Halcyon Days (The Perks Of Being A Paragon)
This is all for his sake. I’ll do it a million times if I have to. Richard Thompson walked along the trail; clutching a plush teddy bear. Bright Canyon was a quiet place, especially at night. Quick, easy, painless. He reached his usual spot, the secluded area where he’d repeated this process so many times before. The teddy bear stirred, as if awakening from slumber. Not good. Richard had hoped the bear would remain asleep throughout the process. “Mr. Thompson, is this Toyland?” It looked up at him; its button eyes somehow conveying a sense of wonder. Richard struggled to maintain his composure; his voice wavering as he assured the tiny bear. “Yeah, Brawny. This is Toyland. You’ll see all your friends again soon.” Brawny wiggled around, shifting in his arms to face the sky. “It’s so beautiful! I wish Master was here.”
It’s now or never. I’ll lose my nerve if I wait too long. Richard casually moved his right hand to grip the bear’s shoulder. Then, with practiced speed, he cupped his left hand over its mouth. “I’m sorry.” With all his strength, he pulled down with his right arm. The fabric tore, revealing the stuffing underneath. The bear screamed in agony, squirming against him, but his hand muffled its cries. Almost done. Please, forgive me. He tugged down again, hard, separating the bear’s head from its body. Its arms continued flailing pitifully for a few moments longer. Finally, the bear’s body fell limp.
Richard had killed before. Real people; humans. Men, women, Hazard kids as young as fifteen. He was a military man in his youth, opening the door for his career as an Agent. All part of the job. This shouldn’t feel any different. He never hesitated back then; snuffing out lives with a steady hand and the pull of a trigger. Why, then? Why… Why was this always so painful?
“Dad, you’re home!” Richard’s son, Jack, stood up from the kitchen table and rushed to the door. Richard lifted him up into a big hug. “Jackie Boy!” His son giggled as he set him down. “Where’s your mother?” Jack pointed to the master bedroom. “In her room, I think. She seemed sad that Brawny was leaving for Toyland. I’m sad, too. I know I should be happy for him, but…” Jack frowned, his eyes downcast. “I don’t know why Brawny had to leave so soon. Brawny, Froggy, Mr. Oink, Mr. Owl, Johnny Giraffe. They’re all gone now. Only RebelLion is still with me.” Richard put his hand on his son’s shoulder to reassure him. “Toyland is just like Heaven, Jackie. Brawny’s in a better place now. They all are. Trust me, okay?” Jack nodded. “I know, Dad. I trust you. Thanks for taking them there.”
“Grace?” Richard stepped into the master bedroom, closing the door behind him. His wife was already in bed; lying on her side. From her breathing pattern, he could tell she was still awake. “Grace, talk to me.” Silence. Richard sighed and moved to the dresser, stripping down to his sleepwear. I don’t blame her for being angry. How could I? I’m angry at myself.
He moved to the bed, slipping under the covers. “Grace, I know you’re upset. Listen, it’s all for Jack. They can’t know what he’s capable of.” She shifted, propping up on her shoulder to turn and face him. “What is he capable of, exactly? Bringing toys to life? Is he going to take over the world with an army of stuffed animals?” He could hear the bitterness in her voice. “It’s not just about the toys! That’s only how it starts. We don’t know the full extent of his power. ‘What else can he bring to life?’ ‘Can he bring back dead things?’ ‘Is he a Hazard?’ Those are the questions they would ask. A.E.G.I.S. would stop at nothing to find his limits. Torture, experimentation. Even… Termination. This isn’t the kind of power they allow people to keep. Trust me Grace, I know how they operate.” She glared at him, her eyes cold. “Right. Because you’re one of them.” Richard felt his heart sink. “I joined to protect the city. I didn’t sign up to shoot innocent people. I’m not the only Agent who feels this way. The best way to change things is from the inside.”
“And? What does that have to do with taking Jack out of school? Forbidding him from having visitors, or going outside? Killing his little stuffed animals; the only friends he has left?” She was tearing up now, her righteous anger replaced by a deep sadness. Richard embraced her. “Things are going to get better. Hazard advocacy is on the rise. The push for Hazard Rights is stronger than ever. It could be months, it could be years. Eventually, public opinion will change. Laws will change. One day, it will be safe for him to go outside. One day, the world will accept him.”
“I hope Mom and Dad aren’t fighting again.” Jack whispered to his sole remaining friend, the stuffed lion RebelLion. “Don’t worry, Master! Even if people fight sometimes, they always make up later.” The tiny lion hugged its Master with its fluffy arms. “I hope so, RebelLion.” He sighed. “I miss going outside. I miss everyone. I’m so happy that I still have you.” RebelLion held out its paw. “Rawr! Master, you’ll always have me! We’re friends until the end!” Jack took his friend’s paw in his hand. “Please don’t go to Toyland, RebelLion. Please don’t leave me.” He started to cry, overwhelmed by loss and isolation. RebelLion wiped away his Master’s tears. “I’ll never leave you. I promise, Master.”
“Just one, Richard. Just let him keep one friend. Jack gets to spend time with me through homeschooling, but other than that… he’s all alone. I know you have our safety in mind. Please, let him keep RebelLion.” Grace had calmed down now; not quite forgiving him, not quite condemning him. Richard considered their options. RebelLion was, despite its name, the most obedient and least mischievous of Jack’s ‘friends.’ He could trust RebelLion to pretend it was just a toy, if it ever came down to that. Although he would never admit it, Richard had his own reason for sparing RebelLion this long: Its name.
LCDR Richard ‘Rebel’ Thompson. The call sign was a little souvenir from his time in the Navy. Jackie was always impressed by it. He even used to think the word ‘Rebel’ was synonymous with ‘Hero,’ because of his favorite movie. Jackie’s nickname, meanwhile, was ‘Lion.’ His favorite animal. RebelLion represented their bond, as father and son. In fact, calling it Rebel Lion was the easiest way to make Jackie throw a tantrum; to him, it was like separating him from his father. Richard choked back tears. “You’re right, Grace. He can keep one. He can keep RebelLion.”
“Dad, can I ask you something important?” It had been a few days since Brawny’s passing. In that time, Richard practiced tirelessly with RebelLion; teaching it how to stay quiet and pretend to be lifeless, the instant he gave the signal. I think I can trust it… “Dad?” Richard looked up, snapping back to reality. “What is it, Jackie?” Jack fidgeted, the way he always did when he was about to ask for something. “You know, I’ve been really good! RebelLion too! And, well, there’s a festival coming up in a few days. I know you don’t want me going outside, but Mom already said I could, if you agree. The festival is three days, but I’d only be there for one. Just one…” His voice trailed off, as if he expected to get in trouble for asking.
“The Day of The Dead Festival? Is that really something you want to go to, son?” Jack nodded. “Well, it’s not only about death and stuff! It’s about celebrating life too, I think. That’s what I read before.” Richard sighed. He’s right, RebelLion has been good. The city’s been quiet. I can request time off, too. Besides, Grace might kill me if I turn him down. “You’d have to be on your best behavior.” He looked to RebelLion, still ‘playing dead’ on the floor. “Both of you.” Jack smiled wide; the first real smile Richard had seen in a long time. RebelLion jumped to its feet and waved its paws in the air. In unison, they said “Thank you, Dad!”
RebelLion played dead, taking in as much of the festival as he could while remaining still. His Master helped by turning his head or lifting him, to share all the wonderful sights on display. “Isn’t this amazing, RebelLion?” Jack whispered in his ear. RebelLion pressed down slightly with his paw in affirmation, an imperceptible motion to anyone who doesn’t expect stuffed animals to move. Mrs. Thompson kept an eye on Master, while Mr. Thompson scanned the crowd; hyper alert. Even though he couldn’t move, even though he couldn’t talk, RebelLion was happy. This is the first time in years that his Master stepped outside. On such a wonderful day, too.
In the distance, RebelLion saw a glowing green light, fast approaching. Then, the humans started to run. Loud cries erupted from the crowd as they fled the source of the light. Mrs. Thompson grabbed onto him and his Master, carrying them in her arms. “Richard!” Mr. Thompson’s hands moved to his side, lightning fast, drawing a weapon. Master told me about those. A gun… I think. “Move, Grace! Move! I’ll be right behind you!” The light was drawing even closer now, but the crowd was still too packed for Mr. Thompson to see its source. Mrs. Thompson started to run, but stopped shortly after, stumbling to the ground. “Mommy!” He heard his Master yelling for her.
Then, a man’s voice cried out, distorted and desperate. “HELP ME! HELP ME PLEASE!” Even as a stuffed lion, RebelLion felt a sense of dread. The cries for help were coming from the light. The humans closest to it started to collapse, screaming, their flesh turning red and sloughing off their bodies. Mr. Thompson found a clear lane, found his opportunity, and fired his weapon. He stumbled though, right before, his body heaving and his vision leaving him as his eyes burned away. The shot went wide; the slightest deviation. A lethal shot turning into a graze. “HELP ME!” RebelLion could see inside the light. It was shaped like a human male, glowing brightly in green fire. The wound from the graze seemed to ‘ignite’ him, and a luminous wave flowed out of his body.
“RebelLion…” Master? RebelLion didn’t care that he wasn’t supposed to move. He didn’t care that he wasn’t supposed to talk. He turned to see his Master burning up, sheltered by what was left of his mother’s body. RebelLion ran to him and grabbed his hand, but the flesh melted off in his grasp. He tried again, and again. The green man was running off now, further into the city, but RebelLion didn’t care.
Master, why are you crying?
Master, why are you melting?
Master, why have you stopped moving?
The tiny lion was alone now, in the silence of a dead street. Nothing moved around him. No humans, no animals. His Master looked different now, but RebelLion knew he was still in there. RebelLion spread his fluffy arms, and gripped his Master in a tight embrace. Oddly, the little lion started to feel things he never felt before; hunger, fatigue. All that could wait. He would stay with his Master for now. For now, that was all that mattered.
I’ll never leave you, Master. I promise. We’ll be together forever.
“The Meltdown Incident” was the most devastating Hazard-related disaster in history. A lone Hazard brought an entire city district to ruin within a single day. By all accounts, Gregory Miller, posthumously known as ‘Meltdown,’ was a devoted husband and father. It is believed his wife and two sons were among the first victims of his awakened power. The first of tens of thousands. This one incident turned the majority of the public against Hazards, and ultimately killed the proposed new laws granting them greater freedom. To this day, it influences public policy. Even after being cleansed of radiation, the district of Old Town bears a new, foreboding name: Little Chernobyl.