The stage is quiet. A single spotlight shines upon the scuffed wood. The vibrations of footsteps dislodge dust into the beam of light. He stands there, with his hands in his pockets, and looks into the empty seats that will be filled, like every night. He smiles. It's a hero's smile. ***** Henry Alden is nothing special from afar: he's not motivated enough to grab valedictorian or well known enough to score Homecoming king. But what he lacks, he makes up with charisma and humor. He's got a kind of intelligence that only surfaces with his quick wit or perceptive observation. He's akin to a renaissance man, and taught himself to play piano without a single book or an instructor of any sort. The teachers all shook their heads. “He has potential,” they would gossip, “if only he would make something out of himself.” He doesn't. People point fingers at his crowd, his family, his school. He's practically a genius. There must be a reason why he isn't on a one-way street to a Nobel, or at least a Pulitzer. There is a reason, but it's not external. His vices, they come from somewhere. And although he spends his days surrounded by friends and crowds, there's something missing. It's not loneliness, but a kind of dissatisfaction, not with his lot but with himself. He slips up, once. Tells more than he wanted, more than he should to someone who listens with both her ears and her pen. “I don't want to be someone who just exists,” he told her in frustration, “I want to be more than that. I want to be Socrates, Nero, Machiavelli. I want to have an impact.” He forgets he said that years later when he graduates from high school, mostly because it's easier to live with not reaching your goals if you don't have any. *** In February, New York is the loneliest city in the world. The holidays have long gone, the sharp winds still lash at the faces of the travelers, and everyone is bundled up and walks quickly, keeping their eyes down as they rush to their destination. The snow melts into the pavement and dirt, and the black slush slithers into the shoes of those who don't watch their step. Henry has never been here until now, and with the manilla envelope that brought him here tucked under his arm, he darts down the stairs into the subway station. It's no warmer underground, the black slush has claimed this place too, and he shivered as he paid his fare and headed toward the tracks. He subconsciously felt the contents of the envelope to make sure everything was still there, stopping by where the train would be in a few minutes. “This is going to Grand Central, right?” A woman with a lingering southern accent asked. She had light, wispy hair and kind, inquisitive blue eyes that had an intelligent shine to them. She was as much of as a tourist as he was, and it was obvious by the way her coat was too light for the blanket of snow outside. There was a silver bracelet around her wrist with a word he couldn't quite read next to a red symbol. “God, I hope so. Last time I asked that question, I ended up realizing that subway station I was on was actually a ferry station. Ellis Island is beautiful this time of year, though.” She laughed, and her laughter made him smile. “You're a terrible tourist.” “So are you,” he said, nodding his head at a sign a few paces away that said 'TO GRAND CENTRAL.' “I plead the eighth.”
“You plead that the government doesn't impose cruel and unusual punishment or excessive bail?” “Who doesn't?” “Good point,” he said, and she smiled. “You here for business?” He shrugged. “Yeah. You?” “No. I'm switching doctors, and they lost one of my files, so I get to play Sherlock and collect all the clues.” “All you need is a pipe and a Watson.” “Who needs a Watson when you've got a smartphone?” she asked, waving her phone in front of him. The bracelet again. He was about to ask about what was written on it when his phone started ringing. “I do, apparently,” he joked, holding up a fat Samsung that looked like it was from the '90s and stepped a few paces away to answer the phone. “Hello?” A tinny voice over the phone: “Henry! When are you going to get here? We need that package.” He strained to hear, the Subway station making cell phone reception spotty at best. “I'm on my way. Took a bit of a detour.” “You said you left at 10AM. We need you here, oh, I don't know, five minutes ago.” “Really? Good. I made sure to book the time traveling subway.” “That's great. The car'll be waiting for you. Hurry the hell up.” “Yeah, ok. But don't expect – ” A scream echoed in the subway. Henry whirled around to see the soft-spoken Southern belle convulsing on the tracks. A bystander screaming for someone to call the paramedics. The tracks began to rattle. The train was approaching. No one dared jump down from the platform to haul the girl off to safety. Who risks their life for a stranger? What kind of person takes a risk without knowing why a sacrifice is needed in the first place? Who faces danger without first assessing – Henry jumped off the platform. As he landed on the tracks, could feel the metal shaking underneath his feet, hear the whistle of the subway, feel dozens of eyes upon him as the people on the platform collectively gasped. Self-preservation told him to run. Logic told him to get to safety. His brain told him to live. But he knelt down next to the seizing woman. The silver bracelet, the one he had not been able to read earlier, read “EPILEPSY” next to a red medical cross. Engraved was the name and phone number of one “SHAYE MOSER.” “Wake up,” he called to her, but she was too far away. The bystanders were shouting now, “Get off the tracks! The subway is coming!” No emergency brake would save them, this Henry knew. But he couldn't leave her here. Out of the darkness, two bright headlights shined straight at him, eyes of a mechanical animal in the night. The roar of the train made him want to run, to leave her here, there was no time. He was good at running, at being shepherded in the direction of comfort, of familiarity. Danger and risk in measurable doses. Recreation first, consequences later, sacrifice nothing for nobody. Until now. The speeding train was upon them, and he saw a way out. He grabbed her shaking body, held her close, held her still in between a groove in the tracks.... ...and moments later the train screeched to a halt, twenty feet too late. The crowd was in hysterics. The train slowly backed up, and people turned away from the carnage they expected to be splattered on the tracks of the flailing woman and her would-be savior.
But there was no brain matter, no streaks of red. Only two survivors. And a hero. ***** Every respectable news outlet covered his story. He symbolized everything people wanted to see not just on the nightly news, but in their own lives: a man who put himself in the line of fire to protect the helpless. When he sat in the hospital with this Shaye Moser, his thoughts did not go to the manilla envelope that had gotten decimated by the train. The police dismissed the unfamiliar metal pieces on the tracks without a closer look, not bothering to notice the shapes of hundred dollar bills that were outlined in these plates, as if they could just be slipped into a printing press in a warehouse near Grand Central by the shady group that operated from there. Something changed that day when he took on the plight of the underdog. That day was just a jumping off point, a chance for a nation to fall in love with him. The media coverage was just a way to get him noticed, and his true success was only just beginning. Everyone could see what he was capable of. This time, however, he saw it too. Day one begins with a stage that's been waiting his whole life. This dusty theater isn't prepared for a performance, and there are no actors or set pieces. In a few hours, there will be reporters and cameras and attention. But, for now, he sits on the edge of the stage and looks out upon the empty rows. And he smiles. It's a hero's smile.