Chapter 11: “Two Small Rooms, Part I”

It was a shack of grease in a block of grime. It was a counter, six cracked stools, three tables, a deep fryer, a coffee maker and a gas fire to char the meat just like the cavemen did. There was a surprisingly large storeroom in back where Barrow wasn’t supposed to be sleeping and had meant to only temporarily. But this was the greasy spoon that time forgot and, so far, the inspectors hadn’t busted the place for zoning violations. The owner was pretty much AWOL but that was fine by Barrow; after all these years, he could keep the place running without him. For better or worse, he had admit it was home.

Not that things weren’t tough; he had lost his latest waitress yesterday when she walked out in a crack-fueled fury, declaring that she was meant for better things. During the busy times of day—especially at lunch—he needed that second pair of hands, but he’d survive. Barrow remembered when he used to talk about being meant for better things. Now he talked about surviving another day.

When he was busy (and today, working alone, it was as busy as busy got), he entered a kind of trance of efficient oblivion. He didn’t register human beings; only eggs, fries, coffees, Danishes, bills passed over and change passed back. He didn’t see faces, only his brown hands, cracked and scarred as they cooked, served and collected tips. If the boy had come in ten minutes earlier, Barrow wouldn’t have even registered him. Actually, he would have been an annoyance, staring for a whole minute up at the menu through big eyes that were alive with a drama of hunger and frustration, and then back at the meager, crumpled bills in his hand before finally snarling, “Coffee. Milk and three sugars,” and sulking over to a table to stare at the grey morning through the grimy window. Barrow could hear the boy’s stomach growl over the sound of traffic outside.

The boy had long finished the coffee and was busily writing in a small copy book that he had pulled out of his battered leather portfolio. He gave Barrow a sideways look from time to time, probably wondering how many minutes at the table one coffee had bought him. Barrow watched him covertly, impressed at the intensity he was bringing to his writing, almost like he was pulling parts from deep inside himself and splashing them on the page. For every line wrought, his body twisted and his face continually mutated through a gamut of emotions from pain to ecstasy. Eventually, he stopped looking up at Barrow and so was caught by surprise when a plate suddenly appeared in front of him containing an omelet, hash browns and three slices of tomato.

“What the hell?” the kid burst out, as if someone had just thrown water in his face. He looked up at Barrow. “I didn’t order this.”

“I know,” he replied flatly. “I didn’t get you mixed up with some other folks.” He looked around the empty restaurant and the boy followed his gaze.

The kid eyed the older man suspiciously, tossing the long hair from his eyes. “I can’t pay for this. Why are you giving it me?”

Barrow shrugged. “You looked hungry.” The boy stared down at the steaming plate but didn’t move.

Barrow deliberately turned and headed back behind the counter, calling over his shoulder, “Eat it or don’t, kid. It’s made now.” He deliberately kept his back to the boy as he cleaned breakfast dishes and soon enough, the sound of a fork on a plate and less-than-delicate chomping told him that his food was appreciated.

It was only a few minutes later that he noticed the kid get up and move to the door. The young man seemed particularly vulnerable as he turned to look back in Barrow’s direction. When he realized he had the cook’s attention, his eyes lowered to the floor and he muttered, “thanks,” before turning and all but running out the door.

***

The first weeks of school were as wonderful and nerve-wracking as Bobby had imagined. The course work was going to challenge him academically far beyond anything he had experienced before. At the same time, the teachers were working hard to inspire them and to assure them no one would be left behind. Furthermore, a spirit of camaraderie had quickly developed among all the students and there was always someone around to help when you were stuck. Things were chaotic, there was no doubt about that; it was a new school and there were always details no one had thought about beforehand. In any crisis, Bobby was the first person the administration turned to lend a hand and the first his fellow students turned to for guidance. Did he resent this? Far from it, he realized. He felt like he mattered. For the first time in his life, he felt that there was a place in the world that would miss him if he disappeared.

What was wrong with the Drake family?

Bobby kept asking himself that question. How could four people live together all those years and fail to form a community? Even the closeness he had enjoyed with Ronny had only emerged as their parents had drifted apart. Ruefully, he noted that closeness had proved all too fragile, leaving the Drakes, once again, as four islands instead of a continent. Now he had another model with which to compare his family: a houseful of kids and adults struggling to make something together. Bobby loved the bustle of the day and the jostling of different personalities struggling to find a way together. Sure there were conflicts that needed to be resolved and personalities that didn’t gel (he wasn’t sure that Kitty and Rahne would ever make compatible roommates) but there was also a recognition that these problems were inconsequential when they were all so lucky to be living openly and thriving in their all-mutant environment.

Adversity brought them closer; that much was clear. Twice a week, a group of between five and ten students would meet for Bobby’s peer counseling group and they would support each other through a lot painful discussions. They spoke of fear and alienation, of anger, violence and abuse. They confessed to the guilt they felt for being a burden on their parents and they admitted to ways they had used their powers that they weren’t proud of. On a couple of occasions, after the group had broken up for the night, one or another of the students had stayed behind to say things to Bobby alone that they couldn’t speak to a crowd. These private sessions were scary for Bobby and he was afraid he would say the wrong thing, make them feel worse. Usually he ended up convincing the student to make an appointment with Xavier. When the Professor had told him how much he was doing for the school through these meetings, he had been almost too overwhelmed to say thank you. While it was sometimes hard to help people, it never felt like a burden. It felt like a privilege.

Most of the students had been to at least one session, even if they only listened and never opened their mouths. In fact, Bobby realized that only one had never attended at all.

“How was ‘truth or dare’ tonight, Big Bob?” Lance asked from his bed as Bobby entered, feeling particularly drained. Lance was in sweats and a muscle shirt, making occasional notes in his laptop as he pored over a physics text. “Any hot girl confess to being a shape-changed dude?”

Bobby didn’t answer. He sat heavily in his desk chair and logged on to MSN. Mike was online but labeled as “away”. He wished he didn’t still have a geography paper to research because what he really wanted was to just put on his headphones and fall asleep to some soothing trance. He looked over at Lance who was stretching like a cat, making his bare arms and bare feet flex and relax repeatedly. Bobby could have sworn that Lance showed off his body deliberately. He was always flaunting half-draped bits of anatomy. When he changed, he stayed in each state of undress for longer than seemed necessary. This had made Bobby nervous at first until he realized that the audience Lance was performing for was his mirror. He was constantly checking how he looked from different angles, pulling model poses, flexing his muscles and otherwise checking out just how hot he looked. His smug expression seemed to imply that he always met his own rigorous standards.

Not that it wasn’t distracting, especially the times Lance would strike up a conversation with Bobby as he got ready for bed. Lance slept in the raw, something Bobby found unimaginable and kind of panic-inducing. To Bobby, it would be like leaving the cork out of the genie’s bottle: who knew what would flow out when you weren’t looking?

He had never been friends with anyone like Lance. He was rich, arrogant and sure of himself. Furthermore, he had a wickedly sarcastic tongue. He took endless delight in roasting Bobby for being the mansion’s “Mother Teresa”, for sleeping in briefs and t-shirt, for refusing to join him in skewering the teachers behind their backs. Yet he never seemed to treat Bobby as an inferior. He never sought to wound. From the beginning, Lance had acted like Bobby was on his team. Was it just because they were roommates? Was it because being Bobby’s friend gave him more access to Kitty?

Bobby and Kitty spent a lot of time talking about Lance and, though it made Bobby uncomfortable, he never failed to participate in the discussion.

“You know, he’s surprisingly smart,” she had begun the other day, veering suddenly away from whatever they had been talking about a minute earlier. “He’d be easier to understand if he were just a monkey making it on daddy’s money; but he’s one of Ororo’s best history students.”

“He drives Scott crazy in ‘powers’ class,” Bobby had confided. “Half the time he refuses to even try stuff and when he does, he doesn’t seem interested at all in controlling himself. He keeps knocking the whole class on its ass with his earthquakes.”

Kitty had jumped in: “I know! And then he has the headaches. On Tuesday, I sat there holding an icepack on his head for an hour.” She had sighed kind of wistfully.

Bobby’s voice had been sharper than he had intended: “Why didn’t you just take him to see Jean?”

“I did! She gave me the ice pack and I sat with him! What’s the problem?” They had grown silent. Kitty hadn’t seen how Bobby knitted his brow as she went on. “Have you ever noticed his smell? It’s very… individual. Kind of warm and nutty.”

“No,” he had answered thickly. “I never noticed.” Which was a lie.

“He better get his shit together,” she had concluded grimly. “I’ll kill him if he gets his ass thrown out of here. And it’s a nice ass!” She had blushed at her own comment.

Bobby had risen and walked out, calling over his shoulder, “I’ve got homework; and apparently you’ve got to sit here and think about Lance Alvers’ ass!”

In their dorm, the evening progressed with Bobby digging into geography and Lance putting aside physics in favor of some reading for the Professor’s ‘Literature of the Oppressed’ course. Bobby could hear his roommate’s inevitable hip-hop leaking out loudly from his headphones as he read. He was getting used to the sound after a week of reticent, martyred annoyance.

Lance suddenly pulled the buds from ears and asked, “Was Kitty at the meeting tonight?”

“No,” Bobby responded wearily. “She doesn’t come a lot.”

“She values her mystery, our Kitty-Cat. She’s pretty hot for a math geek, don’t you think? I like those small kind of perky tits.”

Bobby closed his textbook and chewed on a fingernail. As a guy, was he supposed to be talking like that, too, or was he supposed to tell Lance not to be crude about his friend?

Lance poked at his silence. “Hey, Big Bob. What’s the story between you two? Pete and Sam think she’s your girlfriend but frankly, I don’t see it.”

Bobby was not at all happy that this type of speculation was a topic at the mansion.

“No. We’re just friends,” he answered, which made him feel like a loser. “We… we used to make out a lot before school started but we kind of stopped that.”

“Oh. That’s too bad, bro. Like I said, she’s hot.”

They returned to studying for another hour before they went one at a time down the hall to the bathroom to wash up and get ready for bed. Lying in bed with a fantasy novel, Bobby tried to ignore Lance dancing with his reflection in only his boxers before he shut off his portable stereo, stripped naked and jumped into bed. Merciful silence descended but Bobby felt a cord of tension rising because somehow he knew the discussion wasn’t finished. Lance finally spoke again. “So… it wouldn’t bend you out of shape if I, like, asked her out?”

Bobby almost tried pretending that he was already asleep but he knew he wouldn’t get away with it. “No, man,” he said in an approximation of cool. “That’s fine. Whatever.”

“Excellent! Those lips must be sweet, am I right?”

Bobby snapped back, “I’ve got training with Scott at 7 a.m. tomorrow; can we shut up and sleep? Please?!”

Lance didn’t seem put out by his tone. “Oh, sure. Thanks, man. Goodnight.”

Bobby rolled over, putting his back to Lance, punching a fresh furrow in his pillow and planting his head in it. He willed the darkness to swallow him up. He was almost asleep when Lance said in a low, horny voice, “Yo, Big Bob, you’ll tell me what moves make her really wet, okay?”






It had taken nearly two weeks for John to return to the diner. One of the most important lessons he had learned since he left home (and maybe before; it was hard to remember how he felt before) was that you don’t want to be in debt to anyone. Contracts were slippery things. Whereas you might think you just owe someone a nod and a tap dance, they might think your right arm is a more equitable payback.

So what was he doing, standing across the road, working up the nerve to go back in and fish for another meal? He was hungry. Holy fuck was he hungry. And sometimes you were forced to act and damn the consequences; you’d find out later what you had to pay. Besides, he thought, I never asked for the fucking food. He gave it to me. I didn’t beg. Of course, returning was begging, wasn’t it? He stood up a little taller, tried to feel more badass. He had a horrible suspicion he just looked pathetic.

He waited until the morning rush was thinning before crossing the road to stand in the doorway. He waited only a minute in this uncertain state before the tall black man who seemed to run the place solo nodded at him to sit. Without a word spoken between them, pancakes and bacon soon appeared in front of John along with a big glass of orange juice. He dug into the meal hungrily, chasing the last of the syrup around the plate with the last bite of pancake. He sat up and belched quietly, watching the man cleaning up and refilling the coffee of the one remaining breakfast customer.

He came over to pick up John’s dishes. John looked up at the face, trying to figure the guy out. He had grey at his temple but his face wasn’t very lined. He was strong and acted with economy of movement, slow but unrelenting.

“How was it?” the man asked.

“Good.” John wished he could really express the depth of his gratitude, but the contract thing was starting to loom. “Look,” he said. “I haven’t got money today, but I’ll be able to pay for this soon.”

“Tell you what,” the man said as he stacked dishes in the sink and turned on the water. “You want to pay for it, you can help me out during the lunchtime rush. How’s that sound?”

John only hesitated a minute before saying, “Yeah, cool.” The man nodded and turned back to the dishes. John felt something relax inside him; he could handle this contract. He even liked the terms.

As he began to scrub at the plates, the man said, “So, if you’re gonna be working here, I oughta know your name.”

“John.”

A smile. “No kidding? Mine, too! John Barrow. Well, I guess you can be ‘Little John’.”

John wiped his mouth and smirked. “Yeah, I don’t think so.”

Barrow laughed. “Fine, you’re ‘Big John’. No skin off my ass as long as you follow orders.”

John knit his hands together behind his head and leaned back in his chair. “I can do that.”

“Excellent. You gonna do some more writing until then?”

John gave him a suspicious glance. The guy remembered. The guy was observant. This made John nervous because anonymity could save your life. On the other hand, he kind of liked the idea that he was memorable.

“Yeah, I think I will. Can I sit here?”

Barrow smiled. “I’ll bring you a coffee, Big John.” He started whistling, a sound that accompanied John’s writing until it was time to start work. The diner filled as soon as noon hit and the turnover of customers, the dizzying speed of preparation and clearing kept him breathless for the next two hours. But John was smart and Barrow only had to show him something once before he caught on. He slipped at one point, breaking three plates and a water glass, but Barrow just pointed him at the broom and dustpan and left him no time to beat himself up.

At two o’clock, he ate a burger and fries, cleaned his dishes and gathered up his portfolio.

He moved to the doorway and said to Barrow, who was sitting at the counter drinking a Coke, “Okay, well thanks, man.”

Barrow nodded. “You’re welcome. And thanks for your help, Big John.”

Silence. John shifted his portfolio to his other hand and shook out his hair. What was he waiting for? Don’t linger! That was another rule.

“Okay, then. See you around.” As he closed the door behind himself and made his way down the sidewalk, he felt a weird sense of loss. He tried to chide himself for thinking bullshit. Don’t linger, always move on, he told himself. He thought of the rest of the day. How many tricks should he turn tonight? He pulled some bills out of his pocket. Barrow had shared the tips with him. Fuck it, he thought. I deserve the fucking day off.

The next morning, John was back at the diner at 6 a.m. His intention to have a night off hadn’t quite worked out and things had suddenly gone from bad to worse. His money was gone but there was no use crying over it. He rubbed the painful souvenir on his right cheek and tried to put it all behind him. He was tired as hell but he wasn’t going to show it to Barrow. He sat himself down at the counter on the last stool and ate the meal that was soon placed before him.

After it was done, he only hesitated a minute before standing up and moving behind the counter where he started working on the dirty dishes and then peeling the potatoes that the big man handed him. A small smile was sneaking round the edges of Barrow’s face, but otherwise, neither fessed up to any feelings; they just worked side by side as if they had been doing it for years ago instead of since yesterday.

It was a long day but ‘Big John’ (corny as it sounded, he liked his new nickname) didn’t mind at all. Maybe he’d become a short order cook himself. It was a portable skill, according to Little John Barrow who became more loquacious as the morning rush thinned and they prepared for the lunch crowd.

“With just some basic skills, you can go anywhere, Big John!,” he explained as he scrubbed down the grill and refilled the sugar dispensers. “You can work on a container ship and sail the seas or at a tourist trap on top of a mountain. Long as you know how to sling a burger!”

John imagined that. He could go somewhere far away where his past could never find him. He would work and write and there would be no one to bug him. He could forget about his time with his stepfather, his time with the gang, his time on the streets.

He could even forget about being a damned mutant and all the trouble that caused him. Except he couldn’t. Here was this great place to work with a no-bullshit guy he could learn something useful from. It was real and raw and smelly in just the right way... and it would all be perfect if it weren’t for the damned gas stove! It was an old, badly regulated piece of crap and all day John had to listen to the taunting voice of the fire, wheedling and cajoling him to let it free. The fire was hungry for the grease-caked walls and the old, dry furniture. It told John just where the weaknesses were in the gas lines, where it might escape with just a little help. “They call me a pilot light,” it seemed to say “Let me fly free.”

But it was just a pissant little ember and he could ignore it. He was stronger than the motherfucker.

The diner closed its doors at 4:00 in the afternoon. They cleaned the dishes, wiped the tables and checked the stock in the fridge and pantry. John gave a sigh of relief when Barrow shut off the damned pilot light at last. He opened two Cokes for them and they sat wearily at the counter.

“And that’s how it goes every day,” Barrow concluded.

“It’s not so bad,” John told him through a yawn. “You get to watch the freak parade. Kind of entertaining.”

Barrow grinned, “You have a unique way of looking at things, Big John. You gonna write about them in your journal?”

“It’s not a journal,” he swirled his can and listened to it bubbling. “It’s poetry. Don’t laugh.”

“Why would I laugh? You good?”

“Whatever.”

“No, are you a good poet or not, Big John? You must know.”

John gave him an appraising once over figuring how much to reveal. His default was always ‘nothing’ but with some people—the ones who earned it—you had to give a little. “Yeah, sometimes. Most of the time it’s all garbage and you scratch if out and start again. But sometimes you trip on a clump of horseshit and land in a pile of gold, y’know?”

“I think I do, yeah.” Barrow scratched the graying stubble on his chin. “So, you got a place you’re sleeping these days?”

John didn’t like where the conversation was going and stalled for time by draining his Coke. The thing about personal questions, he had learned, was they always traveled in packs. “I got friends to stay with,” he said with some finality.

“They the ones who gave you the shiner?” Barrow asked levelly, leaning in closer.

John’s hand went reflexively to his sore cheek and he shot Barrow a look. “It’s not a shiner, and no they aren’t. You got anything else you want to know, officer?” He rubbed the bruise and thought about the hustlers who had roughed him up last night. Shit, was it his fault if the trick chose him instead of their cracked-out asses?

Barrow put his hands up in surrender, “Be cool, Big John. What you do is your business.” He sounded a bit nervous as he said. “I was just wondering if you maybe wanted to crash here with me tonight.” He put a big hand on John’s shoulder.

John’s stiffened at the touch and he looked away. Yeah, he thought, always read the fucking contract before you sign.

Barrow continued, “I got an extra mattress in the back. I’m not supposed to be sleeping there either, but no one’s thrown me out yet. Just gotta make sure it doesn’t look too homey in case the inspectors come around.”

The hand on his shoulder seemed to weigh a million pounds and an awful sadness welled up in John’s chest. He bit his lip and made himself tough as he appraised the situation. Well, it beat not knowing where he’d sleep tonight and with whom. He looked Barrow up and down with something that he hoped read like cool calculation. Nobody owned him and he would have to make that clear. But he really was tired. It had been a week since he had a really solid rest and they had worked hard all day. Barrow was okay. He could sure do worse out on the street, so why not?

“Okay, yeah. Thanks,” he told Barrow grudgingly. “I can help out tomorrow, too, if you like.”

Barrow smiled and removed his hand. “Hey, that sounds good. I’ll teach you the secrets of a great milkshake if you’re lucky. You look kind of beat, Big John. Why don’t you go out back and catch a nap now?”

“What are you going to do?” John asked, sounding more nervous than he had meant to.

“I have to go over to the bank and deposit the cash, get change for tomorrow.” He pulled on a weather beaten windbreaker.

His voice a bit too loud, John asked, “You locking me in?”

Barrow stopped and gave him an appraising look. He answered quietly, “The key to the deadbolt is on a hook under the cash. Go whenever you like. I hope you won’t, though, John.”

John cursed himself for a fool—and a weak fool, at that. “Whatever, man,” he managed. He was damned if his heart was going to open up again just to get fucked with. He knew the score and he knew his worth.

His eyes were seriously drooping but he waited until Barrow had taken the cash and locked the door behind himself before he went to check out the backroom. Dim light came through a grimy, high window above a fire door and it barely offered enough light for him to find a cheap kid’s clown lamp beside Barrow’s mattress. He switched on the light and surveyed the room. Strangely, it was bigger than the diner itself. Boxes were stacked up with paper napkins and other dry goods. There was a small, grimy bathroom off to one side. Barrow’s territory was against one wall, a few feet from the door to the diner area. There was a mattress, the lamp and a couple of cardboard boxes containing his clothes. There was another pair of shoes, a pair of boots, some old issues of Sports Illustrated and a couple of porn mags. That was it. The second mattress, dusty and musty, was leaning against the wall and John pulled it down, making his own personal area as far from Barrow’s as possible. He snapped off the clown light and felt his way back to his newly staked territory.

He lay down right away, determined to get some shut eye before the older man returned. The truth was John hated being alone and had done ever since he was a kid when he would usually finish the night in his mom’s bed—at least until the asshole had moved in. But now being alone was the only way he really knew he was safe. The darkness and quiet pressed against him and sleep took him fast and hard.

In dreams of mazes, he rounded corners without end. From somewhere close by he heard a sinister voice purring, “I’m back, St. John.” He awoke with a start on the old mattress. The light from the small window showed the last of the day. He could smell fish frying and the hiss of the gas stove. (“I’m back, St. John”) Fuck you, he thought dismissively.

He wandered into the diner and sat a table, silently watching Barrow cook for them. John had nothing to say but that was all right. He would just say the wrong thing at this point. Barrow didn’t seem to mind the silence, though. Outside, the wind had picked up and it whistled through the big, greasy ventilation fan.

After dinner, they moved to the backroom and Barrow lit a joint, holding it out to John who waved his hand in decline. The 40-watt clown light barely lit Barrow’s mattress and the rest of the room was shadowed—sinister and full of danger.

“You sure you don’t want none, Big John? It’s good shit.”

Speaking seemed to hurt. “No, thanks, man. I-I don’t like to lose control. It’s not pretty when I do.”

“Suit yourself. For me it ain’t so much losing control as just letting it sliiiiide a while.” He chuckled and then took a deep hit. He held the smoke and then let it go with a deep sigh of satisfaction.

Just get it over with, John thought and his stomach clenched.

Barrow seemed to vanish in his warm cloud of pot, wheezing and sighing like a dragon in his lair, eyes closed meditatively. When he spoke, his voice was thick and mellow. “I been slinging hash in this joint four years now, Big John. When I started, I figured maybe it would last a couple of months like my other jobs, but I guess when you float long enough, you eventually find your level.”

John stared out from the darkness in his end of the room into the pool of light by Barrow’s, the lamp reflecting on the man’s shiny black face. Quietly, John pulled off his t-shirt and began unbuttoning his jeans.

Barrow took another long hit off his joint before he spoke again. “I was in the Gulf in ’92 and when I got back from ‘saving the world,’ it was hard to find my place again, y’know? In the desert, the oil fires were burning day and night. Grease and smoke. The world was just grease and smoke and I couldn’t fucking wait to get back to the U.S. of A. and some clean blue skies. But the damnedest fucking thing, Big John—when I got my walking papers and stepped out onto the streets of New York, fuck me if it wasn’t all just more grease and smoke. And the motherfucking sun seemed just as far away as it had in Kuwait.”

The wind outside howled in response, and a sudden draft brought goose bumps to John’s arms and legs as he stood slowly in his dark corner.

Barrow’s eyes were blurred, seeing ghosts from long ago. “But what can you do?” he asked the ghosts. “You gotta eat, you gotta sleep somewhere. And here’s where I’m doing it, so what-the-fuck. I’m better off with…Hey, what the fuck are you…?”

Barrow stuttered to a halt, mouth gaping, staring uncomprehendingly up at John who stood naked before him, arms at his side, presenting himself in the pale, idiot light of the plastic clown. John tried to focus on Barrow’s swirling, stoned eyes and he tossed his long hair from his face, trying as with any trick, to seem self-possessed and free of resentment.

Barrow blinked stupidly and shook his head. “What the fuck, Big John? What’re you doing?”

John bit his lip and said, “It’s okay. I’ll do whatever you want. I-I’m really grateful for everything—”

“Jesus Christ, boy!” Barrow barked at him and pulled himself up against the wall. “This isn’t what I… Did you think I wanted you to…?”

John’s face was suddenly suffused with panic. “But don’t you want...? Isn’t that why you asked me to stay?”

Barrow’s face was constricted, furious and betrayed. He looked away from John into the corner of the room. “How can you think that? Do I look like a queer to you?!”

John felt his stomach lurch, the eggs from his dinner rising partway up his gullet where they burned like shame. He covered his genitals, turned on his heel and ran for his mattress. In the dark, he struggled to get into his clothes. He fell as he pulled up the jeans, landing hard on his hip with a cry.

“Hey,” Barrow called to him. “You okay? John... Big John, look I’m sorry! You surprised me...”

John struggled quickly to his feet, which he pushed into greasy sneakers. He headed for the door leading to the diner area, pulling his t-shirt on as he moved.

Why did he think Barrow wanted…? How could he be such a fucktard?!

He had to get out. He realized he didn’t know where his jacket was but fuck it! Fighting back his tears, he knew he just had to GO! NOW!!

John could hear Barrow stumbling to his feet, trying to get to him, calling out, “John, I’m sorry, it’s just a misunderstanding! Please don’t go!”

John ran through the diner to the front door. He rattled the bolted door and gave a cry of frustration. He spun around in the half-light that was coming through the caged glass window and then ran for the counter, feeling for the deadbolt key. It rattled on contact and he pulled at it, cutting his hand on the hook. He ran for the door, struggling with the key in the lock, thinking, Get out! Get out! He heard Barrow behind him and froze, not daring to turn.

Barrow spoke quietly now, calmly. “You have to lift the door a bit for the lock to work. Listen to me, Big John.”

John stood silent, bent over the lock, unable to turn around.

“Listen, I need you to leave the key here, okay?” John didn’t reply. Barrow paused a second before continuing. “What happened in there... just a misunderstanding. No harm done. I want you here because you’re a good guy and a hard worker. Go now if you gotta, but I’ll be listening for you if you want back in later on.”

The shame was a fire that John’s powers could not control. It tore at him mercilessly and the only thing he could think to do was jump—leap into the windy night and run from it. He knew this wasn’t Barrow’s fault. It was him, it was all him who’d made his life the mess it was. Somewhere inside himself, as he tumbled in freefall, he found a ledge of stone that he could grab onto. His voice was hard, almost a man’s as he said. “I’m not coming back.”

And the damned fool Barrow just stayed calm; didn’t leap across the room to pummel him for what he’d done; just said in his thick low voice, “That’s your choice, Big John. But I hope you do.”

John lifted the door and the key turned easily. A fierce gust of wind pushed at the door and he couldn’t open it for a second. He turned and put his back to the door, pushing with his legs until he forced the door against the howling night. Just before he turned and ran, his eyes caught an ancient poster of a milkshake, chocolate foam in tall beveled glass, red and white barber-pole straw piercing the sky with a promise of sweetness. Leaving the key in the lock, he turned and ran into the night, sneakers pounding the pavement.

***

At nine o’clock that evening, Bobby was in the second floor lounge that the Professor kept calling “The Music Room” despite that fact that they still had no instruments, recordings or equipment in it. In fact, the only things even vaguely musical in the room were two beaten-up posters from the 60s that X had dug up out of some trunk: The Beatles and some crazy looking conductor guy named Bernstein. Bobby was sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of the beanbag chair that held the miserable figure of Hayward Jones.

“Jones,” he said in a soothing voice, “You gotta sleep tonight! Scott’s threatening an in-dorm curfew for everyone, he’s so fed up. You can’t watch TV all night, man.”

The 14 year old had pulled a fold of the beanbag over his head earlier in the one-sided discussion and now made an indefinable noise.

“What?” Bobby asked. “I didn’t catch that.”

Jones burst upwards into a sitting position, hair sweaty, glasses crooked, eyes threatening tears. “Why can’t he just leave me alone?!”

“He’s worried about you, buddy!” Bobby put a hand on Jones’ foot and gave it a shake. “We all are. You look exhausted! Doug says you hardly stay in bed at all. And you’re down watching TV every night, man! Three in the morning you’re still there. How are you gonna get through school like that?”

The kid screamed, “I like TV!” and started to cry, turning his face from Bobby in embarrassment.

Bobby looked towards the door, wishing he had closed it when they had come in. Just then Kitty and Lance went by, leaning into each other and whispering intimately. Kitty stopped and waved, looking concerned when she saw Jones weeping with his head buried in the beanbag. She made an inquisitive gesture at Bobby who waved at them to go. Lance winked and put an arm around Kitty’s shoulder. She leaned into him and they moved on.

They were widely rumored to be an item and weren’t doing anything to dispel the talk. When Sam had asked him the other day whether he minded, he had kind of snapped at him, “Why should I?” before softening his tone and saying that he was glad they were happy and that he and Kitty had never really been a big thing. But it did bug him. He was worried he looked like a loser and, frankly, he felt like he had been pushed to the side by his closest friend at the mansion in favor of his roommate.

“Hey, Jones,” he offered, “I know what insomnia’s like. When I’m stressed out, I lie awake forever. Sometimes it helps to tell someone what’s bugging me.”

Jones rolled onto his back, sniffling, the fight knocked out of him. “It’s not insomnia. It’s not like that.”

“Then what’s it like? Tell me.” Jones said nothing and Bobby felt a small surge of anger. He had imagined the kid letting him in, confiding in him like a big brother, but he just didn’t know what to do for him. Bobby finally stood and reached out a hand to help him up. “Listen, we’ll head upstairs. Just put on some music you like on your headphones and try to relax. I’m sure you’ll sleep. You must be really, really tired.” Bobby’s attempt at using the power of suggestion sounded lame even to his own ears.

Jones took Bobby’s hand and let himself be hauled up to standing. Not very convincingly, he told Bobby, “Yeah, I’ll sleep. I promise.” He pushed his skewed glasses back in place.

“And no going down to the TV room tonight?”

“I promise.” Bobby felt like Jones was just humoring him. They walked to the boy’s dorms in silence. What were they going to do for this little enigma?

Alone in his room, Bobby had been studying math for half an hour, forcing himself to get lost in the numbers, not to think about Jones or Lance or Kitty when the door suddenly swung open and there stood the happy couple.

“Hey, Big Bob,” Lance called. “Come with us, I got something I want to share.”

Bobby found himself wanting to act sulky and bitter; but he was curious. “What is it? Lance just smirked in reply. “Kitty?”

She shrugged her shoulders. “I have no clue. Mr. Mysterious here wants us to go out to the gazebo with him.” Lance stroked the back of her head and she all but purred.

“I’m busy,” Bobby replied with an edge, turning back to his books, wishing he wasn’t reacting so childishly. “You guys go.”

Lance marched in and closed the book in front of him. “No way, roommate. The kitty-cat says we’re neglecting you and she’s right; so get up!”

Despite his misgivings, Bobby was touched that they wanted to include him. He pushed the book away, turned off his desk light and stood.

“Grab your jacket,” Kitty advised. “It’s really windy outside.” Bobby noted they were dressed in windbreakers themselves and went into the closet for his fisherman’s sweater.

As they headed down the stairs, Lance looked around like a thief and whispered to them, “Let’s get out without anyone seeing us, okay? We don’t want witnesses.” Bobby and Kitty gave each other worried glances but did as they were told.

As they crossed the lawn, the wind was whipping the trees around and shaking the first of the fall leaves loose.

“Shit,” Lance muttered. “I hope it’s not too windy to do this.” Once they got to the gazebo, they discovered that it was relatively sheltered by the hedges that surrounded it. They sat close, Kitty and Bobby looking expectantly at their dark-haired friend. Lance reached into his jacket and pulled out a little wrapped case, which he opened on his lap. Inside, Bobby saw rolling papers, a lighter and a clear plastic bag containing dried leaves. He was about to say something but Lance spoke first. “Don’t freak, kids. Papa Lance knows what he’s doing.” He started rolling a joint with practiced ease.

Like a comedy act, Bobby and Kitty both stared bug-eyed at the grass and then, in unison, turned worried eyes to each other.

Kitty spoke first. “Lance, I don’t know if this is a good idea...”

“Relax,” he answered, clearly getting a kick out of making them nervous. “The wind’s blowing away from the mansion; no one will smell a thing. Besides, the telepaths aren’t on alert 24/7. That’s what you told me, Bob, right?”

Bobby shrugged. “No, they’re not, but still... if we get caught...”

“Then what?” Lance insisted. “They’re not about to toss out any of their precious mutant stars just for some teenage shenanigans. And besides, I bet Charlie was a total stoner back in the day. You can tell he got funky back in the 60s.” Bobby thought of the posters in the music room as Lance held up his finished joint and inspected it carefully. He reached for the lighter. A spark in the night, and a flame that fluttered like a moth for a second before being extinguished by the wind. “Shit. Here, get close you guys. Shelter it.” They huddled together, knees and shoulders bumping, and Bobby felt like he had crossed some line; it was too late to chicken out.

Lance managed to light up the second time and he took a long, happy toke, his eyes closed in delight. “Oh, man,” he moaned. “I needed that.” He looked up at Bobby. “You smoke up before, Big Bob?”

“Yeah!” he answered, a bit too eagerly.

Kitty looked surprised. “You did? I don’t believe it!”

“Well, it was just once. After a dance last year...” Kitty rolled her eyes.

Lance snorted, “Oh, don’t act so pure, Kitty-Cat. You told me you used to sneak into your backyard every night with your pack of Camel Lights.” Bobby snickered at that.

Kitty got pissed. “Laugh it up, Bobby. At least I won’t cough!” She reached for the joint and took a few baby tokes.

Lance beamed. “Don’t puff. Take it in deep and hold it. Right. As long as you can.”

Kitty held it for ten seconds before letting go a cloud of resinous smoke in a fit of coughing.

Lance put a comforting hand on her back and Bobby asked, “Are you okay?”

She replied by handing him the joint and defiantly tossing her hair back in triumph. Bobby stared at the object in his hand and then gave a quick, worried look back at the mansion.

“C’mon, Big Bob,” Lance urged. “Before it goes out.”

Bobby brought the joint to his lips, realizing that it had already touched both Kitty’s and Lance’s. He took a little puff, coughing right away, and looked up at them. They were watching him intently. He took a braver toke, sucking in more and more, listening to Lance softly coaching in a deep voice: “That’s it, man, no sweat. Just take in the good smoke... gonna make you feel like a king... that’s my bro...” until a cough tore through him and broke the trance. Bobby’s throat was raw as he handed the joint back to Lance but he felt better now. Braver. As the joint circled around and around again, Bobby felt like he had passed a test... like he had been granted membership in their club.

Twenty minutes later (at least that’s what his watch told him—it felt like hours!) the cold was getting to them so Lance tucked the packet into his coat and they stumbled across the lawn, laughing at the statues in the garden that suddenly seemed extremely pompous. They were all but hanging off each other as they approached the front steps and Lance turned to them, madly shushing with a finger to his lips. “Shh! Shh! Get it together, people! We have to get upstairs without being too obvious.”

They all snapped into a more rigid posture, though still clumped together like an amoeba and they moved with serious faces through the foyer and up the stairs, passing Neal and Terry, who gave them a strange look.

“Hello, fellow students, how are you this evening?” Kitty asked with extreme formality, which caused the stoned trio to break into hysterical laughter.

“Come on,” Lance yelled and they raced together up the final flight, down the corridor and into the boys’ room where they collapsed on Lance’s bed in a hyperventilating heap, their very laughter fueling more hilarity.

Bobby suddenly looked concern. “Do you think we got away with it?” There was a moment’s pause before gales of laughter tore through them again and they clutched each other for support, finally collapsing with Lance on the bottom, Kitty tucked up in one of his armpits and Bobby with his head on the pillow and legs over Lance’s.

“Oh my God,” Kitty declared, “This is, this is the weirdest thing ever... it’s like my toes are really, really far away!” She wiggled them. “And my nose is, like, itching!” Lance reached over and scratched it.

Lance started playing with her hair as she continued, running his fingers through it. “Do you ever stop and think just how disconnected we are from each other? But now, now I totally see how humanity is all linked in so many ways...” Bobby got to his feet, stumbling a bit before heading across the room to their bar-fridge where he grabbed a big jug of orange juice.

Kitty continued with her epiphany as he swigged deeply. “Connected through the air we breathe and the earth we walk on. Through history and culture... And love! Oh my god, totally through all this love that is shared by all humans!”

Lance stroked the side of her face and smiled. “And mutants? Mutants, too?”

She turned to him and grabbed his head in both hands, staring into his eyes. “But don’t you see? We’re all the same! Here in this world! Mutants, humans...” she paused a second for thought as Bobby sat back down on the bed behind her. “And, um, monkeys and iguanas and, and all the trees!”

Bobby giggled and swallowed more juice, looking over at Kitty and Lance whose faces were inches away from each other. Lance put a hand on the back of her head and brought their lips together for a moment. Bobby watched dumbly, a drop of orange juice falling from his lower lip to the bed.

She climbed up on Lance’s lap, knees straddling him, and began kissing his neck and jaw. Lance took her face in two large hands and brought their lips together again. After only a few gentle touches of their lips, Kitty threw her arms around Lance and moaned, the sound of kisses becoming moist and hungry, the tone of her sighs urgent..

Bobby was watching this happen with a kind of wonder. He felt no self-consciousness at all; just a tingling as the sights, sounds and smells of love flooded his senses. Kitty opened her eyes and saw him there. She pulled back from Lance’s kiss and leaned over to reach Bobby. They smiled at each other and then kissed without shame, Lance stroking her hair and pulling it aside to kiss the back of her neck. Bobby felt like he was falling through space, aware only of shifting bodies and hands, of Lance pulling Kitty’s sweater up and off, of her hands brushing by his (Bobby’s) chest (or was that Lance’s hand?). Bobby looked up to see that Lance was behind Kitty, naked from the waist up, his hands snaking up under her t-shirt. Kitty moved in slow motion, like seaweed. Bobby lay back like it was all a dream, like it was a movie, his own hand running under his shirt and sweater in sympathy, stroking his nipples, his dick achingly hard.

Kitty’s mouth was open, her breath growing faster as Lance caressed and kissed her, making slow, circling progress towards her breasts, lifting her t-shirt carefully over her head so as not to break the trance of her passion. Transfixed by the show, Bobby watched her expression change from deep peace, to a kind of twisted torment and then her eyes popped opened and she saw him looking up at her. As if waking from a deep slumber and finding herself in a scary, unknown place, she grimaced and covered her breasts, pushing Lance’s hands off.

Lance seemed to waken slowly to her change in mood and murmured, “Wha’s wrong, baby?”

“No,” she was mumbling, “Let go... get off... I don’t feel good. Got to...” all the while pulling herself from his embrace as from a thicket into which she had fallen. Things seemed to be happening too fast for Bobby’s brain to keep up with. Like jump cuts, like a sequence of still photos, he saw her standing, then on her knees grabbing her sweater and shirt, then pushing Lance back onto the bed as he tried to rise. Then he saw her running across the room, holding the discarded clothing in front of her breasts and phasing out through the door.

“Shit,” Lance cried, getting to his feet, his erection tenting his baggy jeans. “What happened?”

“She freaked out,” Bobby heard himself say from his corner of the bed. He giggled again.

“No!” Lance cried in frustration. “We were totally gonna get it on!” Shirtless, aroused, he moved towards the door. “I’m going after her!”

“Dude!” Bobby called after him. “You can’t! Where are you going?”

“To her room, man!” He was holding his shirt, trying to figure out how it went on.

“Dude!!” Bobby said again with a weird sense of déja vu, “Think about it... Her roommate can turn into a wolf!

Lance looked at him with an incomprehension that quickly turned to frustration. He dropped the shirt, staggered back to the bed and let himself fall into it, his ass landing on Bobby’s legs. Bobby cried out in pain and then laughed.

“Fuck,” Lance moaned. “Bitch left me with blue balls.” He turned to Bobby and shot him a look he couldn’t identify.

“What?” Bobby asked.

Never taking his eyes off Bobby’s, Lance grabbed the orange juice bottle, took a swig, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and said, “Yo, Big Bob, you ever get off with a guy?”

***

The thumping sound entered Barrow’s dream as the sound of a hammer driving big nails into stout beams. Standing on the hard, dry dirt of the empty lot in Pensacola, Florida, he looked up at his father who was high on a ladder, building their home.

“John, a man needs a trade,” his father called down to him. “An honest living.”

“I’m gonna be a soldier, daddy,” Barrow yelled back, trying to find some pride in the statement.

His father laughed derisively. “Oh yeah? You gonna be a killer? It takes no skill to kill, boy!” Grinning, he lifted his strong arm high in the air and hurled the hammer straight at Barrow’s head.

Barrow awoke with a start. It took a second to figure out that the sound which had woken him was someone pounding on the door. He looked at his little alarm clock and saw it was just coming up on midnight. He sat up on his mattress and pulled on his worn khakis, calling out, “Hold on, I’m coming,” even though he knew he couldn’t be heard out front.

Turning on the light in the diner, he saw the kid’s face pressed against the glass. He got the key from under the counter and opened the door. Letting in a blast of cold wind as he entered, John squeezed past him, not looking up.

Barrow watched him disappear into the back room. He could hear the sound of the coat being shucked off.

“You want some coffee, Big John?” he called out sleepily but there was no answer. He sighed, closing and locking the door against the windy night. He hung up the key, turned off the diner lights and returned to his mattress. He lay there a minute, listening to John across the floor jerking his body around to find a comfortable position. “Good night, Big John,” he said quietly. “I’m glad you came back.” When no answer came he repeated, a little louder, “Good night.”

The rustling stopped. After a brief silence, the kid responded in a surprisingly gentle voice, “I’m working with you tomorrow, okay?”

Barrow smiled to himself and lay his head down. “That’s a relief, Big John. Thanks.”

He slept soundly after that.

***

Bobby felt like he had fallen through a hole in the earth into another world. It looked like his dorm room in the mansion but it was really more like the secret dreams he had nightly—the ones he never really admitted to later on.

At Lance’s urgent urgings, he was now dressed only in his white boxers and sitting beside his roommate on his bed, their backs propped against the wall. Lance was smoothing his palms along the material of his navy blue boxer briefs, one hand on either side of the substantial hump of his erection, pulling the material tightly over it. Transfixed by the sight of his own arousal, he lifted his hips off the bed and posed. “Fuck, Bobby,” he murmured, “Doesn’t that look awesome?”

Bobby stared stupidly at the display, his hand on his own tented boner. “Yeah,” he managed, his mouth dry again.

Lance dropped his ass back on the bed and hunched forward, massaging his dick through the material with long strokes of his palm. “Damn, a girl like Kitty totally gets me going,” he said achingly. “Smart, slim, just round enough…”

“Uh-huh,” Bobby panted, not knowing what he was supposed to do next, what he was supposed to say. His dick was aching to be stroked, but he didn’t know the etiquette of a situation like this.

Lance looked at him, his eyes a bit wild. “Let’s show them off, huh?” Bobby nodded and they both lifted their butts this time, sliding the underwear down, kicking them off their feet, Bobby still in his white socks.

“Oh, man, nice Bob!” and Lance reached out and grabbed Bobby’s dick, squeezing it and hefting it like he was considering a melon in a market. “You got some good thickness happening.” Bobby reached his hand halfway towards Lance but then hesitated. “Yeah, get a hold, man, feel a real hard dick!” He took Bobby’s poised hand and put it on him.

Bobby felt like he was going to pass out from the intensity. The feeling was so strange and so familiar at the same time. He probably couldn’t even calculate the number of hours he’d had his hands on his own penis in the last four years, but this one belonged to someone else, someone strong and confident and everything he doubted he was himself. And this cock felt hot like fire under his hand, precum drooling down from the pointed head and making the ride smoother. And as he jacked this cock-that-wasn’t-his, Bobby was making the sexy guy sprawled next to him moan in a way that both embarrassed and thrilled him. He felt powerful.

“Oh fuck,” Lance said through clenched teeth, sounding like he was being tortured just right. “I love her tits, you know?” Bobby looked up surprised, his rhythm faltering for a second. “Yo, keep it up, bro! Yeah, you know what I mean? Not too big, but such a sweet curve in that little flowery bra. Man!” A tremor went through Lance and the bed suddenly shook a bit as his dick gave up more precum which dripped and pooled in his tight abs. Bobby heard himself make a high, whining moan.

Lance smiled at him with a glassy twinkle of delight in his eye and the bed stopped shaking. He pushed Bobby’s hand off his penis and moved closer until their hips were touching. Lance spit on his right hand and reached over to begin jerking Bobby with agonizing slowness. Bobby tried to use his left hand to reciprocate but Lance cooed, “Relax, man!” and pushed Bobby back against the wall while his hand slid up and down Bobby’s now slick pole.

Bobby clenched his eyes tight, and the stoned feeling which had worn off, returned to fog his head. He could feel the ice churn in his veins, yearning for escape.

“You got big nuts, too, Big Bob,” Lance was saying somewhere near his ear, “Bet they’re gonna give up a lot of juice.”

Bobby’s eyes flew open and he said something that sounded like, “yeahno-uhyeahgonnaFUCK!itsGUHguhGUH…” and he blew, semen shooting one, two, three, four times across his torso, the strongest jet hitting his jaw, and ice flowed out from under his clench hands which were holding the covers in a death grip.

Then Lance was suddenly above him, holding himself up with one hand and jacking himself hard with the other, grunting through clenched teeth, “Yeah, gonna fuck her hot pussy! Fuck her! Fuck! FUCK!” and ejaculating a thick volley of cum onto Bobby’s already striped chest and stomach, the bed actually jumping in the air twice from the tremor he let loose.

They froze there, panting. Bobby felt like he had been hit by a truck. Then suddenly there came a pounding on the wall and Sam’s muffled voice yelling, “Hey! We’re trying to sleep here!”

Bobby was mortified but Lance just pounded back and yelled, “Shut up!” A huge belly laugh broke from him and he dropped to the bed, landing in a pile of ice. “Ahh! Shit, Bobby!” He sprang up and loped over to Bobby’s bed on the other side of the room which he dropped into with exaggerated relief. “I’m sleeping here tonight. You can sleep in the icy one!” He looked up with a grin that broadened when he saw Bobby’s stunned expression. He grabbed a towel off the floor and threw it at Bobby. “Here, clean off with this, man.”

Still stunned, Bobby wiped himself, the strong tang of their semen thick in his nostrils. He had no idea what to say. Again, he found himself in a social situation his mother’s training hadn’t prepared him for. But Lance seemed totally relaxed. He pulled the covers—Bobby’s covers—over himself and yawned. “Damn, I’m tired. ‘Night, bro. Sweet dreams.”

Bobby stood awkwardly, catching in his a hand a last drop of cum that leaked from his penis. He swept the melting ice off the bed and wiped it as best he could with his t-shirt before crossing the room to turn out the overhead lights. He stood in the darkness for a minute, listening to the sounds of Lance’s even breathing. He was already asleep. Bobby lingered by the door, disoriented, like he had just arrived in a new country where everything was different. He touched himself. He had never thought of his testicles as large before. Nothing, nothing was the same as it had been when the evening began. He crossed the room in the dark, and lay down in that strange bed that smelled of Lance Alvers.

Chapter 12

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