End of the Road
Chad eyed the worn paneling of the far wall and methodically kicked the leg of his chair with his heel. The last thing he needed was another delay, especially now. He wasn・t quite sure where he was, but he had felt he was getting close before that security guard had caught him sleeping in the alley behind the grocery store. The cops hadn・t hassled him too bad, but they・d been firmly insistent on escorting him to the police station and making a few calls for his welfare.
It would take a while, but sooner or later they・d figure out exactly who and what he was. It was always the same ・all the concern and ・oh, poor orphan boy・ sympathy would evaporate the instant they found his file with that big red ・Mutant・ stamp on it. He knew how to play this game. The secret was to pretend to go along until they placed you in a shelter. Two or three days, at the max; then it was out the door and on the road again. The people in charge would shake their heads, but nobody would put a lot of effort into finding a mutant runaway. In the meantime, you got a shower, some food, and maybe a new pair of jeans or a sweatshirt in the bargain.
It wasn・t too much longer before he saw the desk sergeant nodding his way, but the woman asking the questions wasn・t quite what he was expecting. Usually the social service wackos fit into a few general categories. There was the tired grandmother type, weary of life and only doing this for the money; the washed-out white trash only doing this for money; and the aging hippie type who preached love and harmony and made their own whole-wheat, high fiber bread and pretended they didn・t do it for the money.
This one, however, was younger than usual, somewhere lower in the nebulous ・adult・ range to his twelve-year old mind, but she was pleasantly plump and had not a single gray hair in the chaotic mess held back by a pair of sunglasses. She had a toddler by the hand, a little girl with her mother・s jet-black hair, swept back by high cowlicks on each side, and her thumb in her mouth. The kid ignored the adults around her and met Chad・s scowl with an unnervingly steady stare over her fist.
The woman moved towards him, and he realized she wasn・t plump, but pregnant. He had no real experience with women or reproduction, having skipped out of school before the Sex Ed part, but he figured it was either a baby or a basketball under the loosely swinging blouse. She stopped in front of his chair and put her free hand on her nearly nonexistent hip.
・Hey,・ she said simply.
Chad lifted his chin in reply; making nice wasn・t necessary. They never expected any response. He was aware of the little girl staring at him. Slouched as he was in the plastic bucket chair she was nearly at eye level. Her blue eyes bored into his with a challenge that would have looked better on a teenage bully. He made a face at her, one that was usually successful at making most bullies back off. It didn・t work. She pulled her thumb out of her mouth and cocked her head to one side, as if he・d done something interesting.
・Yanna, quit making faces. You・re gonna scare him.・ The amusement in the woman・s voice surprised Chad. He・d been the one making faces. The little girl glanced up at her mother, then gave him a shy smile that showed all four of her teeth.
・Hi. I hear you・re looking for a place to crash.・
Reluctantly, Chad sat up. ・You・re the Social Services around here?・ he asked, not quite keeping the scorn out of his voice.
・Kinda sorta. The cops get a lot of teenagers coming through here, so they give me a call. I・m officially the emergency shelter gal, but I have a lot of foster kids.・ She lowered her awkward body into the chair beside him, sighing in relief as she eased her back. Check. Putting herself on his level, so he wouldn・t feel intimidated. Next, she・d introduce herself and ask his name, like they were going to be best buds.
・So, you just drifting through, or you actually got a destination in mind?・
・Umm・・ This simply was not going according to plan. ・I・m headed somewhere,・ he admitted, before he could stop himself. Stupid! Never tell them where you were headed.
・That・s cool. Well, I・ve got plenty of room at my place, if you want to land for a while. Stay as long as you want,・ she said, her casual aplomb messing with his expectations even further.
・I・m Chad,・ he offered, trying to get things back on track.
・Nice to meet you,・ she replied, holding out one long hand. ・Most kids call me Mrs. J, or J.L. This little terror,・ as she pulled the little girl close and gave her an affectionate shake, ・is Ilyanna. We call her Yanna for short. It・s easier to yell when you・re chasing her.・ The little girl giggled, knowing she was being teased even if she couldn・t understand all the words going on around her.
Chad felt an odd wave of jealousy at the obvious love this mother felt for her child; his own mother had been distant even before his mutation manifested, and completely absent afterwards. Running away from home had been a mere formality. An obstinate, perverse desire to ruin this domestic scene pushed its way to the surface. ・You sure you want me around? I・m a mutant.・
・Yeah?・ J.L. questioned, apparently not even paying attention. ・What can you do?・
Nonplussed, Chad froze under the frank blue gaze. Part of his mind realized J.L. had an Asian slant to her eyes, but the rest of his mind raced to the handful of stones in his pocket. Reaching in, he pulled out a nondescript round river rock and showed it to her.
・Watch.・ Frowning hard at the rock, he felt inside the stone with his mind. It resisted, as usual, and he felt the perspiration gather on his forehead as he exerted his will. Finally, reluctantly, the surface of the stone flowed, flattened, and became clear. The outline changed to a simple octagon, with a matching octagonal opening in the center. The translucent blue was a last minute decision.
Finished, Chad blew out a shaky breath and dropped the newly shaped stone into J.L.・s hand.
She turned it over in her fingers, feeling the smooth face and the rough edges.
・Neat,・ she said. ・Can you do any shape you want?・
・Uhhh,・ he answered. Nobody ever took his ability that lightly. They usually screamed, or looked at him like a bug in their kitchen. ・Doesn・t that scare you?・
J.L.・s smile widened into a wicked, ・I・ve got a secret, too・ grin. ・Watch this,・ she whispered in a conspiratorial tone. She held up one hand, her thumb and fingers forming a ring. Where they met, and blue and pink ball of light formed. Yanna pulled her thumb out of her mouth again and put both hands over her ears.
With a flick, the ball of light sailed off J.L.・s fingers. It landed in the center of the linoleum floor and popped with ・BAM・ that sounded like one of those fifty-cent firecrackers. A shriek came from the secretary・s desk, and the sergeant swore.
・Dammit, Jubilee! You made me spill my coffee.・
・Sorry, Earl,・ J.L. called back, grinning unrepentantly.
The door labeled ・Sheriff Green・ opened abruptly, and a grizzled, older man stuck his head out. Taking a look at the three of them, he scowled at J.L.
・Jubilation Lee, you are as bad as those kids of yours. You get on out of here and let us get some work done.・
・Yes, Sir,・ she responded with mock severity. ・You still coming over for dinner tonight?・
・Wouldn・t miss it,・ he replied. The sheriff・s bushy gray eyebrows drew down in a frown as he looked Chad up and down. ・You gonna go with Mrs. Lee?・ Chad nodded, surprised he・d already made up his mind.
・Well, you mind your manners, and you・ll do fine. Xavier・s is a little wild, but it・s a good place to be. Ya know,・ he continued, addressing the woman beside Chad, ・my granddaughter threw a fit the other day ・cause I told her she had to be a mutant to go that school of yours. Her momma says she・s still pouting. A ・course, I think she・s a little sweet on that son of yours,・ he added slyly.
J.L. laughed. ・Well heck, Bob. She・s only six. Tell her there・s still plenty of time for her to manifest. I didn・t know myself until I was eleven or so.・
Chad was busy processing what the Sheriff had just said. He opened his mouth, but wasn・t sure he could hear himself over the sudden pounding in his heart. ・Xavier・s? Do you know・ are you talking about the Xavier School?・
Both adults smiled at him, and Chad thought he・d die in the two seconds it took J.L. to answer him. ・Yeah, we・re talking about Xavier・s. You・ve heard of it?・
・I heard ・I thought it was a place for people ・for kids. Like me,・ he stammered.
・It is,・ J.L. responded. ・That・s where I live. You too, if you want.・
・You can get me in there?・ he queried, hardly daring to believe.
・Oh, I imagine so, since I run that nuthouse,・ she drawled. ・Don・t worry, I don・t make you call me Headmistress, or anything like that. J.L., remember?・
Chad nodded dumbly, unable to speak. He couldn・t believe his luck. He was finally here. Snow Valley, the Shangri La of mutants. A place where kids like him weren・t ostracized, or treated like freaks. He・d actually, finally made it.
Yanna reached up and grabbed his first two fingers, all her damp little digits could wrap around. Somehow he didn・t mind the baby slobber as she tugged imperiously on both his and her mother・s hand.
・Well, gotta go, Bob. See you later,・ Jubilee called, levering herself out of the chair. The sheriff waved absently and went back in his office.
She headed outside into the blazing afternoon sunlight that momentarily blinded Chad after the dim interior of the police station, but Yanna・s little fingers gripped his with a firm strength, leading him out the door and into his future. He gripped his backpack tightly with his other hand and followed.