Charge, The

«3»

By Chip Masterson

Little Danny Henderson turned 13 yesterday.

I say "little" even though he's 5'7" and weighs 162 lbs. He really shot up over the summer.

On his birthday he took the SATs. He said he was bored with school. So they prepared a special test for him, at his request. Actually, he made his parents pay to have the tests produced and administered.

My SATs came in at 1060. I got into Cal State Long Beach on a football scholarship. That's the best I could do. Even with Danny coaching me; he was 12 then. He's 13 now, and in the time it took me to struggle through that fucker and score 1060, Danny completed two tests. One was a standard English version and one was a special test with each question written in one of 5 languages: French, Russian, Mandarin, Arabic and Sanskrit. He finished both tests in 2 hours and had time to come out and toss the football with me. My hand still stings from catching his passes.

It took a team of experts (not the usual grad students) to score his tests. You know the results; he got perfect 1600s on both of them. He got offers from naive universities all over the world. I had hoped he would take one of them, the Sorbonne or Oxford or Harvard or MIT. The government has been trying to recruit him for some sort of special program. He called me over to his house one afternoon.

"Catch!" he shouted as I walked up his driveway.

I saw a blur and instinctively turned my football-toughened back to him, cringing. An engine block sparked and skittered down the concrete beside me, wires waving and leaving an oil slick behind it. He laughed and I turned around, ashen.

"You loser, I wouldn't hit ya. I just wanted to see your face. But you turned around, you fuck." Danny laughed again. His voice had deepened along with the broadening of his shoulders. Still, his strength was deceptive, hidden inside his densely-packed muscle fibers and leveraged tendon-connection points on his iron bones. Iron that was still growing, expanding as the raging hormones surged through his hot-wired system. Oh, man, I thought. I hope to shit this is goodbye.

"I wanted to talk about the future. You've been my good friend for a year now and I want to repay you." The sunlight twinkled off his eyes and golden, curly hair and I knew he was destined to be a major heartbreaker. My conquests in the backseat will pale before his. And he's only 13.

"You gave me no choice to be your friend. You demanded it. And..." I trailed off. I was angry but I didn't want to get him angry. I really, really didn't.

"And you're such a nice guy you just couldn't say no. That's what I like about you. You're an okay guy." He laughed again, his chest vibrating with the rich, booming sound. I don't care what anyone says about age. This kid was a man. A man someone melded with a kid. He was a total freak. "I wanna do something different. You know how I'm always breakin' shit."

Breaking shit. I thought of the die-press he ruined in that old factory the first night I had to "baby sit" him. The cyclotron he demolished at UCLA that they still haven't solved. I remembered the night he took me to the old garage where his Dad had first "trained" him, the mangled hydraulic lifts, the twisted steel, the shafts bent over, the ruptured drums. He'd done that when he was 10 and 11.

The way he wakes me up if my parents aren't home and I'm sleeping in some Saturday, exhausted from a game the night before. He goes to the corner of the house, where my room is, and lifting up the whole fucking house, shakes me awake. Thank Christ our house isn't bolted to the foundation, the damage would have been hard to explain. He doesn't lift it far, just a few inches, but he knocks stuff off shelves and I've had to tape everything down. My parents think I have an earthquake fixation, but it's not the San Andreas fault that scares me. Danny might yet show that little crack a thing or two.

The things he crushed in his hands: pool balls, geodes. Ball bearings flattened by rolling them between his fingers. He could pinch a cinder block between his thumb and any finger and crack it. There was one night that had the city confounded.

It was late and nobody was around this particular block. Danny was hyper, looking for some release, and at the corner his eyes lit up. Approaching a parking meter, Danny swatted it and listened to it ring, watched it vibrate on its solid post. Then he reached out and pulled on the meter and his arms swelled, his shirt pulling tight across his back. The meter held its ground until it suddenly gave three inches with a sharp wrench. Danny quickly moved a hand on top of the canted meter and pressed down; the two-inch steel pipe caved in at the giving point and with a cranking sound of overpowered metal the meter bent farther, and farther, until the meter itself sparked against the concrete and the thick steel was folded out and flattened about four inches above the sidewalk. I looked closer and saw small cracks radiating out from post that might have been there before, but weren't around any of the others. He shook out his visibly pumped arms, the muscles bouncing thickly, his sweet-acrid sweat filling the air. "Cool!" His blond head bobbed in approval of the steel post bent double before him, as if in worship. He worked his way down the street.

Each meter gave a token resistance of hardened steel meeting iron muscle, and each meter made that cranking sound as muscle overcame steel's solidity. The network of cracks spread out into the sidewalk until they started to look like legs coming out of weird space creatures that can't support themselves under Earth's gravity--only it's Danny's gravity that's greater. He stopped after the last one and pondered.

"How much money you think's in this thing?" he asked, squinting in the streetlight's orange glare. "How often to they empty them?"

"Not often enough?" I ventured.

"You got that." And Danny reached over and sharply wrenched the meter up a few inches. Squatting down, he put his hands around the meter and started to twist. The meter instantly put out a ticking sound but it wasn't the time hand, it was whatever someone thought would secure it firmly to the post. The ticking got louder and faster and something else went CLINK CLINK CLUNK. This must be the anti-twist mounting system breaking under Danny's strong fingers, gone white with the pressure. The housing was starting to warp out of shape in his hands but another obstacle was met, and Danny began to twist with his shoulders and back. A deeper series of pops made the coins inside jingle and Danny took a deep breath. His sweat hung in the air like musk; he reared back. A rasping sound tore loose as the pipe's thick threads stripped and the housing rattled off the twisted and gouged pipe end.

Turning the meter housing over, he put his fingers into the hole and pulled. Small rips sounded from the seams of his T-shirt as the cotton stretched in ways it was never intended to stretch for boys Danny's age. A CHING sound came out of the housing and Danny's arms began to tremble a little. I reached out and felt his pulse; it poked along at 70 beats per minute, not much more than most people's resting heart rate. But the fierce tension he was placing on that cast iron housing wasn't normal. His fingers moved around, seeking the weakness with expert dexterity until I heard a hard crack and saw a lightning-bolt line widen from the top downward. Danny smiled and gave a firm pull and the iron sheared apart from his force. He reached down and peeled the iron back until chunks broke off in his hands, like orange peels.

But the change was still inside a locked compartment, probably sealed with bolts. Danny pulled this out, wires pulling taut and snapping off, and held it in his hand like a heart. Then his fingers tightened, talon like, and trembled a little. The change rattled inside and soft creaking sound filled the air. The muscles of his forearm bulged like rocks attached to cables, and hardened beneath his skin. A trickle of sweat ran down from his armpit into the meshing muscles of his side. The mini-vault clocked and ticked and the tips of his fingers grew red. His face squeezed down as he poured his arm strength into that steel box. Finally he shook his head and pounded it against the concrete in frustration. The sidewalk cracked and caved in and the safe was flattened a little on that side but it still held tight. With a chilling look of vengeance, Danny took the safe in both hands and held it before his chest. Like he did with that basketball.

He looked up, breathed in and out, and suddenly pressed inward. His t-shirt ripped instantly across the swell of his lats and the sleeves dragged up across his delts as his biceps forced them back. Instantly the steel vault creaked but his pressure built geometrically and I watched the steel shift and try to bulge, but his fingers held it in and squeezed it back into place, and his palms exponentially magnified their force and the tortured steel imploded, cracks bent inward past cracks and hunks of steel shattered inward and jangled with the coins that began to filter out through his fingers in a metallic rain. His palms still ground the steel into itself and the ball got smaller and his fingers closed around it and nothing could not escape. The implosion stopped and he took a breath, his collarbone rising under his shirt above thick slabs of pecs, and he crushed it inward again.

Blood rushing and pounding in my ears drowned out the sound of steel and nickel and copper and silver scraping together as the sides continued to shatter and crumble beneath his power. His arms shook and he sucked in air between his teeth and raised his elbows. With one last savage grunt he squashed it into itself and let go. The ball of shattered and re-pressed steel and coinage fell with a dully ringing thud to the sidewalk and not a piece fell off, so tightly had the shards and coins been bent and fused into each other by this kid's muscles.

"Well, it wasn't really about the money, was it?" I said as he smiled, panting. I checked his pulse. It had gone up to 80. Still lower than mine, at the moment.

One hot Saturday he twisted off a fire-hydrant cap with his bare hand with a rusty scrape and before the water could burst out put his mouth to the spigot and plugged the hole with his tongue. I laughed and told him he'd be soaked when he stood up, and moved to the other side. He got that look in his eye and decided we'd both get wet.

Placing his hands on other side, he pressed his legs into the concrete sidewalk. I heard a clinking sound, and saw little cracks radiating from his bare feet. Then his legs really swelled up and the eight bolts holding all that water pressure to the cement couldn't handle the pressure of this kid's muscle. The sound of deep steel snapping, of thick rusty nuts stripping off thick bolts was drowned out by the rumble and roar of water surging up and drenching us both. He pulled his tongue out and it was red with rust. The smell of cold water on hot pavement will always remind me of metal stripping metal in his hands.

But Danny didn't like the struggle the hydrant put up. He held it up before him and said through gritted teeth, "You challenging me? You think you can take me?" And he put the hydrant under his arm and started rubbing the top, like he was giving it a noogie.

But his arm pressed down on the iron casing and lat pressed into it. It made him angry, how dense and thick that iron was. He brought his free hand around and grabbed his own wrist, increasing the pressure of arm and lat and intercostal against stubborn cast iron. His arms trembled and his face grew red. Glaring with contempt and rage that made me colder than the water he gritted his teeth and flared his traps up behind his neck. His biceps and triceps spread out like across the helpless hydrant and his delt throbbed in impending triumph of muscle over metal.

Nothing hollow in the center, however many inches of cast iron stand on either side of the tube, could long endure the fury of this hormone-crazed spoiled little brat. The brittle iron versus blood-pumping muscle? A dull clang rang out as the yellow iron split diagonally along it's length. I had trouble breathing as I saw it-- no matter what he made witness, I never got used to it. Never.

I was afraid he might continue to mangle the broken iron, play with it like it was mud. But he just dropped it to the ground and let the neighbors call the police. Nobody would believe them. That's how he got away with this shit.

"Grab a couple of buckets & fill `em with water," he said as I thought about these things. "You carry `em. I gotta preserve my strength." And with that he headed out towards this vacant lot. The buckets he meant were big 25-gallon ones. I'm no panty-waist so I hefted them up on a pole across my shoulders. Still, 50 gallons of sloshing water can get to a guy. I was really sweating when I caught up to him.

Danny was standing over a maple sapling he'd pulled out by the roots on his birthday. It was less than a year old so he yanked it out like it was a weed and stared at it awhile. I was feeling kind of cocky so I asked him, "Why'd ya go and do that for? It wasn't hurtin' you."

"I want to try something," he'd said. But he just walked away.

So he motioned for me to put the buckets down by the withering tree. The roots were limp and dry and the leaves had that seared look. He picked the sapling up in one hand and stuck it into the bucket of water. Then he took his shirt off.

"My mom says I gotta stop ripping these up," he said with a kind of embarrassment. He cracked his back and I heard the vertebrae pop and snap. He twisted around (he could almost get 190 degrees now) and stretched. Again I marveled at how the thick cables of lean sinew ran down his arms and gathered together at his sweeping chest and flaring lats before spreading out again like giant fingers down his sides and sinking into his gladiatorial six-pack. I had to hate him. I've been pumping iron for years to achieve what I had and here was this 13 year old just bulging with strength I'd never achieve. But these thoughts were cut short.

He put his two hands around the bole of the tree. Rolling his crackling neck around he straightened up and tensed his arms. They still looked kind of thin-- until he flexed. Then they doubled in size. But he wasn't squeezing the tree: he could have pulverized the wood with one hand. He had his fingers laced around the tree and his eyes were closed in strict concentration. I couldn't figure it out until I looked down at the bucket. I saw the muddy water was lower than when I put it down. A LOT lower.

Danny's muscles were tense as tempered steel and he started to tremble. His chest expanded and heavy breath blew out his nostrils and his back swelled up like a balloon. What the--?

Then a leaf fell off. The lower leaves were driest. Another one fell, and another. Soon all the curled, withered leaves were raining down and the bucket was full of wet muddy sludge. He swiftly moved it into the other, which immediately began to dip. The highest leaves, about ten feet off the ground, looked greener than before. I gasped. He was bringing a fucking tree back to life! Somehow he was pouring his living strength into that dying tree and giving it life. Finally that bucket was empty too and the tree looked honestly alive. The roots stood out in all directions. He picked it up in one hand--now holding about forty gallons of water--and took it over the hole where he ripped it up. He balanced it in the air while his foot reached in and dug back the dirt--did I mention his toes? I'll tell you about his toes sometime, he uses PVC piping and--but I'm getting off the subject. When the hole was cleared he planted the tree and packed the dirt firmly around the roots. And I mean firmly, that sucker wouldn't bend in a storm.

"The roots'll take hold soon. I thought I could do that. Notice how I heal up real quick, and never get a cold or the flu? I've been feeling power just flowing out my muscles." He flexed his biceps in the sunlight and they rivaled that star's glowing power. Big, round, mature muscles bristling on a kid.

Now I like pussy, I've said it before, but the way he looked at me gave me a funny feeling. Like he read my mind he said, "You like girls, don't you?"

"Don't you?" I asked. At that at least I was still superior to him. For now, anyway.

"Yeah, man, of course. But why limit yourself? I'm so horny I wanna fuck everything, old people, linebackers, nature. I wanna fuck a mountain and make it my bitch. God I'm horny!"

"You just keep that thing away from me or I might get superhuman strength myself." I shook inside as I said it. Was it a lie?

"I wouldn't hurt you, man, you're my bro. That's what I wanted to tell you. I'm not going away to school, I'm gonna go to Cal Tech right here. We'll be able to see each other all the time. After I'm done teaching those braniacs a thing or two."

I felt a tightness in my chest as he walked away. I'd learned to joke with him about this stuff but it more than amazed me, it frightened me in a deep way. If he ever lost control... And he's just starting to hit puberty. By the time he's fully grown, he may be unstoppable. And by then, he'll be a lot more obvious. He won't be able to hide behind the "roving band of vandals" authorities credit with his acts of destruction. All too soon, it will become conceivable that he's at the root of all this. And by then, what can anyone do about it? It weighs on me, knowing.

On the way home we passed the new parking meters going in all over town. Big flat steel locks ran around the vaults and steel sleeves had been fitted over the posts, doubling their diameter. All that new steel glinted in the sun, and Danny's eyes twinkled back in anticipation. I had a feeling it was going to be a late night tonight. •


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