Before Steelheart was the mighty and powerful Steelheart, he was a weak and rather pathetic Tucker. For most, this humble introduction might be the beginning of some glorious and heroic story. For Tucker, however, this was not the case.
Before Calamity, Tucker was a pale and skinny even for a 17 year-old. He persistently looked tired and hungry. Most of the time he was. He’d be less hungry if his mother stayed sober long enough to get a job, but he accepted bitterly that that was wishful thinking. And, he often thought to himself, less tired if his dad didn’t come home so late and then decide to throw another one of his earth-shattering tantrums. But he did. Almost every night. Sometimes Tucker could laugh at his situation. It was funny, after all, that a grown man could get upset about something so little as a few dishes in the sink. And sometimes it was funny that his mother couldn’t figure out what she was doing wrong. Most of the time, though, it sucked. He would have skipped town by now (like they’d care, anyway) if it weren’t for his little sister. Oh, how often the caught himself imagining a better life for her.
Hearing the door open was more often than not a bad sign. So much so, in fact, that Tucker learned to take it as a cue to make himself scarce when he heard it. On this fall afternoon, he heard the keys jangling drunkenly in the front door as his dad muttered under his breath. He deftly swept his homework up from the table and grabbed his backpack. He was becoming good at gauging the clearance needed before his dad even stumbled through the door. This one was going to be bad. Home early and already drunk. He felt a vague and unpleasant sadness settle on his chest.
“Poppy!” Tucker called to his sister as loudly as he dared. His dad had finally figured out the door. It slammed open and then swung lazily back into its frame. His father Noah was a large man, and his stature wasn’t any less impressive even as he swayed dangerously through the hall.
Poppy slunk into the dining room. It pained Tucker to realize that she learned to do that the hard way. Her skinny face was a mixture of hope and worry. She knew what his harsh whisper meant.
“Wanna go get some ice cream or somethin’?” he asked as casually as he could manage.
“Yeah!” She mirrored his forced excitement without meaning to. She knew the drill. The sadness grew heavier as he studied her for a moment. He shook himself out of it.
“Well, c’mon!” he gestured for her to exit out the back door. He thanked god for whoever invented back doors.
“MINDY,” Noah bellowed, “GET DOWN HERE!”
Poppy disguised her flinch as a jump for the door. Tucker snatched the car keys off of the rusty hook and checked over his shoulder. His dad was too busy shouting up the stairs to notice their escape. He shut the door softly.
Outside was so much nicer. The stale air gave way to crispness. It smelled like fall, and Tucker took a deep breath of it. Poppy was already at the beat up car, tugging impatiently at the door handle. The cracked window was crudely fixed with duct tape, evidence of a previous drunken outburst. He gave her a small smile before unlocking it. She practically hopped into the car. He slid into the driver’s seat, and turned to her.
“Where to this time?”
“McDonald’s it is.” He started the car. She hesitated before speaking.
“Should we..,” She was twisting the sleeves of her sweater, “Stay? Or bring mom…”
Tucker’s heart broke for the third time in the past five minutes.
“Pop…” he didn’t know how to explain why that was such a bad idea.
“I know.” She said softly. Tucker glanced at her and immediately wished he hadn’t. Her small framed looked so haggard.
They drove in silence for a while. Poppy stared out of the cracked window at the trees and people that blurred past. The tinny music crackled through the speakers just loud enough for them to hear. Their sadness hung in the air like a heavy fog. Tucker scrambled for something, anything.
“How about that weather, huh?” He joked. She giggled, but the sound was empty.
“What do you say we roll down the windows? And… screw it. We’ll go on the freeway.” he suggested half-heartedly. Poppy turned to beam at him. She loved the wind in her hair, the faster the better. Tucker always said no to the freeway, though. Too dangerous. Until now, that is. There’ll always be other dangerous things to worry about anyways. He took her smile as a yes and cranked up the music. The fog seemed to be swept out of the car as he rolled down the windows.
Tucker wished he could live in that moment forever. She looked like a kid right then, an innocent and happy kid. Her smile reached her eyes. Tucker gave her a grin back and turned onto the freeway. He yelped as their speed grew. So did Poppy. She screamed out the window like a lunatic. Her voice was carried away by the wind. She laughed, a sound Tucker thought might be his favorite thing to hear.
“YEAAAHHHH!” Tucker whooped. She giggled again. He felt genuinely happy.
They got back to the house too soon. Steelheart thinks about that a lot. What if there had been just a bit more traffic? Or if he had stayed in the car for a few minutes?
The kitchen light was on as they snuck back through the door. Tucker’s stomach turned at the sound of his mother sobbing and his dad screaming.
“Oh, Poppy! I have something cool to show you! It’s in the trunk!” he stage whispered. Was there actually anything in the trunk? Absolutely not. Was that going to stop him? Still no. He was about to go to the door to dart through it again when he realized that his dad had stopped screaming. The hairs on the back of his neck stood up as he turned.
As he had feared and expected, his dad stood with his hands balled into fists. Absurdly, the only thought that passed through Tucker’s mind was how he managed to stay so fit when all he did was work, drink, and scream.
“Where were you, Tuck?” he said in a controlled and deadly quiet voice. Tucker suppressed the urge to run. Instead he stepped in front of Poppy.
“We – I got ice cream. Sorry I was out so late.” He said cautiously.
“You know you’re not allowed to take the car without asking. What if I had to drive your mom to the hospital?” Poppy covered her mouth with both hands. That had happened before, something they both remembered vividly. Tucker didn’t bother to point out that there had never been any rules about the car. He took a step back as Noah advanced.
“Hey Pop, why don’t you go finish your homework? In your room.” he hinted out of the side of his mouth. Poppy slipped from his protective grasp and ducked out the room.
“Sorry isn’t going to cut it.” Tucker let out a tiny sigh of relief. Poppy had gone completely unnoticed.
“I’m sorry, sir.”
“You think that’s funny?” His fists curled and flexed menacingly.
“ Uh, n-no.” he hated himself for sounding so weak.
“Why’d you say it?” He took another step.
“I- I don’t know?”
From the other room came Poppy’s shrill scream.
“MOMMY! MOM! No no no no, Mommy…”
Tucker saw his father’s eyes dart towards the living room. He watched him weigh his options. Tucker bolted. His dad did the same, getting to the room before Tucker could.
“You leave her be!” the father yelled, “you step away from her! She deserved everything I gave her!”
What Tucker saw would stay with him for the rest of his years. Even as the invincible Steelheart, he’d be tormented by nightmarish visions of his half dead mother. She was bleeding heavily, so much so that he couldn’t tell where from. Her breathing was shallow, and her frantic sobs were broken by the occasional wince. She reached weakly to Poppy, trying to push her away, to safety. She didn’t step away. Instead, she knelt and tried to staunch the heavy flow of blood with her sweater.
“I said, leave her be.”
The angry man – no, the monster – went to grab Poppy. She dodged his grasp, infuriating him further. Tucker leapt to her aid, shoving himself between her and his dad. He avoided looking at the mess on the floor, feeling like a coward as he did so.
“Pop, stay behind me.” he ordered.
“She’ll be okay,” he lied “ Just stay next me.”
“Move.” Back to the deadly quiet voice.
“No.” His voice shook, but it was firm. Over his dead body was Noah going to lay a finger on her. He hoped that wasn’t literally.
His old man took a swing, which he failed to avoid. His vision flashed red and black before he fell. Or rather, he felt himself falling. Actually being on the ground was unexpected. He scrambled to get back up, to save Poppy. His father stepped over him, his malicious eyes set on her.
“Tucker!” She sobbed. Get up get up get up he shouted at himself.
He wobbled as he stood, but it was too late anyhow. It was as if time had slowed down. He watched in horror as he grabbed Poppy’s hair in one of his massive hands and yanked her back. She yelped. He wound back his other…
Tucker raced to her as quickly as his clumsy feet would allow. Get him away from her. Adrenaline buzzed through his veins, for all the good that did. Steelheart would replay the fist connect with her small head over and over again in his own until it didn’t make sense anymore. At the time, nothing did. Not when she cried out in pain that last time, or when the monster shoved her into the wall. Not when she sank to the floor, leaving a smear of dark blood. And especially when she didn’t get up. That made the least sense of all.
In his dreams, he’d tell her to stand up and she would. Her lifeless eyes would stare. Her broken jaw would move, but the question would always echo in his. Why didn’t you tell me to run, Tuck? Steelheart would spend his waking hours trying to answer her ghost.
He remembered screaming her name. Again and again, until his voice quit working. He remembered his dad sinking into the couch, all the anger leached from his face. He stared, seemingly oblivious to the cries of his wife or the anguished screams of his son. His face was white as a ghost.
He remembered her lifeless body in his arms, oh, how small she was. Calling the cops. The infuriatingly calm voice telling him she was gone and realizing he had known it since his head had hit the floor.