Legend – Chapter 17

Chapter 17.

Jennifer shivered as she shook the sleet from her coat. As she went to grab a basket from near the door, something bumped into her hard, making her stumble against the handrail that led down the ramp into the Co-Op. “Hey!”

Instead of an apology, the bearded man who’d jostled her continued what was obviously a heated argument: ” . . . poisoned the water and the air, we don’t deserve to live!”

“You’re welcome to believe what you want, Mr. Kantzman,” Mack, one of the Co-Op’s regular volunteers said. Her round, slightly red-cheeked face showed the professional politeness of someone used to many years of retail. “But when you start harrassing our customers and passing out your brochures, you’re not welcome to stay in here.”

Kantzman’s brown eyes narrowed. “I shop here –“

“And that’s wonderful. And if you’ll put your Center for Human Extinction folders away we’ll be happy to have you continue shopping here.” Mack shoved a stack of glossy brochures with a red CHE on the cover into Kantzman’s hands. “If you don’t, then get out.” She glanced at Jennifer, who was finally righting herself. “And apologize to this woman.”

Seeing he wasn’t going to win this argument, Kantzman stuffed the brochures angrily into his coat, mumbled something that vaguely resembled “sorry, excuse me” in Jennifer’s general direction, and slammed his way out of the store, almost knocking someone else down with the door on his way.

“Whew,” Jennifer said.

“Sorry about that, ma’am,” Mack said. “Dr. Hsui, yes? He used to be better than that. He’s just been getting stranger over the last few years.

She successfully prevented her brain from trying to run through the multiple potential causes of such a new obsession. “Did he always want to wipe out the human race?”

Mack shook her head, following Jennifer as she went towards the produce. “No, he was always one of our most green advocates, but he used to just be really into sustainability. He lost someone in his family a few years ago to something that could have been prevented — a spill, I think –and it bent him.” She shrugged. “Anyway, I’m glad you weren’t actually hurt when he ran into you.”

“No, just startled, that’s all. Thanks.”

“You’re welcome. Where’s the little girl?”

“Yuki’s probably just waking up and asking Gran where I am,” she said with a smile. “After her trick-or-treating, she and three of her friends had a sleepover Halloween party that lasted until almost midnight. Last I saw she was hanging half-off her bed, still asleep in her Densetsu costume.”

“Oh, god, that sounds so cute. Well, have a good time.” Mack waved and went back to the counter as Jennifer began her shopping.

It took a few moments to shove the encounter with Kantzman out of her head; partly it was just the jolt anyone had from a sudden and unpleasant confrontation, and partly the strain of trying to keep from analyzing people who weren’t her patients and about whom she knew almost nothing. And it’s not like I need more patients!

The basket filled quickly and she finally gave in and got a cart; the Co-Op stocked some things like garlic that were just better quality than supermarkets, and others like organic sprouts she couldn’t get anywhere else. At the bulk foods she decided to look to see what she might pick up for Yuki later, got some dried cherries and apricots, and noticed a dried fruit she hadn’t seen before . . . but it still looked familiar. “What’s a golden berry?” she asked one of the volunteers.

“Oh, that?” He picked up one of the wrinkled orangish fruits with the yellow-gold sheen with tongs and dropped it into her hand. “They’re a South American fruit with a lot of other names. Very healthy, lots of good stuff in there — take a look at the label on the bin!”

The dried berry was chewy and had little tiny seeds that crunched, and an interesting flavor. She smiled. A surprise for Christmas. She always liked coming up with some new little treat, and given what they looked like, this would give Yuki some fun over the holiday. Thanksgiving was going to be at Gran’s, so getting her overexcited there wouldn’t be wise; the little dried fruits could wait in the back of the freezer where Yuki couldn’t see.

She glanced at her watch. Don’t lose track of time! She wasn’t used to making mysterious appointments, but if she was going to keep trying to analyze Legend she supposed she had better get used to it — and never miss them.

She hauled her groceries to the car and put them in. The sleet was trying to change to snow, but the lighter sky in the west showed that this was probably a doomed effort. Which was good, since she didn’t particularly look forward to driving in snow.

The small park in Troy was almost deserted — which was hardly surprising given the cold and off-and-on sleet. She looked around and went to the indicated bench. I hope to God whoever it is doesn’t take too long, I’ll freeze to death.

“Dr. Hsui, thanks much for stoppin’ by,” a voice said.

She almost jumped off the bench. The voice had come from behind her, where she was sure there hadn’t been anyone before, and certainly not the person whose voice she’d instantly recognized.

Taller than almost anyone she’d ever met, wearing a coat and shirt of a bygone era with old-fashioned trousers with red, white, and blue stripes. Below the brim of a striped top hat that should have been ridiculous, but instead seemed dignified beyond words, America looked down on her with the kindly, sharp-eyed face that recalled both Uncle Sam and Abraham Lincoln, below the brim of a striped top-hat that should have been ridiculous, but instead seemed dignified beyond words. “My apologies for startling you, ma’am,” he said. “Please, sit back down. If you’ll allow me to join you?”

“I . . . of course.”

The hero called simply America sat next to her, not too close, not too far. She noticed that it seemed somehow warmer around them, as though the comfort of a summer evening surrounded the archaic-looking man. “I understand you’re interested in talking with those of us familiar with Legend.”

She shook herself. You really need to get over these reactions. You might end up talking to dozens of these people. “I am, very much. He has described some very interesting . . . issues associated with the transformation he undergoes to become Legend, and how that affects his life. But — forgive me — is this a safe place to talk? We’re awfully exposed.”

America smiled. “Perfectly safe for now, ma’am.” His voice held just a trace of New England twang, a hint of the South, perhaps a tinge of the West, too. “I’ll know if we’re being watched. And it wouldn’t be polite of people to eavesdrop on us as they went by.”

“And you’re sure everyone’s polite?” That seemed a dangerous, not to say foolhardy, assumption.

Well, Ma’am, most people are around me,” he said.

Obviously he’s been able to keep his true self a secret for a long time; I’ll have to take his word for what’s safe and what’s not. “All right. I’m trying to get as much perspective on this as I can. You know Legend well?”

“I know the boy very well, yes. Both Legend and Ben.”

“You know who he really is?”

The familiar smile showed white teeth above the short beard. “That’s a danged hard question, Ma’am. Even he doesn’t know who he really is, not yet.” He chuckled. “But yes, I know both of his identities well, and he knows where I go when I am not in my role as protector, too.”

“So he trusts you.”

“I hope so. I trust him, after all, and he’s done well to repay that trust.”

“Which do you think of as the real person? Legend, or Ben?”

America looked up into the sky, staring into the sleet as it came down. “That’s no simple question either, ma’am. Seems to me, we’re all a lot of different people inside. You’re a doctor who looks at people with problems and tries to help them – and tries not to judge them. You’re a mother with a little girl that you’re trying to raise alone, and you’re scared every day that you’ll make a mistake, that you have made a mistake. At a conference you’re Doctor Hsui, a warrior of words armored with charts and statistics and data, and fighting not just against other charts but against colleagues who see your face and body and not your mind. And you’re a little girl looking in a mirror and seeing an adult look back, wondering where all those years went. Which one’s the real Jennifer Hsui, ma’am?”

The words themselves weren’t the key; it was the way he said them, as though he knew exactly what she went through when she saw others look at Yuki and give the expression that meant ‘that poor little girl, how can her mother let her run around like that’, or when another researcher would carry out a conversation with his eyes constantly flicking downward instead of meeting her gaze. “Are you trying to  . . . what, show off?”

“What? Lordy, no, ma’am, sorry if I offended. I can’t help it, sometimes. But it gets across what I mean, doesn’t it?”

“I . . . suppose. You’re saying that you see Legend as just a part of Ben, a mask Ben wears?”

“Or maybe you could call Ben the mask. Or they’re both masks and the real Ben Stephens ain’t so easy to pin down, which is really the way I see it.”

She was still somewhat disturbed by the effect his earlier speech had had. “That makes sense, I suppose. Not necessarily very useful sense, though.” She looked at him narrowly. “I have to wonder who the real ‘America’ is, too.”

“The real America?” he waved his hand in a grand circle. “That is, ma’am.”

“Yes, but you aren’t that.”

He blinked and looked at her mildly. “Actually, ma’am, I am exactly that. I am America.”

“One old white guy is America?”

He laughed and suddenly the laugh was a lilting soprano, the face a Japanese face surrounded by a wash of night-black hair, a face she saw every night in the mirror, and now she felt a chill go down her back. “You are America, Jennifer Hsui,” America said, looking at her with her own eyes. “You, and Ben,” and now the face was the same as the confused boy she’d seen in her office, “and Jack Morriman, Sylvia Stake, every person you see on the street,” a blur of faces, men and women and children, black and white and dark Middle-Eastern brown and the reddish tinge of a Navajo, young and middle-aged and old, “every person who — for a moment or their lifetime — believes in who I am, in what I am, in the words that made me and the dreams that birthed me. I am America, ma’am, and how I came to be, now, that’s the secret Legend holds for me.”

“But . . . but then . . .”

“I wear this face,” and he was back to looking down at her with Lincoln’s eyes, “because it is the very symbol of America to the world, it is the image you — all of you, for these two hundred years and more — have built. And so that, Jennifer, is just exactly what I am.”

“So . . . you know everything about me?”

He shook his head. “No. ‘The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated.’ I can know very little about someone that they have not made public, for it is not my right to know more than they would allow others to know.” He smiled wryly. “How much easier it would be if I could grasp and use all knowledge of all the people; how easily I could find those who seek to do us harm. Yet if I did that, how would I truly be upholding the principles that made me?”

“You seemed to know something about me,” she insisted. “Something more than you ought to.”

He shrugged. “If I sit very close to someone, and I have some reason to make an impression, I may find myself speaking as I did to you – but that’s something I don’t control, and it is, I think, more you speaking through me, to convince you of the importance of what I might say.”

She thought about that. This was in some ways the most frightening thing she’d learned. A concept had become a living being. The ideal of America was now embodied. That perhaps wasn’t so bad, but it implied some things that would be bad. Very bad. “So you aren’t a . . . person originally, at all?”

“Not in the sense that Legend, or Fireflux, or Admiral Twilight were and are, no. But we were all  . . . born from very much the same things, if you take my meaning.”

She thought she had some idea of what he meant. This was probably not the time to pursue this any farther. “Are you aware of Legend’s . . . problem?”

He thought a moment. “None he’s clearly told me. But I know what I see, and I see a boy being chased and trying to figure out why he should run. Or why he shouldn’t.”

A succinct description. “And what do you think about it?”

“Not for me to judge, ma’am. Plenty as have been married were way too young for it, and plenty as have been old enough didn’t make a go of it, either. Some of your friends’ grandmothers were married when they were twice your daughter’s age, married to men twice their age, and raised families well. Others much older were sure they were ready to be wed, raised nothing but sorrow. I’d say it does Legend credit that he worries about it, and it’s also the law he needs be concerned with. I’m bound by spirit and the most basic law of the land; he’s bound by himself and sometimes by more temporal law.”

“You have no judgment on the matter?”

“I am not vested with the power of God, just of America. I say that age isn’t the question, just wisdom. I don’t know if either of them have it, but maybe, ma’am, you can help them find out.” He stood and smiled. “You might have to talk to her too, you know. If you’d like, I’ll suggest she have a talk with you. Can’t make her do it, understand, but usually she listens.”

I’d bet she does. And I definitely want to talk to her. “I’d appreciate it if you could.”

“Then I’ll ask her the first chance I get. Been very nice talkin’ with you, ma’am, and I’m glad Legend decided to go to you. I think he needed it.” He tipped his hat to her, turned and walked away. For a moment she thought he had stopped, and then she realized that she was looking, instead, at the statue of Uncle Sam, through which the mysterious hero had vanished.

“If I drank,” she said to no one in particular, “I would be going to get smashing drunk right now.”