Tony fishes the case from under the bed as he quickly tries to come up for reasons why the kid should just leave them in peace. He’s willing to bet the kid’s about to hit them up for a loan to help him back on his feet or some such bullshit. Well, the kid can just forget it. He doesn’t care what Jessica says. After that little fiasco last year, Tony ain’t giving the kid squat. The problem is Jessica might disagree and he really doesn’t need that kind of fight right now.
As the kid carefully disentangles himself from Jessica, Tony realizes that he’s sporting an eye patch.
“Can I come in?” the kid says.
Before Tony can answer that, Jessica clutches the kid’s arm and escorts him to one of the hotel chairs. The kid looks around him and there seems to be a trace of distaste on his lips.
“Well, someone sure as hell looks like they don’t want to be here,” Tony remarks as he fishes a can out of the box.
The kid ignores him. “Sorry that it took me almost two weeks to get here. I was looking to see if you got out alive, but it turns out I was looking at the wrong list.”
“What happened to your eye?” Jessica reaches out to caress the kid’s face.
The kid shies away from her touch. “Injured it. On the way out of town. It’s nothing. I just have to keep it covered.”
“You look like a pirate,” Tony comments as he pops the can. “All you need is the frigging parrot and the puffy shirt and you’ll be all set for all the kids’ birthday parties.”
“That beer can’t be helping you,” the kid says.
“Didn’t ask you,” Tony responds with a surly air.
“Please, not right now,” Jessica says. Tony’s not sure if she’s talking to him or the kid.
“I ain’t lending you money. We got our own problems,” Tony declares.
“I’m…I’m not…” The kid gives his head a hard shake. “I just wanted to see if you were okay.”
Tony snorts. Even Jessica doesn’t look like she believes the kid.
The kid is clearly uncomfortable with the resounding vote of no confidence. “I’m actually okay. Financially, I mean. Ahn…a friend put a huge cash deposit in my savings account a few weeks ago, which I didn’t know about until three days ago. So, I’m good to go for awhile.”
“Well, fer once yer not crying poverty,” Tony mumbles into his beer.
The kid’s visible eye blinks at him. “Outside of when I lived in the basement, I don’t remember ever crying—”
“Oh, please,” Tony laughs. “Every time your mother and I turned around you were there with a hand out. Wouldn’t even reimburse us for the wedding.”
The kid winces.
“Hell, you told me you were dead broke when I presented you with the bill after you ran away from your responsibilities,” Tony says.
“That is true,” Jessica agrees.
Tony feels like the ground has shifted. Jessica taking his side? He thought it would never happen while he drew breath.
The kid looks confused. “I don’t remember this. When did you present me with a bill? I’m pretty sure I would’ve at least paid something if I—”
“You informed me that your ex, the one who likes to screw the dead, cleaned out the bank accounts,” Tony says.
The kid chokes a bit on that before a sickly grin takes over. “Why don’t I remember having this conversation? Because if I said that to you, I’m pretty sure I would’ve remembered.”
“Don’t make excuses,” Tony spits. “You were piss-drunk and going on and on how you didn’t have time to listen to me. Well, I had a legitimate—”
“That explains it,” the kid softly interrupts. He at least has the decency to look ashamed. “I said a lot of crazy stuff at the time since I was living in a bottle. A lot of things that happened right after…right after…well, they’re pretty much fuzzy or blank.”
Tony can feel his eyes roll. Once more the kid’s avoiding responsibility, just like he always does.
“I said a lot of bad things about Ahn…Ahn…sorry,” the kid swallows hard. “Anya didn’t make it out. A mutual fr— I mean someone we both know saw her get killed at the high school.”
“You two still talked? Despite everything?” Jessica asks.
The kid blinks dumbly at her and does that hard swallow again. “Unh, yeah.”
The idea of the kid and Anya even being in the same room after the fucked-up affair makes Tony giggle.
The kid shoots him a glare. “Thing is we both said a lot of brutal things to and about each other after…after…” The kid shakes his head. “But accusing Ahn…I mean…accusing her of having sex with the undead? I mean, dead? That’s a new one on me.” The kid nervously taps on the table. “Plus, she had her own checking account and she didn’t touch mine, so I don’t know where I got she cleaned out the bank accounts.”
“Oh, I just bet I can guess,” Tony snarls. “You didn’t want to pay.”
“You did leave us in a bind,” Jessica softly adds.
Tony blinks. Jessica is taking his side again.
“And I’m here to fix that,” the kid says as he starts fishing around his pants pockets. “I, unh, have some temporary checks from my bank. And since I don’t think you take Visa or MasterCard, I’ll just write one for what I owe you.”
The disappointed look on the kid’s face as he finally finds his checkbook and asks Jessica for the total is enough to make Tony roll his eyes for the second time in as many minutes. He wonders what the hell the kid expected between his series of screw-ups last year and the fact that the kid didn’t even bother to contact them until now.
The kid rips the check off and silently hands it to Jessica.
“But…this…this is too much!” Jessica declares.
“I threw some extra in. To help you get back on your feet,” the kid says.
“We don’t need your charity,” Tony growls.
“Thank you,” Jessica says as she clutches the check to her chest.
“Just make sure you show ID when you cash it. I included my cell phone number on the memo line in case you have any problems,” the kid says. “Oh, that reminds me. Make sure you cash it as fast as possible. I’m, unh, going to be leaving California in a few days.”
Tony’s eyebrows rise in surprise at the news.
“Where are you going?” Jessica asks.
“I got a job from one of my Sunnydale contacts. It’s a pretty good one and one I definitely think is out of my league, but it seems everyone in the company thinks I can really make a contribution,” the kid says.
Figures the kid would roll right out the shit and land in a field of flowers. Tony swears the kid steals all his good luck away and uses it for himself.
“That doesn’t exactly answer my question,” Jessica says as she looks at the check again. Tony wonders if Jessica is considering running off with her precious baby and leaving him to rot in this hotel room. Good riddance to bad rubbish if that’s the case.
“I know we’re going to Cleveland first, but I don’t know from there,” the kid says. “Since I’m getting in on the ground floor of this company—”
“Oooooo, key words. ‘Ground floor,’” Tony chuckles. “Figures. In two years they’ll toss you out on your ass the second they get someone more qualified or with an actual college degree. Or it’ll go bankrupt. Been there, done that.”
The kid’s body posture stiffens, but Tony swears he can see a flash of something resembling doubt cross the kid’s face.
“Somehow I don’t think either one will happen,” the kid finally says.
“You tryin’ to tell me, or are you tryin’ to tell you,” Tony snickers. Whatever the kid’s heading into, it’s pretty clear the kid knows he’s woefully under-qualified for the job.
“Anyway, I pretty much have my choice of assignments,” the kid tells Jessica. “I’m kind of torn between southeast Asia, Africa, or the Pacific Rim.”
“You’ll blend right in with the chinks, spear-chuckers, and the cannibals,” Tony waves his nearly empty beer at the kid. “You’re the whitest white boy on the planet. You won’t last a day.”
“Wow. You’ve managed to insult a good portion of the earth’s population as well as get a dig in at me. That’s got to be a record,” the kid says tightly.
“Watch your tone with me,” Tony snaps.
The kid shakes his head and looks away.
“But…but those places are dangerous!” Jessica wails as the kid’s itinerary finally sinks through to her alcohol-addled brain.
“Not if you know what you’re doing,” the kid assures her.
“Oh, and Mr. D-Average knows what he’s doing,” Tony says.
“Look, they’re all places I never even thought of going to because I never thought I’d get the chance to go. Well, now I have the chance to go and I want to go because I can go,” the words come spilling out of the kid and his face lights up so bright, bright, bright that Tony wants to fling his beer in the kid’s face. “It’s something so completely different than, well, anything I’ve ever had or seen and I just…I need to do this. I need to just break away awhile and see what I can do when I’m out there on my own in an unfamiliar part of the world. I’ll never get a chance like this again.”
“You sound like a woman.” Tony falls over laughing. “If you start talking about how this is your big chance to find yourself, I will puke.”
The kid opens his mouth, but Jessica interrupts with, “You do sound like Carol ever since she started dating Kevin.”
Jessica agreeing with him three times in one conversation? Tony just doesn’t know what to make of it.
The kid mouths “Kevin?” as if he’s trying place the name. He brightens. “You mean Krelvin? No kidding! Good for her.” His face darkens. “Did she get—”
“She moved to La Jolla a few months ago.” Jessica pats the kid’s knee. “I just don’t know. Since she’s moved in with Kevin—”
“Krelvin,” the kid corrects.
“She’s gone on this diet, and she’s gone back to school, and she’s getting involved with his circus life.” Jessica shakes her head. “I just don’t know her anymore. I worry about her daughter.”
“As long as they’re happy,” the kid says.
“She’s being brainwashed by the circus folk and I blame you,” Tony says. “If it wasn’t for you, she wouldn’t have hooked up with wart-face and think she won the lottery.”
The kid glances at his watch. “Oh, gee. Look at the time. I have to head back. I’m staying just up the road, but I have a…ummm…thing. Meeting thing. With my new boss. To plan. And plot. And stuff.”
“Will we be able to reach you?” Jessica plaintively asks.
The kid wavers a moment, as if he’s actually considering not turning over the contact information. Tony finds himself fervently hoping the kid won’t.
Jessica’s little-girl-lost look wins out and the kid tears a piece of scrap paper from the back of his checks. “I don’t know where I’ll be, like I said, but you have to reach me for any reason or…or if you want to tell me where you end up, call this number.”
Jessica takes it and frowns. “These numbers don’t look right.”
“Oh. That’s because it’s to the cov— I mean, contractors who work with my company. They’re in England,” the kid explains.
“Not exactly a cheap call,” Tony remarks.
“They’ll be able to find me if you need me, or at least they’ll be able to find people who can find me,” the kid says as he stands up. “I’m sorry I can’t do anything more, but—”
“No you’re not,” Tony interrupts. He gets some mean satisfaction when the kid betrays himself by wincing.
“We’ll be fine. Now,” Jessica says as she clutches the check.
The kid’s eye scans the motel room, resting briefly on Tony and Jessica. “Is there anything else? Anything you want to say to me?” His voice sounds so tired as he asks.
“Bon voyage,” Tony waves as he reaches into the case for another beer. “Try not to get VD when you screw the locals. Those people aren’t big on the cleanliness.”
The kid looks vaguely horrified, like the thought hadn’t occurred to him.
“No, I think everything’s settled,” Jessica says as she holds the kid’s contact number up and studies it.
“I guess that’s it then.” The kid ducks his head. “Good luck and, unh,” he huffs a breath, “good-bye, I guess.”
As the kid leaves Tony suddenly feels this sense of release, like the dark shadow that has hung over his entire life is leaving with the kid and at long last leaving him in peace. He relaxes as he watches Jessica tuck the check in her purse and nearly smiles. A new beginning, the kid and his bad luck nowhere nearby, and seed money to start over. It feels like his luck is finally changing.
Jessica holds up the scrap of paper with a frown, “‘Lady Haversham.’ Royalty? How does he know royalty?”
Tony’s brain screeches to a halt. The kid’s got one last claw in them. He has to cut it off before Jessica changes her mind and calls the kid and the bad luck back. He desperately leaps at his wife and scrambles to get the paper out of her hand.
“Tony!” she screams as he lands into her.
Tony fumbles and fights with her until he rips her prize away. A quick glance shows him the row of strange numbers and the words ‘Devon, Lady Haversham’ underneath and confirms he didn’t grab the check by mistake. Jessica’s still getting to her feet as he runs into the bathroom, tosses the paper in the toilet, and flushes.
“What did you do that for?” Jessica yowls. “He’s our son!”
Tony marches out of the bathroom feeling freer than he has in years. “No. He’s your son. Yours.”
Jessica’s face collapses in confusion. “What are you talking about?”
“Oh, don’t give me that,” Tony stalks forward and begins circling her. “I’ve got eyes. Does he look like me?”
Tony grabs Jessica’s arm and gives her a hard shake that sends her to her knees. “I said, ‘Does he look like me?’”
“What’s gotten into you? You’re talking crazy.”
“Oh, am I?”
Jessica looks up at him with tearful pinpricks forming at the corner of her eyes. “What brought this on?”
“We just lost everything and you’re asking me what brought this on?” Tony wants to laugh.
Tony leans down. He’s breathing hard with something he can’t name. It feels like hope. It feels like promise. It feels like a new beginning. But if he’s going to get it, if he’s going to shake the kid and his bad luck off for good, he’s got to break clean with the past. He knows it. He can feel it.
It has to start right here. It has to start now. It can’t wait.
“That boy does not look like me. He doesn’t look like anyone in my family. He doesn’t look like you or anyone in your family.” Tony gives her a shake as Jessica lets out a sob. “Didn’t think much about it until the kid was six. Didn’t think about it at all. Then one day, know what happened?”
Jessica’s starting with the steady sobbing.
“Ran into one of my old high school buddies who told me a little story about you and some guy in a mask at a frat house.” Tony gives her another shake. “Sound familiar?”
“He’s yours he’s yours he’s yours he’s yours…” Jessica mumbles through the tears. It’s like she’s stuck on the two words.
“You sure?” Tony lets her go with a shove and looms over her. “Because you know what? I know he’s not. That boy is nothing like me or mine. How stupid do you think I am?”
“I don’t—” Jessica begins.
“DON’T LIE TO ME! NO MORE LYING!” Tony screams.
He teeters on the edge for a crazy moment. Right now he could kill the cringing woman at his feet. It would be revenge— no, justice — for all the years she and the kid made his life a living hell. He pulls back his leg to kick her, but something in his brain clicks at the last moment and he spins around to kick the trashcan across the room. Next thing he knows, he’s grabbing anything and everything that his hands come into contact with and he’s blindly throwing it all away as he screams incoherently about all the years of his miserable, stolen life.
Eventually he runs out of things to grab, or maybe he just runs out of energy, and he collapses to his hands and knees. He can hear Jessica whimpering and he looks up to see her crouched in a corner and looking at him with big eyes. There’s a cut on her forehead that’s bleeding like a son of a bitch.
“Wait,” Tony says, although he’s not entirely sure what he’s asking Jessica to wait for.
He crawls into the bathroom, grabs one of the cheap towels, and crawls over to her side. Jessica flinches away from him when he reaches out, but relaxes when he presses the towel against the cut. He suddenly realizes that through the whole operation that he’s been whispering to Jessica, “Please, please, please, please…”
“I thought he was yours,” Jessica whispers back. “I thought sure he was…I wanted…I needed him to be.” She starts crying again, only this time the tears come softly.
Tony wants to hear the truth, and yet he doesn’t. He feels helpless, spell-bound into silence. All he can do is press gently against the cut and wipe away blood.
“You were camping and Gina, you know she broke up with her boyfriend around then, got invited to this frat party and she didn’t want to go alone,” Jessica says. “I went just for something to do and…and…”
Tony stops. His hands and the towel drop into his lap and all he can do is watch her. Time may be moving forward normally for Jessica, but time is frozen for him. Hell, maybe it froze the day Jessica told him she was pregnant and said it was his.
“There was some drink. It made me, I don’t know, fuzzy I guess.” She sniffs as her head leans back against the wall. “Someone started lighting incense and someone started chanting some song, and next thing I know I’m…oh god.”
“Did he force you?” Tony asks. When Jessica looks at him, he realizes that he’s as surprised as she is that he not only thought to ask, but that the question doesn’t sound remotely like an accusation.
“It felt right, just so right.” Jessica’s talking like she’s remembering a distant dream. “We…unh…and it was…” She throws Tony a panicked look and cringes.
Tony can’t move. He can barely breathe. His hands are blocks of lead as he sits and waits for it to get worse. That’s the one thing he can always count on: his life can always get worse when the kid is involved.
When Jessica realizes that Tony isn’t going to hit her, she admits, “It was good, at first. Then it started to hurt. Really, hurt. Like I was being…like being torn in two and then…and then…”
“And then,” Tony echoes.
“I was screaming and this guy was roaring and I tried to rip off his mask to see…and it wouldn’t come off. It just wouldn’t come off. When he was…when he,” Jessica draws a shuddery breath. “He just yanked out of me which hurt me even more and he was yelling about something. I couldn’t figure it out and all these boys…they came in and they saw me and…and…”
Tony’s fists clench. It’s worse than he thought. Worse than he was told. He was told that the rumor was one guy. Jessica’s about to tell him it was a gang-bang.
“And the guy in the mask was yelling something about ‘already filled up’ and something about waiting another hundred years and something about a contract. And all these boys were begging, like they were afraid of something. I don’t know. It just didn’t make sense.” Jessica is back in that distance, like she’s telling him a story about something that happened to someone else. “He kept saying it over and over again while he pointed at me. ‘Already filled up.’ The way he said it with that mask he was wearing…I was afraid I was going to die and…and…”
A mask, Tony thinks. The other guy was wearing a mask and that’s why I got stuck with it. Tony is willing to bet his very soul that if Jessica had a choice, if Jessica could’ve only removed that mask, she would’ve pegged college boy for the daddy and he would’ve been in the free and clear.
“It gets fuzzy after that. Well, fuzzier.” Jessica bites her lip. “There are these screams and I see red everywhere and Gina’s shaking me, telling me we had to get out of there. We couldn’t find my clothes, so we had to wrap me in a sheet, and we just ran. We could hear the screaming outside and this roaring sound and…” Jessica’s face crumbles into tears.
Tony gets to his feet and walks to the hotel room door. He’s got grounds. He’s got an out. Jessica lied, his future died, and now he can walk. But the hell of it is this: He said “’till death” and that means something to him, goddamn it. The kid’s taken everything from him and has given him nothing in return. Breaking his promise, even if Jessica lied to get it, would be a victory for the kid.
“No,” Tony whispers.
“I thought, I really thought, he was yours. I did, I did. I needed him to be yours and I couldn’t tell you truth because after that it seemed everything fell apart,” Jessica says in a pleading voice. “Gina told a few people what happened at school, so my name was mud. Then Gina and a lot of my friends committed suicide or ran away, so I was all alone. I was pregnant and my parents were threatening to throw me out. I had no one else. You were…you are all I have left.”
Tony slams the door with the flat of his hand. “No.”
Jessica starts sobbing again and Tony turns to look at her. Christ, she looks fugly. Her face is bloated and splotchy from crying, her figure’s gone to pot over the years, and her whole body is heaving in such a way that every roll of fat is jiggling. But for all that, Jessica is still his, for better or worse, ’till death.
That’s when it hits him that maybe the kid did as much harm to Jessica as the kid did to him. They both were blessed with bad luck from the second the kid was conceived. With the kid on the other side of the world, they just might stand a chance of finally grabbing some of the good life for themselves.
He drifts over to Jessica’s handbag and riffles through it, tuning out Jessica’s quiet sobs. He finds the check and he unfolds it. His eyes bug out when he sees the amount written there.
Tony looks over his shoulder at his wife and says, “Pack whatever you got. We’re cashing this check, we’re buying a car, and we’re leaving.”
“We?” Jessica asks as she swipes the tears away from her face. Tony wants to laugh at the surprised expression that has replaced the heartbreak.
Tony crosses the room and crouches in front of her. “Oh, no. You’re not shaking me that easy. You and me? We’re running away from this shithole as fast as we can.”
Jessica edges away from him, as if she thinks he just might be dangerous. “Where are we going to go?”
Tony knows he’s smiling like he’s gone crazy, and maybe he has now that there’s an escape hatch opening right in front of him. “Let’s see where we end up.”
Tony knows exactly what everyone in his little Arizona town sees.
He is one half of the happily married Mr.-and-Mrs.-Harris, owners of the local Fluff ’n Fold Dry Cleaning franchise, members in good standing at Our Savior Episcopal Church, weekly attendees of the AA meeting held in a storefront down on Dream Street.
He is a volunteer little league coach who knows how to wrangle the obnoxious stage moms and stage dads who dream little junior’s got what it takes to make the big leagues, but still takes his kids out for ice cream even when they lose.
She is a volunteer for the local Red Cross serving juice and cookies every other weekend at the blood donation center.
They’re members of the Better Business Bureau, the Chamber of Commerce, the Lions, and the Shriners.
The kids love them, the parents adore them, and people look up to both of them. They are pillars of the community, fine upstanding citizens, just the way it should have been if it wasn’t for—
Tony refuses to think about—
There’s this name that he’s heard the kids say that’s from some book they all read. It’s supposed to be said instead of the actual name of the bad guy because to say the name might attract his attention.
It’s a prefect way to describe the distant, indistinct shadow. He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. Better the shadow stays in Sunnydale with the rest of a past that’s better forgotten.
Tony knows that he’s been given a gift; the very thing men would sell all they hold dear, up to and including their souls, to get. He got a clean slate, a complete break with the past, and a chance to start over where no one knows him or Jessica.
He’s happy. He’s good. All he needed was things to go his way just for a little while to prove it was possible.
Just the same, Tony looks over his shoulder, half expecting to see a shadow with dark hair and hazel eyes standing behind him. It’s stupid, he knows, because He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named doesn’t know where they are and won’t ever be able to find them. He highly doubts that the shadow would even recognize him because he has well and truly changed his spots. Tony Harris here in Arizona is not Tony Harris there in California.
It took some doing to get Jessica on the same page, but she finally did. Life was getting better even without her letting go completely, but once she made her own mental break life flipped from sour to sweet with a suddenness that took Tony’s breath away. They’re both in a good place right now and neither one of them want to fuck it up. It took two years to get here, but here they are.
Just the other day, Jessica was cooing over a baby. One of their regular customers stopped by to show them her newborn daughter and drop off her old maternity clothes for the clothing drive he and Jessica were sponsoring.
“You’re so good with children,” the young mother had said. “She’s been so fussy, but she seems to love you. Do you have any kids?”
Tony remembers freezing a moment, but Jessica stepped right up to the plate.
“If we did, you would’ve known,” Jessica had said. “I’m pretty sure we’d be bragging all the time and showing people pictures.”
The young mother had stumbled over an apology. “Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean—”
“It’s okay,” Jessica had interrupted. “Things have a way of working out for the best.”
The kid sits across the table from him and Tony is struck anew on how this kid isn’t a reflection.
Dark hair. Hazel eyes. His face and body has reduced back down to its original shape. No, an even better shape than that body ever was. Tony idly wonders how much time the kid puts in at the gym to maintain the physique.
Fucking kid. He finally got Jessica all to himself. He finally worked past the years of lies, and the kid sails back into their lives and threatens to fuck it all up.
“Just passing through. I was in the next town on business and I thought I’d stop by to see how you were doing,” the kid had said when he showed up on their doorstep out of the clear blue sky. No word from the kid in almost three years, not even a call letting them know he was in town before coming over.
Tony could smell the hidden agenda a mile away.
When the kid offers to take him out for a little man-on-man talk, Tony settles on a small café in the next town because god knows he doesn’t want anyone he knows to see him with the kid. Plus, he got his two-year AA chip a little bit back and he doesn’t want to blow it by getting anywhere near a bar. While the ache has never gone away, when the kid showed up wearing expensive but casual clothes, the ache turned into overwhelming need.
Tony swears the kid’s a fucking vampire feeding right off his life’s blood.
The kid skates around whatever it is he’s trying to say. No shock there. The kid always was a coward. If there were a way to back down from a fight, he always took it no questions asked.
“You’re doing really well. That dry cleaning franchise seems to be doing it for you.” The kid sips at his coffee and Tony sees his hand is shaking a little. “Blown away by the little league thing though. Those kids love you. You’re like the town’s cool adults.”
The kid’s trying to keep it light, but Tony can hear the accusation hidden in the voice. The kid just doesn’t have the balls to come right out and say it, though. Musculature aside, he still doesn’t have a solid bone in his body.
The kid smiles, but it’s not a light-up-the-room smile that once made Tony want to forget. It’s unsteady and wavery at the corners. Kid’s got a new nervous tic, too. His left eye — the one that had the patch over it last time Tony saw him — constantly tears. The kid swipes the wetness under the eye away without even realizing he’s doing it. Tony childishly wants to rip the eye out if only so he won’t have to watch it water any more.
He’s surprised when the kid comes right out with a question.
“Why what?” Tony casually asks.
The kid’s eyes scan the street and he suddenly looks like he’s eight and that someone has ripped out his heart and squeezed it in front of his eyes. “Why couldn’t you do this for me?”
Looks like the kid finally found a backbone. Tony can honestly say that he didn’t see that question coming. He fumbles a little because he’s been caught off guard by the kid’s never-before-seen attempt at bluntness.
The kid’s focusing on him now and he’s just so quiet, so very still, that Tony wonders if he’s looking at a picture instead of a real human being.
Tony keeps it simple. “There were a lot of things that happened in Sunnydale. A lot of things you don’t know about.”
The kid’s eyes widen and he sits up straighter. An inner light touches his face and Tony sees that some sort of realization is dawning. The kid starts breathing heavily and he reaches across the table, almost but not quite touching Tony’s hand. “You knew? All this time you knew and you never said anything to me? Why didn’t you say anything? I would’ve understood.”
The questions tumbling out the kid’s mouth makes Tony angrier than he’s ever been in his life. Angrier than when he realized the truth. Angrier than when Jessica finally admitted the truth.
Tony’s got a few questions of his own. “Who told you? Was it your Cousin Carol? Cousin Rigby? Your mother? Did everyone in that fucking town know except me? You can’t tell me that you pretended you didn’t know all these years. Little pussy like you would’ve tossed it in my face after you moved out to your own apartment.”
The kid’s thrown. “What? I…I don’t understand. Wait. Back up.”
“Who told you I wasn’t your father?” Tony demands.
The kid stops breathing for a moment and his jaw goes slack. His eyes are bright, bright, bright with shock and confusion. Tony feels like he’s trapped in a spotlight as the kid openly stares and doesn’t say a word. The silence speaks volumes about what the kid would say if he ever got his voice working again.
Son of a bitch. The kid didn’t know.
Tony decides that since the kid now knows, he might as well go all the way. “Do you know what it’s like raising a kid that’s not even yours? To find out that the woman you loved more than anything lied to you? That she took advantage of you because you were the one most likely to do the right thing? I supported you, I fed you, I gave you a roof over your head, and you weren’t even my responsibility. You were someone else’s, except he got off scot-free. I lost a football scholarship because of you. I lost my future because of you. Do you have any idea what it’s like to live with a lie for years and to be reminded every single day that you were cheated out of your life because your had to constantly look at a bastard that wasn’t even yours?”
Tony’s amazed he’s not screaming all the nasty truths he kept locked away from the kid by the end. His voice remains pitched low and even, almost gentle, like he’s breaking the news to the kid that the kid had a fatal disease or that his best friend had died.
The kid closes his mouth somewhere in Tony’s quiet rant. The cords tighten in his neck and he blinks rapidly. Even though the kid’s body is statue-still, the movement in his hair betrays a slight tremor. When Tony is done, the kid closes his eyes and swallows. When he opens them again, Tony swears he can see a flash of understanding there.
“It wasn’t my fault,” the kid quietly says as he ducks his head. “I didn’t ask for this. Blaming me is not fair.”
“This ain’t about fair,” Tony tells the kid. “This is about the truth, and the truth is you don’t belong in my nest and you never did.”
The kid studies Tony a moment before jerking a quick nod. “Guess I now know why you don’t have any pictures of me in your new house,” he says as he stands up, fishes out a wallet, and tosses a $20 bill on the table. “Keep the change,” the kid adds. He practically runs out of the café and disappears almost the moment his feet hit the sidewalk.
Tony feels a little bad about how it all went down, but he feels strangely relieved at the same time. The kid always brought him bad luck. His life and Jessica’s life only improved once the kid was out of it. Maybe now the kid will finally stay away and keep his bad luck with him.
Tony sees the kid sliding out of the coffee shop right in front of him and he immediately turns to look in a shop window. He watches the kid’s retreating back out of the corner of his eye and he silently swears. He thought sure the kid left town yesterday right after he told him the truth.
There’s a high-pitched series of beeps and the kid immediately starts patting himself down for his cell phone. He finally finds it and flips it open with a professional greeting. The kid stands still a moment before ducking into an alley, probably to continue the conversation in private.
Tony knows he’s playing with fire, but he can’t resist. He needs to know if the kid is planning to make trouble for him and Jessica now that the truth is out. He sneaks up to the alley entrance and leans nonchalantly against the wall. The kid’s not that far inside and Tony can hear the kid’s end of the conversation.
“—waited until Tony left this morning.”
There’s a pause.
“I had to know if he was telling the truth. No. You know I can’t trust what Tony says. He always used to say things just to get a reaction and I thought this was the same-old, same-old.”
Tony angrily clenches his fists as the kid pauses, probably listening to the voice at the other end. The kid thought he was lying? Why the hell would he lie about this?
The kid huffs a breath that sounds suspiciously close to a sob. “Yeah,” the kid says softly. “She backed Tony’s story and added a few details, like the part where she got drunk at some frat party and slept with some guy wearing what she thinks was a mask. My favorite bit is the detail where she tried to remove it and it wouldn’t come off.”
There’s a sound of rustling. The kid’s voice still sounds unsteady. “I got the samples you said I should get. There was a lot of throwing things at my head while Jessica screamed and yelled that I ruined her life and that she wasn’t going to let me do it to her again now that things were going so well for her, which kind of is the worst thing about this. I mean she sometimes tried to defend me when Tony’d get really bad. Tony is one thing, but Jessica? I never saw it coming.”
Tony doesn’t get it either. It never occurred to him that Jessica just might resent the kid as much as he does. At least she never gave any sign that she did when the kid was around since she always took her precious baby’s side. He figured with the kid back in town and dressed like he was something resembling successful, Jessica would be falling all over herself to get in good with the kid.
“Yeah, despite that I was able to talk her into handing over some photos of her and Tony. I had to swipe the hair samples, toenail clippings, and toothbrushes, though. Oh, bonus, I also scored a bunch of used Kleenex.”
Tony starts. Why the hell would the kid want hair samples, toenail clippings, toothbrushes, and used Kleenex? And why the hell would he want photos after yesterday? He and Jessica were going to have to talk when he got home.
The kid’s probably still listening to someone, because this pause is long. “It’s not over the top. I need to know,” the kid finally says.
Another pause punctuated by a bitter laugh. “Conceived under questionable circumstances in Sunnydale, remember? What if I’m half…I mean what if I’m not…I guess if I wasn’t exactly 100% human it would explain a lot. It would explain too much. I mean, c’mon. How long have you known me?”
Tony can feel his forehead crunch with confusion. Not human? Who did the kid think he was? Clark-Fucking-Call-Me-Superman-Kent?
“Yeah, yeah,” the kid says to whomever is on the other end, “I know I’ve got a medical and aura check record that’s almost three years long, but we’ve never checked for something like this. Plus, do I have to remind you what happened to me after I got to Africa? I thought I was going insane. I was well on my way to going off the deep end before I stumbled into the Binu shrine near Arou-by-Ibi. If it wasn’t for the Binukedine...”
Jesus Christ, what does the kid do for a living? Tony wonders.
Tony can hear the kid’s breathing. “Right now you have more faith in my humanity than I do, which is pretty scary.”
“Hey, Will? Thanks. For talking me down last night. And for listening to me go crazy just now. And thanks for doing this for me.”
Crazy? Tony wonders. If anything, the kid is being amazingly calm about the situation, especially if what he said about Jessica going off on him was true.
“I don’t know what I’ll do if it’s true. Live with it I guess. What else can I do?”
“Yeah. Never thought I’d see the day when I actually wanted to be a Harris either.”
Tony blinks at that. He’s not sure what surprises him more: the sentiment or the kid’s weary tone of voice.
“Leaving now, in fact. Just stopped to get a cup of coffee for the road. You caught me while I was on my way to the car.”
There’s a sound of rustling.
“I’ll be in London around eight-ish tomorrow. After yesterday, I can’t wait to get home and hang with my real family. I never should’ve listened to the Council’s mental health specialist about confronting Tony about—”
There’s another long pause like the person on the other end of the phone has interrupted the kid to say something. In the silence Tony wonders, Home? London? The kid lives in fucking London?
“Okay, yeah. She had a point. I guess it is better that I know than spending the rest of my life thinking it was something I did to make him…well, now that I think about it, it was something I did.” A soft laugh. “I was born, right?”
Right in one, Tony thinks. The kid finally smartened up.
“Look, I just can’t…I can’t do this right now, okay? Maybe later after I’ve had time to process. It’s still too fresh. No, I won’t clam up once I calm down. Willow! I promise.”
Tony startles when he hears the name ‘Willow.’ He wonders idly if this Willow is the same Jew girl friend he had when he was a kid. He somehow doubts it since she disappeared from the kid’s life after that fucked-up non-wedding, probably out of womanly solidarity to that Anya because women always stick together and blame the men for all their problems. Although it could be her because he finds it equally hard to believe that there are two girls running around in this godforsaken world with the name Willow.
“Yeah, see you at the airport. Thanks for the offer, but I don’t think a double-chocolate latte with triple-chocolate cake is going to fix this. I just…I don’t know. Just some company will be good enough. You, too. Bye.”
Tony scurries away from the entrance and makes it his business to stare into a shop window with a hand over the bottom of his face like he’s contemplating buying the green dress on display for himself. Out of the corner of his eye he sees the kid leave the alley and pause at the entrance while he shoves the cell phone in his pocket. He holds his breath and doesn’t let it out until the kid heads off in the opposite direction without so much as a glance in his direction.
Screw lunch. He’s heading back to the store. He’s giving Jessica a call to see what went down with the kid.
Amazingly, bad luck doesn’t stick around after the kid leaves and life goes on pretty much as it had before. If anything, his luck holds since no one seems to have noticed the kid was around, or rather, no one mentions it. Tony feels he can finally relax. The shadow caught up with him and even touched him on the shoulder, but in the end couldn’t hurt him. He is finally free.
It lasts for a year and a day.
Tony is in the kitchen reading the paper when he hears a knock on the front door. Something in him freezes. He doesn’t know why, but he has a feeling there’s bad news on the other side.
“I’ll get it!” Jessica shouts.
Tony wants to tell her to stop. He wants to tell her they should pretend they’re not home and hope that the other person gives up and goes away.
This is fucking stupid, he thinks. It’s just someone at the door. Probably a Jehovah’s Witness or some other loser trying to get them to buy whatever bullshit they’re selling.
There’s a murmur of a male voice exchanging pleasantries with Jessica. Tony heaves a sigh and goes into the living room to see whom Jessica let in.
There’s a distinguished-looking man with glasses just getting seated in a chair. He’s got a file folder in one hand and he seems a little bit at a loss on what to do with it. He finally settles for putting it on his lap as he agrees in a hoity-toity English accent to an offer of a glass of water from Jessica.
“Can I help you Mr…” Tony begins.
The man studies Tony a moment with a frown. “Giles,” he finally answers. “Rupert Giles.”
“Mr. Giles. What can I do for you?” Tony acknowledges with a nod as he tries to place where he’s heard the name before. He decides that he’s probably heard it on one of those PBS things Jessica’s taken to watching.
Mr. Giles leans back and accepts the water glass from Jessica. “I happened to be in the neighborhood. Actually, I was a few towns over on business and I thought I’d drop this off to you.” He indicates the folder in his lap.
“Oh?” Jessica asks as she settles on the couch.
“I’m here on behalf of Xander,” Mr. Giles says.
Tony drops into a chair. He should’ve known that he wasn’t safe as long as the kid was still alive. He has a sneaking suspicion that the kid is about to bless him with a new run of bad luck. He chances a look at Jessica and he sees that his wife is sitting very still with smile frozen on her face.
“How is he?” Jessica asks. “He’s not hurt, or—”
“He’s doing quite well,” Mr. Giles interrupts. He takes a sip from his glass before adding, “In fact, he’s getting married.”
Tony stifles the urge to laugh because he’s already been down this road. Not a chance. The kid’ll run out the second he sees the altar.
“We had no idea. We haven’t heard from him since last year.” Jessica gives Tony a look. “Is…is that why you’re here?”
“Hmmm? What? Oh. No. No not at all,” Mr. Giles says.
“Good,” Tony says. “I ain’t paying for another wedding that’s not going to happen.”
A storm cloud seems to pass in front of Mr. Giles’s glasses. “You aren’t invited.”
Jessica fidgets. Tony feels like he’s been slapped.
Mr. Giles has the decency to sound apologetic when he adds, “Xander simply felt you would have no interest in coming. I was rather under the impression you were estranged.” He waves an elegant hand. “No matter. The date is set for five months from now in London.”
“So…so…the plans may change?” Christ, Jessica sounds so goddamn needy, even though she told the kid to stay away the hell away from them.
Tony is more stung by the insult of not even getting an invitation, not that he particularly wants to get one. Chances are he would’ve found a way to get out of it because, one, he’s got nothing more to say to the kid now that everything’s out in the open and, two, he has no interest in witnessing another fucked-up affair.
Mr. Giles doesn’t answer Jessica’s question, a sure sign that the kid has about much interest in seeing them as Tony does in seeing him. “I am sorry, but I must make this quick. I am rather pressed for time. Business, you understand. I must get to the airport so I can catch my flight to back to London.”
“So why are you here?” Tony asks.
“As I said, I am here on behalf of Xander to deliver this. He felt it best to entrust this delicate matter to someone else rather than deliver the news in person, given how you and he parted company last time you spoke. Since I was going to be in the area, I agreed to fulfill his obligation.” Mr. Giles puts the file folder on the coffee table. For some odd reason, he rests the palm of his hand on its surface, like he doesn’t want to divulge what it says.
“So what am I looking at?” Tony asks.
“Reports from a DNA test as well as other tests,” Mr. Giles answers shortly. “I do believe you gave him some rather stunning news last year? He wanted to confirm your story. Actually, we ran quite a few tests both scientific and…well, I won’t bore you with the details. To sum up, genetically speaking, Xander is related by blood to both yourself and your wife.”
Jessica’s mouth drops open.
Tony needs to confirm what he just heard. “Are you telling me that he’s my son?”
“He is the fruit of your loins, yes.” Mr. Giles’s voice has just a hint of ice in it.
As Mr. Giles stands, Tony pounces on the file folder and starts riffling through the paperwork. A quick glance tells him that he’s not going to understand half of what he’s looking at, but it doesn’t matter. What matters is that the conclusions are written in clear English.
“It appears my duty is discharged, so I’ll bid you good day,” Mr. Giles says in his oh-so-proper accent.
Jessica stands. “I don’t know what to…I’m surprised he didn’t want to tell us in person.”
Mr. Giles gives her a stern look, like he knows exactly what Jessica said to the kid.
Jessica cringes and meekly says, “Thank you for delivering the news.”
“Not at all.” Mr. Giles waves it off, as if he were dismissing Jessica’s thanks. “Xander is an extraordinary man. On more than one occasion I’ve felt blessed that our organization has him on our side. So when he asked me to do this singular favor for him, I was more than happy to oblige since he does so rarely ask for favors.”
“But black hair…hazel eyes,” Tony stammers.
“Is there no one in your family with dark hair and hazel eyes?” Mr. Giles sounds like he’s just heard the stupidest shit he’s ever heard.
Tony opens his mouth and thinks the better of that answer. He finally allows, “Well, yeah, but he doesn’t actually look like anyone in my family or Jessica’s.”
“So you reached the conclusion you did because he’s not a perfect photocopy of either yourself or your wife or your respective families.” Mr. Giles’s voice sounds diamond hard.
“I don’t believe it. I’m really the kid’s father,” Tony says with wonder.
There’s a distinct electrical crackle in the room as Mr. Giles stiffens with his hands behind his back. “I said he was your son. I never said that you were his father.”
Tony steps back from Mr. Giles’s barely concealed rage and wonders what tall tales the kid has been whispering about his old man. “It’s the same thing,” Tony defiantly points out.
Mr. Giles slumps slightly at that. “Yes, I suppose in your mind that it is.”
The week since Mr. Giles dumped the folder on him life has been hell. He’s been fighting some flu-like bug and hasn’t been able to get out of bed. Jessica and him have been fighting non-stop. Oh, she won’t go anywhere, because of that “’til death” promise, but that doesn’t mean she won’t make his life a living hell.
Plus, there’ve been dreams. Wait. No. Dreams are the wrong word. He keeps seeing snapshots whenever he closes his eyes and every image is a picture of the kid at various ages.
He thinks he might be going a little crazy.
Today was the first day he made it to his dry cleaners since the folder came into his life, but he could barely put in a full day. He left early and found himself wandering around town until landing in front of a cash register at a liquor store with a bottle of Wild Turkey clutched in his sweating hand.
Tony knows he shouldn’t have taken it home. He knows that. But he needs to prove he’s got control over something in his life and not taking a drink while the bottle’s on the table in front of him is the ultimate test.
Jessica took one look at him sitting in the kitchen with the unopened Wild Turkey, let out a squeak, and ran out of the house. The phone started ringing nonstop after that. It got to the point that the constant shrillness was giving him a headache, so he went through the house and shut off all the ringers on all the phones.
Now it’s just him and the kids. That’s right. Kids. Plural.
He was alone when he left to shut off the phones, but when he gets back into the kitchen there is a fucking crowd in there and every face looks like different versions of the kid through the years. As he takes his seat at the table right in front of the bottle, he can feel his headache settle behind his eyes.
There’s the kid at eight with his cheap and easy smile. There’s the fidgety 12-year-old as he fumbles with his bat and uncomfortably picks at his uniform. There’s the sullen son of a bitch at 16. There’s another version with a cast on his arm standing next to a version with bruises around his neck. There’s the defeated 18-year-old who finally figured out that life was not a free ride. There’s the drunk, bloated fatso of 21. There’s the kid wearing his pirate’s eye patch at 22. They’re not the only versions, but they’re the ones who stand out.
And then there’s the kid as he looked a year ago sitting across the table. Of all the versions in the room, this one is the only one who seems actually real. All the others flit through the kitchen like ghosts as they wander and circle from one side of the room to the other. Sometimes they walk through a door; sometimes they walk through a wall as if it’s a door. One of them, Tony swears to god, walks right into the refrigerator and never comes back out.
The one sitting across the table doesn’t move, though. He just sits there looking much more solid than the others. He’s surrounded by dark shadows, like he’s bringing the bad luck back with him, like he’s just itching to dump it at Tony’s feet and make him live with it until it destroys him once and for all.
“What do you want?” Tony finally asks. “Can’t you just leave me in peace?”
The kid doesn’t say anything. Tony’s a little thrown off because the eyes aren’t hazel, but coal black, so black that he can’t even see the whites around the iris. She doesn’t even fucking blink. Wait…no…not she. Him. While he sometimes thought the kid just might be a fag when he was hanging with that bleached blonde leather guy, he always looked solidly male.
“I’m not scared of you, you know,” Tony says.
She…no he…raises his eyebrows at that and there’s even a slight snicker. This one can talk, apparently. All the other ghosts are silent.
The 8-year-old tumbles out of his corner to the real-looking version of the kid and smiles up at him. The real-looking kid looks down and a smile explodes across his face. The smile dosen’t look right, Tony thinks. It’s got the full on happy in it, but it seems like it doesn’t quite match up with the bright, bright, bright smile on the younger version of the kid. The 8-year-old version glances at Tony and the smile disappears so quickly that Tony can feel the stab in his gut. The kid snuggles a little closer to the older version, as if seeking comfort.
The older version’s gaze moves from the younger version of himself and the black eyes hone right in on Tony with the silent menace. There’s a storm building on the older kid’s face and Tony figures that when it explodes, he might not survive the experience.
The 8-year-old flits away, walks through the stove, and disappears god knows where.
Tony thinks he should walk away from this. He should get up and leave the kitchen right now. Except he’s not so sure that the oldest edition of the kid won’t follow him from room to room, won’t follow him to the ends of the earth if that’s what it took to see him dead.
“Leave me alone,” Tony pleads. “Just leave me alone. What do you want from me? I didn’t know.”
The kid leans back in his chair as younger versions flit around him, but still says nothing. All he gets in response is a cold smile, like the kid’s waiting for something.
“You have no right to judge me,” Tony says. “No right at all. I’d like to see what you’d do if you were in my place. I guarantee you’d be no better. No. Wait. You’d be worse because you got a track record. That’s right. If you were in my shoes, you would’ve dumped your mother’s ass because loyalty means shit to you. That wedding of yours? Isn’t going to last. You have no idea what ’til death means.”
For a moment there’s a slight ripple and Tony swears the kid looks like a red-haired woman for a brief moment. When reality re-asserts itself, the kid looks more solid than he did before.
“You’re nothing but trouble, always was,” Tony says. “The day you were born you brought me bad luck. Well, I’m not letting you get away with it this time.”
“Seems to me you made your own bad luck.”
Tony jumps because he didn’t expect the kid to speak.
“Yeah, well, you seem to impose your shitty luck on me,” Tony argues back. He’s not going to let the kid get the better of him. Tony waves at the bottle and says, “This is all your fault. If you were anything resembling what my son should be, this never would’ve happened.”
“Did I? I made you buy that bottle? Is that what you’re saying?” The kid’s voice is odd. It sounds like him, yet it has some higher-pitched echo behind it that Tony can’t quite catch.
“Oh, no. No. I’m not giving you that much power,” Tony says as leans back with a grin.
“But you just said I made you buy the bottle.”
“I never made you do anything. I never made you buy any bottle. Never made you drink. Never made you fight or hold a grudge. You did that all by yourself. I was just your personal scapegoat-type person because better to blame someone than blame the person who deserved it.”
“And I deserved it?” Tony asks with a derisive snort. “Tell you what. Live my life for one fucking day, just one day when I had to put up with your teenage bullshit, and then we’ll talk about who deserves what around here.”
The kid leans forward and rests a chin in his hand. “I’ll make you a deal, dad. We’re going to sit here all night with that bottle just right there. If you don’t do anything with it, if you don’t open it and take that drink you want, I’ll leave you alone for good. What do you say to that?”
“That’s it?” Tony asks. He’s not sure whether he believes the kid.
The kid spreads his hands, those coal-black eyes shining with angry amusement. “That’s it. You and me will sit here until dawn and then it’s over.” The kid leans back in his chair. The dim kitchen light over the sink seems to bring out hidden red highlights in his black hair. “Think you can do it?”
Tony defiantly stares back. It’s 10 now, so yeah, he can do this until six. Not a problem.
The kid sits still in his chair and waits like he’s got all the time in the world; like he’s already won the battle of the bottle.
The silence gets to Tony and he says, “You never said why you were doing this to me.”
“I’m not doing anything to you. It’s actually funny, not funny ha-ha, but funny hunh. See? I wouldn’t be able to get near you if on some level you didn’t think you deserved this. It’s a karma thing. You do everything to you and I get to watch. Best of all, I don’t have to live with it coming back on me three times because I’m not actually doing anything to you. I really need to thank Amy if I ever see her again. It’s a neat-o idea.”
Tony doesn’t understand half of what she…no, he…has said, but it doesn’t stop him from accusing the kid with, “You little bastard.”
“Except I’m not, which now you know.” The kid gives him a careless shrug. “Hey, don’t get mad at me. It’s your brain. Besides, are you even sure this is real?”
Tony glances around the room at all the intangible versions of the kid wandering through. Some of them stop and look at him, but Tony’s not sure if they see him as he is now, or if they’re looking at a Tony who once was. He can’t even answer the kid’s question. Of course it’s not real, that much is obvious, but it feels more real than anything he’s felt in his life.
The kid says, “It’s a wedding present. Although I’m pretty sure Xa— I mean certain people might be really, really upset with me if they found out I was here because they don’t think you’re worth the effort.”
“Not worth the effort?” Tony chokes. “Why you little—”
“But me? I think this is very much worth the effort,” the kid interrupts him with nasty smile. “When you fail, and I know you will, it’s proof that you were just making excuses for every bottle, for every drunk temper tantrum, for every nasty thing you did. Because your life didn’t go exactly according to your big plans, you had to blame someone and who better than someone who at first couldn’t fight back and then wouldn’t fight back? So, dad, surprise me. For once in your life, try not to be Mr. Disappoint-y. For once in your life, don’t pick up the bottle because things aren’t going your way.”
Tony glares back and refuses to say anything more to the kid. He could walk away from the challenge and he knows it. There’s nothing holding him in place and no one’s forcing him to do this, but he’s not going to give the kid the satisfaction.
So the two of them stare at each other across the table as the ghosts flit around them. The kid’s strange black eyes don’t blink, don’t waver once from Tony’s face, even when the younger versions walk through the table between them.
Tony can feel his eyes drying out with the effort to stare back. Sometimes he has to look at the bottle if only to get some relief from those black eyes. Sometimes he looks at the bottle because he swears that he sees a red-haired woman instead of the kid. His hands are itchy and he can feel a bead of sweat rolling down between his shoulder blades. His throat feels like it wants to close he’s so thirsty and he desperately needs to take a piss.
But he’s not going to let the kid win. Not this time. Not again.
Tony’s fingers tap nervously on the table.
He’s not going to let him win.
Tony picks up the bottle and puts it down, still unopened, and checks the clock.
He’s got six hours to go.
He can do this. He can.
The kid’s not going to get to him.
He means it this time.