville, and I felt as if the door to my youth had not only been shut, but slammed shut and locked. Staying until harvest was rendered moot by the fact there would be no harvest for the Kent Farm that year. In June we lost lost Jonathan Kent to heart failure. It was the last straw. The day after the funeral, Clark was gone.
I lost my best friend, my other brother, for ten years. Whenever we ran into Martha Kent she would tell us where he was, and how he was doing, but she never told us "what" he was doing. Chloe saw him once, when she was following a lead regarding the whereabouts of her mother. She sent me a letter with a blurry picture of herself hugging someone in front of the Eiffel Tower, and only the height difference tipped me off that it was Clark. I couldn't see his face clearly and he was sporting a mustache.
That was the last I heard from either Chloe or Clark, until Clark showed up in Metropolis again. To the best of my knowledge, Chloe is still traveling around Europe looking for her mother. I miss her sometimes, but like a lot of things from my youth, she's gradually fading from my memory. I wish she hadn't gone, but I wish a lot of things had never happened.
Clark and I have had lunch a few times since he came back, but our relationship isn't the same anymore. I reassure him that I will keep his secrets, but he doesn't like how close I am to the Luthors. I stay close on purpose, to keep an eye on Lex. I think he's insane, or as close to it as he can be without getting himself locked up. It's really scary for me, because I've watched his decline. He's forgotten all about Clark Kent and his mysteries. He's out to destroy the alien menace in the red and blue spandex. Lex believes Superman was the Kents' mystery, that they secretly harbored him for years, but not that Clark and he are the same person. To me it's obvious, but then, I'm looking for it. I'm not sure Lex's mind will ever make the connection. His crazed obsession blinds him to what lay right in front of his nose.
The first thing I wanted to know when I saw Clark again was, "What the Hell are you doing?"
He very quietly replied, "Having my life and living it too."
I'm not sure I agree with him. Sometimes I think Clark is gone. There's only the alien named Kal-El who he left behind. My friend is locked up behind closed doors and only Superman has the key. I get little glimpses of the old Clark sometimes, like three months ago when I asked him to be my best man. He declined, claiming to have another obligation. I was pretty upset, but how could I not understand? I had my brothers to fall back on, and Michael stepped up to the plate. Clark missed the bachelor party last night too. Superman had to break up a chop shop across town. Clark never was much of a partier anyway.
So now here I am, standing before the altar, taking one of the most important vows a man could ever take, and my best friend is not here with me. I shouldn't be surprised. I couldn't have watched Lana marry another man either, not knowing she could have once been mine, not when my heart still ached for her. Clark still loves her, but I think he's beginning to realize he could have never made her happy. Lana knew it long ago. Maybe now she can tell him.
God, I'm so nervous. I wish Clark were here to clap me on the shoulder and tell me I'm doing the right thing. I wish Chloe were here to make fun of me. If I faint, I'll never live it down. I have to close my eyes.
The music is playing now. Oh, sheesh. No sweaty palms, no sweaty palms. Michael's elbow is sharp. He wants me to pay attention. I have to look. People are whispering all through the church. Whispering? What's wrong?
Nothing's wrong. Everything's right.
Damn, a grown man and I'm going to cry. Come on Pete, it's the bride who cries at the wedding, not the groom.
She's so beautiful. I love her so much, so much....
The boots make him taller. He leans over her and she has to stand on tiptoe to kiss him despite her high heels. I hear her breathy whisper. She's smiling, but her eyes glitter with tears as she wraps her arm around his neck and gives him a squeeze.
"Thank you, Superman."
He nods, smiles at me, and gently places her hand in mine.
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