So I slide onto the barstool, and Jill says, "Digger! I haven't seen you in a while. Been out fighting crime? Or was it monsters?"
"Lawyers," I say. "Long story. I told you, I'm retired from the superhero business."
"Right," she says. "So who's your friend?"
"This is Dave," I say, and then, noticing the way Jill's looking at him, I add, "And he's way too young for you."
"Is he?" Jill says. I can't blame her for looking. Dave's a good-looking guy. Better-looking than me, although that's not saying much. "So Dave, do you have an ID?" she asks.
Dave looks panicked for a second and says, "Uh."
"It's cool, Jill," I say. "He turns twenty-one today. I promised that I would buy him his first beer on his twenty-first birthday, and it's important that I keep that promise, so could you just bring us two beers? Please?"
"Oh, you're vouching for him, so that makes it okay? It's my liquor license on the line, you know," she says.
"Just bring the beers," I say. "I promise, there won't be any problem."
"And you keep your promises," she says.
Jill brings us each a mug and draws one for herself. "First one's on me," she says. "Happy birthday."
"Thanks," Dave says.
"No, first one's on me," I say, gently moving Dave's mug to the side. I'd hate to accidentally knock over the kid's first beer with the Driller Beam Generator grafted onto my wrist. They're such a pain in the ass, sometimes. I swear to God, someday I'm just going to cut 'em off with a hacksaw. The only reason I haven't so far is then I'd have to change my name, and I wouldn't know what to call myself. "I told you, I made a promise."
"What's so important about this promise?" Jill asks.
"Long story," I say.
"Tell her," Dave says.
"You sure?" I ask.
"Sure, I don't mind," he says. "It's a good story, and she wants to hear it. You want to hear it, don't you?" he asks Jill.
Jill nods, because of course, she wants to hear anything I don't feel like telling her.
"Okay," I say. "So I was eating this burger. This was back in L.A., what, eight years ago, when I was working solo before we formed GoDS 2.0."
"The ones who died," she says.
"Yeah, them," I say. "So like I said, I was at Tommy's eating this burger. Tommy's was like a local legend. They made the most disgusting chili burgers on earth. Absolutely fantastic.
"So I'm standing outside, because there is no dining room. I take a bite of this burger and get chili all over my face. And they don't have napkins there, just these paper towel dispensers mounted to the walls like you'd find in a public restroom. So I'm reaching for this paper towel, and suddenly, my burger's gone. Just snatched right out of my hand.
"I look around to see who took my burger, and everybody's looking up. So I look up, and there, sitting on the roof, holding my burger, is this big, green monkey."
"A monkey," Jill says. I nod. "And it's green."
"What I said. And he's just sitting there looking at me, like 'Yeah, I took your burger. What are you going to do about it?' Cause he doesn't know how high I can jump, right? So I jump up there after him, and he screeches and throws the burger at me. Hits me right in the face. Chili everywhere."
Jill suppresses a giggle.
"Yeah, real funny. So I'm up on the roof, wiping the chili out of my eyes. I look around, and now he's on the other end of the building, still screeching at me."
"So what did you do?" Jill asks.
"What was I supposed to do? I couldn't leave this monkey running around loose. I went after him. He tried to get away, but I'm, you know, really fast, so before he could take two steps, I had him pinned down with my hand around his scrawny little neck."
"Aw," Jill pouts.
"Don't feel sorry for him," I say. "Because now he was pissed off, and the next thing you know, his eyes glow green and he zaps me with this eyebeam that sends me flying."
"Well, I hope it hurt," Jill says. "Picking on a poor little monkey."
"It didn't feel good," I say. "So he takes off down the street, and I go after him. I spot this trashcan, one of those heavy, steel barrels. I grab it and take this huge leap, fifty feet, easy. I come down right on top of him. Slam! Barrel o' monkey.
"And by the way, whoever came up with that phrase, 'More fun than a barrel of monkeys,' oughta' be bitchslapped, because I had one, and it was no fun at all. The monkey's screeching and slamming and banging inside this thing, and then I hear the eyebeams start zapping, and these dents start popping out like big metal zits. Poink-poink-poink! But the barrel stays in one piece, so I figure it's over. I've got him.
"And then something lands on my head and starts screeching and pulling my hair."
"Another one?" Jill asks.
"Exactly. I grab it by the scruff of the neck and peel it off my head, and it's snarling and spitting, and then its eyes start to glow. Well, I know what's coming next, so I say to myself, 'I don't care if it is an endangered species,' and I spike it like a football."
"Poor monkey," Jill says, pouting.
"Yeah, poor monkey," I say. "So then something zaps me from behind, and I turn around, and there's three more of the things. And I'm like, 'How many of these green, radioactive space monkeys are there?' Then the barrel goes FOOMP! Fifty feet straight up into the air, and now that one's loose, and they all take off down the street."
Jill looks at Dave and asks, "Do you ever show up in this story?"
"Not for a while," Dave says.
"'Kay." She turns back to me. "Go ahead."
"All right, so I'm chasing these things down the street, and there's more showing up all the time, so now there's like ten of them. I have no idea how I'm supposed to wrangle all these space monkeys, and right about then is when this dude comes swooping down out of the sky, wearing this blue costume with a big yellow star on his chest."
"Another hero," Jill says.
"Guy named Astro," I say. "I'd run into him a few times before, back when GoDS 1.0 was still together. He would be fighting this monster—that was his thing, fighting these random space monsters—and we'd show up to help out. I thought he was okay, but the other guys didn't like him much."
"Why not?" Jill asks.
"Well, he was kind of a dork. No offense," I say, turning to Dave. Dave waves it off. "He didn't seem all that bright, and he could be a show-off at times. Like, we'd be fighting this monster, and I'd look over at him, and he'd shoot me this cocky little grin, like 'Watch this shit,' and then he'd pull the craziest damn stunt you ever saw. Hell of it is, it'd usually work. Then the monster would dissolve to nothing, cause that's what space monsters do when they die, apparently, and just as we'd start to clean up the mess, Astro would get this 'emergency call' and disappear. Turn to light and fly away."
"Turn to light?" Jill says.
"Yeah, that was his other deal, turning to light. We might've tried to follow him, except, you know, speed of light. Hard to keep up. Anyway, he'd take off and leave us with the mess, and the other guys kind of resented him for it. It got to where, after a while, I was the only who'd even respond to 'Astro alerts' anymore. It was almost like I was his only friend."
"I see," Jill says.
"So he comes swooping down out of the sky, and he's got this stop sign that he's yanked out of the ground somewhere, and he's popping these monkeys on the head with it. And the monkeys are running every which way. Like, you ever see North by Northwest? When the biplane's chasing Cary Grant? Kinda' like that, only with, you know, green monkeys.
"So now we've got to figure out what to do with all these unconscious monkeys. I grab a tarp from this nearby construction site and start wrapping them up. At some point, this cop pulls up and sees me with this tarp full of monkeys slung over my shoulder like Santa Claus. I start to say something like, 'Officer, I'm glad you're here. We've got these monkeys.'
"And he says, 'You've got monkeys? Where've you been? Everybody's got monkeys! There's hundreds of them popping up all over the city! We got 'em in Santa Monica heading east. They're in Hollywood heading south. They're in Watts heading north.'
"'Like they're converging on one central point,' I say.
"And by this time, Astro's there listening in, and he gets this startled look on his face, and says, 'I know where they're going. Grab onto my back.'
"I drop the tarp and wrap my arms around his neck. The cop starts yelling about the stop sign being city property, so Astro drops that, too, and we take off. We get about twenty feet up, and the cop goes, 'Hey!'
"We look down, and the cop's got the tarp unfolded, and it's empty. Just a little green mist drifting up from the fabric. The cop looks up at us and says, 'I thought you said you had monkeys.'
"I open my mouth to tell him we did, but Astro says, 'Let's go,' and shoots straight up into the air. Did I ever mention I hate flying?"
"Yes," Jill says.
"I hate it," I say. "So we're flying around up there, and now I'm glad I didn't get the chance to eat any more of my chili burger, because just the smell from my shirt is making me want to hurl. I'm hanging on tight, and I'm scared to death that Astro will turn his head and smile at me, like 'Watch this shit,' and then start doing barrel rolls or something. But he just says, 'Look,' and points down, and there's hundreds of green space monkeys down there. And if you know anything about L.A. traffic at the best of times, you can imagine the mess. We get past the worst of it, and then we come down into this neighborhood, and we land in front of this little house.
"We walk up to the front door, and Astro knocks, and a couple of seconds later, this woman answers. Mid-thirties, shabbily dressed. Red eyes, like she'd been crying. She looked exhausted. Just worn out in general. And she looks up at Astro, and she gets this look on her face, like she's seen a ghost, and she says, 'Davey?'"
Jill looks at Dave. "So you're Astro?"
Dave shakes his head. "It's complicated."
I keep talking. "So Astro walks past this woman without a word, right into the house, and I follow him because, what else am I gonna' do? We walk through this living room, and there's all these pictures, like family portraits. Mom, Dad, little kid. And the mom is the woman who answered the door, only less tired. And the dad looks kinda' like Astro. Older, but similar.
"We head to the back of the house, and we go into this bedroom, and it's like walking into a hospital. There's a bed with rails, and monitoring equipment, and IV's, and there in the bed is this kid. I say 'kid,' turns out he was 13, but he was tiny, you know, frail, like a stick. And he looks like he could be Astro's kid brother. And he's fast asleep.
Jill looks at Dave. "So you were the kid in the bed?"
"Hey, who's telling the story?" I say. "Don't skip to the end. The woman says, 'Don't touch my Davey!' Astro ignores her, still, looks at me and says, 'This is Davey Lopez. He's been in a coma for six years. The monkeys are coming after him. We have to protect him.'
"Well, the woman starts freaking out, like 'What are you talking about, monkeys?' And we're heading back to the front of the house, and Astro suggests weapons might be a good idea, since he lost the stop sign. So I head out to the garage and grab a shovel, because I'm, you know, Digger, and I come out into the front yard, and the woman's really freaking out, because Astro's out there holding her couch. He looks at me and says something like, 'The bigger, the better.' The woman's having a total cow, and then the monkeys start appearing down the street, and the woman shuts up and runs inside.
"So then we start fighting monkeys. Some of them are small, like the ones we fought before, and some are big, like baboon size. I run out and fire up the Driller Beam Generators on my wrists. I dig this big trench and throw up the dirt on one side for a barrier, but the monkeys just swarm right over, and I swear to God I am not making this up, some of them shoot flames out their butt and fly over."
"No way," Jill says.
"They had an air force, swear to God," I say. "So I'm running back and forth, smacking monkeys with a shovel, and Astro's flying overhead, swinging at the flying ones with a couch. And it's like, did you ever see Zulu? Where there's like fifty British troops fighting five thousand African warriors? Same damn thing. They were everywhere. It was hopeless.
"So I look up to see if Astro has any ideas, only I can't see him. No Astro, no couch. Just this big, green, crawling lozenge that slams into the ground. Astro's lying in this shallow crater, covered with biting, pounding monkeys, and he's not moving. I run over there, and I dig the Driller Beam Generators into the ground and blast this huge wave of dirt and rock that knocks the monkeys off of him for a moment. Then I go in swinging the shovel, and the monkeys back off.
"I look down, and Astro's in bad shape. His clothes are torn up. He's bleeding from like a hundred bites. I kneel down and help him sit up and say, 'Are you okay?'
"And he says, real quiet, 'I give up.'
"I wasn't sure I heard him right, so I asked him what he said, and he says it again. 'I give up.' I asked him what he meant, and he said, 'Why keep fighting? They're going to win someday. Might as well be today. What am I staying around for? I might as well take off, just like he did. Just like everybody will, eventually.'
"And I'm like, 'What are you talking about?'
"And he looks up at me, and he says, 'I'm tired.' And then he fades away. Dissolves into smoke."
"What?" Jill asks.
"Gone. And I realize the monkeys are leaving me alone, and I turn around, and the house is just covered with them. They're tearing at the walls, pounding on the roof. So I go running toward the house, and I fire up the Driller Beams and dive under ground, come up in the living room. I run back to Davey's room, and the walls are shaking, and Mrs. Lopez is leaning over the bed, screaming hysterically, and the kid's just sleeping through it all.
"The woman's screaming at me, 'Make it stop! Make it stop!' And I don't know what to do. I mean, you can only beat up so many monkeys. So I ask her, 'Mrs. Lopez, do you have a gun?'
"She looks at me like I'm crazy and asks, 'What?'
"'A gun,' I say, 'do you have a gun in the house? Maybe if we shoot a couple, it'll scare the others away.' Which probably wouldn't work, but it would give her something to do other than scream, and besides, I was desperate, because at this point, the walls are cracking apart and dust is coming down from the ceiling.
"So she says, 'Davey's dad had a gun, I think, but I don't know where he hides it.'
"'Well, can we call him?' I ask.
"She says, 'I don't know where he is! He left us!'
"I'm all, 'What do you mean?' and she says, 'Fifteen years of marriage, and yesterday, he says he can't take it anymore. I'm tired, he says. I give up, he says. And then he just leaves. I don't know where he is!'
"And that's when I figured it out. Astro wasn't Davey, but he was a part of Davey. Like some fantasy of what Davey wanted to be, made real somehow. The monkeys, too. I don't know what they were, some manifestation of his illness, or maybe just his depression from his father leaving. Maybe every random space monster Astro ever fought was some manifestation of Davey's struggle for life. Only every time up to now, Astro had won, and this time, he had given up, because Davey was giving up. And as soon as those monkeys got hold of Davey, he would die.
"So I grabbed the kid and I said, 'Stop it, Davey. Make them stop. I know you're tired, but I also know you want to live, because if you didn't, the monkeys would have just appeared inside your room, instead of coming here from all over town. If you didn't want to live, you wouldn't have sent Astro to fight them, and you wouldn't have had him bring me here to fight for you. So just STOP IT!'
"Which worked as well as saying 'Just stop it' ever works. The ceiling tore open, and the walls crumbled, and monkeys came swarming in from all directions. Mrs. Lopez fell down screaming, and I grabbed Davey, tore out the IV tube, and went in the only direction I could, straight down.
"So I'm carrying this kid who weighs like, nothing, like forty pounds, like he's stuffed with feathers, and I'm running as fast as the Driller Beams can carve a path for me, but I know it's hopeless. I can't outrun them. My only hope, Davey's only hope, is to get him alone and maybe talk some sense into him, which, you know, is probably impossible, but I had to give it one last try.
"So I turned back toward the surface and burst up into a yard on the far side of the street. And the monkeys were there, waiting for me. So I jumped, as high and as far as I could, over their heads, hit the roof of the house, then dropped into the back yard and took off running.
"Did you ever see Ferris Bueller's Day Off? The bit at the end where he's racing his sister home? It was like that. I'm jumping over fences, getting chased by dogs, bouncing off trampolines. And then I see what I'm looking for.
"It's this shed for garden tools. Aluminum. Flimsy. I dive in there and wedge the door shut with a rake. I put the kid on the floor, and I cover his body with mine, while the monkeys are outside, hooting and screeching and pounding on the walls. It was like, did you ever read that story, "The Monkey's Paw"? Where the parents are huddled inside the house while the storm is raging, and there's this pounding on the door?
"It was like that, only with hundreds of monkeys' paws, and green eyebeams ripping through the walls overhead. And I just put my head down and started babbling into Davey's ear. I don't even remember what I said."
"Yes, you do," Dave says. "You said you'd promised Astro you'd protect me, so if they wanted to kill me, they had to kill you first. And you didn't want to die with chili on your shirt."
"Oh yeah, I did say something like that," I say. "And then I said, 'Don't kill me today. Give me one more day. I promise you, it won't look as bad tomorrow as it does today, and even if it does, it won't look that bad the next day. Just one more day. If you can make it through one more day, you can make it through one more week, and before you know it, I'll be buying you a beer on your twenty-first birthday. In fact, I promise I'll buy you your very first one. What do you say? I could really use that beer, kid. Come on, you owe me, you already ruined my burger!'
"And then the pounding stopped. Silence.
"I stood up, and I looked out through the holes in the wall, and it was just solid green monkeys, as far as the eye could see, covering everything like Astro-turf. And none of them were moving.
"So I opened the door, and I picked the kid up, and I stepped outside. And the monkeys are dissolving, one by one, into green mist, just like Astro had. I walk out of the yard, into the street, and there's more monkeys and more mist, until there's just a few stragglers left. And off in the distance, I can see one big monkey running, like he's coming late to the party, and he's carrying something, but I can't tell what. And he comes up and sits down right in front of me, and he holds out his paw and hands me this Tommyburger.
"There was a dried leaf stuck in the chili, but I ate it anyway. It was good."
Jill doesn't say anything for a while, just looks back and forth from Dave to me to Dave. And then she asks him, "Is that really what happened?"
Dave shrugs. "Hell if I know. I was asleep."
Jill picks up her mug and salutes with it. "Well, then, here's to you, Dave. May you never mess with another monkey in your life."
"What about me?" I ask. "I did most of the work."
"Yeah, but you need to get messed with every now and then." We all clink mugs, and Jill and I sip.
"So," Jill says, wiping a darling little fleck of foam from her lip, "was that the day you came out of the coma?"
Dave looks at me, flashes me this grin I haven't seen in years. A cocky little grin that says, Watch this shit. "Who said I did?" he asks, and then he fades clean away.
Gone, like smoke.
Jill's jaw drops. I reach over and snag Dave's beer. Shame to let a good beer go to waste.