I don't know why I was awake at that hour. Two o'clock in the goddamn morning, just a few hours before I'd have to be on
my way to work again, but instead of being asleep like a sensible person I was up and walking around the house. Checking
the windows and the doors, just for lack of anything else to do. I was just locking up the back hall window when I saw the
two figures stumbling across my yard.
First thing to cross my mind was what the hell Xander was doing running around town at two o'clock on a Thursday morning.
But then I thought about it for a minute, and I could guess why- I was young too, once. Girls, beer, buddies, maybe even
some drugs, though I'd never thought my kid would go that way. Kind of a humorless little brat, Xander. Drugs would be more
than he could handle.
But whatever he'd been doing, he was being half-carried across the lawn in the middle of the night, by some guy around my
age wearing an ugly suit. I stepped closer to the window, squinting out at them as they made their way to the house, stepping
slowly and carefully through the tall grass. Reminded me that I needed to mow back there, if I ever had a sleepy Saturday.
The man in the suit was doing most of the walking. I stared at them, the way his arm curved around Xander's shoulders while
the other hand rested on his stomach. Gentle. They stopped moving for a beat and Xander pressed his forehead against the
man's shoulder. He looked down at my son, and the look on his face made my stomach twist up a little and my hand tighten
on the windowpane. I didn't quite have a name for that look, but it was...strange. Not right.
He said something, and Xander nodded, and they took another careful few steps toward the house. Heading around for the front,
except that Xander suddenly shook his head and moved his head toward the basement door instead. The man looked confused and
asked him something, but Xander just kept shaking his head and insisting. I realized I never went down and locked the basement
I could've just gone down the stairs and met them in the basement, but I felt kind of funny about the whole thing. I didn't
know what I'd ask them. So I slipped out the back door, through the kitchen, and walked around the house to look down through
the basement windows.
Xander was leaning against the washing machine, face all twisted up like he was hurting. The man was crouched next to him,
pushing Xander's t-shirt up, poking at his rib cage. I looked away, letting my eyes wander across all the junk stashed down
there in the basement. We'd been talking about turning it into an apartment, maybe renting it out, letting this place help
pay its own property taxes. Maybe I'd work on that this spring, getting some of that crap out of there.
I looked back over at the two of them again. The man was smoothing tape in place over Xander's ribs. He looked up, lips
moving, and Xander nodded quickly, wincing but smiling too. I had that funny feeling in my stomach again, a weird little
pain. I had no idea what was going on ten feet away from me, in my own home.
They were both standing now, the man resting his hand lightly on Xander's shoulder. I stared at that hand against the faded
t-shirt, the way it cupped around the curve of bone so familiarly. Xander smiled at him, said something that made them both
laugh. He pointed at the basement door, waving his hand around. The man put up his hands in an I-surrender gesture and started
away. He looked back over his shoulder and said something else. Xander gave a little salute and turned to go up the stairs.
I moved away from the window, walking across the lawn slowly. I could see it, now that I was outside- the beat-up old car
parked by the property line. I sat down on the hood and picked at some flakes of rust, waiting. A light went on upstairs-
Xander's bedroom. Guess he was in for the night.
I heard the footsteps in the grass stop suddenly, but didn't look up from the rust spots under my fingers. "Oughta buy American,"
I said conversationally. "You get what you pay for with this foreign crap."
"I'll keep that in mind," he said softly, and as soon as I heard the accent, I thought that I should've known. I looked up
at him then, met his eyes through his fancy little glasses.
"Who the hell are you?" I asked, as pleasantly as I could. He shoved his hands into the pockets of that godawful ugly jacket.
"I'm Mr. Giles. The librarian at your son's school."
"Librarian." I stared at him. "Mind telling me what a librarian's doing bringing a kid home in the middle of the night?"
He shifted a little, staring down at his shiny shoes in the uncut grass. "I'm also in charge of some...extracirricular activities,
for the students."
"Never heard Xander talk about anything like that," I said, ignoring the sudden thought that I couldn't recall the last time
I'd heard Xander talk around here at all. "And what kind of extracurricular meets at two in the morning?"
He swallowed and looked up at me, and even with the ugly coat and the prissy glasses I could see a little bit of an edge there
in his eyes. "What exactly are you trying to say, Mr. Harris?"
I shrugged. "I'm not trying to say anything. Just trying to figure out what you're doing with my son."
"There's nothing inappropriate going on, if that's what you're implying." I could hear him trying to keep his temper. Made
me want to laugh- that'd be the day, when I was afraid of some English boy's temper.
"Oh, I'm sure not. Xander knows better than to try any of that crap while he lives in my house." I stared at him, letting
a little bit of edge come into my eyes too. "But he's young and he's stupid and if you work at it long enough you might be
able to confuse him, make him forget things he knows better than to do. You understand what I'm saying, Mr. Giles? You might
want to think about watching your step."
He was looking down at the grass again. "He's not stupid," he said softly.
"He ain't smart either. It's all right. He doesn't need to be."
"Do you love your son, Mr. Harris?"
What the hell kind of a question was that? I never wasted my time thinking about stuff like that. I was too busy working
a real job, buying food for him and his mother. Keeping a roof over their heads. "Did I miss something here?"
"What do you know about Xander?" he asked, looking at me all coldly, staring right into my eyes now like he was trying to
look through me. "His dreams, his plans, his hopes for the future?"
"Dreams? Are you kidding me?" I laughed out loud at that, getting up off his crappy little car and walking over to face
him up close. "He doesn't need dreams and he doesn't need a plan. His life will take care of itself, the way everybody's
does- at least, everybody who lives down here in the real world, not up in the library." I looked him up and down- the slick
parted hair, the tweed jacket, the shiny shoes. Probably had baby-soft hands to go with the glasses. Books and fantasies
and none of the blood and sweat of reality. "He'll graduate high school- or maybe not. Maybe he'll drop out, or flunk out.
It doesn't matter- he'll get the same shitty job either way. He'll hate it, but it'll be solid honest work. Put food on
the table and beer in the fridge and have a little left over to have some fun on the weekends. He'll run into some girl he
went to high school with, one night at a bar- maybe that ugly little redheaded thing he's always running around with."
"Willow." His voice was chilly and proper. I guess he was going to try to accent me to death. "They've been friends since
they were four years old, and you don't know her name."
I shrugged. "Fine. Willow. He'll knock her up in the back seat of the car and marry her to shut her up and he'll get another
shitty job to feed her and the kid. And then he'll stumble through the next twenty years putting food on the table and beer
in the fridge and trying to sneak off to the strip club for a little fun every couple weeks. He'll go to work every day and
carry all the rich sons of bitches moving into this town on his back. Then finally the kid will be grown up and gone, but
it'll be too late for him to do anything different. He'll be too goddamn tired. So he'll keep on doing the same thing for
another twenty years until one morning he keels over dead in his cornflakes. They'll stuff him in a pine box and his wife
and kid will say good riddance and cuss him out for not buying more life insurance and that'll be the end of him."
He didn't say anything, just stared at me, eyes glittering behind the glasses. Guess he wasn't used to having somebody talk
"So I might not know his dreams, Mr. Giles, but I do know his future. There it is. He can't get around that. That's the
way it is for people like us."
"He's not like you." Soft voice now, staring at me in a way I didn't quite recognize. Before he'd looked mad like any guy
you pissed off at the bar, but this was different. "Nothing you just said had anything of Xander in it- except some of the
cynical fatalism he slips into sometimes that now I quite see the source of. You may have found yourself living your father's
life, Mr. Harris, but it's certainly not written in stone that he has to live yours." I felt my mouth fall open, too stunned
to make a fist. "He has a gentle soul, a kindness of spirit-"
"He'll get over that," I snapped, trying to get my thoughts together, at least any besides wondering who the hell this librarian
thought he was. "You call me cynical? I'm a realist, I live on earth, not in fairyland. We don't have time for books and
dreams, we're wheels in the machine, and that's never gonna change, not for Xander. He's a Harris, and that's what we do,
what we are. We're in the background." He was walking past me now, lips tight, shaking his head and opening the car door.
I let my voice rise. I didn't give a damn. "He's never gonna get the girl, and he's never gonna save the world." He stopped
at that, looking up at me. I grabbed the edge of the door and held it open.
"You stay the hell away from him," I said, and God help me I meant business. I wanted to smash his face in. "He's my son.
I know what's best for him."
He laughed in my face, yanking the door out of my hands and slamming it shut. "You don't know him at all."
He drove away and I walked back to the house. Xander's window was dark, but he'd left the light on in the basement. I went
down and shut it off, then climbed up the stairs in the black, found my way to the living room, and switched on the TV. Closer
to three o'clock now, but I knew I wouldn't be able to sleep. Not with a stranger sleeping upstairs.