Age of Gallantry

The muffled screech of an alarm yanked Sally out of her dream.

She poked her head out from under the fuzzy comforter and shoved a fist into her eye, rubbing. Sally was fourteen; her skin was a warm ochre, with hair that gushed out into short, thumb-thick charcoal curls.

The alarm kept screeching. Sally made a face and kept grinding into her eye-socket. She was in no rush to investigate. Her pink, over-sized flannel PJs and naked feet were no match for the cold wooden floor.

But then, the screech became a warbling yelp — and stopped. Sally frowned, lowered her fist, and sat up.

Nothing was out of place. Their toys, clothes, and school supplies were still neatly stacked in color-coded plastic bins. Silver light seeped in through the window. Through it, she could see the moon peeking out from behind the next apartment. The door to their bedroom was closed.

She tugged at the blanket. Her brother mumbled in complaint and tugged back. Alex was twelve; his skin was a deeper shade of tawny brown. He kept his hair much shorter, with the curls tightly packed against his scalp. Sally lifted the blanket up to slip out. She tried not to roll her eyes *too* much at the sight of his SPIDER-MAN shirt.

As she slipped free, a gulp of heat escaped with her. Alex whimpered. Shivering in the cold, Sally paused to tuck the thick comforter back around her brother. Then, rubbing her arms, she hopped her way to the door. She reached out to open it.

The knob was *burning* hot.

Sally smothered a squeal of pain and shoved two burnt fingertips into her mouth. Suckling away, she looked up. Wisps of white-gold smoke drifted out from the door's upper edge, licking at the ceiling. Her walnut-brown eyes grew wide and luminous with understanding.

She darted back to the mattress and seized the comforter. Alex yelped with shock as she yanked it off of him. Sally was no longer worried about keeping him warm.

Alex sat up and shivered, watching her with a groggy confusion. "Wha…?"

Sally had already dragged the comforter to the door. She wrapped it around the knob, insulating it — then gave the door a firm, hard shove.

It opened. Behind it, waves of scorching orange-red light surged out to greet her.

She slammed the door shut and spun around to face her brother. Alex wasn't groggy anymore. His eyes were alert; his small face was crinkled with worry. He opened his mouth to say something, but nothing came out.

Adrenaline pumped through Sarah's brain and heart. Her chest heaved with every gulp of air. She was racking her brain for all the lessons she learned in school about fire safety. The only thing she could remember was something about never opening a door when the knob felt hot. Whelp, too late for *that* one.

Overhead, a thick white cloud began to blanket the cracked, aging ceiling tiles. The room was getting foggy. With each breath, Sally could taste the harsh, acrid odor of smoke.

Sirens began to wail in the distance.

"Sally… what do we do?"

Alex's voice was trembling; it was no more than a whisper. His eyes were like huge, dark plums. They sucked all the light out of the room.

Sally swallowed back her fear and straightened her back. She forced herself to focus on what she knew, and what she could control. Her attention turned to the window. "There," she said, and then she darted to it. After a few hard, frantic tugs, she realized it was jammed shut. She turned back to Alex.

"We need to open this. We need to let them know where we are."

Alex nodded. "Oh… oh-okay."

He rose out of bed and stumbled toward one of the plastic bins. Wrapping his arms around it, he pulled it toward the window. Sally ran over to help him. They were lifting it up together to smash it against the glass when they heard someone *knocking*.

"Hey! Hey!"

Both of them dropped the bin at the same time. It popped open; lego bricks spilled out over their bare feet and across the wooden floor. For a moment, they just stared at each other — numb and uncomprehending.

The knocking came again. This time, it was louder.

"Hey! Anyone in there?! Can you hear me?!"

Sally turned first. "Yes!" she squeaked out. "Yes! We're in here! Help!"

"Stand back!"

She curled an arm around Alex's waist and pulled him close. Alex hugged back.

Something slammed into the door. It creaked, bulging inward. Several cracks split open over its surface. Sally squeezed Alex closer; she sank to the floor and turned, shielding him.

It hit the door again. This time, the door *shattered* — a spray of cheap timber flew into the room. The force of the blow gouged the metal hinges out of the frame. A wave of heat and light swelled forth, crashing over them both.

When the dust settled, Sally and Alex lifted their heads and looked up.

A young man stood in the doorway.

He wasn't much taller than Sally. He wore a black hoodie, blue jeans, a polyester sack pack, and a black ski-mask. Flecks of ash and still-burning embers were sprinkled over his shoulders. The fire raged behind him.

Alex's grip on Sally tightened. They both stared at the young man, mute with shock. He said nothing. The only other sound was the rumbling crackle behind him — and the steady rise of sirens.

Seconds ticked by.

Eventually, Alex spoke:

"…um, are you… are you — Spider-Man?"

Again, there was a stretch of silence.

And then:

"Yes. That is *precisely* who I am."

Outside the tenement, fire trucks and ambulances swarmed the street. Thick, grey-white smoke poured out of the apartment's third story. A growing crowd — most of them dressed for bed — watched with mounting curiosity and a hint of dread. Emergency responders maintained a perimeter, keeping onlookers back.

A brown woman with thick, shoulder-length curls was fighting her way past them. She wore a waitress outfit; her face was overcome with terror and panic. It took at least two fire-fighters to hold her back — and they were losing ground fast.

"Please," she said, her voice hitching. "Please, my kids are in there, my kids are—"

"Mom! Over here!"

Sally's voice sliced through the woman's fear. She turned to face her children. Both of them were sitting in the back of an ambulance, flanked by EMTs. They were wrapped up tight in blankets. Sally looked pensive, but relieved; Alex had a huge grin. He clutched a ski-mask to his chest.

The woman pulled back from the fire-fighters and swooped toward her children like a hawk. Her arms swallowed them up in an enormous hug that almost wrenched them off the back of the truck. As she clutched them, Alex wriggled up to shove the mask toward her — crooning over it like it was a trophy.

"It's s'okay, mom. Spider-Man was there," he explained. "He saved us. It was so cool."

Three stories up, the young man stood on the rooftop's edge and watched.

Without his mask, it was clear he was just a little older than the girl. Fifteen, maybe. His sable hair was short, and curled into his scalp in tight, dense loops. His skin was a deep russet, but the night's excitement left his face flushed with a burgundy glow.

His narrow, lean chest heaved for air. His head was buzzing. His heart was a jackhammer.

He felt *amazing*.

"So cool," Max whispered.

His cell-phone went off. It began to sing: 'Spider-Man, Spider-Man, does whatever a Spider can—'

Max tugged it out of his jeans and peered at the screen. He took a few seconds to catch his breath, then lifted it up to his ear and answered.

"Oh, uh, hey, yeah, grandpa, sorry — got distracted. Yeah, I — I'll be home in just a minute. Yeah. Love you. Bye."

He slipped the phone back into his pocket. With one last glance down, he hopped off the roof — and into an alleyway below.

Across the classroom blackboard, Ms. Cortez had written several words: 'DNA', 'Deoxyribonucleic acid', and 'evolution' were among the most prominent.

Ms. Cortez was an older woman; olive-skinned, with short, dense, curly steel-gray hair. Her left eyelid drooped a bit, and she had a peculiar wobble when she walked. Some of the students called her 'SeƱorita Droopy' behind her back.

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