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Days of Becoming

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BOOK 1: Wake-Up Call

Welcome! You have entered [2gether] at 8:45 pm
[2gether]: StoneCold has entered at 8:46 pm
[StoneCold] 8:46 pm> They’re at it again.
[Gundamguy] 8:46 pm> fighting?
[StoneCold] 8:46 pm> ya. Such bullshit
[Gundamguy] 8:46 pm> He break anything yet?
[DarkPrincess] 8:47 pm> u ok? u safe?
[StoneCold] 8:47 pm> no he’s not nuts tonite. Yet.
[StoneCold] 8:48 pm> ya, don’t worry bout me. Shit. He’s downstairs screaming U NEVER LISTEN U JUST WNAT TO GET YOUR WAY!
[DarkPrincess] 8:48 pm> asshole
[StoneCold] 8:48 pm> no, not asshole! He just cant talk like a normal person in a normal voice.
[DarkPrincess] 8:49 pm> is so an asshole. Thats how my dad talks when he calls my mum. STOP CONTROLLING ME BITCH!! Same shit
[2gether]: 2AWESOME has entered at 8:49 pm
[Gundamguy] 8:50 pm> You could hear him?
[Gundamguy] 8:50 pm> Hi, 2AWESOME
[StoneCold] 8:50 pm> Hi 2
[DarkPrincess] 8:50 pm> I was listening on fone. Then mum said if you come here I’ll call the cops and he said try it bitch
[2AWESOME] 8:51 pm> YOUR MUM SHOULD BUY A SHOTGUN. BLOW HIM A NEW ASSHOLE.
[Gundamguy] 8:51 pm> I was wondering when ud make a helpful suggestion like that, 2AWESOME
[2AWESOME] 8:52 pm> fuckin make SWISS CHEESE out of him. Then melt him down for FONDUE
[Gundamguy] 8:52 pm> LOL
[StoneCold] 8:53pm> Ur a grade A jerkoff, 2AWESOME .

“Bobby?” He heard his door shoosh open over the worn, cream carpeting and he quickly minimized the chat window. He sat very still, staring at his Fullmetal Alchemist desktop. Why was she here? Wasn’t it bad enough he had to listen to them? Couldn’t they leave him alone in his room to rot like the corpse of this sorry family?

When he didn’t respond, she began in a voice full of forced cheer, “Don’t stay up too late. It’s a school night. Okay, honey?”

There was an itchy feeling in the pit of his stomach, a sickening wave of cold that began radiating through his veins. He realized he hated her; hated that she let his dad yell at her like she was NOTHING; hated her for pretending everything was okay — that the Drake family wasn’t falling apart around them. And realizing he hated her, he wanted to cry and run into her arms.

“Okay, Mom. Goodnight,” he said, his back to her, voice smooth and neutral. He was a liar and a fake. He hated himself, too.

“Bobby,” she began cautiously, “I-I just wanted to say that we’re sorry… we shouldn’t yell like that.”

Shut up, shut up , was all he could think. Leave me alone. Don’t make me say shit. But the wave of cold fury had filled him full and it spilled over. “‘We,’ Mom? You speaking for Dad here, too? You learn that in Parenting 101?” He swiveled his chair to look at her. “‘Always present a united front’? That’s just bullshit!” She gasped and he felt a hollow satisfaction as he turned back to the screen, staring at nothing. He realized he had begun to shake.

“Don’t…” She paused and he waited for her retribution, for tears, for something real. “Don’t stay up too late, Bobby,” she said and closed the door.

Shoosh. Click.

He continued to sit and stare. The wave of cold seemed to flow under his skin, like the winter lake under its skin of ice, and he shivered more. For a week now he’d found himself suddenly cold or suddenly hot like he was getting sick or something. Maybe he wouldn’t rot in here; maybe he’d freeze solid. Before he could open the chat window again, he heard a small tapping on his door, like someone hadn’t fully committed to the knocking process.

“Come in, Ronny,” Bobby sighed. The 12-year-old entered cautiously, like a spy deep in enemy territory, checking over his shoulder to make sure he wasn’t followed. He closed the door behind him and then threw himself onto Bobby’s bed looking over at his big brother, his brow crinkled in concentration as if he was wasn’t sure Bobby was who he appeared to be.

“Do you think they’re finished?” he whispered.

“Like with the marriage?” Bobby asked in a normal voice.

“No!” the boy snapped back, dropping his spy’s caution. “I mean, you think they’re finished screaming for the night?” He was wearing his pajamas, ready for bed, his teeth already brushed. He folded his arms across his chest and beat one of his legs on the mattress a few times.

Bobby turned his chair to him. “Yeah, I think so. I heard Dad go out back for a smoke. That usually means the fire’s gone back underground. Were you scared?”

“No.” The boy looked away and reached out to run a finger across the smooth surface of Bobby’s red snowboard, propped in the corner. “Yeah, a bit.”

“Listen, buddy,” Bobby began softly, wondering if his friends had logged out in his absence, “I’ve gotta get back to work here…”

Ronny’s sigh seemed too grown-up and world-weary for someone barely into puberty. He looked up at Bobby and said, “I don’t think Tabitha is coming back.”

Their three-year-old cat had run away a week earlier when the furniture had started crashing around her. She had gotten out through a crack in the patio door and hadn’t been heard from since. Bobby knew Ronny had cried about that for a couple of days, but he had refused any comfort, and Bobby had been secretly relieved. He didn’t know where words of comfort could have come from when he felt so needy himself. But this was his little brother; if Bobby couldn’t be there for him, what kind of selfish bastard was he?

“She’ll be okay, Ron. Cats are resilient.”

“What’s that mean?”

“Tough. Adaptable. Listen, I have to do something now. How about if you get into bed and I’ll come and say goodnight in a few minutes?”

Ronny suddenly smiled brightly and his precocious melancholy seemed to lift. “Okay! Mom didn’t come in at all! I guess she thought I was asleep already.” He hopped off the bed, ran to the door and, playing the spy once more, checked the hall carefully and bolted for his room.

Bobby shivered. Maybe his dad had already turned down the furnace for the night. His fingers looked blue. He waggled them to get the circulation going.

[StoneCold] 8:57 pm> Hi. Back.
[gundamguy] 8:57 pm> So u just gonna shoot anyone who fucks with u?
[2AWESOME] 8:58 pm> Ya. If they realy get up my ass. The rest--- I’ll just torture.
[darkprincess] 8:58 pm> hey StoneCold! Wut haped?
[gina] 8:58 pm> StoneCold! Luver! Yer parents at it again?
[gundamguy] 8:59 pm> yer a total psycho, awesum
[StoneCold] 8:59 pm> hi gina! my mom came in. tried to fk;I fuckingg pretend nothing was wroiuog
[StoneCold] 8:59 pm> fuck. WRONG. shivering. Cant type.
[gina] 9:00 pm> you okay?
[darkprincess] 9:00 pm> its okay, StoneCold. They’re the ones who are full of shit
[StoneCold] 9:01 pm> No I’m okay! I’m just cold, oK? gotta sign off. go tuck my little bro in
[2AWESOME] 9:01 pm> I got my shotgun, dude. Pow!
[StoneCold] 9:01 pm> yeah, great. Thanks, 2awe
[gundamguy] 9:02 pm> don’t let it get to you
[gina] 9:02 pm> we’ve all been there
[darkprincess] 9:03 pm> yeah hang tough
[StoneCold] 9:03 pm> thx guys. Nite
[2AWESOME] 9:03 pm> POW! POW! *screaming*
[gundamguy] 9:03 pm> ROTFL
[2gether]> [StoneCold] has left at 9:04 pm

 

Bobby called it the art of being absent. It was a way of moving through the day at school so that no one noticed him. He learned it from watching the misfits, the kids who got picked on, the terminally shy, the new immigrants who had no one from their culture around them. This was new for Bobby who had always been a popular and bright student. But as the Drake family had deteriorated into whatever loose assemblage of humans it was now, he had found it harder and harder to engage at school. At first, this landed him in trouble and got him a lot of concerned offers of help and questions, questions. But he grew sick of being a needy case and of taking up this place of concern in everyone’s life. He just wanted to disappear.

So he did.

When had he first moved to the back of the classroom? From the time he was little, he had always sat in the second or third row (not the first, because it was also fun to have some action around him), raising his hand to answer every question. But as he had become “absent Bobby,” he had begun spending more and more time in the dark recesses of his American History class and his Biology class until he had started to think of certain seats — last row, two from the door — as “his.”

It was amazing, actually, how easy it was to disappear; how little work it took to make teachers who used to praise his ideas and laugh at his dumb jokes suddenly completely ignore him. Mrs. Williams didn’t even look at him as she dropped his essay on his desk. C minus.

He stared at the red ink in a kind of awe. He had never seen anything like that. Teachers used to be sort of embarrassed to give him B’s and followed those up with after-class pseudo-stern talks about “potential”. But Mrs. Williams hadn’t even blinked. He realized he had successfully dropped off her radar — just another mediocre student sliding through the year into oblivion. To her, he wasn’t worth the effort and that made him feel… safe, maybe. It made him feel that no one would ever expect him to do anything again. Never expect him to be a good student, respectful son, or useful citizen. They would just leave him alone. He realized there were tears in his eyes and he dropped his gaze quickly to his textbook, reading not a word of History, studiously learning nothing.

Back at his locker, he practiced more of The Art. The Way of the Absent, he would call the seminar and bestselling book. He breathed evenly and kept his face pointing forward, his mind on the mundane tasks of packing his knapsack, pulling on his goretex jacket and freeing his skateboard from the tangle of gym clothes and old lunch bags. He registered the arrival of two people beside him and turned slowly to see his friends, Mike Haddad and Paul Greenstein.

Mike playfully body-checked him and Bobby had to grab the locker door for support. His skateboard hit the floor and skidded across the corridor. “Oh! and Drake goes down!” Mike crowed. “Where the hell have you been, Bobby? I feel like I haven’t seen you in a year!”

“I’ve been here. I’m just, um, busy with a lot of shit.” He had to leave. He began zipping up the jacket, but he couldn’t get the two sides to come together.

“Bullshit,” Paul responded. “You just hide out in the stairwells during study periods and lunch reading a lot of sci-fi and not talking to anyone.”

“You spying on me, Paul?” Bobby burst out, giving up on the stubborn zipper. “I’m just… I just need some time alone, okay? Is that a huge fucking problem for you?” Bobby’s chest was thrust out and his fists were curling, his voice getting high.

Mike stepped between them, “Easy, Bobby. No one’s fucking spying on you. Shit! We just want to know if there’s anything wrong. We’re all buddies, isn’t that right,? Oh fuck, Paul! You got a huge goddamn booger hanging out of your nose! You are so gross!”

The other boy wiped his nose on his jacket sleeve and shot back, “Yeah, and you fart like a volcano, Haddad, you faggot!”

“At least I don’t ooze atomic snot, you fucking mutant!!”

Bobby took the opportunity to get away. He jumped on his board and skated down the hall, calling over his shoulder, “I’ve gotta get home, guys! I’ll have lunch with you tomorrow. I promise.”

He burst from the school, skated through the parking lot and hit the streets, feeling like he had shed a hundred pounds. Even the lousy weather couldn’t take away from the feeling of freedom skateboarding gave him. It was the end of April, but it was cold and pissing rain. The month had started deceptively warm and their neighbors, the Kincaids — overly hopeful transplants from Virginia — had filled their swimming pool. But Boston weather was notoriously temperamental and now their backyard pride and joy was collecting debris and waiting grimly for its day in the sun.

April, the last months of ninth grade. His first year as a real high-schooler could not have been more of a disaster — and not just academically. The Fall seemed impossibly far in the future and he couldn’t imagine what his life might look like by then. Would he even be living here? Maybe his mom would take off with him and Ronny to live with Grandma and Grandpa on their farm outside Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. The nightmare of that fate hung heavily on him as the rain soaked his hair and his shoes. His skateboard wheels made a zeeeeeeeee through the puddles.

Or maybe he should stay with his dad? He used to like his dad and would ask him questions about his engineering job. His dad delighted in drawing engine diagrams to teach Bobby and he in turn delighted in the attention. But that wasn’t the frustrated, short-tempered dad whose work and whose family had both become unbearable prisons. Bobby didn’t like his dad now. He only loved him.

Bobby came around the corner to his street, riding smoothly and pumping with a lean, strong leg. His balance had gone funny when he shot up almost two feet after puberty, but now he was all control and grace. He didn’t care for ollies, kickflips and the other tricks. He just wanted smooth speed, turning corners in perfect arcs with the slightest shift of his weight. Seeing his house come into view, he sighed, knowing he’d be a dull heavy human again in minute.

He left his sodden shoes and socks by the door and hung his jacket up in the laundry room to dry. His jeans were wet up to his thighs and his shirt was damp from collar to chest, from cuff to elbow. But weirdly he didn’t feel at all cold. Closing his bedroom door, he pulled off his wet sweater and his t-shirt and threw them towards the hamper. He looked up at his favorite snowboarding poster and threw his arms out to the side, bending his knees to take a big jump on a great hill.

Drake, the effortless snow dog, King of the Mountain.

He moved to his computer, called up a browser window and typed the URL from memory. No, he wasn’t cold, even without his shirt on; if anything, his body seemed to be emanating a comforting warmth. More weird temperature shit — but he wasn’t about to say “no” to comfort.

“Staying 2Gether” was the name of the website. He had found it, like most of the other kids who used the chat room, by Googling “divorce”. It had a bunch of FAQs and links (half of them expired) to resources for kids coping with the divorce of their parents. Gina had told him that it had been set up a few years earlier by a guy who had crashed and burned after his parents divorced and he wanted to help others.

In the two months Bobby had been an anonymous participant in the ongoing roundtable of grieving, he had come across “beenthere” — the nickname of the site’s owner — just twice and then only briefly, as if the phantom founder just dropped by sometimes like an absent god haunting his creation.

Of the 20 or so kids he knew there, there was a core of about seven who logged on nearly every day. At first, he had felt like a poser, because how bad could his life be? But talking about what he was going through and having them listen made him feel like he had made the right choice. In fact, he had become more outgoing about helping others and that gave him the only sense of identity he had these days.

Darkprincess and Gundamboy both said he really helped them. And then, when things had gotten worse at home in the last six weeks, they had been there for him. But that made him feel guilty, too. He didn’t want people worrying about him. He didn’t want to be a burden.

He hadn’t been thinking of Stone Cold Steve Austin exactly when he came up with his nickname (though he had been a pro-wrestling addict). He was thinking “stone cold dead”. Maybe he meant the family, but maybe he meant the joyous boy that everyone used to think of when they thought of Bobby Drake: the boy who never walked when he could run. The boy who would collapse into ten minutes of rib-breaking hysterics at the dumbest of knock-knock jokes. The boy who had the tenderness to take the broken-winged sparrow home and nurse it back to health.

“StoneCold” was Bobby Drake’s granite gravestone.

Welcome! You have entered [2gether] at 4:22 pm
[2gether]: StoneCold has entered at 4:22 pm
[gina] 4:22 pm> My man! How was school?
[StoneCold] 4:23 pm> Was I at school? Oh yeah. I suck. I got a C- in history
[gundamboy] 4:23 pm> My mom wishes I got Cs
[StoneCold] 4:23 pm> Did the papers come
[gundamboy] 4:34 pm> Yup. Offical and everythng. There really divorced.
[StoneCold] 4:24 pm> shit sorry
[gina] 4:24 pm> you knew it was going to happen
[StoneCold] 4:24 pm> u ok?
[gundamboy] 4:24 pm> of course I knw. Still thot mayb… there so stupid. They love each other
[StoneCold] 4:24 pm> maybe they don’t. Maybe they stopped loving each other
[gina] 4:25 pm> for my mom, that wasn’t enough. Love wasn’t enough
[gundamboy] 4:25> stopd loving each othr. Fuck. I wish I knew how to do that. If I didn’t luv mom I’d hit the road
[gina] 4:26 pm> and go where? You’re only 16.
[gundamboy] 4:26 pm> wanna take off with me stoncold? 16 is old enough. Go to Nu York
[2gether]: HORNICATOR has entered at 4:26 pm
[StoneCold] 4:27 pm> I’m only 15 gundam. But sure lets go. I think about that alot. Everything be ok maybe if I cud leave.
[HORNICATOR] 4:28 pm> I WANNA FUCK THE WHOLE WORLD.
[gina] 4:28 pm> oh, great. New York. And in two months you’ll be hustlers and drug addicts.
[gina] 4:28 pm> WHAT THE FUCK? Were talking serious shit here, buddy
[StoneCold] 4:29 pm> um, hi? Hornicator.
[HORNICATOR] 4:29 pm> THE WORLD IS MY WET PUSSY!!!!!!!!!!!
[gundamboy] 4:29 pm> why do I think I no this person.
[StoneCold] 4:29 pm> ur rite gb. Hornicator r u the artist formerly known as 2awsum?
[gundamboy] 4:30 pm> Id never be hustlr gina. gross
[gundamboy] 4:30 pm> yer so gay awsum
[HORNICATOR] 4:30 pm> I AM THE AWESOME HORNICATOR. BOW BEFORE MY DIK!!!!!!!!!!
[gina] 4:31 pm> classy. And don’t use gay like that gundam. U don’t know who’s really gay in here. It doesn’t mean the same as “lame”
[StoneCold] 4:32 pm> ok! ok! You are the HORNIBATOR!
[gundamboy] 4:32 pm> can I call him a mutie, gina?
[HORNICATOR] 4:33 pm> bow down, StoneCold! I AM a mutie, gundamfart. My mutant THREE FOOT COCK compels you to bow down!!!
[gina] 4:33 pm> omg u know what happened at school? Speaking of mutants?
[gundamboy] 4:33 pm> See, StoneCold? Hes a total fag!
[gina] 4:34 pm> This grade 7 girl is in the showers after gym. And she suddenly falls on the floor, like she’s having a seizure and she TURNS GREEN! Her whole body. Green.
[StoneCold] 4:34 pm> like gonna be sick green or kermit the frog green?
[gundamboy] 4:34 pm> fuck
[gina] 4:35 pm> like broccoli green. She’s suddenly a mutant. And she got up and ran out of the school and she never came back
[gundamboy] 4:36 pm> u were there?
[gina] 4:36 pm> no I heard about it
[StoneCold] 4:37 pm> Did her friends run after her? Was she ok?
[gina] 4:38 pm> I don’t think so. I think her parents ahve like left town and everything.
[gundamboy] 4:38 pm> that wud have been fukiing cool to see
[StoneCold] 4:38 pm> omg. She must be like FUCK. Like her life is over.
[gina] 4:39 pm> I dunno. I think they’re all afraid.
[HORNICATOR] 4:39 pm> her friends? She hasn’t got any friends. Not now. They dropped her in 2 seconds guaranteed. And the school probably phoned the parents and told them “in the BEST INTEREST of your daughter you should withdraw her from our high and pure fucking hypocrite bastard institution” and the parents are probably all BOO HOO CALL THE DOCTOR, CALL THE EXPERTS but they really just want to DROP HER DOWN THE FUCKING INCINERATOR WITH THE TRASh because if yer green then FUCK YOU. If yer fucking inconvenient. If yer an EMBARRASSMENT. Are you all so stupid? Parents only care as long as NOTHING GOES WRONG. Would our parents be splitting up if they gave SINGLE FLYING FUCKING GODDAMMN SHIT?!! Mutant? Might as well go throw yourself off a cliff, green girl. Yer finished. FUCK!
[2gether]> [HORNICATOR] has left at 4:41 pm
[gina] 4:41 pm> holy shit.
[StoneCold] 4:41 pm> omg what was that?
[gundamboy] 4:41 pm> he types RILLY fast.
[StoneCold] 4:42 pm> crap. Im worried about him
[gina] 4:43 pm> Drama, StoneCold. He’s mr. drama.
[StoneCold] 4:43 pm> I better go and ACTULLY study something. I cant keep fucking up at school.
[gundamboy] 4:43 pm> maybe Ill go 2. its so quiet here
[StoneCold] 4:44 pm> where is everyone lately?
[gina] 4:44 pm> there were a bunch of newbies on after 11 last night. We had a good discussion about shared custody for a few hours
[StoneCold] 4:45 pm> u ever sleep?
[gundamboy] 4:45 pm> bye
[2gether]> [gundamboy] has left at 4:45 pm
[gina] 4:45 pm> not lately. Never know when the aliens will attack. I love you stone.
[StoneCold] 4:46 pm> lol. U 2, baby. Later days
[2gether]> [StoneCold] has left at 4:46 pm

He spent the 90 minutes before dinner with his head buried in his Biology text, actually taking in some of what he read. Genetics. Characteristics and traits passed on from parent to child. So how did mutants become mutants? he wondered. Bobby kept imagining the green girl, locked in her room, her white parents pounding on the door, getting desperate. He imagined her with a knife in her hand, peeling the offending skin off, leaving herself red, raw and human underneath.

He must have fallen asleep as dinnertime approached because he was suddenly jerking upright, disoriented in the darkness, the rain pelting against the window. He was shivering again. He went to his closet and pulled on a flannel shirt. He became aware of raised voices leaking through from downstairs and his heart started pounding instantly. He wanted to shout, ‘How am I supposed to study like this? How are we supposed to live?’ when he realized there was a high counterpoint to his father’s deep bark. Ronny. He ran from his room to the top of the stairs to find out what was happening.

“You clearly don’t give a damn if you pass this year at all!” his father shouted angrily.

“I do!” Ronny squealed, clearly on the verge of tears.

“Then how do you explain these marks? Why should your teacher pass you if you insult her with this kind of effort?!” His rhetoric and his cruelty rose like an echo of the storm outside.

“We’ll go down for dinner in a minute, Bobby,” his mother said, suddenly appearing on the landing behind him, putting a hand on his shoulder conspiratorially. Bobby was so startled he yelped. Below, two heads turned sharply to look at him. His father’s face was a red wound of anger under the graying curls; Ronny’s was a blur of almost-shed tears.

“Robert! Come downstairs. Supper is ready,” snapped his father, grabbing a flinching Ronny by the shoulder and steering him around the corner to the dining room table. His mother patted Bobby on the shoulder, slipping past him and descending the stairs as if the world was normal, as if gravity was still behaving itself. For Bobby, everything felt woozy and topsy-turvy and he held the banister tightly as he descended.

The four of them sat down around the table and his mother began serving the spaghetti dinner. The sounds of silverware on porcelain were unnaturally loud in the deafening silence of the room. Bobby seemed to hear a low hum over everything and he shook his head to clear his ears. He was still shivering. His mother handed him his plate but as he moved to put it down, it suddenly seemed to burn him, to sear his flesh to the bone or maybe it gave him a biting electric shock! He dropped the plate the last inch to the table. It clattered and a meatball rolled across the tablecloth. He grabbed his hand and stared at it, but it seemed undamaged. He looked up at the glares of the others and then quickly dropped his eyes and focused on his plate.

Dipping his fork into the food, he began to eat but he almost choked on the first mouthful. This couldn’t be right! His food was cold. Not just not warm: cold! He looked up, confused at the steam rising from the serving plate, at the others blowing on their forkfuls of spaghetti and his head seemed to spin. What is wrong with this picture? He forced down clumps of congealed sauce and tough pasta and decided that he was still sleeping. This was a nightmare. He couldn’t… wake up… couldn’t…. connect. The humming in his head was rising to a constant buzz and he wanted to ask to be excused, but he couldn’t get his mouth to work. And his mother was going on about something awful she heard on the news, rattling on loudly, almost jovially and it was like a knife in his head.

“They said that there is a growing epidemic of mutant teenagers. One boy left three of his classmates and a teacher in comas. Another one short-circuited the electrical grid and the whole community lost power for a week! It’s frightening. They could be anywhere!”

Bobby’s stomach was rioting against the cold, hard food. His father was staring and staring at Ronny who was pushing pasta around his plate.

“What do you do, Ronny, after dinner when you claim to be studying in your room?” his father suddenly asked in an acid voice, as if the lecture had never ended. “Because you obviously aren’t doing your homework! It’s the sixth grade, for the love of God! How hard could the homework be?!”

Bobby’s looked up warily. He glanced from his father to Ronny who was frozen now, scared to be back in the spotlight.

“William,” his mother began, her voice tight and thin, “Maybe you could try being encouraging instead of deflating him like a balloon!

“So, it’s fine with you if your son fails sixth grade, Madeline? Is that the kind of standard you hold up for the boys?”

“I expect them to the best they can! That’s all!”

“Are you suggesting Ronny is a moron, Madeline? Because if that’s the best he can do…”

“He’s not a moron!” Bobby heard himself shout. “Did he fail before? No! He’s always been a good student and you know it!” And he found himself rising to his feet as his voice rose.

“Sit down, Robert,” his father growled, standing to meet the challenge, three inches taller than the 15-year-old and 40 pounds heavier. But Bobby didn’t obey.

“No! Maybe he just can’t concentrate, Dad! Maybe he could before when he lived in a normal home instead of a fucking circus!” His eyes were locked on his fathers’ but he could feel the held breath, the stares of Ronny and his mom. “Maybe he did okay when he had two parents who gave a goddamn SHIT about him instead of scratching at each other like two baboons!”

Bobby was on the ground before he could even register what had happened. His hand was on his cheek where he had been slapped, his chair was toppled over. His face was turning hot. He looked up at his father as his eyes filled with tears and couldn’t see anything he recognized. He didn’t know who that man was. Then he felt his stomach clenching. He scrambled to his feet and ran up the stairs, barely making it to the toilet before his dinner shot back up his throat and splashed loudly into the bowl.

He continued to heave until there was nothing but mucus coming out of his mouth. Shaking, he stumbled back to his room thinking, ‘Mommy, are you gonna come and help me?’ But no one came. He slammed the door and threw himself onto his bed, face down, swearing and screaming into his pillow. Waves of hot and cold seemed to alternate in his body and he thought, What’s going on, what’s wrong with me?!

Twenty minutes passed before his body finally decided on simple shivering and he wrapped himself in a blanket and moved unsteadily back to his computer. Come on, Gina, he thought, Be there, please. He checked the list of people in room: cory90, gina, gundamboy, hard_kitten. Thank god. He started to breathe more evenly, his eyes clearing as he blinked the tears away.

Welcome! You have entered [2gether] at 7:31 pm
[2gether]: StoneCold has entered at 7:31 pm
[hard_kitten] 7:31 pm> and the kids make ths plan to get the parents back together. So lame. And at the end they realize they all <3 each other. I puked all over the tv
[gundamboy] 7:32 pm> it’s a remake of an old Disney. Hey! Stonecold!
[hard_kitten] 7:32 pm> hey stone
[gina] 7:32 pm> hi, baby.
[StoneCold] 7:33 pm> h
[cory90] 7:33 pm> whycant a movie b real?
[hard_kitten] 7:33 pm> and im still puking
[gina] 7:34 pm> wont sell tickets, cory. People want to see sweet lies
[cory86] 7:35 pm> any1 seen a gud movie?
[2gether]: 2AWESOME has entered at 7:35 pm
[gundamboy] 7:35 pm> nu james bond is cool
[2AWESOME] 7:35 pm> I wrote a poem and I want to say it
[gundamboy] 7:36 pm> about ur dick?
[gina] 7:36 pm> is it about the man from Nantucket?
[2AWESOME] 7:37 pm> serious.
[2AWESOME] 7:37 pm> You don’t want to hear I’ll leave.
[StoneCold] 7:38 pm> I waant to hhear it, awejsome.
[hard_kitten] 7:38 pm> lets here it

Bobby sat up straight in his chair, clutching himself tight, his teeth chattering through the time it took “2Awesome” to type his piece and hit ‘enter’.

[2AWESOME] 7:39 pm> She’s green / Green with envy for your skin / Which doesn’t tell your secrets / Which doesn’t give you away / Your skin where you hide your pain from all the eyes // But she has nowhere to run / because everywhere she goes she is / The green girl // And when you have no place to put the secrets / You climb to the top of city / Where all the green spotlights pick you out / And you light yourself on fire / Screaming / I AM YOUR BILE / I AM YOUR HATRED / SEE ME / SEE ME / And you jump / The Human Torch / Falling red and yellow / Into their chickenshit loveless / Green hearts

Bobby’s mouth hung open. Who was this guy? How did he know how Bobby felt? The shaking grew stronger and he swore at it through gritted teeth, trying to regain control of his body.

[gina] 7:42 pm> fuck. That’s just so perfect
[cory86] 7:43 pm> I like the part about bruningg like a torch
[dark_kitten] 7:43 pm> *cries*

He needed to say something, to tell the guy behind the lame nickname that he understood him. That they were the same. He forced his shaking hands to the keyboard, fighting for control, typing like he was wearing boxing gloves, backspacing, correcting.

[StoneCold] 7:44 pm> my ddad just slappped me. he fuking hates mme.
[gina] 7:45 pm> jesus, stone…
[2AWESOME] 7:46 pm> What? Slapped u? So fucking what? What do you want from us? It’s all pain, ASSHOLE!! That’s what the poem is about. Suck it up! My stepdad beat the shit out of me with his belt last week and I’m not FUCKING WHINING!
[gina] 7:47 pm> Shut the fuck up! Who do you think u r? Just cuz you write a poem doesn’t make you more important than stone!
[dark_kitten] 7:48 pm> jesus don’t go postal, gina
[gina] 7:48 pm> Who are you anyway with all ur bullsht nicks?!! 2FUCKINGAWESOME, BONERBOY, HORNIBALONEY! Who are u?!!!!
[2gether]> [2AWESOME] has left at 7:48 pm
[gundamboy] 7:48 pm> wotta dik
[StoneCold] 7:48 pm> u didn’t have 2 do tthat gii. Did you hear hs poeerm. Fuck ppoelkm. FK
[2gether]> [StJohn] has entered at 7:49 pm
[gina] 7:49 pm> I don’t want him talking to you or ANYONE like that
[StJohn] 7:50 pm> There! You want fucking real, sister? Here I am! St. John! HERE I AM!! You’re probably some fat loner dressed in black who can only get little emo-boys to like you with your big mamma routine! Want some free advice? EAT SHIT AND GET A LIFE!!!
[2gether]> [StJohn] has left at 7:50 pm

Something was really wrong with his body, Bobby realized. He was in serious trouble and he couldn’t even call for help. Was this a seizure? Like that kid in gym class last year? If he could type his phone number, maybe Gina would call 911… but his hands weren’t working, he couldn’t move them; there was something in the way… Bobby looked down at the keyboard and — oh my fucking god — it was covered in a layer of ice. ICE!

And his hands were embedded in the ice and he looked up at the screen and they were fighting about 2Awesome — or was it really “StJohn” — and he couldn’t call to them! And the ice! It was growing across his desk and onto his knees and he wrenched himself up, pulling his hands away from the keyboard, the ice snapping and crackling. And his feet! His feet were getting frozen to the carpet. He pulled them up and part of the nap tore off with them.

Get out! Get out! Get away from the ice , was all his brain would say and so he moved. He ran for the door and he ran down the hall and the ice was coming from him and he was running down the stairs. Where were they? Where were all the fucking Drakes while he was dying? Around the corner in the dining room eating fucking spaghetti! Then he was out the kitchen door and into the rain.

He stumbled through the muddy grass, his feet freezing to the ground every time he stopped. Keep moving! Keep moving! And there were little icicles hanging off his hair, clattering by his ear, getting in his eyes. He swiped at them and then stumbled on Ronny’s baseball bat, which was lying on the flagstone path. Knees and elbows skinned, Bobby found himself gasping on the ground, the waves of hot and cold like knives through him.

“Bobby? What’s going on?!” he heard his father call from the kitchen door. Bobby forced himself to his feet and a patch of skin tore loose across his palm where it had frozen to the flagstones. He ran, heavy with a layer of ice. His father was shouting behind him as he forced himself through the gap in the neighbor’s fence, sharp points of chain link cutting his side.

He couldn’t let his father see him like this!

Blinded by rain and icicles, Bobby tried to steer himself in the direction of the street, but suddenly, his feet were on concrete, which suddenly had a sheet of slick ice coating it. He felt his balance shift fatally, and a moment later he was in the deep end of the Kincaid’s swimming pool.

Bobby felt himself sink to the bottom and realized that in seconds he would be encased in a block of ice. He would die, in late April, frozen in the pool. He hit the bottom and used all the strength in his long legs to push off. His head broke the thin crust of ice that had formed on the surface and he reached out blindly for the edge of the pool. Finding it by luck, he pulled his heavy form out desperately. Back on the concrete, he thrashed wildly, the ice snapping and breaking off him in sheets. He thought of his father, not a hundred feet away behind the hedge that covered the ugly fence and he wanted more than anything to call out to him, but he couldn’t get his breath, couldn’t stop his thrashing or he’d freeze solid.

And then he heard the growl, and if he hadn’t already been coated in ice, his blood would have frozen. Through the blurring sheet in front of his eyes, he saw the slow approach of the neighbor’s rottweiler, Trixie, who was advancing with implacable menace on the boy, teeth bared, hackles raised. Bobby started crawling slowly backwards, the ice taking advantage of his slow movements to thicken. He wanted to call to the dog, calm her, but his voice was just not accessible and his strange movements seemed to frighten and infuriate the animal further.

And then Trixie sprang, and she was suddenly on Bobby who pushed with strength he didn’t know he had left to keep the snapping jaws away from his throat. He got both hands around the beast’s neck and fought for his life. And then he saw what was happening. From beneath his hands, ice was climbing across the dog. As he watched in horror, the surprised animal’s head was quickly covered in a deadly, frozen cowl, and Bobby let go of its neck, finally finding his voice to shout out in terror.

Trixie quickly forgot about her prey and began desperately pawing at the hard, smooth sheath that was suffocating her, falling on her back and kicking uselessly. Bobby watched in dumb horror as the dog convulsed and rolled, and then grew still, twitching less and less over the minutes that she died.

Bobby realized he was sobbing. He crawled to the dead dog and pried at the ice on her muzzle. It was over. Whatever the fuck it was, it was over. The waves of hot and cold had stopped. His body was his own again and there was no more ice. He let himself drop to the ground, his face nuzzled against Trixie’s coarse fur.

“I’m sorry,” he choked out. He looked around the yard and at the pool at the uneven patches of ice and frost that lay everywhere, as if God had thrown a great snowball into that had exploded on impact. Bobby ran his hands over himself, dislodging the last of the melting ice from his clothes and hair.

Like a sleepwalker, he moved slowly back across the yard and through the gap in the fence. The icy footprints he had left in his wake were almost gone and as he approached his house, he saw his father on the covered patio, smoking. Bobby stopped and stared at him, feeling neither fear nor relief. He had nothing left inside him, and his stillness seemed to unnerve his father.

“Robert. You can’t…” His father paused and took a long drag from his cigarette. “Look, I’m sorry I hit you; I lost my temper. But you can’t just lose control and run out into the rain like this just because something bad happens. Don’t you think I want to do that sometimes? Just run? This is life and you’re not a little boy. It’s time you took some responsibility for yourself.”

Bobby just stared, the rain streaming off him. His father looked away first, scanning the darkness for some answer to his own riddles.

They stood there in silence for a long moment before he said, “Go dry yourself off and get to bed, Bobby. The whole thing starts again in the morning. As usual.”

Bobby stood under the hot shower for almost fifteen minutes. He washed the raw flesh on his palm and the cut on his side. He looked down at his body and despite everything that had just happened, it was still the same body he knew. He was desperately tired and as soon as he had dried himself, he was back in his room, collapsing on his bed and pulling all the blankets over himself. ‘I just wanna be warm,’ he thought before falling into a deep sleep.

 

***

 

Andi Murakami pushed her textbook aside and reached for the cup of coffee that had long since cooled on the desk beside her. Her eyes drifted across the travel clock she kept on her desk and she said out loud to the empty apartment, “Shit! When did it become 3:30?”

She stood up and moved to the window, looking down from the fourth floor at cars passing on 86th Street, going god-knew-where in the middle of the night. In four and a half hours, she had to be at the clinic, doing preliminary interviews on psych patients. If she had known — really known — that doing her graduate work in Psychology at Columbia was going to be like carrying two full-time jobs, she probably would have opted for working retail in the mall back in Skokie like her less ambitious friends, the ones who didn’t seem to mind disappointing their middle-class parents.

Go to bed , she told herself, but instead she moved to the laptop that, wisely, had put itself to sleep at this absurd hour. She wiggled the mouse and brought the machine back to life. Clicking the well-used bookmark, she logged into the chatroom on Staying2gether.net to see what was happening. And, just as in the tiny studio she occupied for a ridiculous New York rent, she was alone in the chatroom, too. She thought, not for the first time, that maybe it was time to close down the site. She had no time to maintain it or fix the links and she was sure that other people could put more energy and enthusiasm into the project than she could.

But, still, the stats showed that she got hits and if she was helping someone she supposed it was worth continuing. But it was hard for her to do anything except with 100% commitment. She got up and rinsed her mug and moved to the bathroom to wash up for bed. Wandering back to the computer as she brushed her teeth methodically, she saw another name appear under hers on the list: ‘StoneCold’.

Sitting down, the toothbrush dangling from her mouth, she began to type.

[beenthere] 3:36 am> hi
[StoneCold] 3:36 am> hi
[beenthere] 3:36 am> pretty late. I’m studying. What’s ur excuse?
[StoneCold] 3:37 am> had a bad dream. Are you the guy? The one who made this site?
[beenthere] 3:37 am> yes. You been here before? I think I’ve seen your nick
[StoneCold] 3:38 am> y. Its really good. I have friends here.
[beenthere] 3:38 am> I’m Andi. I’m glad u find the site useful. It helped me a lot to build it
[StoneCold] 3:39 am> Andi? Isn’t that the girl spelling?
[beenthere] 3:39 am> That’s because I’m a girl. Hold on, I’m dripping toothpaste on the keyboard. brb
[StoneCold] 3:39 am> k
[beenthere] 3:41 am> back. You thought I was a guy?
[StoneCold] 3:41 am> that’s what I heard from people. So your parents divorced?
[beenthere] 3:42 am> Been five years now. I used to have a lot of bad dreams too
[StoneCold] 3:43 am> its not about that. Well partly I gues
[beenthere] 3:43 am> want to tell me?
[beenthere] 3:44 am> you don’t have to
[StoneCold] 3:45 am> I’m Bobby.
[beenthere] 3:45 am> hi Bobby.
[StoneCold] 3:46 am> it’s bad. I don’t think u want 2 know.
[beenthere] 3:46 am> whatever u want to say I want to hear. Remember, I don’t know who you are or where you are or anything.
[StoneCold] 3:47 am> you could log IPs
[beenthere] 3:48 am> lol. I don’t even know what that means. Listen, it’s up to you. I could even meet you back here another time if you want to think about it
[StoneCold] 3:48 am> I think im a mutant

Andi dropped her hands from the keys and straightened up. Shit, she thought, I skipped that guest seminar on mutant teens last month. She felt suddenly scared by her lack of knowledge, scared that she wouldn’t have the slightest clue how to talk to a mutant. Then she mentally kicked herself. This wasn’t a science-fiction phone call from another planet. This was some kid who came to her site looking for help. She took a deep breath and typed.

[beenthere] 3:50 am> ok. When did you find out?
[StoneCold] 3:50 am> today. thought I lost u. it’s ok if you don’t want to talk about it. Its not divorce, I know.
[beenthere] 3:51 am> forget about that. Bobby, are you safe?
[StoneCold] 3:51 am> I don’t want to hurt anyone!
[beenthere] 3:52 am> I mean are you in danger?
[StoneCold] 3:52 am> no. I don’t think so.
[StoneCold] 3:53 am> Im scared. No one I can tell. Don’t want them to send me away
[beenthere] 3:54 am> is it obvious? Can people tell ur a mutant by looking?
[StoneCold] 3:54 am> no
[beenthere] 3:54 am> are you 16 yet?
[StoneCold] 3:55 am> 15
[beenthere] 3:56 am> I’ll be honest. I don’t know of any services for mutant teens and I don’t know about where you stand legally. but I’m going to find out first thing tomorrow. I know there’s a lot of fear about mutants now and I don’t want you to get hurt. Can I meet you back here some time tomorrow? If others are in the chat I can send you a private message and we can make a room to talk. Will you meet me here?
[StoneCold] 3:57 am> after school.
[beenthere] 3:57 am> okay, how about 4:30?
[StoneCold] 3:58 am> k. Andi, thank you.
[beenthere] 3:58 am> I want to help. Don’t tell anyone else before u talk to me.
[StoneCold] 3:59 am> k. I can’t believe you want to help. u don’t know me. Thank you. Really.
[beenthere] 4:00 am> u don’t know the others in the chatroom but I bet you try to help them.
[StoneCold] 4:00 am> yeah.
[beenthere] 4:01 am> you’ll be ok. 4:30 pm tomorrow. Do u want to talk more now?
[StoneCold] 4:01 am> tired
[beenthere] 4:01 am> ok. We’ll both go to sleep. Nice to meet you, Bobby
[StoneCold] 4:02 am> u 2 Andi. Really. I mean it.
[beenthere] 4:02 am> me 2.
[2gether]> [StoneCold] has left at 4:02 am

Andi logged off and then shut down her computer. She turned off the desk light and sat in the dark, her mind whirling. I think my life just got more complicated, she thought to herself and sighed.