Youngblood

"Why are you here?"

The Carter family kitchen was an uncomfortably tight space and ten o'clock was far too early in the morning for existential questions, so Reese hoped that Taylor would be satisfied with a simple response.

"Getting Cheerios for breakfast."

The long silence left Reese wondering if that answer was sufficient or if more intellectual gymnastics were going to be required before he got his first cup of coffee.

So to deflect, he flipped the same question.

"And why are you here? Aren't you supposed to be in third period homeroom at this hour?"

The boy frowned, perhaps at the specificity of the man's knowledge of his daily school schedule.

He flung open the refrigerator door and stood in its chilly light for several moments before choosing a carton of orange juice.

Although he was almost as tall as Reese, Taylor still had the sunken chest and sinewy arms of an immature teenager. His sky blue t-shirt was too short and his sharp hip bones jutted out below its hem. The shirt's faded illustration of a forgotten cartoon hero suggested this was a relic from the childhood he refused to abandon just yet.

Blue and gray plaid flannel lounge pants made up the rest of his ensemble. The frayed ends of undone drawstrings, sagging waistband, and tattered hems dragging on the tile floor made Taylor look like a homeless street kid, Reese thought.

But Joss was the mother and the father now, so it was none of his business.

"Yeah, well today is teacher conference day."

"What's that?"

"The teachers go for some kind of on-the-job training. And we get the day off."

"So they get paid to learn their jobs and you get a free vacation. Win-win, hunh?" Reese leaned against the counter top, cradling a bowl of cereal and spooned a small portion into his mouth.

"Yeah, something like that."

Dull, no eye contact, no engagement. Reese could feel irritation scratching away at his morning mellowness.

Taylor took the yellow box and heaped a mound of Cheerios into a bowl he retrieved from the sink. Reese knew that Taylor's taste for this cereal was a new development, one cultivated after his own arrival on the scene.

Joss, who hated Cheerios, usually had time for just a slice of whole wheat toast with her coffee as she scurried through her morning routine.

He imagined she enjoyed a more leisurely pace when he wasn't there. But she didn't seem to mind his presence on those days when he was around to complicate her mornings, so he tried to spend the night with her whenever he could manage it.

The kid, however, was just plain annoying, so Reese let loose a subtle poke.

"So your mother lets you stay here all day by yourself?"

"Yeah, I am fifteen. She trusts me to stay out of trouble for at least eight whole hours."

The sullen tone was so damn infuriating that Reese felt justified delivering another jab.

"And you're supposed to go to your grandmother's this afternoon anyway, aren't you?"

Taylor glared at this further example of too much shared information.

"Yeah, you know exactly everything about me."

"Not everything. Just some things."

Taylor eyed the red and white carton on the counter next to Reese's hip.

"Did you save any milk?"

"Yes, I'm not a total monster, you know."

The two finished their stand-up breakfasts in silent truce, the man sipping his microwaved coffee, the boy guzzling two glasses of orange juice.

"So answer my question. Why are you here?"

Armistice over.

"Look, you know I stay overnight from time to time. I've been doing it for several months now."

"Yeah, but why?"

Reese sighed and ran a hand through his hair.

"You don't need a birds-and-bees refresher from me, Taylor. So what's your real question?"

The boy grunted, slammed the empty juice glass on the counter, and exited the kitchen without a further word.

A few moments later, Reese heard the rushing sounds of the shower in the hall bathroom. For the second time that morning he checked his cell for messages from Finch. Finding none, he returned to the bedroom he shared with Taylor's mother to strip and take his own shower.

XXXPOIXXXPOIXXX

When the two emerged from their bedrooms a short while later, the showers seemed to have rinsed the tension from the air somewhat.

At least the immediate clash was put on hold.

Though dressed similarly in jeans, dark t-shirts, and tennis shoes, their final style choices were quite different.

To counter the man's neat leather bike jacket, the boy chose an oversized black and white windbreaker with the B logo of the new team in town, the Brooklyn Nets, over the heart. The bold slogan of the newcomers, "No Sleep Till," was emblazoned on the back.

"Aw, man! Here I thought you were a Knicks fan!" Reese tried to make his voice sound hurt, but he guessed the amusement seeped through pretty well.

"I was. Still am. But that doesn't mean I can't be for the new guys too. Have to at least give them a chance to prove themselves, right?"

"How long?"

"Half a season, I figure. We'll know by late January."

Reese smiled at the cruel impatience of youth.

"Let's go get some lunch, Taylor."

A grunt seemed to signal approval of this idea.

The two walked the short distance to Reese's car in silence. He could tell Taylor was shivering in the frigid late October sun, but he decided it was better not to scold or suggest returning to the apartment for a sweater. Let him tough it out.

The man didn't say where they were going and the boy didn't ask.

The crowds hustling for their lunchtime appointments clotted the sidewalks in a colorful display that kept both of them occupied with people-watching during the thirty minute drive to their Upper East Side destination.

A quick call to Finch secured the arrangements in advance and they were able to park in a reserved spot only a few feet from the discreet black lacquered door which hid the entrance to Apthorp's Club for Gentlemen.

Inside, the club's wrinkled concierge Hadley seemed to have aged a few centuries since Reese's last visit. But as he stared down at them from the top of the imposing flight of marble stairs leading to the upper lobby, his greeting was cheerful and warm.

"Ah, right on time I see! So nice to have you back with us, Mr. Rooney. Mr. Hawk told us to expect you and your young friend for luncheon at twelve noon and here you are, sharp on the hour!"

Hadley pinned a visitor's access badge onto the boy's t-shirt.

"I hope you enjoy your tour of our little establishment, Mr. Taylor. And the chef has prepared several especially good entrées for lunch. I recommend the striped Chilean sea bass. Armando's ginger and citrus shrimp stuffing is simply exquisite!"

By the time they escaped from Hadley's skeletal clutches, both Reese and Taylor were shaking with suppressed laughter.

As they walked past the paneled dining hall with its endless array of square tables covered in blindingly white linens, Taylor was stunned out of his cynical pose.

"This is totally awesome! Are you a member here? You must be freakin' rich or something!"

"Actually, it's Harold who's a member here." Reese was chuckling.

"We're his guests this afternoon."

"Awesome," Taylor repeated, his eyes and mouth rounded in astonishment.

Awed was exactly the reaction Reese was shooting for with this field trip. So he felt his mission was well launched.

Reese preferred to eat in the informal bar overlooking the lap pool.

The huge black leather chairs were welcoming and the atmosphere, although hushed, was not stuffy. He liked Miguel the bartender, despite his patent-leather hair and Hollywood dentistry, because the man only talked when spoken to and never gossiped.

At Reese's suggestion, Taylor asked for the cheeseburger and sweet potato fries with a root beer. His host ordered the same but with blue cheese instead of cheddar.

The striped sea bass special must have overtaxed the kitchen because the burgers took a surprisingly long time to arrive. But when they did they were good and the boy and the man finished them quickly.

Taylor wanted a refill of root beer. Reese wanted a beer, but refrained.

They talked about the city's struggling sports teams. Even the mighty Yankees seemed on the verge of a play-off swoon. Each of the Jets 'dueling young quarterbacks was underwhelming in his own particular way. And without the spark of Jeremy Lin's charmed intervention, the Knicks continued to be unspeakably awful.

They talked about school, which in Taylor's stories seemed much more civilized than Reese remembered it having been during his own teenage years.

According to Taylor, the teachers were sympathetic and occasionally inspiring, the bullies were manageable, and the girls were cute, maybe even willing. And he had a trustworthy set of good buddies to run with.

In Reese's own high school experience, none of these things had been true, but he was glad for Taylor.

For maybe the one millionth time, he reflected that Joss was a good mother, another thing he had missed out on growing up.

After Reese signed the lunch tab to Finch's account, the two walked through the labyrinth of corridors and chambers to the sleek locker room.

The man pulled out two pairs of long baggy basketball shorts from his locker and gave the blue ones to the boy.

Now dressed for action and carrying the equipment in a duffle bag, Reese led his charge to an empty glass-enclosed racquetball court.

"You ever played this?"

"No." Taylor shuffled his feet and looked to the far corner of the white box enclosure.

"Good. That gives me an advantage. At least for the first half hour. After that, you'll catch on and then we can have a real contest."

They played hard.

The man gave minimal instructions, only adding up the points as he won them, letting the boy figure out the rules for himself. As Reese had predicted, Taylor quickly mastered the geometry, physics, and strategy of the game.

Seeing the red rubber ball thwack hard against Taylor's arms and legs was a particular satisfaction of the early matches, but soon the boy learned how to return the volleys with vicious force and the game was joined for real.

Reese knew he was in excellent condition, but the teenager's natural endurance and the treachery of age caught up with him sooner than he expected.

By the end of ninety minutes, Reese was bending over from the waist between sets, hands on his knees, blowing hard.

"Do you want to take a break?" Taylor, the Youngblood triumphant, was ready to extend some casual charity.

Reese's every instinct was to fight on. He could beat this kid and show him a thing or two. He wasn't done yet. Not by a long shot.

But he sensed there might be a kind of victory in losing this battle for once.

"Yeah, let's take a breather. I'm not giving up, just getting my wind back."

Taylor's answering smirk reminded him forcefully of Joss.

He wanted to talk with her now, to let her know where they were, how they were getting on. To ask her advice in this unprecedented situation. He just wanted to hear her voice and know how her day was going.

As always, he desperately wanted to know that she was safe.

But the phone was in his locker and anyway he wasn't going to talk to her like that in front of her son.

The man and the boy sat side by side on the hardwood court; backs against the wall, legs sprawled in front of them. Panting, sweat dripping freely from both chins, their dark t-shirts clung to their chests.

Abruptly Taylor resumed the conversation from the morning.

"We were doing alright without you. Before you came, we were O.K., you know."

"Yes, I know that."

"And we'll do O.K. when you go."

"Yes, I figure that too."

Still staring straight ahead, Reese wanted to push this now.

"So you think your mother shouldn't get involved with me because there's a chance I might go? Is that it?"

"Yeah, it happens."

The boy and the man thought about all that was implied in that simple anguished observation.

"Taylor, you wanted to know why I'm here. I'm here because I'm just damned stupid lucky. And I'm going to be here as long as she'll let me stay. I know this isn't regular, not like you'd want it to be. Not normal, I guess.

"But you should know: I'm not going away unless I have to."

Reese hoped that under that jumble of words and sentiments there was something to reassure the boy.

Taylor continued to stare straight ahead.

Then he nodded once.

XXXPOIXXXPOIXXX

When they returned to the locker room, they showered quickly and Reese produced two clean white t-shirts from a stack in his locker. Taylor didn't quite fill out the borrowed shirt yet, but at least its baggy drape seemed stylishly old-school.

As he returned the visitor badge to the mummified concierge at the reception desk, Taylor thanked Hadley extravagantly for the great welcome he had received at Apthorp's.

At this expression of approval, the old man seemed beside himself with pleasure, clasping Taylor's hand and shaking it with surprising vigor for a full minute.

They escaped back into the slanting amber sunlight of the fall afternoon. A sharp breeze blew down the block ruffling the few leaves remaining on the stately trees that shadowed Apthorp's door.

"So do you bring my mother here?"

Taylor looked back at the establishment, his astonishment undimmed after several hours in the place.

"No way. This is a men's only club. No women allowed past the front desk. I think Hadley would drop dead on the spot if one even knocked at the door."

Taylor summed it up: "Yeah, girl cooties."

They laughed at the thought of killing the old man with a whiff of female essence.

From the East Side, Reese drove straight to Taylor's grandmother's place, arriving exactly at the appointed hour to avoid any disapproving reports from her that evening.

Not really wanting the afternoon to end so soon, but out of words, Reese sat with both hands gripping the steering wheel.

Taylor fingered the door release, staring through the pane at the waning sunlight playing off the windows of his grandmother's apartment.

"Thanks for the lunch, John."

"You're welcome. Any time."

"Yeah. Well, I guess I'll see ya."

Though the understanding was unspoken, the two men were in agreement: It had been a day well spent.