|Fic: As Is (Charles, Hank, Alex, Sean, Erik)
||[Sep. 30th, 2011|01:35 pm]
Title: As Is
Summary: Charles adjusts to life as a teacher.
Request used: I'd love to see Charles settling into his life as a teacher - putting aside his obvious love of adventuring, figuring out curricula, dealing with his disability. Extra bonus points if you can work the Americans with Disabilities Act into the story, or keep it real with respect to paraplegia in the sixties. (Het, gen, slash are all fine. I'm very happy with Charles/Erik.)
A/N: Thanks to renata_kedavrafor an extremely helpful beta job! Any remaining mistakes are mine.
Charles is an adult man, somewhat set in his ways. But he believes, as a matter of pride, that he has adapted to his new circumstances quite well. He’s now used to being awoken at night by a child who has night terrors, and he’s used to being roused too early in the morning by children who stagger to the bathroom and slam the door. He knows to expect slight chaos on spaghetti night—for reasons that are inexplicable to him, the promise of this meal inspires exuberance—but he also understands that no two days are ever alike.
His circumstances. If he’s inclined to look on the bright side (and he is), he would have to acknowledge his limitations represent an unexpected silver lining, perhaps: the fact that he sits all the time now—well, he’s short. And being short among children apparently has its advantages. He’s approachable. All the books he’s read about child psychology stress approachability. It’s important that children find you approachable, they say. These books also talk about accessibility, empathy, awareness.
He thinks he has all these things covered. For instance:
Accessibility: they’ve remodeled parts of the first floor to function more like a school building, and this also has its benefits: the place is now built for people who haven’t quite finished growing. The cubby holes and small closets (what the children call their “lockers”) are perfect places for him to stash his things. His home is still his home, but now it belongs to him more than ever. And it belongs to others as well. He’s happy to share.
Empathy: He has just a few students. A collection of siblings from rural Kentucky. Two girls who ran away from foster care. A few troubled young boys. He and Hank are working on rebuilding Cerebro so that they can locate more young mutants, but the process is slow-going. There are so many supplies that they can’t access, so many resources Hank lost when he left the CIA. It’s been seven months since Charles founded this school, but Hank tells him that rebuilding Cerebro could take many more months, even years.
Awareness: He wishes he weren’t so aware. What disquiets him a little is the split-second reaction new students have when they see him for the first time. Some feel momentary pity, but most feel relief. When they walk through the door and see him in his wheelchair, they feel relieved. The more obvious their mutation, the greater their sense of ease.
Each morning he begins his private rituals. He sits up. Then he leans over the side of the bed and unlocks his wheelchair and pushes it away. He sends it as far away from the bed as he possibly can. Then he nudges his legs off the bed, lets them fall with a slight thump. He reaches for the armrests of the chair beside his bed, pulls himself into it. There, does dips. Twenty at a time now. Sometimes thirty.
From there he drops himself to the floor. Does crunches. Then rolls onto his stomach and does pushups. As many as he can. When he performs these grueling, mindless exercises, he thinks of Erik. Erik, who took the children outside at five each morning and forced them to train. “You think this is hell,” he said to them. “You should have seen what they made us do each morning in Mossad.”
Charles is determined not to grow small and weak. He was always a slim boy and a slight young man; now he runs the risk of becoming invisible.
When he finishes his pushups, he drags his unwilling body to his wheelchair, pushes down on the lock, and eventually levers himself into the seat. Sometimes this takes several attempts. Lately, it’s taken him fewer and fewer. Still, when all of this is over, he’s drenched. He rolls himself into the shower, his heart pounding, his muscles still vibrating.
Thankfully, much about his room has been remodeled to accommodate him. Not that this is something he wanted—he felt it was a waste since he’d soon walk again anyway. But Hank insisted he have it done. “It will make your life easier.”
And then: “Maybe you should hire someone. To help you.”
“I’m not hiring anyone,” Charles said.
Hank said, “Alright. Then let me see what I can do.” In a few days—so little time that Charles understood he’d been planning this—he produced tools. Railings he fixed to the sides of Charles’s bathroom. Hooks to help him reach things. Clasps to help him pull on his clothes.
“I have faith in you, Hank,” Charles said. He knew that Hank was working on new serums to change them both back to normal. Despite Hank’s track record, Charles trusts that if anyone can find a remedy for spinal cord damage, it’s Hank. (He believes this. He has to.)
One morning he’s not so subtle about his rituals. He drops to the floor with a great thud and knows immediately that he has been heard. A door down the hall a door opens. Footsteps. Then his door is flung open.
“Professor!” Sean says, standing in the doorway in his bathrobe. “Oh my God!”
Charles holds his hand up and tries to say he’s okay, but Sean is already calling for Alex. Up and down the hallway, doors swing open. In the time it takes Sean to get Alex’s attention and turn back to the scene, Charles has already reached for the chair next to his bed.
“He fell out of—the bed,” Sean says, taking in situation. Alex nudges him out of the doorway.
Charles is hoisting himself into the chair. He sits. Reaches for the cigarettes and lighter on the nightstand.
Sean and Alex stare at him. Two of the Guthrie children crowd behind them, craning their necks to see.
Charles lights a cigarette and takes a drag. Then he looks up at them.
“He fell,” Sean insists.
“Idiot,” Alex whispers to Sean, reaching over to shut the door.
Sean and Alex are the school’s oldest students. Sean is still the age of most secondary school children, but Alex is nineteen. During the day he works as the school’s maintenance person and coach. At night he takes his lessons with Charles. Over cigarettes and coffee, and sometimes alcohol, they discuss science and philosophy and religion.
Charles is shocked by how bright Alex is. He makes a good show of acting like a delinquent, but it’s all bullshit. He persuades Alex to enroll in the local junior college, and Alex obeys him. (Not out of any particular loyalty, Charles acknowledges. Alex is used to being told what to do.)
Alex is organized and disciplined, and his living quarters are clean and austere. All his time in prison made him a minimalist. He has a few changes of clothes, his school books, and a small 1960 JFK campaign poster tacked over his desk. (He still pledges quiet allegiance to Kennedy despite everything that happened last year.) He does his work, fulfills duties to the students, and never complains. Still, he has his indulgences. He bought an old broken-down motorcycle from a farmer down the road—the for-sale sign said as is.
“What were you thinking?” Hank said when he learned of the purchase. “That was an unwise investment.”
“Let’s make a bet,” Alex said. “I get it running again, you have to shave your legs.”
“You won’t get it running. Not even with help from your college mechanics teacher.”
“You’d look sharp with smoother legs. At least you wouldn’t shed on the coffee table.”
Charles often wonders what motivates the sparring between Hank and Alex, but he doesn’t want to look too deeply to find out. Sometimes their exchanges seem mean-spirited. Other times he sees them together on the basketball court, passing the ball back and forth, shooting hoops casually. They talk more than they play.
In the study at night, Alex tells Charles about what it was like to be in solitary confinement, to hear nothing but the echo of your own voice in your head and in your surroundings. “A real drag, huh?” he says cheerfully, taking a swig of his beer.
Charles gives him books to read: Crime and Punishment and Light in August. This is what he knows how to do: to offer solace in books, in the form of Dostoyevsky or Faulkner or Tolstoy or Chekhov. (“So you like the Russians,” Erik said to him while looking at his bookshelf. “They thought they knew something of suffering, I suppose.”)
Charles can tell that Alex isn’t as interested in these books as he pretends to be. He’d rather be taking things apart and putting them back together. But he humors Charles, nodding in interest. For this, Charles is grateful. He doesn’t mind this little lie. He wants to go into Alex’s mind and do the same thing he did for Erik: to jar loose the brightest and most painfully transcendent memory he can find, the memories that Alex doesn’t even register in his conscious, waking state. Mother. Father. Charles wants to pull these things out of him and then tell him, as he once told Erik, that everything will be fine. Anything, he thinks. Anything to feel that close to another person again.
Everything will be fine.
He always thought he’d be a teacher, just not of adolescents. And not full time. He imagined his research would be his focus. He queries academic publishers, but when he receives short, mimeographed responses (not even personalized—is no one else interested in genetic mutation?), he knows he must broaden his interests.
In the classroom, he wants to walk around. He wants to be able to write on the board, to gesture largely, to point his entire body toward the window or the door. He wants to lecture to a whole crowd of people, to pound excitedly on the lectern.
Instead he talks patiently and clearly. He waits for his students to write things down, even though none of his own teachers ever waited for him to catch up. But still, these are good students. Though they have come to him burdened by difficult life experiences, they aren’t unruly. They’re good-natured and bright. He knows he should be thankful.
“So whatever you hit . . . hits you,” one boy says that afternoon, leaning forward over his desk. He is trying to put Charles’s latest philosophy lecture into his own words.
“Yes, Douglas, that’s one way of putting it.”
Douglas nods and jots something down; the rest of the students, all six of them, also write in their notebooks. Whatever you hit, hits you back.
There are two people he misses dreadfully; unfortunately, no one can take their place.
He knows that he should look to Hank for companionship. Hank is the closest thing he’s got to a kindred spirit. He’s the closest in age (though not much closer than Alex) and the most like him: high achieving, educated at the best schools, too cerebral. And now they’re both visibly different, set apart from other people. Should they choose to go to a public place (which they rarely do these days), they will get stares.
But instead of seeking out Hank, he spends time with Alex. He teaches him how to play chess. They discuss a passion for jazz. They drink together sometimes, they smoke. And, when the circumstances seem right, he confides in Alex about certain students, trying to find something that they might discuss together. Tabitha seems withdrawn—have you noticed? Or, Has Samuel spoken to you about using his powers?
Charles knows treating Alex like a peer might be risky, even indecorous. Alex is his student and, for lack of a better term, still a boy. Prison life made him more mature than most people his age, but he’s still learning, still figuring things out, still discovering what it means to be a student. The other students all like Alex—love him, maybe. He’s the older brother who’s been around, who knows how to bowl a perfect game and jump start a car.
Sometimes he longs to speak with Alex about other things. He wants to pick up with Alex where he left off with Erik. In his mind he has a hundred conversations that never quite took place, discussions about the things that come up in his life: the way mutation manifests, the impact it has on a person’s development. How one person can transform and the other remain as he was. History. Politics. How it ends.
Still, there’s this: Alex runs. He goes out running every morning the way Charles used to. He does laps around the lake. He doesn’t know that Charles secretly goes with him. To admit such a thing—well, that would be indeed be indecorous. But he can’t help but watch Alex, to want to peer inside him to see the world through his eyes. Alex is young and strong with passions and appetites. Not like Hank, who hides.
During the six months that the school is open, he’s so wrapped up in himself—and in Alex’s thoughts—that he neglects to monitor the children properly. He assumes they know the boundaries of their powers; he counsels them privately on their abilities and, though this presents more challenges for him now, designs exercises to help them. He thought this was enough.
It’s not. One spring afternoon, a young girl sets off an explosion in the courtyard that injures two students and terrifies the rest. The accident is bad—it draws some minor attention from neighbors—but it could have been much worse. Charles reacts. He calms the children. Then he gathers Alex and Hank in his study and they develop a plan. The children need to be trained to use their powers—just as Charles and Erik trained the team right before Cuba. It’s not about national defense this time, it’s about safety. It’s not just about protecting the children from the world, it’s about them confidence and security about themselves.
“I can’t do it myself,” he admits. He looks up at Hank and Alex from his chair. He’s never before articulated what everyone else knows.
Alex looks at him. Hank sets his hand on the desk.
“I need your help. Remember the exercises we developed? I’ll develop new ones, but I can’t supervise them or set things up. Christ, I can’t even get down into the bunker anymore.” Does this sound self-pitying? He doesn’t mean it to.
Hank shakes his head. “No.” He holds up his hand. “That bomb shelter is too long and narrow. It can’t accommodate that many people. It’s inefficient. And besides, Alex damn near destroyed it.”
“Watch it, sasquatch,” Alex says. “God, you bug me.”
Hank’s too excited to care what Alex says. “We need to construct a better space. I’ve been thinking about it. Something impermeable, underneath the building that can fit all of us. Look.” He grabs a piece of paper from Charles’s desk and takes a pen from his shirt pocket and starts to make a sketch. (Despite his transformation, he’s still remarkably dexterous.) “Something like this, I’m thinking.” He holds up the sketch and Charles can barely process it—it’s just a collection of lines. But inside Hank’s mind is a round room of many uses. “I can build this, I know I can.”
“How long would that take?” Alex asks.
But Charles is not thinking of how long, or even how. He’s thinking that such a project will derail Hank from finishing Cerebro. And although he tells himself that he wants Cerebro up and running so that he can use it to locate more students, he knows his real reasons: he wants to find Erik, Raven. Or at least to be able to look into them again.
He grips the armrest on his wheelchair. “You think you can do it?”
“I don’t know,” Hank says.
Charles waits a moment before giving his permission. The children need help now. Cerebro will have to wait.
That night he catches a glimpse of his reflection as he glides past the window. He’s still not used to seeing himself. His arms confidently grip the wheels of his chair, spinning them with ease, but his lower half seems like a warped and weakening beam. His legs seem thinner—distorted in the reflection. And his face also seems thinner. Jesus Christ, Erik. What did you do to me?
But Erik isn’t the only ghost here with him tonight. Upstairs a girl cries, so afraid of her powers that she can’t sleep. He needs to do for her what he was always too self-absorbed to do for Raven: to tell her it’s going to be fine. And he needs to believe it himself.
When summer comes, Sean and Alex try to get Hank to go into town. “And not with a turban over your head this time,” Sean says. “It’s eighty-five degrees. You’ll draw more attention to yourself than if you’d just walk around normal.”
“I look like I wandered off the set of some ridiculous Broadway show,” Hank says. “If I’m lucky. If I’m unlucky, then the town sheriff gets involved. And if I’m tragically unlucky, the farmer gets his shotgun.”
“Come on, Hank,” Alex says. Alex has little patience for moping. This makes Charles fonder of Alex and more annoyed with Hank.
The four of them are sitting in the TV room watching Ed Sullivan. Sean and Alex are sharing a bag of chips while Charles smokes a cigarette and drinks a cup of tea.
“No one cares as much about the way you look as you do,” Sean says.
Charles leans forward to tap his cigarette into the ashtray. “He has a point, Hank. I don’t think you’re as worried about encountering danger as you are about how others’ perceptions will make you feel.”
Hank crosses his arms over his chest and looks over at Charles. “Really, Charles? I had no idea.” He leans back again and looks straight ahead.
Before Charles has a chance to reply, Sean says, “He’s just trying to help.”
A tense second passes. Then Hank relaxes and Alex pulls another handful of chips from the bag. “I know,” Hank says.
“You’ll get stared at,” Charles says. “You’ll get looks. But maybe you won’t get the hostility you imagine. You’ll probably get more curiosity. Maybe you’ll change a few minds.”
I don’t care about changing minds, Hank thinks. Charles isn’t even scanning Hank’s thoughts, but his hostility is so palpable that it erupts into everything.
“It’s not a good example to set for the children,” Charles says, settling back into his chair. “It’s not good for them to have a teacher who avoids the world.”
“When the students grow blue fur and all else, we’ll ask them how they feel about it,” Hank says.
Charles takes a sip of tea. “I wasn’t talking about you.”
Thus begins their tradition of Saturday afternoon trips. First they take just half the students at one time. Then they decide to try taking two cars. Alex drives one and Hank drives the other. Charles sits shotgun next to Hank, who always lifts him carefully into the front seat and puts his wheelchair in the trunk. And he doesn’t admit this to anyone, but what’s worse than going into the car is coming out: he always feels momentary shame and panic when they arrive at their destination. He used to be the first one out of a car; now he is the last. He must wait. He must wait for Hank to get the wheelchair from the trunk and to set it up on the sidewalk. Then he must wait for Hank to carry him from the car and put him in the wheelchair, an exercise that’s never fluid and graceful but always clumsy, always about near-misses with stationary objects and an unexpected distribution of weight. The children are there. Even if they aren’t really watching their science teacher heft their headmaster around, they are. And the people on the sidewalk watch too, even when they whisper to their children that it’s impolite to stare.
Hank thinks that everyone is looking at him, but they’re not. They’re preoccupied with the grown man who needs to be carried. Charles wants to erase what people have just seen. But it wouldn’t matter—it’s his own discomfort that matters most, and he can’t will that away.
Early in the summer, they take small excursions to Salem Center. They shop for supplies. They allow the children to buy ice cream and hotdogs. As summer progresses, they go farther and farther. They visit different towns. They visit an old Revolutionary War site and have an impromptu history class.
In August they decide to go to the beach. It sounds like a fine idea at the time—Charles even looks forward to it until he gets there and he realizes that the water is too far away from the parking lot. His wheelchair can’t be moved through sand, and he can’t be carried all that way. He and Hank end up reading on the boardwalk, waiting for the others to have their fill of the sand and the waves. In the distance, Alex dives into the waves and Sean gives the kids a crash course in body surfing. Charles does not look into them.
Hank reads. He wears a hat to cover his face. He rarely looks up from his book, not even when the wind blows or when he has to turn a page. But Charles only pretends to read, flipping the pages when he thinks enough time has passed. He watches the young couples stroll past and lingers not on their bodies but on those bodies’ connections to other bodies—hands that hold, hips that touch.
When he hears the students throwing words around, he stops them. He tells them not to refer to each other or to themselves as freaks. That’s not a good word. Mutant is alright—if a little clinical—but he prefers “gifted.”
There are words to describe him—some clinical, some not so nice. He prefers as is. He is the house on the side of the road; he is waiting to be auctioned off. He wants to be claimed, fixed up and made new. He wants to go back to thinking about difference theoretically; he wants all this to be about someone else.
For months he believes Raven will come back to him. He wants to see her trudging over the lawn at dusk. But each evening comes and goes, and instead it is Tabitha in the courtyard, or Paige sitting on the grass, reading a book. When he sees them sitting there instead of the person he wants to see, he thinks things about his life that he shouldn’t: about getting by, or muddling through, or just making do.
With Erik, nothing happened.
He remembers the days before Cuba. They lived side by side. They shared everything—food, books, thoughts. But nothing happened. Each night Erik would come into his room, and each night he would ask him something different about his life. “So, college,” he’d say, glancing at one of Charles’s textbooks or picking up his bound thesis. Another time: “When you were growing up, did you have a dog?” His tone wasn’t mocking. It was genuinely curious.
Erik was always careful with his words. Charles wondered if his deliberateness had to do with his language barrier or his personality. Probably both. One night in the study, they played a game of chess. Erik went about it halfheartedly. When it was clear he was going to lose, he sat back in his chair and took out a cigarette. Lit it and took a drag and then coughed.
What is it? Charles wondered.
We come from different worlds, Erik thought. But he said, “Where were you in 1960?”
Charles studied the chessboard. “1960?” It wasn’t that long ago. “I suppose I was studying for my comps. Holed up somewhere.” He had a memory of himself surrounded by stacks and stacks of books.
Erik nodded and looked away. Sat forward and tapped his cigarette in the ashtray. “Sounds about right. ” College.
Charles said nothing.
“Aren’t you going to ask me?” Erik said. “Or do you already know?” He didn’t wait for a reply. He shook his head once and then spoke. “I was in London and Ankara and Rome and Florence and Rio de Janeiro and Tokyo. I was in one of those places when they grabbed Eichmann.” As he exhaled his smoke, he inhaled it through his nose. “I had nothing to do with it. Do you hear what I’m saying? Nothing.”
Charles thought he understood.
“No, you’re not really listening to me,” Erik said. “I had already abandoned my post by then. Gone AWOL. They lured him to them, and I wasn’t a part of it.” He set his hands on his legs. “Mossad worked too slowly for me, and I too quickly for them. I had no patience for their process, even if we all wanted the same thing, no questions asked.” He paused. “I wasn’t patient, and I missed my chance.”
“Erik,” Charles began. Then he stopped. He didn’t quite know how to locate the center of Erik’s thoughts—was Erik angry at himself? Was this a cautionary tale about patience and authority? Was he resolving not to miss this chance at Shaw? Something else?
“After they caught him,” Erik said, “they gave him a choice. To die right there, or to go to Israel to stand trial.” Erik glanced at Charles. “I don’t know why people believe the world is governed by choice.”
Erik got up from his chair. Went to the window and pushed the blinds aside and stared into the night. Glanced casually into the courtyard as though he was trying to make out the shape of something.
That night, nothing happened. Erik followed Charles to his room and neither of them said anything. They got into Charles’s bed together and lay side by side. Then Erik reached over and turned out the light. He rolled over to face Charles, but he was quiet. Neither of them fell asleep. Under the blankets, Erik reached one arm out and set his hand on Charles’s waist. Then, he moved closer. Charles moved closer as well, fitting his face against Erik’s neck.
That was all.
That night—that closeness—seemed to Charles like it was the beginning of something. How could he have known it was the end?
They are nearing the end of the school’s first year when Kennedy is assassinated. Charles’s first impulse is to believe that Erik had something do with it. Then he chides himself for thinking such a thing. Erik was an assassin, true, but targeting the country’s president seems too rash, too high-profile. Erik is the sort of person who stabs a man in a private villa, leaving his face in his still-cooling meal. He would not shoot a president on a public road. What is he doing now? Charles can’t think of anything else. He goes to find Hank.
Hank is in kitchen boiling a kettle of water. Charles pushes through the door and wheels himself in, but Hank doesn’t hear him. “Hank,” he says. “How are we coming with Cerebro?”
Hank startles and spins around. “Don’t sneak up on me, Professor.”
Charles feels impatient. “I can’t help the way I come into a room, Hank. Would you prefer I ring a bell?”
Hank is crying.
Hank takes the kettle off the stove. “Tea?”
“Yes, of course.”
“I’m not saying I agreed with the president on everything. I voted for him, of course. Well, I would have voted for him if I’d been old enough. But it’s just so awful.”
“Yes, yes,” Charles says. He doesn’t mean to sound dismissive, but he wants to tell Hank to pull it together. They have a school to run. They have more important things to do.
Hank hands him a cup of tea. “The children are upset.”
Charles knows this; he’s been reassuring his students all day.
“Maybe we should let them watch the TV coverage,” Hank says. “Maybe it would be best to allow them to confront this head on.”
“Hank,” he says, setting his tea down. “We need to work on Cerebro. How far along are we?”
“The same. I told you, I don’t have the proper parts. I can’t make any progress until I get them.”
“Well, what exactly do you need, Hank?”
Hank begins to rattle off names of items and parts with which Charles is unfamiliar. He holds up his hand. “How can you go about getting these things?”
“I told you,” Hank says. “I either have to build them myself, and that could take years because I don’t have the tools, or I have to somehow get them from the CIA. And I’m not exactly on good terms with anyone there anymore.” He pauses. “Cerebro took years to build. I wasn’t even the one who laid the groundwork.”
Charles looks up at the ceiling and tries not to think about what all this means. “You mean to tell me we’re no further along than we were last year?”
Hank spins around and looks down at him. His mood shifts from sadness to anger. “You come in here,” he begins quietly. “You come in here without any acknowledgement of what’s going on. For a mind reader, you certainly have a way of ruining the mood.”
“Alright,” Charles says, wishing to extract himself from the conversation. He shouldn’t have started this. It was an error on his part. “Yes, the world’s in a tizzy. But we have no defense against it without Cerebro.”
“I know exactly what Raven was talking about.” Hank takes a sip of tea and then sets his mug on the counter with a clear thud.
“What the hell is that supposed to—” He chooses to glide over Hank’s insinuation. “Alright. We all need to put our feelings aside . . . don’t you still have contacts at the CIA?”
“Don’t you?” Hank grows calm. “Face it. You and I are both irrelevant. We can’t go anywhere or do anything. We have no reach anymore, no one who takes us seriously. We’re on our own, Charles.”
Charles’s hands are folded in his lap.
“Even Sean and Alex want to jump ship.”
“What are you talking about?”
“They don’t want to be here forever. Alex wants to go away to college. Sean talks constantly about California. Why don’t you know this?”
“That’s ridiculous. We’re a team.”
“Ridiculous for two young people to want to leave the middle of nowhere?”
Charles sets both hands on his wheels and begins to back up his wheelchair. “If you want to go too, then go. As far as I see, there’s nothing stopping you.” He feels himself seethe for a minute.
Charles has turned away from Hank, but he can feel the rift between them widening.
“Go to hell,” Hank says, emptying the rest of the still-boiling water into the sink.
Right before the holidays, Alex gets his motorcycle working. Mercifully he doesn’t bring up the bet he and Hank made. Instead, he offers to take Hank for a ride. They go off into the hills; Charles honestly has no idea how far they go, just that they’re gone for a long time. When Alex returns he takes Sean out. Then Tabitha. Then Paige. Then Sage. None of them wears a helmet.
“I don’t think that’s an especially bright idea,” Charles says. The entire thing is an accident waiting to happen. The human body is a delicate thing, but Alex is twenty and a mutant and he doesn’t understand.
“Don’t worry, I’m careful,” Alex replies, and Charles immediately feels the way Alex takes corners and accelerates up hills.
In December everything calms down a bit. It starts getting dark around 4:30 and it’s very cold so outdoor training comes to a stop. Charles feels the winter come now, much more so than he ever did before. No one would understand how the cold settles into his joints. He can’t move around to warm himself up. He teaches most days with a blanket draped across his lap, and he hasn’t been able to shake his most recent virus. He used to be so healthy.
Hank comes into his office one day and sits in the chair in front of his desk.
“Christ, Hank,” Charles says, reaching for a cigarette. He’s grading papers and working on his second bourbon—Hank eyes the bottle—which helps keep him warm and relaxed. “Pick a more comfortable chair. That one’s for discipline cases.”
“I need the desk,” Hank says. He stands and unfolds a long piece of paper in front of Charles. A diagram. “This is what the basement is going to look like when we’re done with it. This will be Cerebro”—he points to a round room at one end—“and this is the hallway, and here at the other end, this is our training room.”
Charles studies the illustration. He taps it with his finger and doesn’t look up.
“That’s the elevator,” Hank says, pointing to a box. “I’ve got people coming to break ground in the new year. It’s going to be a big project. And, Cerebro. I still haven’t figured it out. But I will.”
“This is brilliant, Hank. I can’t believe you’ve found time to do this alongside your teaching activities, really. I haven’t even thought about publishing an article in months.” Charles sits back. “Here, have some.” He reaches in his drawer for the bottle of bourbon and brings out another glass.
Hank watches as Charles fills his glass. You drink too much, he thinks. Then he takes the glass, brings it to his lips, and drinks. “There’s something else,” he says, setting his glass down. He looks straight at Charles, and Charles thinks that Hank’s gaze is more penetrating and self-assured than ever before. “The serum,” he says. To make you walk again. “I’ve tested it—”
Charles waves his hand. “It’s okay. Just forget about it.” He wheels himself back from his desk. “I shouldn’t have asked you for such a thing.”
Hank hesitates. “It’s not to say that it won’t work someday.”
Charles wants to cling to Hank’s implication, and for a moment he does. He wants to keep hoping. It’s what he does best.
He and Hank move to the door together. “I hope she’s alright,” Charles says without thinking.
Lately he has the feeling that Raven’s not alright—that she’s scared and alone and homesick. Or that she’s changing in some inexplicable way. Without Cerebro he can’t know for sure, and he hates this.
Hank looks down at him. He doesn’t say, I think she’s alright or She’d let us know if she needed help or She’ll come back to us soon. He says, “I hope so too.”
Right after Christmas, he invites Alex into his study. Alex brings a notebook and an unopened pack of cigarettes—how good of him. Such a good student, a fine young man. But Charles isn’t holding class. He reaches into his drawer and pulls out several catalogues and sets them on his desk. “I sent for these. All the state colleges and some private ones as well. I think you might look at Binghamton. They have a good physical sciences program. Fordham would be good too—a little bit of a reach because of your record, but we’ll see what we can do—”
Alex just stares at him.
“I’ll write you a letter of recommendation, of course,” Charles continues. “And that might help. But I think you should apply widely. And if you want you can apply farther away. Hank and I will help you with the essays and the applications. I really think this is going to work out fine.”
Alex shrinks into the chair. He looks up and blinks once. A crease forms on his forehead. “Did Hank say something?”
Charles looks down at one of the catalogs, a black-and-white photo of a large clock tower surrounded by trees. “If you work quickly, you can have these applications in by the deadline and begin school by next fall.”
“Whatever Hank said was bullshit. I don’t want to go away. I don’t want to go to college.”
“Well.” Charles sets his hands on his desk. “I don’t see how you have much of a choice. You can’t get far these days without a degree, and I can teach you everything I know, but I don’t run an accredited university.” He leans back.
Alex grips the chair’s armrests and stares at his lap. Seconds pass.
Charles senses a fissure inside of Alex—something is about to break. It catches him off guard. Alex has always been so quiet.
“You’re sending me away,” Alex says.
“It’s better this way. You’ll like it better.”
Alex’s leg twitches. He clears his throat. He wipes his eyes on his sleeve but doesn’t look up.
“It’s okay,” Charles says. What he doesn’t say: I’m sending you away because I have no right to claim you.
Alex’s legs are both twitching now, and he isn’t trying to hide the fact that he’s upset.
“Alex, look at me. Alex.”
Alex looks at him. His eyes are red and his face is blotchy.
“Alex.” He clears his throat and leans across his desk. “You’ll do this. You’ll take these applications to your room and you’ll fill them out and bring them back to me. Because I’m telling you to. And because you always do what you’re told.”
Alex’s face tightens.
“Now that you can control your powers, you’re going to love the world. You may always come back to visit, but this will not be your home. Do you understand?”
“I like working with the students. I want to be a . . . teacher.”
“No.” Charles pushes away from his desk and rolls around so that he’s on the same side of the desk as Alex. “That’s not what’s meant for you. Other things are.”
Alex calms himself and looks up. “Other things?”
“You’re not a teacher. You’ll be a great many things in the future, but not a teacher.”
A pause. “What if I go to college and decide I don’t like it?”
Charles is certain that Alex will like everything. “If you try other things and then decide you want come back here and teach, then you may. I’ll offer everyone the same choice—Sean next year, and Tabitha and Sage, and Douglas and Sam. You’ll always have a safe place here. But right now you must try the world.” He reaches over and touches Alex’s arm. “Take the applications, Alex. Fill them out. Get them to me by next week and I’ll put them in the mail.”
Alex looks at him and nods. Sniffs once. Then he gathers the packets from Charles’s desk and puts them under one arm. He doesn’t look at Charles as he shuffles from the room, drying his eyes on his sweatshirt.
Charles allows a moment to pass. He waits until Alex has gone back up to his room. Then he begins his private nighttime rituals. He mentally checks in with the mansion’s occupants—not intrusively, just enough to know what they’re doing. Three students are watching the television when they should be doing their homework. Two girls are already in bed for the night. Hank is in the lab pretending to work but reading a book instead. In the courtyard, Sean is sharing a cigarette with Sage; when they pass it back and forth, their fingers touch. Upstairs Alex is staring at his JFK campaign poster and probing his wounds. But soon enough he will be making plans.
Charles places a book in his lap. Then he wheels himself to the door, a door that gives easily, opening just for him. And then he is in the hallway of his home.