When Hank had first introduced Jean to Warren and me, he'd called her 'ebullient,' and even if he'd meant it as a joke, it was still accurate. In those early days before medical school and residency had rubbed off her sparkle with thirty-six hour shifts, a coffee addiction, and a chest-to-chest tango with Death on a regular basis, she'd been one of those people who could light up a room just by walking into it. She still can, but it's a cerebral charisma now, and perhaps a bit of my stone-faced mien has transferred to her, just as her joy has infected me and taught me to smile again without mulling it over first. But at twenty, she was utterly charming in the best sense of the word.
Snow smacked me in the back of the head, and almost knocked my pipe out of my mouth. "What the fuck?" I snarled, spinning around to find her laughing at me from twenty feet away. Her mauve, goose-down duster clashed horribly with her Crayola-rainbow-colored mittens and scarf. Her cheeks were pink from the cold, and she had another snowball in hand, all set to throw it at me. I took the pipe out of my mouth and pointed with the stem. "Do and die." The threat was serious if exaggerated, and she could tell. Scrunching up her nose in frustration, she tossed the snowball aside and came over to where I stood out by the main drive.
"You're no fun."
"I prefer to be dry, thanks."
But abruptly, I lost my hold on feigned anger and grinned at her. "Warren's not here this weekend."
"I know that. I came to visit you."
I snorted. "Yeah, right."
"I did!" She shoved at me. "You are such a cynic, Summers. And" -- she reached over to pluck the pipe right out of my fingers -- "if you think this thing is any healthier than those cancer sticks, I promise you it's not. Well, not by much." And she turned the pipe upside-down and tapped hot ashes into the snow near the driveway, kicking more snow on top. "Yuk."
"Give it back, witch."
"Gladly." She handed it over and I checked the bowl's side, to be sure she hadn't scraped it on the concrete curb.
"You're supposed to tap it, not bang it."
"Well I hope I cracked it!"
"No, you don't. I'd make you buy me another, and this is a good thirty-dollar bent briar."
"At least the tobacco smells better -- until you light it. Why'd you take up a pipe, anyway?"
"Because you kept bitching at me about my cigs." But that wasn't my real reason. My real reason was that a pipe was . . .
Different. It was different, and the eccentricity of being sixteen with a pipe appealed to me. I suppose the fact that the professor smoked one had made some impact, but my primary motivation was rooted more in my decision to remake myself.
When I'd first arrived at Westchester, I'd mocked the clothes in my closet and the New England prep school image they conveyed. Now, I embraced it. So a month ago, I'd dropped by a local tobacconist to tell the counter help that I was looking for a pipe for my father. I doubt it had occurred to them that I might be lying, so I'd walked out with two thick-walled briars, a pipe nail, pipe cleaners, and some Amphora Blue tobacco. And I discovered that smoking a pipe was a good deal harder than it looked. I also learned small things, such as the fact that pipes must be broken in, paper matches leave a far worst taste in the mouth than wooden ones, and pipe stems come loose if one tried to clean them when they were still hot. I suppose I could've asked the professor to teach me the finer points but I hadn't wanted to make a production of it since a part of me had felt decidedly foolish. Instead, I'd practiced in secret until I'd caught the rhythm of it, and found that I enjoyed the entire process: packing in the tobacco and lighting it, smoking it, then cleaning the pipe afterward. It wasn't a disposable habit, and the deliberateness required made it seem less a boy's defiance than a man's choice.
"You don't think it suits me?" I asked Jean now, only half serious. She'd slipped her arm through mine as we strolled along the sidewalk towards the winter-frozen gardens hibernating until spring, a dull-brown collection of sticks like withered corpses in a glittering graveyard. Ice made fans and ferns on window panes, and it was snowing lightly, the flakes misting down to lodge in her hair and decorate her eyelashes.
"I think it's going to kill you one day," she replied seriously.
Once, I'd simply ignored others' opinions of me, viewing them with a detached boredom, but I'd started to care, and caring both scared and enraged me. So now I reacted badly to Jean's words. Pulling out of her grasp, I snarled, "What does it matter to you what happens to me?" and I stalked off through the garden.
"What do you mean what does it matter?" she yelled at my back. I didn't reply, just kept going, so she yelled even louder, "It matters because you're my friend, you stubborn jackass!"
Spinning, I shouted back, "You have no right to judge me!"
"I'm not judging you! I said it's going to kill you! That's a concern, not a judgment!"
"You don't know what's going to kill me! I could . . . walk out in front of a truck tomorrow!"
"Don't be stupid!"
We were yelling at each other across thirty feet of snow-covered lawn; I wondered if the professor could hear us inside. "I'm not being stupid! You're being a self-righteous prig!"
"God, what has gotten into you? Have you ever seen anyone die from lung cancer, Scott?"
"No -- have you, Miss Cancer Society Spokeswoman?"
"Yes, dammit -- yes!"
Even so far away from her, I could see that she was deeply upset, so I moved back in her direction. She and Warren had become my closest friends and I didn't really want to alienate them. "Who?" I asked, quietly.
She wiped tears off her face with the end of her Crayola scarf. "My grandfather," she said. "He smoked like a chimney for most of his life, even snuck them after they cut out his esophagus for throat cancer and he had to do it through that little hole in his neck." She shuddered and looked away. "It's, like, the stereotypical lung cancer horror story -- a bad clich."
"Did it happen that way?"
"Then it's not a clich."
Her smile was brief and bitter but I didn't miss it. "It's just . . . the most terrible death," she went on. "He got throat cancer, then tongue cancer, and finally lung cancer -- just rotted away in pieces. He lived with us for the last eight months because my mother wouldn't put him in a home. It was hell. He was a nasty, mean old man anyway, and he got nastier and meaner as he got sicker. His room always stank from the disease, and the bed-sores, and the fact that we couldn't really bathe him well. It's a sweet, rancid smell, the stink of cancer." She glared across at me, her face hard. "It's not a death I'd wish on my worst enemy -- much less a friend."
The words struck me hard below the breastbone. "I'm sorry," I said, and moved in a little closer. Less than ten feet separated us now. We stared across the gulf.
After a minute, she said, "Can I ask you a question?"
"Why do you smoke? I mean seriously -- I'm not being flip. Why'd you start?"
"You were never curious to try?"
"No. Not even as a kid. My mother smokes, and my dad smokes a pipe, but it's just . . . it's so gross. It grosses me out." Belatedly, she winced. "Sorry. I don't mean that as an insult. But I guess that's why I don't get it. It's not even a matter of not seeing the appeal. It's . . . "
" . . . repulsive to you," I finished for her.
"Yeah." She paused a long moment, then admitted softly, like a secret, "I remember being five and staring at one of my mother's cigarettes burning in a glass ashtray. The smoke was hypnotic, curling up through the air . . . ." She made a fluttering motion with her mittened fingers. "I thought about trying it -- but I didn't. The smell of it, the ash, even that hypnotic curl -- everything. It turned my stomach and I knew then that I never, ever wanted to smoke. But obviously you don't see it the same, so I've wondered how it looks from the other side -- why someone would start, even knowing it's bad for you. That's an honest question."
And I had to chew on it. No one had ever asked with real curiosity. They'd either lectured, or approved and tagged me as 'cool.' No one had asked what I felt. "I like it," I said now, walking back over to her. "I like the taste."
"Really? If it tastes like it smells, I don't see how."
I grinned, briefly. "It doesn't, not quite. And the taste isn't the only reason I smoke. It's also for the nicotine. It's a weird drug -- and yeah, I know it's a drug. So's caffeine. But nicotine sorta wakes you up and calms you down at the same time. It makes me more alert. That's why I like to smoke when I read out on my balcony. Well, I do when it's not twenty degrees outside. Smoking makes me think better, or something."
This was apparently news to her. "It does?"
"Yeah. It's like in the morning, when you get your first cup of coffee. Same kind of feeling, only more intense."
The expression on Jean's face was an interesting study in enlightenment, then she squeezed my arm. "Thanks. I didn't think there was anything more to it than -- I don't know -- image or something."
"Image was part of it," I confessed. "At first. You want to seem older. That's not why I do it now. You guys bug me about it all the time -- well, you and Hank -- so it's not about image any more." I held up the pipe and looked at it, then shrugged. "I don't know. Maybe it is still about image, but a different image." I wasn't sure I wanted to look at that more deeply, so I asked instead, "You really came to visit me, not Warren?"
She laughed. "Yes, Scott. I really came to visit you."
And she laughed again. "Oh, I don't know -- maybe because I like you?"
Platonically only, of course, but that was fine with me. If she'd been coming to the mansion more regularly that spring because of Warren, her crush on him also rendered Warren too intimidating. So I was the one she sought out on Fridays when she arrived, and I was the one who helped carry her bags out to the car on Sunday afternoons. We'd grown close over esoteric discussions of books and TV, politics and Warren, but especially about books and Warren.
In my former life, I'd been an oddball for my love of reading, but narrative had been my escape, my method of retaining a marginal hold on my sanity. I'd discovered libraries in my days as a foster child. They were quiet, had air-conditioning in summer and heat in winter, and I could hang out there until I had to go back to whatever house I was living in at the time. But most of all, people didn't ask me questions there, and no cops told me to move on, no loitering. You're supposed to loiter at a library.
The first foster home I'd been sent to after being released from the hospital following the plane crash had been the best. It'd been used by the foster system especially for kids like me who'd needed healing both physical and emotional. I'd been in a coma for months, and had woken physically weak, and numb in heart at the abrupt and total change in my life. There'd been five kids in the house then and the woman had used to take us all to the library, turning us loose in the children's section. We'd needed quiet entertainment, and so my library addiction had begun. Once I'd been judged stable, they'd moved me to another home. It hadn't been bad, either, but it'd been located in Kearney, Nebraska, and aside from an undergrad university, there hadn't much there outside cornfields and the flat, flat, endless-flat of the plains. So I'd taken to the library again. Fatefully, as it'd turned out.
An adjunct faculty member of the university's English department who was also a science-fiction writer had worked part time in the library's children's section. She'd been a weird woman with a weak chin, black hair down to the floor that she'd kept braided, and eyes darker than midnight. But I'd been a strange, quiet child myself, and like must have called to like. She'd noticed how much time I spent there and took me under her wing, introducing me to Lloyd Alexander and Ursula LeGuin, and teaching me to love fantasy and science fiction. It became the ultimate escape for me. Not just fictional tales but fictional worlds in which I could imagine a life where planes didn't crash, leaving boys without a family, or in which life was infinitely worse, making my own not seem so bad in comparison.
That arrangement had lasted for three years until circumstance had forced me to leave when I was at the very brink of adolescence -- a bad time to shift from the small and comfortable to the big city of Omaha. Things had gone downhill from there, but I'd never lost my love of books, libraries and speculative fiction. And in Jean, I found a friend with a passion for all three. Jean's telepathy had erupted suddenly when she'd been ten, and like me, her world had shattered catastrophically. She'd spent her adolescence shuffled between sanitariums, her home, and private tutors, considered too fragile, mentally and physically, for normal school. Instead, she'd found an escape in books and other worlds, so despite the enormous discrepancies in our backgrounds, we had in common a life of the mind. Warren thought us a bit weird, but he put up with it. He read Fortune and the Wall Street Journal, and played the stock market. We read Patricia McKillip and Kim Stanley Robinson, and imagined living on Mars.
Jean was also terribly physical, and had a bad habit of grabbing my arm when she wanted to tell me something important, as if I might be urged to listen as hard as she was gripping my wrist. Moreover, when she entered a room where I was, she almost immediately invaded my personal space, flinging an arm over my shoulders or ruffling my hair. Like a shy-proofed horse, I'd grown accustomed to her, and no longer flinched at her approach even if the touch of others could still spook me. Jean had special status, and thus acclimated, I found myself not only tolerating but even seeking out her casual affection.
"Are you here until Sunday?" I asked her now while we walked through the snowed-under garden, arm in arm.
"No, I have to go back in the morning. I need to finish working on an assignment."
"Oh," I tried to keep the disappointment out of my voice.
She caught on anyway and looked over at me. "Why don't you come with me? I could show you around the campus."
I almost laughed at that. Me, on a college campus? "I don't think so."
And I couldn't explain without telling her things I had no intention of telling her. For all that we talked a great deal, it was rarely about the personal. She knew I was an orphan, and I knew she'd been in hospitals and sanitariums, but beyond that, we'd shared little. We might argue passionately about the pitfalls of gene therapy and cloning, or about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but personal details were taboo.
"I just don't want to go, okay?" I said.
She stared at me, surprised by my sudden hostility. "But why?"
"Because I fucking don't! Can't I not want to do something without getting the mother of all Grand Inquisitions?"
And ditching her arm, I turned to stalk back towards the house. She was too shocked to follow.
It was a foolish thing to grow angry about, but the idea of accompanying her to Columbia, even for the day, intimidated me. That wasn't my world, and despite the professor's assertion that I was rapidly closing the gap in my education, I held no aspirations for college, nor did I believe that I'd live long enough to complete it, even if I had.
Since I'd accepted the fact I was HIV positive -- or at least had stopped running from it -- I'd lived my life predicated by 'ifs.' Henry had chided me once about that, sharing articles on treatment strategies for AIDS, and statistics for how many afflicted by the virus actually developed the syndrome. I wasn't interested. A part of me welcomed the closing of doors since it gave me an excuse to eliminate the future as anything to be taken seriously. The previous fall, for the first time in years, I'd wanted to live, but as winter turned into spring, I thought a lot about dying. I was too lazy, and too stubborn, to commit suicide, but it seemed that I wouldn't have to, or at least, not without a good excuse. One of my few recent trips into the city had been to pick up enough smack to fell a horse. I'd been saving for it. Heroin would be a good way to go, when I finally began showing symptoms. If I took it before bed along with a little filched scotch, it would slam me into a fatal coma and no one would be wiser until morning. Good Night, Sweet Prince. I'd be damned if I was going to die slowly. The people here were too good to me to put them through that hell, not to mention the medical bills. It wasn't like an HIV-positive ex-prostitute was a prime candidate for affordable health insurance.
Now, as I approached the side door that led inside through the den, I stumbled over a lump buried in courtyard snow and bent down to see what it was -- hoping that Jean wasn't trailing after me. I didn't want to talk to her right now, but I couldn't hear her footsteps so I brushed away snow until my fingers touched stiff feathers, then I jerked my hand back and kicked at the snowy lump, revealing a dead bird. Not just any bird, either -- an owl of some type. Its uncanny yellow eyes were open and staring.
"Fuck, fuck, fuck," I said, turning to hurry inside and almost forgetting to knock snow off my shoes in my haste to escape the owl. Inside, I tripped over the fine oriental runner before the door and swore vividly. I could feel the rage boiling up in my belly, and it confused me. Any small thing seemed to set me off of late, even rucked up rugs. I didn't like it. I didn't like being out of control this way.
I was shucking gloves and unbuttoning my duster when Jean finally entered. Her expression was cautious. I turned my back on her. "Scott?" I didn't reply. She tried another tact. "Did you see the dead owl out there? Wasn't that kind of weird?"
I spun on her. "Yes! I saw the goddamn owl! It's an owl! It's dead! Big fucking deal!" I flung my coat at the coat rack, missed, and had to go fetch it to hang it up. Bemused, Jean was still standing by the door, her face a study in hurt.
"What did I do? Why are you so mad at me?" Her voice was small. It made me want to hurt her. It made me want to hurt myself.
"You didn't do anything. Just leave me alone."
"Scott -- "
"Drop it, dammit! Why do you always have to dig, dig, dig?" And I stormed out of the den, found my way to the big spiral staircase that ran upstairs, then stalked down the hallway towards my room. On the way, my phone rang. Thinking it was Warren because he'd promised to call and that was why I was carrying the phone in the first place, I flipped it open. "Summers."
Dead air. No one answered.
I waited a beat, then snapped the phone off -- goddamn wrong numbers -- and escaped into my room until supper, or that was the plan. Less than half an hour after I'd shut the door, someone knocked, followed by Hank's voice: "Scott, may I come in?"
Sighing, I got up to yank the door open. "Come to scold me?" I asked.
He just raised an eyebrow and strolled in. "Jean is sobbing down in the lab." It was a statement, a query, and a rebuke all at once. Not knowing what to say, and feeling guilty as hell, I turned my back. "Scott," he said, but didn't continue. Maybe he had no more idea what to say than I did. Silence was heavy.
"She wants to take me to Columbia," I said finally.
"And I don't want to go!"
"May I ask why?" It wasn't hostile, merely curious.
So I answered. "I don't belong there. You know why."
A beat pause, then, "No, Scott. I don't."
I turned to glare, but his face was genuinely puzzled. "Goddammit," I snarled. "You know, Hank. You know what I was. What business do I have there -- at a private college for New York's elite?"
Sighing, he rubbed his face. "You really have no idea, do you? Scott -- college is not a mystical experience, and right now, you write better and think more analytically than the majority of college freshmen, even at Columbia."
I was stunned, and dubious, and my face must have showed it.
"I'm not lying to you," Hank said. "Or even stretching the truth." He invited himself to sit down in a chair at my desk and put his hands behind his head. "You know, I think it would be an excellent experience for you to visit Columbia, even to attend some classes with Jean."
"They don't hold classes on Sunday."
"No, but they do hold them on Monday and Tuesday. You can see what it's really like."
"What? You're joking, right? And, like, where would I fucking stay?"
"With Jean. She has an apartment, not a dorm." He tilted his head. "Unless you'd be uncomfortable with that. She also has a roommate."
I shrugged. The prospect of spending the night with two girls didn't bother me in the least. Sleeping on a couch sure wasn't the worst place I'd slept. But, "It's a dumb idea. It's not like there's any reason for me to go to college."
"Hank! I'm not going to see thirty! I probably won't see twenty-five. What does it matter?"
"Because, Scott, you love to learn. It's one of your more admirable qualities. And even if you don't see twenty-five -- a point that I'm unwilling to concede -- there is value in learning itself."
"Why? It costs money."
Hank rolled his eyes. "Because you enjoy it, nincompoop. Playing mini-golf also costs money."
I snorted. "Yeah, well, the admission price is a little disproportionate between college and mini-golf."
Hank smiled. "Perhaps. Nonetheless. It costs nothing at all -- aside from meals -- for you to visit the campus with Jean."
Still skeptical, I ran my fingers along the edge of the dresser. I was already in such debt here, what did it matter? The enormity of it all was paralyzing. Besides, I was only sixteen, with the possibility of college still well over a year off. A lot could happen in a year. "All right, yeah, maybe."
And thus it was that I drove back into the city on Sunday morning with Jean and a small suitcase.
Jean's apartment was in an area coming to be referred to as SoCo, the neighborhood south of the main Columbia campus, a block off Broadway on 98th Street in a stock-brick four-story brownstone. It had the charming detailing given to buildings constructed before the first world war with double-glazed picture windows in vertical sliding-box sashes, and egg-and-dart trim on the white-painted stone accents. Lions' heads graced the lintel above the entryway. Jean pointed it out as we drove past. Parking was a bitch, and I had to lug my suitcase three blocks. No one paid us any attention. After spending so much time in Westchester holed up at the mansion, or running in Warren's circles when he dragged me off somewhere, I'd forgotten how the city could be so comfortably anonymous. When I'd first arrived here, I'd found it cold and intimidating. I still did, but I'd gotten used to it, even come to appreciate it.
"Here we are," Jean said -- a little too cheerful -- as she pulled open the main door to the stairwell. There was no doorman. This was too far above 96th Street for doormen to be common except in the nicer buildings, and I didn't much like that. I'd have to check the locks on her door. Nonetheless, another part of me was grateful. This was a bit closer to what I'd been used to than the lifestyle I'd expected for the Upper West Side.
I wondered why it didn't bother me to go places with Warren? Maybe because he lived so far beyond most of us, I may as well have been visiting another country. Jean, however, made me feel the difference, even while she didn't know, fully, how much of a difference there was. To her, I was just a poor foster kid whom the professor had taken in, and Warren and Hank had befriended. I think she knew there was more to it than that, knew I'd seen some rough times, but from a stray remark she'd once made, shop lifting seemed to be the extent of her suspicions, and I wasn't sure if I found that amusing, or a relief. Even after three months, my mask remained intact. Perhaps it wasn't unreasonable to think that I could be a phoenix, and rise from my own ashes.
I followed her up the stairs; she lived on the third floor in a one-bedroom whose picture window overlooked 98th Street. She knocked and called and I listened to the scrape of several bolts, then the door was opened to reveal a dark face, immediately split by a grin. "Hey, girl; you're back. Come on in." Jean's roommate eyed me as I followed Jean in, and I remembered that I was still wearing the shades that accompanied me outside almost all the time now. Direct sunlight gave me splitting headaches.
Removing them, I set down the bag but stayed quiet by the door. Jean turned and, hand on my arm, said, "Misty, this is Scott, who I've told you about. And Scott, this is my roommate Misty Knight." I'd heard about Misty,too. Like Jean, she was a daughter of academia, her father a psychology professor at Bard, where Jean's father taught, and her mother an English professor, and a poet, too. The daughter looked anything but. Her hair was shaved very close to her skull, almost military, and she wore practical clothes. Her glance was assessing, like a cop's -- which according to Jean, she was studying to become -- a police detective. She took criminal justice at John Jay College, a part of the CUNY system. John Jay was a commuter campus, so she roomed with Jean because they already knew each other.
Now, a little belligerent, I met her gaze, all my innate distrust of authority types rising in my gut. The professor had earned my trust. This girl hadn't. Turning away, I pulled my suitcase over to the couch (where I assumed I'd be sleeping), and plopped down, slouching, arms crossed over my chest and still dressed in my trench coat. Misty glanced at Jean; it was pointed, and I wondered if they were speaking telepathically -- wondered if Misty knew that her roommate was a mutant. Then she said, "I'm going back to work on my paper," and disappeared into the tiny kitchen where a laptop was set up on the small eat-in table.
I studied the room: small, cozy and overstuffed. They had a surprising amount of furniture for two college girls -- the couch and two chairs with attractive throws and matching pillows, end tables, lamps, books, knick-knacks, and a small entertainment center with a TV, a stereo and stacks of CDs balanced precariously. One wall was brown brick and held a fireplace. It looked unused. There was a rag rug on the floor in front. The whole space was perhaps ten by ten. The kitchen-dinette was offset in a tiny nook, with the bathroom tucked behind it, and a very small bedroom across from it.
"Do you want a Coke or something?" Jean asked, all nervous to play the good hostess. She'd come to stand in front of me, hands laced.
"No, I'm fine." What I wanted was my pipe, but I knew that would never fly in Jean's flat.
"You're not hungry?"
"No, Jean -- I'm fine. Sit down."
She did, hands still folded and resting on her knees now. We'd never really made up after our quarrel of the day before. Apologies weren't easy for me; I'd just caught her at supper and told her that I was coming into the city with her after all, if it was still okay. She'd said it was. The professor had then smoothly suggested that I stay for a few days to visit classes with Jean, and I'd wondered if Hank had put him up to that, or if he'd put Hank up to prodding me earlier. But in either case, they were in cahoots. Jean had said it would be fine with her. So here I was. And neither of us was too sure what to do or say next.
"I thought you had an assignment you needed to work on."
"Well, I do, but -- "
"You don't have to entertain me. I'm not here to interfere with your schoolwork. Do what you need to do. I brought a book." And I pulled a paperback out of my coat pocket.
"You always have a book," she said with a smile.
So she busied herself preparing for her presentation while I read on the couch. Once, I took her keys and went outside for a smoke because they didn't have a balcony. Her mouth pinched in disapproval at that, but she said nothing when I left or when I came back. I had to step over her where she had her materials spread out on the floor -- magic markers, glitter, sequins, glue, scissors, white posterboard rolled up like a scroll with four rolling-pin handles sticking out the edges, and what looked to be a flower box of the sort used for long-stemmed roses. Just now, she was putting elaborate decoration on the latter. "What on earth are you doing?" I finally ventured to ask.
"I'm making a Torah scroll and scroll case. Well, a mock up of one, obviously."
Squatting down near where she was sitting, I watched her glue sequins on the flower box in the shape of Hebrew letters. "What is this for? Some art class?"
She smiled without looking up. "No, no. World Religions. The professor divided us up into groups. Each group has to research and give a presentation on some world religion. I'm in the Judaism group."
"I'd think your professor would be more interested in what you know than what you can make."
"Oh, we're mostly squared away on the presentation itself; we just wanted to have some props." Finished with the sequins, she held it up to show me, gold letters on blue background and gold ribbon trim. The 'scroll' fit neatly inside the box. "The covers protect the scroll, but they're also a sign of respect," she explained. Synagogues usually have a couple scrolls, and they're kept in this closet-thing they call an ark, up behind the front lectern."
"Never been in a synagogue."
"I hadn't either, until we got the assignment." She glanced at me, then asked with diffidence, "Were you raised anything? Any religion, I mean?"
"Catholic. How about you?"
"Episcopalian." She wrinkled her nose. "Completely predictable and unexciting. Also very nominal."
"Same here. Very lapsed Catholic. I haven't been to Mass in .... Well, I went to Midnight Mass at Christmas, with Warren, but it was a lark." I grinned. "He was pretty drunk."
That made her laugh, then she lowered her eyes, almost shy. "Do you believe in God? I don't mean to pry, but I was just was curious."
This was, I thought, one of the more personal conversations we'd ever had, and I wasn't sure how to answer her question. "I . . . don't know. Do you?" I wanted to turn the spotlight off me.
"Yes," she said quietly. "But not the way the church teaches -- not some old guy with a white beard. I wonder how many people really do believe that. But anyway," -- she frowned; it was thoughtful rather than angry -- "There is something more than flesh and blood. That's why this class is so interesting. I didn't know too much before I took it, and even if I don't necessarily agree with other religions, I like hearing what they teach." She wasn't looking at me. She was looking up at the gilt-frame mirror above the fireplace behind me. "As for what I believe? I believe we have a soul, and that it lives on past our bodies. And I believe the universe is more than a cosmological accident. But beyond that?" She shrugged. "I can't say."
"What makes you so sure we have a soul?" It was easier to attack someone else's beliefs than to explain my own -- or even to form my own.
But the expression she turned on me made me feel guilty. "I don't have some mathematical proof, Scott. I was just answering your question."
Ashamed, I looked down again at her 'scroll case'; I couldn't decide if it was ingenious, or just ridiculous. "Sorry. I didn't mean it as an attack. I guess I want somebody to prove it to me -- that there's something more than this." I raised my hand to indicate my body. I wanted to know that I wouldn't just . . . stop, when the end came. A year ago, I'd have welcomed extinction as an escape. Now, facing it, I was ambivalent, and dying would be more attractive if I were sure some part of me would go on.
"I can't give you proof," she told me. "All I can say is what I feel. When I touch minds there's something more there than mere body." She looked down at hers. "I guess that's why, being a telepath, I never quite feel like I'm in mine. I live up here" -- she touched her head -- "not here." She touched her gut. "My body feels . . . awkward. Like lead." She paused, then added. "I don't like it much, really. It's ugly." It was a surprising admission, intimate, and I reached out to take her hand, squeezing. It was, I thought, the first time I'd touched her by my own choice rather than submitting to her touch of me.
"You're not ugly," I told her.
She eyed me skeptically. "I'm an Amazon, Scott. What guy wants to date a girl bigger than he is? And my skin's all pasty; I never tan in the summer, just burn. And I have freckles, and there's no body in my hair, and I have thin lips, and funny ears, and -- "
"Beautiful eyes and great bones," I interrupted. "Beauty's pretty subjective, Jean. And yeah, so your ears are a little funny, but there's nothing wrong with your mouth -- or your hair that a good haircut wouldn't fix. And you're a redhead, dope. Your skin's supposed to be fair."
She stared at me in shock, maybe because I wasn't just handing her platitudes. I was telling her what I saw when I looked at her. "I'm still a giant -- almost six feet tall! And skinny as a rail!"
"So are most models."
"Oh! Right! Scott, don't be ridiculous!"
Reaching out, I lifted her chin, turning her head first one way, then the other. "I'm not. Like I said, you have good bones. Let somebody at you who knew what they were doing with make-up and hair and clothes . . . . Yeah. You could be a model."
She slapped my hand away and got up, stalking off into the kitchen. I heard her open the fridge violently and rummage inside. "The boy -- he got a point." It was the other woman's voice.
"Shut up, Mercedes."
"You got a complex that won't quit, girl."
There was no reply to that, and I waited for Jean to return. When she did, her face was flushed, though whether from anger or pleasure -- or both -- I wasn't sure. She had a glass of coke in her hand and glared at me. "Don't say anything." Sitting down amid the spread of her project, she placed her glass on an end-table coaster, then silently went back to work.
After she was done, we went out to eat -- Chinese food at The Cottage. They served us free wine with dinner even though we were underage and I gave mine to Jean because it was terrible. At least the pork lo mein was fine. Then again, when it came to food, I'd learned not to be choosey. By contrast, Jean fussed and picked water chestnuts out of her Moo Goo Gai Pan; I ate those, as well. When we left, she was a little tipsy from two glasses of house white and leaned on me all the way back to her place. The chill air flushed her cheeks and the wind lifted her hair, and a few passing men looked at her twice in her low rider jeans and bomber jacket, and once, a woman. If that wasn't checking out her ass, I didn't know what was. I couldn't fathom Jean's doubts about her looks. Back at her place, we made tea and talked until Misty returned from wherever it was she'd gone, then both girls headed to bed while I went outside for a final pipe. The night sky was never clear in New York, or dark. Myriad lights from the city reflected off the atmosphere, making a dun-orange bowl above. But that night, I could see the moon; it was nearly full and waxing, and the silver light hung above me like a promise. I watched people for a while, even after my pipe was out, then I went back inside to bed.
Working at night, I'd learned to sleep through all kinds of early racket by the simple expedient of putting my pillow over my head. So when the girls got up to prepare for class, I rolled over on the sofa, burrowed under a pillow, and crashed again until Jean came over to pull me -- quite literally -- right off the couch cushions.
"Godfuckingdammit!" I yelled when I landed with a thud on hardwood flooring.
"You'd better get up and shower, Scott, or you'll make me late for my first class."
Jean, of course. I glared at her, then at the clock. Eight in the morning. Unlike me, Jean was happy to sign up for early classes. "Man, can't you come back and get me after lunch?"
"Oooh, Mr. Pampered can't get up with the rest of us." Misty Knight stood just outside the kitchen nook, hands on her hips. "What's wrong? Missing your butler?"
My mouth fell open and I must have looked amazingly stupid, but I was simply so shocked, it was automatic. It wasn't the blunt rudeness of the remark -- a rudeness that had turned Jean bright red in embarrassment -- it was the assumption. I'd been so worried about passing that it had never occurred to me that I might actually be succeeding. I couldn't fool Warren's crowd, but, evidently, I could fool the lower orders, at least for a little while.
And I found that I didn't like it, not when it drew a disapproval I'd never earned.
"Misty," Jean was saying, making calming motions with her hands, "it's really not what you -- "
"Forget it," I snarled, locking eyes with Misty Knight as I had the night before when I'd first arrived. "I can get up whenever I need to, and I've never had a fucking butler in my life, bitch."
"She started it," I snapped, ditching the blanket and standing up -- though I was wearing only bikinis -- and digging through my suitcase. Then I stalked into the bathroom past two suddenly silent women. Being naked, or nearly so, didn't bother me, at least not when it was my choice.
By the time I emerged again -- dressed -- Misty had vanished. Jean had a bagel ready for me, and some milk. She didn't say anything; I didn't, either. Getting our coats, we walked to campus and I bought coffee on the way at a deli called Mama Joy's. Jean lugged her forest green Lands End soft satchel and I carried a notebook, mostly so I wouldn't feel empty-handed and extraneous.
Columbia University was more a graduate and professional school than an undergraduate college, so being younger than even the freshmen, I felt distinctly out of place, despite the fact that no one was dressed in a way I'd expected for an ivy league school. I stood out as much for my preppy attire as for my youth, and I stuck the stem of my pipe in my mouth, trying to look older. It was a new pipe, a bent apple. I liked the curve; it fit into my hand better. Jean rolled her eyes and said I looked silly. "And here I was, hoping for distinguished," I replied.
Her smile was mischievous, and unexpected. "A tweed coat would work better."
"What? Not a deerstalker? I've already got the pipe and the trench coat. Elementary, my dear Watson."
She broke up laughing and dragged me off to her nine o'clock class in Hamilton Hall.
Hank had been right. College was a good deal less daunting than I'd expected, though Jean had two pre-med classes on Monday -- microbiology and physiology -- and that should have intimidated the hell out of me. But she also had a calculus course, and while the subject matter was over my head, I could almost understand it. I even took some notes of my own. After her final bio class, she met with her religion group in a lounge on the sixth floor of Fairchild, leaving me to explore alone for an hour. The bio library was up there as well, so that's where I went. Libraries drew me like magnets, and at least I could get into this one without student ID -- which wasn't the case, apparently, with Butler, the main library. Of all the places on campus I'd have wanted to go, it would've been there, and I was annoyed at being thwarted.
While perusing a UMI photocopy of a doctoral thesis about famine and plague in the later Middle Ages, my phone rang. People turned to glare and I shoved the book back, trotting out of the stacks into the hall beyond. A big human skeleton stared back at me from inside a glass display case. It was a bit unnerving, but I turned my back on it and flipped open the phone. "Hello?"
"Hey! How's college life treating you?"
Warren's preternaturally deep voice. I smiled. "Well, I didn't understand a bit of microbiology. They may as well have been talking Greek. But she took me to her calc II class, and ... I don't know. I almost, kinda, sorta followed that. It's way over my head, but it was the sort of over my head where I think it won't be, someday."
"See? I knew you'd be okay."
"What?" I said into the receiver. "Are you in league with Hank and the professor?"
"Not in league with them. But I don't think it was a bad idea for you to actually go sit in on some classes."
I rolled my eyes. "Are you still coming into the city for dinner?"
"Wouldn't miss it."
"Okay. We're in the library. Um, the biology library."
"Fine, I should be there in" -- a pause while he no doubt looked at his watch -- "an hour? Rush hour cometh, y'know." It was three-thirty just then. "I'm bringing the Boxter. I can't get on campus unless I throw my weight around, and I'd rather not. How about if you two meet me at the John Jay Gate? It's closer to Amsterdam and there's a garage right across the street. I'll park there -- probably end up with a scratch in my paint, but it's the easiest solution. I'll phone just before I arrive, so you don't have to stand out in the cold."
"See you in a few." And the connection closed. I went back in to tell Jean about our arrangements, then continued my perusal of the stacks.
Thirty minutes later, I moseyed back to where she was still meeting with her group, then had to wait while they finished up. Warren called in the meantime. I filled my pipe and eyed Jean until she tore herself away and we hurried to the main entrance. Once outside, I lit the pipe and put on my shades to cut the sunset glare, then we walked swiftly down to the gate on 114th and leaned up against a post to wait. "You ready? For tomorrow?"
"Yes, I think so." She was huddled into her coat, though it had been a rather warm day for late March; my own coat was open in front. I wasn't sure if her pose was from cold or nerves. I'd been watching Jean all day. She combined such a strange mix of assertiveness and uncertainty, moving about campus with her head down and at the edge of sidewalks, steering clear of groups of laughing students. Yet she'd also clearly been in charge of her presentation group. They'd been waiting for her to arrive, and when the meeting had ended, it had been Jean who'd finalized various presentation duties. She was a puzzle.
Warren arrived shortly. I saw his distinctive gold Porsche turn into the parking garage, and five minutes later, he was jaywalking across 114th to join us. Then we moseyed three blocks to V&T's on Amsterdam. "Pizza?" Jean asked.
"Hey -- we should get the whole collegiate experience here."
Jean just rolled her eyes. However shy she might be on campus, with us, she was her usual Jean self. "I live the collegiate experience, War. I think you two are just looking for an excuse." It was no secret that Warren and I could eat pizza at least once a day when given the option, so he didn't bother to reply. We went in. It wasn't a slice-to-go place but an actual restaurant with the clichd plastic red-and-white checkered tablecloths, and waiters dressed in the most obnoxious green jackets I'd ever seen. It was obscenely early for dinner, barely five o'clock, so we didn't have to wait for a table. We were seated near a window that, at sunset, did little to lighten the dimness of the interior. Aside from predictably rude waiters, supper was unremarkable but pleasant. Jean flirted with Warren, he flirted back less seriously, and I watched.
I couldn't quite decipher Warren -- whether he liked Jean, or just liked the attention, or was too polite to brush her off with enough force that she'd get the hint. Now and then, his eyes strayed to me and he smiled a little. I smiled back, but reflexively, and when Jean took a bathroom break, I leaned over the booth table to say, "So -- are you going to ask her out?"
He seemed genuinely surprised by the question. "I hadn't planned on it."
"She likes you."
"I know." His gaze dropped to the table. "She's a nice girl . . . ." he trailed off, and strangely, I felt bad for Jean, as if I were the one being rejected.
"She is a nice girl," I said, picking up my glass to take a sip of tea.
"I know, Scott. It's . . . the whatever it is . . . isn't there. I like her a lot, just not in the way she wants." He raised his eyes finally. They were blue but with a gold ring around the iris so that in certain lights -- like now -- they appeared more green. "What about you? Do you like her?"
Now it was my turn to be broadsided by a question. "I've never even thought about it!" And I hadn't. Warren studied my face as if he suspected me of lying, and I felt that a point needed to be made. "Look, she's four years older than me. She's like a big sister. And besides" -- I set down my glass with a thump -- "she doesn't know what I did -- what I was -- before the professor found me. And I don't plan to tell her. I just want to forget about it."
"You don't think she could handle it?"
"I don't know and I don't want to find out."
He shook his head and played with the remains of thin pizza crusts on his plate. Warren hated the crust. "Secrets have a way of getting out. I should know." His smile was wry.
I stared at the wall. "It sounds like you're trying to match-make me."
"Well, you were trying to match-make me."
"With a little more cause. She likes you; you seemed to like her. I don't figure into that equation."
Warren's eyes were narrow, but in a thoughtful way. "You spend a lot of time with her, for not figuring into the equation."
"We're just friends, goddammit! I don't -- I told you once before, I can't feel that way, okay? It's just . . . dead. I don't like boys; I don't like girls; I don't like anybody. Period."
Letting myself feel those things might release all the bad stuff that I'd buried inside, and that scared the hell out of me. The only way I knew to control it was to not think about sex.
His gaze had turned gentle and he held up both hands. "Okay. Sorry. I won't bring it up again."
"Good." Still irritated, I drew with a finger in water rings for a moment, then rose abruptly and muttered, "I need to take a piss," and left him there. In the little bathroom tucked between the kitchen and the deli cases, I locked the door and dropped my pants to sit down on the toilet. I didn't really need to go, but it got me away before I said something I'd regret. Leaning over, I let my forehead rest on the heel of one palm and sitting thus, I had a clear view of my privates. Pulling my penis up with my free hand, I stared at it. Stupid, ugly, purple worm. It disgusted me.
Letting go, I stood to pull my pants back up, then washed my hands in cold water, staring at my own face. A thought suddenly occurred to me. Warren hadn't been trying to match-make me with Jean; he'd been fishing to see what I felt myself. He wasn't interested in Jean because he was still in love with me, and he couldn't turn off his feelings anymore than Jean could. Yet I found his attraction no less disturbing now than I had three months ago. What an ironic trio we were. Jean was in love with Warren, Warren was in love with me, and I couldn't feel a damn thing except this phantom tingle in my amputated emotions.
What I didn't realize then was that my emotions weren't amputated, merely asleep, and the tingle I felt wasn't phantom pain, but a reawakening.
The rest of my visit to Columbia passed without incident. Misty Knight managed to avoid me, either by disgusted design or in embarrassment, for all of Tuesday, and Jean's world religions class was (perhaps predictably) the most interesting thing I attended. Somewhere in the last forty-eight hours, I'd lost my fear of college, as Hank and Xavier had no doubt known that I would. I still wasn't sure it was worth the waste of money for me to attend, but maybe I could take some classes at a local community college and get a degree in something esoteric and useless like philosophy.
Jean drove me back on Tuesday afternoon, then stayed for supper and a post-meal game of Scrabble at the eat-in table in the kitchen -- Hank, Warren, Jean and myself, munching peanuts and checking the dictionary every fifteen minutes because Hank kept coming up with words none of the rest of us had ever before heard of. At one point, my cell phone rang. I'd forgotten that I hadn't switched it off after we'd returned. When I answered, I got dead air. Again. "What the hell is it with me and wrong numbers?" I slammed the phone shut and turned it off. "You'd think people could at least fucking apologize."
The other three were looking at me curiously. "My cell phone. I keep getting wrong numbers."
"On a cell phone? Isn't that a bit . . . odd?" Jean asked.
"Yeah!" I snorted. "My number must have belonged to someone really popular."
"Maybe a lady of the evening, and the caller isn't sure what to make of a guy answering," Jean said. She was grinning her impish grin, but Warren had paled and was rearranging his letters tiles while Hank coughed, and I just stared at her. "Okay," she said, holding up her hands. "That went over like a lead balloon. Sorry." She was obviously perplexed.
I looked down at my hands braced on the edge of the table. I didn't know what to say. She hadn't meant anything by it and there was no way to reply without eliciting questions I didn't want to answer. Better, maybe, just to change the subject. "I think I'll talk to the professor about closing this account and getting a new number."
"Probably smart," Warren said. It was his turn and he laid out his tiles on the board. "Here. Top that one, Hankster. 'Triscuit' -- eight letters, and you said proper names counted."
And thus the game went on; I got up and went to the fridge for a Coke, but when I opened the door, there were no cans in stock on the second shelf.
"Mother fuck!" I yelled, already on edge, and all three of them gaped at me as I slammed the refrigerator door shut. "I'm gone two fucking days and nobody can be fucking bothered to put more Coke in the damn fridge? I am always the one who has to restock. Always! Is it too much to ask that the last person to get a Coke put more in? What about that is so goddamn hard?"
They were all just . . . staring. Jean's mouth hung a little open, but both Warren and Hank appeared embarrassed, and for some perverse reason, that pleased me. I could make them feel guilt. They weren't angry at me, they weren't yelling, they weren't hitting, they weren't throwing things. Instead, Hank and Warren stared at the tabletop, then Hank said softly, "My apologies, Scott. In all honesty, I simply didn't think about it -- which is not an excuse, mind you. I will certainly endeavor to remember, in the future."
"Maybe we could make a little sign," Warren offered. *"'Took the last Coke? Put more in.'"*
And with their words, my momentary feeling of power vanished. I turned back to face the closed door. "Sorry. I shouldn't have yelled." And I dashed out of the room even as Jean called behind me, "Scott!"
I ran outside because I didn't know where else to go. The snow of just a few days before had mostly melted, though a little lingered in shadows and flower-beds. I kicked at dirty clumps as I walked, seeking some way to release the rage and shame. I'd yelled at my friends over something as minor as forgetting to put Coke in the fridge -- what kind of idiot was I?
But they hadn't yelled back. They'd apologized, and I wasn't sure if I found that freeing or disturbing.
I should have known Xavier would find me. He was waiting, blanket over his lap, inside the portico that ran from the conservatory out into the back lawn. Seeing him there, I stopped on the path, arms folded across my chest. I'd run outside without a jacket, and while it wasn't below freezing, it was still quite chilly. A sweater and turtleneck weren't really enough. He didn't say anything to me, simply waited. Finally, I slogged up into the portico and sat down on a bench, close enough to show I was willing to talk, but far enough away that he had to motor over to me.
He did. Then we continued to sit in silence for some time. Finally, the weight of it got to me. "I yelled at them over Coke."
"Mmm." He pulled out his pipe and filled it with tobacco.
"Pretty dumb, huh?"
"Mmm. Were you angry?"
"Well -- yeah."
He just nodded and lit the pipe, drew on it a few times to get it going, then said, "How often do you find the refrigerator empty of Coke?"
"A lot. I mean, like, all the time. I'm the only one who remembers to put in more."
"Hardly an unreasonable request, then, to ask them to remember -- nor a 'dumb' thing to be angry about."
"But I threw a fit," I said, wrapping arms around myself and leaning over. "Lately, I feel all out of control. Stupid things just . . . set me off."
"Perhaps you feel out of control because you're feeling in the first place?"
It was such an odd question that it brought me up short. "Huh?"
"Let me ask you this -- when was the last time you were really mad, Scott? Not irked, not annoyed, but throw-the-dishes-and-break-the-china angry?"
I blinked. "I don't know." And I didn't. "A long time. Maybe never." The professor's eyebrows went up at that. "Okay, well, I probably got that mad when I was a kid. I mean, kids do, but it hasn't happened in a long time. I'm not a kid, and what good would it do?"
Xavier was nodding, and I thought he would agree with me, but instead, he said, "Good or bad doesn't matter. Feelings are neither one -- neither good nor bad. We have them -- or they have us." He studied me and puffed on his pipe. "Anger doesn't go away just because you don't think it will do any good. Scott, you have been on your own since you were eight. In that time, you have been abused, neglected and taken advantage of, repeatedly."
"Well, yeah, but so have a lot of other -- "
"Others are not you. You're rationalizing. Others may feel their own anger, but it's yours that you feel. It's the injustice against you that hurts, down inside."
His words were fine knives, shredding the chain mail of my own protections. Links fell away, exposing something red and bloody underneath. "What the fuck good does it do -- dwelling on it? I just want to fucking forget it, okay?"
"No, it's not okay, because you can't forget it, not until you've actually let yourself feel it. Your feelings will come out, Scott -- one way or another. In and of themselves, feelings are simply our natural responses to the situations in which we find ourselves. They don't have to 'do' anything beyond that. Forgetting them isn't possible -- instead, we learn to release them in healthy ways."
"Release them?" I asked, standing abruptly to stalk off down the length of the portico, then turn and come back, halting about ten feet away to shout, "You don't know what the fuck you're asking, old man! If I let this out, I don't know what'll happen. Breaking the fucking china is the least of it! I'll probably kill something! Just leave me alone and let me deal my way, okay? It's safer for everybody."
And I ran off again, back into the house and upstairs to my room where I locked myself in for the night. About an hour later, I heard the hum of the professor's wheelchair stop outside my door, but he didn't knock. Instead a slip of paper was pushed beneath, then I heard the chair hum away. I eyed the paper as if it were a snake, but curiosity finally got the better of me and I walked over to pick it up and unfolded it. A bit of poetry was quoted inside. It read:. . . spread out in front of her on the bathroom floor lay a whole night's work damn peculiar song she thought bewildered by her own handwriting it said help me well it's true her songs didn't ever sell very good but that was one great lady on the bathroom floor i hope to shout and it hurts a lot to tell about her makes me love you enough not to protect you at all.
The name Martin Bell was written beneath the text, and beneath that, You can't go over it or around it or under it, Scott. You can only go through it. But there are people waiting on the other side who'll catch you.
Aside from that note, Xavier said nothing to me about my outburst the next morning when I showed up with Warren for lessons. Sometimes the professor tutored us together, sometimes apart. At first, I'd been nervous of taking lessons with Warren, sure I'd look stupid beside the older boy's upper-crust education -- he read Latin for God's sake -- but I'd surprised myself. There were things I did better than Warren -- anything with numbers, for instance. It wasn't that Warren was bad at math, but Warren's bent was pragmatic. All of his family problems aside, he'd been born and bred to business where math was merely a tool.
To me, though, numbers were a game. Clear, clean, easy to understand -- and a game. I looked forward to math lessons while Warren dreaded them. "You're a math geek, Summers," he told me, and it was true.
Wednesday, Thursday and Friday of that week passed without incident, and Jean arrived for the weekend to find Warren and I doing derivatives in the den. She pushed open the side door with her overnight bag and let in the crisp smell of spring. Snow last weekend; spring this weekend. "The crocuses are blooming," she said, eyeing me like one might a rabid dog who could bite. Then again, the last time she'd seen me, I'd been howling about a lack of Coke in the refrigerator, and my mood had been dicey, to say the least, for the past few weeks now. So I smiled at her and hoped it looked friendly. Apparently so, because she dropped her bag to shut the door and came over to the table where we were working, slinging one arm over each of our shoulders. "Watcha up to, guys?"
"Math," Warren groaned. "Well, he's up to it. I'm dying, here."
"Want some help?"
"What I want is a waiver, but I'm not likely to get it, so help will do. Scott keeps trying, but I can't say it's actually helping."
"Fuck you," I said pleasantly, vacating my chair so Jean could have it. "I'm going outside for a minute. Be back shortly." We all knew I was going out for a smoke, but leaving my reason unspecified kept the peace.
It was still sunny, but thunderheads threatened on the western horizon and it'd be raining by nightfall. I packed my pipe and lit it, then walked around the flower-beds. Jean was right; the crocuses that had sprouted a week ago, peeking up through snow, had now opened their star buds like yellow and white constellations. The daffodils were coming up, too, and maybe they'd bloom late next week. April first was Monday. April Fool's Day. Six months. I'd been here six months though it seemed far longer. I'd watched the leaves turn, and the snow fall, and now the world was on the verge of blooming. Sitting down on a patch of grass just starting to green, I enjoyed the quiet.
But if wealth bought privacy and space, this close to the city, civilization was never far off. I could hear the hum of vehicles on the highway beyond Greymalkin Lane; a plane, high up, left a vapor trail through the sky; and coming in from the south was the distinct whup-whup of helicopter blades. I glanced at my watch; it was nearing rush hour. The traffic choppers were up, though they didn't usually fly this far north unless there was an accident. Maybe it was some business executive being transported out of the city to avoid the jam.
The helicopter flew in a sweep over the grounds, heading for the highway, and then circled west towards the river. I watched it idly as I finished my pipe, then went inside.
The rest of the evening, I spent on my best behavior. Now that I had friends, I didn't want to lose them for acting like an unpredictable bastard. While Warren finished the rest of his homework, Jean and I took out horses for a short ride as the sun was setting. We caught only a peek of brilliant gold and orange and red on the horizon below the purple cloud line, and by eight, it was storming. All of us ordered out for pizza, and watched movies in the den.
The professor liked pizza, and never mind the exotic stuff like California Pizza Kitchen. He wanted old-fashioned New York greasy pepperoni with extra cheese. It was among the most unexpected things that I'd learned about him early on, and had gone a great way toward upending my assumptions.
Between the hard drum of rain on the big windows and the blue glow of the TV set, most of us were half asleep by eleven, sprawled across each other on the davenport. I occupied the end, so it was only Jean with her head in my lap. When we heard the slamming of car doors outside, we all started and sat up drowsily. "Who could that be?" Xavier asked. The gate was locked for the night. He went to one of the windows to look out, but between the downpour and the darkness, apparently he couldn't see anything and moved towards the door, maybe intending to open it, I wasn't sure. But something like a premonition brushed the nape of my neck, raising the little hairs there. "Don't open the door!" I yelled.
Jean, Hank and Warren all stared and Xavier turned in his chair -- even as the door was kicked forcefully inward. It hit a wheel of the professor's chair and knocked it over, spilling Xavier onto the imported oriental carpet. His head struck the wooden leg of a display cabinet as bullets pocked the back wall, the rapid fire of an automatic. Jean screamed and I rolled backwards off the couch seat, shoving it towards the door and yanking Jean under the coffee table, flinging a couch throw on top of her. The gunfire came again, aimed high; it shattered one of the windows so that Jean and I were sprayed with glass and pelting rain. I looked up just in time to see Hank fall. He must have leaped for the upper sill. I had no idea where Warren was. Things were happening too fast. Jean was whimpering and I shoved her face into the carpet as I added a few more pillows to the camouflage concealing her -- and doing so badly, I had to admit, but it was the only thing I could think of. If I'd told her to run, she'd have been shot.
Six men with submachine guns had moved into the room.
I recognized them. They belonged to Jack Winters -- Jack O' Diamonds.
Ice crystallized in my gut as freezing spring rain blew in the window, soaking me.
Jack himself strolled through the splintered door next, wearing his customary white. He always dressed in white and wore enough diamonds to ransom a minor prince. On the street, we'd called pimps like him a sugar fly -- almost a caricature. All he needed was a foggy lens and a cooing choir to be a televangelist. Instead, he had his bully-boys.
Everything in me was sinking. "How did you fucking find me, you son of a bitch?"
He glanced around before answering. The professor was still on the floor where he'd rolled out of his chair. He was unconscious. There would be no help from his telepathy, and Hank was a silent lump by the window, unconscious or dead. Warren -- I could see now -- was being held down by two men standing on his wings. He strained to move, but even as powerful as his wings were, he couldn't budge the ex-linebacker-types pinning him down.
Walking casually towards me, the first thing Jack did was kick me across the face with one white wingtip shoe. "Nobody. Leaves. Me," he said, grabbing my hair and yanking my head up again. "Nobody. Especially not a cheap little Puerto Rican cunt and a cock-sucking peach boy like you."
And he dropped a red jacket in my lap, the color less brilliant for the dark stain of dried blood on half of it. Two things were pinned to one lapel. First, a newspaper clipping dated with a pen as December twenty-fourth -- Christmas fucking Eve -- about the naked body of a woman identified as Mariana Olivares, found in a dumpster in Queens. It had obviously come from a sidebar on an interior page, with a barely bold, small-point headline because dead prostitutes weren't news. The second item pinned to the jacket lapel was the phone number I'd given her. My cell phone.
My hand shook as I tore the paper free. All those wrong numbers . . . "You can't trace a fucking cell phone," I yelled.
"Oh, indeed, I can. It's called Lookup911. Pins you within six feet. Not easy to swing, and costly for me. It took more than a few favors, and a lot of time to be sure I had you, once I knew whose number it was -- but worth it. I need to make an example of you, pretty boy. Nobody punks me, and you've been gone since September. It makes others think about trying their luck, starting with that Puerto Rican bitch. The irony is, you've been right under my nose the whole damn time."
He glanced around while I shivered on the rain-soaked carpet, a dead-woman's jacket in my lap. "Pretty little house. That fine face got you some fancy attention, I see, even if there is a mutie or two hanging around."
I wasn't really listening. Instead, I stared at the carpet and wiped blood off my upper lip. This was all my fault. My foolishness. The professor had warned me not to go into the city, but I hadn't listened. And now they were all going to die, these people who'd taken me in; they were going to die because of me. Let no good deed go unpunished.
Please, God no, I prayed to the indifferent divinity of my childhood. At least Jean was still hidden under the blankets behind me, not making a sound.
Jack continued to speak while the thunder outside made a strange background. "Which one is your keeper? The winged kid?" He walked over to Warren, who didn't look afraid. He looked furious, even lying helpless on his side. "Do those wings actually work?" Jack asked. Warren didn't deign to reply. "I'd tell Jonah to break them for you, but I'd rather have 'em cut off and mounted for my parlor."
Next, Jack strolled over to where Hank lay beneath the window in the driving pelt of the downpour. The rain had soaked Jack the same as Hank, but he didn't seem to care. He prodded Hank's side. "Or is it big monkey boy, here? Who is he anyway? The heir of this estate? He's ugly enough, but he's got money, and that's all hoes care about -- or boys like you."
He turned back to me, crossing broken glass that crunched beneath his heel, then swift as a snake, bent to snatch the blanket off Jean. "Ah. That's what you were hiding." He grabbed her by the hair and dragged her up. Lightning flashed, striking bright off the diamonds in his rings. Jean's face was white and she made no sound, scared mute. But when Jack yanked her head close to kiss her, she came to enough to squirm and shove at him.
He backhanded her hard across the face, knocking her into the television set, which crashed over and broke. Both Warren and I yelled, "Jean!" even as she tried to crawl away. There was blood on her mouth. One of the thugs not standing on Warren casually raised his rifle and sprayed bullets in the floor all around her. She screamed and froze where she was, and my heart almost leapt out of my mouth while she began to sob.
"You bastard," I said. The words were just so much hot air, but I was full of anger. It streamed through me, beat in my chest and spun around in my head, making me dizzy, making me see strange -- angled, distorted, sharp at the edges but bleeding all the color out until everything was dun. "You son of a mangy bitch."
Jack ignored me to walk over to where the professor lay on his side, nudging Xavier's shoulder. "I think this one is where I'll start. Charles Xavier, I presume? He hid you from me. How does a cripple like sex, Scotty boy? Did you suck his limp old dick? Or did he suck yours?
"Don't talk about the professor like that," I snarled, standing up. My head was buzzing, as if a dozen bees had been trapped inside it. "You're not fit to lick his asshole clean."
Jack had pulled a pistol out from beneath his white suit jacket. I'd seen it many times when he'd dogged me, had suffered the blunt, black muzzle stroking my cheek, or shoved down my throat until I'd gagged. Now, he set it to the side of Xavier's bald head and panic melted my bones. I sank to my knees again. "Please don't. I'll do whatever you want. I'll go back if you want. Just leave him alone."
"So you love your rich sugar daddy, eh, Scotty?" Smiling, he glanced up at me -- and his eyes widened. "What the fuck?"
But it was too late. Vases, lamps, knickknacks, pictures from the wall, the fire irons -- all were flying through the air like an animated cavalry of house decor coming over the hill. And Jean wasn't sobbing in terrorized panic. Instead, she stood with hands out, wet hair plastered to her face, her expression contorted by effort. Nor was Hank lying in a crumpled heap beneath the window. He was sailing through the air, feet first, to slam into one of the guards holding down Warren.
It would have been a marvelous trick -- I'd never underestimate Jean again -- except Jack still had a gun, and it was aimed at the professor's head. And whatever Jean was throwing at him, he was going to pull the trigger.
Red light. Piercing red light exploding out of my face, but I could still see perfectly. The red light struck Jack square in the chest with two beams that punched through him like a demolition ball. Bone, lung-matter, and blood sprayed all over the wall behind . . . except there wasn't a wall behind. That was exploding outward, too, in a shatter of brick and wood and plaster, and Jack was falling, red all over his once-white clothes. And I was glad. The whole world had gone red, like my rage. I glanced around the room to see Jack's boys ducking from angry sconces and candle holders and an antique cartouche. The red beams followed, striking one of the men and separating his head from his shoulders so that his carotid artery sprayed blood up like a fountain. What the hell? I jerked my head around towards another who still had his gun, and the beams dragged across the man's belly, disintegrating both it and the gun, and cutting him in half. He barely had time to scream.
I was doing this. Me. These sons of bitches had hurt my friends, threatened them. They'd hurt me, too, and they'd killed Mariana. It was payback time.
I finally felt powerful.
But the den walls were blowing out, just like the one behind Jack had, and the roof above us was cracking and groaning even as Warren and Hank both dove to get away from the deadly beams that followed wherever I looked. Red, red, red. Blood red.
I'd just killed three people. Shit, I'd just killed three people. And I couldn't make these beams stop.
"CLOSE YOUR EYES, SCOTT!"
"CLOSE YOUR EYES!"
I closed them. I didn't want to see anymore. I didn't want to see the damage I'd caused. Getting to my feet, I stumbled in the general direction of the wall that had been blasted out behind Jack, but tripped on the professor's chair, or what I assumed was his chair. Falling, my hands landed in wet. Rain or blood? But it was thick and sticky and I could feel sharp slivers cut my hands -- bits of bone. Struggling back up, I somehow found my way outside through the hole in the wall. Rain beat down on me. I started walking. I had to get away before I killed them all. I was ruin incarnate.
Notes: I owe Domenika for the Columbia info, and Heatherly kindly read through this and offered comments. Jean's class assignment is for the amusement of Naomi and Mara, and the tidbit about Xavier and pizza is courtesy of Andraste. And last, thanks to Gerg for phone tracing info given months ago. The quoted poem, "Costs Plenty," comes from Martin Bell's collection, Nenshu and the Tiger.
Story VIII is Rose Colored Glasses
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Title: Diamonds in the Rough (Special 7)
Series Name: SPECIAL: The Genesis of Cyclops
Author: Minisinoo [email] [website]
Details: Series | 70k | 10/06/04
Characters: Scott Summers, Jean Grey, Hank, Warren, Xavier
Summary: What are diamonds but pressurized carbon?
Notes: Blood at the end. ADULT, as is all the series.
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