by Martin Maenza
Chula Vista, California, a small suburban community nestled between San Diego and the border to Mexico:
A two-and-a-half-story, brick-faced home sat toward the back of a gated community. An unfamiliar black coupe was parked out front when Judge Joshua Crockett pulled the Lincoln into the driveway. “Hmm,” the black man pondered aloud. The license plate clearly identified the vehicle as a rental car.
“Looks like we’ve got some company, Dad,” the well-dressed fourteen-year-old sitting in the passenger seat said. “I wonder who it is.”
“Not sure, son,” the judge replied as he parked the car and turned off the motor. “Let’s go find out.” He reached into the back seat and handed the youth his backpack. “Oooh, that’s a pretty heavy load there. Studying for finals at the library?”
“Nope, I’m all ready for those,” the handsome young man replied. “Time to get planning my summer reading.”
Judge Crockett grabbed his black leather briefcase. “That doesn’t feel like paperback books to me, Isaiah.”
The young man laughed as they headed up the walk. “They’re not. Just a few books on chemistry and physics. Figured I’d get a jump on stuff for next year and try for the advance placement science classes.”
The judge smiled. He was proud to have a son so interested in his future. Sometimes, though, he wished the boy would take a break, unwind, and just enjoy being a kid. To his father, Isaiah Crockett seemed like he was in such a rush to grow up.
They stepped into the front foyer. Isaiah immediately went to put his books away. “Celia,” the judge called out, “we’re home.”
A young girl around five years old came running to greet them. “Daddy, Daddy!” she said in an excited voice. “We got visit’rs!”
He scooped down and gave the girl a great big hug. “Really, Nikki?” the father asked. “Who is it?”
“A nice man and a pretty lady with red hair,” the young girl said, taking his hand. “Quick, come see!” She led her father into the living room where his wife was sitting. A black man in his mid-twenties and a beautiful red-haired woman sat on the couch near her. “See, here they are!”
“I see,” the father said as he made his way over to the couch. The two visitors stood. “Hello, I’m Joshua Crockett.” He shook their hands as a way of introduction.
“Honey, this is Malcolm Duncan and Lilith Clay,” his wife Celia said. “They’re the ones who called last week.”
A glimmer of recognition hit the judge’s eyes. “Yes, from Los Angeles?”
“Yes, sir,” said Lilith. “So glad you could take the time to see us.”
“Yes, thank you,” added Mal. “We came to talk to you about your son.”
“I see,” the judge said, taking a seat. “And have they met Audrey yet?” He was asking his wife about their house guest.
Celia shook her head no. “Not yet,” she replied. “They wanted to talk to us first before they talked to her and Isaiah.” The judge nodded. That seemed like a sensible thing to do.
Up the coast in San Diego at the apartment of Dr. Sarah Charles, the scientist scurried about the kitchen while her coworker sat nearby watching. “Are you sure I can’t help with anything, Sarah?” Karen Duncan asked.
“Got it under control,” the black scientist called from the kitchen. “This pasta salad takes no time at all to put together. You just relax now that you’ve got a night to yourself.”
Karen leaned back in her chair and sipped a beer. “On nights when the club’s closed, I feel like I have to hurry home and take care of Mal,” the dark-skinned woman said to the blonde sitting across the way. “Sometimes it’s nice to have a break when he’s out of town.”
“Oh,” said Frances Kane, who had been staying with Dr. Sarah Charles since her arrival in the city last week. “Why’s he out of town?”
“Some business for Loren Jupiter,” Karen explained, “related to the Titans.” After she said it, she realized that was a touchy subject around the young blonde.
“Oh,” Frances said flatly and quickly picked up a magazine to thumb through it. Her actions were obvious to someone with the keen observation skills that Karen possessed.
Frances had showed up in California unexpectedly last week at STAR Labs. The young woman claimed her reasons for coming were related to problems with her magnetic powers acting up on expectedly, and the two women scientists were in the process of researching that problem now. But by her actions, it was obvious that something personal was bugging Frances. That something, one could surmise by her curtness and avoidance of certain subjects, had something to do with her boyfriend the Flash and the New Titans team on the East Coast.
Karen got up and moved to the kitchen area where Sarah was draining the pasta. “How’s she doing?” Sarah asked as shells hit the metal colander. Steam rose into the air.
Karen flipped on the fan over the stove, in part to clear the air and in part to mask their conversation. “Not good,” she replied in a lowered voice. “Still moping and still being very guarded. Something’s going on with her and Wally.”
“We can’t force it out of her,” Sarah said. “We’ll just have to hope she feels she can open up to us.”
Back at the Crocketts’ home, Celia led the way down to the finished basement area with Lilith following behind her. “She’s down here, Miss Clay,” the mother said as they moved down the wooden stairs. “We set her up with the sofa bed and spare television so she could have a little privacy.” Celia leaned in a bit closer. “She tends to watch a lot all day. It keeps her occupied and helps her forget about her condition.”
Lilith glanced over at the couch. There, gazing intently at the glow of the screen, was a young girl around thirteen years of age or so. She had angled features and was dressed in a large T-shirt and shorts. What stood out the most about the girl in appearances was her complexion: her entire body — face, arms, hands, and hair — was all a see-through crystal texture. “I see,” Lilith said to Celia. “Would it be all right if I talked to her for a few minutes?”
“Sure,” Celia said. She would do anything to help the poor girl whom they’d taken into their home. “Audrey, honey,” she called out to the girl, who then looked over when her name was called. “Audrey, this is Miss Clay. Can she talk to you for a few minutes?”
The young girl shrugged her shoulders slightly. “Sure,” she said meekly, “I guess…” She recognized the red-haired woman from their previous encounter, back on New Cronus when the New Titans had stumbled upon Lord Chaos. (*)
Celia left the two alone. Lilith made her way over to the couch. “May I sit down?” she asked. Audrey nodded slightly. The red-haired woman glanced around the wood-paneled room. She noted that it lacked the usual things she’d expect in a thirteen-year-old girl’s room — posters of boys in bands, teen and fashion magazines, et cetera. “You have a nice room here.”
“It’s OK,” Audrey said. “The Crocketts are real nice folks.”
“They are,” Lilith agreed. “What are you watching?”
“It’s the Lorna Leed Show,” the young girl said, referred to the black-and-white program on the screen. “It’s the one where their daughter, Princess, got asked to the dance by two boys. Both of them are really nice, so she’s having a hard time deciding which one to go with.”
Lilith noted that she perked up a bit when talking about the show. “I remember this show,” she said. “I used to watch it when I was growing up. You like the older shows?”
“Yeah,” Audrey said, her eyes transfixed to the screen. “They’re much nicer than some of the newer ones.”
Lilith nodded in agreement. “I’m with you there.” The two sat quietly for a few moments while the antics played out on the screen. Then she took the young girl’s hand gently and asked, “So… how are you doing, really?”
Audrey turned to Lilith, and a tear slowly ran from her eyes down her smooth cheek. Lilith took her into a hug and held the girl tightly as she started to cry. “Shhh, it’s OK,” she told Audrey softly. “It’s OK. You let it out.” She rocked the girl gently. “We’re here to try and help you.”
Upstairs, Mal sat with Isaiah Crockett and his father. “Son, can you fill me in a little bit about what went down when you all returned from New Cronus?” the Titan asked the youth.
Isaiah looked to his father, who gave him a reassuring nod. “Yes, sir,” the youth said, and he began his tale.
The sun had just gone down as we all stood around the pool area of some rich guy’s estate. I believe he was the stepfather to the green-skinned Titan named Changeling. Funny guy, that Changeling. While his teammates set about the task of contacting our families, those of us who had families to contact, he’d offered to play host to us.
“You guys can crash here for the night,” the shape-shifting Titan said. “It’ll be like a great big slumber party!”
The blonde-haired Cody Driscoll, whose code name was Risk when dressed in this green uniform, took the whole place in with a low whistle. “Sounds good to me!” he said, eyeing the mansion and its well-manicured lawn and topiary gardens. “This place come with room service?”
“Sure,” Changeling replied. “I can have the cook whip us up something later. Anything you guys like.”
Prysm bent down near the pool’s edge, gently touching its shimmering surface with her crystalline finger. The red-haired, winged Carrie Levine approached her. “You like swimming?” Redwing asked.
“Don’t know,” Prysm replied. “Never tried it.”
“Hey! That’s a great idea!” Changeling said, transforming into a kangaroo and leaping across the width of the pool in a single leap. “Let me hop right down to the pool house and get you all some bathing suits! We keep spares around for those impromptu urges.” He glanced at both Mirage and Argent and grinned. He must have figured that things always got more fun when everyone was in swimwear and hopped off.
“I’ll pass,” said the pale-faced, dark-haired Nightrider grimly. Until now he had been inside avoiding the sunlight.
“On the swimming?” I asked.
“On this whole thing, Joto!” the vampire snapped, his fangs showing. “After a couple years being captive and manipulated by Chaos for his own mad scheme, the last thing I want to be is under someone else’s thumb!” In an instant, he transformed to a bat in a puff of smoke. “You guys hang around if you want, but I’m gone!” The creature flew off into the evening sky heading east.
“Dagon! Wait!” the pale-skinned Argent called out. But he paid her no mind and was soon gone. She looked a bit concerned as he flew off.
“Oh, too bad,” taunted Mirage, the dark-haired beauty from Brazil. “Toni’s little Gothic eye-candy went bye-bye.”
“Shut up, Mirage!” Argent said.
“Who’s gonna make me?” Mirage replied. “You? I don’t think so!”
“Ladies, please don’t fight,” I said, trying to avoid another cat fight between these two.
“Stay out of this, hot-shot!” Mirage snapped. “This is between me and whitey here!”
Suddenly, there was the sound of a bounce on the diving board, followed by a “Yahooo!” yell and a big splash. Everyone turned instantly to the pool, where Risk was now swimming around.
“Is he…?” Prysm asked, embarrassed.
“I think so,” Redwing replied with a slight smile.
Argent bit her lip as the girls all watched Cody swimming around the pool in the buff. “Um… maybe you should have, like, waited for a bathing suit,” she said, though she wasn’t minding the view.
“Forget that!” Cody replied. “Gotta take life by the horns and go for it! You don’t get anywhere waiting around for stuff to come to you!” He started to dive under, his bottom mooning those of us around the pool. I turned my head, realizing that these guys were setting a very bad example.
Mirage caught Argent staring. “Hey, pasty!” she said, shoving the other girl. “Eyes off my man! Got it?”
Argent threw her hands to her hips. “Oh, and what makes you think he’s your man? Since when is his type all freaky yellow-eyed and bitchy?”
“Hah!” Mirage laughed. “Girl, I can be any type of woman he wants!” With a mere thought, her appearance changed to that of a gorgeous swimsuit model, then that of well-endowed actress, then to Starfire of the New Titans, and back to her original appearance. “That’s way more than you can ever offer anyone, kitten!”
Argent fumed while Mirage headed for the pool to join Risk.
“So, the vampire known as Nightrider took off?” Mal asked. “Any idea where?”
“No clue,” Isaiah said. “David, that’s his real name, often spoke of growing up in Europe. Places like London and Paris and such. Maybe he has roots there or something. In any case, by the time Changeling returned and found out he was missing, there was no real way to track him down.”
“That’s too bad,” Mal said. He had hoped that maybe there was a way to track the missing youth, but that bridge was washed out. “No matter. Let’s talk more about you, Isaiah.”
“What do you want to know?” the teen eagerly asked.
“About your powers,” Mal said. “‘Joto’ is Swahili for heat, right?”
“It is! I can generate waves of heat and such. They’re strong enough to melt objects when I concentrate on them.”
“Impressive,” Mal said. “But probably something you’d need a little help working with and controlling, am I right?”
Isaiah turned to his father. Joshua Crockett answered. “Ever since he returned back home to us, he’s been very careful not to use his abilities. We had hoped they’d fade away, but that does not seem the case.”
Mal nodded. “Whatever Chaos did to these kids, he changed them. The big question is, does Isaiah want to try and put them to a better use?”
“What do you have in mind, sir?” the youth asked.
Celia looked to her son. “We were thinking that maybe, at least for part of the summer, that you and Audrey might like to go up to Los Angeles with Mr. Duncan and Miss Clay.”
Isaiah’s eyes grew wide. “Really?”
Downstairs, Prysm looked at Lilith as she wiped her tears away. “Really?”
Lilith nodded. “Yes, really. You and Isaiah could come up for a while, live in a beautiful skyscraper that overlooked the city, and it would allow you to have a little time out and about.”
“Like summer camp?” the crystal girl asked. “Teddy on What About Woodchuck used to go to camp.”
Lilith smiled at the reference. “Just like camp,” she said. “And maybe we can get some old friends and new friends there for you to meet as well.”
“Golly,” the girl said, “that’d sure be swell!”