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Latchkey Child

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Jessica didn’t want kids.

Okay, she had had a phase when she was like six when she’d had one of those creepy plastic baby dolls, and like every other kid, she’d given it its fake plastic bottle and told it to quit crying after she put it in its equally fake plastic crib. Creepy, capitalism-engineered motherhood. But any lingering urge to reproduce had gotten mopped up pretty quick. She didn’t like to dwell on it.

She didn’t want kids. Didn’t even like them, if she was honest.

Against all her best efforts, she seemed to have acquired one.

 

Few people were less suited to parenting than she was. Her idea of motherhood was digging up some old instant coffee out of her pantry so the kid could have something that wasn’t alcohol. Honestly, it beat her why he kept coming around. It wasn’t like she was particularly cool. She didn’t have an Apple Watch or a Pokémon or whatever kids were into these days.

But for some reason, the kid was perfectly content to sit on one of the unreliable chairs in her cramped den with his shitty coffee and talk to her.

At her, more accurately.

She heard all about his schoolwork and his classmates, to the point that she could predict Ned Leeds’ comebacks before Parker told them to her, and was pretty sure she would be able to recognize Flash Thompson in a police line-up if the need ever arose. And apparently the mysterious and fleetingly discussed MJ reminded him a lot of her.

She heard about his home life, too, about his aunt and his late uncle (and there, his voice would get rougher, he’d make less eye contact, and Jessica thought she could recognize the symptoms of old wounds that hadn’t really healed, just scabbed over). She didn’t call him on it; Peter Parker liked to play the hero.

 

Admittedly there was a certain poetic beauty to how they’d met: some skinhead cat-caller turned downright abusive, dun-dun, in swoops the Spider-Man, unbeknownst to her. It was an otherwise deserted alley, so she hadn’t thought twice about throwing the cat-caller in question into the lamp post across the street, only to discover after the fact that she had an audience.

“Wow,” came a distinctly youthful voice from behind and above her. “That was the most badass thing I’ve ever seen. Like, I was all ready to get in there but you handled it — and like, wow — that was — the way you just threw him —?!”

She’d humored him by letting him walk her to her apartment, answering only a few of the myriad questions he asked (“You’re a detective? That’s so cool!”).

She didn’t start inviting him in until later when she’d accidentally seen him with the mask off and been surprised by the knee-jerk of concern in her gut at how little he looked.

 

Sometimes, he came over because he needed to.

“I’m not gonna baby you,” she said shortly, putting down a bottle of rubbing alcohol and some gauze on the kitchen table. And he’d nodded with obvious relief but didn’t use either item, citing something about a healing factor and how the cut on his forehead would be gone within a day or two. She’d just rolled her eyes and taken a swig of her vodka.

Sometimes, he came over and did his homework in the den while she panicked in the kitchen and tried to find something considered edible by the majority population — although, teenage boy, he’d probably eat her old Walkman if she put it down in front of him. They made do with potato chips eaten in front of the TV while Keeping Up With The Joneses played on low volume.

 

Sometimes, he came over, and she didn’t realize. All the alcohol occasionally had the opposite effect than the intended and made her brain vomit up things she didn’t want repeated; several times, she had woken up from memories of death and hands pawing at her like a dog digging into the ground and found the kid sitting by the sofa, looking white-faced. He held up a carton of concentrate orange juice and a store-bought chicken salad.

“I saw you were flashbacking so I went out and got these for when you woke up?” he said in a rush. “My aunt always makes me eat after I have nightmares, so…” He trailed off as she just stared at him, still partially trapped in her dream world.

She got up to vomit into the toilet and then came back, reached for the half-finished bottle of vodka on the kitchen counter, then saw the kid standing in the doorway and reached for a glass to fill with the juice instead. She chugged it, filled it up again, and then ate a surprising amount of the chicken salad.

“Thanks,” she said when she found her tongue again.

He just nodded, drinking some orange juice of his own, and didn’t meet her eyes.

 

One evening, on a whim, she took him out for burgers and was — what was the word, oh yes, shook — when the server asked her what she and her son would have. She might have corrected them, but Parker had played along even to the table once they were out of earshot of the restaurant staff and he’d said, grinning, “Hey, mom, pass the ketchup?”

“Want me to read you a bedtime story?” she asked, tongue firmly in cheek as they headed out of the diner into the warm evening.

“Ugh, mom. You’re so embarrassing.

 

He would call her that again, infrequently, and when he did it, Jessica couldn’t figure out if he meant it ironically or not. Then she figured she didn’t care one way or the other. Still, she secretly felt that if she were any part of his family, she was his crazy estranged aunt who didn’t get invited to reunions.

There was something about that latchkey child with too much time on his hands that was sort of endearing, and at times, she wondered if this was how it felt to adopt a teenager.

 

Summer arrived, with it Pride, and she was slightly surprised to find a blue-pink-and-white button on his backpack, along with one that proudly proclaimed HE/HIM pronouns and another with the bisexual flag.

“You should do something for Pride,” he said over his losing hand (she was teaching him poker, in vain), and she raised an eyebrow.

“You don’t know that I’m like that.”

“I kinda get a vibe though?” he said.

A week later, she bought a T-shirt she’d been eyeing for a while (I PREFER cooking but sometimes EATING OUT with all my GIRLS is fun) and rolled her eyes at the grin she got when he saw her wearing it.

“I’m not marching,” she said shortly.

“You know, my aunt is single,” was all he said.

She rolled her eyes again. “Your aunt couldn’t handle this, kid.”

 

Sometimes, the kid disappeared for weeks at a time, and Jessica wouldn’t admit to anyone that she missed all the chatter.

 

Sometimes, Peter Parker liked to play the hero. A month and a half before he started his junior year, Parker brought a college-aged girl to her apartment, and Jessica had been moments from asking if she was supposed to be his girlfriend before she saw the shell-shock on the girl’s face and deduced the situation.

She wasn’t the mothering type; she dealt in tough love, assuming she dealt in it at all, but something about the way the girl started crying when she asked how far the guy had gotten made her softer side come out. Once she’d gotten her to the police station, she’d come back to find Parker seated on the floor of the den in the dark, mask off and his head in his hands.

“Sorry,” he murmured. “I got him off her, but… I just couldn’t handle it on my own. Made me think about stuff.”

And she’d sat down next to him in the dark, put an arm around his shoulders, and let him talk it out, and when she’d related some of her own experiences, just enough to give him some much-needed advice, his eyes were shining with relief and awe.

“I’ve never talked to someone who knows what it’s like, before,” he said softly. Jessica nodded stoically and reined in her urge to strangle a bastard. 

 

After Parker called home, she met his aunt that night, too, and she was younger than she’d expected, with nice eyes. (To her relief) she hadn’t made a comment about the apartment’s shittiness. She’d just collected her nephew and thanked Jessica for being a Samaritan.

 

Jessica didn’t want kids, didn’t like them. But apparently Parker had told his friends about her, and while they kept their distance (thank fuck), she had apparently gained a reputation as Peter’s badass private eye god-mom with superpowers. He’d shown her a selfie of them all at Pride together — less white than she’d expected, all of them sporting rainbow sunglasses and face paint.

“I told them about you,” he said. “I think MJ has a crush on you, to be honest.”

“Stay in touch with them,” she told him, surprising herself. “You’ll miss them after high school.”

He told her that he was having nightmares again, and in turn, she told him that she liked to listen to audiobooks and do the dishes when the trauma wouldn’t let her sleep. She made him shitty coffee with two sugars and a lot of milk, and he asked her if she knew anything about calculating gravitational force.

 

In the evenings, he would swing back toward home, wherever home was, and she would turn back to wash out the coffee mug and grudgingly think to herself that while all kids were objectively awful, some were less awful than others, and that while motherhood was not for her, she could almost, almost understand the appeal.

Then she'd put the mug in its now customary place by the coffee machine and switch on the TV to play until she slept.

 

She flatly turned down the invitation to Thanksgiving despite the kid's various attempts to convince her — “Seriously, it’s fine, it wouldn’t be any problem, my aunt’s kind of curious at this point,” — knowing that she was the last person anyone would want at a holiday dinner. The week following Thanksgiving went without a single visit from him, but she came home one evening to discover that A) someone had broken into her apartment, and B) the burglar had left a covered dish of mashed potatoes, turkey, and green bean casserole in her fridge.

There was no note. At this point, she figured, they probably didn’t need one.