He's three years old the first time he wakes up screaming. His parents try to comfort him, as they did when he was an infant, hungry or wet or simply unhappy—but in the glow of the night light, their faces seem suddenly like strangers', and he screams all the more.
The next time it happens, he's five, and when his mother says "Joe, sweetie, what's the matter?" he looks at her, straight in the eye, and says, "That's not my name."
He's eight the third time, and it's the first time anyone makes the connection. The doctor tells his parents to turn the news off, that hearing about the biological attacks is too much for an impressionable child. The implication that they're irresponsible is laid on thick enough that it's the last time they take him to the E.R. for this.
The news blackout in their house isn't enough to keep him from waking up screaming the next time. He's eleven for the first exorcism, thirteen for the second. By the time he's sixteen, he's learned to control it, at least enough to scream into the pillow once he's awake, and to tell the stranger-father he's fine when the door creaks open, a bar of light from the hallway spilling across the bed.
He never remembers the terrible dreams he must have had as a child, which makes sense: he never dreams. He's in his twenties before he understands that other people aren't lying when they claim to not only have dreams, but to remember them; he never has any patience with dreams in fiction, and immediately drops any book or movie with a dream sequence, no matter how invested he was up to that point.
When he's twenty-eight, not long after the accident, the doctor tells him it's not uncommon for paraplegics to have walking dreams. Knowing that much, at least, won't happen to him gives him a measure of spiteful satisfaction. It's not much, but as it turns out spite is the main thing that that drives him to learn how to live like this instead of deciding not to live at all, it's something.
The seventh time he wakes up screaming, he's thirty-four, and it's the first time in his life he remembers why.
He was on the toilet when the knocking started. It was tentative at first, but when he didn't answer, it became more insistent: rap-rap-rap, a hail of bullets slapping into his front door, one after another.
"I'm coming," he called. "Give me a minute!"
He finished up as quickly as he could, but by the time he'd transferred back into his chair, the knocking had stopped. By the time he got to the door, he knew what he was going to find: a yellow slip on the door claiming he hadn't been home to take the delivery. As if he hadn't argued his boss into allowing him to work from home today. As if he hadn't been told that the delivery would be sometime between noon and five, not nine in the damned morning. As if they thought he wouldn't raise hell over this—
But when he opened the door, instead of a slip or a deliveryman with a large box for him, there stood a teenage boy on the doorstep, his hands wrist-deep in the pockets of an ill-fitting suit. He looked up abruptly, then down. His eyes were raw, there was an urgency in his voice as he said, "Erik? Is that you?"
"Yes," he said, a reflex that seemed to have nothing to do with himself. There was a strange taste in his mouth, a flush of salt water. "—No. You have the wrong address."
He slammed the door, but not shut; the boy had caught the door and was holding it open. "Erik," he said in a low voice, "it's me. It's Charles."
"I've never seen you before," and it sounded like a lie, though he'd never met this boy before, didn't know a single person under twenty who wasn't one of his cousins. "Get out."
Inch by inch, the boy forced the door open until he was able to stumble inside. When the door did shut, they were both on the same side of it, he disbelieving in his chair, and the boy sprawled on the hall floor, having managed to trip over the footrest at the final push. He struggled to get up.
In that moment, he could easily have dented the boy's head in with the nearest poker. There were two within arm's reach. That would have done neatly for the entire situation, whatever the boy meant to do now that he'd forced his way in. Even if he had trouble disposing of a body on his own, well, there were laws against trespassing. He'd be within his rights. No one ever had to know that there was no way a skinny twig like this should have been able to get past him—not when he could bench press three of him.
In the end, the impulse that had caused him to fold was the same one that kept him from reaching for a weapon.
He opened his mouth to tell the boy to get out, but before he could speak, the boy said, "My God. It's like a tomb in here."
A stab went through him, and this time it was in recognition. How often had he had that same thought? Sometimes, the objects lining every shelf on every wall of his house, that littered every table and counter top—everything from spare change to coils of wire to small figurines, horses and dogs and children and toads, it had never mattered as long as they were all made primarily of some form of metal—sometimes, they comforted him like nothing else could, made him feel mighty inside his stronghold.
But there were other days, nearly always in June or July, when looking at them sent a shudder of revulsion down his spine, stopping only where all other sensation did. There were days, sometimes lengthening into weeks, when looking at any part of his collection made him feel dull and dead inside—as if there were something huge he couldn't name missing, as if it had been carved out of him.
He'd never said a word about it to anyone. Depression, they'd have said. Perfectly normal, all things considered. As if it were a new feeling, not one that had started when he was ten years old. As if it weren't a perennial companion, as familiar to him as his own hands—
"Who are you?" He rounded on the boy. "What the fuck do you want?"
"I'm Charles." Instead of stepping back, which would have had him cornered with his back against the door, the boy leaned over, placing his hands on the armrests of the chair. "And I would quite desperately like you to remember Erik."
"Remember what?" he asked, before realizing, again, "—That's not my name."
"Yes, it is."
"My name is Joe."
The boy's face was too close to his, now, breath warm against his face. "Your name is Erik, and you're a mutant. Or, well. You were, once."
The anger began to rise, truly, that roaring fury that was never far beneath the surface, and less so for the past few years than it had been before. Had the boy come only to try to convince him of an old wives tale? Somehow, part of him had thought this could be something else, something he'd been waiting for, something that would make sense of things that made no sense. "There's no such thing as mutants."
"But there were, and I think you know that. Whether you'll admit it or not."
"The only thing I know is that I want you the fuck out of my house."
Then he did reach for the poker. The boy straightened up, and now he did step back. His hand was on the doorknob when he said, "I want you to remember, Erik. I'll be back tomorrow."
And then he opened the door, and then he was gone.
He'd never considered calling the authorities in his life, and he didn't now. He'd have tried not to dwell on anything the boy had said, but he knew himself too well by now to think there was any way to get his mind off something he had decided to chew on. Instead of giving himself tasks which he'd wander away from half-finished, he sat in his living room for most of the day, watching people go past on the sidewalk, not bothering to lie to himself that he was waiting to see if the boy would come back today, instead. In fact, he was so intent on waiting for him that he jumped when the delivery man arrived at a quarter past two.
Mutants. It had been years since he'd thought about that conspiracy theory. People who were more than human, who would fly, or spit fire, or read minds. Nonsense, of course. If mutants existed, if they'd been around for fifty or more years, like some people said—there'd be videos, there'd be pictures. You couldn't cover up something like that. Not completely. Something would have gotten out. This was the age of the internet, after all.
No. Mutants were not a possibility. He was confident of that.
Still, before he went to bed that night, he decided he didn't mind if he did come back. Whatever scam the boy was running, well, he wasn't going to write him a check, and this was by far the most interesting thing that had happened to him in years.
"I never thought of you as a cat person." the boy said the following evening. The cat in the question had made friends with him as soon as he'd sat on the sofa—she was fond of laps, and didn't often have the chance to explore new ones. "Or any animal, really. I suppose you never stayed in one place long enough to have a pet."
He'd lived here for six years. He'd never lived anywhere for less than three. "I have no idea what you're talking about."
"You let me in. You must have some notion." A long pause. The boy crossed one leg over the other—and for some reason, that made the entire scene more surreal than it had already been. For a moment, it was almost as if they were in two places. For a moment, they seemed to be overwritten, almost to change places, the boy in this chair and himself ready to jump to his feet in pursuit of his point.
They'll never stop, Charles. Never. You're not safe here any longer. Save yourself. Please. Come with me this time—
"Are you even going to ask?" the boy said, more than a minute after he had come back reeling from whatever that had been.
"Your timing used to be better, Charles," he answered, another of those strange reflexes. "Ask what?"
"What this is all about. Don't you want to know what's wrong with you?"
"If you can't see that, you have more wrong than I do."
"Don't you want to know what's missing? Why you're so unhappy? Why you've always felt that way, from the time you were old enough to remember anything?"
It hadn't even occurred to him that the boy might be after something other than money. If he said a single word about Jesus, he was definitely leaving here in a body bag. "Whatever you're leading up to, just say it."
The boy sat up straight in the armchair. The cat, annoyed, jumped from his lap and skittered into the kitchen. The boy's hands steepled in front of him, and he said, "You are the reincarnation of Erik Lehnsherr, also known as Magneto. You were a mutant in your past life—a powerful, dangerous mutant, which is why you were murdered by the CIA on July 17, 1970."
"No, I was born on July 17th."
"Yes," answered the boy, as if it had been a question. "When you died, your consciousness was transferred into the mind of a baby born in that same instant." The boy's voice was hoarse now, his eyes shining. "It was all I could think of. It was the only thing I could do. I'm so sorry, Erik. I fought so hard, but it wasn't enough."
"And who are you supposed to be the reincarnation of?"
It was the obvious question, considering the boy had to be around twenty years younger than himself. He'd clearly expected it, because he cleared his throat and said, "I am the reincarnation of Charles Xavier. I was a mutant, as well. A telepath. We disagreed, so often, and we fought, but we were always good friends. Even when we were no longer lovers, we always cared for each other very deeply. And in the end—we were on the same side. Always."
Lovers? Never mind. "The same side of what?"
The boy's voice was very quiet when he answered. "Of the war. You always said it was coming. I never listened. Not until they'd already won it."
"What war?" Part of him was losing patience with this nonsense, while the rest of him was losing patience with himself, that none of this made sense yet, that none of it was pinging anything other than the softest murmur, something he could strain to listen to, but still couldn't pick out a syllable of, no matter how much he tried to remember.
"The one against us. Why do you think mutants no longer exist? We were disposed of on a grand scale, just as you always feared we would be." The boy leaned forward, placed his elbow on his knees, met his eyes. "They did a good job, didn't they? They covered it up so well that no one believes mutants ever existed in the first place."
"Surely you remember the 'biological attacks'? No one who was alive in the 70s or 80s could have missed them. You'd have been how old when they stopped? Sixteen?"
"I remember," he said. He'd been born on same day as the first attack, when millions of people around the globe had dropped dead for no reason. Then, three years later, it had happened again. Every two or three years after that, it had happened, a terror that had weighed heavy on his entire childhood, until the very last attack had happened the spring of his sophomore year of high school. "Are you going to tell me the CIA was responsible for that, too?"
The boy looked at him steadily, his eyes rimmed red now. "Yes. And they were mutants. The people who died in the attacks. Every one of them. Every time. Mutants. Our people. Our children. Us. Everything you always feared, that you warned me about, over and over again—don't you remember?"
Most of those who'd died in the first attack had been adolescents or adults. Every time thereafter, the victims had all been children, never older than three. It had never occurred to him before that the ones killed later hadn't yet been born the previous time.
The murmur was louder now, buzzing in his mind, beneath his skin. A call to action, a demand to rise.
And still, he remembered none of it.
"Get out," he said.
Whatever the boy saw on his face, he had the sense not to argue any further.
Charles' school has burned to the ground by the time Erik gets there. Some of his students burned with it. Others, he finds among the ashes, their throats slit, or bullets in their skulls. If any lived, they've fled, or been taken.
He knows already that Charles isn't here. In all the twisted, blackened metal, there's nothing that could be Charles' wheelchair. Nor in any of the charred bodies is there anything like the rods he has fused to his spine, from the numerous surgeries he had in Erik's absence.
Within moments, he knows there's nothing here for him, that every minute he spends in this place is another moment for the trail to grow cold. He knows this, and yet he can't go, not until he's sure there's no one left alive here. It has nothing to do with what Charles would want—for once, what Charles would want aligns precisely with what is right.
He must search the grounds thoroughly before he leaves. He must be certain he's leaving no one behind, that no mutant child will smother slowly beneath a wall, or slip in and out of consciousness before succumbing to some blow that doesn't have to be fatal.
It's a beautiful summer day, an insult against what happened here—and a sweltering one. Before long, he's set aside his cape, his helmet and armor, lest he pass out before the search is done.
He speaks softly to every corpse he examines, but none answer him, aloud or otherwise.
He's alone here, for hours upon hours, and just when he's at his lowest, ready to give up, he finds the girl. She has black hair, dark skin, tiny hummingbird wings on her wrists. He knows at once that they should be forever in motion—but it's her heartbeat, instead, that flutters unsteady against Erik's fingertips, questioning in such a way that for a moment he's certain he's imagining it, or mistaking his own pulse for hers.
"Stay with me," he says. "I'm going to get you out."
The lower half of her is trapped beneath a huge chunk of stone. He could never move it alone, but that's what levers are for. Metal objects rose from the ashes all around them, melded together to form a pole long enough, strong enough to serve his purpose.
He's just positioned it when there comes another, a third presence in this place. Familiar and so, so welcome, it fills his mind as he's rarely allowed it to before. Once, the mere touch in the middle of a mission would have had him scrambling for his helmet; now, he nearly falls to his knees in relief.
"Charles," he said, out loud and in his mind. "Where are you?"
So he's overcome his captors after all. Erik regrets not having had more faith in him. He'll be here soon. With his help, they'll easily be able to find more of his students alive, if any remain. Surely Charles will finally agree to come with him, even if for no other reason than that there's nothing left for him in this place.
The presence fills Erik's mind completely, until there's room for nothing else. Then, it keeps going, expanding beyond what there's any room for. What was comfort a moment before now becomes pain, a sun erupting into red and darkness before collapsing in upon itself.
Erik thinks, Charles, no.
Then he thinks nothing at all.
That night, he woke up screaming. He made it into his chair, but not quite to the bathroom before he vomited in his own lap. It took him an hour to clean up, a process not helped by his shaking hands and blurring vision, nor by retching four more times.
He'd never dreamed before—or never remembered it before. Perhaps he'd woken from this same dream on six other occasions. Perhaps he'd even remembered for an hour or two, each of those times when he was a child, then forgotten about it. Perhaps he'd forget again by the dawn.
Once he had showered, dressed, and started a load of laundry, he made a pot of coffee and waited to see if he would forget. After a while, instead of forgetting, he became convinced that one of his neighbors must have heard him screaming, that someone would be coming for him. Not his parents, not his parents' priest, not a doctor—it was the police who came when there was screaming in the middle of the night. He'd never been particularly worried about them one way or the other, but now, the idea that they might break down his door—that seemed frightening in some primal way he'd never before touched.
Three hours later, the sun was up, and that strange fear had receded, leaving all the others behind. He began to hope the boy would come early today, although it was Friday and the boy had grumbled about the wait when he'd gotten home from work the day before.
He didn't bother to call off work, far too weary to have a seven-minute argument with his boss about whether he was or was not close enough to dying to justify a three-day weekend. The boy arrived around ten.
"I'm sorry," he said, once sat at the kitchen table. He sipped his coffee—black, exactly as instinct had said he would like it, which seemed to be correct since he hadn't so much as glanced at the cream or sugar on the counter. "I was moving too fast. Asking you for too much. I'll try to go slower, going forward."
The boy raised an eyebrow. "No?"
"Tell me everything you know. About me. Who I was."
The boy set his coffee cup down, sat up straighter. It seemed to be his trademark. "You believe me?"
"That should be obvious."
"Did something happen? Did you remember something? What did you remember?"
It seemed wrong, somehow, that he should have to tell the boy about his dream—that he didn't simply know. But he hadn't forgotten the dream, didn't want to, and telling it to someone else seemed to solidify it in his mind, a guarantee he would always remembered.
When he had finished, the boy bowed his head. "Shirley," he said. "Her name was Shirley. I'm so very sorry."
"Tell me everything," he said again. "Who am I?"
The boy began to speak. Slowly at first, then more steadily and for hours, stopping only when uninterrupted, to clarify or expound on a point.
He learned, though through the dream he'd guessed as much, that he'd had the ability to control magnetic fields—to command metal, and so much more. As the boy spoke, he stacked a few coins on top of each other, willing them to do anything. All they did was topple when he pushed the tower over with his finger, and did not move again from where they had fallen.
He learned that he'd been gay, that the boy hadn't been mistaken or confused or trying to mistake or confuse when he'd said they were once lovers. As the boy spoke, he stared at him, searching for any hint that he could want to fuck a man. But he'd never seen such a thing in himself—if he ever had, he'd have fucked a hundred men, just to horrify his parents—and he didn't see it now. He felt nothing at all when he thought about the boy's mouth or ass or cock, the way their bodies might move together.
Then, he learned that he had been Jewish, that he'd survived a concentration camp, that it was the reason for everything he'd feared for mutants, his new people. Of all the gaps in his memory, this seemed the most obscene, and yet also the most believable. He'd come very close to converting, years ago. His parents were lapsed Catholics, and nothing about their religion had ever seemed anything other than uncomfortable to him. But Judaism—it had called to him, seemed right and true and real. In the end, he'd backed out of the conversion process only because it seemed offensive, somehow, that he should have to work for it. He'd known it wasn't supposed to be easy. He agreed with all the reasons why. But in the end, he hadn't been able to stomach it, perhaps because some part of him had known he was Jewish already.
The boy stopped talking, eventually, about five minutes after he'd stopped listening. He sat there, waiting, a look of compassion on his face, new and familiar and not half as grating as it ought to have been.
It wasn't until he opened his mouth, to say what he didn't know, that he realized he was weeping, and must have been for quite some time.
"Do you remember anything yet?" the boy asked.
"No," he said, although he believed it now, every word.
"I think," the boy said, "I think...I might be able to help you remember, if you'll come with me somewhere?"
"Home. We'll go home. It's not that far."
Home. Immediately, he thought of that blackened rubble, where Charles' house—school?—had once stood. If he returned to the place where he'd once died, surely that would jog his memory.
The boy was looking at him with such intent that he knew, suddenly, that this had been the goal all along.
For a moment, he was tempted to say no, to drive the boy out of here yet again.
The moment passed, and he said, "Let's go."
It wasn't far, the boy had said, yet when he packed a suitcase—medical supplies, but also a few changes of clothes—the boy didn't protest. He didn't say a word, either, about the cat in her carrier, or the large bag of her food. He simply loaded them into the back seat of his car—an ancient station wagon with rust spreading its way up from its fenders—and said, "Is that everything?"
He looked back at his house. He'd bought it before his accident, renovated it afterward with money from the settlement, held onto it with all his spite through the lean years that followed. Now, though the boy had said nothing about this being a longer trip, he had the sense that if all went well, he wouldn't be back. He'd already known there was little enough here that mattered.
"That's all," he said. He transferred to the passenger seat, stashed his chair in the space behind, and then they were off.
They drove for an hour, two, neither of them speaking much. There wasn't much left to say.
After three hours, they were in the mountains. Eventually, the boy took an exit. A few right turns later, he pulled into an abandoned gas station, and parked the car behind the building, where they would never be seen from the road.
"Why are we here?" he asked, sharply, having the sudden conviction that Charles' house wasn't anywhere in the vicinity of Tennessee.
"I need a moment," the boy said. He reached down for something underneath his seat, then slipped out of the car. He took a phone out of his pocket, flipped it open, lifted it to his ear. After a moment, he said, "It's me. We're here. Can you check?"
A long few minutes' silence, a wordless hum in his head, as if there were something here to remember, too, and then, "All right. Thank God. We'll be there very soon."
The phone went back in his pocket, the boy went back into his seat, the object in his hand went back under it, and he was utterly unsurprised, now that he knew to focus on it, to see that it was a gun.
"Who are you?" he asked. "You can't be Charles Xavier."
"Why do you say that?"
He didn't know, but the answer that came out of his mouth was, "Charles Xavier isn't cynical enough to consider shooting a man."
The boy breathed out heavily. "I'm sorry about that. Please understand, I had to be certain—and I couldn't be before. I can't read your mind anymore."
"You had to be certain of what?" Somehow, though he knew he should be angry, even frightened, it seemed quaint that the boy had brought a gun.
"Not cynical?" The car pulled out onto the road again, the boy's hands at ten and two. "Believe me, I've reasons to be cynical. Have you been listening to me at all?" The car began to speed up, until they were going at least twenty miles above the speed limit. "Find all the mutants."
"Good. Now, eliminate them all, except yourself." The boy was looking straight ahead, knuckles white on the steering wheel. "They kept me drugged. I was in a sort of twilight sleep, most of the time. I figured it out later—they brought me out of it every two or three years. Whenever there were enough toddlers to be threatening, I suppose."
Aren't you the least bit concerned that they've rebuilt it?
Of course I'm concerned, Erik. I swear to you, my refusal to make everything into a catastrophe does not indicate a lack of concern. The facts here are exactly what I told them from the word go—they're not going to be about to use it without me. Or another telepath on my level, of course—but good luck finding one. Everything is going to be fine. You'll see.
"Cerebro," he said, the word far less familiar in his mind than it seemed in his mouth. "They used Cerebro to do it."
"And me. Yes. The first time, I was—well, I was lucid enough to save you. Move you. Whatever you prefer to call it. I wasn't sure until now of how well it had worked, if you were really you. I thought so, but I couldn't be entirely certain."
"—And how are you entirely certain now."
The boy didn't seem to have heard him. "The last time was the only other time I was even remotely lucid. I'd begun to acclimate to the cocktail they were using, or they mixed it wrong or gave me too small a dose—at any rate, I had hours to decide what I would do the next time. Or maybe it was days, or weeks. At any rate, long before they gave me the order again, I knew I needed to act before they could tell me to exclude myself."
"I didn't wait. I ended it. And here we are."
They turned onto a little dirt road, drove down it for a few minutes, then turned into a long drive with a rusted gate blocking their way. The boy got out, opened the gate, drove through, got out again to close it.
"If we're not going to Westchester, then where are we going?" he asked.
"You'll see. Just a few minutes longer and we'll be there."
The dirt road they were on was rough, pitted, giving the distinct impression it hadn't received any upkeep in years upon years. The boy drove very slowly, as if he had some inkling of exactly what jolting down this road could do to his back.
A few minutes later, the road smoothed out slightly, and they pulled into a clearing, and in the clearing was a small house. It was gray outside, the beginning of dusk, so it was hard to see just how shabby it was on the outside.
On the porch, there stood a girl who couldn't have been any older than fourteen, fifteen. Her face was in shadow. She waved at them.
Hi, she said. I'm Jean. I'm so glad you came.
She'd spoken without moving her mouth, and he'd heard her as clearly as if she'd been right beside him.
He knew, suddenly, that he'd asked none of the right questions. He'd asked the boy about himself, who he'd once been—it hadn't occurred to him to ask how the boy had managed to find him in the first place, how he'd learned so much about who they'd been without even as much help as he'd given. He hadn't even pressed Charles about where they were going, for even once he'd known it wasn't Westchester, he hadn't imagined it could matter.
Nor had he asked what now seemed to be the most important question of all: If the purges had stopped eighteen years ago, then what did that mean for the mutants born afterward? The ones who were now seventeen, fifteen, eight, four, infants in their mothers' arms?
"Jean found me," Charles said. "I don't know if I ever would have remembered everything without her help. She'll be able to help you get the rest back, as well."
"—That won't be necessary." His life was coming back to him now, corridors of years opening up every time another child came running out from behind the house, having heard the car's engine, or the tires upon gravel, or been told some third way. There was a teenage boy wearing dark glasses, a black girl a few years younger with shockingly white hair. There were others, a girl with several katanas strapped to her back, a boy with twice the usual number of arms, a boy with wings who jumped from the house's roof and flew around the clearing several times before landing in the dirt. Last of all, or last for now, there was a girl with a Star of David around her neck, who came through the wall to stand in the driveway.
"I wanted to tell you, but I had to be certain it was safe," Charles said, ignoring, for the moment, all the children calling his name outside the car, asking if he'd brought them anything. "I had to know that I'd brought the right person with me. That the transference was correct and not...contaminated with anything else. We couldn't know for sure when you were so far away. We managed to extend Jean's range far enough to find you, but after that...we couldn't be completely sure until we had you closer."
"You had no business extending her range at all," he said. The last pieces were slotting into place: the useless, angry life he'd led since he was reborn, and the angry, futile life he'd lived before he died, fusing together to form the angry, broken whole. "And you had no business bringing me here. Anyone could have followed you."
"Really? Who? You don't even have a record anymore. I highly doubt the CIA had a tail on you. And anyway, I had Jean check for that as well. We're completely in the clear."
"You risked too much." So much anger, enough to choke him, and there was no longer the outlet there had once been.
"I risked what I had to. Erik, we need you. We've been waiting for you."
Now he looked closer, and saw the ramp leading up to the porch. Even in this fading light, he could see it was recent work, that it had been done for him.
"Please," Charles said. "Stay with us. Fight with us."
He held out his hand. For a moment, Erik simply stared at it, remembering another offer on another dark day, when he had said Never again, not knowing how soon the thing he most feared would come to pass. For a moment, they could have been there again, except that this time, Charles was asking, Erik the one who could refuse.
There had never been any chance he would.
He shook himself, clasped Charles' hand briefly, then reached behind his seat for his chair.
There was no time to waste, and so much work to do.