It was a failed experiment. Before his wife had awakened, at 6 a.m. Ralph had written a note letting her know he'd be gone checking on Bill, and then had bundled up some clothes and shoes into a backpack. Putting the backpack on over his suit, he had then gone onto his front lawn and one-two-three stepped it up into the air, taking off to Phoenix.
The aerodynamics of the pack, however, played havoc with his less than perfected super speed flying abilities, and he shook and rattled moving 600 mph eastward, a couple of times diving down like a metero due to a sudden wind shift to scream into the ground, breaking his speed as much as possible before crashing. Sand and dirt wound up coating his mouth, nose, ears, hair and skin, but he discovered the super suit ability to shake off such debris like a red suited wet dog jiggling off the water. Cool.
He turned invisible while flying in the air, quite proud of himself for doing so, before landing in the far corner of the East side parking lot of Sky Harbor Airport, the lot closest to the terminal Bill had flown into. No need to have radar tower personnel locate him visibly. He became visible crouched down between two cars in the early morning sunlight and pulled off his backpack, frayed and ripped open from the crashes and the wind damage. His clothes had escaped out the hole during his bumpy flight; only a shoe remained, and his wallet, which Ralph had luckily placed in a separate zippered compartment. He threw the backpack and shoe out in a garbage can by the inter-terminal bus stop, sighing at waste of more haberdashery expense, and put his wallet down his tunic, leaving a little bulge by his belly button above the silver belt.
Turning invisible again, Ralph zipped over to the cab stand, and waited for Bill to show up. It only took 20 minutes for his 6'2", lean, brown haired, square-jawed friend to appear, toting a gym bag for luggage. Bill Maxwell, if nothing else, always traveled light. Ralph frowned seeing the black and blue egg was still really evident. Bill was dressed in a suit, his best brown one; odd for a casual man on his supposed day off. Bill gave an address to the cabbie, a Motel 6 in Phoenix, and Ralph's curiosity was raging. A female assignation, perhaps? With one of the women who worked at the FBI and who ogled Bill whenever he passed by? Of course, Bill was oblivious to all that type of attention, or so he seemed to be, so that was not really likely. Meeting with a snitch? Why the suit, then?
Outside of working with Ralph and having been chosen by aliens as a planetary do-gooder, Bill Maxwell did not maintain a complicated life. He lived frugally, saved money in conservative mutual funds, worked overtime catching criminals, spent his free time drinking, shooting pool, bowling and playing softball with cop and FBI buddies, fished and hiked with his old partner and surrogate father Harlan Blackwood and Harlan's new friend Ira, and that was about it.
This was all a mystery.
As Bill got inside the cab, Ralph leapt up as lightly as possible onto the roof, and with only a little creak sound, sat down, figuring a free ride through town saved him possibly being run down, again, by an unseen truck if he flew behind following the cab.
It wasn't a long drive to the hotel, and through the rolled down windows of the sedan, Ralph heard the driver's attempt at conversation—beginning with a pleasant "What brings you to Phoenix?"-shot down by Bill's curt "Not here to chit chat. Just drive," response. Well, his partner would never win an award for his social graces.
At the hotel, Bill paid the cabbie, checked in, and went up to his second room floor. Invisible Ralph watched it all from the parking lot. There was a Goodwill across the street and with Bill not yet leaving his room, Ralph leapt over the traffic to land on the opposite sidewalk and entered the store. He found a pair of nice jeans his size and a blue long sleeved shirt. He couldn't believe there was a pair of Rockports his suited feet fit into; it seemed easiest wearing two pairs of shoes instead of hiding the suit boots somehow. He'd just have to deal with sweaty feet. Sometimes things worked out, he smiled. He focused and became visible, taking his wallet out of his tunic. Acting as if he looked completely normal in his suit, he walked up to the front desk and put the clothes and shoes down.
"I'll take these," he said. "How much?"
The clerk stared at him, blinking several times.
"How much, please?" he asked again.
The woman looked down at the items and said "Five dollars."
Ralph laid the money down, "Great." He looked around and asked, "Where's the changing room?"
The woman pointed to the back.
Ralph grinned and lifted up his bundle. "They're to go."
He ducked into a changing room and put the clothes on. Not bad at all he saw, studying himself in the mirror. Hid the lines of the suit well.
He waved to the lady, who waved weakly back, whispering cattily to the woman next her, and left. Undoing his shirt buttons, he stared at Bill's hotel room door and holographed in on Bill sitting in a chair in the room. He hadn't turned a light on or opened the shades on the wide room window. He sat in the dark, immobile, melancholic…waiting.
Waiting for what? Fighting an urge to simply knock on the door and invade Bill's privacy-which Ralph sickly realized he was already doing by following him surreptitiously and holographing in on him- Ralph decided instead to get some breakfast at the diner next door, keeping an eye out for Bill's egress, but leaving him in the meantime to his solitary ruminations.
Ralph didn't have much of an appetite, though, even after all his exertions that morning. The thought of his best friend sitting alone disturbed him. The secondary realization Ralph was not allowing his best friend his aloneness, that he was engaged in base skullduggery towards learning what was going on, disturbed Ralph, too. What was driving him to do it? Was it latent concern, caring and affection, or plain nosiness? Or, maybe it was the fact that Ralph needed Bill, needed his help with the suit, and it was a selfish, fearful desire to keep tabs on the person the aliens had paired him up with, the one who kept his mind sane regarding the use of the suit. The one who had helped him save the world more than once, which he did not really believe he could do on his own. Or was it just an unspecified, inexplicable feeling?
Maybe it was a combination of all those reasons. Either way, his eggs and toast were thick and tasteless in his mouth.
Ralph read the city paper and then zipped back across the street to pick up a book from the Goodwill reading section; some spy thriller. He sat in the diner perusing the pages in a desultory fashion, regularly glancing up to check on Bill's door. Out of the blue, a florist brought a gorgeous multi-flowered, multi-colored bouquet to his room. Bill opened up the door and took hold of it with a nod of thanks. The door was closed again for a good long time.
It was over three incredibly boring hours before Bill left his hotel room at 11:30 a.m., toting the bouquet, getting into another cab he had no doubt called.
Now what, Ralph asked himself? Can't fly or turn invisible with the clothes on. If I take the clothes off, then I have to stay invisible or Bill will notice me. Stupid suit! Running into the bathroom of the diner, thankfully empty of other men, he undressed, turned invisible, and ran outside. With a mighty leap up, he hid his clothes on the roof of the hotel. It was interesting seeing them reappear when Ralph let go of them. He still wasn't sure if it was magic or alien science which gave the suit its unusual powers. Ralph then three stepped himself into the air, following Bill's cab for the 3.5 miles it took to arrive at its destination: Resthaven Park Mortuary and Cemetery.
Ralph's stomach tightened into a knot as he crashed into bushes by the fence surrounding the beautifully landscaped, quiet and serene cemetery. Leaping the fence into the cemetery, he saw Bill wandering off down paths cut through the manicured lawn, gravestones and trees. It was very peaceful here, in the heart of Phoenix, a definite oasis of calm. Ralph felt like he was committing a crime, trespassing in this sacred space. But, he kept following his friend. He had to. He couldn't stop himself.
Bill arrived at the grave after a ten minute walk. An older couple, seemingly in their '70s, was already there. They were well-dressed and appointed. The man was shorter than Bill at around 5'10", and of medium weight. His head was balding and the rim of hair circling his scalp was a dark grey, but his face had only minimal wrinkles and his blue eyes still shone brightly. He wore an expensive dark blue three piece suit, with gold cufflinks sticking noticeably out from his shirt cuffs. The woman, shorter and a little stocky, had on a lavender dress, with a delicate pearl necklace and earrings. Her hair was also grey, a lighter shade, but in a stylish coiffure.
Ralph hid his invisible self behind a nearby tree, but he was close enough to hear their conversation. Bill stopped in front of the couple and the woman immediately moved in to hug him; after a pause, Bill hugged her back. The woman kissed his cheek, then tsk'd at his bruised head. When they broke apart, the two men shook hands, the elder man's free hand tightly gripping Bill's shoulder.
"You look good, Bill, aside from that lump on your head. It's nice to see you again. Even, you know, for this."
Bill nodded. "Hello, Edward."
"At least you're not limping," the old woman said. Bill looked at her questioningly. "Like last year."
"Oh, yeah, the hip healed up fine."
"But, what happened to your forehead?"
Bill sighed heavily. "A gun flew into it."
"Flew into-? You worry me, Bill; such a violent job."
"I've always had the job, Madeline."
"I've always hated it."
"You're 51 or 2 aren't you? Isn't that, well, getting a little old to be hurt all the time? You mentioned retiring once."
"Things change. Retiring is on hold for right now." Holding up his bouquet, he glanced at the grave. "I guess I should put this down."
"Of course. Go ahead," the woman said. "They're lovely, Bill, simply lovely."
Bill looked at the tidy, well-kept grave. "It was the violence that got me to meet her."
Now Mrs. Cutler sighed, "Yes. You got stabbed and she was your nurse. But, who's your nurse, now, Bill?"
Bill didn't answer. He lowered his head and turned, facing the grave. He took a step nearer and knelt down, brushing off in a reflex the standing marble gravestone upon which simple yet profound words were inscribed:
Ellen Laura Maxwell
Beloved Wife, Daughter, Sister
He laid the flowers down at the bottom of the gravestone and stood up again, his hands clasped together in front of his body, not yet facing the couple for another minute or two. Suddenly, he lifted his head up, shrugged his right shoulder and turned towards them.
"Where's Leslie? She usually shows up."
"Yes, she was very close with her sister. But, her son, my talented grandson, is quarterback of his high school football team. They've got a game today and she felt she needed to go to that instead. She stayed in Detroit. She sends her regards."
Bill nodded, glancing back to the grave.
"Life goes on," Mrs. Cutler said. "Too bad Ellen never could have children," she added wistfully. "You both would have been good parents."
Mr. Cutler jumped in, softly, "Are you…seeing anyone, yet, Bill? Doing any dating?"
Bill noticed the couple was staring at him intently. He cleared his throat. "Ah, me? Nah. Too busy with work. Lots of creeps out there gotta be caught."
"I'm going to make a speech now, Bill, and I want you to listen."
"Just listen. Please. She's been dead a long time, Bill. A decade now, today," Mr. Cutler said. "You were a wonderful husband. The way you cared for her after she got cancer…we'll never stop being grateful to you for that." He wrapped his arm around his wife, who wrapped hers around him. "But, we want you to move on. Make a new life with someone else. Make someone else lucky like you made our Ellen."
There was a very long silence between them. If it had been anyone else in the world, Ralph knew Bill would have made a wise crack, some snide, off-putting remark, tossed it off like tough men do. But, it wasn't anyone, it was the Cutlers, his dead wife's parents, and it seemed only them and the aged Harlan Blackwood stopped the sarcasm, the abrasiveness, and brought out a side of him he loathed to show others.
Bill Maxwell would not flinch in a gun fight, even if outnumbered and outgunned. He would not flinch fighting hand to hand with a known assassin who could kill with one blow. He would not flinch when pushed out of a helicopter at 10,000 feet.
But, he couldn't answer these two people he loved, nor even look them in the eye.
Mrs. Cutler made it easy. Touching his chin delicately, she lifted it up and smiled at him. "Think about it. That's all we ask."
He smiled wanly. "You know how hard it is finding a woman who can clean and gut a trout in under five minutes?"
"Ellen always loved the outdoors." She stared at him, which almost made him blush for some reason. "Goodness, you still are a handsome man. Even with that on your forehead."
"Maddie, stop embarrassing him. Speaking of trout," Mr. Cutler said. "I'm sorry to say I'm famished. You'll spend the afternoon with us as usual, won't you, Bill?"
"When do you fly back to L.A?"
"That's when we go back to Detroit. Well, then, let's get some lunch, after we're done here."
They stood around the grave for another few minutes, each in their own thoughts, and then, as they had nine times before, they moved off as a cohesive unit and began strolling back to the entrance of the cemetery, the silence of loss following them for the first half of their walk. Ralph discretely followed.
"Do you still have heartburn all the time?" Madeline suddenly asked, breaking away from the sad past as she entwined her arm around Bill's.
"Not all the time. Only four days out of seven."
She tsk'd. "You still drink all that coffee?"
"When I'm not drinking Scotch," he smiled.
"And eat only burgers and fries?"
"Just for breakfast and lunch."
"Stop interrogating him," Edward chided. "He's a big boy and can take care of himself. Did you get a new partner yet or still going solo?"
"No official partner, but…sometimes I get help from a civilian, a friend of mine."
"Is that legit?"
Bill shrugged his shoulder. "Well…. How's your golfing?"
Ralph tagged along invisibly as they walked to a nearby Italian restaurant and spent a couple of hours there. Glancing through the window, and once or twice wandering through the restaurant, Ralph noticed the Cutlers spent most of the time talking with Bill an attentive listener. Bill perked up talking about a case or two, naturally keeping aliens and red jammies out of the stories, and when they asked about Harlan and fishing. Eventually, Mr. Cutler paid the bill, and they got into a cab called to the restaurant and drove to the Cutler's higher class hotel. Ralph flew behind them. He didn't know why. He should have gone home, should have left Bill to his privacy, to his memories, to a quiet day once a year with his ex-in-laws, but something prevented him from returning home. It seemed like he'd be leaving Bill's back unprotected if he returned home early; he'd be abandoning Bill somehow. It didn't make much sense, there was nothing there to protect Bill from, and the only abandonment was the death of his wife a long time ago. Yet, Ralph followed the cab and he sat invisible watching the three of them chatting in the bar lounge off the hotel's entranceway.
It was then he realized that Bill had been limping at the anniversary the year before because Ralph had tried to fly with him the week before and had, again, crashed, actually landing on Bill himself. Bill's hip had taken the brunt of the force and he hadn't been able to just walk off that injury as he had during Operation: Spoilsport. The timing was right, and apparently that was when Bill had snuck off to Phoenix. Ralph wondered how he hadn't picked up on Bill's hidden trip last year; he imagined he hadn't even tried to, hadn't listened correctly. Or maybe, Ralph pondered, Bill hadn't let Ralph have a decent chance of discovering it.
Sometimes, one year can make a big difference.
Around 6:00 p.m., Bill and the Cutlers stood and hesitatingly they bid their good-byes. Bill got a firm hug from each of the Cutler's and a clear order to keep in touch, even though that meant in reality an exchange of Christmas cards and a phone call each March confirming they'd meet in Phoenix in three weeks, where none of them lived, to visit Ellen's grave on the anniversary of her burial.
Bill walked off, turning to receive a few last waves. A tear dripped from one of Madeline's eyes, which she wiped off quickly with a tissue she kept hidden in the sleeve of her dress. Tucking his hands into his trousers, Bill left the hotel and began the long six mile walk back to his hotel, Ralph walking a hundred feet behind him. The sun was setting and the pollution in the city's air brought out magenta, pink, and peach colors, sheer artistry swirling across the sky. It was gorgeous and Bill looked up, studying the dying of the light, the burst of beauty the sun's setting created. Then he walked on, steady and solid, his long legs capturing great lengths of the sidewalk with each ambulation.
He reached his hotel a bit shy of two hours and climbed up the stairs to the second floor, reaching into his pocket for the key his room. He paused at the door for a moment, the key in the lock, his head bent down a little.
"Thanks, Kid, but I'm fine. You can fly home now," he said.
Ralph's mouth dropped open and he stood stunned.
"You're there, aren't you, Ralph?" Bill asked, still facing the door.
"I'm here, Bill," Ralph answered, his voice weak. "I'm sorry."
"It's okay. Don't worry about it."
"How'd you know?"
"Because…if things were reversed, I'd have followed you."
Ralph popped out of invisibility, standing in his red suit by the stairwell.
Bill turned and saw him. "That's what partners do. Right?"
"Right, Bill. That's what they do."
"Anyway, you'd make a terrible spy, even invisible. Now, go on. Get outta here. I'm tired and cranky and want to be alone. And keep quiet about this stuff. I don't need to have everything blabbed around town."
"I won't tell anyone."
Bill unlocked the door and opened it.
Ralph called out, "Bill, the flowers, they were beautiful."
Bill took a step in so that half his body was hidden by the door, his face turned away from Ralph. "Yeah, Chrysanthemums, gladiolas, carnations, all her favorites. Waste of money. They'll be brown by Tuesday and tossed in the trash. A real waste of money."
He entered the room and closed the door behind him.
Ralph stood there knowing that if he never did anything else right in his life, in the suit or out of it, he had done the right thing that day. Yeah, a year made a huge difference. He turned to go down the stairs, figuring it was easier to launch himself from the space of the parking lot than the second story walkway. The clothes on the roof he'd leave for someone to find and muse about.
A couple was walking up the stairs and the man mumbled "Freak" as he passed Ralph, laughter erupting from the woman.
Ralph didn't care. He was thinking about the flowers. He hadn't lied. They really had been beautiful.