Taylor and Winston trudged up the steps of the poorly-lit East Village building where Taylor lived. Screaming came from behind a door as they passed, followed by odors of strange and unpleasant cooking wafting into the dingy hallways. They reached the third landing, unlocked 3B. Inside, William played with a set of Lord of the Rings action-figures, hand-me-downs from Taylor. Taylor felt a momentary pang at the sight of them, they had been his favorites, he had always enjoyed pretending he could somehow outwit everyone, find a way to safely use the Ring of Power, rule everything and not be corrupted.
“That's William.“ Taylor told Winston, “My bro.“
William looked up from his play. “I haven't seen anyone playing with action-figures except in old movies, doesn't he have a Wii? An iPhone?“ Winston asked, only half mocking.
“You hate Wii.“ Taylor said, “Have you ever touched yours.“
Winston snickered, “Yeah, but I'm weird. Maybe I should give it to William, so he won't be wei...“
Taylor let that lie, tried not to be offended. “Taylor? Honey? Is that you?“ June's chiming voice from the kitchen beyond the half wall which separated it from the living room.
“Yeah, Ma. It's me and my friend Winston...“ Taylor replied. Silence.
“Can he hang out here for a while? Maybe spend the night?“ Taylor called out.
Taylor chewed on his lip, walked around the wall where he ran into June. She looked tired and careworn, her hair frizzy and disheveled. Taylor's Willow Society activities had put an extra strain on her, she had been forced to find a way to get William home from school everyday and still maintain her reclaimed job at Willow Prep. The accident days before still had her shaken, and angry at all she had done for Taylor only to have him make a mock her efforts. A streak of something; food, makeup, it was hard to tell, ran across her cheek. She held a wooden spoon and a rag. “Who's here?“ she asked, hesitantly.
“Um. Winston.“ Taylor said. June was angry. Fu..I forgot they told me not to hang out with Winston.
“You shouldn't have brought him here!“ June said and something in her tone shocked him. Was it embarrassment?
“It's cool Ma,“ Taylor said hesitant now himself. "He's cool.“ As if that explained everything.
She sighed and said, “Taylor. Son.” June wiped her face with the rag, rolled her eyes. “He's not used to... how we live!“ She waved her spoon around. “Haven't the two of you gotten into enough trouble already?“
June had always seemed beyond the fact that they were poor, willfully oblivious. Had losing and regaining her job, or New York City itself had gotten to her and frazzled her nerves? Either way Taylor did not know how to answer her question.
“Win's not gonna care, Ma. And, we've been good, I promise.“ The lie burned Taylor's tongue. “He's really not like that.“
Taylor was certain if June knew what Winston was really like, what he really got into, she would dislike the boy even more. His mom hated anything which smacked of thievery. June gave Taylor a direct look that said, “Well, if you insist... but I know better.“ She sighed, fixed a wide smile on her tired features, pushed her way around Taylor and went to greet Winston.
“Hi..I'm Ju...!“ Taylor heard her say before he rounded the wall himself. Her voice was higher and more tilted than usual, her name frozen in the air half-spoken. Winston was on the floor, sitting next to William, busy playing with the boy and his action-figures.
“I am Isildur's Heir" Winston said in a deep growl. He waved an Aragorn figure toward a larger, fearsome Sauron. William giggled, waved the Sauron back at Winston.
“But I have the Ring! And I'm way stronger than you! So BAM!“ William hit Aragorn with Sauron.
Winston exclaimed, “Arggh! And so ends the line of Isildur, Elendil's Heir!“ He waved Aragorn gracefully down to the floor and swept him under the area rug, all while humming a sad little tune. William cheered and whooped. Taylor looked at June, who seemed genuinely impressed. A finger was pressed to her cheek, gently scratching. Winston looked up and said, “Sorry, Mrs. Z., had to let Sauron do his thing. You know how e-eeeevil he is.“ Winston stood, dusted his hands on his pants and put his left out to June. “Nice to finally meet you.“ Winston was the same height as June and she looked him in the eyes and blushed, touched her hair with her rag bearing hand. June laughed, looked helplessly at her hands; full with rag and spoon and unceremoniously handed both to Taylor before wiping her hands to shake Winston's. Winston put on a charming smile and June blushed further, fixed fly-away hairs behind her ears. Taylor almost sighed. I know he's handsome, but my own mother?
Girls their own age never seemed to pay much mind to Winston, but much older women and much younger girls behaved the exact opposite. It didn't hurt Winston reserved his charming smiles for the older women.
“Well... I'll leave you boys alone. William. Go get washed up for dinner.“ June said, she turned to walk back around the half-wall to the kitchen, a new lightness to her step. When she heard William make a whining noise she shouted from behind the wall, “Now William Zachary!“
William, after much grumbling, got up and trundled down the hallway towards the bathroom.
Taylor said, “C'mon.“ He led Winston to his room.
Inside Taylor's room Winston looked around, immediately sat in front of Taylor's battered, old computer. He thumbed through an unmarked book of code examples on the desk as he looked around.
“Small room.“ Winston said.
Taylor didn't really know how to respond. “Yeah.“
“You do wonders, old boy.“ Winston said running a finger down the boxy monitor in front of him, across the old keyboard. “I mean I'm surprised this dinosaur still runs.“ There was no sting in the words. Winston clacked away at the keys. On the screen was a website Taylor viewed quite frequently, a news and science aggregate service which collected feeds from hundreds of sources, brought them together for easy viewing. Winston refreshed the page, showing the day's links. Taylor pulled out his tux and carefully put it on a hanger and into his closet, behind his older dress clothes. He wanted to keep it hidden from his mother, also to keep it safe from William. He turned around just as Winston gasped.
“T. Old man. You have to read this.“ Winston nodded towards an article from Discover magazine The title of the article was “Sleep Switch Found in Chemical Transmission Within Human Brain.“ Taylor eased up behind Winston and read the article. A strange fear crept up his spine, like something was very important about the article, something which tickled the back of his mind, but he had little idea what it could be.
“Talk about blow your mind, right T?“ Winston said, “Do you know what someone like Myth could do with that kind of tech?“ Taylor had an inkling, but it was fantastic, unbelievable.
“Seems to me it's too new to really be useful, I mean they would need to have applied it already for Myth to be able to cross-engineer it into a gadget, right?“ Before Winston could reply, William came crashing in. “Wanna play Lord of the Rings with me some more?“ Winston looked bemused.
“William,“ Taylor said, mimicking his father's infrequent attempts to be stern, “Quit bugging us, OK? We don't have time to play Lord of the Rings with you.“
“I wasn't asking you!“ William said squealing, stuck his tongue out at Taylor. Winston barked a laugh and seeing Taylor's expression cloud, coughed to cover it up. “Sorry, Lil bro. Maybe later? Me and T have some big kid stuff to do.“
“This is my room tool" William chirped, “I wanna do big kid stuff!“
Winston sighed, but not unhappily, looked at Taylor and shrugged, as if to say, “Oh well, I tried.“
Taylor scowled at William and moved toward him, fist clenched. William saw it coming and quickly darted out of the room screaming, “Ma! Taylor's being a dick!“ June upbraided William for his language, screamed back at Taylor: “Be nice to William...” There was more but it was indistinct and Taylor couldn't make it out.
“So. Winston. You wanna...“ Taylor began.
“It's cool. T. I'll stay the night, if that's OK.“ Winston said.
Taylor felt silly happiness. It was as if his friendship of Winston had just broken through something, a one-sidedness had slipped away. The last barrier between his life before New York City had melted away and he finally thought of himself as being where he belonged. They spent the rest of the night watching TV, talking about hacking, CryptoCon, scenarios involving the article they had read on sleep switches and some of the more outlandish things it could be used to achieve. Including one of Winston's ideas about turning people into half-asleep zombie-like shells of their real selves, stuck in a walking dream. Winston's imagination allowed full cognitive and memory function, but a razored-out personality; no decision-making ability, or conscious awareness. June was in and out of the room, until around 8:30pm when she banished William to tooth-brushing before bed.
Shortly after, Taylor's father, Dan Zachary arrived home form work, tired, slumped-shouldered and haggard.
“Who's this?“ Dan asked after putting his things down, not yet looking to see who sat next to Taylor.
“Winston.“ Taylor said, aware his father had not wanted him to be friends with the other boy. Dan's head popped up, his eyes narrowed. Still, he reached out to shake Winston's hand. June piped in, “Dan, you should have seen Winston here, he's had William in fits and giggles all night!“ This carried weight with Dan, who smiled.
“Great to finally have you over, Winston. But if you all don't mind, I'm beat. I'm going to go to bed. Good night.“ Dan said, grabbed a plate of food and went to his and June's bedroom. June followed, but she went to put William to bed and take a shower herself.
Two more hours passed and June came back from the bedroom, in a nightgown, hair still wet and made up a pallet on the sofa for Winston and pulled out the blow up mattress for Taylor to sleep on. “This way you boys won't keep William up.“ She said, beaming at Winston.
“But that doesn't mean you two should stay up all night. You still have school in the morning. Pancakes at 7!“ Much to Winston's wide-eyed shock and surprise June leaned down and kissed Winston lightly on the forehead as she told him goodnight. After she had repeated the gesture with Taylor and left, Winston smiled stupidly.
"T, old man. Is it always like this?“ Winston asked a few minutes later.
“Like what?“ Taylor asked.
“Um. Peaceful and stuff. Happy. Normal.“ Winston said, waving his arm around to indicate everything around him. He touched the spot on his forehead where June had kissed him. Taylor felt a weird mingling of pride and embarrassment, unsure exactly how to take Winston's question. Eventually he just said, “Yeah. Um. This is pretty much it.“
"You're a lucky guy, old boy.“ Winston laid back on the couch, arms behind his head.
The next day the boys ravenously attacked large portions of pancakes and bacon June whipped up. Dan was gone already, his work day began long before the boys awoke. William bounced around excitedly. Winston's very presence worked through the seven-year-old's system like a bag full of sugar. Taylor couldn't remember the last time his little brother had been so bouncy. Once breakfast was over June asked the boys to clean the kitchen up before they left for school. She gathered up William, ran out the door in a rush.
Winston sighed happily as the boys washed the dishes. The Zachary's apartment did not have a dishwasher. “You know, T. I've never had real pancakes. Like home made pancakes before.“
Taylor shot Winston a bemused look, “Sure.“ It's still homemade if the maid or cook makes it. But he wasn't about to say that.
“I know you think I'm being stupid or crazy or all rich-kid but you have it sweet here, whether you see it or not.“ Winston said, sincere. Taylor blinked at him before saying, “I guess?“
“Don't think she's like this all the time, Win. Usually it's PopTarts or cereal, but she really seems to like you..” Taylor said.
Winston beamed. Few things pleased him more than older women liking him.
Five minutes later the two teens shouldered their backpacks and locked up, left for school.