Oh, oh, oh, this is so, so, so great!
Charles nearly claps his hands when he comes to stand on the threshold of the hotel room. It’s nothing fancy despite Father’s wealth: a single king size bed made with anonymous beige linen, a small desk in the corner with a phone and a yellow lamp, a cramped black and white TV set in the closet. There’s the customary bible in the nightstand and the ‘do not disturb’ sign next to it. The window reveals shows a gray street, narrow and dirty from winter rain, passerby hurrying down the sidewalks.
Despite it plainness, this is the most wonderful place in the world.
Charles is five and he’ll never going to get over the fact that his weeks of asking and pleading and bothering made Father give in, made him bring them here, the place where Charles will finally, finally be able to talk to people who are like him.
The year is 1991, Charles is in Derry –across the ocean!- and he can’t possibly imagine how bright this early evening of the 29th of December will burn in his memories for the rest of his life, scorching hot every time he’ll hear the song an Irish band will write about it in 2002.
The next day is a Sunday.
Father suggests he could carry Charles for the duration of the march, but he knows Charles will refuse already. Charles is a big boy now, thank you very much: he can count to thirty-five –Father’s age- in English and in French –the French doesn’t stick as well past that number- lace his own shoes and reads English perfectly –again, French is a bit more difficult to grasp. He’s read several of Beatrix Potter’s books on his own, and he wants to try something more difficult next time, perhaps Alice in Wonderland or Le Petit Prince? So of course, he won’t allow Father to carry him like a baby. Not here, not today.
Father’s grip on his hand is as always: present but loose, loving but knowing there are things he can’t guide his son through.
They’re in the middle of the cortege and Charles’ minds wanders from head to head, happy and proud to hear so much happy thoughts, tangled impressions of Happy and Safe and Hope and Together and Us and Friends and Family and Here and Now and Change.
An elderly man who is here in memory of his deceased daughter thinks today will go down in History, and Charles rather likes the sound of that –he knows History is important, Father always says so. Staying in it can’t possibly be a bad thing.
The weather is relatively mild, agreeable enough for a 30th of January, with a salty edge that reminds Charles of that time last year when Father took him to see the Statue of Liberty. With his child-sized duffle coat –the exact replica of Father’s- Charles is quite comfortable and neither the white puffs coming from his mouth nor the tingling in his nose and ears bother him that much.
The girl before him attracts his eyes. Not only does she look his age, she’s wearing a blood red coat with assorted back short dress, thick red leggings and matching red shoes. It doesn’t feel weird to ask whether she’s the Little Red Riding Hood. She turns on her heels with a sharp glance narrowing her beautiful eyes, dark as her hair, and for a moment Charles gets the confusing image of a creature half dragon, half woman, dark and venomous and utterly fascinating. It’s the most beautiful thing he’s ever seen and he must be projecting, because she blushes.
I’m not that pretty, she pushes at him –later, when he’ll be old enough to properly reflect on Mutations, he’ll realize that this, this absence of question, this ability to just roll with things as they happen, to accept things and people as they are, is the most wonderful thing about childhood.
I think you look real nice, Charles answers. I’d like to see you fly.
I can’t. It’s too cold now.
Charles beams, unabashed, tiny fist squeezing Father’s first and middle finger as he tries very hard not to bounce at the prospect of seeing his new friend fly.
I’m Angel, she thinks at him.
I’m Charles, Charles answers.
It’s the first time they meet another like them, both of them, and they’re both children so obviously, before long, they’re completely engrossed in a wild game of tag, zigzagging between the adults’ legs, Father’s mind a steady spot among the shifting amusement and tenderness and hope that surround them, people foregoing annoyance at their antics in favor of satisfaction that those two kids aren’t alone anymore and, with a little chance, they’ll never need to be alone anymore.
Charles and Angel run around in psychedelic shapes, conversing with images and sounds even as they chase each other throughout the crowd, the grey shapes of Derry mixing with the vibrant colors of Vegas and New York at Christmas, Christmas trees merging with the other walkers’ legs, and Charles doesn’t really know whether he’s in Ireland or in a forest anymore, up until the moment he runs into the Wall.
It’s not a physical wall, unless you count the Kevlar vests and the helmets that make the men look like some sort of dwarfish brothers of Iron Man’s –Charles secretly read one or two issue of the comics- but it’s enough for Charles to stop dead in his tracks. They haven’t done anything, not really, not yet at least. But Charles can feel the cold press of their hatred, feels the icy fire of the death they wish on him and all those behind them, feels the difference between the emptiness and hate and disgust they project and the warm blanket of the Mutants’ acceptance behind him. He feels all that and more, skin prickling with what he will latter come to recognize as the thrum of adrenalin, the morbid excitation when faced with the prospect of a fight… the instinct of survival kicking in.
They feel so different at first, when you’re hit with their front thoughts but, underneath it all, behind the walls of freaks –die and mine –protect there’s the murky scent of fear, thick and sluggish and all-swallowing, tightening the ranks on both sides and making every hair on Charles’ frail body stand up painfully.
Father’s worry is a comfortable, familiar presence at the back of his mind, and maybe Charles should go back to him, go back to his anxiety at the thought of what his son can do blanketed away under love and trust.
But Charles’ feet are like lead and he doesn’t move from his spot, halfway between Humans and Mutants.
Angel comes up at his side without a word, and she looks at the men with those big, dark eyes of hers, and Charles gets a flash of the two of them, stuck in the middle and wide-eyed and unmoving, the men in Kevlar vests half freaking out at their intense gazes. Charles finds them so much bigger than him and his ability is so natural to him that he can’t bring himself to understand how they could be frightened by the sight of two little kids.
Something brushes against Angel’s nose –a speck of dust, a stray feather, whatever- and Charles, who is more than halfway out of himself already, feels the sneeze coming in his own nose, building between his eyes before it comes out, small and high pitched and shrill from being heard through several pairs of ears that are a mess of information. He sees the brown blot of saliva shoot out from a dozen eyes, ears the explosion with even more ears, feels the shockwave of it with what feels like thousands of skins.
There’s another explosion that grits at his senses and send him over the edge: he sees the bullet come out through the satisfied glares of the soldiers, hears the explosion with the Mutants’ terrified ears, fears and catches his breath with everyone in the cortege and beyond, but the feel of blood and bone and brains splattering on skin and clothes is his and only his, damp brownish redness seeping in his clothes and marring his soul when he realizes he’s been trying to tug Angel backwards. Her little body falls to the floor, dead eyes looking blindly up at the sky through half-destroyed sockets, and her spit hisses as it continues gnawing at the ground.
Charles tries and fails to reconcile the overwhelming horror of his hundred minds, the bloody mess on his own hands and in his too numerous eyes, the cries splitting the ears through which he hears, and the lovely girl he met barely an hour ago, back when he couldn’t possibly have imagined anyone wishing harm to her or himself.
The world is red and black and gunpowder and explosions and screams now, minds howling with pain before they vanish out of life like bombs in his own brain, and Charles screams and screams and screams for with all he has, fists and voice and mind, screams for Angel who was so pretty and didn’t deserve to die, screams for Father to just come and get me screams for all those who thought today would be a Great Day, a Good Day, screams for all the pain and fear and hate and blood and powder that run past him, knees him, puts a blade in his breast, annihilate him with knives-like fingernails, and then he’s dying, he’s dying, he must be because he can’t survive this, can’t survive this terrifying thunderstorm of pain –hate –fear –go away now youkilledmybrothersisterfathermotherfriendyoudeservetodieyou’reevildangerouscan’ttrustyoucan’tletyoufreaksgocan’tletyoumonstersharmusharmkidscan’tletyouharmCharlescan’tletyougetmy –whatdoyoumeanmysonidon’tcarehe’snotmysonhe’sthereasonmyhusband’sdeadhekilledhimkilledhimit’syourfaulthe’sdeadyoukilledhimkilledhimkilledhimKILLEDHIMKILLEDHIMCHARLES–
Charles bolts upright in his bed, throat too full with his scream and head painful with memories.
Mother is at the door of his room, red ice in her formal gown, and Charles can’t help thinking she should have picked something else, a forbidding color like black or brown or grey, not that bright flame that wants to pass as cheery.
“You’re ruining the party,” she says, but she broadcasts you’re ruining my life, and Charles isn’t sure who this is meant for, but he tells himself he doesn’t care.
He lets himself slide from the gigantic bed that has been his as soon as he was old enough not to fall out of it during the night, the one that used to give him nightmares when he was younger, when he was still a child, before, before, before –there’s always before in Charles’ life now: before Derry, before ‘Dad’, before Raven.
Raven is the most beautiful thing in the world, even more beautiful than that vision Charles had of Angel because that was only a possibility when Raven is real, has been for three weeks now. Charles hasn’t been allowed in the Nursery yet, because Mother doesn’t want anyone to see the second monstrosity to come out of her womb, but Charles snuck up there more than once already.
He meets Dad in the nursery, but he doesn’t wipe the memory from his mind or order him to go, like he would have done for his Nanny –who likes him far less than she pretends- or the Butler –who likes him far more than he lets on but would get in trouble if he were to let anything slip out.
Dad isn’t his real Dad, Charles knows, of course –he’s only seven, but he knows how this kind of things work already, or so he thinks- but he’s Raven’s Dad and Mother’s new husband, and that’s enough. He looks a bit scary, thin and sick, eaten away by a disease nobody wants to name in front of Charles –Cancer, they think, and he will look it up in the dictionary as soon as he can- but he’s nice.
Real nice, too, not creepy nice like that old man that used to come near the school whose memories Charles simply erased and who now lives in a nursing home, helpless and unresponsive because there’s nothing there anymore, nothing beyond the barest bodily functions, because no one, no one should ever think of Charles like that man did. Never.
Mr. Darkholme has been nice to Charles from the beginning, genuinely so. He likes Charles a lot, because he likes what is unique, what is different. He takes Charles in his laps when he reads at night and Mother is hidden away in their bedroom, reads him stories and poetry –Charles likes Walt Whitman very much, because he can sort of understand his poems most of the time.
Also, Dad isn’t afraid of Charles.
He knows what Charles can do with just a thought and yet, he isn’t afraid of him, and he’s the first person who isn’t afraid of Charles since Raven –even Father was always a little afraid of Charles, even when he told him he shouldn’t be ashamed or afraid of his own power. Also, Father would never have let Charles call him Dad.
Dad smiles when he sees Charles on the threshold of the Nursery, and he ruffles his hair fondly.
You’ve finally come to see your little sister? He thinks quietly –but it’s alright because Charles is used to Dad not being very good at projecting, so he always makes sure to listen very carefully. Charles nods and steps toward the opulent crib that housed him, and Father before him, and his father before him, and all their male ancestors up to the French revolution, which is when the crib was made, or so everyone thinks, at least.
Dad takes Charles in his arms, trembling with the effort of lifting Charles’ fairly light body, and holds him up above the soft-pink covers.
Charles looks at Raven, and he feels his heart melt at the sight of this tiny, scaly blue creature with her very thin fingernails and burning-red duvet. Charles has seen her before now, and he already knew she was the most beautiful thing in the world, but he hadn’t quite grasped just how beautiful she is, and he can feel his heartbeat calm down in response to how cute and pure and fragile she looks.
She’s beautiful, he says in Dad’s mind, laced with all the love and wonder and pride he feels while watching this tiny, perfect face. Dad smiles and sets him back on the ground, sweating more than necessary and sending off a strange taste that Charles has yet to identify.
“She is,” Dad agrees, and Charles makes sure to listen very carefully, because Dad never speaks to him unless it’s important. “But not everybody will see her as you do, Charles. She will need someone to watch over her. Do you think you can do that? Be a strong big brother for Raven?”
Charles nods immediately because even if he didn’t like Dad, as much as he does, he’s loved Raven from the very moment he discovered Mother was pregnant. He can’t believe she doesn’t see the wonder of her new child, the beauty of her, but it doesn’t matter, not really, because Charles decided nine month ago that he would protect that baby, build her a world where she’d be safe, a world where little girls with red coats and wings on their back don’t die on a cold January morning, a world where soldiers don’t put seventy five bullets in a man’s body because he tried to protect his child. Charles knows he doesn’t want that kind of place for his sister, knows he’ll have to work for that, work around people’s fear –because he knows, now, that fear is what starts most quarrels between Humans and Mutants.
Charles is seven and he knows about the ugliest side of people.
He knows there are men out there who dream of touching him in places nobody should touch him, ever, he knows there are women who kill their husbands with frozen gigot and cook it for the police inspectors afterwards, he knows that there are parents who kick their children out of the house because they’re different. Charles is seven, and he knows about fear and rape and pedophilia and murder and sickness and depression and folly and cruelty, and it doesn’t matter that he doesn’t have all the right words for it yet because he knows them, knows what they do, knows their sour taste on his mind.
Charles could hate.
In fact, were he to take his cue from Mother, Charles would hate with every fiber of his being –he has a right to, after all. But for all that Charles has seen the ugliest part of men, he has also seen the best. He knows there are men out there who work themselves nearly to death so that they can bring their little girl to a Mutant gathering, he knows there are women who chose never to bear a baby in their womb so that they could give all their love to a child who wasn’t fortunate enough to have a family of his own, he knows that there are men like Dad, who look at him and just see a very bright kid with immense potential instead of the freak other people think he is.
Charles wants to protect this part of the world, wants to make grow bigger and bigger, and he knows how to: he has to remove fear. Fear, he begins to understand, comes from not knowing, and he knows he has to fight fear everywhere it can be, including in himself, so he reads and reads and reads avidly, because of course, the more he’ll know, the less he’ll fear, and the better prepared he will be to remove fear from the world.
Of course, Charles is only seven, and it doesn’t even occur to him that some people cling to their fear like a drowning man clings to his lifejacket, doesn’t even occur to him that some people just don’t want to know.
And even if he did, it wouldn’t even worry him and he would still believe he can succeed in anything, simply because he now has something –someone- worth fighting for.