May 19, 2001
Charlie Frost had the look of someone waiting for a punch line. It wasn't that he seemed about to burst out laughing, but that he had an anxious way about him--as if he were afraid the joke was on him, or worse, that he wasn't going to get it. He was pale and tall and bit his nails and habitually forgot to get his hair cut for months at a time, so that his brown locks ranged from close-cropped and neat to moppish and view-obstructing. Charlie was on day forty-one of his most recent haircut, and he looked like the scruffy fifth member of a struggling boy band. Judging by his ensemble--wrinkled green army pants, a Nike T-shirt, and red Chuck Taylor sneakers--the band's wardrobe person had either taken the day off or was hoping to be fired.
Charlie and two other young men shared a second-floor flat, if that was the word. Flat implied sprawl, and one thing their apartment didn't do was sprawl. It creaked, sagged, and let cold air in during winter, but it did not sprawl. The building was in its early forties, and after half a dozen renovations most of its rooms were higher than they were wide. It was a terrible place for a party.
Charlie and Jack had gotten around that problem by setting up on their front deck, and by inviting only three guests. The alcohol they had brewed themselves, or Jack had. His brother Lloyd had given him a brewing kit for Christmas, and this was his third attempt at making beer. The first batch had turned green, and he had put too much yeast in the second; one night in April Charlie had woken to the sound of exploding bottles. He'd thought it was someone shooting out the windows, and he'd fumbled around in the dark for a phone to call 911 until Jack knocked on his door and told him it was the beer.
Jack was not as tall as Charlie, but he was more physically impressive, with coal black hair and broad shoulders. He had grown up on a farm an hour from Madison, and Charlie had wondered a few times if his parents had ever strapped him to the plow.
"We should have backup," Charlie said. "What if the beer doesn't turn out?"
"It'll turn out fine." Jack inspected the refrigerator, which contained the beer, five frosted glasses, and an empty bottle of ketchup. "Besides, backup is your department, Dr. Nelson."
Dr. Frank Nelson was the name on Charlie's fake ID. He was cautious about using it because the photo was of a bearded man, and Charlie had never needed to shave more than twice a week. There was also the matter of the 270 pounds the license credited Dr. Nelson with, easily twice the amount of flesh clinging to Charlie's bones.
Despite this, Charlie had managed to lay his hands on a couple of bottles of Captain Morgan, which he had hidden in his room. He was half-hoping that Jack's Madison Maibock would turn out to be undrinkable. Then he would have a chance to save the party, and score some points with Caroline.
Caroline Bloom didn't know it, but she was one of the primary reasons for the party. Charlie had wanted her from the day he had first seen her, on August 15, 2000. August 15 was the traditional and much-dreaded moving day for renters in Madison, a day of U-Hauls, abandoned furniture, and enough cardboard boxes to enclose the campus in a corrugated wall. Charlie had been carrying a crate filled with CDs from Jack's truck when he saw Caroline for the first time.
It was ninety-four degrees and humid, but while Charlie was sweaty and sunburned, Caroline's shoulders showed tanned and healthy under her yellow tank top. She sat on the front steps, drinking from a bottle of water while a pair of young men struggled to fit a couch through the front door of 523. Her brown hair was tied back from her neck, and Charlie stared as she swallowed. She saw him as she finished drinking and smiled.
"Moving in upstairs?" she asked.
"Maybe I'll see you around." She followed the couch inside, her cutoff jeans moving in fascinating ways.
"Downstairs neighbor?" Jack had asked, carrying a dresser up the steps.
"I hope so."
A goal had presented itself to Charlie: "Sleep with the curvaceous dark-haired girl who may or may not live downstairs." Charlie set such goals several times a day but rarely gave them much subsequent thought. "Sleep with the cashier at the convenience store" was a common one, or "Sleep with the girl who sat in front of me in history on Tuesday." But most of these random lust objects left his thoughts as quickly as they left his line of sight.
Caroline might have been no different if she hadn't been his neighbor, and if Charlie had been able to find something wrong with her. She wasn't snooty or stupid, and she didn't have an annoying laugh. She didn't flirt with every man she saw, but she wasn't shy either. In the end Charlie had decided that if anything, she was probably a little too good for him.
As if his insecurity were a summons, a knock fell upon the door.
Charlie answered it. "Good evening," he said, trying not to sound like Bela Lugosi and failing.
"We brought food," said Harriet, and she handed him a sack of blue tortilla chips. Mary Beth followed with an ice cream bucket full of salsa. Charlie waited by the door for a moment, but no one was behind them, only the narrow stairs twisting down to the first floor.
"Where's your roommate?" Mary Beth asked.
Charlie shut the door, wondering if she knew he had been about to ask her the same question. "He's in the kitchen, getting the beer."
"Not Jack," Harriet said. "The other one."
"Scott? He mostly stays with his girlfriend. I haven't seen him in days."
"We haven't seen him in months," Mary Beth said. "You'd tell us if you guys had killed him, right?"
Charlie nodded. "We like to keep the community abreast of our many crimes." He gestured toward the hall with hands encumbered with chips and salsa. "Let's head to the deck."
Again, deck was perhaps not the correct word. Accessible only through the window in Jack's "bedroom" (which had once been a walk-in closet), the deck was the railing-enclosed roof of the first-floor porch. Jack and Charlie had furnished it with a few lawn chairs and an old table with crooked legs.
Charlie set the food on the table. "Where's your roommate?" he asked.
"She had a date," Mary Beth said.
"Oh." Charlie replayed his last conversation with Caroline in his mind, trying to find the ambiguities hidden in the words "See you there."
It wasn't as though Harriet and Mary Beth weren't attractive in their own right. Harriet was five-foot-six with deep brown skin, and she wore her dark, curly hair short. In Charlie's fantasies she wore leather pants and high-heeled boots, a white see-through blouse over a black bra, and a chain belt.
(Charlie's fantasies were detailed and--except for the costuming--strictly grounded in the plausible. It was not enough to simply imagine having sex with Catherine Zeta-Jones. It was important to establish, within the context of the fantasy, the manner in which he met Catherine Zeta-Jones, became friends with her, helped her through a difficult divorce, and finally screwed her brains out in a Cannes hotel, aided by a bottle of Cristal and her acquisition of a Grand Jury acting prize.)
Charlie's fantasies about Mary Beth were no less elaborate but tended more toward the breathless and sweaty. Mary Beth was small, but he liked her red hair, and her cleavage--not that she ever showed it--was spectacular. Tonight she wore jeans and a baggy sweatshirt, while Harriet was dressed in white pants and a T-shirt reading CORPORATE RADIO SUCKS.
"Anyone thirsty?" Jack stepped through the window, balancing a tray of chilled glasses in one hand and a six-pack of bottles in the other. He eased the tray onto the table and pulled a bottle opener from his pocket.
He cracked open four bottles and poured glasses for each of them. "A toast," he said. "To another year of classes done."
Charlie took a small taste. The color was right, and the head was healthy but not too fizzy. It was a bit sweet, not enough to offend, and light, with a hint of an aftertaste. He took another sip, and then a long drink.
"You did it," he said.
"He sure did," Harriet said. "Nummy."
"I hope there's more," said Mary Beth.
"Of course." Jack grinned.
It was a warm, cloudless night, but the stars were obscured by the city lights; only the crescent moon and the bright triangle of Deneb, Vega, and Altair were clearly visible through the haze. For a Saturday night, Mifflin Street was quiet. There were only two parties on the block, music and people spilling out onto the sidewalk in an invitation to a police raid. It was the first weekend after finals, last chance to party for those who were headed home for the summer. Across the street a couple packed belongings into a van, pausing after every load to kiss and hold hands.
Charlie was drifting off on his own, as he tended to do. He rose to put on some music but realized that the Stop-and-Starts--Jack called the band next door that because they had never played a song all the way through--were playing in the attic next door.
Harriet leaned back in the plastic lawn chair and put her feet up on the railing. "They're getting better," she said.
"What makes you say that?" Jack asked.
"The drummer stopped playing fills all the time instead of keeping the beat, and the bass player is starting to understand chords. The problem is the guitar player. He can't sing and play at the same time."
"He can't sing at all," Charlie said.
"That's true," Harriet said.
"Harriet writes music reviews for The Campus Voice," Mary Beth said. Charlie had been watching Mary Beth for a while, he realized. He liked her smile.
"I've never seen your name in the Voice," Charlie said.
"I have," Jack said. "You really ripped into Creed. I like that album."
"I never told you not to," Harriet said. "It's just an opinion. I'll never understand why people get so angry about it--I get some seriously threatening letters. You wouldn't believe how much pent-up rage the average Britney Spears fan has."
Jack laughed and set his beer glass on the table, which shifted alarmingly and sent an empty beer bottle tumbling to the deck. It rolled down the shingles and fell to the sidewalk below, shattering.
"Jesus!" came a voice from below. "Who's throwing shit at me?"
"Caroline?" Mary Beth looked over the railing. "I thought you went out for the night. Where's your date?"
"I don't know and I don't care. The restaurant sucked, the movie sucked, and he sucked. Is there any beer left?"
Ten minutes later they were all on their second bottle of Madison Maibock and deep into the snacks.
"The best thing about salsa is there's no fat," said Caroline. She was wearing tight khakis and a cut-sleeved blue top, which was closer, in Charlie's mind, to appropriate fantasy attire.
"You look nice," he told her.
"Thanks," she said.
"Caroline made that top," Mary Beth said. "She's a fashion genius." Charlie didn't know Mary Beth all that well, but he had noticed that she was quick to brag about her roommates but hardly ever said a word about herself.
He put his feet up on the rail and surrendered again to the shyness that always came upon him in groups. He followed the conversation with his eyes, laughing with the others but feeling separate.
Somewhere between the fourth and fifth beer, after they had finished off all the salsa and Caroline had moved her chair closer to Charlie's, clouds blocked out the visible stars and a humid breeze blew down the street. The breeze made Charlie wonder how long ago everyone else had gotten smart and gone inside. Mifflin Street had gone silent. He looked up and saw tree branches swaying eerily in the damp air. A plastic cup skipped down the middle of the street, flashing intermittently beneath the streetlights.
"Maybe we should head inside now," Charlie said. An instant later a flash of white cast the street in stark shadow and light. Then all the lights went out, and the music stopped.
Charlie remembered stumbling inside as the first sheets of rain cascaded onto the deck, and he remembered spilling a stack of CDs over the floor inside. He remembered saying that they might as well finish the beer while it was still cold. What he didn't remember, to his eternal regret, was having sex with Caroline Bloom. Bits and pieces came back to him later--fumbled groping in the hall, banging his shin on the bed, someone closing the door on them after they were both naked. But as to who had instigated the encounter, what had been said, or even how it had felt, he was only ever able to reconstruct a blurry and incomplete picture, one he was never sure was the truth.
May 20, 2001
Mary Beth dreamed that a springer spaniel in a lime green jumpsuit chased her with a machete until her mother--her real mother--took the machete from the dog's four-fingered cartoon paw and replaced it with a tommy gun. She woke as the springer took aim, its long tongue lolling out the side of its mouth.
She tried to read the clock, but it didn't make any sense. 12:00? But it was light out. And it couldn't be noon, because she'd set the alarm for 8:00 so she could get to the library early. Finals might be over, but she wanted to get a jump on the summer session.
She couldn't stop blinking. No, the numbers were flashing. 12:00 . . . 12:00 . . . 12:00 . . . 12:00 . . .
"Shit!" The power had gone out, she remembered now; how she'd gotten back downstairs and into her own bed, wearing only a T-shirt that she wasn't sure she owned, was a mystery. She looked for her watch, but it was nowhere in the tangle of clothes on the floor. She pulled on sweatpants and stumbled to the door. She squeezed the knob, and it came off in her hand.
Mary Beth tried to fit it back into the door, but the shaft was bent. She dropped the doorknob and tugged at the gap above the door. With a metallic groan the hinges gave way, and the door collapsed in on her. She reflexively caught it in one hand and leaned it against the wall.
Excerpted from Superpowers by David J. Schwartz. Copyright © 2008 by David J. Schwartz. Excerpted by permission of Broadway, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.