Chapter 11

Bruce’s Twelfth Birthday

Many of the adults who came to the funeral also came to Bruce’s twelfth birthday party, in addition to perhaps twenty of Bruce’s friends and classmates. This one, Bruce knew, he couldn’t sit out. It would be the first large gathering he’d been to since. He was afraid he’d changed. What with his ambitions and his strange dreams he knew he had a lot on his mind.

Alfred set up the grill to the side of the pool, where one of the staff would be in charge of the hotdogs and hamburgers. It was unseasonably warm, so a lot of the guests brought their swimsuits. There was also an inflatable bouncy castle, though Alfred suspected that after this year most of the children would be too big for it. Lastly was the long table where Bruce would open his gifts. By 1:30 it was already crowded with them.

Claire Emory and her family made the trip from Chicago. They occupied a few guest rooms and were going to stay the weekend. Bruce had already seen her. From a single look she’d been able to tell he’d changed.

He came down into the party at around 2:00. He found John Aaron near the pool, and Maria soon materialized at his side. Already Bruce found himself pleasantly relieved: If there was something to be afraid of here Bruce couldn’t initially find it. No one asked anything of him, nor appeared to expect anything. They were simply glad to see him. As the afternoon passed he even began to smile. Since he was in his swim trunks he jumped in the pool and floated around for a few minutes. A memory came to him, that of his last birthday, and the sight of his parents laughing on each other’s arms. Thoughts such as these were often unavoidable. But Bruce didn’t choke up. When he got out of the pool he found a towel and approached Alfred, who was in conversation with Lucius Fox, a Wayne Enterprise bigwig from some division or another. They were having an adult conversation, something to do with Fox’s responsibility over something called Applied Sciences.

“Sure, we’ve got a lot of irons in the fire,” Lucius was saying, noticing Bruce, “but if there’s one investment Thomas never shirked from it was here. We’ve got dealings with infectious disease research at Gotham University, and contracts with the Pentagon.”

“The Pentagon?” Bruce asked.

“Yep. Arms manufacture and the like. Not everything catches their attention, but we’re creative.”

“What kind of stuff do you make?”

“All kinds, my young friend.”

“Have you an interest, Bruce?” Alfred asked.

“Sounds interesting.”

“You should come take a visit some day then. We’re located in North Park.”

“I know I want to learn more about the company.”

Alfred said: “Arms manufacture is a very lucrative element at Wayne Enterprises. Body armor for active duty soldiers, air transport.”

Lucius: “I think your father’s imagination sometimes got the best of him. Soldiers don’t often moonlight as superheroes after all.”

Alfred watched in Bruce what appeared to be a thought process.

“I’m very interested,” Bruce said. “How about next weekend?”

“It’s a date, young sir.”

Lucius went into his pocket and produced a business card. “Take this. Just give me a call and I’ll show you around.”

“Thanks,” Bruce said. “I guess I’ll go see my friends now,” then he drifted away.

“Seems like a sharp kid,” said Lucius.

“I think very highly of him,” Alfred agreed. “At some point he will have to learn about the company. When and how I suppose he’ll have to decide for himself.”

“Tall for his age too.”

“That he is.”

Then the conversation went on to more pertinent topics.

The party went on into the evening. Bruce opened his presents. He received a lot of clothes, books, Super Nintendo games, and movies on VHS. Most prominently Claire had bought him a bow and arrow, and, through coordination with Alfred, a haystack with a packet of paper bullseye targets. He and a few of his friends had fun with that one for a while. As the sun set some of the guests left, particularly those with children. When it got dark the assemblage moved indoors into Wayne Manor’s main dining hall. Some of the adults were inebriated. Though he’d gotten a stern look from Alfred, Bruce had had a few drinks himself. He made sure he got some for John Aaron and Maria too. The three of them were in the home theater room watching a Gotham Knights baseball game. They were playing the Red Sox and winning. The noise throughout this part of the mansion was plentiful. For Bruce it was a little tiring, but he was having fun. Initially, though, and especially as he drank (a lightly mixed gin and soda), melancholia threatened to overtake him.

“Good party, Bruce,” John Aaron said. “They really let you do what you want here.”

“I have to be responsible,” Bruce replied. “Alfred’s easy on me, but I have to my own mom and dad now.”

“I bet you miss them, huh?”

“Yeah, I do. This is the most people I’ve been around in a long time.”

“Hey, whatever happened between you and Clorous?” Maria interjected. “He never got back at you, did he?”

“Well you didn’t see it, did you?”

“I guess not. But I was surprised. Usually he’s the one doing the beating up.”

“I don’t know, I guess he dropped it. We had a conflict mediation meeting with Barbara and she had me tell him I was sorry, even though I wasn’t. He said he was sorry too. I didn’t even have to ask him.”

“Yeah, no one wears those stupid masks any more anyway,” said Maria. “He deserved it.”

“I think he agrees with you.”

“You sure did a number on him though,” John Aaron said, laughing.

“I did my time,” Bruce went on. “I was out of school for three days. I’ve been drawing a lot. That’s mostly what I did.”

“You should show me some time,” Maria said. “I’d love to see how good you are. You’re good in art class anyways.”

“Sure, just remind me. I need to learn more about the company too. We’re setting up some homeschool sessions for me.”

“Only weirdos do homeschool,” said Maria.

“What, you think learning about the company is less important than learning geometry or algebra? I have to be my own mom and dad. I should be spending my time learning things that I actually need to know.”

Maria smiled and patted his arm. “Don’t worry, I’m not calling you a weirdo. We would all miss you, that’s all.”

John Aaron again: “You’re really lucky Clorous and his brother didn’t decide to beat you up.”

“What, you wouldn’t have my back?”

“Well, for what it’s worth I guess I would. I don’t think I’d last five minutes.”

Maria: “Stop talking about Clorous! Everyone knows he had it coming. Those damn masks. No Joker any more, now we just have to worry about Bane.”

Bruce coughed. “Bane?”

“Yep. He killed another one the other day. Sent more pictures and another letter to the newspapers.”

“He says he only kills rich people,” said John Aaron.

“Well I guess that’s me.”

“Pretty scary city we live in,” said John Aaron.

Bruce: “At least no one’s putting on Bane masks.”

“I think everyone’s afraid of him,” said Maria. “I have a cousin who’s a cop. He says it’s usually hard to catch serial killers, and Gotham’s police aren’t making any progress at all.”

“What Gotham needs is someone who can,” said Bruce.

“Where would we find someone like that?” asked Maria.

“I don’t know. Someone who cares,” said Bruce. “There are so many angry people. There’s so much suffering. That’s why they put on those masks to begin with.”

Bruce finished the last of his drink.

“I kind of want another,” he said.

“You ever been drunk before?” asked Maria.

“This is officially my first.”

This made them all laugh.

“This is my second,” said Maria.

“First for me too,” said John Aaron.

“You guys want more? Maybe you can sleep over.”

“Get me another red wine,” said Maria.

“I’m a little behind here,” said John Aaron.

“Can do,” said Bruce. “I’ll be right back.”

Bruce took Maria’s plastic cup and left his friends. He navigated through the still thick crowd of adults to the bar and poured himself more gin and soda, then filled Maria’s cup with the first red wine he saw.

“Hey little buddy, take it easy there.”

Bruce looked up and saw Claire smiling at him.

“Really though,” she went on, “you drink too much you might be foolish and regret it tomorrow.”

“This is the first time I’ve ever been drunk.”

“Fun, isn’t it?”

“It is. I’m having a good time. I’m so glad I’m having a good time.”

“It’s nice to come and visit. I love Gotham.”

“So do I.”

Now Bruce didn’t know what to say. He’d never known Claire that well, though she was the only family he was aware of aside from his parents.

“Sorry,” she said. “You go back to your friends. Maybe we can all go out for breakfast in the morning.”

“Okay, that would be awesome.”

Then Bruce left her and returned to Maria and John Aaron, who mostly seemed to be awaiting his return. When he gave Maria her drink their hands touched briefly, and Bruce saw that she was looking at him. He’d heard about that happening when you drink too much. The three of them went on talking for another hour or so until Maria’s parents came and collected her. Bruce and John Aaron watched the rest of the baseball game. When his parents came he asked if he could stay the night and they said he could. But please, they added, don’t drink too much more. John Aaron promised he wouldn’t. Soon enough the party began to dissipate. After the game was over (the Knights won), they played Super Nintendo games for a few hours then went to sleep, both of them on couches in the home theater room. In the morning the lot of them went out for breakfast, then they took John Aaron home. Bruce felt extremely relieved to find himself in good spirits. Maybe there wasn’t too much to be afraid of after all, at least not amongst his friends. He found himself thinking more about Maria. That might be an interesting bit of something. Yet there were so many bigger things he knew he had to worry about.

He did some more drawing that afternoon, then he went to sleep, and, once again, was visited by the frustratingly inarticulate dreams. Bane had already picked out a new target, and, no matter how much Bruce wished otherwise, he was absolutely powerless to prevent it. All he could do was what the dream people suggested: to make himself ready. That he would continue to do.

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