Barstow has one of the highest violent crime rates in the entire nation.
Violent offenses include rape, murder, armed robbery, aggravated assault and assault with a deadly weapon. Brian grows up here – all the way from nappies to high school, like a weed through cement.
Things go wrong in his life – so he doesn’t become a cop, maybe, but he tries to go straight because he wants to be good. He doesn’t want to be a bad person, even if that kind of feels unavoidable.
All roads in all worlds lead to this – he ends up in Dom’s garage. In all lives, in all versions of every story and every timeline, this is inevitable.
Brian is a mutant – in danger in a town that hates his kind. He runs, leaves, never goes back and tries to avoid attention. He’s not good at it, is just on the wrong side of too confrontational and is a touch too brutal to ever fall easily into the category of a good person. But he tries.
That’s important to remember.
This is a boy who stood on the edge of power, looked at the ways he could hurt people, at the ways he could do damage to the things around him, and backed away. Said no. He never wanted to hurt people, but violence is his home ground, familiar territory in an ever shifting landscape where people die in the streets, where fires burn long into the night.
His neighbourhood looks like something decaying, like crumbling houses and cracked pavements, blacked out windows and homeless people standing around trashcans full of fire. The houses blacken the skyline like a gaping maw with broken teeth and there is broken glass on the side of the road.
Brian grows up with skinned knees and legs good at running – he could recognise the exact sound that a car makes when it slows down and the window rolls down to shoot at you whether he was six foot away or asleep. It burns its way into his mind and he never forgets the way it sounds when he walks how with Rome because he knows what people think of them – the skinny white kid, the black boy with a big mouth. They catch a lot of shit for being around each other.
By the time he’s fourteen, Brian has witnessed enough violence for the sound of it to be permanently scared into the back of his mind. It’s knowledge that saves his life, and more than once.
One day he’s walking side by side with Rome, sun beginning to touch the sky ahead of them when a car cruises past them and doubles back to head towards them. Brian doesn’t even hesitate, just grabs Rome by the wrist and pulls, heart beating a hundred miles an hour as Rome stumbles and curses behind him, and then the panic does something and they land ten blocks over in an alleyway that smell like piss and beer, eyes wide as they stare at each other in the half light, and Rome says, quiet as a whisper but somehow as loud as a gunshot, “Mutant.”
And it’s a secret between them. They try to never mention it again, because being different is dangerous, but being that kind of different is a death sentence.
Brian grows up with bruises shaped like stranger’s hands on his arms right up until the point where he starts carrying a knife in his back pocket and learning how to use it – he spends hours lying on his back in the dying grass of his back yard with a hand on his chest, feeling the thud of his heartbeat into the earth. One day, he accidentally makes all of the flowers in his mother’s dying garden bloom.
(He has a scar on his throat just below his ear that would exactly match the tip of a knife point, and it will never fade away entirely.
He will never forget how it felt to almost die.)
He learns how to sleep through yelling arguments and thrown bottles but how to wake up and be out of his window in five seconds flat at the sound of his door opening when his mother has friends over. They want him, he knows. They can’t have him. It only takes him half a minute to get out of his house and into Roman’s, and on these nights, they share a bed. Brian bends toward Roman like a sick flower towards the sun and grips tightly to the fabric of his shirt in his sleep.
One night he’s too slow, wakes up to a hand on his mouth and a palm on his throat and jerks, reaches for safety, and lands with a thump on Rome’s bed, heart beating a million miles an hour. He just hopes that whoever was in his room was too fucked up to remember what happened, spends the next week waiting for someone to knock on his door. The police, to take him away. The government. Something is boiling up. Stories about mutants disappearing are spreading like a virus through the streets. The gangs, murdering people probably. What else is new.
By the time he’s ten he’s learnt how to read the streets, how to steal a wallet and not get shot up for it. He can’t learn how his mutation works – can’t make it work for him for fun, can never do it on purpose. He watches videos of mutants blowing up buildings and tries to stay invisible. He can feel it. Can feel something, but he can never make it work for him, can’t force it unless he’s in danger and it reacts, he reacts, on autopilot.
(A man is his neighbourhood is outed as a mutant and a gang burns his body in the streets a couple of blocks from where Brian lives, close enough that he can see the glow as the people build the fire higher and higher, dance and drink under the flames. He has nightmares about fire for weeks. He hears more rumours that the police have started coming and taking mutants away, for their own safety, but they never get seen again.
That becomes its own special breed of nightmare.)
When his mother actually starts getting on the hard stuff, it takes Brian a little practice to learn how to avoid the meth addicts that now seemingly live in his house, but he gets good at it fast because they have hard hands and he hates the way that there is nothing in their eyes when they look at him.
It’s not so bad – they all ignore him, except for a woman who always watches him a little too closely and once cornered him in the kitchen, stroked the back of her hand down his face and slapped him when he tried to move away. She dug her claws into the back of his neck and said, no, don’t move.
Said, in a way that chilled his blood in his veins, I want to look at you. When he struggles she slaps him again, casual as swatting at a fly, but hard enough to split open his lip and bring tears to his eyes and says, voice hard, “You look pretty when you’re hurting.”
She says it like it’s meant to mean something – like it’s a lesson that she wants him to learn – like she wants to help him. All he learns is, from that day on whenever she is in his house, Brian makes sure he isn’t. But he doesn’t forget. You look pretty when you’re hurting.
When he presses a palm against her stomach, feels the oxygen in her veins and the breath in her lungs and pushes, the breath rushes out of her. She falls back, winded and gasping and he steps out of the room before she can get up.
He buys a deadlock for his door, just in case.
(What is happening to me, he asks Rome, hands shaking. Sparks fly up under his skin, out of control, arcing to spark on the curtain rails, on the lamp. Brian clenches his fist and fights, feels it retreat away again. It feels like fire in his blood - feels like power.
I don’t know, Rome whispers back.)