It is a stupid idea. An absolutely horrible, abhorrent, disastrous idea.
Jason lingers outside the Community Center, pulling out his phone to check the time. Maybe if he slips in a little after four, no one will notice him. Or maybe everyone will notice him and think, hey, is that Jason Todd? What’s he doing here?
Shit. He runs his hands through his dark hair, resisting the urge to start yanking it out by the roots.
A couple months back he saw flyers for the group outside the gym at school. Grant was with him, so he pretended he was looking at the lineup at the Catalyst instead of reading the dates and times on the paper to his left. Every so often he opened up his laptop and stalked the group’s Instagram page, sweating with anxiety over the possibility that he might accidentally click “like” and announce to the whole damn world the type of shit he’s checking out. No way in hell that wouldn’t spread like wildfire.
Once he actually called the number listed under their contact information. Some young woman answered: “Rainbow Youth Center, how may I help you?” and Jason’s blood ran so cold he could hardly move his fingers to end the call. What the fuck was he thinking? Just calling them up, like some kind of idiot.
He doesn’t belong in this type of group. People like that blue-haired chick, and that Rayner kid, they’re the ones who should be hanging out here. They don’t care about the things people write on their lockers or say about them behind their backs—hell, he saw what Blue Chick shaved into the back of her head.
Fuck . Part of him wishes he had that type of confidence. But maybe he doesn’t need it.
He’s gone with girls before, even took one of them to Junior Prom and made out with her in a bathroom stall. Isabel. She wore a powder blue dress that hugged her hips, and oh god, he knew he was supposed to want her. And when they were in her Nissan, his hands were all clammy and hers were in his pants, and he was afraid to touch her even when she was on top and kissing him. This is what I want , he reminded himself. And after, she dropped him off at his apartment and he sat on the balcony, feeling the cold air wash over his face as he drank everything they had in the liquor cabinet.
Queer kids don’t do shit like that. They stay on opposite sides of the dance floor, too scared to move even though both of them want nothing more in the universe. Rayner didn’t make a move the entire night, and neither did those Atlantean kids, Garth and Jackson. It was almost sad.
No way. Jason isn’t like that. So why does he feel like he did something wrong by sleeping with Isabel even though she took his breath away? Why does he dream about running his hands over an unshaven face and planting kisses along a sharp jaw, tossing and turning until he sweats through his clothes and wakes, terrified?
Maybe there is something wrong with him. Maybe it’s all that zoloft and morphine and smack his mom was taking when she was pregnant.
Like that really mattered anymore. In a few months, Jason will have his high school diploma, and maybe even get a scholarship to some university somewhere, and he can study literature like he always wanted. Goodbye Mom. Goodbye Mom’s drugs. Goodbye Dad. Hope the prison guards let you know where I’m going. Goodbye Gotham. Goodbye Rainbow Youth Center.
Hello Rainbow Youth Center. Somehow his feet have taken him to the door of room 142. There are people inside, talking loud enough for him to hear them through the wood. Jason looks around, biting his lip. What is he really afraid of? He plays soccer and boxes and cuts copper from cars. He lives in the East End. He’s spent a night in a jail cell.
The room is full of twenty, maybe thirty young adults. Jason doesn’t think he sees Rayner or Blue Chick or anyone else from his class. His heart settles into a cautious rhythm, ready to explode at the slightest sign of trouble.
This was a mistake , he thinks. He turns to leave, when suddenly he notices a pair of bright blue eyes locked on him.
Grayson? Jason recognizes the older boy from a previous senior class, the one that graduated two years ago. Everyone knows Grayson: the perfect, pretty, Golden Boy of Gotham. Bruce Wayne’s adopted son. What’s a guy like that doing here?
Same as you, idiot , Jason thinks. Except Grayson looks more relaxed about the whole thing, leaning into couch with his feet propped up on a coffee table. He’s sitting with two others, a blonde chick and a redheaded guy in a green baseball cap.
“You’re new,” someone says.
Jason whips around. The person speaking to him is a woman, tall, with short scarlet hair and bright eyes.
She extends a hand. “Kate.”
He takes it, giving it a nervous shake. “Jason.”
“Welcome to our group, Jason. We’ve got Uno, Monopoly, cards. There’s snacks over there,” she says, pointing to a table with some sodas and goldfish, “and a few of us have started a book club, if you want to hop in and join the discussion. They’re reading The Song of Achilles . It’s quite good.”
“Um.” Jason isn’t sure of what to do with all that information. Can’t she tell that he doesn’t fit in? Shouldn’t she be asking for his gay card, demanding he reveal how many pictures of guys he’s jacked off to, requesting some sort of proof?
Kate laughs kindly. “I know, I know. What can I say? We all have different hobbies. Want me to introduce you to some folks?”
“No,” he says quickly. “I mean, I think I’m supposed to be one room over.”
“You’re here for geriatric yoga?” Kate looks at him like there are birds nesting in his hair.
He shuffles his feet, and grumbles, “Nevermind.”
“Alright then.” Kate winks and pats him on the shoulder. “See you around, Jason,” she says, walking over to a group of teens clumped around a game of Life.
Stupid, stupid, stupid . Jason wants to die. No. He should leave, and then he should die, just so people don’t find out he croaked in the middle of two dozen queers. God, the things Grant would say.
“I know you.”
Here we go. An excuse pushes against his lips before he sees that Grayson is standing in front of him. The older boy has a dopish smile on his face; his bright blue eyes sparkle impishly. Jason has never seen eyes so rich, eyes so wide and blue they could swallow him up like the open ocean.
“You go to Gotham High, right?” Grayson asks.
Oh, great. The guy would probably put up flyers all around the school, pasting Jason’s face over gaudy rainbow letters: Jason Todd is a queer! This guy’s some kind of homo!
Jason clears his throat and looks away. “I’m about to graduate,” he replies, as if that will make a difference.
Grayson’s grin widens. “I know,” he says. “Here. Come sit with us. Or, you know, you can just stand there like a turd.”
He scoffs. “Who—”
“Come on .” Grayson’s long fingers wrap around Jason’s wrist and tug him toward the couch.
Before he even realizes what is happening, he’s on his ass, wedged between Grayson and Green Hat guy with a cup of water in his hand.
“I’m Dick, he/him,” Grayson says. “This here is Stef, she/they, and Roy, he/him. Guys, this is—your name’s Jason, right? Jason Todd?”
“Yeah,” Jason mumbles into his water.
“Right. Jason. We went to school together, sort of.”
Roy nods in greeting. He’s pretty straight for a queer, Jason thinks, with a square jaw and shaggy red hair. Maybe he’s from California, or something.
The blond chick, Stef, leans forward, resting her muscular arms over her thighs. She studies him like a ripe banana for a moment, then says, “I don’t remember you.”
“Yes you do,” Dick says, laughing. “Senior night at the stadium? Against the Jokers? That one sophomore?”
With a start, Jason realizes where’s going with this. “You don’t have to—”
“That was you?” Stef is staring at him, wide-eyed. “Oh my god, are you okay?”
Jason grumbles. “It’s nothing.”
“Care to fill a guy in?” Roy asks.
“This kid,” Stef says, wagging a pale finger at Jason, “got flattened. Utterly steamrolled. I didn’t know the human body could bend that way.”
“We had to call an ambulance,” Dick interjects.
“Yeah, an ambulance.”
Great. Three minutes into this mistake and he’s already being mocked by Rainbow Youth. “It was nothing,” Jason says. “A concussion.”
“Dude, it’s okay.” Dick pats his upper arm. Jason recoils, but no one seems to notice. “We’ve all been there.”
“Yeah. It sounds like a big freaking deal,” Roy says.
“Roy’s from Star City,” explains Dick. “Our dads are—”
Jason says nothing. He wonders what it would be like to know Bruce Wayne, let alone be related to him. What kind of privileges does that life hold? What kind of problems?
After a moment, he asks, “Do they know?”
He gestures vaguely around the room. “Where you are.”
“Oh.” Dick laughed. “Yeah.”
Jason had never seen anyone laugh about being queer. “Oh,” he says. Of course. He should have known. There’s no way Golden Boy would keep secrets from his father. No way Golden Boy would feel uncomfortable about what he is. Boy Wonder’s never gone to bed hungry, and he’s never had to busk for cash to pay off dealers. To him, everything must be one giant fucking joke.
God, is life unfair.
“So what are you?” Stef asks suddenly.
“I mean, I’m a total dyke.”
“I’m bi,” Roy says.
Dick winks. “Same here.”
“What is this, some kind of gay athlete club?” Jason asks, noting the ropes of muscle along Dick’s arms, the way his shoulders are solid beneath his tee shirt. He could almost picture him shirtless, all lines and angles over that deep olive skin—
“Why?” laughs Roy. “You want in?”
Shit . What the fuck was that?
“I’m not... I mean, I’m just here because—” Think, dammit! “—it’s for a research project.”
The three others exchange looks. Any moment, they’ll stand up and show him the door, and he wouldn’t mind, not one fucking bit. After all, this space isn’t for him. It isn’t .
“Okay,” Stef says at last. “You know how to play poker?”
“I don’t have any money.”
“We play with goldfish.” Roy says it as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. He stands and stretches, and it takes Jason only a nanosecond to recognize the small bruises along the white flesh of his underarms. He’s seen those in the crook of his mom’s arms for as long as he can remember. Track marks. Shit. At least one of them isn’t perfect.
“I’ll help you with the fish,” Stef says. She stands and follows Roy over to the refreshments table. They start chatting with Kate along the way, nodding excitedly at something that Jason cannot hear.
“So, Mr. Research Project,” Dick begins, and Jason’s face goes red. He can only scowl as Dick scoots closer and leans in, his face half an inch away from Jason’s. He smells like pine trees and maple syrup. “How’s senior year going for you?”
They know. Time to get the fuck out of here.
“Any A.P. Exams?”
Dick sucks air between his teeth. “That one sucked.”
Jason shrugs in response.
“What about schools? Heard back from any of those.”
“Do you still play football?”
“Your eyes are such an interesting shade of blue. Almost teal. Very pretty.”
Jason is silent.
After a moment, Dick throws his head back and laughs loudly. “Christ, man,” he says, “you’re not giving me much to work with here.”
“I don’t know,” Jason replies. He takes another sip of water and swirls the cup around like its a fine merlot. “You seem to know me pretty well already.”
“Is this about the football thing? I didn’t mean to embarrass you. Thought you’d find it funny by now.”
“I don’t care about the football thing.”
“Then what is it?”
“Why don’t you mind your own fucking business?” Jason snaps. A few people turn to stare at him, their eyes wide in shock or curiosity. God damn it. Leave it to him to draw even more attention to himself. How soon before someone else recognizes him and starts talking?
If anything, Dick looks disappointed, staring at Jason with this pitiful look that makes him sick to his stomach.
“I... I should go,” Jason stammers. He sets down the cup of water and practically runs out of the room, his heart hammering in his ears. Only when he is safe outside the community center does he allow himself the chance to breathe.
Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.
He walks quickly towards the bus stop, cursing himself for being so damned stupid. What the hell was he thinking? That he’d just waltz right in there and everyone would believe it was an accident? A mistake? Fucking idiot!
As he boards the bus to the East End, he thinks, at least I didn’t see anyone from school. Well. He didn’t see anyone who is still in school, anyway.
The entire ride, he buries himself in his homework, as if it could make him forget. It doesn’t, but at least he’s getting his homework done. One less thing to worry about when he gets back to his apartment. He’d be able to pick his mom off the floor and make dinner without having to worry about calculus or physics or English.
It’s practically evening when he gets back, and his mom isn’t on the floor of their living room. There’s nothing but scratched furniture and beer cans. An empty pizza box from weeks ago. A basket of laundry that no one has bothered to fold. The TV is still on, blaring some right-wing crap about money and politics. Jason walks over, and turns it off.
He hates this part, the part where he goes looking for his mom. There is never any telling what state she might be in, alive or dead or somewhere in-between. Sometimes he pictures himself kneeling by a limp body, shaking its shoulder until he realizes that there is no one left inside.
It’s the only thing that makes him cry.
Taking a deep breath, Jason pushes open the door to the bathroom, and sighs in relief. His mom is standing before the mirror, forcing a brush through knotted hair. He can tell she’s high before he even sees the pills. It’s in the way her eyes are glazed over and her movements are sluggish, thoughtless.
“Hi, mom,” he says slowly. He takes the brush from her hand and sets it down on the sink.
She moves as if the brush were still in her hand. “Jason?”
“I’m sorry I’m late.”
“Is Tommy here?”
Jason flinches at the mention of her dealer. “No.”
“He’s coming, I think.”
Fuck . Now that’s really the last thing he needs.
“Tell him not to come, okay?” I’m gonna make us some food. Are you hungry?”
His mom is swaying on her feet, as if she hears some ethereal music coming from the vents. She doesn’t say anything, so he repeats himself:
“Tell Tommy that he shouldn’t come over.”
There is the slightest hint of a nod. Jason sighs, and leaves his mom to her dancing.
The apartment is a mess. Hell, it’s an insult to messes to call it a mess. Dirty dishes on every surface, grime on the counters, dust on the floors, and piles of papers and trash spread over everywhere else. If Jason came in as a stranger, he would be afraid to breathe.
He picks up best he can, throwing trash into the bag and putting all the dishes in the sink. Wetting an old rag, he wipes the counters down, then sweeps up as much dirt as he can. Maybe if the apartment is cleaner, his mom won’t feel the need to be so spaced out all the time. Maybe.
When everything looks okay, he goes to the fridge and checks out what little food they have. Eggs (old). Milk (expired). Tomatoes (squishy). There’s a few tortillas in one of the drawers, and some pre-cooked potatoes in a bag in the freezer.
Cool. He can work with this.
Jason is almost done re-heating the potatoes when he hears a key in the front door. Shit. He knows who it is by the smell of liquor and gasoline. It was stupid of him to trust that his mom would remember to send the text. Not as stupid as going to the Rainbow Youth Center, but still pretty damn stupid.
Tommy bursts through, his bulky frame struggling to avoid the trash bags in his path. “What the fuck?” he yells. A cigarette dangles between his fingers. “Jesus Christ. Where’s your mother?”
Jason ignores him.
“I said, where’s your mother you little freak?”
“Go away, Tommy. She’s all set.”
“Yeah?” The man walks over to him and turns off the stove. Jason tries not to shrink away from his huge, meaty arms and the smoke that drips from his lips. “No one asked me if I was set.”
“That’s because we don’t care.”
There is a sizzle, and the inside of his arm erupts in pain. Jason cries out and tugs himself away from the larger man, watching a red welt grow on his skin. A cigarette burn. “What the fuck?” he growls. “Get the fuck out of here.”
Tommy smirks and tosses the cigarette to the floor. Grinding it into the linoleum, he says, “She owes me. That whore mother of yours. Two-forty.”
“For what? The thrill of your presence? Fuck! ” Another wave of pain washes down his arm. The burn is pulsing, throbbing. He clutches his arm, itching to grab a napkin, paper towel, anything he can wet and apply to the wound.
“Yeah. You can say that.” Tommy wraps a hand around his collar and yanks him so close that Jason can feel the heat of his breath. “I’m not going to ask you again,” he hisses. “Where’s. Your. Mother?”
“Her unemployment hasn’t come in this month,” Jason says. “She doesn’t have the money.”
“Find it, then.”
Damn . Jason forces himself to stand tall. At six feet and nearly two-hundred pounds, he’s not the giant Tommy is, but he’s still big. Big enough to be a challenge, at least. Maybe the bastard’s feeling lazy tonight.
“Or what, asshole?” he sneers. “Got another cigarette?”
Tommy’s fist slams into his face. Jason keels, eyes watering from the force of the blow. His jaw is on fire. When his vision clears, his blood freezes. There’s a knife in his face. A god-damn bowie knife.
“How about this,” the dealer says. “You pay me, or I find another way to get the cash.” He drags the point of the knife over Jason’s chest, pressing just hard enough to make his heart race.
And then the knife creeps higher, up to his throat. “A boy like you would make a lot of money, you know,” Tommy continues. Slowly, the edge bites into his skin. A tendril of blood runs down the tendons of his neck, soaking into his collar. The man grins. “There are guys who’d jump on the chance to fuck you. But I bet you’d like that, huh, faggot? ”
Jason growls but says nothing, wary of the blade against his skin.
With the flick of a wrist, Tommy points the knife toward the apartment. “Get the money, or I’ll find someone else to cut.”
“Fuck you,” Jason mumbles, walking into his mom’s bedroom. His pulse cools a little when he sees her curled up on the mattress. Asleep, thank god. If she were awake, she’d start making promises he knew she couldn’t keep.
He pulls the shoebox full of cash out from the closet and counts the money. When he returns with a fistful of cash, he aches to knock the wicked smile off Tommy’s face.
“Here,” he snarls, thrusting the bills into Tommy’s chest. “Two-forty. Get out.”
“Good boy. I knew I could count on you.” The dealer walks away, flipping over the pan of food on the stove. It crashes to the ground, spilling everywhere. “Oops.”
Jason doesn’t give him the satisfaction of seeing the anger on his face. He waits until the door is closed before his shoulders fall and his hands begin to tremble. Slowly, he walks over to the door and turns the lock, turning the deadbolt just to be safe. Fuck, his arm hurts.
His mom stands in the doorway of her bedroom. The high must be wearing off; her eyes are clearer and her movements more controlled. When she sees the food splattered over the floor, she frowns.
“It’s nothing, Mom,” he says, turning away so she doesn’t see his face or neck.
“Was Tommy here?”
“He just left. I dropped the pan. Go back to bed.”
“Why didn’t you tell me he was here? Did you give him money?”
“Don’t worry about it, Mom.”
His mom rubs her hands into her eyes and groans. “God damn it, Jase. I can’t believe—I just can’t—" She stifles a sob. “Can’t you do anything right?”
Something in him breaks. “I’m sorry.”
“Oh god, oh god,” she whimpers. Before Jason can say anything else, she drifts back into her room and shuts the door. A few more drops of blood spill down his neck. There’s nothing but him and his thoughts.
He cleans up the floor before he downs two cans of beer and sits out on the balcony, waiting for the tips of his fingertips to go numb. Screw Tommy. And screw the Rainbow Youth Center, too. Those bastards go about laughing and joking like there isn’t a real world out here, a world full of people who have too much on their plate and yet too little, who can’t afford to be queer because they’re already afraid of everything.
It makes him think of Dick, perfect fucking Dick, with his pretty eyes and pretty smile. How can he laugh about it? It’s not fucking funny when you’re fucking broken!
Jason grits his teeth and leans into the balcony railing. He wishes he could fold into himself again and again until there is nothing left. It’s not like anyone would miss him. Maybe Grant. And maybe his dad, too, though he doubts it.
Cold wind blows over his face, freezing his eyes in their sockets. He doesn’t really feel much of it anymore. His head’s getting a little foggy.
But hey. The day’s almost over, so it can’t get any worse.