I never thought I would save the world --- or die saving it. I never believed in angels or miracles, either, and I sure didn't think of myself as a hero. Nobody would have, including you, if you had known me before I took the world's most powerful weapon and let it fall into the hands of a lunatic. Maybe after you hear my story you won't think I'm much of a hero anyway, since most of my heroics if you want to call them that resulted from my being a screw-up. A lot of people died because of me --- including me --- but I guess I'm getting ahead of myself and I better start from the beginning.
It began with my uncle Farrell wanting to be rich. He never had much money growing up and, by the time Mr. Arthur Myers came along with his once-in-a-lifetime deal, my uncle was forty years old and sick of being poor. Being poor isn't one of those things you get used to, even if being poor is all you've ever been. So when Mr. Myers flashed the cash, all other considerations --- like if any of it was legal, for instance --- were forgotten. Of course, Uncle Farrell had no way of knowing who Mr. Arthur Myers actually was, or that his name wasn't even Arthur Myers.
But I'm getting ahead of myself again. Maybe I should just start with me.
I was born in Salina, Ohio, the first and last child of Annabelle Kropp. I never knew my dad. He took off before I was born.
Mom's pregnancy was difficult and very long. It was almost ten and a half months when the doctor decided to get me the heck out of there before I exploded from her stomach like some kind of alien hatchling.
I was born big and just kept getting bigger. At birth, I weighed over twelve pounds and my head was about the size of a watermelon. Okay, maybe not the size of a watermelon, but definitely as big as a cantaloupe --- one of those South American cantaloupes, which is a lot bigger than your California variety.
By the time I was five, I weighed over ninety-pounds and stood four feet tall. At ten, I hit six feet and two hundred pounds. I was off the pediatrician's growth chart. Mom was pretty worried by that point. She put me on special diets and started me on an exercise program.
Because of my large head, big hands and feet and my general shyness, a lot of people assumed I was mentally handicapped. Mom must have been worried about that, too, because she had my I.Q. tested. She never told me the results. When I asked her, she said I most definitely was not. "You're just a big boy meant for big things," she said.
I believed her. Not the part about being meant for big things, but the part about me not being retarded, since I never saw my scores and it was one of those things where you have to believe that your parent isn't lying.
We lived in a little apartment near the supermarket where she worked as an assistant manager. Mom never got married, though occasionally a boyfriend came around. She took a second job keeping the books for a couple of mom-and-pop stores. I remember going to bed most nights with the sounds of her calculator snapping in the kitchen.
Then, when I was twelve, she died of cancer.
One morning she had found a tender spot on her left temple. Four months later, she was dead and I was alone.
I spent a couple of years shuttling between foster homes, until Mom's brother, my uncle Farrell, volunteered to take me in, to his place in Knoxville, Tennessee. I had just turned fifteen.
I didn't see much of Uncle Farrell: He worked as a night watchman at an office building in downtown Knoxville and slept most of the day. He wore a black uniform with an embroidered gold shield on the shoulder. He didn't carry a gun, but he did have a nightstick, and he thought he was very important.
I spent a lot of time in my bedroom, listening to music or reading. This bothered Uncle Farrell, because he considered himself a man of action, despite the fact that he sat on his butt for eight hours every night doing nothing but staring at surveillance monitors. Finally, he asked me if I wanted to talk about my mom's death. I told him I didn't. I just wanted to be left alone.
"Alfred," he said. "Look around you. Look at the movers and shakers of this world. Do you think they got to be where they are by lying around all day reading books and listening to rap music?"
"I don't know how they got to be where they are," I said. "So I guess they could have."
He didn't like my answer, so he sent me to see the school psychologist, Dr. Francine Peddicott. She was very old and had a very long, sharp nose, and her office smelled like vanilla. Dr. Peddicott liked to ask questions. In fact, I can't remember anything she said that wasn't a question besides "Hello, Alfred," and "Goodbye, Alfred."
"Do you miss your mother?" she asked on my first visit, after asking me if I wanted to sit or lie on the sofa. I chose to sit.
"Sure. She was my mom."
"What do you miss most about her?"
"She was a great cook."
"Really? You miss her cooking the most?"
"Well, I don't know. You asked what I missed most and that's the first thing that popped into my head. Maybe because it's almost dinnertime. Also, Uncle Farrell can't cook. I mean, he cooks, but what he cooks I wouldn't feed to a starving dog. Mostly we have frozen dinners and stuff out of a can."
She scribbled for a minute in her little notebook.
"But your mother --- she was a good cook?"
"She was a great cook."
She sighed heavily. Maybe I wasn't giving the kind of answers she was looking for. "Do you hate her sometimes?"
"Hate her for what?"
"Do you hate your mother for dying?"
"Oh, jeez, that wasn't her fault."
"But you get mad at her sometimes, right? For leaving you?"
"I get mad at the cancer for killing her. I get mad at the doctors and . . . you know, how it's been around for centuries and we still can't get rid of it. Cancer, I mean. And I think, what if we put all the money we spend on these wasteful government projects and stuff like that toward cancer research. You know, stuff like that."
"What about your father?"
"What about him?"
"Do you hate him?"
"I don't even know him."
"Do you hate him for leaving you and your mom?"
She was making me feel freaky, like she was trying to get me to hate my father, a guy I didn't even know, and even like she was trying to get to me hate my dead mother.
"I guess so, but I don't know all the facts," I said.
"Your mother didn't tell you?"
"She just said he couldn't commit."
"And how does that make you feel?"
"Like he didn't want a kid."
"Like he didn't want --- who?"
"Me. Me, I guess. Of course, me."
I wondered what the next thing I was supposed to hate was.
"How do you like school?"
"I hate it."
"I don't know anyone."
"You don't have any friends?"
"They call me Frankenstein."
"Kids at school. You know, because of my size. My big head."
"What about girls?" she asked.
"Girls calling me Frankenstein?"
"Do you have a girlfriend?"
Well, there was this one girl --- her name was Amy Pouchard, and she sat two seats over from me in math. She had long blond hair and very dark eyes. One day during my first week, I thought she might have smiled at me. She could have been smiling at the guy on my left, or even not smiling at all, and I just projected a smile onto a non-smiling face.
"No. No girlfriends," I said.
Uncle Farrell talked to Dr. Peddicott for a long time afterwards. He told me she was referring me to a psychiatrist who could prescribe some anti-depressants because Dr. Peddicott believed I was severely depressed and recommended I get involved with something other than TV and music, in addition to seeing a shrink and taking anti-crazy drugs. Uncle Farrell's idea was football, which wasn't too surprising given my size, but football was the last thing I wanted to do.
"Uncle Farrell," I told him. "I don't want to play football."
"You're high-risk, Al," Uncle Farrell answered. "You're running around with all the risk-factors for a major psychotic episode. One, you got no dad. Two, you got no mom. Three, you're living with an absentee caretaker --- me --- and four you're in a strange town with no friends.
"There was another one, too. Oh, yeah. And five, you're fifteen."
"I want to get my license," I told him.
"Your license for what?"
"For driving. I want my learner's permit."
"I'm telling you that you're about to go off the deep end and you want to talk about getting your learner's permit?"
"That reminded me, the fact that I'm fifteen."
"Dr. Peddicott thought it was a great idea," Uncle Farrell said.
"A learner's permit?"
"No! You're going out for the football team. One, you need some kind of activity. Two, it's a great way to build confidence and make friends. And three, look at you! For the love of the Blessed Virgin, you're some kinda force of nature! Any coach would love to have you on his team."
"I don't like football," I said.
"You don't like football? How can you not like football? What kind of kid are you? What kind of American kid doesn't like football? I suppose next you're going to say you want to take dancing lessons!"
"I don't want to take dancing lessons."
"That's good, Al. That's real good. Because if you said you wanted to take dancing lessons, I don't know what I'd do. Throw myself over a cliff or something."
"I don't like pain."
"Ah, come on. They'll bounce off you like --- like --- pygmies! Gnats! Little pygmy gnats!"
"Uncle Farrell, I cry if I get a splinter. I faint at the sight of blood. And I bruise very easily. I'm a very easy bruiser."
But Uncle Farrell wouldn't take no for an answer. He ended up bribing me. He told me he wouldn't take me to get my learner's permit unless I tried out for the football team. And, if I didn't try out for the team, he promised he would put me on so much anti-depressant dope I wouldn't remember to sit when I crapped. Uncle Farrell could be gross like that.
I really wanted my permit --- I also didn't want to be so doped up I couldn't remember how to crap --- so I went out for the team.