Disclaimer: I don't own RENT
Thomas Collins took a deep breath as he heard the grating of a lock. When the door opened, he tried to smile. Somehow he had never managed to perfect that easy, not-happy-not-unhappy smile, and although he knew his neighbors wouldn't care-- they had left their son with him enough times to know that he was responsible-- he wanted these people to like him as much as possible. One never knew which recommendation letter could get him the hell out of Scarsdale.
A shout interrupted the woman's greeting. "GERONIMO!" Then came the clatter and thump of wheels and something hitting each stair on its way down, followed by a tremendous crash as Thomas's neighbor disappeared into the house. He stepped in after her, carefully closing the door.
"Wow-ee didja see that, Mom, wasn't it cool, Mom, looklooklook my tooth--THOMAS!"
A very hyper little boy wearing a baseball helmet and flannel pyjamas crashed into Thomas's legs and hugged him. "Whoa. Hey, buddy. Are you okay?"
"Uh-huh, yeah, I went down the stairs didja see it was so neato Thomas it was reallyreally cool and I set up the pillows and hit the couch and look now mine tooth is coming out isn't itcool?" The boy opened his mouth and bent one of his teeth to a ninety-degree angle. He pushed the tooth a little farther, twisted it, and it snapped out. "Mo-o-om, I lost a to-o-o-oth!" he wailed. "Isn't itcool?" he asked Thomas, apparently not caring for the answer.
"Come on." His mother grabbed his hand and led him away. "Let's wash out your mouth." Over her shoulder, she gave Thomas a weak smile. He grinned in return.
As the boy and his mother disappeared, Thomas noticed a second child, one he had not seen before. "Hello," the boy said. He stood at the top of the stairs, clutching a banister. He, too, wore flannel pyjamas, pants and a jacket in pastel stripe, and thick glasses.
"Hi." Thomas smiled at him, trying to appear unthreatening. He was not a threat at all, but being over six feet and built like a carthorse had its disadvantages--namely, children considered him something of a boogeyman at first sight. "I'm Thomas."
The boy nodded.
"What do they call you?"
"Lots of things," he answered, enunciating each word quietly.
"What do you want to be called?" Thomas tried again.
"Is Roger okay?" he asked.
A cry of, "Wow-ee, pink spit!" issued from the bathroom. Thomas nodded. "I think he'll be fine," he said. At least physically…
"I told him not to," Mark said. His eyes welled with tears. "It's not safe," he whined.
Before Thomas had the chance to agree-- because surely, riding a skateboard down the stairs and crashing into the couch was not safe, though no surprise-- Roger bounded back into the room, his mother hot on his heels. "Hey, Mark, Thomas, lookit," he said, pulling down his lower lip to show the gap where he had wrenched out his tooth.
Thomas nodded. "Very nice, little guy," he said.
"Roger, don't do that," Miss Davis scolded tiredly. "Honey… why don't you go put the tooth under your pillow? Okay? Then the tooth fairy can come."
Thomas knew that was not what Miss Davis meant, but he winced at the word "fairy." Luckily no one noticed; Roger had taken off up the stairs and Mark followed him. Miss Davis headed for the kitchen. "Thomas, could I have a word, please?" she asked.
He followed her into the kitchen and watched silently as Miss Davis poured herself a small glass of wine and sipped it. Her muscles eased slightly as she did. "That boy…" she said with a shake of her head. Remembering, she turned to Thomas. "Don't worry, I'll take care of that tooth fairy business. I appreciate your coming over at the last minute," she said.
Thomas nodded. "It's no problem."
"Mark is a great kid, you won't even know he's here."
"He seems really nice. Good for Roger, maybe he'll mellow him out a little."
Miss Davis laughed. "Good one," she said. Thomas smiled and shrugged. He tried. Both of them knew that nothing short of a heavy dose of Ritalin would mellow Roger out. "Stephanie quit," she said. "I know this is a lot to ask of a teenager, but I can't leave Roger by himself and the school won't hold him after four. Would you be able to watch him after school? It would only be until I got home, about six-thirty, and I can pay you of course. How does eight dollars an hour sound?"
Unbelievable. "I'll have to ask," Thomas replied, though what he wanted to say was, I'll do it. In truth he liked Roger, though he had only ever seen the boy in small doses. Anything more than a small dose of Roger could kill you. "But if my parents agree, yes."
"Great. You'd just have to pick him up from school and watch him until--"
The sound of running footsteps interrupted their conversation. "Wait for me!" Mark wailed. Roger burst into the kitchen moments later, breathless and giggling through the gap in his teeth.
"Honey, Mark is a guest," Miss Davis reminded her son.
Mark shuffled into the kitchen, red-faced and panting. His big blue eyes were full of tears as he fumbled with a length of cord around his neck. Oh, shit. Thomas knelt and lifted the inhaler hanging off the cord. He helped Mark hold the inhaler to his mouth. For a moment Mark breathed in his steroids loudly, then his grip on the inhaler eased. "You okay, man?" Thomas asked.
"Okay." Miss Davis had quickly switched to Mom-needs-to-get-out mode. "Emergency numbers are by the phone. There's lasagna in the oven--"
"Lasagna!" Roger whined.
"--and, I guess you know what to do for Mark's asthma. I've got to go. Thank you again, Thomas--Roger, be good. Please be good." She hugged her son and kissed him before he squirmed away.
As the door shut and locked behind her, Thomas glanced from one little boy to the other. This could be a very long evening indeed.
"Roger, eat your lasagna."
The boys sat at the kitchen table, eating lasagna-- in the cases of Mark and Thomas-- and drinking milk. Roger was already in sulk at Thomas's refusal to allow him chocolate milk. Rain pounded the windows; at a crack of thunder, Mark jumped and grabbed his inhaler.
Roger wrinkled his nose at the mess on his plate. He had spent the better part of five minutes dissecting his dinner, unearthing offending vegetable after offending vegetable. "It's gross," he said. "It's really gross. They should call it gross-agna."
Thomas rolled his eyes. "It's like pizza. You like pizza. This is just like… a pizza sandwich."
"Yeah but with vegetables," Roger returned. "I don't wanna eat it."
Thomas considered his response carefully. Starving-children-in-India would never work with this kid. Mark's-eating-his was unfair to Mark. "Okay," Thomas said.
"What?" Roger asked in disbelief.
"You don't have to eat it," Thomas agreed. "But you're not getting anything else, since your mom didn't say I could cook for you." This was not exactly true. Miss Davis had said that Roger was not allowed to touch the stove under any circumstances. No similar ban had been extended to Thomas.
Roger sighed. He speared a piece of pasta on the end of his Mickey Mouse fork and fed it to himself. And later, when Thomas handed him and Mark cookies from the top shelf where Roger couldn't reach (try though he did), Roger made no complaint of that ban on cooking.
Thomas sighed. He rolled his shoulders and stretched his arms above his head. Tempted as he was to fall onto the couch and catch a quick nap, he knew his job was only half-done.
Slowly, Thomas began gathering the crushed and dropped popcorn pieces that littered the living room. By the end of the film (Return of the Jedi), Roger had been more interested in crawling around with the bowl on his head than in actually finishing the popcorn. "I'm a Chewbacca! Rrrwow!" he announced.
"It's not called a Chewbacca," said Mark, who held his feet and watched the film patiently. "It's a wookie."
Thomas smiled. Seeing this, Mark asked why. "I'm glad you stick up for yourself," Thomas explained. "For a pretty sick kid, you've got backbone."
"I'm statistically improbable," Mark replied, apparently proud of this fact, "since my sister was born funny."
Now Thomas scooped up the final bits of popcorn Roger had dropped on the carpet and started on the couch, where Mark, for all his neat calmness, had scattered his share of kernels. Babysitting was knackering work with those two. Thomas thanked whatever deity had his back that he had not been asked to wrestle Roger into his pyjamas. Roger had a habit of running off in various states of undress, unconcerned by any concept of modesty.
The last of the popcorn was gone. The dishes were cleaned. Now was the time for Thomas to relax-- if he didn't know Roger Davis. Experience had taught Thomas that falling asleep on the job was just about the worst move a boy could make, especially with Roger. He climbed the stairs to check on Roger.
When Thomas opened the door to Roger's room, he had to blink at the blue shade cast over everything. He had forgotten how bright the nightlight could seem. Roger cracked his eyes open. "Hi," he said.
Thomas entered the room and crossed it carefully, stepping around Roger's scattered Legos, 8-tracks and plastic cars. He knelt by the bed. "Hey," he replied, unable to keep from smiling. Mark's glasses were on the bedside table. Mark himself was on the bed, apparently asleep, with Roger's arms folded across his chest. "You taking care of Mark?" Thomas asked.
Roger nodded. "Is Mark really sick?" he asked. "Is that why he's got to use his breather?"
"Yes," Thomas said.
"Is he going to die?" Roger tightened his grip slightly. "I don't want him to die. I won't let him."
Thomas smiled. "That's not your choice, buddy. But I don't think Mark will die for a long time. His sickness won't kill him."
"That's good," Roger said. "Hey Thomas?"
"Don't tell mine mom or anything, but I don't really got a lot of friends at school. Actually, I kind of only got Mark."
Thomas reached out and stroked Roger's hair. "Then I'm glad you have him," he said.
"Thanks," Roger said.
"Tonight's the first time Mark came over. And his mommy said if everything wasn't okay he didn't have to come over again, and I really want him to come back. Mark's mom thinks I'm bad for him. She says I'm too wild." There was no question how Roger knew all this: the boy's ears reached farther than anyone hoped or expected.
Thomas smiled. This was a side of Roger he had never seen before, vulnerable and almost mature. "Your mom thinks he's good for you. And I think you're good for him, too."
Roger grinned. He looked down at Mark, knowing he could tighten his grip no more. "Mark's mine friend," he said softly. "He's mine." And for once, Roger's mangled grammar did not make Collins wince. He was right.