Fear—something that I thought I had felt before, but hadn't even come close. Not even when Butnick has me in his sights, not when he grabs me by the front of the shirt and promises to kick my butt in wrestling practice Monday evening. Not when I am about to get caught by Mom for doing something stupid. I had never felt true fear before that day in the bank. True fear—that gnawing, festering chill that grinds down your spine, nipping with its icy fangs at your heart. Real fear. The "today is the day I'm going to die" fear. Total. Terror.
I never would have guessed that anything like this would ever happen to me. I mean, come on—I'm fifteen, handsome, funny—most definitely modest—and even though I've been in a few scrapes before (mainly with that bully, Butnick), nothing bad has ever happened to me. Until that day in the bank.
I've been acting really cool about the whole thing. I mean, everyone would think I'm a wimp if they knew how much it scares me. Besides, the nightmares didn't come until the next night—I guess I was just too exhausted to dream the night after it happened. Everyone at school thought I was interesting. I was a "crime victim". All the girls felt sorry for me, and my teachers were treating me like I was someone special…maybe they felt sorry for me. Maybe they were afraid I'd have some sort of a meltdown. Either way, it was pretty cool. It almost made me forget the total, all-consuming, raging fear. Almost.
I just knew I was going to die.
I was already on edge anyway that day. I'd screwed up—big time—by selling my brother's toy gauntlet. I don't know why it's so important to him, but it doesn't matter. Not really. What does matter is that I let him down.
Nobody knows this—most of the time I won't even admit it to myself—but Charlie is my hero. I look up to him—even if I am an inch taller! Charlie and I have a pretty good relationship, I think, as far as brothers go, anyway. I mean, we don't get along all the time—I think we drive Mom crazy sometimes. But he's a good big brother, and even though I do annoy him a lot, I think it's because I look up to him.
Don't ask me how that works. I don't know.
Charlie's seventeen, a Junior, and totally popular. He's a jock, he has lots of friends, and he usually makes good grades—though Mom's been ragging on him for slipping up these past few months. Who wouldn't want to be like him?
Anyway, I felt really bad about selling his toy. And that near-panicked expression on his face when he grabbed my wrists and pulled me toward him, wanting to know if I sold it…he probably thought that he had scared me a little—I guess he did. I wasn't afraid that he was going to hurt me—Charlie would never do that—but that he was going to be so disappointed in me that I wouldn't be able to redeem myself. That would hurt worse than anything.
So I lied. As usual, Mr. Smooth can get himself out of any situation with a few pretend emotions, a couple of hurt expressions, and maybe a bit of charm. At least that's what I thought at the time. Charlie bought it. My confidence bolstered. But I could not get out of any situation with my acting and charm. I found that out a few hours later at the bank.
Of all the times to walk into the bank, I've been finding myself wondering why I walked in when I did. Right in the middle of a robbery—geez, do I have a trouble magnet strapped to my back or something? If I had come in a few minutes earlier, I probably would have been ushered into the vault with everyone else instead of being singled out by Mr. Laser-Wrist. If I had come a few minutes later, he would have locked up the doors and I would have been safely outside the bank.
But no—I walked in right when that robber was bagging the cash—he hadn't forced anybody into the vault yet and hadn't locked the doors. I walked in and saw everyone crouched down. I should have noticed their terrified faces and known something was up. But I was totally blind to the situation.
I almost died that day.
I still can't believe all that happened in the bank after I walked in. When the criminal told me that I had walked in on a bank robbery, the emotions started swirling around so fast that I couldn't breathe. I must have looked pretty stupid, with my jaw hanging slack, sixty-seven dollars and eight cents clutched tightly in one fist, and half of a banana in the other. At least I didn't have banana in my mouth still. That would have been a Kodak moment—although I don't think anyone else really cared what I looked like.
I don't think any of them even cared that I was there.
It was a weird thing to see: a bunch of adults cowering behind desks and chairs and in the corners and on the floor. I don't think a single one of them even gave a second glance at me—the kid that had just waltzed right into a very dangerous situation. They just wanted to save themselves, I guess. And I really wouldn't want anyone to get hurt on my account. But still. It would have been nice if one of them—somebody—would have attempted to help me, or would have at least made eye-contact with me. I was scared stiff and I needed someone to look me in the eyes; I needed to know that someone else was there and that I wasn't alone.
But I was alone. Even in a room full of strangers, I was completely alone.
I wanted my brother.
"Down on the floor, punk!" his voice was filled with so much hatred and anger that I didn't hesitate. I felt my first taste of real terror seeping into my veins then; I knew that this guy was bad, bad news. He was filled with so much sickening bitterness and evil that I knew he wouldn't hesitate killing me if I disobeyed—even if I was just a kid.
So I did what he said and prayed that he would leave me alone. No such luck. As soon as I was stretched out on the achingly cold marble floor of the bank, he stormed over to me. I remember squeezing my eyes shut, willing him to go away. Please don't hurt me, please don't hurt me. I don't care if I was being a coward. I just wanted to be out of there. I didn't want to die.
I wanted my brother.
I think it was Charlie's face in my mind that calmed me down enough not to totally freak and do something stupid—like jump up and start screaming and running in circles. I saw his brown eyes, calm and reassuring."C'mon, Jase. Don't lose it now, bro. If you get yourself killed now, who am I going to play Hero Rising with?"
It was a stupid monologue for me to dream up—but at least my mind's ear had heard his voice and it comforted me. I forced myself to be still.
His foot kicked out. I felt the leather boot skid across the fingers of my hand as I lost the grip on my half-eaten banana. He had kicked it out of my hand—that was low! I am still indignant about that—was that reallynecessary? Why on earth did Mr. Laser-Wrist feel the need to send my banana flying across the floor of the bank? Surely it wasn't because he saw it as a threat—what was I going to do, beat him to death with a bruised banana? Geez. I guess it was just out of spite…which makes it all the worse.
And then came the ultimate insult. He took the money. It's not even the fact that he stole it right from my hand, snatching it away so fast I got a paper cut. It was the knowledge that I had earned that money for Charlie—it was essentially Charlie's money, for his new car. This guy had just robbed my brother. I almost lost it then.
But I forced myself to stay calm. That didn't last long, though—because then I heard that scruffy man say something that made my heart skip a beat as I clenched my eyes shut even tighter—"That's right, keep your eyes closed if you know what's good for you, Banana Boy. You're my insurance."
Insurance? Like…hostage? I felt my stomach drop all the way to my toes. No, I must have heard him wrong. And who knows if he was even talking to me? There could have been another boy with a banana hiding somewhere in the lobby.
Another pang of relentless fear had hit me then, crashing into me in a wave of helplessness.
I wanted my brother.
Then I heard the laser blast. It was so close to me that I swear it singed the hair on my arms. The man was screaming something that at first sounded like meaningless babble in my buzzing head, but soon I realized that he was ordering everyone into the vault. I let out a breath I hadn't known I'd been holding. I started to rise on my hands and knees to obey his orders—and that's when his foot landed on my back.
His foot came down on my back and he applied enough pressure for me to fall flat on my stomach again. "Except you, geek." I heard him say this through ears with blood pounding through them. His foot was still on my back. It wasn't pressing down too hard, but to me, I felt that it was crushing me slowly into the ground. I thought I was going to suffocate then and there. The combined weight of his foot and my agonizingly grinding fear were slowly killing me.
Looking back, I don't know why that scared me so bad. I mean, I've been held down by Butnik before during wrestling. In fact, I've been thrown down, tossed around, jumped on, squished…and I took it all with a wince and some shed dignity. But this—this one crazy guy with one foot resting lightly on my back—it was sending me spiraling into a fear so all-consuming that I thought I was going to be swallowed up by it.
I guess it was because this guy wouldn't hesitate to kill me in a heartbeat if it was beneficial to him. Butnik wouldn't kill me—I don't think that Coach would like his part-time pancake getting squashed for good. He always needs me for another demonstration of my weakness and Butnik's raw, brute, Neanderthal strength. Although I am getting better. I took down Butnik last week. You should have seen the look on his face…
But I digress.
Back to the bank. That crazy laser-wrist freak still had his foot on my spine when I heard him say, "Any cops show up, and you won't live to see your twelfth birthday."
For some reason, I found myself saying, "I-I'm f-fifteen." I don't know why the age was so important to me—the principle of the matter, I suppose. The guy had already stolen my money and essentially, my banana, pinned me to the ground, screamed at me, singled me out to be his hostage, and threatened to kill me. I guess treating me like a child was just another low blow. Then the rest of what he had said set in. If the cops show up, he would kill me. I found myself adamantly wishing for the opposite of what I had just been wishing for—don't let the cops show up, I don't want to die…
My train of thought was very counter-productive, I know. If the cops didn't show up, the guy might kill me anyway. Or take me along with him as he made his escape. But at least I had a chance at surviving if they didn't show. He might just leave me in the bank while he made his escape. I could escape after that. But that wasn't a very likely scenario. I was in a lose-lose situation.
After everyone else was locked up safely in the vault, Mr. Laser-Wrist came back, this time with some blue rope. I wonder what he's going to do with that… I remember musing. I found out soon enough.
You know, in all the spy movies, being tied up doesn't look too bad. It actually seems kind of cool at times—especially when the hero finds some clever way out of the ropes, like using a shard of glass to saw through them or rolling over to something sharp to rub them away.
Let me be the first to break it to you—it is nothing like the movies.
The real fear came when I was completely helpless, unable to move an inch to defend myself.
The bank robber had yanked my arms behind my back and tied my hands together with the rough blue rope. Then he had gone behind me and bound my feet together. It was utterly terrifying, not able to move. I knew that he could do whatever he wanted to and there was nothing I could do about it. I couldn't move.
After just a few seconds, my arms started to ache and my shoulders felt like they were being continually pulled from their sockets. The rope was rubbing into my skin and I was afraid it would leave a mark—if I ever got out of this. I still had my eyes closed and I could feel tears welling up underneath my squeezed shut eyelids.
The real desperation of my situation hit me then, like a knife in the gut. I was alone with a crazy guy that would shoot me with a laser as soon as look at me, I was tied up and couldn't move, and I was completely at his mercy. I was a hostage. I was shaking, I know. This was one situation that Jason Landers wasn't going to get out of on his own.
I wanted my brother.
Charlie always knows how to make everything okay. When I was little, like four years old, my six-year-old brother told me that I didn't have to be afraid. The funny thing is, Charlie used to be afraid of everything. But when it came to me, he said that no matter the odds, no matter what happened, he would protect me. Somehow, when he was defending me, he became fearless. He would do anything to keep the monsters from hurting me. And I believed him. One hundred percent.
I still do, actually. Which was kind of why part of me was pleading for Charlie to come and rescue me. It was an illogical hope, I know—Charlie was out looking for his toy gauntlet and probably hadn't even heard about what had happened at the bank. Even if he had, it was more unlikely still that he would have any idea that I was the hostage in question. In fact, I wondered if anyone knew what was going on here. I hadn't so much as heard a cop car. Maybe he had called the cops and told them he had a hostage and if they came near, they'd kill him. I don't know.
But either way, a part of me was looking for Charlie to come to the rescue. He's done so many times before, even if it takes him a while.
Like when I first joined the wrestling team. Butnik was going to slaughter me. I was getting really upset because Charlie kept bailing on me when I'd asked him to teach me some moves. But then Emma told me that he had a lot on his plate and Charlie himself apologized and told me that his life was more complicated than I'll ever know (I still wonder what he meant by that), and he apologized sincerely and told me how to win the match. He saved me from getting pummeled. I knew he would though. Come through for me in the end. How could he not? He's Charlie.
I don't know how long I laid there, tied up and terrified, my eyes squinted shut as the robber shuffled around the room, gathering all the cash he could find. I remember letting my mind wander, and I thought about the people locked in the vault. I wonder if they had spared me a thought. They were pretty much safe—albeit stuck—while here I was, a fifteen-year-old kid, left alone to face this lunatic's wrath. I didn't want them panicking about me, but it would have been nice to know that one of them cared about what I was going through. I suppose I'll never know, though.
Finally, Mr. Laser-Wrist finished in the lobby and he came over to me. I know that I tensed, which only served to pull my already stretched muscles tighter and cause a streak of pain to shoot through my shoulders and down my arms to my wrists.
I heard his voice, and just the sound of it sent chills down my spine. "I'm going to go clean out the back room—one sound out of you and I'm going to come back and perform laser surgery." Then he smacked me on the back and I heard his retreating footsteps. I was alone.
For all of one minute.
That time with Butnik was not the only time that Charlie saved my butt. I remember the one time I was in life-threatening danger. I had gotten the brilliant idea to dress up as my avatar, Terminus Mag, and dangle from this outrageously high bridge from a rope and pretend to fly. It was all for this BuddyVerse contest, and whoever won got five hundred dollars. I didn't want the money for me; I wanted it so I would have enough money to buy Charlie a new guitar like the one I broke.
Huh, it's odd. It seems nearly every time I put myself in harm's way, it's doing something nice for my brother. The difference here is that Charlie was not here to save me this time. I wasn't mad at him for not being there, though. How could he have known I was in danger?
But that one time…man! That was crazy. He had remarkable timing. Rico and Butnik had left me alone to go get help when they found out I couldn't get back up to the bridge. Charlie arrived right when the rope started to snap. Somehow my big brother managed to lower himself down really quickly from the bridge and grab my hand right as the frayed rope gave.
He saved my life that day.
Like I told him later, the weird thing was, the way he saved me was so cool…like for a second, he was really Aaron Stone. I had laughed it off and joked, "As if."
But that conversation still comes back to haunt me. Even though Charlie isn't really his avatar, his avatar is him. What I mean is, Aaron Stone isn't some superhero that a nerdy kid dreamed up—yeah, yeah, like Terminus Mag—but he is my brother. Aaron Stone is everything that Charlie is. He's brave, strong, fast, athletic…
I don't think Charlie realizes it, but Aaron Stone is my hero. Aaron Stone may not be real, but Charlie is. And Aaron Stone is Charlie. So yes, my big brother is my hero.
Anyway, back to the bank.
I had been lying there alone for like one minute when I heard the sound of feet hitting the floor somewhere behind me. I about jumped out of my skin. It sounded like whoever it was had just jumped from the ceiling or something and landed agilely on the balls of their feet. How do I know what a person sounds like when they jump from a ceiling and land agilely on the balls of their feet? I just do. I'm awesome that way.
But my amazing perceptive skills aren't important right now. What was important is that the next thing I knew, someone had touched my hands. Again, I jumped. I'm not afraid to admit it—I was very tense and terrified.
I didn't know who that person was or what they wanted with me. I felt the hands start attacking the ropes that were wrapped around my hands. I will always remember the relief that washed over me when I realized that someone was helping me. I still kept my eyes shut—I'm not sure why, but I guess I was still too afraid to open them—and said, "Dude—dude, are you freeing me?" there was no answer, but the person was still fumbling with the knots, so I figured that was a yes. "Awesome!" As an afterthought, as I didn't want my rescuer—whoever he or she was—to think I was a wimp, I added, "I didn't get a long look at the robber, but he was big enough to take me down, so he had to be packing some serious muscle."
Again there was no answer. The person was still trying to untie my hands. And then I heard it, and my heart skipped a beat. The robber. He was back. The hands stopped trying to free me. I assumed the person had stood up. The robber said, "Who are you?"
The person's voice was vaguely familiar, but I couldn't place it. "I'm Aa—here arresting you."
Ooookay….that was an odd response. I just hoped this guy was armed, because my good buddy Mr. Laser-Wrist was—armed and dangerous. I kept my eyes squeezed shut.
There was the zap of a laser being fired and a small, muffled explosion as some other kind of weapon was fired. I laid still and tried to make myself as small as possible, hoping not to get hit in the chaos. And then the robber spoke again. "I ain't playing hide and seek with you. But I got another game we can play. It's called you surrender, or this bank starts losing customers." My heart lurched and I knew what was coming next. I tried to brace myself. "Starting with Banana Boy here."
"NOOOOOO!" I was shocked at the amount of emotion thrown into the scream. I figured this person was just here to resolve the hostage situation, but whoever he was seemed to have emotional stock in me. I wondered if he was someone I knew…his voice was achingly familiar…
I don't exactly know what happened next. All I know is that, one minute the robber had the upper hand. The next, he was knocked senseless by the other guy. And that guy—the person who had saved me—was gone. That was very odd. I did hear police sirens outside.
Since my rescuer had loosened the ropes around my wrists considerably, I managed to wriggle free of them and untie my feet. It took me a few minutes to get my equilibrium back, but it didn't take long before I sauntered over to the robber and took my money back. I put on a fearless act, like he hadn't phased me.
It was so a lie.
A week later, I'm still having nightmares. Mom is still worried about me, and so is Charlie—I can tell. Man, when Mom found out what happened, she rushed to the police station so fast that she had to have broken every conceivable speed barrier to get to me. I had been giving my statement and she sat in on the rest of it, crying.
I didn't see Charlie until I got home that night. He didn't say anything. He just hugged me.
That was all it took. I broke down in my big brother's arms and told him everything that I'd kept hidden from Mom and the police officers—my fears and how I was so sure I was going to die that day. I had said something like, "I was kind of hoping you'd show up, Charlie. I mean, I know it was impossible, but I just kept thinking about that promise you made to me when I was four. But I mean, you would've been there to help me if you could have, right?"
Charlie looked very sad for a few minutes, and then answered, "Jason, I swear—if Charlie Landers could have been there to take down the guy and save you, he would have. I-I would die for you, little bro. I need you to know that, okay, Jase? You're my little brother, and I promise, the monsters will never get you."
Now, lying in bed and trying to avoid another nightmare, I start to think. Why had Charlie worded the answer the way he did? If Charlie Landers could have been there… Why didn't he say If I could have been there? That would have made much more sense. And Charlie is a pretty sensible guy. If he was wording his response like that, he was trying to avoid saying something that would make him a liar. I know my brother.
As I contemplate his response, I realize that the only logical explanation is that Charlie was there that day at the bank.
Of course! The guy who saved me, he was obviously trying to disguise his voice—it was Charlie, it had to be him! He didn't want me to know it was him…but why?
It hits me. My mind travels back to the staged fight in the alleyway at the Hero Rising tournament in Chicago that Charlie took me to for my fifteenth birthday. He had been dressed like Aaron Stone, fighting a guy who looked an awful lot like that crazy Hero Rising villain, Elias Powers. At first I had thought the fight was real, but then I had decided that that didn't make sense—Charlie was staging it for my birthday. That, combined with a handful of other times when Charlie has saved me, acted weird, or run off with no explanation…
It wasn't staged.
Charlie really had been fighting Elias Powers in the alley.
I was right that one day at the bridge. Except it wasn't like Charlie was Aaron Stone.
Charlie is Aaron Stone.
It was Charlie that saved me in the bank!
I sit up in bed, my heart pounding. I can't believe it; but it's true. I know it is—I can feel it. Everything—Hero Rising, Aaron Stone, the Omega Defiance—is real. But why didn't Charlie tell me?
Emma and Mr. Stan were in on everything too; now that I look back, I can see that they were trying to help him cover it up—I bet even Vas and Ram knew too! Why was I left out of the loop?
And then it all becomes clear—if I know, I could be in danger. It's like that all the time with superheroes—if your family knows your true identity, they will be more likely to be targeted by the bad guy. Charlie has been protecting me. I suddenly have a whole new level of respect for my brother—if that is even possible!
I lay back down. I'm not going to bring this up to Charlie tonight. Maybe not even tomorrow. He has had a good reason for keeping the truth from me, and maybe I should let him tell me in his own time, if he ever tells me at all…
I don't know. I'll figure it out in the morning. Until then, I don't think I'll be able to sleep. My brother is Aaron Stone. How wicked awesome is that!
Regardless of whether Charlie is Aaron in the game or real life, though, the fact remains that it's Charlie who will always be my hero. I've been saying that Aaron Stone is my hero, but now I know: Aaron Stone is awesome—a real life superhero and the coolest avatar ever—but Charlie is my brother. He's the best big brother a guy could ask for.
Aaron Stone or no Aaron Stone, Charlie Landers is my hero. And come what may, I don't think that is ever going to change.