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The Man Who Lived

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There’s a crack outside my open window that sounds like someone disapparating and I startle and I drop my coffee.

            The cup shatters.

            I jump back, bare feet and the bottoms of my new jeans splattered with steaming hot coffee, not to mention shards of ceramic and this is how the day is going to start.

            I stand still a moment. My heart stops pounding so hard, enough that I can stalk over to the window and try to figure out if there’s a human I can direct my anger at for this utter nonsense.

            It doesn’t take long to find the imbeciles responsible for this travesty. Across the street are warring factions. A man a few years younger than me, his bicycle lying on the road with a bent wheel, and he’s screaming at three Satmars who are screaming back with equal volume.

            My hands curl around the lower window sill, and I glare at them from the window of my third story walk up, and strangely enough this has no effect on them whatsoever. So I slam the window shut.

            It’s my own fault for opening it. I should have known better. I just wanted to get some fresh air in the apartment. The weather is smothering hot, already this early in the summer, and it’s making irritable people even more so. I recognize that. I can accept that.

            What I simply can’t accept is the loss of my coffee.

            It was the last in the bag. A teaspoon, maybe, that I put in a filter over the cup because I was that determined to get my money’s worth. Now it is all over my floor.

            And my trousers, for fuck’s sake—

            Hands on the backs of my hips, I take in the ruined state of the things. That will certainly teach me to buy green jeans in the future. Shan’t repeat that error.

            I close my eyes against the sound of arguing drifting across the street, through the closed windows. To do something about that entire situation—tempting. Incredibly tempting. But it always is, and I know the danger of that, don’t I.

            Picking up the bin, I crouch next to the pool of precious spilled liquid, and start the careful task of picking up the larger pieces of the broken cup off the linoleum. It was my reusable one and everything, with the silicone lid. Mermaid on the side, though far more attractive than the real thing. The thought of that always made me smile when I saw the cup, or smile to myself, I suppose.

            Broken now.

            The old vicious voice whispers, muggles.

            I straighten, looking at the fridge with furrowed brows. “None of that,” I tell the voice. It retreats immediately, knowing not to dare.

            Just for that, I’m not cleaning up the mess with my wand. No, cloth and broom it is. That’s what I get for letting the old thoughts in.

            Fucking splendid start to this day.

 

It takes fifteen minutes to get everything cleaned up, to be sure that I’m not going to accidentally step on some piece of broken coffee cup in the middle of the night. I’m particular about cleaning things. I had to be a bloody adult before I learned how to do it, but I grew up surrounded by everything neat and tidy and in its place, and that’s how it will be, no matter what.

            The jeans are a write off. I leave them to soak in the sink anyways, because hope springs eternal, and now I have to pick a whole new outfit.

            This would be so much easier to deal with if there was coffee.

            I’ll have to stop at Transcend, I think, shucking my Wolf Parade t-shirt and pulling on a sleeveless white t-shirt instead. Yes, I shall do. If I don’t get some caffeine in my body, God only knows what I’ll be like by the time I get to work. I’ll have lost my patience six times over no matter what having gone to Samatchin, and Jason will probably sack me no matter our history if I show up to work without the proper enervants.

            On with the same old grey jeans that I have to squirm into, even skinny as I am. I do love that about these trousers, even if I irritate myself by wearing them so frequently. I love how they cling, how it’s like wearing a second skin. I attach the black suspenders, pulling them up over my shoulders. They fall into place with a snap.

            Samatchin Street, I remember, and scowl.

            Enough. I’ve already lost enough time.

            I duck into the bathroom, smacking the light on, then bend over the sink, having a close look in the mirror. Yes—that is the gaze of an uncaffeinated man deeply displeased by his lot in life. Blowing out my breath, I blink my eyes a few times, then mess about with my hair.

            Getting long again. I have to admit, I do like it like this. It’s shaved to the scalp on the back and sides, but it’s left quite long on top, near to reaching my chin when I pull it over to the side, wavy some days and going outright curly when the humidity is high. I always do pull it over, to the right, so that it covers the scar, the most obvious one. Not obvious at all if it’s covered.

            All right, I’ve three hours to get coffee—I’m sure as Christ not picking it up on Samatchin, who knows what would actually be in it—and deal with the ridiculous bureaucracy of Oddwin’s, and still have time to get to work—

            My phone rings.

            I actually see my face draw down in a scowl before I turn to go find the phone. It is just after eight in the morning on a Friday. No one is calling me unless something terrible has happened.

            I can deal with it. The worst has already happened. I’m without coffee.

            The phone is on my bedside next to my wand. Call display says it’s Derrell. I sigh, bracing myself. Which one of my boys is it this time? I answer, saying dryly, “I’ve not had coffee yet, so whatever happens next is your own fault.”

            There’s a little pause, and I get that sick scary feeling in the pit of my stomach where I know it’s serious, serious like someone has died or been hurt, because I’ve known him long enough and I know how he is, I know him enough to know his silences.

            He says, “I’ll take that into consideration,” but without any humour in his voice.

            “Which one?” I say bluntly. “Which one of them?”

            “No, no it’s not like that—“

            “Oh yes, you only ever use that tone when everything is fine, so which of them, which one of the boys?”

            “It’s not one of yours, it’s—listen, I was wondering if you could do me a favour.”

            I stop. Just to be absolutely certain, I say, “So it has nothing to do with my boys.”

            “No, Draco.”

            I relax, picking up my wand and spinning it around my fingers. “Then what can I do for you?”

            “I need a favour.”

            “Yes, you already said that bit.” I walk into the hall. Left the light on in the bathroom.

            “It’s kind of a big one.”

            Stepping into the room, I turn to look in the mirror at the latest addition to my sleeves. A yellow narcissus blooms in that space where back isn’t quite shoulder and shoulder isn’t quite back. I’ve filled up my arms, so now I’ll have to move to other surfaces.

            “Well,” I say, eyes tracing the subtle shading and vibrant colours, “I’d say I probably owe you a couple of those.”

            “Come on. You’ve paid me back way more times than I ever—“

            I stop admiring myself and turn off the light. “I beg to differ. What is this favour?”

            I head across the living room towards the door. Fifteen minutes, maybe, at Transcend, then a half hour walk to the never ending freak show, and fingers crossed less than two hours dealing with that. Still preferable to showing up on a Saturday, though.

            “Do you think Jason would let you come into work late?”

            That draws me up short. “I beg your pardon.”

            A long sigh from his end, and this is becoming peculiar. “What kind of contract written in blood would I have to sign to get you to come see me?”

            “Now?” I say incredulously.

            “Yeah.”

            “You—want me come to you. I’m already leaving work early today to come up there, and you’re telling me you would like me to come all the way from Williamsburg to you, come back to work, then be back in the Bronx for four? Is that the sum of what you’re telling me?”

            “Draco, you know I wouldn’t ask if it wasn’t—“

            “I know you wouldn’t.”

            I put my hand over my eyes, thinking about it. It isn’t like the commute bothers me—I have to complain about it because it would be a hassle for a normal person. I, however, am distinctly abnormal, and have no problem being in Williamsburg one second and the South Bronx the next.

            The issue is whatever he has going on up there, it will leave me with no time for the high street. Which means I’ll have to go back tomorrow. On a Saturday. When it’s busiest.

            Won’t that just be a treat.

            “You know if they could pay you more—“

            “Oh, do shut up. I’ll be there as soon as I’m able.”

            “Good to know Jason will hate me even more.”

            With a roll of the eyes, I step into my boots. Black, leather, zippers up the sides. “I think you fixed that for yourself when you broke up with him. Talk to you soon.”

            “Thanks, Draco.”

            “Hmm,” I mutter, and hang up.

            I stuff the phone in my left front pocket, and get a twenty from my wallet. That goes in my front right pocket, same as always. I stick my wallet into my back pocket, and grab my keys off the wall. Last thing is my wand into the inside of my boot. Not like I’ll need it today, but I’ve simply got a feeling.

            Samatchin Street on a Saturday. I do have quite a lot of bad karma to work off, but a man needs limitations.

 

This is why I make my own coffee. This is why I should have bloody known better and picked up more yesterday on the way home. I’m usually so good about things like errands that my frustration is out of proportion. I know this. Of course I do. It’s just a simple thing that can be fixed.

            “I asked for quarter sweet.”

            People, however, cannot be fixed.

            I’m pressed up against the rest of the rabble, arms wrapped tightly around myself. After a ten minute wait, I know my drink is next. Right after this pint sized woman with pink hair whose exposed armpits would explain the smell.

            “You watched how much I put in,” the barista says. It’s the truth—she was bent over the counter like a hawk while he did it, watching his every move. He looks exhausted, even though it’s only 8:30, but with this crowd I can’t say I blame him.

            She pushes the cup back towards him. “It’s too sweet.”

            I feel the crowd depress around me, shifting with exasperation. I know this is the definition of a first world problem, but I’ll be a better person about things in approximately five minutes.

            The barista puts on a tight smile. “I’ll make it again.”

            “Quarter sweet,” she repeats.

            And I don’t know, there’s just something about her tone that reminds me of someone, or someones, and while that poor bastard makes her drink over again, I say, “Madam, I must commend you.”

            She turns around. My age, so she’s old enough to know better. “What?”

            “I must say, I have met some genuine sadists in my time—in fact, it’s a trait that runs in the family—so I feel quite secure in pointing you out as a particularly terrible specimen. It takes a truly petty individual to rake someone who makes minimum wage over the coals while inviting the ire and disdain of every single person around her.” I lift my hands and give three sardonic claps. “Congratulations on being the living definition of entitled and miserable.”

            She turns bright red, and I just stare at her, calm and steady as usual. I inherited my parents’ composure, one of their better traits.

            “Quarter sweet,” the barista says, putting another cup on the bar, and the pink haired woman grabs it and scampers out without another word said. I step up to the counter, crossing my arms on it. He looks at me with a combination of awe and exhaustion. “Anything you want is on me for the next month. Or year.”

            As he makes my drink, I shrug. “I can’t abide pettiness. In other people, at least. It’s perfectly acceptable when it comes from me.” I yawn, pushing my hair back.

            My order is simple enough, and he pushes it across the bar to me. “Latte, triple shot. For my hero.”

            He catches my eye, and I realize he’s quite nice looking. God, I am out of it. The corner of my mouth lifts slightly before I push it back down, taking my drink. “Suppose that makes you the damsel in distress, then.”

            He grins, and I walk away, slipping through the crowd, feeling a bit better about life. A flirt and plenty of caffeine in hand. This morning might be looking up. Lifting the cup to my mouth, I take a sip as I step through the door.

            I’m near tripped off my feet by one body, and then slammed into the glass wall by another. Automatically, my arm goes out, hand clenching around the cup, steaming hot milk and espresso jumping into the air.

            I look up, murderous, at the boys who have just plowed into me. They’re still running, trying to catch their bus. The one in back glances back at me. It’s that creepy little shit who lives next door. The one who looks too long without blinking. He turns and keeps running.

            I don’t say a thing, because I think that if I did, it would be me threatening to kill several eight year olds, and that kind of thing could be used against me in court.

            The crumpled cup falls out of my hand, and I hold out my burned, wet hand. I look at it, then say loudly, “Unbelievable!” I don’t know what else to do. I know what I’d like to do, but that’s not an option, so I settle for repeating myself. “Unbelievable.”

            I can feel eyes on me. Turning, I find that Mrs. E is watching me, leaning against a mailbox. One more thing I don’t need. That old ghoul in her hippie clothing, pretending like she knows everything.

            “That happened for a reason,” she says smugly.

            “Quite,” I grind out, turning to storm away.

 

I apparate onto the top of the school, scaring the life out of some pigeons, then make my way down through the service entrance.

            I’ve fixed the burn on my hand. It wasn’t terrible. Just red and sore. But of course today is going to be wretched. Just the lead up to tomorrow. At this point, I don’t even want to fathom what horrors the universe intends to throw at me on Saturday.

            I walk down the staircases, through the flood of teenagers flocking upwards. I ignore their gazes. They’ve seen me enough. Anyways, I’m used to being looked at. It’s just a thing people do, no matter how I wish they wouldn’t.

            “Dre!”

            Pausing, my hand on the railing, I look back over my shoulder. Zion’s looking at me, worry all across his brow. What’s he done? “Yes, young man?”

            “Whatcha doing here?”

            “What do you think? Looking in on you.” He looks a little queasy at that. I can see his maths textbook clutched in his hand. He’s fifteen, but he’s as tall as I am and heavier, with massive hands. Right now, he looks like the child that he is. I take pity on him, as much as I’m able. “Studied last night?”

            Frowning, he nods once.

            “Then what are you worried about?” I keep walking, lifting a hand. “I’ll see you after school.”

            I make it to the main floor, just waving instead of stopping when teachers call my name. I need to see Derrell and get back to Williamsburg. I’ll go into work early. I know for damned sure that we have coffee there.

            Reaching the principal’s office, I wave to Stacy. “In his office?”

            “He’s expecting you, Mr. Malloy,” she says, pointing at the closed door while dealing with a student.

            I tap on the door, and step inside. Derrell sits behind his desk, on the phone. He smiles weakly at me, lifting an index finger.

            Ah ha. There is a paper cup in front of him. I snatch it up, taking a seat in front of the desk. Slouching, I prop my ankle on my knee, looking around as I take a sip.

            About what you would expect of an overworked, underpaid educator in a school system where no one expects much. The walls are filled with inspirational posters and pictures of Derrell with students spanning back ten years, even though he’s only been principal for three. Behind him are dented file cabinets, and shelves upon shelves of books about teaching.

            Wait.

            I can taste it. The son of a bitch.

            Derrell says, “Okay—okay, bye now.” He hangs up, then sits back, sighing with relief. “Hey.”

            I point to the cup. “This is decaf. What’s the fucking point?”

            He reaches out, and I lean forward to give him the cup back, my lip curled with disgust. “You’ll be shocked to learn this, Draco, but my blood pressure has apparently reached unacceptable levels.”

            “Your doctor boyfriend tell you that?”

            He rolls his eyes. “Please stop calling him that.”

            “I would if he didn’t preface every single sentence with, ‘As a doctor, I—.’ I swear to God, he does that tomorrow night, he’s not allowed to come play with the grownups anymore.”

            “Grownups,” Derrell says. “Take a good look at yourself.”

            I smirk. “Don’t think I don’t know what you’ve got under those clothes.”

            He just snorts. It’s not like he and I have ever had sex—lord no. Not that he isn’t lovely, because he is. But it would be like fucking my brother. If my brother were a slim black man with hair that’s going increasingly grey. All I meant by the clothes comment is his tattoos. Mine are visible. He keeps his hidden away.

            Sitting back, Derrell says, “You look like you’re having a morning.”

            I’d like to complain about it—oh, would it ever be satisfying to have a good whinge about life right now—but one look at him and I can tell that my problems are not going to compare to whatever he has going on. “I’m fine. Want to tell me why I’m missing work today?”

            “You know I wouldn’t—“

            “Ask, yes dear, we did this song and dance. Out with it.”

            Threading his fingers together, Derrell rocks slightly in his seat before speaking. “You ever come across Evan Culley?”

            With a frown, I search my memory. I come up empty. “Can’t say as I have.”

            “To be honest, I couldn’t have pointed him out in the halls until last night, when I pulled out the yearbook to figure out what the kid even looked like.” Derrell picks up the yearbook and holds it out to me. “Sophomore, sixteen last month. Single mother working two jobs and they’re still under the poverty line. Passing, never won anything, doesn’t belong to any clubs, doesn’t play sports.”

            I look at the boy in the picture. He doesn’t smile, looking blankly out from the page. Longish brown hair, some acne, and entirely unremarkable. It’s like a disillusionment charm has been cast on him. My eyes just want to slide off him to find something more interesting. Tossing the yearbook back on the desk, I shrug. “Well, he’s a white male, so he’s still won life’s sweepstakes. What’s his issue?”

            Derrell pauses. “I got a call from his mother two days ago. She was worried about him, so she went through his stuff and came up some things. She didn’t know what else to do, so she called me. Showed me his journal. I took some copies, just to be on the safe side.” He holds out some papers. “I asked her if it was all right for me to show you these, and she gave the go ahead.”

            I take the papers into my hands, tilting my head. The boy has atrocious handwriting. It takes me a moment to work out the words.

            When I do, I feel cold.

            I get halfway down the first page, then lift my head, my pulse raising. “Tell me he’s in custody.”

            “He’s in class.”

            My jaw drops, and I exclaim, “What the fuck do you mean, he’s in class? Why is—“ I raise the pages. “This in class with my kids? With your kids?”

            “You know how I feel about calling in the cops on the kids—“

            “Are you joking? Is this a joke? Tell me you’re having me on.”

            “Draco, come on. I’ve been in this school for a decade. I know when a kid means it and when they don’t.”

            Shaking the papers, I say, distressed, and quite rightly so, “This bloody sounds to me like he means it.”

            “Keep reading.”

            I don’t understand. I don’t understand why he is being so naïve. Children can do some pretty terrible things when they think they know. But they don’t. They don’t know a damned thing.

            I read the rest, then shrug, shaking my head. “Best he do it, then. Spare the rest of us the grief.”

            Eyes narrowing, Derrell says, “Don’t be an asshole.”

            “I’m not being an asshole, I’m being worried about the kids.”

            “And you think I’m not?”

            “This boy should be arrested.”

            “He doesn’t have a weapon. His mother searched the house from top to bottom. I went over there, talked to them. He’s not—“ Derrell lets out a deep breath. “Hear me out. He’s not a bad kid.”

            I drop my head back, then retort, “You said that about that Colón boy.”

            “He wasn’t a bad kid, he just made bad choices—don’t look at me like that. I’m a grown man. I’m a principal, for Christ’s sake. Don’t look at me like that.”

            Tossing the papers back on the desk, I say, “You can’t save everyone. Not everyone is worth saving.”

            “Yeah? And if I said that to you about Demetrius?”

            I point at the pages. “Us has never written a fucking manifesto. And don’t think that Us is anything like this—what, Evan? Us actually has a chance. This is—why are you showing this to me? This is far above my paygrade. I’m a glorified tutor slash babysitter. Why the hell are you showing me this?”

            Whatever he says next, I know I will hate. Derrell seems to know it too, but he looks me in the eyes while he speaks. “I’ve talked to them both, and there’s no way I can get him in with someone long term until the start of summer. For now, it has to be short term. The mother, Joanna, she can’t take time off work or she’s going to lose her jobs and then they’ll be homeless and that won’t help the situation. We’ll have him here during the day, and I can get him in with Essie a couple nights a week, and at the center on weekends, but I was—hoping…you could take him with the boys until the end of the month.”

            I’m staring. When I realize that, I make myself blink. Scooting forward a few inches, I say, “Have you lost your mind?”

            “When summer starts, we’ll have him full time at the center on evenings—“

            “He can walk away from that whenever he pleases—“

            “He’s promised he won’t. He’ll be at the center, and Iris will be back, she can see him a couple times a week. This is going to work.” I fall back in the chair, shaking my head. Derrell continues, uncowed. “We have a chance here, Draco. A real chance. This is a kid that can be saved. We got him in time—maybe. If we all pull together and really make the effort, show this kid that there’s options, that he’s not alone, I think we can avert a disaster.”

            “What’s the liability on this?” I ask. “You have to report this. There must be a rule that says you have to report this.”

            “He never said any specific names—“

            “He’s specific enough—“

            “Come on. You know what they’ll do to this kid. People are on edge about this kind of thing.”

            “Why aren’t you?” I yelp.

            “You think I’m not? Give me some credit. If I thought—if I seriously thought that this boy was a threat, I’d turn him over. But after talking to him—Draco, I think the only person he’d ever hurt is himself. The kid cried like a baby when I told him that I’d read his journal. That sound dangerous to you?”

            “Yes.”

            Sighing, Derrell says, “Would you trust me? I know what I’m doing.”

            “Think the other parents would believe that?”

            “They have a problem, I’ll remind them of all the times I gave their kid a pass, on things a lot worse than just writing.”

            “This is premeditation.”

            “Draco. I’m asking you for a favour.”

            God damn it.

            Fingers curling, I say carefully, “I—don’t like the position that could put my boys in. Let alone any other person in this ticking time bomb’s radius—“

            “Draco.”

            I bite my lip, closing my eyes. I see the hand of every person who reached out to me. The ones I slapped away, and the ones I did not.

            Opening my eyes, I say flatly, “If you were any other person, I would tell you to stick your head up your own arse. I would even offer to help.”

            He smiles crookedly. “Good thing I was there when you needed me, though.”

            “Fuck,” I mutter, pushing my hands into my hair.

            “Hey, is that one new?”

            I look over my shoulder to the narcissus. “Hm? Oh, yes, it’s—“ I stop, glaring at him. “Don’t distract me.”

            Derrell raises his shoulders. “He’s just a kid, Draco.”

            I say, “You and I know what kids are capable of.”

            Do I ever.

 

When I walk up to the door of the shop, nearly at the bottom of my quadruple shot latte, there’s a delivery man in brown shorts at the front door, writing one of those ‘sorry we missed you’ notes. It’s not our usual UPS person, Sandra.

            Quickening my step, I call out, “Pardon me. That’s me.”

            He glances up. “You the owner?”

            “God no,” I say, pulling out my keys and unlocking the door. “We don’t open until 11. Our usual driver doesn’t come by until 1, usually—“

            “This was a priority delivery.”

            Furrowing my brow, I look down at the large box on his dolly. The boxes look like MadaCide. I didn’t order any. Oh Christ—he didn’t. He can’t have been that stupid.

            Of course he could.    

            I hold the door open so the man can wheel the box inside. He shoves it off the dolly, none too carefully, then pulls out his machine for me to sign. Without a word, he turns to leave, and I say after him, “Have a lovely weekend.”

            I lock the door after him. It’s ten. People will start rolling in soon, and we’ll open at 11.

            Stuffing my keys in my pocket, I crouch down to pick up the box. It’s not as heavy as MadaCide usually is, and I can’t hear the swishing of liquid. This is exceedingly peculiar. I go around the desk with its high counter, setting the box on my work area.

            Wiggling my fingers under the tape, I strip it off the top of the box. I make it into a little ball, tossing it into the empty bin in the waiting area, ten feet away. What exactly did the fool order?

            I open the box, pulling out the invoice, and look inside. They aren’t bottles of MadaCide. That’s what we use here. With a frown, I take a glance at the invoice.

            I…might die from the shock.

            All I’ve lived through, I know what it feels like when the blood drains from my face. I’m pale enough, so I know what it feels like when I go grey. And I’ve done that.

            There’s the sound of keys in the door, and I look up to see Jason on the other side. He looks happy as always, roly poly and bearded, tattoos peeking out from every surface save his face. He smiles, not quite looking at me, as he pushes the door open.

            “Good morning sunsh—“ He turns around, and stops. He has his own cup of coffee in hand, his satchel strap across his chest. Pulling his head back, he asks, “What?”

            I can’t speak a moment. I simply lift the invoice. “Your nephew just spent $1200 of your money on MadaCide wipes.”

            Jason stares at me, then repeats, “What?”

            He strides forward, snatching the paper out of my hand. I simply sink into my comfortable, ergonomic rolling chair as he walks around the counter. Setting my elbows on the desk, I put my head in my hands.

            This day. I don’t know what I’ve done to annoy the universe this badly—lately—but I feel that this might be unmerited.

            “What did—how did—how did he even—“

            “He bought it off Amazon. Priority shipping.” I rub my hands over my face. “He must have gotten his hands on the credit card somehow.”

            “Fuck me sideways.” I drop my hands, and I see Jason look at me. “Draco….”

            I reach over, taking the paper from him. “None of my business,” I say. “I just work here.”

            “Buddy, don’t be like that—“

            I push back to the filing cabinet, opening up the drawer and adding the invoice to the others for the month. It’s only the fourth, so there aren’t many. “None of my business,” I say icily, and push the box of wipes towards him, just away from me, away, so I can have my desk back.

            After a second, Jason sighs in frustration, and picks up the box, disappearing behind the wall to the studio.

            I just shake my head, feeling wrung out all of a sudden. Ten in the morning, and I feel like I’ve been pummelled.

            Okay, it’s only ten and this day has been absolute shit. I think this might call for a pastry. I can run across the street to the bodega, buy one of those disgusting cheap danishes, and be back in all of two minutes. Capital idea.

            I stand up, saying, “I’m running over to Domingo’s. Do you want anything?”

            “What?”

            Raising my voice, I repeat, “I’m going to Domingo’s. Do you want anything?”

            Jason reappears, looking like he’s walking on eggshells. Which he fucking should right now. “Yeah, you want to get a bunch of those cookies? The ones his mom makes?”

            “I know which ones.” He reaches for his wallet, and I say, “No, I have it—“

            “Come on, it’s gonna come out of petty cash—“

            Reaching for my own wallet, I say, “I’ll pay myself out—“

            It’s gone.

            My wallet isn’t there.

            It takes a second of me standing here before I realize Jason’s saying my name. I look up, and he says worriedly, “You okay, man?”

            “My wallet’s gone,” I say quietly.

            “You sure you didn’t just forget it?”

            I didn’t use it at the coffee shop down the street, I just pulled change out of my pocket—fuck. The school. Someone nicked it at the school. Closing my eyes briefly, I say quietly, “No, I definitely had it.”

            The picture.

            I fall back down into the chair. This day. This fucking day.

            I turn the computer on. “You sure you don’t want to go home?” Jason asks. “Make sure? I’m fine if you want to do that.”

            He’s being nice because of his nephew’s massive fuck-up, but I’ve just gone blank inside, like I do when things go tits up and I can’t take another second. Picking up the phone, pinning it between my ear and shoulder, I say, “I need to cancel my bank cards.”

            I’m waiting for the computer to load so I can look up the phone number for my bank and credit card company. Jason’s waiting off to the side, not sure of what to do.

            “Hey,” he says, “at least tomorrow’s—“

            I lift an index finger. I think I might Crucio him if he says another word. He gets the point and disappears behind the wall.

            The wallet, I can lose. The cards, whatever. It’s only money, after all. But the picture….

            That is not replaceable.

 

The phone rings and I put it up to my ear, saying automatically, “Marley Tattoo, Draco speaking, how may I help you?”

            “Hey, I’d—like to make an appointment?”

            I close my eyes briefly.

            It’s one in the afternoon. Two women wait in the reception area, which seats six. The front of the shop is closed off from the studio. Slate grey walls, my big desk, some of Leanna’s acrylic paintings of abstract birds hung up, the store front nothing but windows. I’ve pulled the blinds halfway down to be rid of the glare.

            Behind me is the steady sound of machines at work, and the occasional bit of chatter. Nothing from the fucking moron who just cost us $1200 making an extraneous purchase. That would have something to do with the blowout in the store room that even I could hear from the other side of the shop.

            “We don’t make appointments over the phone,” I say, patient as I’m able. “You have to come in to speak to someone.”

            “What do you mean?”

            I try to take pity on her, because she sounds young, and like she doesn’t know what the hell she’s doing. Of course, it’s not my job to fucking hand hold. “When you want to get a tattoo, you don’t make an appointment over the phone. You have to come in, speak to the tattooist in question, and at that point an appointment will be made.”

            “Oh.”

            “Bring in what you want tattooed. Printed out. Not on your phone. Do you understand?”

            “Oh—yeah. Um…when should I come in?”

            Scratching my brow, I say, “Do you know who you want to see?”

            “No.”

            I lay my head on my arms and shut my eyes. Most days, I feel pretty good about this job. Right now, I feel like a real dogsbody. “Okay, just come in, and have a look at the portfolios.”

            “It’s just something little that I want.”

            “Come in…and have a look at the portfolios.”

            “What time? Can I book a time to come in?”

            “That…would be an appointment. We don’t make appointments over the phone.”

            “You just want me to show up?”

            “Yes, that would be the idea.” I lean back in my chair, thinking of all the years I coasted through life. I wonder how long I’ll be working that off.

            “Okay.”

            “Any other questions?”

            “No—“

            “All right, bye then.”

            I hang up, because I don’t think I can take another second.

            There’s chuckling from behind me, and I look up. Leanna’s leaning against the doorway, arms crossed and laughing at me. Leaning back in my chair, I ask, “That was amusing for you?”

            “You have no idea.”

            “Just for that, if the silly bint ever does show up, I’m sending her right to you.”

            I growl when Leanna wraps her arms around my shoulders. “Oh, Draco. You’re just so sweet and adorable.”

            Shaking my head, I mutter, “I could kill you using the power of my mind.”

            She laughs again, letting me go, and leans back against my desk. She’s wearing a tight denim jumpsuit, her black curls tied up in a red polka dot scarf. Make-up flawless as always, eyebrows pencil thin over her dark eyes. When she smiles, her cheek dimples, but it’s because of an old piercing that’s long since been taken out.

            Tilting my head, I say, “Your Monroe has heeled nicely.” She and her sister had matching ones done.

            Leanna raises her shoulders, beaming with mock bashfulness. “I’m an international beauty queen.” That gives me my first laugh in hours. I don’t know, something about how things slide off her just makes me feel better sometimes. She pokes at my chair with her toes. “I hear you’re having a shitty day.”

            “One could say that.”

            “Is it just because you’re—“

            “No. My wallet was stolen.”

            “That sucks. You cancel your cards?”

            “Done. I’ll have to go get my ID and everything next week.”

            “Double suck.” She glances towards the back and lowers her voice. “Think we’ve seen the last of fuck stick?”

            Mood going black again, I say, “Not by a long shot.” She frowns, crossing her arms and tapping her fingernails against her pin-up alien tattoo. “The idiot could hit an artery and we’d still be stuck with him.”

            “Did you see that review on Yelp?”

            “You know I don’t look at those.” If I’m ever mentioned, it’s about how rude or cold I am, though I’d say I’m simply being a professional and the kind of people who leave reviews don’t seem to appreciate that.

            Leanna simply says, “Savage.” She shivers, then brushes it off, like it doesn’t matter. “We gonna do shots tomorrow?”

            “Yes—wait. Not like last year.”

            She slaps my arm. “Of course like last year.”

            “I refuse to drink tequila from between your tits. It’s not becoming.”

            “For who?”

            “Either of us,” I reply, and she just chuckles.

            “Draco.”

            We both look up, and I shut down. The idiot—Freddy, I suppose, if I’m forced to use his name—is standing in the doorway looking petulant, and just from the sight of him, I know he’s going to try and push at the boundaries, because he’s upset over being yelled at.

            Levelly, I say, “Yes?”

            He pulls out a money clip, and says, “Go grab me some smokes.”

            I arch a brow as Leanna says in disbelief, “What did you just say to him?”

            Freddy takes a twenty off that ridiculous wad of cash—I know it’s all ones in the middle—and slams it down on the desk between the two of us. “Not like he’s fucking doing anything,” he says to Leanna, and walks back into the studio without another glance at me.

            I look at the bill as Leanna seethes. “Okay,” she says, smacking a hand on the desk and pushing herself up, “I’m gonna—“

            I catch her by the wrist, tugging her back. “Will you watch the desk a moment?” I say mildly, getting to my feet.

            Staring at me, Leanna says in disbelief, “You’re not actually going to—“ I cast her a withering gaze, and she lifts her hands, taking my chair. “Of course not. Forget I said that.”

            I pick up the twenty, and walk into the studio.

            Jason and Rodrigo are both leaning over their clients. Leanna’s last client, a straight up porkchop tattoo, left ten minutes ago and her station is spotless. Freddy’s left twenty minutes ago and he’s just started on the cleanup. The stereo’s playing something rockabilly. I don’t know what it is, it’s Jason’s iPod.

            I walk across the studio to Freddy’s station, ripping the twenty in half as I go. I feel Jason’s eyes on me, hear the pause of his machine, but I don’t bother with him. He’s a lost cause, as far as his terrible nephew goes.

            Freddy sees me coming, I know he does, but he pretends not to. That’s fine. I don’t care if he acknowledges me or not. The man’s the walking definition of an utter gob-shite. Stopping in front of his chair, I hold up the torn bill between my index and middle finger. “I’m not your fucking slave.”

            I toss the pieces at him, then turn and walk away. He yells after me, but I ignore him, and Jason tells him to keep it down.

            Leanna looks up when I return. “You kill him? Tell me you killed him.”

            I wave for her to get out of my chair. “Yes, absolutely. He’s dead, and no longer any of our concern.” I drop into my chair with a sigh, feeling about a million years old.

            Then the door opens, and a guy comes in, wanting to talk to someone about a tattoo, and of course his only reference is on his damned phone.

 

I’m straightening the desk one more time before I go—two and a half hours early, same as every Wednesday and Friday during the school year (I don’t work Mondays)—when Jason comes up to me.

            Without any preamble, he says, “Draco, don’t quit.”

            Admittedly, the thought has crossed my mind a few times today. I do love it here. I love Jason and Rodrigo and Leanna and Isaac, I love the shop, I love the rhythms of the place, I love the nature of my work, as unimportant as it might seem to some. I’ve been here over seven years, and I had no intentions of leaving any time soon.

            At least until the idiot came along.

            “Get rid of him,” I say.

            He slumps. “Buddy—you know I can’t—“

            I shake my head, double checking to make sure I have my phone and keys at least. No wallet. No picture. My irreplaceable picture. “He’ll sink us. People will start leaving, because they know you’ll pick him over running a good shop. We had the best shop in this whole borough until he showed up. He’s a rock around our neck. You have to cut him loose.”

            “He’s family.”

            I’m not moved. “Trust me—nothing will sink you faster than family.”

            He’s not going to change his mind, and he doesn’t have anything else to say, so I leave.

 

I texted Richie earlier to let him know I’d be a bit late, and for everyone to get started without me. God only knows if they’ll listen or just faff about until I show up.

            At this point, the day is simply a thing to be endured. The coffee cup, those inconsiderate children, Mrs. E, Derrell, my wallet being stolen, the MadaCide wipes, Jason’s nephew treating me like a fucking house elf—I’m resigned to the fact that things will continue in this vein until tomorrow. No avoiding it. I have to put my head down and push through.

            I walk back through the halls of the high school, keeping my head up for anyone who dares look at me suspiciously. One of these little shits stole my picture. There’s no forgiving that. If it was just the cards, it would be no matter. But the photo—

            Steady.

            There aren’t all that many kids left. Most of them flee the building as soon as that last bell is rung. It’s nothing like Hogwarts. The school isn’t a home, it’s just a place they come to, and leave eager as anything. The hallways are narrow. The first time I saw lockers I was flabbergasted by the notion. How were people supposed to move?

            Awkwardly, as it turns out, with maximum possibility for confrontation.

            I don’t see any of my boys, which is either good—they left on time—or they’ve ended up in detention. I’m not of a mood to be understanding if they have. I’m of a mood to throttle someone, frankly.

            Returning to the principal’s office, I nod to Stacy. She tells me again that he’s waiting for me. I knock on the door, and go in.

            He looks up, and I look at him instead of the boy sitting in front of him, his head down. Derrell pauses, then says, “Evan, this is Draco Malloy. Draco, this is Evan Culley.”

            The boy nods ever so slightly, hiding behind his hair. I’m not having it. I stick my hand out, practically in his face, so he can’t avoid it. “Evan,” I say shortly.

            The boy looks at my hand, startled, then reaches up and takes it. His palm is clammy. Charming.

            I let go as soon as I’m able, sticking my hands in my pockets. “You have your things?” Another barely-there incline of the head. I nod toward the door. “Well, come on, then.”

            The boy picks up his bag and slinks out the door, without having met my eyes once.

            I’m following him when Derrell says, “Draco.” I pause, hand on the door. Derrell raises his brows. “You okay?”

            I almost don’t tell him, but I’m worn out. “One of the kids stole my wallet when I was here this morning.”

            He almost says, ‘Fuck,’ but catches himself. Sitting back, he asks, already knowing the answer, “You want to file a report?”

            I shrug. “What would be the point?” Arching a brow at him, I say, “Guess who’s buying all my drinks tomorrow.”

            Slumping, Derrell says, “Well—happy early—“

            “Don’t,” I mutter, and shut the door behind myself.

 

We get about forty feet past school property, without a word said, before I break the silence.

            “So. Why do you want to kill everyone and yourself?”

            Evan stumbles, ever so slightly. I’ve caught him off guard. I imagine everyone has been on eggshells around him the last few days. I don’t have the mental fortitude for that today.

            He mumbles, “I don’t.”

            “Don’t lie to me. I’ve not the patience for it. You wrote it, you meant it. So why do you want to kill everyone?”

            He doesn’t say anything to that. He’s a good six inches shorter than I am, but he seems even smaller, hunched in on himself, wearing too-large clothes. His blue hoodie wants to swallow his hands and his pants have been worn ragged at the bottom. My guess is that he chose them for himself, instead of it being a situation of his mother thinking he’d grow into them.

            Myself, I wear clothes that are tight and I walk with my head up, shoulders square. Mother wouldn’t have it if I dared walk through life with poor posture.

            “Here’s the deal. You have five seconds to respond when I ask you a question. If you say ‘I don’t know’ I’ll keep asking the same question until I’m certain that you don’t actually have an answer. I’m well acquainted with the teenage capacity for sullen silences and protestations, and I don’t put up with them. If I have to keep an eye on you, you operate under the same rules as the other boys, and if you don’t like it, you can fuck off.”

            He glances at me in surprise, and it’s the first actual look I get at his eyes. They’re green, as it turns out.

            “I’m not a teacher,” I remind him. “I work through the mentor program at the community center. I don’t have to use kid gloves with you, because no one is going to fire me for being tough on you. It’s actually one of the things they like about me, because I have an excellent track record for keeping children from killing one another. I don’t have to pretend like you’re a delicate flower that needs to be saved, and I’ve no intention of trying to save you. Or anyone else for that matter. You have to save yourself, just like the rest.” I stick my hands in my back pockets, stepping aside as two kids run past. I’ve already been burned—literally—once today, thanks. “The principal told me you’re a good kid. Is that the truth?”

            Evan shrugs once, and mumbles, “I dunno.”

            “You don’t know? You wrote that you were going to bring a gun to school and kill everyone. Does that sound like a good person to you?”

            Reddening, he says quietly, “Guess not.”

            “No, it certainly well doesn’t. You’re young enough that you can come back from something like this, if you want to, but I’m not here to coddle you through anything. I’m not a therapist, and I don’t have any answers for you. My only job is to keep an eye on you, three times a week, to make sure you don’t kill anyone or yourself until the end of June. After that, you are someone else’s problem. In the meantime, you’ll meet with me and the rest of the boys on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, from three thirty until six. You will bring your homework. If you need help with that, I’ll give you any assistance that I can. We also have discussions, and the only rule is that you be honest and don’t press anyone else to tell more than they want to. That’s my job. Monday and Wednesday, we meet at the center. Fridays they don’t have space for us, so we go to DeMarco’s pizza parlour. If you miss a single session, I’ll tell Principal Myers and your mother and they can deal with you. Are you unclear on any of that?”

            “No.”

            “Good. Another thing.” I hold up a hand, stopping him, and face him, even though he’s still avoiding my eyes. “If I think for one single solitary second that you’re going to hurt someone, I will call the police. I won’t stop to tell anyone first, I’ll just do it. And if you hurt one of my boys, I will fucking kill you myself. Clear?”

            He blinks a few times at the pavement, then nods abruptly.

            “Good.” I hold out my hand. “Give me your phone.”

            He doesn’t bother arguing. He pulls it out of his back pocket, passing it over. Battered old Razr. Been a while since I’ve seen one of these. I bring up his contacts—of which there’s a total of two, his mother and grandmother—then add my name to them.

            “This is my number. You can use it at any time of the day or night. If it’s not an emergency, text me. No matter where I am, I’ll respond within five minutes. If it’s an emergency, then call me. Ask the other boys if you want—I always get back.” I send a text to my phone from his so I have his number, then give him the phone back. I put my hands on my hips, looking him over. He’s not much, but that’s not what worries me. “I understand I’m being short with you right now, but that’s because I don’t know you, and what I do know scares me. Everyone around you says you wouldn’t really go through with it, but just looking at you, I think you probably would. Know how I know that?”

            He doesn’t say anything.

            I snap my fingers in front of his face, startling him. “Five second rule. How do I know you meant what you wrote?”

            “I—dunno.”

            I know he’s telling the truth. “Because when I was your age, I said the same thing, and I meant it, and I almost did it too. So you’re not going to be able to keep many secrets from me.” I continue walking without waiting for him. “Keep up. We’re already late.”

           

When I open the door, I take in the visible absence straight away, even as the boys try to cover it with cheerful greetings, gathered around pushed-together tables, all of them with fizzy drinks. Not falling for it, I say flatly, “Where’s Us?”

            Michael’s face falls, and he looks away quickly. He either knows or has some idea. The other boys shrug a little and avert their eyes. Victor’s the only one to say, “Don’t know, Dre. He just didn’t show after school.”

            Growling, I give Evan a light push towards the tables, to the empty seat where Us should be. “Everyone, this is Evan. He’ll be with us until the end of June.”

            “What did you do?” Richie asks immediately as Evan sits down.

            “Oi,” I bark.

            Richie rolls his eyes, sitting back, and starts to recite. “When people do not respect us we are sharply offended; yet in his private heart no man much respects himself.”

            “Better,” I say, sitting down. Every boy should have several quotations about respect at the ready. I put my elbows on the back of the chair, looking around. “Who saw Us at school today?”

            They avoid my gaze, but Yadiel speaks to Victor in Spanish. With a nod, Victor says to me, “Yadz saw him leave before final period.”

            “English,” I remind Yadiel.

            With a roll of the eyes, Yadiel says haltingly, “I see—leave—before—school finish.” He throws his hands up, frustrated, and says something at me in a burst of Spanish.

            I’ve heard the words enough over the years that even I can remember them. “It’s a lost cause. I’m too old and thick to learn Spanish. You’re young. Your brain can take it in.”

            Victor tells me, “He says you’re a hypocrite.” Yadiel smacks his cousin on the arm. “What? Then don’t tell me. You know I’m gonna tell him.”

             I sit back, shaking my head and sighing. Going into the last month of school, and he’s blowing off a study session. He hasn’t missed one in a month. God damn it.

            “Mr. Malloy!”

            I look up as Mr. DeMarco emerges from the kitchen with a fresh pizza. “I’m going to order.” I ask Evan, “Do you want anything?” He shakes his head. “Suit yourself.”

            I walk up to the counter. The restaurant is small. Not many people stop to eat here, especially when the front window is taken up by an unruly looking group of largely black and Puerto Rican kids. Customers usually call in orders and then take them out.

            “How’s the day going?” Mr. Demarco asks. He looks a lot like his son, Richie, but thirty years older and with ropey muscles that bulge at his shirt sleeves.

            “Another one in paradise,” I say, plucking at my shirt. It’s so warm in here, almost as warm as outside. I won’t complain, though. It’s a safe place to keep the boys for two and a half hours. “Yourself?”

            “About the same. What was that I heard my kid saying?”

            “Mark Twain, I believe.”

            Chuckling, Mr. DeMarco starts cutting the pie under the heated lights. “Mark Twain. Gotta be a first for my kid. Having the usual?”

            “I have to confess—my wallet was stolen when I went to the school.”

            “Christ, that’s unbelievable. Try to help those little ingrates, and—“

            “Yes, well—I don’t exactly have enough on me to pay you—“

            He looks at me from under his brows. “Mr. Malloy. Have I let you pay a single time since Richie started making Cs and Bs instead of Ds?”

            “No, but it’s the principle of the thing,” I say stubbornly.

            He just laughs at me, and glances at the table. “Who’s the new one?”

            “Evan. Needs some extra help going into exams.”

            “What’s he having?”

            “He wouldn’t say.”

            Mr. DeMarco passes me two cups for the pop machine. “Well, get him a drink. See if he changes his mind.”

            He has my usual slice of plain cheese pizza ready for me. It’s as wide at the top as the tip of my thumb to pinkie finger, cheese oozing onto the plate. My stomach growls, and I realize I’ve eaten very little today. I fill the cups up with Coke, then go back to the table.

            Richie and Victor are discussing the merits of their substitute maths teacher, and I have to break in as I pass Evan his drink. “When did it become acceptable here to talk about women as objects instead of human beings?”

            “We wasn’t saying she was an object or anything,” protests Richie.

            “When you reduce a woman to the sum of her body parts, you are indeed.”

            “Yeah? What would you know about it?”

            I cast him an affectionate look. “Queer as I am, still more than you, Richard DeMarco.” I nod to the books on the table. “Now, who has what?”

 

These are my boys for the year.

            There are the Cedeño cousins, Victor and Yadiel. Victor’s born and bred Bronx, with ADHD that goes untreated sometimes because his parents can’t always afford the medication. He’s been one of mine the last two years, ever since he reached high school. He’s the one I can always depend on to have something to say, or rat the others out, not because he means to, but because he can’t help himself talking.

            Yadiel is sixteen as well, but his reading and writing comprehension in English is minimal, so he’s a year behind Victor. The family arrived here from rural Puerto Rico seven months ago, and the two boys could be twins except around the eyes. Victor’s are wide, and Yadiel’s brow is near always furrowed. The only reason I have Yadiel is because of his language skills—Victor brought him along, and he talked me into it. Usually I only take on the ones who are on the verge of flunking out entirely. Yadiel’s come so far in the last seven months that I’m envious. I’ve tried on and off to learn Spanish for the last eight years—I work in the Bronx three nights a week, after all—but I’m an utter failure at it. I think with enough help, Yadiel might, and this is a very loaded might, graduate on time.

            There’s Zion Higgins, who I got after he did a short stretch at Horizon Juvenile Center for burglary. I’ve had boys who go in there and come out worse off than when they went in, and then I get the ones like Zion who never want to go back. Earlier in the year, I was leaving the school and he and his parents all mobbed me at once, and I had two adults with very thick Jamaican accents speaking at me faster than I could comprehend and this large child looking at me with pleading eyes. I’ll admit, I have a soft spot for the ones who have done time or who have relatives in prison. I would say that he was probably at a sixth grade reading level at the start of the year, but he’s worked incredibly hard, and now he’s at about an eighth. He worries himself unduly about his maths, though—I’d say he’s the best of the lot with it.

            Richie DeMarco is another of my juvenile offenders. He’s still on probation for destruction of property and driving drunk. Drove a car through the front of the very pizza parlour we’re sitting in, which his father was of course exceedingly thrilled about. Richie is a bright enough young man, but he’s lazy and has a smart mouth. Since I’ve kept after him like a rabid dog, he’s not going to have to repeat his sophomore year. But God, it’s been close.

            Sadly, Michael Marks and I are almost done. I got Michael two years ago, after he saw his older brother shot and killed outside their house. Apparently Michael didn’t say much before that, but afterwards he said nothing at all. He’d go to lessons, but he wouldn’t do the work, wouldn’t speak. So he became one of mine. He’s still not the most vocal person I’ve ever met, but when he does speak people know to listen. I’m exceedingly proud of Michael. He’s going to the community college in the fall. Getting his certificate in Animal Care Management. One of those people with a soft spot for animals. I’m not one of them, but if it makes him happy, bless him.

            Then there’s Us.

            Every year I have a problem child. Of course, they’re all problem children, but there’s always the one that goes above and beyond. This year it’s Us.

            I know when to let a kid go. Sometimes Derrell or the center gives me a boy who cannot be helped. I can recognize where the line is. And there’s a difference between someone who can’t be helped and who doesn’t want to be helped. I’ll sink my teeth in even if they don’t want help. I come from a long line of stubborn individuals, and I’m not afraid of a challenge. I won’t beat my head against a wall forever, though.

            Us, though. Every other year, every three years, I’ll get someone special. One of those kids who has something that the others don’t. Just watching one of those kids, you know that if they don’t make it, it’s a tragedy. An actual out and out tragedy.

            Demetrius Glenn might be a tragedy in the making. He got his nickname because his uncle was always having to yell to find him, and got sick of having to say, “Demetrius!” over and over again. He had his usual wide grin on while he told the story, and when I asked why his uncle was yelling for him, Us just shrugged and said proudly, “Because I’m walking trouble.” An understatement.

            He’s already been through Horizon twice, and I’m trying to impress upon him that the next time he’s caught with a gun, he’s not going back there. They’ll probably send him to Rikers. But he just laughs, and says, “Whatever. If that’s what’s gonna happen.” He acts like nothing matters, and it’s galling.

            If only he wasn’t so—everything. He’s brilliant, I mean actually brilliant. If he shows up to a test, he’ll ace the thing. It doesn’t matter if he’s studied. I mentioned Milton once, and the week after he had read Paradise Lost and wanted to talk about it, even though he was supposed to be reading Death of a Salesman for his English class and hadn’t so much as cracked the thing. He’s smart, and he’s funny, and charismatic. A natural leader. If I can convince Us to do something, the others fall in line. Everyone likes him.

            But he’s unpredictable and I can’t get him to take anything seriously. Lately I’ve heard that he’s been hanging out with that Nines fellow, who is the definition of bad news. Us has one year left of school, and if he doesn’t apply himself—I just don’t want another Roderick on my hands, is all. I lose boys, of course I do, but I think that if Us doesn’t make something of himself, it’ll be a crime.

            Those are my boys for the year.

            And this Evan boy, who wants to kill everyone and himself.

 

I keep my arms crossed and my eyes unblinking as I stare at Michael. He does a very good job of pretending to ignore me, but his shoulders get more and more hunched as the minutes pass.

            Finally, he lifts his head and says, “What?”

            “Is he with Nines?” Michael’s the closest to Us. They’ve lived on the same block since they were toddlers. I can usually depend on Michael to know where he is.

            Michael shrugs.

            I shrug right back at him. “What does this mean? This isn’t an acceptable response. I require words.”

            He grimaces, and says, “I don’t know.”

            The other boys all respond in their own ways. Richie just tosses down his pen to watch what will happen, and Victor says, “You didn’t say that. You know he doesn’t like that. You did not just say that.” Michael glares at him, then goes back to gazing at the notebook in front of him.

            I study his bowed head. I know he’s seventeen, that he’s already had his graduation ceremony (where I cheered for him until my throat was sore), but the idea that he’s considered an adult in the world I came from, that he’ll be considered one in the regular world in under two months—it frightens me. No denying it.

            “You don’t know,” I echo. He gives his head a little shake. “Look me in the eyes and say that.”

            The boys know better than to even try it with me. When they come to me, most of them give it a shot, but I have the Malfoy glare. These eyes don’t miss much.

            Michael is still a moment. Then he gives another little shrug.

            Teenagers and their ridiculous insistence on secrecy. There’s no way for me to shake it out of him, but I really do want to grab him by his large shoulders and give him a good rattle, and tell him no good could possibly come from this.

            So instead, I give a shrug of my own and say, “That’s too bad. I guess I’ll just have to go out looking for him, then.”

            Michael’s head shoots up, and he looks queasy. “You’re gonna go looking for Nines?” says Richie.

            “No, I’m going to go looking for Us,” I respond, picking up my half-full Coke. “If he happens to be with Nines, I suppose I’ll end up speaking to them both.”

            They all know that I have an uncanny ability to find who I’m searching for. It’s naught to do with magic, really. It’s sheer stubbornness and being clever.

            “Yo, Dre, don’t do that,” Victor pleads. “Nines is serious, he’s serious business—“

            I raise a brow. “I’m not serious?”

            “You’re serious, okay? But you don’t have no gun.”

            I snort, brushing back my hair. “I’m not afraid of guns, and Victor, you know how I feel about double negatives.” I look at Michael, who looks like he’s trying to plead with me telepathically. “Yes? You have something to say?” He turns his eyes away, frustrated and worried. Well, he’ll have to live with that, if he doesn’t want to tell me the truth. “Then I guess we all know how I’m spending my Friday evening. That’s just wonderful.” I rub my hands together. “Evan? How are you doing with Ms. Hinton?”

            He shrugs and mumbles, “Okay, I guess.”

            “Great. Zion—how’s your sister?”

            He rolls his eyes. “She’s driving me crazy, Dre. I swear she’s jumping on that bed just to bug me.”

            “Dude,” Richie says, “she’s like eight. Shouldn’t she be over that shit? Is she ret—“

            I reach out and smack the back of his head before the rest of the word can get out. He yelps, ducking away. “Richard, how do I feel about that word?”

            “You know, that’s child abuse.”

            I lean back and call, “Mr. DeMarco, I’m abusing your son. Do you mind?”

            His father responds, “Hit him harder.”

            “Anyways, Zion. Your sister.”

            He sighs. “I’ve been trying to tell my parents that maybe she’s got ADHD, like Victor’s been telling me and Us, but they don’t want to hear it. They think I’m just trying to get the attention off of me or something.”

            “Are you?”

            “No, she’s driving me insane. For real. I can never catch her in front of Mom and Dad, though, so they think I’m making it up.”

            “Maybe you are insane,” Richie suggests.

            “What about sitting her down and talking to her?” I ask. Zion rolls his eyes. “I’m serious. What if you sat her down and actually tried to talk to her?”

            “I don’t think I could get her to sit down.”

            “Evan, you have any siblings?” He glances up, and shakes his head. “Nor I. All right—people with siblings, what’s the best way to communicate with them?”

            We talk about obnoxious little brothers and sisters, and bullying older brothers and sisters. Probably best that Us isn’t here for that conversation—he tends to monopolize the conversation when he starts going on Elysha, his eleven year old sister. We talk about Mrs. Feuerstein and how not to panic during her essay tests. Richie starts to bad mouth the Red Sox, and I let him go on for two minutes before stopping him. Best to let the kids blow off steam when it comes to the Red Sox. We go over everyone’s maths, and I get everyone to tell me something about a teacher that bothered them this week. They always like that, being able to complain about their teachers to an adult who’ll listen. I write down a few movies that they mention. Even after all this time, I’m still trying to catch up on all the things I missed, being a freak.

            Six comes quickly, the same as it always does, the shop filling around us, and I say, “All right, let’s wrap things up, gentlemen. Something bad and something good. Starting clockwise. Victor.”

            He sits back, tugging on one of his curls. It’s a nervous tic he does sometimes, to keep the words from spilling out. “Something bad is…still a couple weeks til break. Something good is I remembered to take my pills all week.”

            “Good job,” I say. “Yadiel?”

            Yadiel’s bad is getting lost on the bus and ending up nearly in Yonkers (I have to get the boys to stop laughing) and his good is buying a new pair of shoes. Zion’s bad is his sister—naturally—and his good is knowing he did all right on his maths test. Michael says his bad is fucking Lyman stopping him again, which makes my blood boil, and his good is Springfield, his cat.

            It’s Evan’s turn, and he doesn’t look up, so I prompt, “Evan? Something bad that happened to you this week, and something good that happened to you.”

            He turns red, and just shakes his head.

            I give it another second, then say, “Maybe we’ll talk about it on the way home. Richie?”

            “My good’s my girlfriend, and my bad’s the fucking Sox.” I grin a little at that, and Richie says, “What about you?”

            I sit back, threading my finger through my hair. It’s definitely gotten curlier over the course of the day. “Ah—well, good is my newest tattoo seems to be healing nicely.”

            “How many of those do you even have now?” Victor says, looking my arms over. He’s asked me about my tattoos before, and I just keep telling him to wait until he’s older.

            Holding them out, I answer, “Twenty two. But they’re all where you can see. Guess I’ll have to start hiding them, unless I want them on my face or neck—which I do not. Bad, well….” I sit back, and sigh. “Gentlemen, I have a favour to ask of you.” They all sit up more, looking to me, except for Evan. He hunches a little, and I can tell he thinks it’s going to be about him. Me telling them to be nice to him or something. No, this is entirely selfish. “I had to be at the school this morning, and while I was there, someone stole my wallet.” They all protest, and tell me how much that sucks, and I continue, “Yes, well, I don’t really care about the money—that’s just a lost cause—but there was a picture in it. A picture of my parents. I want it back. Badly. If you could maybe listen and see if anyone says something about it? I know it seems silly, that anyone would talk about a picture, but—it’s very important to me.”

            The boys nod, and Victor says, “We got you, Dre.”

            “Good. All right, have a good weekend, gentlemen.”

            We all gather our things, and I make sure they put the tables back in place. Michael tries to sneak past me, but he’s six five and two hundred pounds. He can’t exactly sneak anywhere. I snatch him by the wrist, looking up at him.

            I murmur, “If I find him before he finds me, I’m going to be extremely unimpressed. Understood?”

            He frowns, then nods once. I nod back, letting him go. I wait for the other boys to filter out, waving goodbye to Richie and his father. Then it’s just Evan and I.

            “Shall we?” I say.

 

I spend the next two hours roaming the South Bronx, searching for Us and thinking about the new problem case that’s fallen in my lap.

            I need more details from Derrell. I’m sure as hell not going to get them from Evan right away. He’s the kind of kid it takes months to crack, if ever, and I only have him until the end of June. I wasn’t able to get him to look me in the eye when he said he didn’t have a way to get a gun. I need to know if one—or several—were actually involved. I want to know more. I have to know more if I’m going to keep people safe.

            The ones who have grown up with violence, who consider it a matter of course—I can deal with those ones. It’s just another challenge. I know how that mentality works.

            But this—this kind of rage inside and nothing on the outside—it frightens me. I’ve no problem admitting when I’m afraid, and someone like Evan genuinely frightens me. I see my past in all of them, but the ones who might just have been born bad…I can’t help but worry about myself. If I’m not just fighting the inevitable.

            I work my way through building after building in Mott Haven. All I do is discreetly Alohomora the front doors to get in, and then I start knocking on the doors of Us’ usual haunts. The ex-girlfriends, his cousins, the crews who know him. He doesn’t run with a specific one, but sometimes it’s by a hair’s breadth. Some people tell me they don’t know where he is, others tell me to fuck off. I get the usual “Who the fuck elected you the white saviour?” rant, and just move on.

            His grandmother knows I’m looking for him. I called the house first, and she wasn’t happy to hear he had missed a meeting. I’m supposed to call her back in fifteen minutes if I don’t find him.

            It’s still hot out, as it comes up on eight. I know, I should have better things to do with my time, but this is important, it’s important to me, and I’m not giving up.

            I come out onto Willis Ave, where there’s competing mini markets on each corner. The lines of the cross walk have almost worn off the road. Waiting for the light to change, I pull out my phone to check for new messages. I’ve texted that little bastard four times, and he still hasn’t gotten back to me.

            With a sigh, I call Derrell, dodging out onto the road as the light changes. After a ring, it goes to his voice box. I think again about what a really terrible idea it is, having him and the new boyfriend and Jason all out tomorrow night. They had better behave.

            “It’s me,” I say. “I need to know more about Evan. Is there a report or anything that you could send me? Or can we work out a time to talk about the particulars? I know I’ll see you tomorrow, but just putting the bug in your ear, so maybe we could work something out on Monday. All right, I—am currently wandering down Willis trying to find that fucking Glenn boy, so I’ll talk to you later about this. Cheers.” I hang up, shoving the phone back in my pocket.

            Us and Evan. All I bloody needed today.

           

I’m nearly to the Harlem River when my phone vibrates. Michael.

            ‘Pls dont go. U @ the wall w 9. He good. Dont go.’

            I have to shake my head. Teenagers keep secrets better than the Ministry of Magic, and that’s an undisputed fact. I type back, ‘Thank you for telling me. Have a good night.’

            I walk down alongside the bridge, until I’m out of sight, then I disapparate. Some people complain about apparating, but I’ve never understood why. They whine about the pressing feeling, the sensation of suffocation. Myself, I end up apparating usually twice a day. Of the magic I use, it’s probably the most frequent tool in my rarely used arsenal.

            I apparate onto the fire escape of an abandoned building just down the street from the wall, and there’s a sudden dropping feeling as it begins to give under my weight. Gasping, I grab onto the side of the building and hold still. Very still. Until the stairs decide not to give out under me.

            It would appear they don’t intend to. Lovely.

            I very carefully make my way down the two stories. I don’t hear anyone, but that doesn’t mean anyone’s around. Not like I’ve been imbued with better hearing than the rest of the populace. Once I’m on the ground, I make for the wall.

            It’s near the river. It looks like one of the buildings I used to see a lot more of in Brooklyn when I first came here in 2002. Before myself and every other white twenty something in a certain wealth bracket took it over. It’s a little stretch of quiet, where people know not to go.

            Where Demetrius Glenn should not fucking be.

            I come around the side of the building, and I see him and Nines sitting on crates over by the wall. The kids come down here when someone gets killed, put another mark on the wall—it’s not a place to just hang out on a Friday night. Not unless you’re planning on doing something.

            From over here, I can see the little glow of lights at the end of cigarettes. Us is just holding his, Nines is sucking them down.

            Fuck.

            Nines is closer to my age than he is to Us’. He got out of prison four months ago after doing two years for assault. I know from the boys that he’s usually armed.

            This day. This fucking day.

            On a good week, I’ll maybe end up using my wand outside of the house once, and only when I really have to. Looks like it’s one of those occasions.

            So I pull it out of my boot. Bald cypress, eleven inches, with a roc core. Pity I use it so rarely. It’s an instrument of singular ability. I’ve never used better. Not even the wand I had from Ollivander suited me more.

            With a grimace and a glance at Nines, I cast a shield charm over myself. With a second glance, I strengthen it over my face. I’ve heard about him. I know what he’s likely to do if I get in his way.

            And make no mistake, I am going to get in his way.

            Sticking the wand back in my boot, I make my way across the empty lot. I am silent when I want to be, and they’re laughing and listening to the radio. They don’t see me coming.

            So I surprise them fairly badly when I say, “It’s considered polite to return texts in a timely manner, Demetrius.”

            He pulls his feet off the crate, looking stricken. “What the fuck—“ he breathes.

            Nines has already stood up. He doesn’t exactly make for an imposing figure. I’m six feet, and he might be five seven. Might, mind you. The baggy clothes don’t hide the fact that he’s scrawny. His cheeks are hollow, the way mine are.

            His eyes, though—you can tell a lot about a person by their eyes.

            “What the fuck you think you’re doing?” he says in a gruff voice made all the more raw from years of  cigarettes.

            I ignore him, crossing my arms and focusing on Us. “Why precisely am I at the wall on a Friday night? What is so important that it has to fuck with my night as well?”

            I’ve put him in a terrible position, and I hope he remembers it. He’s torn between wanting to look cool in front of this moron and fear for my safety. I have only had Us the one year, after all. He thinks I can’t take care of myself.

            “Man, who the fuck do you think you are?” Nines barks at me.

            “He’s cool,” Us says quickly.

            I snap my fingers in front of his face, startling him. “No, I am not cool. I am here because you very rudely ignored our appointment and refused to return my messages in order to hang around with this felon.”

            “What did you just call me?” Nines says, stepping closer.

            Us looks like I’ve threatened to kill the president on live television or something. “Dre,” he says hoarsely.

            “You haven’t answered my question,” I say to him. “What was so important about this that you can’t be bothered to return my messages?”

            Nines growls, “Us, I’m about to put the hurt on this fool—“

            I let out a sigh. Fine. Fine! If they want to do it like this, we’ll do it like this. Maybe it’ll shock some sense into Us. It would be the perfect end to my day, anyway.

            Pivoting, I turn my gaze on Nines. “I’m trying to have a discussion with Demetrius. Either wait patiently while I do so, or piss off.” He just stares at me a second, so I shrug. “What about those options are befuddling you so? Either shut up—or leave.”

            His nostrils flare, and Us tries to step between us. I put a hand out, pushing him back behind me firmly. He’s heavier than I am, but he doesn’t know what to do.

            “Nines, he doesn’t get it,” Us pleads. “He’s just some guy from my school, don’t—“

            Not acknowledging him, Nines said to me, “I’ve heard about you. Think you’re some kind of saint, don’t you. Coming over here from Brooklyn to save the poor helpless black boys. Fuck that.” He steps closer. “What? You think you just say something and I’m gonna say, massah how high?”

            Unblinking, I reply, “Putting aside the unfortunate slavery connotations, I suppose I am. Why don’t you go play with someone your own age so I can talk to Demetrius? Or are the grown men just not as impressed with you as a seventeen year old boy would be?”

            We stare at each other a moment.

            He says, “You know what—“ as he reaches for his pocket.

            Us yells, “Don’t, Nines, don’t—“

            “Do,” I say, and it stops him.

            Brow furrowing, Nines says, “You think I won’t?”

            “I’m sure you will. I encourage it. Pull out that gun, and stick it in my face. Watch how entirely unimpressed I am with your ridiculous posturing.” This time I step closer to him. “Do you think you frighten me? Frighten me—sweetheart, you barely register—“

            Now the gun is in my face.

            Funny that I made it this far into the school year. Usually it happens in the first few months. I managed to get all the way past graduation this time. I don’t think I’ve done that since my first year volunteering.

            I don’t react, because why should I? I know my nonchalance will infuriate him further, and I want that. I want him to rage. I want him to react.

            He’s glaring at me. “Say goodbye to your faggot friend, Us.”

            “Nines,” Us begs, desperate. “Don’t—please don’t—“

            “Do,” I repeat. “I dare you—“

            He pulls the trigger.

            The sound is the worst of it. He and I won’t be able to hear without some ringing in our ears for the next few hours, but that will pass. There’s that incredible blast of noise, and I see the little flicker as the bullet tries to leave the gun and explodes in the barrel.

            The energy has to go somewhere, and it throws him back against the wall. I’d enjoy the look of stupefied shock on his face as he falls to the ground, dazed, but this day has been shit, and it’s hard to find enjoyment in anything at the moment. I’m just livid.

            Not that he tried to shoot me. I’m not scared of guns. A decent shield charm will protect anyone from a bullet. My fury comes from the fact that he was near one of my boys with a weapon.

            I walk over to him and without hesitation stomp on his face with all the force in my body. I smash his nose. It would be hard not to, really. He jolts, but he’s too out of it to react. Crouching, I say in a low voice, “I catch you near any of my kids again, I’ll break every bone in your body. Steer clear.”

            Standing back up, I turn my attention to Us, whose brown eyes have gone so wide that they seem mostly white. Jaw hanging, he gasps, “How did—what did—“

            I stand in front of him, hands in my pockets. “Next time you think I don’t mean it when I say I’ll find you, remember this and reconsider the decisions you make.” I grab him by the shoulder, pushing him. “Go home. Your grandmother’s worried sick.”

            He stumbles, casting a look at me, then starts to leave. The further away he goes, the more speed he picks up.

            I lean down to pick up the gun. It’s destroyed. The barrel ripped apart. No use having it around for this cretin. I pull out my wand and vanish it.

            I suppose my work here is finished.

 

Twenty minutes later, I’m walking home from the mini market. I have coffee beans under one arm, and a bottle of wine in the other hand.

            Probably the only decent thing I’ve done with my day.

             I turn the corner, and—stone the crows. Does she not have a home? Or a job? I don’t think I’ve ever walked home and not run into her. Christ, I should have just apparated onto the roof.

            No. Coffee. I now have coffee, and this day is coming to an end. So help me, it will end or I will make it end.

            Leaning against the wall, so there’s no way I can avoid her, Mrs. E smiles at me in that obnoxious way. Like she knows something I don’t. “You’ve had a difficult day,” she says.

            Rolling my eyes, I retort, “What was your first clue? The wine, the coffee, or the bags under my eyes? Tell me more, soothsayer.”

            As I fumble in my pocket for the keys, Mrs. E leans closer. She dresses like that crazy old professor—oh, it’s been so long. I dropped it as soon as I had my OWL. Trelawney, that’s right. Take away the eyeglasses, and Professor Trelawney could have shared a closet with Mrs. E.

            “I’m granting wishes,” she whispers.

            “Are you,” I say, sticking the key in the lock.

            I pull my head back as she grabs my arm. I don’t care for being grabbed. She hisses, “Make a wish.”

            Yanking my arm away, I say, “Good night, Mrs. E.” I make sure the door is secured behind me.

            Crazy old bat. Make a wish. If she was actually a witch, I’d report her. As it is, she’s just a nutter with too much time on her hands.

            I trudge up the stairs, all of a sudden feeling drained. Just like earlier. Like everything has just been taken out of me.

            Make a wish.

            Fine. I wish I didn’t have to stand in front of a gun to get my problem cases to take me seriously. I wish I had the resources and time and money to make a difference to more than six kids in a year.

            I wish Jason would fire Freddy. I wish Jason and Derrell would get back together. I wish I knew who I’ll be bringing home tomorrow night. I wish I knew I’d be waking up next to someone.

            I wish I didn’t have to go to Samatchin tomorrow. I wish I didn’t have to call my mother. I wish my father—

            I wish I wish I wish.

            Wishing is a useless endeavour. And I know better.

            Reaching the third floor, I go to my front door. I’m going to get out of these boots, have a cold shower, and then I’m going to drink copiously from the comfort of my bed. I think this day has merited it. I already know I’ll regret it, but this day.

            I unlock the door, and as I do, I hear the one next door open. A voice says, “Mr. Ma—“

            Closing the door behind myself, I lock it. I don’t want to know. I just don’t.

            It’s nice and cool inside. I keep a cooling charm on the place all the time, unless I open the windows. Occasionally I have to, just so the place doesn’t get stale. I shiver slightly, goosebumps raising over my bare arms.

            There’s a knock on the door. Muffled, a woman’s voice says, “Mr. Malloy?”

            Bugger. She’s seen me go in, so there’s no avoiding it. I toss the bag of coffee beans at the kitchen counter, and set the bottle of wine down on the floor, then I open the door.

            I know her last name is Moreno. She looks tired, the dark curls pulled up on her head falling free in places. And—why is the child with her? It’s what, 9:30? 10:00 maybe? He’s hiding behind her.

            She takes a breath and says, “Mr. Malloy, hi.”

            “Hello.”

            The boy tries to tug away, but I realize she’s got a grip on him. She swallows, and I realize she’s embarrassed. “I’m really sorry about this. I came home and found Dustin in his room with this.”

            She holds out my wallet.

            I stare at it a moment, then I snatch it out of her hand.

            As I go through it, she says, “He swears up and down that he found it in the hallway. That he was going to return it.”

            “No,” I reply, pulling out the picture of Ty and Roderick, “he stole it. He and a bunch of his friends ran into me when I was coming out of the coffee shop across the way, and he stole it from me then.”

            It’s not here. I lift my head. She’s bent down, looking desperately into the face of the sallow, skinny little thing who doesn’t blink much. “You stole it? You stole Mr. Malloy’s wallet?” The boy doesn’t argue, just stares at her with wide green eyes.         

            I hold up the wallet. “Where is it?” I ask him.

            I can see from his face that he knows exactly what I’m talking about. He’s gazing at me, a little afraid. “What?” she asks. “What’s missing? Jesus, Dustin—“

            “Go get it.” When he doesn’t move, I bark, “Now!” He startles, then scrambles away back to his flat.

            His mother looks after him, curls bouncing against her face. “What—what did he take?”

            Grim, I say, “A picture of my mother and father. The only one I have.”

            Face falling, Ms. Moreno says, “Oh—God. God, I don’t know why he’d do that. I don’t know why he’d do any of this—I’m so sorry, I just—“ When he appears back in their doorway, she motions for him in mortification and worry. “Dustin, come here.” He hesitates. “Dustin. I told you to come here.”

            He holds the picture in both of his small hands. I know why he wants to hang onto it, but if that little fucking freak doesn’t get over here in five seconds I’m going over there to take it from him. A gun went off in my face tonight; an eight year old doesn’t frighten me.

            But I am angrier at him than I was at Nines, and that’s an unpleasant shock.

            He makes his feet move, and thankfully he hides the picture away from his mother. I can see the spidery handwriting across the back. ‘Lucius, Narcissa, and Draco, June 5 1985.’

            He doesn’t hold it out to me, so I reach out and grab him by the wrist. He startles, gasping. Taking the picture from his hand, I check it quickly to make sure that it hasn’t been damaged.

            My heart rate slows. Thank God. All in one piece.

            The mother’s speaking to me as I slip the photo into my back pocket, and I speak over her. “Let me be entirely plain. I’m extremely well acquainted with New York’s justice system when it comes to children, and that’s how I know that at eight years old, he can be remanded to detention. And that is exactly what will happen if he ever steals from me again.”

            “Mr. Malloy—“

            “Beyond that, keep him the hell away from me. Bad enough that he follows me around the building like a spy, now he’s actually picking my pocket when I leave the place.”

            “He doesn’t know what he’s doing—“

            I fix her with a gaze. “Tell me you really believe that.” She falls silent, miserable. I bend down, until I’m at the boy’s height. “And you.” He looks at me, with those eyes that don’t blink. I don’t like that. “I catch you watching me again, I catch you near me again—you’ll wish you’d never laid eyes on me. I’ll show you what I really look like if you cross me.”

            He gazes at me.

            “Hey,” the mother says, “that’s enough.”

            Straightening, I say, “You’re bloody right it is.”

            I close the door on both of them and lock it.

            I grab the bottle of wine and make for the bathroom. My head is pounding.

 

The speakers start to get a little garbled. Setting the bottle against my chest, I reach out and pound on the speakers with my fist. That’s all it takes, and the sound clears, ‘Boy with a Coin’ halfway through.

            That sorted, I pick the bottle back up with my left hand and take a good swig. The bottle’s more than halfway finished and my head is swimming. It’s enough to take the edge off of the day, but it leaves me maudlin and I know it.

            I’m all huddled in my room under a blanket, in my pajamas. It’s freezing in here, because I like the cold. The sun’s gone down, so I’ve turned on the little lamp beside the bed, the one I found on the roadside. The shade is made of glass, but one of the panes was cracked. I repaired it. People are so quick to throw things away.

            This is my favourite place in the world. My room, and my bed. Everything is decorated in silver and green. Green will always be my favourite colour. That has never changed about me, even as near everything else has. I’ve even painted the ceiling green, and sometimes I make it glow as I go to sleep. It’s like taking a nap in the old Slytherin common room. Strange the things that will relax me.

            I’m wrapped in my blanket, knees pulled up close to my chest. The picture rests against them. I’ve been looking at it, waiting for the clock to finally reach midnight. Tradition, after all. I touch the border of the picture, looking at us.

            It’s us, but the us that I remember, that I believed in. Not the Malfoys that everyone else thinks of. I’m sure people back in England hear the name Malfoy and picture some emotionless genocidal cowards who never did anything but sneer and make bad choices. I can’t say I blame them.

            But this is the family that I remember.

            The three of us, smiling at me from the black and white photo. It’s a little ragged around the edges, but I’ve kept good care of it. Father holds me up between the two of them. I was small for my age, and he could still hold me up with one arm. He points out at the viewer, smiling at me, then turns to look outwards. My father. He was only a little older than me in this photo.

            People always said we were the spitting image of one another, and I suppose that used to be the case. But this is like looking at some strange, alternate universe version of myself. We’re both thin and pale, practically transparent, and we have the same grey eyes. My hair curls like Mother’s, though. It’s more than that, than a single detail. I am so different than him. That is not wishful thinking. It is just the truth.

            Mother is on my other side. She is still and calm as always. Her gaze moves from my father, occasionally to the viewer, but it always comes back to the little boy’s face. She runs a hand over his arm, and they smile at one another.

            They all look out and smile at me.

            That was the happiest day of my life. Even knowing all that I know now, it was still the happiest day of my life. I think it always will be.

            They can say whatever they will back in England, and they do. No one can ever take this from me: I was loved. Fuck the lot of them. I was loved.

            God, why did I set that alarm?

            I pick up my phone, shutting it off. Midnight. That means it’s officially June 5. It’s June 5, 2010. That means I’m thirty years old.

            “Happy birthday, Draco,” I say, looking at my five year old self. He just beams between his mother and father, not knowing what’s to come.

            Bugger. I have some more wine, slouching. No use romanticizing the past, or being upset about what people on another continent think. I don’t bother them, they don’t bother me. It’s a beautiful system.

            It’s just a picture. Doesn’t mean anything.

            Means something to me.

            God, I hate my birthday.

            Make a wish.

            I laugh to myself sickly. A wish. Fine. It’s my birthday, and my thirtieth at that. I’m due at least one wish, and I’m a little drunk, so why not?

            Lifting the bottle, I study the picture. The perfect day. It’s not what it looks like, but I know what it is. Even if no one else does. Even if no one else wants to.

            Grandly, I proclaim, “I wish—that mine enemy might see me as I truly am.” Snorting, I cover my mouth with the back of my hand. Oh, that really is ridiculous. Pompous, full of myself—at least it was a deeply Malfoy-esque statement. With a shrug, I continue, “Baring that, I’d take a man with green eyes and a nice cock, if the universe is handing out wishes.”

            I giggle a little, and put the picture on the bedside table. My wand is there. I pick it up, and aim it at the ceiling. Am I sober enough to do this?

            Probably not.

            “Luminos viridis,” I command.

            My ceiling begins to swirl and glow with green. A little more than I’d usually give it, but given my current alcohol levels, I’d say a job well done. I toss the wand back on the table, turning off the lamp, then scoot down further. I take the occasional pull off the bottle, watching the air above me whirl about in strands of colour.

            My eyelids are heavy. I should probably put a cork on this bottle. I don’t. I manage to get it on the table at least.

            Birthday. Well—even given my track record, it can’t be any worse than today.

            I go to sleep, and everything is cold and green and lovely.

 

I’m waking up.

            No. No, I don’t think that I am.

            Am I still drunk?

            No. It doesn’t feel like I am.

            “Are you okay?”

            Laying on my side, I mutter, “I would be if you’d let me sleep.”

            Wait. That’s strange. I open my eyes.

            Oh dear. Oh—this is not my bedroom. This is—nowhere. This is bright white glowing something and I’m lying on the floor and wherever the hell I am it is not a place I should be. How in the hell did I get here?

            I push myself up to sit, and I remember that someone was speaking. He says, “Wait—“ I turn to look at him, look up, because he’s standing over me, and he actually falls back a step in shock.

            He says, “Merlin’s pants,” and I gasp, “What the fuck.”

            Because we’re nowhere and I’m looking up at Harry Potter.