We noticed them sitting in the back of our classroom halfway through our lecture on 19th Century Writers.

A man. Tall, broad, dark.

A woman. Slight, lithe, going gray, just a little.

They were still there when we started handing out last week's exams.

A man. Tall, broad, dark.

A woman. Slight, lithe, going gray, just a little.

We knew who they are without being told.

Imagine that, them. Here. In our classroom, twenty or more years after the fact.

A lot has happened between then and now.

Some of it good. Some of it bad. Very bad. Heroin bad. Jail bad.

Intruder

The good showed up on our doorstep one gray December morning six years ago wearing an absurd hat with a three legged orange tomcat in a carrier and said, "Hey dad, got room for one more in this shoebox?"

You'd stood there in your wifebeater, work pants and bare feet, telly on in the background turned down to a dull roar, the remote in one hand, a small caliber handgun in the other, staring at your daughter with your mouth open.

"It's me, Anarchy Selene Scuggs! Call me Anne! My spiritmother, well, Anarchy was her idea, so was the Selene, can't stand Anarchy, it's too disorganized to be a name even if it's a direct representation of Gaia's (here she rolled her neon purple lined eyes) personal beliefs, double-ditto the Selene! Puh-leeeeeeeez! do I look like a Selene to you? I think I look like a Susan if you ask me, or a Caroline! Or maybe a Fran. How about Frannie? Or Francis? What about Maude? What do you think about Maude? Or Lucille?" She chattered breathlessly while pushing past you, the cat yowling at the top of its neutered orange lungs, and stood in the middle of your government subsidized apartment, looking around, grinning. "Anyway, if I decide that I like you, and I decide to stay and that you're a cool guy and all that, I just might really-really-really-really piss my biomother and my spiritmother off and change my patronymic name to yours. What do you think of Anne Margaret Tully?" She was wearing bowling shoes and socks that didn't match (one pink, one yellow). Her hair had been bleached and spiked so that it stood out in all directions like a squashed sea urchin and she was wearing a mechanic's shirt cinched in at the waist with a man's necktie, plaid green and purple. "So, what do you think? I stay, I move in here, and I change my name to yours but only if I you're a cool guy, right dad? Right? Right?"

Overwhelmed, you slid the handgun into the back of your waistband, closed the door, and leaned against it. After clearing your throat six or seven times, you managed to get out, "H-h-h-h-how ddddd-did you fffffffind m-me?"

Anne'd flashed you her mother Ava's million dollar smile from behind hot green lipstick and said, "Easy, with this!" and pulled an envelope out of her purse, which you noticed was one of those bags that people used to keep jumper cables in before everybody went hybrid. She handed it to you. It was old, crumpled, and torn. On it, in your handwriting, was your address.

It had once contained an alimony payment.

"Oh." was all you said as Anne bent over and released the cat, who limp-sidled out of the carrier and sniffed a few things before streaking beneath the three-legged couch that you propped up with your battered copy of Webster's Dictionary when you weren't using it to look up words for your crosswording.

She found the envelope on her mother's desk when she was thirteen and had asked who'd sent it because it had been addressed by hand, something she'd never seen before. Both her biomother and her spiritmother had yelled at her that it was none of her business. So naturally Anne made it her business - fishing it out of the recycling bin after they'd gone to the office. She'd kept it in her purse, always intending to look you, her father, the big-bad whatever, up.

So, today she and the cat got on the continental bullet train in Boston and found you.

You leaned over, eyeballing the cat beneath your couch. He hissed back at you. "Hope you don't mind." Anne continued, "Mom hates Bob, Bob hates mom. Bob also hates my other mom, you know, Gaia, my spiritmom? Bob's right because both are bitches who want me to be a scumbag lawyer, take over their practice, and marry their best friend's daughter, who's fat and stupid, and anyway, I like boys. Got anything to eat?" Anne said as she stared up at your dogeared Bela Lugosi poster and the one of Big Ben at night next to it, hands clasped behind her back, left bowling shoe scratching absently at the back of her razorburned right calf above its mismatched sock.

"Oh." was still all you could say.

Abruptly Anne whirled, giving you an exuberant hug that nearly knocked you off balance as she repeated, face buried in your shirt, "Honest dad, got anything to eat? The bullet train always makes me queasy so I missed lunch."

She was trembling.

You decided to postpone your suicide for a few days.

Might as well live, still have to make child support payments, right dummy? Can't make child support payments when you're soddin' pushin' up the daisies. Never mind that the child you're supporting is now camped out on your couch and reading your books, listening to your music, watching your telly and cluttering up your bathroom with her hairspray, peroxide and toothpaste when she's not chattering a mile a minute about everything in sight!

Roommate

Obviously you passed the "cool" test because Anne made good on her threat and moved in with you that afternoon, taking over your dying couch and making you dinner (very badly) because she'd once seen someone do that for their dad in some old vid that night before you went to work.

It got so you looked forward coming home at dawn from your night job cleaning floors over at the international airport even if it meant that you had to walk two blocks down to the Goodwill to buy an extra coffee cup, which was as close as you'd come to having ever given your daughter a birthday present. Anyway, Anne would be waiting for you with a badly cooked breakfast, a newspaper printout, and an agenda for her day. You were welcome to tag along if you wanted to.

Anne didn't want to be a lawyer. She told you this one morning after breakfast while painting her toenails cerise and black. "I don't know what I want to be but it's not a lawyer. Lawyers aren't allowed to bleach and spike their hair. And their socks always match, I mean, the ones that wear socks. Even the ones that don't, well, they have designer tattoos around their ankles because it's tres stylish - I don't want any tattoos because, like, everybody has tattoos and bindi and why would I want to be like everybody else? Ditto eyebrow rings and lip plates, I mean, everybody has them, what's so unique about that? I want to be me! I want a job where I can bleach my hair and spike it, wear mismatched socks, make a lot of money, wear polyester, not have to get a boring old tattoo above my butt crack like my mom's or bindi my hands and cheeks, and then get my ears, belly button and nose pierced in a bazillion places (like how lame is that?) and still have time for cats and friends. Lawyering on my mothers' level is soooooooooo boooooooooring!"

She found your GED crumpled up in your sock drawer and put it in an elaborately tacky gilt frame embellished with cross-eyed cherubs that she'd found at the thrift store before hanging it over the toilet, "Just like in Vonnegut's Deadeye Dick!" she happily told you after you asked her about it. Seeing the old, creased piece of paper over the porcelain throne while "bleeding your lizard" had been yet another surprise - with Anne around, you never knew what you were going to get.

Bloody right, mate! It explains why the two of us once spent an entire weekend hitchhiking to the headwaters of the Mississippi River just so that she could take her shoes off and wade across it because she'd read about somebody doing it in an old National Geographic we had laying around. It explains why we came home one day and found that she'd thrown away all our clothes and bought us new ones at the thrift store for when we weren't at work - she had the bloody cheek to tell us that walking 'round with us wearin' worn out old work uniforms was embarrassing. Thank God they weren't hot pink and purple, but a lot black and dark reds, something with a bit of class to them. Or how about that time she loudly asked us what was it like to have a stiffy? We were sitting right there in the middle of the diner, havin' a cuppa and she just asked it like she was askin' us to pass the cream; thought we'd choke to death we were so startled!

Dragooned

Anne told you one evening over burnt ravioli, a limp salad, sticky garlic toast and insulin that she'd enrolled both of you in a class: English I. "You'd better attend: I've already paid the fees and there's no refund!"

Great. People.

"W-w-what about m-my j-j-j-job?"

"Sod the job, dad! Can't you take another shift?"

The next evening you found yourself surrounded by a lot of your fellow creatures of the night in a community college classroom with Anne behind you poking you in the back with a pencil in her excitement, and a second-hand datacube and a beat up Norton Anthology in front of you.

Turns out you were smart after all. You not only passed, you got the highest grade in the class, beating out Anne by ten points.

You, Billy Tully, the dumbest kid in class. The top scorer.

I told you that you could.

Who the hell are you?

Mind your language! It's me, William. Remember?

Didn't you show up around the time I got my GED and Spike beat you bloody?

Yes, he did. I don't wish to speak of it.

Oy, pouf! I thought I told you to sod off, we don't need you!

The sounds of a fistfight, with "William" taking a beating. Suddenly there's a "Whooof!" accompanied by the sound of a foot being applied to balls. Well, that's it for William, you figure.

As I was saying... aren't you tired of people thinking that we're retarded? It's about time you proved that we are better than that.

William? Is that you?

Yes, it's me. William. I'm tired of people laughing at us as we polish floors and clean lavatories. I don't know what's worse, that or the pity. Let us now proceed to prove that we are more than that. You, we, are intelligent. We've been intelligent all along only you kept listening to Spike and those pills. You're going to have to make a few decisions. Let me help. And Spike? Kindly say nothing from now on unless it's something useful.

Faintly in the background you hear Spike wheezing before he manages to get out "'S 'bout bloody time!"

The next semester you learned that thanks to your disabilities, you were eligible for full time student status with the government picking up the tab. You enrolled full time while cautiously considering getting a degree.

Marilyn

Anne went to classes in between holding down six different jobs, sometimes all at once. She did everything from clean floors with you to star in local vid commercials for some national pizza chain.

She also found your secret stash of poetry - the shit you'd been writing ever since you got yourself involuntarily incarcerated in a Minnesota mental hospital twenty years ago. She'd loaded it onto the student website. People actually liked it and asked for more.

They really liked it? They didn't make fun? This will never do. Where's the vocabulary? Oh, feelings, I suppose the first time I left out the feelings. This time I remembered to put the feelings in and nobody laughed... what a fool I was!

Anne was still bleaching her hair, but the spikes were history and she was wearing combat boots and plaid nylons instead of bowling shoes because they were passe.

Polyester, rayon, and acrylic were still her special darlings, but she'd discovered fur coats and now wore an elderly thrift-store ankle length mink that reeked of mothballs and shed all over everything. "You know what? I love fur! I love fur because it's almost as cool as vinyl and totally fuzzier than leather!" Anne said in between loud sneezes the day she brought her newest treasure home while dancing around the apartment in a stinking cloud of mink dandruff and mothballs, "I've always had to wear dumb old hemp sandals and Earth-friendly shit. You know when Gaia, that's my spirit mom, asked me what I wanted for my coming out gift when I was fourteen, I told her I wanted a mink coat just like Marilyn Monroe, a great big fluffy one like the one I've got on - I saw it at my bestbest friend Emancipation Egalitarian's (She calls me "Anne" and I call her "Emma", it really bombs our mothers!) house one night on one of those porn channels, you know, where they show men and women doing "it" and the woman is enjoying it? Anyway, when I told my spirit mother, that's Gaia, how I found out about fur coats, she screamed at me that I was as just as viciously stupid as the sperm donor listed on my birth certificate and that fur was an obscenity and that Marilyn was an exploited victim of the male patriarchy and how could I say this because she and my bio-mom had raised me right and that I'd better light up some sacred sage and pray to the Goddess right there and then for Her forgiveness for wanting such a horribly exploitative thing... Two days later Emancipation's moms sold their house and moved out of our gated community...I never saw her again...That's when I found E.E.'s cat, Bob all wet and bloody under a bush in Gaia's meditation garden. Somebody had hit him with... well, sod you Gaia, I got my mink!"

Suddenly, you found the scent of mothballs one of the most pleasant things you'd ever smelled and even helped Anne "personalize" the coat with a skull and crossbones mowed across the back with your electric shaver.

They're still there, him dark, her slight. Sitting in the back of our classroom like mirages. What are they doing here?

A Vonnegut Moment

No, you take that back, even with Anne, things haven't all been good.

You came in before sunrise a not long after Anne showed up out of nowhere. The whole one room apartment stank of blood. When you turned on the light you found her on her knees in the middle of your living room floor, a shattered water glass in front of her, her wrists and inner arms bleeding

She was rocking and babbling, watching the blood pool in the shabby gray carpeting by her knees.

As you hurriedly grabbed Anne's wrists to stop the bleeding, she focused on you, whimpering, "Daddy, my head's all broken inside. Fix it?" before passing out.

Your heart stopped with a crash as you realized that your pretty toy, your candy-striped hot green lipped cherub in a ratty fur coat was just as crazy as you are. It wasn't your mother's heroin, it wasn't you going through the windshield of your car twenty years ago, it was you.

We passed our insanity along to Anne; she doesn't deserve it. Darling, I am so, so sorry, how will I ever make this up to you?

Oy, since when did our mother do heroin, mate? She was a bloody hypochondriac, but she was afraid of opiates... ahhhhhh forget I even brought it up you wanker!

Anne had been on psychiatric medications most of her life: she'd shown suspicious brain chemistry and even more suspicious behavior before she was two years old. This mild schizophrenic episode terrified her so badly that she wouldn't let go of your hand as the paramedics loaded her into the back of the ambulance.

Between lapses of consciousness during the ride to the emergency room Anne cried hysterically, saying that her mothers had lied about you. You weren't a retard like Gaia said, you were kind of cool even if you dressed really ugly and had the worst haircut on the planet and talked really weird when you even bothered to talk at all and where did all those scars come from and who listens to the Sex Pistols any more, they are soooooo lame! and wow, who has friends called Stinky Ralph, Headcheese and Skeech? Why do you wear glasses when nobody else does? And you wash your own dishes and your own clothes and live in only one room. And you let her read books that are written by men (!), and you take care of her and never once hit her and you don't yell at her if she even so much as looks at a boy in the street and don't nag at her to wear bindi and get something besides her ears pierced. If her two mothers lied to her about you, what else had they lied about? So she'd decided that the discreet AI medicine pump she'd worn beneath the skin over her heart since she was ten was also a lie and didn't go in for her annual refill when she was supposed to a week after she came to your apartment.

Dear God in Heaven, we didn't know! We didn't know!

The Ex

While sitting at the hospital that evening, Anne's parents showed up. The doctors accessed the serial number on her medicine pump and contacted them because Anne was still a minor.

They blamed you for everything. "How dare you tell our little girl she didn't need her medicine? If it wasn't for that pump, she'd be as big a waste of human skin as you!"

"My Goddess!" Gaia, Ava's wife, a big, heavyset woman in a tailored lavender kudzu fabric suit with a pink sapphire triangle pin on one lapel and a platinum labia on the other bellowed when she spotted the disintegrating printout of Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions that you'd fished out of an airport trash can on the bedside table. Her hand unconsciously went to her mouth where you'd punched her sixteen years ago, knocking out her front teeth. You'd been quietly reading it to yourself after Anne dozed off because you thought the noise of the vid mounted on the wall would disturb her, "I can't believe you're reading that FILTH around her, I mean, a book written by a dead white man, one of our oppressors! What else have you been doing, you MAN, forcing her to have sex with boys?" Gaia moved her hand away from her mouth, but there was still a trace of fear shimmering in her eyes as she continued her tirade.

Ava snarled at you pleasantly over Gaia's ranting as she adjusted her mini-sari, "What could you possibly offer Anne? She's been to the finest nurturing, empowering all-girl schools in England and on the East Coast that Gaia could buy. She's been on spiritual retreats in Tibet, Nepal and Burma since she was ten. We've sent her to the most exclusive pagan lesbian summer camps where she didn't have the Judeo-Christian male hegemony inflicted on her as she mingled with her own kind in an egalitarian non-judgmental all-natural setting. Her coming out party when she was fourteen cost us thirty grand alone for just the vegan catering. Billy, Gaia's and my daughter has had the best of everything - while your income barely even covers one pair of organic, animal friendly, egalitarianly hand-crafted shoes for her!"

Gaia loudly interrupted, "And if you'll remember, you MAN, you, the divorce settlement clearly stated that you were never to seek contact with our daughter or risk having that suspended sentence...what I mean is, we'll see to it that you go to prison for this as we should have years ago!"

Ava nodded smugly. "Game time is over, Billy. You managed contact with Anne somehow. Sixteen years or not, we'll see to it that you never see daylight again. Hope you like men because you'll be getting your fill of them soon enough!"

For once, you held your ground. You told them that Anne had shown up on your doorstep a few weeks ago without your asking, and as she had DIVORCED them, they couldn't press charges.

Granted, if we could have gotten a word out without stammering it would have been more effective.

Sod off Willie-boy, we won. Anne's ours. Sort of.

It's William, you moron not "Willie-boy and "Mr. Tully" to you.. However Spike, you're right: we won. Some victory, we can barely keep ourselves together. But if Anne wants to stay, we'll do what we can to see that she gets what she needs.

Small Victories

Ava was furious. Gaia was furious.

Gaia and your ex'd pushed hard as lobbyists for teen divorce in the hopes of lining their pockets. They weren't expecting their own daughter to use their hard won legislation against them. After testing out of the final two grades of the exclusive Sapphic Academy that she attended in Boston, Anne was accepted at Harvard but changed her mind while waiting for the East Coast Bullet to Cambridge the day after the papers were signed. She cut and bleached her ankle length ringlets in the station bathroom and shaved her armpits and legs, after scrubbing off her bindis and throwing away her earth-friendly 100 animal product free designer mud cloth and kente saris; replacing them with her beloved gaudy thrift store polyester contraband. Then she and Bob the cat got on the Twin Cities Bullet and came looking for you in spite of all the years they'd spent telling her that you didn't matter, that you were dead, and even if you weren't, you weren't worth knowing.

We didn't know she'd spent years building fantasies about us all because of a picture of us taken when we were twenty two that she'd found crumpled at the back of a drawer. That we were brave, that we were tall, that we were some sort of hero...

Hero? Not bloody likely. We were the villain and people ran screaming from us. I miss that.

"Fine," Ava calmly said to you later in your social worker's office. "We'll pay her alimony, it's in the settlement. You'd better not be late with the child support... but what can a loser like you possibly offer Anne? A one room apartment that stinks of cigarettes and canned tuna? I mean, really!"

I resent that! We quit smoking five years ago because it meant a little more money for child support. However, right now I could really use a cigarette.

Make it a whole carton and you've got a deal mate! Hey, Ava-bitch! The tuna's not our fault! The people what lives across the hall from us live on the stuff. Can't stand it myself, makes our stomach hurt, it does!

Your ex continued, scornfully crossing her designer tattooed ankles as she looked you up and down from scuffed Doc Martins to shabby gray work shirt and every-six-months crewcut, "I suppose you could always show her how to shoot insulin, bang your head on the wall and scream, but can you also teach Anne about the struggle our kind has had to endure in order to be where we are today in between bouts of depression? Can you teach her how to be nonjudgmental? Can you empower her so that she can thrive despite living in an oppressive white heterosexual patriarchy bent upon keeping her subservient when you aren't down on your knees cleaning airport toilets?"

You closed your eyes, counting to ten in your head like your court ordered anger management therapist had taught you. It wasn't working... it wasn't working... it wasn't wor...

"Of course he can't. He's a man. What would he know about suffering?" Gaia drawled sarcastically as she closed the lid of her titanium datacube. Then she spotted the grocery list you'd absently jotted down on the margin of one of the legal printouts, "Gertrude Stein! Not only are you imposing your oppressive caucasian heterosexual masculinity on her, you bastard, but you're forcing her to eat meat?"

You looked her right in the eye and said quietly, "Y-yeah. H-hot d-dogs."

Aftermaths

Once the screams died down Anne was yours as long as she chose to live with you.

She was groggy for a few days, but was was soon back to competing with you in school like nothing had happened. She also legally changed her name to Anne Marie Tully, which somehow made you feel a whole lot better about everything.

We steeled ourself for harassment, anything. But it never came. We only learned why years later when a file was left on Anne's desk at work and... this really isn't the time for that, is it?

At the end of the semester, after both of your grades arrived, the two of you celebrated by going out and eating at the diner across the street. While picking at a slice of apple pie with ice cream, Anne quietly told you that she'd made a decision. She was going to be a lawyer after all.

Anne wouldn't look at you. Instead, she stared out the dark, rain streaked window, biting her magenta lower lip for a long time before she continued, for once not with her usual breathless chatter.

She didn't want to be a lawyer to please her parents, but because maybe people who bleached and spiked their hair and people who were missing a lot of their fingers and lived in apartments with walls that were so thin you could hear the people next door snoring needed a lawyer who spoke their language.

The two of you sat there without speaking, the waitresses bustling around your table as they fed the early evening crowd. Eventually you reached across the dirty dishes littering the cracked masonite table, took your only child's hands in what were left of yours and tried not to look at the still healing scars on her inner arms. Though you thought you'd die, you said, "D-do wh-wha-what you n-n-n-eed to."

They still haven't left. Looks like we're going to have to face them because we can't exactly climb out of the window to avoid them. For one thing, it's a thirty foot drop.

Funny, he's taking notes, and her head's thrown back, fast asleep. Hey, Will, you remember when she...

Some things never change.

Rebound

You got a note from Anne halfway through your second semester at community college. It was attached to a big bundle of undergraduate orientation flyers and enrollment forms.

It simply said, "Hey dad, ever consider being broke someplace else?"

You thought about it.

You thought about it long and hard.

You thought about it while washing the dishes, which you now were back to doing once a week because Anne was no longer around to scold you for letting things go.

You thought about it while trying to muddle your way through an Algebra I assignment.

You thought about it in the shower which needed fixing because you never knew if you were going to be parboiled or flash frozen once you stepped in.

You thought about it while polishing the floor of Concourse #5.

You thought about it on the long, slow walk home at sunrise.

You thought about it over a plate of egg and bacon substitute.

You thought about it while trying to watch morning telly as the ceiling vibrated because the two paraplegic trannie queers overhead were having yet another sexual marathon while the wall next to your chair thudded because the polygamists next door were having their usual early morning row over who got the bathroom first.

You thought about it while jockeying for position with the cat on the bed that the two of you now shared. For such a small animal, Bob sure took up a lot of space.

Finally you thought about it while looking around your apartment trying to find your other boot and mentally said, "Why the hell not? I've lived in this fleabag for uh, I forget how long. What the fuck have I got to lose?"

You sent Anne a note back, asking if she knew of any place cheap to live and that if she did, you'd be there in six weeks once finals were over.

College Man

Cambridge, Massachusetts was cold, damp, and miserable. It was pissing down a mixture of snow and rain the day you arrived.

Just like Minneapolis when we got on the bullet a few hours before. Some bloody change of scenery this is!

Spike, kindly be quiet! We are about to enter the grounds of one of the oldest and best educational institutions in the world, even if it is only Harvard.

Anne was waiting for you at the platform. She took the cat carrier and Bela and Big Ben from you after she gave you another one of her enthusiastic hugs that lingered, resting her head against your chest while the trains whirred past and the passengers milled around you and your scant luggage.

You'd looked at Anne with shock, realizing that your daughter was extremely pretty. She'd let her hair grow back in its natural color, a brown like old honey with sun shining through it that waved softly around her face. She was also wearing a vintage black pea coat. She had one waiting for you at home, a long leather one like the coat she'd seen you wearing in one of the old photos taken before the accident, "Hope you like it, it's much nicer than that nasty old army thing you always wear. I found it at the Goodwill in a pile of old curtains! God dad, I hope it fits!"

Where did she find those photos? I thought we'd hidden them under the mattress. Is nothing sacred? And by the way, Spike, have you seen them lately?

Sod off about the pictures, William! I'm tired of her asking us who these people are. I'm tired of her asking if she can meet them because she doesn't think I have any friends other than the wankers at work because I never introduce her to anybody. I think I left back them at the apartment in Minneapolis.

She took you to her place, chattering along about everything in sight as the two of you wandered across the Harvard campus through the slow twilight rain. It was a really, really cool place, and she'd told all her new friends about you, and she wanted you to meet the neighbors, who were really really nice and it had a great view of the town, and and and and and...it wasn't very big, but it was big enough for the two of you and one illicit cat, and the shower worked, and the walls were insulated, and the windows opened, and it didn't smell like tuna fish and government soy cheese. "Dad, now that you've seen my place...would you live with me and Bob for a while? Until you can afford your own place? Please?"

You didn't qualify for Harvard, so she'd enrolled you in the nearby community college. There was time for her to withdraw you? No, no, that was fine.

So you finished your Associates while living on the campus at Harvard, but not in their classrooms.

But we cleaned a hell of a lot of their floors and lavvies for good ol' W&H Janitorial same as back in Minneapolis because nobody else in town would hire us, just so we could make child support payments for a child we were living with, right Willie? Bloody elite can't even piss straight, leave a bollicky mess all over the place, is all!

Because she was pretty and outgoing, Anne had a constant stream of weirdos in and out of the apartment - which you never moved out of because every time you tried to move out to give her space, Anne would talk you out of it. You never got used to the river of mooks, never mind that hey, they made you look normal. Theatre majors, crackpot theorists, ufo fetishists, neo-techno-vamp-goths, you name it. None stayed for long, just long enough to amuse Anne and make you nervous because the last thing she needed was to hook herself up with some loser bigger than you.

You applied for admission at Harvard for the hell of it.

We've been accepted, Spike, we've been accepted!

Right, mate. Our "handicapped" status's an instant ticket because they've been accused of not enough diversity. Being a schizophrenic ex-junkie alcoholic makes us a hot item, never mind that we're whiter than white. They recruited us, figuring that we wouldn't last half a semester and we surprised them, going on to a Master's because we had sod all else else to do and you, not me, liked the work.

The government picked up the tab. Everything else came from grants.

You earned a Bachelor's. You applied and got into Grad school.

So you, Billy Tully, now William, no Will, Will Tully, had a Masters.

The dumbest kid in the Class of '97 had a Masters.

In English lit.

Which showed you how dumb Billy, no Will is. We could have been a doctor, an engineer, something highly paid, but a degree in English literature? With an emphasis in the 19th century? Bollocks what a dummy!

Kindly be quiet Spike; you're ruining our triumph.

Bugger off, time to go looking for another floor cleaning job before the que gets too long over at the welfare office.

"Bloody hell you are!" said Anne without looking up from her datacube. She was studying for the Bar. "Apply for a teaching job. You did all right as a TA last year. Get one of those somewhere and get a life while you're at it!"

Easier said than done, pet!

Dogs and Ponies

They loved your grades. They loved your "rags to academic riches" background. However, though it was illegal to discriminate, they didn't dig your history of mental illness, and well there was that teeny problem with having a minor criminal record - not that being clean for the last twenty years wasn't a good thing but somehow assault, possession, burglary, property damage plus drunk and disorderly were just a little too much for the average administrator to want to handle...

See? What I tell you? Why bother?

"Dad, don't be a wanker, try some of the smaller schools."

I say, I hadn't thought of that!

After a lot of wangling, and a year of watching Anne study for the bar and cleaning floors, a small liberal arts college in Southern California asked you mid-semester if you could come out right away and take over for a professor who'd dropped over dead of a heart attack in the middle of a lecture on 19th century Women Writers.

"I'll take it."

That was a year ago. You showed up at this little town somewhere in Southern California, queasy from the bullet train, with a duffel bag of everything you owned, Bela and Ben rolled up under your arm, and wearing a second-hand suit.

Soddin' thing itched! No more second hand suits from now even if we have to steal one!

Spike!

Just yankin' our chain, Willy!

Anne had come with you a few days before to look the place over and it passed. It was small, quiet, and felt oddly familiar. Maybe because it was like the town you'd washed up in when you were fourteen after being shuffled from foster home after foster home. You kept expecting to turn some corner and see someone you knew, but it never happened.

How many times have we got to tell you, Will, how do we know that this "Billy" ever existed? We've been finding discrepancies, like your sister Drusilla, she's dead, but we've never found a record of her death! And the only William Michael Tully that was born on our birthday in the public records died at the age of sixteen in a drunk driving accident...

Clerical error? She was murdered and the body never found? We were born in England, we haven't checked there yet... So then, mate, can you explain why this place feels like home?

Let me think about it.

The administration was glad to see you. Semester break would be over Monday. Sign here, here's your keys, here's a map of the campus, here's the other guy's syllabus, and here's the address of the house we're supplying you with.

A house?

A house comes with this job?

We won't have to sleep over at the homeless shelter because we can't afford a room right now? Soddin' fantastic!

Sorry it's full of the other man's personal items, but his sister says she'll come clean it up by Wednesday, if you don't mind.

Hell no, I don't mind. A house!

It wasn't much, but you could deal. The college owned a slew of small early 20th century bungalows in the older section of town, within walking distance of the main campus. Living there was one of your perks. If they decided to extend your contract, you could stay there as long as you didn't destroy the place.

A house!

A real honest to God house!

It was a bit run-down and the yard had gone to jungle years ago, but the roof kept out el Nino when it counted. If you slammed the doors too hard, the windows rattled, but it was a house!

Be it ever so humble…

Taking a machete to the bamboo that overran one side of your new home gave you something to do in between lectures and grading essays. So did chasing the raccoons out of the basement and the bats, who cared if they were endangered! out of the attic.

Then there's the assistant head of Anthropology, a well endowed bint in her forties who lives in the house next to us. She keeps inviting us over for tea after she found out that we were once English.

I find her somewhat aggressive and overbearing.

Can't be too picky at our age, William. Wanna bet we wind up in bed the next time she invites us over. 'S been a while. I say we leave our shirt off every time we work in the yard just to make sure she keeps asking us over.

Your predecessor's sister didn't care about his books and let you have them. They covered most of the walls in the living room, overwhelmed both bedrooms, and overflowed into the kitchen. Sorting out the duplicates and evicting the squatters (mice and at least one good sized rat) also killed time that you otherwise would have spent in front of the telly. Which you found buried behind a stack of unfinished manuscripts.

Huh?

Anne's fiance showed up, one look at the place, and told you that you were out of your mind to live there. Considering the income that he was pulling down as a cyber surgeon, maybe it was a shack, but it was your shack.

Sort of.

Until the university sends us on our way.

You told him that free was free and you can't beat free so he shut up and helped you dig the squirrel's nests out of the solar collectors on the roof.

He said at the end of the day: "All right dad, if you insist!" Then he presented you with a heavy duty methane-powered chainsaw and a hard hat because he was "Damned if he let you mess up all that work he'd done on your head."

He's still taking notes; her head is still lolling. It's almost time to dismiss the class and face them.

What do we have to say to them? Sod all or sod nothing?

They'd liked how you handled a classroom, and the curriculum wasn't too bad even if your approach and appearance were a bit over the top even for academia, so, contingent on you getting your Doctorate in the near future, they decided to offer you the position despite your working class "in your face" approach to Brit Lit. as well as everything else. You could stay at the house.

Anne's taken a job with a small law firm/detective agency in L.A. - a half hour commute by monorail. She's excited to be in a different place and lives in the other bedroom when she isn't off with her fiance. She's told you all about her new boss, some big hulk of a guy with a neanderthal brow who doesn't say much, but she likes the work. Despite the weirdness of some the cases, she feels like she's making a difference, not like in some big firm. She just wishes they could pay her more because she wants to help you pay off your medical bills faster...

I know coincidence is cliche, but?

You dismiss the class and they stand up, going against the flow of fleeing students. You sit down on your desk, pushing your glasses back up the bridge of your nose.

It really is them. Things slide 'round in our head just a little, but we can deal.

They're glad to see us, where've you been? How come you never kept in touch? Jeepers, what a surprise to see you here, literally on their front doorstep - all these years and they thought you were dead.

And you say anything. Finally you tell them that the custodian needs to clean the place up, do you have time to drop by for a cuppa?

Flying

Since it's within walking distance, you take them home, you on the mountain bike, backpack full of lesson plans and textbooks, cruising 'round them, long duster hanging down like a cape in the cool evening air, circling at a cautious distance, slowing down, pushing the high tech bike along to talk to them before taking off again and again.

Anne gave us this bike for our birthday because we can finally ride one. Remember that long hot summer in the south of France, when we were seventeen and managed to slip our mother's leash? We rode for miles, by ourself on, what kind of bike was it? I forget, touring villas, forts, and churches, getting drunk on the scent of the lavender farms, trying to work up enough nerve to approach all the pretty girls we...

Saw and utterly failed to get off with? Willy, no, William, I soddin' remember that. I also remember getting sunburned and our first drink of absinthe, too. And that telegraph that came, yanking us back to mummy because the doctor thought she was really going to die after all... I also remember going back years later when Dru set me free and eat...

Spike, that was then, let's not remember the bad stuff, shall we?

I thought that was the good stuff.

You still aren't legal to drive - the chip in your head that now controls the seizures and your stuttering is still too new a technology for the authorities to consider giving you and hundreds of others that privilege.

Under the knife

In your third year at Harvard, your hip gave you such a twinge when you stood up in the bleachers during one of Anne's field hockey games that you blacked out, concussing yourself on the seat in front of you.

You woke up dizzy and nauseated in the hospital. They x-rayed your skull. It wasn't broken, but there were other things that had them concerned. So there were MRIs, CATS, and a dozen other tests that you couldn't even pronounce. There was a lot of scar tissue in places where there shouldn't be scar tissue. You told them about the accident. They accessed your records, some of the scars had already been noted as old... you admitted to having been severely abused as a child. The injuries weren't consistent with... It looked as if some ham-fisted amateur had literally gone in with a sharpened soup spoon... if you wanted to, they might be able to repair some of the damage and reduce your dependence on anti-seizure drugs; it might even clear up the stuttering. All you had to do was consent to letting them install a chip about the size of a thumbnail in your head.

Alarm bells went off deep inside you; you remembered a bright, cold shiny place and the smell of formaldahyde and freshly sawn bone, so you said "N-no!" You could live with stuttering and the occasional twitch.

Oh God, I remember that place, it was horrible. I remember what they did to us... make it go away!

Shhhhhh, Willy-lad, aren't you glad I was there to help you survive it?

By the way, they added, you're going to have to do something about that old car injury. Your hip's collapsing after years of strain, and between that and the arthritis you'll spend the rest of your life in a wheel chair if you don't do something about it soon. It's an easily fixed problem, some simple bone grafts in a series of reconstructive surgeries... the alarm bells screamed louder, so you said, "Fffffffine, tt-t-t-t-rell mm-e where I c-c-can get a g-gg-ood one, ch-cheap. I'd rrrrather be tt-t-t-trapped in a w-wheel chair b-before I let you ssssons of b-b-b-bitches t-t-touch m-me!"

I don't want to wake up not myself, not again, not again, not again, not again, again, again, again, again, again, again, again, again, again...

Shhhhh, Willy-lad, it's over, it's over, I'm here, it's over. Spikey got us through; he has his uses, right? He got us through and he'll get us through again...

You and Anne argued over it for a month, with you sitting on a bag of ice and eating painkillers in between classes. "Dad, do you really want to be stuck on wheels for the rest of your life?"

...again, again, again, again, again, again...

"S-s-s-sod o-off!" you snarled. The thought of letting a bunch of doctors get creative with your insides made your skin crawl, bringing back a lot of horrible nightmares you thought you'd left behind. Anne was being almost as unreasonable as the time she decided that "Dad needs to get laid!" and paraded all sorts of eligible young men in front of you until you finally yelled at her that you didn't "do" that! "Oh," Anne'd said, her face closing in on itself like she was trying not to cry, "Sorry, how was I to know?" and then ran just about anything with in a bra past you until you told her that, yes, you liked girls ahhh, women, "B-but these things cc-c-an't be p-pushed." Anne'd stormed off in a huff, but eventually she'd apologized, telling you that it always pissed her off when her mothers used to parade the daughters of their wealthier clients and colleagues in front of her hoping that she'd chose one of them... "While we're at it dad, for once in your life wouldn't you like to be able to get a word out without stumbling over it? They've been using the same technique to control epilepsy for years, it's perfectly safe!"

...again, again, again, again, again, again...

Eventually you submitted, grumbling and bitching all the way to the hospital where they took bone out of your good hip with you watching under local because you didn't trust them. You were then told to come back in six months so they could start rebuilding you down there because that's the time it would take to grow new bone from the sample they'd taken. And you signed the release allowing them to install a chip in your brain...

...again, again, again, again, again, again...

Six months in a wheelchair didn't help your temper or your mental state. You're still amazed that Anne's still speaking to you after that ordeal.

...again, again, again, again, again, again...

You went in a week early because of your diabetes and also because they had to start the treatments that would bypass your weird immune system, the one that had kept you from any sort of transplant or grafts. Whatever it was it started with a couple of shots that made you throw up.

...again, again, again, again, again, again... shhhhh, Willy, shhhhhhh, I'll take care of this.

And then throw up some more.

...again, again, again, again, again, again... shhhhh, Willy, shhhhhhh.

And then when you thought you possibly couldn't throw up any more, you threw up again and got hot and then cold and your hair fell out and you were a basket case.

...again, again, again, again, again, again... shhhhh, Willy, shhhhhhh, I'll take care of this.

By the time they wheeled you into the operating room you couldn't let go of the gurney and they had to anesthetize you before moving you to the table. It's not that you didn't want to be operated on, but your hands wouldn't let go of the railings because they remembered that long ago cold hard, shiny place where you screamed and screamed and screamed while someone cut into your head and...

...again, again, again, again, again, again... shhhhh, Willy, shhhhhhh, I'll take care of this.

Huh? (Again)

Anne was there holding your hand when you woke up in the recovery room. It wasn't the hard shiny place and you lay there in the dimly lit warmth, crying with relief . The only change was that you were in heavy traction and the back of your head was numb. Anne fed you ice chips, promising you ice cream the next time if the stem cells that they'd injected into your pancreas did their job like they were supposed to. This was because you'd signed another release at the last minute...

Shhhhh, shhhh, it's over. Willie, aren't you glad I was there to help? Old Spike has his uses, right? Right! Oh God, my head hurts...

...let's just say the next three operations went better, we could at least let go of the bed railings and the nurses no longer had the urge to smother us with our own pillow because we were so nasty about everything.

Our hair eventually grew back, which was a bloody relief.

That was also when Anne met her fiance. You came home one night, opened the door to the apartment you shared with her, turned on the light and caught the two of them snogging on the couch. You beat a hasty retreat, the image of the doctor that had put the chip in your head with his hand up your daughter's skirt burned in your retinas. Which you absolutely refused to have tampered with. You could handle more craziness or a wheelchair, but you were damned if you let them accidentally blind you!

We had a little talk with him the next day when he made a final adjustment to our chip under local so that it integrated better with the medicine pack in our chest. It was weird, lying there with a hole in our head, telling our future son-in-law, who had a probe in our brain, that no, we didn't mind him being with your daughter, but bloody hell, warn us next time! And by the way, can you support her in the manner that she's become accustomed to? Which made us laugh because wellllllll...

He was o.k. about it, or maybe Anne'd told him about your eccentricities. He was also Jewish, which was o.k. too. He was disappointed that Anne wouldn't convert, having adopted your attitude of "Yeah, right!" early in your relationship and she wasn't about to change her mind in the near future.

The wedding was in two years and would you mind giving her away as you were her only living relative? Funny, she never mentioned your ex and her wife, and you didn't set the record straight.

Oh, and they'd met while we were in the recovery room after the first operation and had gone out for coffee every night until we were strong enough to go home. Right under our nose, just like some French farce!

With dirty pictures?

Spike!

The elephant in the room

You're home now. Anne's houseplant jungle hogs the wide front stairs, and her wind chime collection's a little overwhelming, but what the hell!

You let them in your front door, turning on the light, letting them see your place. Books and dirty dishes cover every surface. Bela Lugosi and Bob the three legged cat stare down arrogantly at them from above the fireplace. You hear her gasp a little, "This is just like mom's..." and he takes her hand. You pretend not to notice, shoving things off the couch and chairs, asking them to sit down.

You talk more, how is? She's got a coven of her own and recovering from breast cancer. Her daughter looks just like her ...and? We don't see much of him anymore. He owns one of the biggest contracting firms in the Midwest...And? ...dead of a heart attack in his sleep, we didn't know.

Uncomfortably, they ask you about yourself. You tell them what you can because just looking at them makes things slide 'round in your head like they haven't in a long time and it's getting confusing. You especially don't mention having met Willow fifteen years ago in the Minneapolis International Airport, and the nervous breakdown you had afterwards; the one that got you re-Institutionalized for six months...So you just sit there grinning at them for a long time before ordering Afghani takeout.

Over the last of the kabobs (You notice he doesn't eat much...that hasn't changed either.) the elephant in the room waves it's trunk at everybody. "Now seriously, why the hell didn't you contact us all these years? We looked all over for you and not a trace!"

They did? They really did?

Honest, we did. We gave up because we thought you'd had enough of us...or were dead.

No, definitely not dead. Just, ah, busy. You look down at your missing fingers with shame.

Eventually over cups of strong, syrupy Arab coffee it comes out, the accident, heroin, booze, jail, the asylum...and worse. And Anne. Don't forget Anne.

Anne

Anne was why they were able to find you. While introducing himself to his newest staff member he noticed an enlarged framed snapshot of you at twentytwo on her desk and asked who you were. He realized that it was you, or maybe it was you. Anne had been happy to tell him everything she knew. They'd been looking in all the wrong places, and now here you were, right where they expected least.

Things are sliding around in your head, but it's no longer unsettling, it's reassuring. You're still crazy, but not as crazy as you thought you were.

They ask, do you want a job? I mean, look at this place, we can't... no, no, I'm happy here, maybe later. Need to take things slow. Would you look at the time?

Truth

It's two a.m. and you walk your guests down to the bullet station, them on foot, you back on the bike because you enjoy the feel of the wind on your face. Nobody says anything until they begin to climb aboard.

You take her hand, asking, "Was any of it real?"

"What do you mean, real?" She turns and looks down at you, puzzled.

"The Hellmouth, me dying, the, the Initiative, Darla, Dru...you? Was all of that real?"

"Yes, of course it was. I was there, remember Spike?"

"Call me Will?"

Frowning slightly, Buffy touches your face, kissing you lightly on the cheek before letting go of your hand..

You watch the running lights of the bullet train rapidly diminish towards L.A., your mind the quietest it's been in a long time.