Aleytys was fond of calling him an old coot.
Despite himself, he was grinning about that moniker as he weighed the largest of that day’s catch on the scale once it was unloaded on the docks. Paolo grinned at him with a gappy smile, his crinkling gray eyes bright and merry as he boasted “Yer lookin’ at one helluva fish story with that beauty, eh?” The swordfish was almost too beautiful to sacrifice, he mused to himself as he struggled with the sleek specimen that was still trying to flop itself loose from the hook.
The setting sun cast its rosy glow across the San Francisco harbor, reminding him of the old saying “Pink sky at night, sailor’s delight; pink sky at morning, sailors take warning” as they disembarked and prepared the catch for transport to the local monger and markets. Lee took great pride in radioing them ahead of time from the tiny sloop’s cabin that they’d landed the best catch that spring, and let’s see any other fishing boats top that. She grinned wickedly at Erik in passing, patting his shoulder with the rough regard and affection he’d expect from a man twice her size. She was growing on him.
She’d been up already, waiting for him in the wee hours with tea and one of her patented blueberry muffins when he’d had his latest nightmare. The steaming mug of Earl Grey was a smoky and mellow contrast to the rich, fluffy pastry as he held her gaze across the pine kitchen table. Erik had taken up residence in the spare room of her tiny two-bedroom beach house overlooking the pier, and was delighted to discover that like him, she was a nocturnal creature of habit and an excellent listener. Their weeks ashore were typically brief; Erik gradually got over his seasickness and began to enjoy the grueling work on the unpredictable but preternaturally beautiful sea, pulling his weight as part of Lee’s tiny crew. His thick, silvery hair grew long enough to brush the back of his shirt collars, and he’d allowed himself to grow a mustache and goatee that made his face look less ascetic and severe, softening the planes of his knife-sharp cheekbones. His slate blue eyes held none of the coldness nor cruelty left from a lifetime of Machiavellian tactics to further his own ends.
Charles would have told him that he had gone soft. He could almost hear his throaty laughter in his head, and with a pang, realized he missed him very much. He’d contemplated his chessboard and played against himself for hours before finally becoming drowsy enough to slip between the slightly rough, lavender-scented flannel sheets.
Usually, the eerie, bone-chilling sounds of twisting metal and his mother’s shrill screams invaded his sleep, making him writhe and thrash, tangling himself in the covers. But tonight, he was running through the woods, the damp earth icy beneath his bare feet. Anya’s panting breath matched his own as he gripped her emaciated hand more tightly and urged her to run faster. The tree branches were devoid of their usual foliage during one of the cruelest winters Erik could remember. Briefly he almost regretted leaving behind the faint warmth of sleeping in a knot of his bunkmates’ bodies in the filthy little barracks. There was a tiny hole left in his camp-issued uniform from when he’d torn off the offending yellow Star of David stitched there, letting the wind bite his flesh and chill him to the bone. The branches and shrubs seemed to reach out for him and his charge with probing, snatching fingers in the gloom.
The desiccated leaves made muted crunching sounds, despite his strategy to make their escape when the snow would still blanket them and muffle their steps.
“We brought nothing to eat. How will we live?”
“There was precious little to bring, liebling,” he reminded her. “And we would have died, even if we had stayed.” He took no comfort in the fact that she never argued with his logic.
Her heartbeat was sharp, and alarmed him when he felt it so keenly as he hugged her close, attempting to warm her as they crouched beneath the brush, deadly silent as footsteps in the distance and muffled voices surrounded them, calling out to each other that the two Jews had indeed gone this way. Erik’s feet throbbed with the unforgiving cold and the onset of frostbite as he bowed his lips into Anya’s boyishly short brown hair. She’d taken his breath away the first day that she’d arrived; it had been luxuriant and long before they’d shaved her head to prohibit the spread of lice. He intended to make sure she lived long enough to grow it back.
“Erik,” she whispered into his shirt. Her tiny hands clutched at him desperately, pleading with him to look at her. Their eyes locked, and she risked speech again, even though silence was precious, and their lives depended on it. “Don’t let them take me again. If you have to…then kill me.” His eyes rounded with denial, but she gripped his jaw with determination and nodded. “Promise me.”
His eyes never left hers as he nodded, fighting the clenching in his gut. She didn’t object when his lips brushed her forehead and he held her as closely as her delicate frame would allow.
“This is becoming a habit, old man,” Lee sighed, shaking her head at his wistful smile and the dark circles under his eyes. She fished the old red Bicycle deck of cards out of the drawer and dealt them five cards each, setting the rest between them on the table. “Got any sevens?”
He indulged her, widening his smile to its full wattage, taking ten years off of his face. “Go fish, Captain.” She snorted a moment, before crowing with glee as she found the card she wanted on her first draw and slapped down the pair. His shoulders jerked once with suppressed mirth. She stuck her tongue out at him, just because. Once in a great while, she’d indulge him in a game of chess; it wasn’t her favorite. Backgammon became their mutual favorite game of choice, but neither of them was in the mood for the intellectual stimulation that would likely keep them up longer than necessary. They were setting sail for the next two weeks to fish for king crab before it was out of season. They both acknowledged the need for rest, but his mind was too alert, and her concern for him was almost empathic, not allowing her to sleep when she could sense his restlessness, even from the opposite end of the hall. He’d joked that she must be a mind reader. When she’d asked him how he knew, he smiled in that knowing fashion and told her “I’m an expert on that sort of thing, my dear.”
The demons of his past were rising up again, no matter how deeply he tried to bury them. He knew his sojourn in the tiny little Bay Area hamlet was drawing to a close the day that he reached for a mound of steel-linked rigging when they docked two weeks ago, and the chain literally skittered free of his hand before he’d touched it. His eyes scanned the crew fleetingly, searching for surprised glances or accusing looks in the event that any of them had witnessed what happened. He found none.
That was when the dreams began anew. Lee moved to refill his teacup, missing his contemplative look at the faded numbers tattooed on his forearm, scraping his fingernail over it out of habit as if to scrub it away.
Westchester County, Graymalkin Lane, The School for Gifted Youngsters:
Marie was fond of calling him an old coot.
He only had himself to blame. They’d been shooting the shit in the game room over a few rounds of foosball. Logan’s quick reflexes made him a worthy opponent, and he loved the way she cut up and raised a ruckus whenever she lost. Unlike Logan, Marie wasn’t as much of a loner as he’d first assumed, despite her mutation that automatically limited her contact with her peers to the occasional pat, fully-clothed hug, or gloved caress. The chatty Southerner fired questions at him a mile a minute, and she made no bones about interrupting his solitary enjoyment of a cigar or progress through a case of beer to nag him about his hands-off “bulldogging” ways and general love of making older and younger students alike nearly pee themselves with a mere snarl of his lips.
He was making short work of her red-shirted players as she spun the rods just a fraction of a second too slow to keep the marble-sized ball from moving a row closer to her goalie, when she looked up at him suddenly, swinging her lustrous fall of auburn hair over her shoulder as she blurted out, “Logan? How old are ya?”
“What?! Why d’ya ask, punkin’?”
“Just because,” she demurred. “Ya never told me. Ah’ve known ya for a while, and it’s never come up. Ya know how old Ah am,” she reasoned.
“Big deal. I knew how old ya were the moment ya crawled outta the back of my trailer, without havin’ ta be told ya were too damned young ta be out on yer own. Be glad no one in that bar thought you were with me in the sense of being ‘with me,’ or we woulda been arrested.” She made a sour face for his benefit before using the distraction question to her advantage, giving the rods a spin. The ball volleyed back another row through his little green-shirted players, and he smirked at the gleam in her brown eyes.
“Brat,” he chuckled. “I know what yer up to, Marie.”
“A girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do,” she grinned. “Ya still didn’t answer mah question, Logan.”
“That’s cuz I don’t know what ta tell ya, kid.” He thoughtfully parried the ball back two more rows without trying that hard, flicking his wrists deftly, enjoying the increased hunch of her shoulders as she leaned in closer, trying to close in on the ball’s movement across the board.
“Whaddya mean, Logan?”
“I mean I can’t remember my parents’ faces. Where I grew up.” He paused a second, then quirked one brow as he saw an opening that Marie left vulnerable and unguarded – not unlike the way her question left him – and pulled back the rod, giving it a savage twist that launched the ball all the way into the goal.
“Cheater!” she shrieked.
“Nuh-uh,” he countered. “Beatcha fair and square.” She grabbed the ball with a smothered “hmmph” and dropped it back in the center of the table, and they began another round.
“Ya don’t remember anything at all about when ya were young?”
“What I can remember feels like it happened to someone else. And it ain’t pretty.” His voice was moody as he confessed, “I’d never wish my life on anybody. The best I can tell ya, Marie, is that it’s been pretty friggin’ long.”
“Really?” She nudged the stray lock of hair from her eyes, drawing his attention to the gleaming white streak that had gradually grown on him since she’d acquired it. “Like, how long are we talkin’ here, shoog?”
“Back when my trailer burned up, I had a few little mementos stowed in the back that I never got ta salvage. Mostly stuff like letters and postcards.” His eyes held a faraway look, but Marie wasn’t fooled; he was still whupping her behind. “There were even a few medals.”
“What, from Vietnam or sumthin’?”
“Uh-uh. Like, from World War II.” He reconsidered his words after they left his mouth, then added “And a few from World War I.” This time Marie jerked herself upright, leaning back from the table to stare at him open-mouthed.
“Yer kiddin’,” she accused.
“Yer not just pullin’ my leg, Logan? But…that’d make you…”
“Old enough ta be yer great-grandpappy,” he finished for her, giving his back row a cavalier spin as he waited for her to come back to the game.
“Watch yer tongue, punkin’, don’t make me run and get the soap and Tabasco,” he warned.
“No worse than hearin’ you walk around an’ cuss,” she pointed out with undiluted impertinence. “If Ah have a potty mouth, Ah blame you for settin’ a bad example.”
“It ain’t like I’m forcin’ ya ta do it. If all the other cool kids jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge…” She didn’t let him complete her sentence this time.
“Ain’t gonna be many bridges ta jump off of pretty soon. Look what Magneto did ta the Golden Gate. Dang thing looks like a pretzel.” Well, never mind his lecture on peer pressure, he couldn’t argue with that.
After another three games, it was Logan five, Marie zip, and he pleaded the need for a smoke break before bidding her goodnight with a friendly tug of her white streak. She saw him off with a smile and knew he cheerfully ignored her warning that his lungs were going to shrivel into blackened walnuts in his chest. He went up to his room and stepped out onto the balcony, lighting up and blowing a cloud of smoke that begged for memories of the first time he’d ever tried a stogie. He couldn’t even come up with one. For as long as he could remember – what he could remember – he’d always smoked, drank, and ate enough red meat for a doctor to call his blood type “sirloin.”
No amount of beer or Jack Daniels could even begin to take the edge off the screaming in his dreams. Sometimes the voice that he heard was his. Thing about his healing factor was, he wore his scars on the inside. His knuckles were the exception; minute, pink crescents decorated each of his middle three joints where his claws burst through. They were barely visible to the naked eye, but when he probed them, he could feel the nodules of scar tissue that never quite flattened out due to repeated use of the nine-inch blades beneath.
Marie’s scars had healed nicely enough after what she playfully named “the night ya shish-kabobbed me fer gettin’ too familiar” against his objections. The real pity was that no one ever saw that flawless, creamy skin, anyway, when she had to cover herself against accidental contact. Her joking about it didn’t keep him from reliving the nightmare of impaling her, feeling his claws slide through her flesh through to her back, adding one more terror to a towering pile. When he nagged her to quit joking about it, she merely sniffed “Keeps me from cryin’ about it, shoog.” So there you had it.
His talk with Marie made his feet itch. The only thing that could cure him of it was the feel of the custom souped-up hog in the garage rumbling through his boot soles on the open road. He’d taken to keep a duffel packed with at least three days worth of clothes in the back of his closet, and he chucked his Old Spice solid deodorant and an old comb into it before zipping it shut.
He knew pitifully little of his own life to share with Marie, or anyone else who gave enough of a damn to ask. He decided to remedy that.
Now came the tricky part. He needed to tell Ororo.