by Joshua Novak
In December of 1988, Jason Todd, Robin, the real-deal Robin, like Batman’s Robin, was going to die, and it was the most important thing in the world to ten-year-old Jon Harris of Stonedale, Georgia. The Christmas after ‘the Christmas we didn’t go to Disney,’ though they didn’t go to Disney that year either, Mom and Dad’s fights got real bad. Jon Harris had taken to reading more to ignore the noise. Stories to camp out in when home got too loud.
Four out of the five Harrises were living in the old brick home behind the magnolia tree, too much house as Mom always said. By then, Mark was sixteen and always off with Dad’s old Saab, while Steph was in her freshman year at Tech. So Jon Harris was stranded in a house full of his parents’ arguments.
It wasn’t so bad. He and Mom went out a lot more for steakhouse dinners (although Jon Harris always ordered chicken tenders). Dad had taken to traveling for work more, now two and three weeks at a time, which was a bummer, but then he always came back with a gift, usually a brand new hat of the sports team of wherever city he was.
But then one time Dad didn’t bring home a hat, he brought home a plain brown paper bag, flat, like one of those envelopes tv private investigators handed off. Inside was a comic book, but not quite a comic book; bigger, the size of Jon Harris’s torso. Batman, but not the funny guy in the suit from reruns. This Batman wore black. This Batman hurt people. The instant Jon Harris cracked the tome open, he saw.
Holy shit, Batman! Jon Harris clapped the book shut and exclaimed a thanks to his dad, scurried off to hide it in his room, vowing only to read it alone. For an ten-year-old, this was the kind of thing an adult would love to take away. But it gave Jon Harris an excitement, a buzz in his tummy and toes like in a movie after a big scare. His first taste of the forbidden, and he was going to hold on.
Without the patience or attention span to read through the very long, very adult comic, Jon Harris skimmed. And often. Each bedtime was bookended with an hour or so of intense study of the art. With the big book hidden between mattress and boxspring, his sleep suffered, as did his energy at school and grades. His imagination blossomed, though, and the margins of his workbooks filled up with capes colored in solid with black and blue pens, warping the paper underneath.
In the thick plastic comic, one page received more attention, the cracked spine opening naturally to a favorite panel. In the Batcave stood the “good soldier” as old Bruce Wayne called him, Robin’s displayed costume at attention. Empty. Abandoned. The red, green, and yellow uniform was filled out as if a mannequin were wearing it. But it was only a ghost looking through the floating black harlequin mask. From that page, a terrible nothing stared back at Jon Harris.
No matter how much he looked over the page, it made no sense to him. How could this happen? Jason Todd was the absolute tops– reformed street tough, acrobat, triple black belt in Ninjutsu, Karate, and Taekwondo. Smart enough to steal from Batman himself, a move so bold, Jon Harris had gasped out loud when first heard. How could Batman let Robin die?
Suddenly, Dad’s voice startled the boy from across his bedroom. “Why don’t we go take a ride, Sport?” The old man was dusting off the palms of his hands as if he just finished baking a cake rather than arguing with Mom for the past hour.
Jon Harris froze, taboo book open, Dad’s thin silhouette slicing his door frame. Afraid of getting caught with the pages open to especially visceral and age-inappropriate art, the boy stuttered, scraping out words in a croak, “Yes sir?”
“Yeah, c’mon.” Dad wrung his long, freckled hands. “Let’s get out of the house for a bit.”
And soon the boy found himself in the front passenger seat with no seatbelt bouncing down the highway in Dad’s Jeep Grand Wagoneer, navy with fake wood panels. Jon Harris was always supposed to wear a seatbelt. He was supposed to sit in the backseat, Mom had read an article and said as much (Incidentally, Jon Harris never saw these articles that ruled his life once read by his Mom). But he was definitely supposed to buckle seat belts. For real.
In fact, he’d always worn a seatbelt in every moving vehicle until that very day, until Dad’s freckled hand enveloped the lever behind the steering wheel and snaked it into gear, sending the Jeep backing out the driveway before Jon Harris had had the chance to buckle. So then he didn’t buckle. It didn’t feel adult, or important, or special. He felt in danger, too close to a stove. His fingers wrapped around the tan leather strap on the door so tightly they went cold.
“I love you so much, Sport…”
A conversation starting like this was never good. Usually, it was a list of new chores, bad news from a relative, or worst of all, a call from a teacher.
“You know that, right?”
“And no matter what happens, you know I love you.”
Jon Harris’s mind scrambled to all the serious talks this conversation could turn into, his imagination exacerbated by comic books and tv. Will Dad ‘always love him’ even if Dad was dying? Going to jail? Mutating into an animal-person hybrid? Becoming a superhero? A supervillain?
“And your mother loves you, too, even if she has a tough time showing it.”
Were both his parents dying? For a moment, he wondered if, like Bruce Wayne and Richard Grayson, it could lead to a life of crime-fighting. His wandering thoughts fell on a dark, rainy double funeral with hundreds of people watching him cry. He pushed it from his mind, reading into his father’s words.
“Like, even when she yells at you?”
“Yeah, even then. But it’s not really yelling. We’re just…discussing things. Adults get mad at each other sometimes, but that’s okay. We still love you.”
“You’ll be married someday, Sport.” He lit a Carlton menthol 100 and blew smoke out his cracked window. “Be ready to talk about money.” He bit the cigarette’s filter and blew smoke through his teeth. “Always money. Even when there’s enough. Especially when there’s enough. Even when they’re mad at you for doing something else.” There were emotions in the man’s voice the boy didn’t follow.
At Jon Harris’s age, oftentimes there’s no proper response to an adult. And in his family, saying anything at all could send a conversation down a bad path, a tirade about Mom or Jon Harris himself, his grades, how clean he kept his room. Instead, the boy sat silently, looking anywhere but at his Dad, fidgeting with the brim of the all-red San Francisco 49ers hat Dad had gotten for him back in August after being gone for three weeks but hadn’t mentioned the boy wearing it today. Jon Harris waited to be told how he was in trouble, dreading the punishment they were driving to.
“Here we are.” The pushing of the gear lever to park punctuated the words like a gavel at the end of the judge’s sentence. Staring down at Jon were the big blue words within the white rectangle of the sign, “Hobby Corner.”
“Are we making pine-box derby racers?” It was the only time previous Jon Harris had been.
“No, Sport. This is where I got your Batman comic. Want to pick out another?”
Too good to be true. The boy’s face flexed into a smile. His ears probably flapped like wings, picking him up into the air like some cartoon character in love. And he thought the talk on the way to the store meant his parents were dying– Boy, was he wrong!
In the room past the RC cars and paint kits were the comics. The shelves stretched forever like grocery store aisles, only instead of beans and Rice-a-Roni, it was comic books, all comic books, superheroes as far as Jon could see. With his pick of the store, Jon Harris combed for single issues. He got a Marvel crossover, the story of a robotic bear fighting Iron Man and the Silver Surfer, one issue each. And there was wicked awesome Conan the Barbarian cover with a half-naked lady holding a sword bigger than she was. It stirred Jon Harris’s belly just looking at it. Dad was the one who grabbed it, adding that one to the pile with a wink but not a single word.
And then, of course, Batman. The current issue was 426. Instead of a cover like other comics with a fight or the hero winning or the bad guy attacking, this one just had this portrait of Batman, just a sad, tired guy in a painting. The artist was Mike Mignola, which made Jon Harris think of Filet Mignon, the fanciest steak. So in his head, this was beyond a mere comic book, this was art.
He passed it to his father with such care, it might as well have been an oversized butterfly. With a smile and a nod that seemed to say, “good choice, you are wise beyond your years,” Dad added it to the stack and paid for them.
Jon Harris didn’t say a word on the way home. Instead, he pored through his treasure, skimming through Conan, then the Marvel heroes’ adventure against the robot bear. Batman 426, though, he merely stared at. Dad had shelled out an extra couple of bucks to get cardback covers and plastic sleeves for all of them. “Hold on to these, and maybe they’ll be worth something someday.”
Through the flimsy plastic, Jon Harris looked with eyes bright, like Dorothy glimpsing Oz for the first time. Except through this window, Batman stared back.
The car slowed to a stop, and once Jon Harris realized they weren’t going any further he saw they were home, only Dad hadn’t pulled into the driveway. Dad didn’t slide the lever to P but instead turned to face the young man with a sad knowing smile.
“You know I love you very much, sport.”
Suddenly, Jon Harris knew this wasn’t about anyone dying or going to jail. Matt S at school told Jon Harris about this, how Matt S ’s parents told him they were moving. They took him to get baseball cards and spent “bonkers amounts of cash.” Then, instead of going back into their house, they pulled in front for one last look, told Matt S to say goodbye to their old home, and drove from Paducah, Kentucky to Stonedale.
Was it now Jon Harris’s turn to move to Paducah? He loved his life in Stonedale– his friends, his neighbors, their house, the woods behind the house and the lake on the other side of the hill. School wasn’t even that bad if he were to admit it. School had to suck everywhere, right? Might as well stay in Stonedale. His mind daydreamed a life, middle then high school and either an acting career or scholarships to the best colleges. But no, instead it was time for the drive-up goodbye before hitting the road to Paducah.
“You enjoy those comic books, okay? They’re counting toward your Christmas. You go on inside, your Dad’s taking off.”
The weight of all of Paducah lifted from Jon Harris’s shoulders. He could stay in Stonedale. His life wasn’t ruined.
“Going on another trip?” he asked, relieved.
“Yeah, Sport.” Dad smiled again with a dry voice.
“Work?” Jon Harris felt that silly happy feeling after bad news is revoked, making everything you hear afterwards giggle-funny and inconsequential. Dad smiled and nodded sadly.
Everything was gravy for Sport. “K, thanks, Dad! Love you!” Jon Harris leaned over the center console and gave his Dad a hug, but no kiss because Dad hated that.
Practically skipping up the walkway and into the house, Jon Harris didn’t turn around to see his Dad drive off. For the rest of his life, he’d wished he had.
Immediately, the boy ran up to his room two stairs at a time, clutching the comics from Hobby Corner, “Thank you” printed repeatedly red on white on the plastic bag.
In the sanctuary that is a young boy’s room, which is up there with a years-preserved baby blanket, Jon Harris closed the door, sat cross-legged in the center of his unmade bed, and withdrew the sacred item.
The ceiling light shone in the reflection of the plastic cover, and for a moment he felt like the comic itself glowed. Ever so carefully, he peeled back the scotch tape holding the clear envelope shut, the most carefully he’d opened anything in his life. Tipped, the Batman portrait slid out easily. It seemed odd that the issue didn’t feel heavier, didn’t weigh more than the other comics. But there, in his hands, it was somehow the same as all the others.
Except it wasn’t. Sure, on the back was the usual ad for toy cars and flipping over the front revealed the mail-in subscription form, but where the first page usually had one big panel to start the issue’s adventure, on this one a skull stared from the page, a skull behind a red question mark. That meant death. Fight or flight kicked in and Jon Harris flipped to the last page just in case he died before he had a chance to read through to the ending. Skull-be-damned, turned out Batman and Robin were fine, driving off to follow a clue.
But across from that last page, where a Be-Your-Own He-Man Action Figure ad usually sat, was instead an angry Batman cradling an injured Robin, a picture in stark black and white. “Robin will die because the Joker wants revenge, but you can prevent it with a telephone call.”
And the boy’s stomach sank. His other comic book, the Dark Knight Returns, took place in the future. With the haunted black harlequin mask. With old man Bruce Wayne staring into the empty Robin suit. It was all happening. Robin was dying.
But it could be stopped. This was some kind of poll or survey. To either side of the dynamic duo, outlined in black like steel riveted to the page, sat a one-nine hundred number. One-nine hundred numbers were, of course, kryptonite for children of the eighties. Prices to drive parents crazy for the chance to talk to Hulk Hogan, preview next month’s He-Man toys, or even hear episodes of cartoons before they aired. The bottom of the page explained it was fifty cents per call, which might as well have been a thousand dollars. Kids got grounded for dialing one-nine hundred numbers. Kids lost out on Christmas presents. Kids got hit.
“Jon Harris!” Mom croaked from downstairs. The sound of his name shouted always made him flinch, even in his own house. Especially in his own house. In a depleted voice, his signature double-name came again. Her tone serious, Mom hadn’t used his middle name so he couldn’t be in that much trouble.
Jon Harris knew if she cleared her throat then called out with a hoarse voice, it was bad news. That meant there had been crying. And knowing this affected the boy, placing him on the verge of tears and keeping him there. As he made his way to the living room, a knot in his throat tightened.
One hand covering her mouth, the other patting the sofa cushion next to her, Mom signaled for the boy to sit, while all the air in the room froze still, waiting for either a fit of rage or an outburst of tears. He kept back in the shelter of the doorframe. She cleared her throat and whispered gravel. “Sit.”
The knot in his throat twisted tighter as he slumped onto the cushion, a safe half-foot away before she drew him in, pulling him too tightly up onto her hip, handling him like a smaller child. Not able to look her in the eye, Jon Harris stared at the mole on the bridge of her nose.
“Did your father talk to you?”
His mind flew back. Did his father talk to him? In the Jeep, the boy thought back, past the gloss of the comics, focusing on Dad telling him wives talk about money. Telling him he was going on a trip like he always did. Telling him the comics were his Christmas presents. That was it. The boy shouldn’t have opened them yet. They were for Christmas, Dad said as much. So now trouble. The knot twisted tighter again.
“Yes, ma’am.” Jon Harris dug his chin into his chest.
“And what did he say?”
He was going to lose what now was his most prized possession. She may even take away all of his comics. He suppressed tears and spoke through a wobbly voice. “That it was a part of my Christmas.”
Mom’s face ticked. “What?”
He whispered his admission, “The comic books were supposed to be part of my Christmas presents.”
“No, not that, sweetie. Did he say anything else?”
The sense of dread of punishment hadn’t lifted but morphed into confusion. Dreadful confusion. “He was going away on business.”
“That’s it?” She was mad. “That’s all he said? That he’s going away on business?”
All he could do was look down at the thick brown carpet and nod. Sometimes he didn’t see how things were his fault or what he was in trouble for. Sometimes he had to just sit there and wait for adults to tell him. But all Mom did was curse under her breath, still holding him too tightly.
Jon Harris tried to keep up. “Are you upset at Dad?”
“I’m not upset. Adults have many complicated things going at once, and when people are family like Mom and Dad, that gets tough. But no matter what, your father and I love you very much and we will always work together to do what’s right for you and to keep you safe.” Ugh. Another Mom non-answer. Typical. But then she kept talking. “Sweetie, your father isn’t going to live with us anymore.”
The knot tightened.
“But we love you so much.”
The boy was warm all over. Mom’s hold on him constricted. His clothing was shrinking, his shirt collar nearly strangling him. He couldn’t swallow past the taut knot in his throat.
And she kept saying things about how much both parents loved him, how great a kid he was, how he was the most important thing. But then she lied. She spoke nonsense. He’d never heard Mom say anything so ridiculous.
She told him it wasn’t his fault!
The lie enraged him. He wasn’t stupid, knowing full well this was about him. The house was full of pictures of the happy family before Jon was born. There were stories of vacations, dinner as a family, and when Mom and Dad used to go golfing. Mark and Steph told him all kinds of stuff about how happy they used to be. Nobody talked about arguing nonstop, about starting fights like it was fun. That came with their third child, and Jon and the rest of the Harrises knew it. But of course, a kid can’t say that. A kid can’t call his Mom a liar. All he could do was look at his shoes and sweat, enveloped in maternal claustrophobia.
Eventually, she let go, kissed him dozens of times, ordered a pizza for dinner and after a movie, let him make a sundae and stay up past his bedtime reading his comic books, but he only answered her with meek smiles and single words. He felt so stupid. This wasn’t a Matt S move from Paducah, this was a John V scenario. The V’s were divorced.
When Mom finally fell asleep in the recliner watching Johnny Carson, Jon Harris snuck past her, freezing mid-tip-toe each time she snored, all the way into the master bedroom. Ever so carefully, he shut the door behind him, holding the knob so it wouldn’t click.
There is no known drug as powerful as a child’s purposeful disobedience. His skin could barely contain the electricity zooming through his body. With a clammy hand, he lifted the receiver of the avocado phone on Dad’s nightstand, hooked the “1” and spun.
He hooked the “9” and spun. Hooked the “0” and flicked. Hooked the “0” again.
The knot tightened.
A couple days later, Mom called to him from the other room. He was rereading 426 for the umpteenth time, but still he took the time to finish his current page before acknowledging her. She’d called out four times, but she wasn’t yelling his full name, so who cared?
When he got to the living room, she was still parked in the recliner, watching golf, holding up the candy-red phone receiver. It was Dad. Jon Harris shouldered the big receiver while watching his puffy-eyed mother not really watch golf.
Dad apologized for not being clearer in the car. Dad was sorry, but he wasn’t coming home. He was sorry he’d be missing Christmas. He was sorry he wouldn’t be at this week’s soccer game. “But how are your little comic books I bought you?”
As if that were the very question he was waiting for, Jon Harris let loose, gushing about Jason Todd’s adventures, the quest to find his real mother while Batman tried to get a nuclear warhead back from the Joker. The boy talked and talked and almost gave away the dozen forbidden phone calls he placed to save the boy wonder.
“You know what I think, Sport?”
“I think Batman cares too much about Robin to let anything bad happen. I don’t think Batman would ever let Robin down.”
There was more said after that, but it didn’t stick. Jon Harris told his Dad he loved him, hung up the phone, and headed back to his room to reread 426.
“What did he say?” Mom’s voice was always hoarse now.
“Nothing.” The boy didn’t look up as he trudged upstairs.
“What do you want for dinner?”
“I don’t care.” He rolled his eyes so hard his Mom could hear it.
“I love you, Jon Harris!”
That night he called seventeen more times.
Anticipation of punishment for the phone calls loomed. Not knowing how often a phone bill came, Jon Harris’s worry teetered like a decorative plate on the edge of a shelf, and the next day, he stayed hidden in his room, afraid to see the thing fall and shatter. He didn’t come out for breakfast, but Mom never knocked. She yelled from the front door she was leaving for errands and she yelled a greeting when she got back hours later.
But time wasn’t moving right for Jon Harris. He couldn’t turn the page from old man Bruce Wayne crying over his dead sidekick. As long as he didn’t move on from that panel, flip that page, Bruce was always there, was always sad. The boy moved forward in time as Bruce stood frozen in pain. And that’s where the boy had been for half the day.
“I’m leaving you a sandwich, some string cheese, and a Capri Sun out here in the hall.” His mother said gently.
Then, Jon Harris heard the whisper of fate, the sound of a brand-new unopened plastic sleeve containing a comic book sliding on his green shag-carpeted floor. Batman 427. A new Mignola portrait looked out at him from the cellophane window. Batman and Robin, painted as if father and son, faces in shadow.
The boy swallowed hard and opened it. He read it. He closed it and cried, whispering to himself over and over again. “No.”
Robin had died.
“No, no, no, no…”
Robin’s own mother betrayed him, sold him out to the Joker who beat him to within an inch of his life, then blew up the rest.
This was wrong, this couldn’t be. Batman always saved Robin. The sky is blue and grass is green and Batman saved Robin. Up was up and gravity pulled you down and only birds could fly and Batman saved Robin. His name was Jon Harris and he buckled his seat belt and his parents argued and Batman saved Robin.
Only this time he didn’t.
Time means nothing to an emotional child, and Jon Harris sat in numb disbelief for what might have been hours. It was like the ground was unstable, he couldn’t trust his legs, he dare not move. He wished he’d stayed on the page when Jason Todd met his real mom, Sheila Haywood, and never read any further, stopped time back when the reunion was happy. Back before Sheila Haywood betrayed him. Before he died.
Eventually, Jon Harris got up and left the room, past the sandwich and string cheese and Capri-Sun, to the living room where Mom sat in the recliner.
Then he did the smartest thing he ever did in his miserable life. He climbed on the recliner and hugged his mother, pushed his wet eyes into her stringy hair, sniffed and snorted with his nose pressed into where her neck meets her shoulder. And he cried and then she cried. And nobody felt better but they both felt less alone.