"Special," says his father. "Different." Charles remembers the needle going in, his father's warm hand circled around his wrist. The glow of the glass that housed the machine. There was a thrum of power; even then, an outpouring. A refraction. Possibility. "You have so many things ahead of you."
Charles remembers, and smiles in his sleep.
Charles's father dies on Tuesday morning, early, just before dawn. Charles is at home when it happens, under his covers with a flashlight. He is close to finishing Robinson Crusoe. He dreamed of waves last night; high water slapping the hull of a ship, men's voices and the smell of wet rope and tar; and now Robinson is being rescued by the English and having to leave his goats behind. It's his father's book, with his father's name written in old-fashioned schoolboy cursive on the inside flap. One of a thousand books in the library. Charles is in the process of reading every single one: he has already started months ago, and is keeping a list. But his father pulled this one down yesterday for him, specifically.
"My island was now peopled, and I thought myself very rich in subjects," he read out loud, while Charles listened silently at his knee. "And it was a merry reflection, which I frequently made, how like a king I looked." He looked down at Charles's face and smiled and stroked the hair back from his forehead. Charles basked in it, tried to absorb it like a plant. They eat sunlight: photosynthesis. And this was a sort of sunlight that shone rarely. "You'll enjoy this, Charles. It's about overcoming obstacles. A great man rising above his circumstances."
Charles has enjoyed it, but mostly because of the thought of being alone somewhere, really alone, not the kind of alone Charles is most of the time. Alone and free. Still, he thinks that he might take his father with him, to help him build a house out of palm branches and to teach Charles how to wield a knife. And so that he could hear his father's voice in his head, the comforting low sound of his thoughts that Charles sometimes feels before he falls asleep. Charles knows this is special, between the two of them- he can hear his father reading at night in the study, complex books with theoretical diagrams. When Charles closes his eyes, he can see the pages in front of him, as if he's holding the text in his small hands. Every time, it becomes clearer. His father is always pressing him to read more challenging books, to memorize longer words, to speak correctly like an adult and to write intelligent sentences. Charles believes that his father is reading to him every night on purpose, inside his brain, like a kind of special radio.
Robinson and Friday are crossing the Pyrenees when Charles's door creaks open. He freezes under his blankets.
"Charles?" says his mother. Her voice sounds stiff and cracked. He pulls the covers back, confused as to why she's there at all. He can see unhappiness and fear in her, and a strange sensation coming from her head. It's as if her mind is buzzing, humming all over, and Charles can hear it. It makes his head hurt. "Charles, there's- I need you to listen carefully."
"Yes, mother." He closes his book and swings his legs over the side of the bed, dutifully. He sits up straight.
"Your father left early this morning. On important business." Her voice trembles. "But he-"
-leftmeleftmeleftme and notevercominghome and what do I
"He's not coming back?" Charles blurts out. "Why wouldn't he?" There is a long silence in the room. His mother stares at him, and Charles sees a word flicker across her face, a handwritten word in the middle of a letter, as if it were playing across a movie screen. Abnormal. He wonders if she meant to say it out loud.
"Because he's dead," she says, and shuts the door.
His father had a partner, Kurt. Charles remembers him from visits to his father's lab, where he was allowed to spin on the wheeled chairs and ask the lower-ranking technicians any question he could think of. There was something good in that place, something bright and cold and immense behind the safety glass and metal tubing.
"Just look at you," says Kurt now, stooping down to ruffle his hair. "You've gotten so tall." Charles knows that is a rotten lie.
Kurt has come to have dinner with Charles and his mother, something he has done every week- and sometimes twice- since the accident. He usually sits at the bottom of the table but tonight the maid has put a setting at the head, in front of the chair where Charles's father used to sit. Nobody says anything about that to Charles, or to each other. Instead the two adults sit and talk and smile at each other over the tops of their wine glasses, while Charles pushes the peas back and forth on his plate. After a while there is a brief quiet and he looks up, to find Kurt staring down the table at him.
"He asked a question," says his mother. "Remember your manners."
"Yes, thank you," says Charles. "I'm doing quite well in languages. I like my tutor very much." Kurt nods and changes the subject and Charles's mother turns her focus back to him. During dessert Kurt tells a joke and Charles's mother tilts her head back to laugh, loud and bright like a bell, and more startling. Charles has never heard her laugh that way in his presence.
Rich, he hears, suddenly. Charles looks at Kurt, who is not paying attention to his mother's laughter. Instead he is staring down at the diamond ring still sitting on her left hand. The word beautiful surfaces in Charles's mind, involuntarily. He hears a voice speaking that is just like Kurt's.
Charles holds his napkin tight under the table, until his knuckles are as white as the linen. He hardly understands why.
Kurt marries Sharon Xavier and makes her Sharon Marko, and on the day of the wedding Charles runs away, down through the gardens and across the lawn and into the small woods that line the border of his family's land. He sits against a tree and sobs into the sleeves of his brand-new suit. His nanny finds him and tries to pull him into her arms, and he can hear her thinking poorboy poorchild as he scrambles away from her. He knows it is ungentlemanly- not at all becoming for a boy- but he can't help it. He woke up in the morning with the most terrible headache of his life, and it's only gotten worse.
His mother's brother finds him and has two gardeners haul him back to the house, where Charles is lectured on appropriate behavior and good impressions and embarassment. He can hardly hear anything. In his head there are dozens of voices chattering, the sound of the party guests in the tent outside, loud and dull and ceaseless, even through the stone walls. They shriek and whisper and batter him between the ears. Sharonlooksavision did I leave my keys at home isthisfilledwithplumorraspberry why I had to come to this ghastly farce is beyond thatlittlebratrunninglikethat shame on him ifIwereSharon I'd ohIwishDaveywouldlookatmelikethatagain it's been ages since we danced-
Kurt slaps him.
"Pull yourself together," he hisses, his face an inch away. There is a new, heavy gold ring on his left hand. "Christ, what a spoiled little beast you are." He straightens up and scowls down at Charles. "That ends today, of course. Sharon's indulged you, but I won't. You'd better watch your behavior around me."
He turns on his heel and stalks out of Charles's room. Charles stares at his back while the door closes, and is locked.
"I will," says Charles.
Six months go by, and then Kurt brings home his son. Cain is a year older than Charles and twice his size; Charles thinks he looks perpetually confused, like a dog with a furrowed brow.
"You're brothers, now," says Kurt. Charles looks at Cain, who has extended his hand to shake, and thinks, no, we're not.
Cain puts his hand down.
Charles gives him the cold shoulder for a week, until Cain drags him down into the woods and beats the stuffing out of him. Charles lies on his back on a bed of dry leaves while Cain sits on his chest and pounds his rubbery fists into Charles's face. All the while he can hear Cain yelling inside his head like a prayer: I'm so lonely solonely alone. Cain cries after Charles's nose breaks. He helps Charles to his feet and dusts him off, and when he's standing again Charles thinks hard at him, hard and clear-
-you always will be.
Charles walks back to the house by himself and washes his face, wincing, in the kitchen sink. He goes up to his room and lies on his side on the bed, leaking blood and snot into the pillows.
He is not missed at dinner.
The doors in the house are often shut, now, but it matters less to Charles than it might. He has discovered that he can hear things through the door, even through the floors and the carpets. If he sits still in his room and thinks about Kurt's face, he can hear him downstairs in the lab, through the concrete floor and the reinforced vault door he had installed when he moved in permanently.
"Not good enough," Kurt says to his assistant, knocking the notes out of his hand. "Not nearly good enough."
Charles can hear the cook in her kitchen, singing along to Bing Crosby on the radio. He hums along to himself, softly, locked in his room with his schoolbooks. He is supposed to be improving his Latin. A song comes on that he doesn't like, and he thinks very hard about changing the station. He thinks so hard that his eyes ache in his skull, and when he closes them he can see cook's broad hands reaching for the dial and turning it. Just as he imagines it, the station changes and a new song fills his head.
Wonderful, thinks Charles. He taps his feet in time against the floor. He can feel cook tapping her toes along to the music, too. He goes back to Kurt, looking through his eyes as he adjusts the gauges and monitors levels on a checklist. Charles thinks hard about leaving: about turning around and walking up the stairs and walking out, down the road and past the village and away, forever. Charles thinks it with all his might. Downstairs, Kurt shifts in his seat and glances up at the clock. "That's enough for today," he says to his assistant. "I'm going out."
Kurt leaves right away and stays gone until past midnight, far out of range for Charles. At first he thinks he's really done it, done something, made him leave for good; but then after dark Kurt staggers back into the house and upstairs to Sharon's room.
"You're drunk," Charles hears her say.
"How observant," Kurt says, cruelly. "You might be cleverer than you look." There is more arguing and then a thick, wet smack. Kurt's foggy anger clouds Charles's mind, until all he can hear is soft snores and soft sobbing coming from the master bath. Charles puts his pillow over his head and tries to sleep, but that sobbing follows him wherever he goes.
Someday, thinks Charles, I'll imagine the roof. He will think about Kurt taking the stairs to the top, slowly and carefully, rounding each landing. He'll imagine opening the door and crossing to the tower.
He will think hard about the ledge.
Charles tests his theories on Cain.
"Would you like to play Chutes and Ladders?" He stands in the doorway to Cain's room and shakes the box in his hand. Cain scowls at him.
Charles thinks hard, and then he asks again.
"Would you like to play Chutes and Ladders?"
"Yes," says Cain. "That sounds like fun."
Charles lets him win.
One Sunday morning, when Kurt's assistants are still drinking coffee out by the lawn and anxiously comparing notes, and all the staff are busy with breakfast, Charles lies tucked under his covers with a book while Cain smashes all the library windows.
"I didn't," he says, when they catch him. "I didn't, I swear I didn't!" Kurt drags him into the study anyway and gives him a hiding while Charles is served tea and oatmeal.
"Good morning, stepfather," Charles says politely, when they finally arrive in the dining room. Sharon barely looks up from her plate. Cain is still dribbling sniffles into his collar; he stops to stare up at Charles with dawning suspicion. Kurt doesn't notice. Instead, he nods and takes his place at the head of the table.
"Good morning, Charles," he says, and Charles feels Cain's fury wash over the back of his neck and up his spine, like a warm washcloth.
His appetite is especially good.
"You did this," Cain says later, when they are alone in the garden. "Somehow." Charles scoffs at him and buries another toy soldier in the dirt. A hero of the cause.
"Impossible," he says. "Everybody knows I was up in bed. And besides," he adds, "why would I smash the library windows? You're the one who hates reading." It's practically a perfect defense. Charles thought it up yesterday.
"I do hate it," Cain says, defiantly. "So what? At least I'm not a hopeless case like you, stuck up in your room." He looms over Charles. "A stick-legged little toady with no friends."
"Make me," says Cain, and swings. Charles takes the hit in the face, surprised, and rolls down through the leaves. Cain is reaching down to grab the front of his cardigan when he suddenly freezes. He freezes completely, paused dramatically over Charles like a character in a comic strip, fists clenched and face red and eyes bulging. Charles lies on his back and pants with effort, terrified, thinking only one word with all his might: stopstopstopstop- and then Cain tumbles forward onto his face and lies there bonelessly in the dirt, coughing for air and clutching at the grass with his hands. Charles puts a hand up to his face, touching the new bruise on his jaw with delicate fingers, and then realizes his hand is wet. It's blood. He puts his hand back up to touch his nose, which is leaking and then gushing red. The air seems to go out of the universe, and Charles sinks backwards. Above him, the tree branches whirl together and disappear.
I'm fainting, he thinks, and then does it.
"Boarding school," says Kurt. "My final word."
"It's not fair," Cain wails. Charles is listening in the old-fashioned way, from behind a door. They're arguing in the lab, and the sound echoes tinny and thin through the metal doors. Cain is stamping his feet. "I didn't do anything! Charles made me break the windows, and then-"
"I'm not talking about Charles. I'm talking about you. You disobey me. You embarrass me. Do you know how much those windows cost to fix?"
"Dad," says Cain. "We're rich now. Aren't we? Wasn't that why-" and Kurt slaps the table loudly before he can finish the thought. It reverberates in the room.
"Don't talk back. Don't argue. I want you packed and ready in three days. It's the middle of term, but they're willing to make a place. You should appreciate what I'm trying to do for you, Cain." Charles can hear the clink of a test tube being slotted back into its stand. He's going back to his work. "I'm giving you a chance to make something of yourself. Something better." Without wanting it, Charles is hit by a wave of unhappiness that radiates out from Cain- it hits him hard in the gut and he doubles over behind the door, clutching his stomach. Cain is actually starting to cry. Charles fights it off and stands trembling behind the door, his head aching and his fists clenched.
"Dad," he says, "I don't want to go."
"We all do thing we don't want to." Kurt's voice is calm. Cold. "It makes us stronger."
"For Christ's sake, Cain," Kurt snaps, "not even Charles snivels like this."
Charles feels his anger and Cain's in perfect synch. He gets a wavery glimpse of test tubes and beakers laid out on the table, as if he were standing in Cain's place. There's a white burst of rage behind his lids that Charles knows isn't his. And then he finds a word buried under it, bubbling to the surface like boiling tar. Push. It's what Cain wants to do, and won't. He's too afraid. But he desperately wants to break something, wants to watch it shatter. Charles wants it, too. He takes the word and dredges it up, imagines that he's pulling it out of the muck with his bare hands. He drums it against Cain's skull. Push, he thinks. You want to. Pushpushpushpush. There is a crash and then a small explosion and then there is another, and Charles lets go in startled fear. A third blast is louder than the second, and shakes the floor. Kurt is screaming and so is Cain. Charles pushes the door open and runs into a cloud of chemicals. He coughs and waves his hand in front of his face, trying to see what's happened. There is another splatter of chemicals and then of flames, and the tabletop seems to rocket outwards; Kurt shoves Cain out of the smoke. Cain runs into Charles and they cling without thinking, slamming against a cabinet and huddling together childishly. Kurt grabs blindly for their arms to raise them up, shake them into action, pull them towards the door. "Boys," he says, "I-"
And then everything explodes.
Dimly, much later, Charles feels the hot sting of gravel against his cheek. He rolls off his belly and finds that he is lying in the driveway, several yards from the house. Heavy smoke is rising far above him. There is that low sobbing again, but it is not in his mind.
"Please," says Cain.
Charles lifts his head and sees Kurt stretched out on his side, lying a few yards away. Cain is shaking him. There are dark streaks of soot and ash on Cain's face. "Please, dad," he says. "Please." He looks up and meets Charles's glazed stare, too terrified for anger. "Do something," he says, as if Charles could help. As if there was something in Charles that could fix this, make it better.
"I'm sorry," Charles tells him. He can hear sirens. "I'm sorry." He is thinking about the waves. Men's voices, the shrill calling of seagulls. The island, empty. Charles puts his face in his hands and cries until firemen drag him away.
Cain goes to boarding school, anyway. "It's for the best," says Sharon. She watches from an upstairs window when the taxi arrives. Charles stands in the driveway while they put Cain's bags in the boot. Behind him, there is scaffolding. The house will eventually stop smelling like smoke. "Goodbye," says Charles. He's promised to write, and he hopes Cain will, too. He has put good paper and pencils into Cain's bag when he wasn't paying attention. Charles thinks they might have a lot to say to each other. But Cain stares silently out of the taxi window, and Charles doesn't need to reach out to know why.
There will be limits from now on, Charles thinks, as he watches the car vanish down the lane. Rules. It will never go that far again.
He will not allow it.
Charles has read his Kipling- triumph and disaster- and he knows that he has fallen somewhat short. He was angry and undisciplined. He was selfish. He strayed. Others suffered. Charles must not be an animal force, loosed in the world. At the root of civilization, there is civility. He lies on the floor in his room, head pillowed on a book, and listens to his house. It is his house now, he feels; he can hear the ice clinking in Sharon's glass as she drops it again. He will do something about that, first. They will be a family again, better even than before. He can see cook in her kitchen, chopping vegetables in silence: lately she believes the radio is haunted. He will think carefully about how best to repair that. There will be no more instinctive pushing, no more force. Talking requires manners. Skill. Charm. And so do thoughts. He will learn how. He will find the point between his aims and theirs, and he will press it gently.
Cook is talking to the delivery man now, complaining about his bill. It seems either he has been forgetting to bring some of the groceries- biscuits and rolls, tinned vegetables- or there is a thief in the Xavier house. Cook thinks it is the gardener's boy, but it isn't. Charles is very sure. This is what he must do, then: watch and protect. Catch a burglar and cure a silly superstition and set things right. He will be Robinson on his island, building fences and hollowing the rock. He will improve. He will be Good.
Charles closes his eyes and concentrates.
"Full fathom five thy father lies,
of his bones are coral made.
Those are pearls that were his eyes,
nothing of him that doth fade
but doth suffer a sea-change,
into something rich and strange."
-William Shakespeare, The Tempest