Author’s Note: Astonishing-based gen. This was begun some time ago and is vaguely Jossed by House of M.
Disclaimer: I don't own the X-Men, and am making no money from this.
I’m sleeping with the enemy.
That’s what Logan would say, if he knew I was here. Those of us who were in X-Factor ought to understand uneasy moral compromises, but I don’t think even Scott would have much sympathy for what I’m trying to do. I’ve agreed to observe as Dr. Kavita Rao attempts the first cure—her words—of a drastic physical mutation.
When she approached me about this, I imagined holding the hand of some frightened child who, as he went through his terrifying transformation, might like to see another mutant’s face. That self-flattering image was quickly erased when I learned that the patient was Victor Gonzalez. I know him from the school: a difficult person to like, a child who no sooner learned English than he used it to inform us that we were all going to hell. Since I have in fact met a mutant before, I can guess that his shrillness concealed a deep-seated anxiety about his body and his place in the world, but it concealed it extremely well.
There was a time when a child who came to Xavier’s burdened with a masochistic relationship with his religion might have been gently guided to a broader view. But the school is much larger now. If you find a particular child too annoying to bear, there is always another in just as much need. Victor spent his time at Xavier’s being hated by the other students, given the minimum acceptable amount of attention by the staff, and labelled “that dreadful crab boy” by Emma Frost, who has never forgotten a name in her life. Little wonder he wound up on television telling Bill O’Reilly that the cure is mutants’ only chance to avoid hellfire.
I feel we owe him something, though I am perhaps the worst person to discharge the debt. For one thing, I’m fairly sure he thinks I’m gay, thanks to certain regrettable statements I made to the press a few years ago. I really must learn to ignore the part of my brain that sees reporters as mice to be played with.
But there he lies, behind the one-way glass—a specimen in an aquarium. It is too late to dissuade him from this path. All I can do is try to ease it.
“Not quite what I might have hoped for in a facility,” Dr. Rao says, “but I think you’ll find everything in accord with the Geneva convention.”
“Move the bed,” I tell her.
“The bed. You’ve put him facing the one-way mirror so he can spend the next two months staring at himself. Can’t you see he doesn’t like it? He doesn’t need a crick in the neck added to his other problems.”
“Oh.” She glances back into the room, or maybe she’s looking at my reflection. “We can do that.”
She thinks she’s buying me off, I know. She thinks that if she lets me watch over this process I will keep the X-Men from trying to stop it. She thinks if she dangles the hope of a cure, I will defend her, even if it’s against my own conscience.
The truth is I am sick to death of politics. I am sick of the false piety that says we must all be glad of whatever biology may make of us. If you find yourself at odds with your own body’s gender then it is perfectly acceptable to seek out some relief, but if a wayward gene makes you into a one-meter sphere of uniform density, you had better be a happy sphere or you’re a traitor to mutantkind. I think we ought to have a choice, although I fear that the choice will be used for the wrong reasons more than the right ones.
I would like to believe that Rao’s cure is that choice. So far I have not let belief take hold of me. Gene therapy has an inconvenient habit of working better in simulation than in real life, and for all Rao’s claims, I fear this cure will be a very incomplete one.
A nurse knocks and opens the door. It is time. “Well,” Dr. Rao says, “we’ll give him the injection, and then if you have any questions....”
It’s a dismissal. She expects me to wait here and watch what happens only from behind the one-way glass. I could remind her that she said full access, that she said no secrets. Instead I catch the door before it closes, slip out, and follow her. I am wearing my uniform boots with my lab coat, and they are nearly as silent as my bare feet. As she turns to enter Victor’s room she sees me, but, as I anticipated, prefers not to argue in front of the child.
“Hello, Victor,” she says warmly—and then, with strained patience: “I think you know Dr. McCoy.”
I smile and wave. He is briefly surprised at my presence, but his eyes are only for her. For his savior.
The TV is tuned to a documentary about the Savage Land on public television, either because it’s less wicked than the usual fare of daytime soaps and Law and Order reruns or because he can’t work the remote with his claws. He will be spending a great deal of time in this bed. I try to think what I might do or bring to help him pass the time—or, if I’m honest, that would help endear me to him. I have made dozens of customized video game controllers for young mutants who cannot use standard ones, but by the time I could perfect one for his shelled claws, they might have moulted. In my office at the mansion is a stack of copies of Stories from the Eddas, autographed for me by its most famous living subject, but I suppose that memorabilia of a pagan god would not be quite the thing. He is too old for the Cookie Monster impersonation. Perhaps I will bring him the Narnia books—good propaganda for my leonine form. I would speak to him now if I only had some courage.
The nurse has begun. “I suppose this is the first time anyone’s started an IV with a bone drill,” Dr. Rao says brightly, as if somehow this shop talk might put the patient at his ease. I don’t bother to tell her that I’ve done it five, no, six times, and once resorted to a diamond-tipped drill bit intended for limestone. I have yet to use explosives in a medical procedure, but I live in hope. Before me a fourteen-year-old boy is about to sacrifice his body and his birthright for the hope of something called a cure, but don’t mind me; I’ll just stand here winking happy thoughts into a tiddle cup.
It takes a second drilling for the nurse to find a vein that she can visualize without a tourniquet, and three sticks to get the needle in, but finally the blood flashes back into the chamber. She fills a syringe and pushes the drug: a short, sharp shock. The boy had raised his head to watch her, but now he sinks back, his expression peaceful, as if he’d received some benediction. Pterosaurs mate on the screen.
The child’s bed vibrates. It’s a disturbing sight, suggestive of cheap motels and sordid assignations—an impression contradicted by the smell of disinfectant. As I understand it, the device very nearly is a Magic Fingers, with two differences: one, it is tuned to a frequency thought to promote bone growth; two, it cost a trifle more than twenty thousand dollars. Charles’s capital gains tax at work.
With the blanket pulled up to his chin, Victor could be baseline human: two eyes, a nose, the usual sort of thing. From the neck down, however, he is covered in a hard integument closely resembling a lobster’s. This exoskeleton does not hold his body up all on its own—which goes to show that the laws of physics have not been suspended for Victor Gonzalez. (No doubt, unlike Warren Worthington, he couldn’t afford the bribes.) The word osteopenia will scarcely stretch to cover the condition of his bones, but at least there is something there to be built up.
Let us now recite our Fox News understanding of the “cure.” A tailored virus splices an inactivated version of the X-gene into the subject’s DNA. Upon receipt of this good news, the cell thinks very hard about its own role in abetting the mutant menace and intelligently works to reverse its former actions. When this happens, any mutant organs are immediately shed or reabsorbed. Slitted pupils become round, beaks are transmuted into lips, and all those excess pounds and heads just melt away. If all goes well, the subject votes Republican. Any leftover blue fur can be retained as a conversation piece or donated to make retro-kitsch refurbished basements for the poor.
So have I heard, and do in part believe it. But what all these would-be experts fail to realize is that Tildie Soames was the easiest possible case. Her power, like telekinesis and most of the more spectacular mental gifts, was what we call a high-draw mutation. It won’t run on any such humble fuel as adenosine triphosphate, adequate to me and thee; it must rely on batteries of specialized mutant cells for all its power. I do not know how this energy is made, and anyone who claims to is a liar or a fool, but what we do know is that the process can be disrupted. It can be blocked in the isolated cell by cyanide, hypoxia, or heavy water; in the body, a sufficiently long fast will do it, or a few other methods I would still like to believe are secret. The cure has only to prevent these cells from pouring out their eldritch energies, and the child’s power disappears as if it had never been. The structures in the brain that once controlled that power may still be there, but they no longer work. Dr. Kavita Rao has pulled the plug.
For those of us whose differences are mostly physical—who, if you will, have the spoiler and the oversized tailpipe, but only a factory engine under the hood—the matter is not so simple. There are no do-overs in embryogenesis. The genes that fused Victor’s fingers into claws only had meaning when he was being knit together in his mother’s womb; stop them now, and nothing much may happen. One day, perhaps, he’ll moult his shell and find no new one under it, his skin cells having lost the family recipe of calcium carbonate and sugar. His hands, I fear, will be much the same. Dr. Rao has promised him that if his hands do not magically reform into a human shape, she will find an orthopedic surgeon to make them look more normal, though no surgery is likely to give him five functional fingers. I would like to know just who is going to pay for such cosmetic touch-ups when there is no longer a need for poster children to promote the cure. It’s not fused fingers they’re afraid of.
That’s one reason I’ve come. I want to make sure the whole truth is told about what happens here.
Dr. Rao would accuse me of being unimaginative. She would remind me that the effects of the X-gene are more various, more endlessly surprising, one might almost say more magical, than those of any other gene. She tells me she has simulations in which somatic mutations are indeed reversed. Well, we shall see. The cards have been laid out, the yarrow stalks cast, the tortoise shell placed in the fire. We will read our answers in the body of one young and very isolated mutant boy.
I have found Victor less abrasive here than at the school. Perhaps now that he thinks he’s erasing his own sins, he no longer feels quite such a need to point out others’. Perhaps, as the reality of his situation sets in, he is lonely and does not want to drive me away.
He did ask me, the first time we were alone together, “Are you going to take the cure next? If it works on me?”
“No,” I said. “I promised a friend that I wouldn’t.”
“He’s not a real friend, if he made you promise that.”
“He has saved my life any number of times.”
“So you just do whatever he says?”
“I do take orders from him on occasion.” Sorry, Scott.
“Does he try to get you to use your powers?”
My body is my power. I use it every time I move. But: “You could say that.”
“Then what kind of friend is he?”
I found myself entirely at a loss to explain.
“The promise doesn’t last forever,” I said. “Perhaps someday.”
“But you could die tomorrow.”
“In my line of work, it’s a distinct possibility.”
“Aren’t you afraid of being judged?”
“Yes,” I said truthfully. “Very much so.”
That seemed to satisfy him. I didn’t tell him that what I fear is being asked the question: “Did you use your life to help people or hurt them?” And when the conversation comes around to what I’m doing in this place—well, I can only hope that the Creator keeps some knick-knacks on His desk that I can toy with while avoiding eye contact. Surely a merciful God would provide that.
I had suggested that I simply break into the laboratory every time I wanted to observe proceedings, but Dr. Rao persuaded me that people would eventually begin to notice. So I walk up to the guard at the front desk and am issued a visitor’s pass, which I pin to the lab coat that I wear to show I intend to be taken as human. I smile to the guard. She is friendly and smiles back. She is a superhero buff, and asked me once if I could get her the Hulk’s autograph. I told her the Hulk didn’t know how to write, and that in any case we weren’t in touch. She seemed to take it well. I do not trust her discretion, and daily expect to see some cellphone photograph of me with Dr. Rao leaked to the tabloids, but so far it has not happened.
They let me wander to Victor’s room by myself, though I assume I am closely watched through the security cameras in the halls. I assume, too, that all data is backed up off-site and anything that they may have to hide is stored elsewhere. As a gesture of trust, giving me the run of this place is like Wolverine baring his throat: impressive, to be sure, but they’re exposing nothing that will not grow back.
I find Victor restless and on edge. He wants something to happen right now, but so far the cure has done nothing except give him an itch under his shell that he can’t scratch. I express sympathy but I can give him no promises. There is no schedule for this transformation—none, at least, that I am willing to believe.
There is a chair in the corner where a visitor might sit, although he has no visitors but me, his parents having signed the paperwork and then declined to be involved. Since my day has been a long one, I repair to it to read over his chart. No sooner have I done so than the door opens, nearly hitting me in the elbow. Dr. Rao walks in with two lab-coated strangers, a man and a woman. They do not notice me. What peaceful lives these people lead, to walk into a room without checking the corners. I wonder if I can slip away while their attention is distracted, and avoid the complication of two more people knowing that I’m here. Silently, I rise.
They are discussing the case. Dr. Rao makes some effort to include Victor in the conversation, but the others address questions only to her: and the claws don’t require the shell to function? They are discussing the details of his anatomy in front of him, and I am filled with a quixotic impulse to draw their attention, to substitute my wrong body for his. The child is wilting. He glances at me, and I hallucinate that it’s a plea for help. At the same time Dr. Rao notices the absence of the chart. She stiffens and does not follow the direction of his glance; impressive; but I know that my position has become untenable. I step around the door and knock on it as if I were just coming in, holding up the chart as if I had stopped by to return it. Regrettably, this puts me very close to the two newcomers, especially the woman, who lets out a small scream as she turns around. Then she takes in my lab coat and my nametag, and I watch the threat assessment change from mutant to Avenger in her eyes.
Well, that’s my cue. I smile and become genial and verbose. I joke with her, and I invoke the playful consonance of stars and garters. Oh, God, your only jig-maker. I know how to show I can velvet my paws—to convince the timidest of bigots that such an urbane monster could not possibly want to split them open with a sweep of one clawed thumb. I am well schooled in the art of being a credit to my species.
None of it, however, seems to have much effect on the man—Dr. Clark, I see from his nametag—who is now favoring me with a skeptical stare. I politely inquire after his home institution. Harvard Medical School. I applied for a research position there once, but was turned down because some of the faculty had signed a petition saying that a mutant on staff would be injurious to their reputation. Seventy-three men and women who had devoted their lives to scientific inquiry—two of them specialists in bioethics—were willing to put their names down on a document saying No, we are sorry, but our lab coats simply do not go with blue. I wonder if he was one.
I would like to walk into a room without checking the corners. I would like to repair to the nearest pub for a collegial beer with that appalling man when we are finished here. I would like to feel that I had more in common with these learned men and women than with the small-minded and willfully ignorant child on that bed.
I shake his hand before I go. It is the only revenge I can think of.
There was a child known as “that dreadful crab boy,” and he almost deserved it.
I dropped off the Narnia books the other day. I had decanted them from their cardboard case, knowing he would have trouble getting them out of it. I even arranged them in the proper order—none of this chronological revisionism. I put them down on his bed table and attempted to explain what they were about.
“I’ve heard of them,” he said, peering at the covers with what seemed like interest. Then he looked back at the television. When I came back the next day, they were untouched. What in the world can he have against Narnia? I am glad that I did not pay for the expedited shipping.
Today I show up with a stack of board games, in part out of sheer bloodymindedness: this is becoming a challenge. He has never played Clue and seems interested, but no sooner have I wrested it open—it is some silly deluxe edition that comes in a tin and adds poison—than he changes his mind and wants to play backgammon. He has trouble controlling the hard, smooth pieces, however; they keep squirting out of his grip, and I amuse him by catching them out of the air.
“You could be a goalkeeper.”
“Catlike reflexes.” Honed in the Danger Room to fight those who would do to you what you’re doing to yourself, I don’t add.
Since we have no stakes to play for—not even a supply of toothpicks to stand in for chips—there is little point in using the doubling cube. I do anyway, and try to turn it into a lesson about the powers of two, but Victor instantly loses interest.
“This isn’t math class,” he complains.
Dr. Peacock, in the laboratory, with the nearest blunt object. But very well. I put the cube down and subside.
He rolls a five and two, and pushes himself up on one hand to move a man off bar. As he does there is a loud snap, and I think first of his fragile bones before realizing that the shell over his hand has split open.
He works his other claw into the crack and pries the shell open with such violence that I’m sure he’s going to hurt himself. The halves fall away and he catches his breath. New skin, as smooth as a baby’s. Excited, he rocks back and forth on the bed, cracking his shell all along one side.
“Wait,” I tell him.
“It’s okay,” he says, pulling at the edge of shell around his neck like a small boy trying to remove his own tie after church. “I always do it myself.”
“You’ve always had another shell underneath it until now. You don’t want to cut yourself.”
That stops him. “You know how to do it?”
“I’ve helped with a moulting or two before.” Also, I have dined at seafood restaurants, which may be more directly relevant experience.
“Okay,” he says warily.
My claws are perfect for working into the cracks and levering them open, but I must be careful not to let them pierce too deep. I break the shell that sheaths his forearm, put the pieces on the bed table, and run a finger over the exposed skin to assure myself it is as perfect as it seems. He winces.
“Is that tender?”
I suspect him of lying until I realize that it’s my fur he doesn’t care for. My mutant hand is not the one he wants to be the first to touch his skin.
“Would you like me to call Dr. Rao instead?”
“No,” he says. “Just do it fast.”
“As fast as is compatible with keeping your new skin in one piece,” I agree.
I husk his arms and legs, peel his left hand like a clove of garlic, and finally, with a crack so loud it must be audible at the security station, sunder his chestplate in two.
For a moment before he scrabbles at the sheet to pull it over him, he is laid bare. I had not quite believed just how close to Homo sapiens sapiens his habitus was until I saw it. But for his hands and his spatulate feet, he could be baseline human. He will be able to feel with his hands now; he will be able to feel touch on his body. I should try to share his happiness. But all I can think of is how much I fear for him, with his clawlike hands and brittle bones, going armorless into the world.
“Observe,” Dr. Rao says. “Verb. From the Latin observare via Middle French observer. To make observations; to watch.”
“To what do I owe this drive-by lecture on etymology?”
“The next time something happens while you’re in the room, do not take it on yourself to treat the patient. Press the call button and wait.”
“Will the button summon someone who has past experience with human moulting?”
“Hank, you are not authorized to perform a medical procedure in this facility. We aren’t insured for it. You are jeopardizing—”
“Removing a moulted shell,” I say, adopting the patient tones of someone totally in the wrong, “is no more a medical procedure than clipping your fingernails. In any case, I doubt I could have prevented Victor from doing it himself without restraints, which I am probably not authorized to apply either.”
“Then write it up,” she says, pushing the folder she’s carrying at me. “If you’re going to be a part of this, then fill out the chart, sign your name to the reports, and go on record.”
I confess that had not occurred to me. My medical experience has been somewhat unconventional, and I am used to doing what must be done and deciding what the records will say afterward. Even now, we keep a secondary set of false charts for any student who might someday wish to pass.
“I’m afraid I must decline for medical reasons,” I tell her. “A pulmonary condition. Wolverine would rip my lungs out.”
She sighs and takes off her glasses, closing her eyes. “‘The patient began to remove his own exoskeleton and was assisted to complete the process.’”
It’s appalling prose, but I’m in no position to complain. “The passive voice can cover up a multitude of faults.”
When I have composed myself, I go to visit Victor. He asks if I want to play Clue. He is halfway through The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.
The fragile cards. The new, smooth covers. His hands look far more deformed to my eyes than before; as lobster claws they had a certain animal integrity. Now they are misshapen, the skin like a mitten of flesh over the single clublike finger. But at least they are soft, and will not leave scars.
I have not been able to visit for some time. How pleasant it is to have saving the world on one’s list of excuses; ever so much more impressive than the dog ate my hard drive.
I am troubled that Victor still suffers from itching, nearly two weeks after losing his shell. Dr. Rao dismisses this, speculating that the cells are still—as she puts it—“healing.” His hands and the joints of his feet ache, and he tends to run a very slight fever: both are being treated with an NSAID. Again, Dr. Rao considers these symptoms normal, and I am uneasy for some reason that I cannot touch a claw to. He is, however, making astonishing progress on bone mass. I do not expect that skiing will ever be advisable, but I begin to hope that everyday activity will not put him at risk of fractures.
We play Clue. It is pointless as a two-player game, but he seems fond of it. As he is taking the secret passageway from the conservatory to the drawing room, I notice him raising his hand, with Mr. Green still clutched in it, to rub at one eye.
“I’m not crying,” he announces.
I had not thought that he was. I do, however, notice that he is blinking more than usual. As a test, I look up at the ceiling as if I had noticed something odd there. Victor, falling for this simple ruse, looks up as well, but instantly has to shield his eyes from the weak fluorescent light.
Being a wise Beast and capable of learning behavior, I press the call button. The nurse comes in, listens, checks his eyes with an ophthalmoscope, shrugs, and leaves to summon Dr. Rao, who does exactly the same thing. I follow Rao to the front desk, where she picks up the phone and tries to arrange an on-site consultation with an ophthamologist. I wait twenty minutes for an opportunity to ask that she call Maintenance to do something about the light. Finally I go back into Victor’s room, remove the covers from the light fixtures, and unscrew every other fluorescent tube—no doubt violating any number of union rules. Well, it’s the least of my sins.
“It’s just a little water,” Victor is complaining. “Why is everybody making a big deal out of it?”
Having nothing else to do—being, in effect, the helpless parent of the patient forced to sit around and wait while serious people do serious things—I sit back down with him and play Clue in the dimness. It seems to calm him. By chance I have been dealt all the implement cards, and know at once the crime was done with rope, but the question of which suspect killed Mr. Boddy is not the mystery that compels my mind.
“How is your night vision, Victor?”
“I don’t know,” he says guardedly. “Normal.”
“Have you ever felt that you might see colors differently from other people?”
“How would I know?”
That is a very good question.
I come to visit Victor, but he’s with his physical therapist. I go to find Dr. Rao in her office instead.
“How is his eyesight?”
“Worse,” she says, simply.
“How could you not have known that he had mutant vision?”
“He lied to us, Hank. He must have known we wouldn’t take him.”
“You should have checked.”
“The only abnormalities you can visualize are around the edges of the fundus. Tell me you’d have looked at that child’s eyes and dilated his pupils to check for screening pigment. Maybe if your school had sent his records when we asked for them—”
“Well then, on behalf of the Xavier Institute for Higher Learning, I apologize for our inexplicable lack of trust.”
“He was going to take the cure anyway. What could it possibly have hurt for us to have more information?”
“There was nothing about it in his file,” I admit, sinking into a chair. “That child has spent his life lying about a trivial mutation when an obvious one was staring everyone in the face, simply because he was ashamed.”
“He’s a Christian. He believes his mutation is the work of the Devil.”
“There’s nothing Christian about believing that the Devil is a creative force. It’s the Manichean heresy. If the Inquisition were still around, his parents would have been burned at the stake a long time ago.”
“I’ll take your word for it.”
“Those eyes were a labor of love. The God who arranged for Victor to have them didn’t want them to be destroyed.”
“They are extraordinary. Under different circumstances, I’d be thrilled at the prospect of publishing a description.”
I badly want to tell her that she’s being insensitive, but the truth is the same thought had crossed my mind.
“Given your history of publication by press conference, I have to wonder how long you’re going to wait for a baseline-human retina to spontaneously generate before you announce that the cure is a failure.”
“Even if his vision doesn’t come back, it’s not a complete failure. There’ll be some adults that we can’t use it on. But 85% of mutants have a normal phenotype in childhood. We can test for the X-gene and give the treatment before adolescence.”
“Perfect. The majority who’ll be given wonderful gifts can be persuaded to throw them away, out of fear that they’ll be one of the unlucky ones.”
“We can stop secondary mutations, too.” She leans back in her executive task chair. “What happened to you, Hank? I’ve seen pictures of the old X-Men. You had large hands and feet, but you could pass for human. If the cure had been invented then, you could have stayed that way. Doesn’t that show you it would be a benefit?”
“I got my fur by testing a new drug I’d invented on myself. The only moral of my story is that scientists should try not to be idiots.”
I pause at Victor’s door, hearing voices inside.
“I want you to know that we’re not giving up,” Dr. Rao says. “If there’s anything we can do to restore some of your eyesight.... We’re going to do anything that we can.”
There is a silence during which I suppose that he nods.
“In the meantime, if there’s anything I can get for you. One of my lab assistants was telling me that with satellite radio you can listen to football games all around the world.”
Another pause, perhaps a shrug.
“Well, we can try it and see what you think, all right? And I’ve been looking into talking book libraries. It’s amazing what they have. Is there something in particular I can pick up for you?”
“Oh. Of course.” Somehow she fails to hear my urgent telepathic message to ask him which translation he prefers. “Anything else? Some light reading, maybe?”
“I don’t know,” he says dully.
I back away from the door and walk out, returning my pass to the puzzled guard. I can’t believe I would have done him any good by visiting today. Victor would like me to believe he’s weathering the loss of his vision with the serenity and hope of Mary Ingalls on Effexor, but I am a mutant who must be persuaded to take the cure. From her, he has nothing to hide.
I would like to say that it was I who diagnosed him. I would like to say I noticed the worsening rash on his skin, the pain that he complained of in his hands, the swelling of his ankles, and put the pieces of the puzzle together. I did, in fact, worry about all those things, but it was a blood test done by Dr. Rao that pointed the way to an explanation.
We had both of us grievously misunderstood how the cure works. It does indeed, as in the simulations, stop the expression of the X-gene, triggering a cascade that can shut down mutant powers. Unlike in the simulations, this effect is transitory. The lasting effects of the cure come from a mobilization of the immune system against the tailored virus, against the cells expressing the inactivated X-gene, and, ultimately, those expressing the genuine article. The mutant cells in Victor’s retina did not simply fizzle out and die. They were sacrificed—ordered to commit suicide by an immune system that saw them as diseased.
The X-gene is expressed in Victor’s kidneys, although no mutant phenotype is manifested there. Sometimes it happens that way. Now the witch hunt of the white blood cells has extended even to this blameless organ. He is taking a cocktail of immunosuppressants that costs roughly a small car per year, but they’ve been unable to entirely stop the damage. Unless a kidney can be acquired from someone in his family—and don’t think I haven’t considered harvesting one with my claws—he’ll be on dialysis soon, and most likely for a very long time.
“You’ve taught his body to hate itself as much as his mind does.”
“That’s a melodramatic way of putting it,” Dr. Rao says. We’re standing in the hall. She’s just come out of Victor’s room and I was on my way in.
“Well then, you’ve invented a new autoimmune disorder, if you prefer that.”
“We’ll still be able to cure some mutations, if they’re localized enough. Children like Tildie Soames.”
“Telepaths, telekinetics. High-draw mental mutations. The most powerful mutants on earth can be neutered, while those who actually need help will be unable to receive it.”
“Not necessarily,” she says.
“What do you mean?”
It’s obvious that she regrets having spoken. “I’m just beginning simulations. It’s nothing I can discuss yet.”
“What have you got up your sleeve, Dr. Rao?”
I watch her steel herself to meet my eyes. “Prenatally. We can treat those mutations prenatally. Preferably in the first trimester.”
“It won’t work. A three-month fetus has no immune system.”
“But the mother does.”
I don’t know if it will work, but I can picture it. Let the cure teach the mother’s immune system to produce antibodies against mutant cells, then hope they will cross the placenta, not single spies but in battalions. If they do, and if the mutation is minor, then perhaps the child will be born baseline human. If it is systemic, then the fetus will most likely be aborted—and please, God, save me from the allies that I’ll have then.
“You’d do anything to exterminate us, wouldn’t you?”
“Do you really think it’s better for mutant children to be born to parents like Victor’s?”
“You don’t care how it happens. You’d do absolutely anything.”
“Hank, be reasonable.”
“What sort of drugs do you keep on hand here, Dr. Rao?”
“Barbituates. Opioids. Whatever you like. You must have something that would be reasonably painless. I recommend ten times the human lethal dose, just to be sure. I’ll write enough backdated prescriptions to satisfy the DEA. I’ll even shave my forearm for you, but you find the vein and you push the plunger if you really think that I should never have been born.”
“Dr. McCoy.” Her voice is sharp, commanding. It’s the voice you use on a large unruly dog that you’re a bit afraid of. “Back off.”
I become aware of my position. I’ve backed her against the wall, between a fire hose cabinet and a wall-mounted phone, leaving her no easy escape. My face is just inches from hers.
I take a step back. She slips out and walks away toward the security station without another word, quickening her step but not breaking into a run.
Come back, I want to call after her. For God’s sake, I’m not like that. I only wanted to hurt you with words.
“‘And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story, which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.’”
I put the book down. Victor has been sitting up to listen, and he stays that way, his chin on his fists and his elbows on his knees.
“You don’t believe that, do you?”
“You mean, do I believe in Heaven?” I say—temporizing, since the question he’s asking is obvious.
“I hope it’s real. I don’t think I can say that I believe.”
“But you believe in God.”
“And the Bible.”
“Actually, if you consider the historical circumstances under which the books of the Bible were written and the means by which they’ve come down to us—” I stop myself short of a lecture. “No, I’ve always thought that God was much too clever to put anything in writing.”
“Then how are you supposed to know what God wants you to do?”
“I think that if God is the Creator, then everything we have is from Him. Or Her,” I can’t help adding, though it won’t help my case with Victor. “So we have to look at what is to find out what should be.”
Dangerous territory. “Well,” I say carefully, “I believe that we’re supposed to love each other, because everything seems so much better when we do.”
“Okay. That’s in the Bible. Like what else?”
This is wrong. The time for this conversation was before he took the cure. Not now when he’s given up so much, not now when an inflexible faith is the only armor that he has. But he’s asked me a question, and I’m going to answer.
“Well then, for another example. I’ve never been able to believe that the God who made so many different kinds of beetles wanted there to be only one kind of person.”
He sinks back against his pillow, disappointed. “We’re not bugs. We’re supposed to be people. We’re supposed to overcome whatever’s wrong in us.”
“But that doesn’t mean turning ourselves into something we’re not.”
“No, because you can’t. But you’re supposed to try.”
I confess I am relieved that he did not agree with me. And after all, it was only pride anyway, to think it would make any difference what I said. Did I imagine him being struck by the lightning of my rhetoric and wandering away a happy Deist? If so, I was a fool.
You’re supposed to try. In a way, it’s a forgiving credo. I’ve always thought of God as being more interested in results than in intentions. I can see myself now, in the office of the celestial Headmaster, clutching at a straw of self-defense: “At least I tried to love him.”
Her hands are steepled, and her voice comes across the desk, gentle but very firm: “Hank, pity does not count as love.”
I don’t know what sense of penance brings me back here one last time. They’re releasing him today, to a residential program for the blind. So in the end it comes down to a transfer from one special school to another. I came to say goodbye, but found myself walking into the observation room instead, to watch him without being seen. Has the false acceptance that he showed me started to become real? I cannot say. He fidgets a great deal, but that could be some lingering itchiness, or boredom with his audiobooks, or simply the fact that he’s a fourteen-year-old boy who’s been confined to this place far too long. Can the security staff, in their glimpses of me through their cameras, find my mind’s condition in my face? Unlikely. Thou wouldst not think how ill all’s here about my heart.
As I watch him I hear Dr. Rao’s step in the hall. She approaches Victor’s room and pauses. Then she opens the door to the room where I stand.
“You’ve started keeping tabs on where I go. That’s prudent.”
She sighs and closes her eyes for a moment. “I just wanted to tell you. The other day. I was upset, I wasn’t afraid of you.”
“Thank you for saying so.” I know she’s lying, but it’s kind of her to bother. “Supervillains have been known to void their bladders when I got that close to them. You might have made a good X-Man.”
“I don’t qualify.”
“Well then,” I say, nettled by her willful or obtuse failure to get the point, “you could apply to the Avengers. They take anyone.”
Our mutual apologies being thus concluded, we stand in the companionable silence of good enemies until her mobile phone rings.
“She’s here,” she says when she hangs up.
“Is she coming in to fetch him?”
“No, I’ll take him out.”
“I’ll be on my way, then. I recommend changing the locks.”
“You came all the way here just to leave again? Come say goodbye. It’s only right.”
I follow her to Victor’s room. We both say hello so that he’ll know we’re there. He slides out of bed. He’s already wearing his clothes, and she hands him his sneakers, which, naturally, fasten with Velcro. When he straightens from putting them on, I let a hand rest on his shoulder. He shrugs it off like a child embarrassed by an overaffectionate aunt.
“Is there anything you want to take with you?” Dr. Rao asks.
“No,” he says. “Let’s go.”
As they leave the room he turns, keeping the door open with a shoulder, facing a spot that’s not quite where I am. “Dr. McCoy?”
“The Narnia books. You could give them to another kid.”
“I will,” I promise. “Goodbye, Victor.”
He nods, turns back around, and disappears behind the closing door.
I follow at a distance, slip out the door behind them, and watch from behind an uninteresting sculpture resembling a paper wasp’s nest as he emerges from the shadow of the building into the light. He tilts his face up and holds up his hands, feeling the warmth of the sun on them for what I suppose is the first time. The light is unforgiving to the cochineal rash that still covers his fused fingers. The emissary from the school approaches, as so often Jean or Scott or the Professor has approached some new student they planned to recruit. She, however, is not experienced in meeting mutants. I must try to make allowances.
She crouches to his level and invites him to touch her. He can’t see her, I remind myself. He finds her only by the direction of her voice. And so maybe it doesn’t matter if she flinches, just a little, as his hands approach her face.