Toll Booth Ninja part 1

The exam went okay. It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be, but I still didn’t finish. Spent too much time making dumb mistakes involving Bresenham’s Algorithm. *sighs* The next two days will still be difficult and labor-intensive, but at least my brain’s back.

Anyway. Up next is a portion of a story I wrote last semester. It was written as part of a short story workshop, but I’d had the idea for a long time. In fact it’s within the continuity of “Cathy, Queen of Evil.”

Actually, I’m still not sure what to do with the concept of “Cathy.” My art has significantly improved over the last three years, to the point where I could probably start a webcomic and be happy with the way it looks. However, this story made me interested in pulling off “Cathy” in the written word instead. Despite the fact that it’s difficult to pull off a good written superhero story. None of the those I’ve read so far have even come close to being good. I think it can be done, though, and I’m willing to keep trying. Should I ever decide to try this method, I’d probably use a format like a series of short stories, sort of like a collection of comic issues. Since Cathy’s story interacts with those of other supers (Gatekeeper, Pyrobelle, and of course, Toll Booth Ninja), there would be ‘issues’ which follow those characters as well. The idea makes me happy, but again, I realize how hard it is to pull off good superhero prose.

Without further ado, here’s part one of “Toll Booth Ninja.”

***

“Ninja”: a member of a feudal Japanese society of mercenary agents, highly trained in martial arts and stealth (ninjutsu), who were hired for covert purposes ranging from espionage to sabotage and assassination.

~ Dictionary.com Unabridged v. 1.1

Most ninjas live until they die. Some a little bit longer, some a little bit shorter. It just really depends on how much metaphor they apply to the idea of life.

~ “Ask A Ninja,” Question 49

When combing the stacks of newspapers in the library, one invariably finds the kind of headlines that set states on fire.  As you go back through the months, the sad white has turned to yellow, as though marking with their bodies all the households where coffee spilled and bladders itched with fear, where rust was shaken from the door locks and last wills and testaments dug up from dusty file cabinets.  The tension comes and goes with time, but the newspapers remember, and yellow themselves with self-importance.

Newspapers’ headlines reveal one such story.  First, from a few months back: “Highway Sniper Kills Two.”  No one really paid attention at first; they were all too busy gossiping about the heroine Angel, who was rumored to be exchanging banter of a flirtatious manner with her archnemesis.  But then the sniping continued: “Sniper Kills One, Causes Pile-Up” and “Sniper Strikes Again, No Pattern Found.”  The ashes of everyday comfort smoldered.  Angel’s dating habits flew to the periphery in exchange for hopeful slogans and tight-lipped police spokesmen, who might have preferred to be asked about their own extramarital affairs and secret dramas.   Only a month ago, hope finally beginning to surface: “Nick Hartley Sought in Sniping Case” and “Hartley Believed on the Run, Reward Offered.”

What about yesterday?  There is a suitable copy of the relevant article hidden under the briefs and socks of one Mr. Jacob Gruen.  He is a very nice young man; in his mid-twenties and already called to the noble profession of toll collector.

Jacob is perfectly placed to note the tension that carried the motor vehicles through those days.  He sits for eight hours in a glorified refrigerator box, so covered in grime that even he can’t tell what color it was originally.  He takes tolls; he hands out change.  He talks to people: about their day, about the weather.

A normal transaction might go like this:

Scene 1

(Setting: a grubby little tollbooth inside which Mr. Jacob Gruen waits.  He has mousy brown hair which he tends to ruffle when bored, and as a result he looks vaguely like he just rolled out of bed.  Besides this habit, there is nothing remarkable about him except for his bright orange reflector vest.  As the scene opens, a rickety four-door – one axle – pulls upCustomer 1 is inside.  He sticks his head out the window.)

Customer 1:  How much is the toll?

Gruen:  A dollar fifty, sir.

C1:  Great, just great. (Sticks head back in car.) Luann, hon, you got any quarters?  (Addresses Gruen again.) Just a moment.  So what’s traffic like ahead?

G:  I don’t know.  (Gruen is asked this an average of forty three times a day.  He rolls his eyes, but is otherwise perfectly bland.)

C1:  Great, great.  (Hands a crumpled bill and two quarters to Gruen.) Have a nice day now.

G: (Putting money away as toll gate rises.) You too.

Jacob has seen nearly every variation on this scene.  Sometimes the radio might be blaring.  Sometimes there’s a drooling toddler, or an exhibitionist.  Sometimes he is asked to accept pennies, McDonald’s coupons, phone numbers, lessons in astral projection, or tickets to midnight showings of “Dracula vs. the Grammar Nazis.”  Sometimes, while lurking in bars, he half-considers writing a playbook for future generations of toll collectors.

One night, woozy from a barrage of alcohol, he explained it to a girl, a short brunette wearing a raggedy pair of jeans and an old sweatshirt.  She was staring into her own glass with a look of existential frustration, reading her own thoughts mirrored in the minute currents of alcohol.  She was not paying attention.

“It’s not even the boredom,” Jacob said, draping himself awkwardly over the table.  “Or the re – the reruns.  I mean, yeah it’s sad that the whole human race – and I mean the whole human race! is doing the same things, making the same jokes, asking the same questions about the weather.  But!” he exclaimed, and took a celebratory swig from his glass.

“Uh-huh,” the brunette murmured.

“But!” Jacob continued, not noticing.  “There’s a… a disconnect, right?  These people don’t even see me, they don’t hear me.  I’m a ghost.”  He laughed.  “The phantom of the toll booth, that’s me!  Just stick a vest on and people won’t even care what you look – Wait, wait.  Hold on…”  Jacob narrowed his eyes.  An idea was forming, barely visible underneath the dull sting of the alcohol, but still there, gestating, reaching out for his full understanding with tiny fingers and hands…

“Mmhmm,” said the brunette.

And there it was, so utterly resplendent that Jacob nearly slipped out of his chair with the weight of it.  “My god!” he shouted, leaping to his feet, alcohol-soaked flames in his eyes.  “I… am… ninja!” he crowed.  The excitement unsteadied him and Jacob fell into the brunette’s lap, guffawing.

“Mmm?!” she asked, startled out of her contemplation.

“I love you,” Jacob slurred happily.  After righting himself, he attempted to do a jazz run for the door.

This occurred immediately after the first highway shooting.  Jacob spent a long night floating uneasily at the edge of unconsciousness, occasionally waking to cold porcelain and his heaving stomach.  Through the night’s ordeal, Jacob managed to retain the sense of “being ninja” and as he stumbled into his toll booth the next day, he carefully tested his theory.

“Good morning!” he sang.  The sound of his voice breaking caused his head to throb, but the man with no eyebrows didn’t give him a second glance.

“How much is the toll?” asked the short-haired lady with an open makeup kit on the passenger seat.

“That’ll be a dollar fifty,” Jacob said, pretending to casually pick his nose before reaching for the money.

“Great, just great,” mumbled the spiky goth, temporarily retreating behind a tinted window.

“Hey, Lou, grab those quarters out of my wallet, willya hon?” the worn out mother asked her pouting son as Jacob gave her an extravagant wink.

“Just a moment,” said the old man with a snake tattoo curling around his lower arm.

“Heard any news about the sniper?” asked a nervous kid wearing a black baseball cap.  Jacob hadn’t heard, and he stopped trying to pull quarters out of his ears in order to give the boy another look.  The guy couldn’t have been older than sixteen, and had probably only just gotten his license.  And something must have happened, because the poor boy was shaking so badly he could barely keep his hands on the wheel.

“The sniper?  The… highway sniper?” Jacob asked, vaguely recalling some news report on the subject.  He’d been halfway blasted by then, he recalled.  “Why?  What happened?”  No police cars had gone past, but traffic had slowed considerably, even by rush hour standards.

“Just now,” the kid said.  “Back there.  It’s been all over the radio, and I passed the cars on the way here – there was a pileup, and a whole bunch of people got hurt…”  The kid looked quickly behind him at the lanes of traffic.  “They haven’t caught him yet; they say they’re trying to get Angel to come out here, but they can’t reach her…  God I don’t wanna die in my dad’s junk heap!”

“Um,” said Jacob, reaching for his hair.  “Um,” he tried again.  “I’m sure you’ll be fine?”

“Yeah.  Probably.”  The kid did not look convinced, but he sat up anyway, avoiding Jacob’s eyes.  “How much was the toll again?”

The kid handed over a faded two dollar bill.  Jacob gave him change and a receipt and sent him on his way.  Jacob stopped trying to prove that he was “ninja” and did his job, letting the steady flow of traffic wash over him.  He saw the ambulances and police cars speed by on the other side of the highway, later coming back towards the city.  He saw more worried people: children huddled in the backseat, drivers looking grim.

High up in the sky, a shimmering white costume appeared.  Angel’s familiar robes rippled in the wind as she flew overhead, heading back to the city too.  Jacob leaned as far as he could out of his window to watch her disappear into the distance.  Immediately he turned back to the young businesswoman and asked, “Did she catch him?”

The businesswoman shook her elegantly coifed head.  “No trace of the guy by the time she got there.”  She sniffed and pulled a tissue from her purse.  “She better catch him soon, that’s all I’m saying,” she said, handing him her toll.

A week and five days passed like this.  Jacob watched as rush hour traffic thinned slightly.  He felt cold thinking about newspaper headlines.  The sniper was lying low.  Regular police patrols were being sent out, but the real hope was Angel.  Born into a family of heroes, Angel had learned early to use her powers of empathy to track and to control emotion, even to win over the camera.  At the age of sixteen, she announced that she was joining the Metahuman Institute, an organization meant to lower the stress of being a hero.  The Meta Institute provides access to everything a hero needs – distress signals, emergency alerts, counseling, Do Not Resuscitate forms.  As the daughter of their founding member Firebelle, Angel was the pride of the Meta Institute, and its representative to the public.[1]

Her magnetic personality is revealed in every photograph of the press conference that followed the first shootings.  There’s her characteristic smile, winched firmly into place.  But even then Jacob could see the tiredness at the edges of her eyes, something most people only discerned through hindsight.  When the sniper hit again, on a nearby freeway, Angel could not catch even the smallest lingering trace of vengeful anger.  Traffic dwindled on the highways.  The drivers who still came by had dull or frightened eyes.  They no longer cared about the weather.  Jacob handed them receipts and listened now to their life stories, their sins and private joys.  He sat in his booth, growing increasingly cold as he absolved them and sent them, blindly, into the unknown stretch of road ahead.

“Good luck,” said the old woman wearing a rosary looped around her wrinkled wrist.

“God bless you,” wished the tuxedoed man with a Las Vegas sticker on his rear bumper.

“Have a good day,” said the gangsta wannabe in the pimped-out car, meaning it.

It was enough to drive Mr. Jacob Gruen back to the bar, where he found a free, though suspiciously sticky table and ordered himself a Johnny-on-Death-Row.  He downed it quickly, and ordered another to wash away the tightness in between his eyes.  The short brunette from his last visit came sidling up to park herself in the chair opposite him.

“Hello,” she said, smiling shyly.

“Oh.  Hey.”  Jacob threw back his drink and let out a sigh.  “What good’s being a ninja if I can’t do anything with it?” he asked, leaning back to stare at the cracked ceiling.  “Have you heard about the whole sniper thing?”

“Mmhmm,” said the brunette, who was trying and failing to memorize every inch of the man who had fallen into her lap and confessed his undying love.

“Yeah, stupid question, I guess everybody knows by now.  At work, I see all these people driving scared, and it makes me scared too.  I’ve got the perfect opportunity.  If I wanted to, I could probably get a suit made up and pretend to be a real ninja.  And probably get myself killed.”

He exhaled, slowly.  “I remember when I was a kid.  I used to have a crush on Firebelle – before she got married and settled down to raise Angel.  I remember I used to turn on the news every night, hoping to see her.  She made it look so easy.  Flying around, fighting the bad guys, talking with the most powerful people in the world…”

“Uh-huh,” said the brunette.

“I just don’t know if I could ever do it.  If Angel can’t find the guy, how can I?  I wouldn’t have a chance.  He’s got a gun and I’ve got… bedhair.”

“Yeah,” breathed the brunette.

Jacob looked at the brunette for the first time since she’d sat down.  “You’re not paying attention to a word I’m saying, are you?” he asked.

“A traditional wedding, in a big church,” she replied.  “Call me!” she cried as Jacob abruptly pushed himself away from the table and went to pay off his tab.

He walked home sulking.  “I’ll take up bungee jumping,” he promised himself, the words bitter on his tongue.  “I’ll dye my hair a different primary color every other week.  Hell, I’ll learn to drive racecars and play the electric guitar, something to show them I’m not a damn ghost!”  But Mr. Jacob Gruen has already seen the truth in the brunette’s glazed eyes.  He was ninja.  The context might change, but he wouldn’t.  “Hell!” Jacob said as he walked down the street, unhindered by a passing hobo in a vomit-green raincoat.  “I need a hobby.”

That was the night he began carving pennies into throwing stars.


[1] See Angel’s exciting origins in “Angel” #1-4.

– Ed.


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