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Arthur wipes his hands on a dish towel and scans the kitchen, making sure everything is place.  There’s a checkered cloth on the table, silverware and plates laid out, a pot of noodles steaming on the stove, sauce simmering beside it—even a dollar-store candle burning in the center of the table.  He wonders if that’s overkill.  But he wants the place to look nice, or as nice as possible, anyway.

 

Arthur glances at the clock.  5:56.

 

He walks into the living room, where his mother is watching the news.

 

“More murders,” she says.  “It never ends.”

 

Arthur sits next to her and lights a cigarette.  He took some more Tylenol earlier—the soreness had receded to a distant, occasional twinge.  “It’s not good for you to watch that stuff all the time.  It’ll just depress you.”

 

“Well, what else am I supposed to do, sitting around here all day?”

 

“I don’t know.  Read a book?”

 

“Nobody writes good ones anymore.  It’s all trash.”

 

“How would you know, if you never read them?”

 

“I read reviews.

 

Their bickering is automatic, more habit than anything.  Arthur keeps glancing at the door.

 

“You seem awfully nervous,” his mother remarks.  She seems a little on edge too, rubbing one hand over the other in the way she does when she’s antsy.

 

“I’m not nervous,” Arthur lies.

 

He just wants this to go well. 

 

There’s a buzz at the door.

 

“That’s probably him.”  Arthur stands.  “I’ll let him in.”

 

* * *

 

When Arthur opens the door to the building, Travis is standing there, dressed in a plaid button down shirt and a maroon jacket.  It’s a nice jacket—the sort of thing Arthur himself might wear on a night out.  Travis is smooth-shaven, hair freshly washed and soft-looking.  He’s holding a store-bought pie and a bottle of wine.

 

“It’s cheap wine,” he says.  “But I felt like I should bring something.”

 

“I’m sure it’s fine.”

 

Arthur is struck, all at once, by how painfully handsome Travis is.  Deep wood-brown eyes, thick brows, perfectly balanced features.  A part of Arthur wants to pull Travis into his arms and kiss him right there, but he holds back.  Everything feels so shaky and fragile right now.  And he doesn’t want to risk being seen by one of their neighbors.

 

He hates that he’s so paranoid about the opinions of others.  But there are many people in this world who express their opinions with their fists.

 

They get into the elevator. 

 

They are alone.  Arthur thinks about pulling Travis close and kissing him, but he doesn’t.  He’s not even sure why he holds back.  There’s no risk of being seen, here.

 

“You smell nice,” Arthur says.  “Are you wearing cologne?”

 

“Yeah.  That stuff with the ship on the bottle.”  He glances down at himself.  “It’s okay?  Not too much?”

 

“You’re perfect.”

 

Travis gives him a half-smile.  “You too.”  The elevator slowly climbs up—there are a few alarming stops and starts, a few labored grinding noises.  Arthur fidgets.

 

Travis sets down the wine and pie and turns toward him.  His hands slowly rise to frame Arthur’s face.

 

A tiny, hiccupping laugh escapes Arthur’s throat.  He thinks Travis is going to kiss him, then.  But he just cradles Arthur’s face between his hands—those calloused killer’s hands, touching him so carefully, so gently—and studies his face.  One palm slides down to rest against the side of his neck, and two fingers press lightly against the spot just beneath his jaw.

 

“Wh-what are you doing?” he asks, breathless.

 

“Checking your pulse.  I want to know where you’re at, right now.  In your head.”

 

“You could just ask me.”

 

“Sometimes you say you’re okay when you’re not.  But I’ll ask.  How are you feelin’?”  His fingers still rest against Arthur’s pulse, which flutters like a trapped hummingbird.

 

“A little nervous.”  That’s not the only reason his heart is beating faster, though.  If Travis keeps touching him like this, he’s going to get…excited.  He gulps.  “A lot, maybe.”

 

“It’s not too late to call this off.”

 

“She’s expecting us.  I want to do this.”  He gives Travis a strained smile.

 

Travis lowers his hand from Arthur’s neck, but his other hand remains where it is, cradling his face.  His thumb brushes over Arthur’s cheekbone.  “Then we’ll do this.”

 

The elevator stops.

 

They walk down the hallway.  Arthur knocks on the door to the apartment, then opens it.  “Mom?”

 

She looks up, still sitting on the couch.

 

Travis hangs back.  “Pleased to meet you, Miss Fleck,” Travis says.  “Should I call you that?  Or—”

 

“Penny is fine.”  She hesitates.  “You’re Travis?”

 

“Travis Bickle.  That’s me.”

 

“I’m sorry for not getting off the couch,” she says.  “My hips are hurting.”

 

“That’s fine.”  He looks around.  “Your place is nice.”

 

She smiles.  “It’s not, really.  But you’re sweet to say so.”

 

“It’s nicer than my place.”  He hovers just inside the door for another few seconds, then enters.  Arthur closes the door behind him.

 

“You brought wine,” Penny says.

 

“Yeah.  You drink?”

 

"Occasionally."

 

Arthur clasps his hands together in front of him, then behind his back, then in front of him again.  “Dinner’s almost ready,” he says.  “I just need to finish a few things in the kitchen.  There’s coffee right now, if you want some.”

 

“Sure.  Coffee’s good.”

 

* * *

 

Travis sits in an armchair across from Penny, holding a mug of coffee in one hand and listening to the clink of utensils in the kitchen.  Penny clutches her own mug and watches him with a disconcerting, nervous intensity, like a squirrel having coffee with a hawk.  Like she’s afraid to take her eyes off him.

 

There’s not much of a physical resemblance to Arthur—not that he can see.  But she’s got the same tense, contained energy.

 

“You’ve got your place pretty well-organized,” he says, mostly to fill the silence.  “I’ve never been too good at that.”

 

“I tried to tidy up for tonight,” she says.  “I can’t always do as much as I’d like.”  She sips her coffee, her gaze never leaving his face.  “You’re a taxi driver?”

 

“Yes ma’am.  Used to drive a cab up in New York, now I do it here.  I’ve gotten to know Gotham pretty well over the past few years.”

 

“It’s terrible what’s happening here, isn’t it?  All the garbage in the streets.  And the rats.”

 

“New York was pretty bad, too.  But yeah, if I had to pick, I guess Gotham is worse in that department.”

 

“The smell alone gives me headaches.  I don’t even want to open the windows anymore.”  She sighs.  “I’m sorry to be so negative.  I try to keep a good attitude.  But it’s all you hear about on the news, these days.  Everything seems to be falling apart.”

 

It’s kind of spooky, how familiar her words sound.  “I used to get headaches, too.”

 

“I just pray that Thomas wins the election.  He’s the only one who can clean things up.  He’s going to end the garbage strike and crack down on crime, really take a stand against all the things that are ruining this city.  He’ll make Gotham respectable.”

 

“Yeah.  Well…”  Travis clears his throat.  “To be honest I don’t follow politics very closely.  I’ve never been what you’d call book-smart.  I don’t know what his stances are.”

 

“Oh, I don’t think you have to understand all the political details in order to judge someone’s character.  I just know that he’s an honest person.  That he cares about the people of this city.  You can tell just by his face, by the way he talks.”

 

Travis sips his coffee and thinks about Thomas Wayne’s dead trout eyes, sour expression and condescending tone.  “I guess so.  You can tell a lot about people by looking at their eyes.  I was talking about that with Arthur once.”

 

“He has lovely eyes, doesn’t he?”

 

“Arthur?”

 

“Thomas Wayne.”  Before Travis can think of how to respond to this, Penny continues:  “I used to work for him, did Arthur tell you that?”

 

“He did mention it.  I guess you must know him better than I do.  Wayne, I mean.”

 

“He always treated me so well, back then.  Even though I was just the help, he made me feel like family.”

 

“Well, I’m glad he was decent to you.”

 

“It makes such a difference.  That common decency.  So many people are just awful these days.”

 

And then, for no apparent reason, she starts to cry.  Almost silently.  She hunches her bird-thin shoulders and covers her face with one hand as her body shakes.

 

Travis sets his cup down.  “Hey…”

 

“I’m sorry.”  She sniffles, wiping at her face.  “Goodness, you must think I’m a basket case, falling apart like this in front of a man I just met.  I’m normally not so emotional.”

 

He hesitates, then sits next to her on the couch and awkwardly pats her shoulder, because he’s not sure what else to do.  “Don’t worry about it.”

 

“We’ve been struggling for so long.  I don’t know how much Happy has told you.”

 

“Happy?”

 

“Oh, that’s what I call Arthur, sometimes.”  She smiles, eyes watery.  “He was always such a cheerful little boy.  Always laughing.  My ray of sunshine.”

 

Travis hesitates.

 

Penny has to know about her son’s medical condition.  She has to know that Arthur sometimes laughs because he’s in pain—that he’s been struggling with depression for years.  Doesn’t she?  “Arthur’s a good man,” he says.  “I guess you must’ve done something right, since you raised him.”

 

“Thank you.”  She pulls out a handkerchief and blows her nose.  “It was difficult, being on my own, but I did my best.  A positive attitude makes all the difference.  When things were hard, I just reminded him to keep smiling.”  She pokes her fingers at the corners of her mouth, pushing her lips into a smile.

 

Travis remembers looking through the window of Ha-Ha’s, seeing Arthur in front of the mirror, pulling the corners of his painted mouth upward.

 

There’s something off about Penny Fleck.  Something that makes him uncomfortable.

 

Granted, Travis is kind of off, himself.  Most people would say the same about Arthur.  And Travis has just met her, after all.  He shouldn’t judge.

 

But the way Arthur talked about her before, in the diner…he keeps thinking about that.

 

He sips his coffee.  “I’d like to know more about what Arthur was like as a kid.”

 

Her eyes cloud over, but her smile remains in place.  “Like what?”

 

“Like what did he enjoy doing?  What kinda hobbies?  Did he have friends?”

 

“Well, of course he had friends.  Why wouldn’t he have friends?  But I was always his best friend.  And he was mine, too.  He always liked watching the Murray Franklin show with me.  We still watch it.”  Her gaze focuses on Travis.  “Oh!  You know, I just realized why you seem so familiar.  You look—”

 

“Like Murray?  Yeah.  I’ve heard that before.”

 

“I don’t suppose he’s a relative?”

 

“Not that I know of.” 

 

Awkward silence descends.

 

She clears her throat.  “So, how long have you been driving a taxi?”

 

“Almost five years, now.  I got into the business a few years after I came back from the war.”

 

“The war?  You were in the army?”

 

“Marines.”

 

“Oh my.  Arthur never mentioned that.”

 

“It’s not important.”

 

“It is, though.”  She smiles.  “Thank you for your service.”

 

“You’re welcome.”  He smiles back, awkwardly.  Being thanked for his time in ‘Nam has always makes him feel a little weird.  It’s the same uneasy feeling he got back in New York, when the papers started calling him a hero.   Like he's an imposter.

 

“You know,” she says, “earlier today I was watching an interview with Thomas, and he was talking about the military, how important it is, how much he respects the sacrifice of our soldiers…”

 

Travis half-listens as she goes on about the interview.

 

His fears about being unable to fake a liking for Thomas Wayne, as it turns out, are unfounded; Penny doesn’t seem to require or even want much in the way of response, she just wants a chance to babble about the guy in someone else’s general direction.

 

She’s in love with him.

 

The realization brings a fresh wave of discomfort.  He recognizes the mental architecture of one-sided obsession.  He recognizes it well.

 

Arthur appears in the doorway, flushed from the kitchen heat.  He’s wearing a dark blue sweater that Travis has never seen him in before tonight.

 

He thinks about sliding his hands up beneath the sweater, along Arthur’s sides and over the xylophone of his ribcage.  He averts his eyes, because these probably aren’t thoughts he should be having while Arthur’s mother is sitting a foot and a half away from him.

 

“Dinner’s ready.”  Arthur pauses.  “Everything okay?”

 

“Yes.”  Penny beams.  “I’ve just been talking to Travis.  He’s a good listener.”  She pats Travis’s knee.  “Well, come on, let’s eat.”

 

* * *

 

They sit around the kitchen table.  Arthur pours the wine and serves up plates of steaming spaghetti with meat sauce.

 

Travis did love spaghetti as a kid.  He didn’t lie about that.  But ever since the war, it turns his stomach.  Not the taste—he still likes that.  It’s the way it looks.  The redness of the sauce, the meaty chunks, the slippery tangle and swirl of the noodles, like mangled brains or spilled intestines.

 

He probably should have said something to Arthur.  He’s never liked making special requests, though.  His parents always taught him that if you had dinner at someone’s house and they were nice enough to cook for you, you ate whatever they served.  You didn’t fuss.  And this is the first time Arthur has cooked for him.

 

He takes a bite.  It’s delicious.  Garlic, tomato, herbs.  If he doesn’t look at it, he’ll be okay.  He takes another bite, and a bit of noodle falls onto his shirt.  He picks it off, still without looking down.

 

“I had another gig at the children's hospital today,” Arthur remarks, cutting up his noodles.  “I guess they liked me, there.  They requested me.”

 

“That’s nice,” Penny says distractedly.  “I do wish you’d look for something a little more stable though.  Your job is so unpredictable.”

 

“I love this job, Mom.  And I’m lucky to have it.  There’s not a lot of work in this city.”

 

“It wouldn’t hurt to look.  You can’t be a party clown forever.”

 

“I know.  That’s why I’ve been working on my standup material.  It’s almost ready.  Pretty soon now, I’ll start doing my routine in clubs.  And once my name is out there, maybe I’ll start getting some better chances.”

 

“Happy, you’ve been saying that for months.  What makes you think it’s going to be that easy?”

 

A flush rises into his face.  “I know it’s not easy.  But I want to try.  You’re the one who always told me that I’m supposed to bring joy and laughter to the world.”

 

“When did I say that?”

 

“When I was a kid.  You don’t remember?  You said it all the time.”

 

“Well, if I did, I was probably talking about keeping a positive attitude.  Being a comedian isn’t something that just anyone can do.”

 

Arthur lowers his gaze.

 

“You know I only say this because I worry about you,” Penny adds.

 

“I’ll figure something out.  Please don’t worry.”  Arthur glances at Travis, then down at the table as he turns his fork over and over in his hand.  His leg bounces beneath the table.  “Can we talk about something else?”

 

“Well, what would you like to talk about, Mr. Picky?”

 

“Anything.”

 

Travis is starting to understand why Arthur gets so agitated when he talks about Penny. 

 

She is Arthur’s mother, he reminds himself.  And he promised Arthur he would be on his best behavior.  But he doesn’t like the way she talks to him. 

 

“Travis,” Penny says, “what sort of pie did you bring?”

 

“Cherry.”

 

“That sounds wonderful.  We can have it with vanilla ice cream later.  There’s some in the freezer.”

 

Arthur stares down at his plate, rolling a meatball around with his fork.

 

“How’s the new act goin’?” Travis asks Arthur.  “At the hospital, I mean.”

 

“Oh.  It, uh.  Involves a dinosaur puppet.  Sort of a ventriloquism routine.  I’m trying to come up with some more material for next time.  I could tell some dinosaur jokes.  ‘What did the T-Rex say to the Triceratops?  Nice to eat you!’”

 

“That joke seems a bit morbid for children,” Penny remarks.

 

“Nah, kids love that sh—stuff,” Travis says.  “You’ll do fine.”

 

Arthur smiles. 

 

“I wouldn’t mind hearing some of your standup either,” Travis says.  “Those jokes in your journal, they were pretty good.  I couldn’t write stuff like that.”

 

Penny takes another sip of wine, watching them over the rim of the glass.  “He never shows his journal to me.

 

Probably a good thing.  He can just imagine her reaction to Arthur’s doodles and pasted magazine photos.  “Well, I found his journal.  After he lost it.”  Travis starts to eat another bite of pasta, then stops, because he accidentally looked at it.  In a flash he sees red-drenched soil, red-spattered leaves and chunks of flesh.  Human meat.  He sets his fork down.

 

At his side, beneath the table, his hand clenches and unclenches. 

 

He wishes he hadn’t gotten cherry pie.  It seemed like a safe choice—who doesn’t like cherry?—but he should have just brought apple.

 

Some red foods are okay.  It’s a little unpredictable, what sets him off.  But he knows, already, that he won’t be able to stomach more than one or two bites of pie.  The cherries will look too much like globs of flesh, the flaky, pale crust like bone fragments swimming in a mass of jellied blood.  In the echo-chamber of his skull he hears explosions, gunfire.

 

He feels a nonsensical urge to reach for his boot, where he used to keep a knife strapped—his body reacting to a threat that’s not there.

 

A vision explodes in his head—Thomas Wayne emerging from a stinking wet jungle with a machete in one hand, scowling, beady eyes murderous.  Travis opening fire on him, watching his body flail around like a ragdoll, blood spraying from a torn neck…

 

“Travis?” Arthur says softly.

 

He realizes he’s been muttering under his breath, staring at the spaghetti.  He’s not even sure what he was saying.

 

He can shoot a man in the gut without flinching, but put a plate of pasta in front of him and his brain goes haywire.  Stupid.  Get a grip on yourself Travis, you fucking stupid cunt, you screwhead, get your shit together—

 

“Travis, are you all right?” Arthur asks quietly.

 

“Yeah, think I’m just fightin’ a bug or something.  Stomach’s a little funny.  Spaghetti’s good though.”

 

“You don’t have to finish it,” Arthur says.

 

“You made it for me.”

 

Beneath the table, where Penny can’t see it, Arthur puts a hand on Travis’s knee.  “It’s okay.”

 

Travis focuses on the sensation, and his breathing slows.

 

“Who wants dessert?” Penny asks brightly.  She doesn't seem to notice Travis's lapse.

 

He smiles, a tightening of his lips.  “I think I’ll just have some of that ice cream.”

 

Arthur brings out bowls and plates.  Penny slices up the pie and scoops some ice cream into a bowl for Travis.  She glances at his unfinished plate of spaghetti.

 

“You put too much garlic in the sauce,” Penny remarks, turning to Arthur.  “I keep telling you, a little goes a long way.”

 

“Last time you said the sauce didn’t have enough garlic.  I guess I went overboard.”

 

“No, I keep telling you it’s too much.”

 

“The sauce was fine,” Travis says.  “It wasn’t that.”  He takes a bite of ice cream.  His stomach clenches.

 

“Is it all right?” Penny asks.  “It has been in the freezer for a while, but I think it’s still good—”

 

“The ice cream is fine.  It’s not that.”

 

“Well, what’s wrong?” her fingers work nervously at her napkin.  “I can tell something is wrong.”

 

I don’t like the way you fuck with Arthur’s head.  For a moment, he thinks about saying that.

 

Instead he replies, “I’ve got to be honest with you, Penny.  I don’t really like Thomas Wayne.”

 

Penny blinks at him, her face blank with confusion.  “Arthur said you were a big fan.”

 

Arthur winces.

 

“I think I gave him the wrong impression,” Travis says.  Already, he wishes he had just left it alone.  But it was eating at him.  He had to say something.

 

“Well, if not Thomas, then who do you support for mayor?” she asks.

 

“I don’t know.  I don’t really support anyone.  Not for that.”

 

“But someone has to do something,” she says.  “Someone has to clean Gotham up.  The way things are now…we can’t live like this.”  She clutches her napkin.  “I’m afraid to even go outside anymore.  The garbage just piles up everywhere.  There are drug dealers on every corner, and people are getting robbed and raped and murdered every day.  Someone has to take a stand against the criminals.”

 

Travis slowly sets his spoon down.  “I killed a robber once,” he says.  “In a store.  He had a gun pulled on the store owner and was telling him to hand over the money.  I walked up behind the guy.  Said ‘hey.’  When he turned around, I looked him in the eye and shot him.”

 

For a moment, Penny doesn’t seem to know how to respond.  She flushes, looks down, fidgets.

 

Travis doesn’t know why he said that.  There are certain topics that aren’t appropriate to bring up at the dinner table, especially when meeting your lover’s mother for the first time, and “that time I killed a guy in a convenience store” is one of them.

 

“The store owner was grateful,” he says.  “I guess that was the fifth time that year he’d been robbed.  Or it would have been.  The police weren’t doing much to help him out.”

 

“Well, there, you see?” Penny says, still fidgeting with her napkin.  “That’s what happens when there’s no law and order.  The store owner was lucky you were there to help him.”

 

“Maybe.  Maybe it woulda been worse if I’d done nothing.  But I think about that guy sometimes.  The one I shot.  He knew he was about to die.  I could see it in his face, right before I pulled the trigger.”

 

“He was dangerous,” Penny says softly.

 

“So am I.  I’ve made mistakes, too.  I’m not so clean.  I don’t think any of us are.”  In the ensuing silence, he takes another bite of the melting white mass in his bowl.  “It’s good.  The ice cream.” 

 

“I just don’t understand,” Penny says.  “If you’ve seen how things are, if you know what kind of jungle we’re living in, how can you not believe that this city needs help?”

 

“I’m not saying it doesn’t.  We need a lot of help.  I just feel less sure about things these days.  I don’t know what it means to be a good or a bad person.  To be dirty or clean.  Who decides.”  He looks Penny in the eye.  “I don’t trust Thomas Wayne to make those kind of choices.  I don’t think he’s ever had to get his own hands dirty, living the way he does, in his big house with his big gates.  And when he talks about cleaning up the trash, I get the sense he’s talking about people.” 

 

Penny averts her gaze.  The muscles in her face are drawn tight.  “Some people are trash.”

 

“I used to think so too.  I don’t know anymore.”

 

Travis glances at Arthur, who hasn’t touched his pie.

 

“Happy, eat,” Penny snaps.

 

Arthur shovels a forkful of cherry pie into his mouth and swallows.

 

“What do you think about all this, Arthur?” she asks.  “What do you believe?”

 

“I agree with Travis.”

 

Silence hangs over them.

 

“Well,” Penny says, “I guess I’m the odd one out, then.  I guess I’m the only one here with some moral standards.  I still believe in decency.”

 

“I do, too,” Travis says.  “I think we just have different ideas about what that word means.”

 

“Yes.  I suppose we do.”

 

They eat the rest of their pie and ice cream in silence.

 

* * *

 

Afterward, Arthur walks Travis down to the spot where his cab is parked.  They haven’t spoken since they left.

 

“I guess I screwed that up,” Travis says.

 

Arthur stops.  His breath fogs in the air.  “No.  No, I’m glad you said it.”

 

Travis stands beside him, hands in the pockets of his jacket.  “I didn’t like the way she talked to you.”

 

“She means well.”  He rocks back and forth on his heels.  “She’s not wrong.  About my career.  We’re barely scraping by, between her social security and my clown gigs.  It’s not enough.  And I have been talking about doing standup for a long time, but I still haven’t tried it even once.  I go to Pogo’s every week, but I’ve never gotten up on the stage.  I think I’d panic.  I’d fall apart.” 

 

“If you ever decide to do it, I’ll be there.  Just give me a date and time.  But you’re doing fine, Arthur.”

 

“I should be doing more.  I know it’s pathetic, not having a real career at my age.  It’s just…hard.  I get so tired.  Sometimes just getting up in the morning and going to work takes everything I have.”

 

“You’re doing fine,” Travis repeats.  “You’re doing great.”

 

Arthur blinks rapidly.  There’s a shine in his eyes.  They reflect the glow of the streetlight.  “Thank you,” he whispers.

 

They haven’t kissed since last night.  Haven’t even hugged each other.  Travis looks Arthur over, taking in his body language.  Hunched shoulders.  Arms wrapped around himself as he shivers in the cool air.  He’s drawn in on himself, looking small.  Lost.

 

Travis takes a step toward him.  His hands settle on Arthur’s shoulders and run down his arms, thumbs stroking the insides of his elbows through his jacket.  He studies his expression.  “Does it still hurt?  You know, down there?”

 

Arthur ducks his head.  “A little.  I don’t mind, though.  I think I’ll feel better tomorrow.”

 

Travis remembers the sight of Arthur limping out of the diner.  Moving in those small, careful steps, the same way he moved after those guys beat him up.

 

Looking back, it’s easy for Travis to see the mistakes he made that night.  He should’ve just let Arthur finish him off with his mouth—he seemed really into that—then maybe stroked him off.  Just touched him and let him get used to being touched by another person.  Instead, Travis practically dragged him into the bedroom, told him to strip, then crawled on top of him and fucked him dry, like a goddamn caveman.  Even if Arthur doesn't regret it...

 

Arthur has already been hurt so much.  The world has handled him roughly.  Travis wanted to be different.  But gentleness has never come easily to him.

 

“Travis,” Arthur says.  “About the spaghetti…”

 

“That’s on me.  I should’ve asked you to make something else.  I was just…I dunno.  It sounds stupid, saying that spaghetti sets me off.”

 

“It’s not stupid.  I want to know about those things."  A pause.  "Is it just spaghetti?  Or..."

 

"Anything with noodles or red sauce is kinda iffy.  Ketchup is okay though."  It comes out thicker, more plasticky-looking.  Not much like blood.

 

"I'll make something else next time.”  Arthur takes his hands.  “Travis?  I love you.”

 

Travis looks down at their joined hands, squeezes tighter.  “Love you too.”

 

He’s still getting used to saying that out loud.  The words feel clumsy on his tongue.  But it’s a little easier each time.

 

He leans in.  “I wanna kiss you,” he says.  “Can I do that?”

 

“You don’t need to ask permission.”

 

“I want to.  I like hearing you say it.”

 

There’s a flicker of heat in Arthur’s eyes.  “Then…yes.  Please.”

 

Travis leans in and presses his lips to Arthur’s.  He tastes like cherry pie.

 

* * *

 

When Arthur opens the door to his apartment, Penny is sitting on the couch, a cigarette between her fingers.

 

She hasn’t smoked in years.  She quite when Arthur was just a kid.  “Mom?”

 

She smiles at him vaguely.  “Well, the pie was good.”  She brings the cigarette to her lips.

 

Arthur approaches slowly and sits down next to her.  “It was.”

 

“I was afraid he would judge us.  And I did feel judged.  Just not in the way I expected.”

 

Arthur hesitates.  “He can be blunt, sometimes.  But once you get to know him, he’s a kind person.  A good person.  Even if he doesn’t see himself that way.  Back in New York, he was sort of a local hero.  He saved a girl who was being hurt by some bad people.”

 

She takes another drag on the cigarette, eyes unfocused.  “He scares me.”

 

“He’s not dangerous.  Whatever he says.”

 

“I don’t mean physically.  It’s just…his eyes.  I didn’t notice at first.  But his eyes are very strange.  Looking into them…I don’t know how to describe it.”  She meets Arthur’s gaze then, an oddly helpless expression on her face.  “He’s more than a friend, isn’t he?”

 

Arthur’s back stiffens.

 

There’s so much Penny chooses not to see, not to notice.  Why did she choose to see that?

 

He knows immediately that he won’t be able to hide the truth.  More than that, he doesn’t want to.  He’s tired of hiding.  “Yes.  I’m in love with him, Mom.  And he’s in love with me.”

 

Her gaze slides away.  She stares blankly into space.

 

“He’s probably the best thing that’s ever happened to me.  No—there’s no ‘probably.’  He is.  Sometimes I’m scared of how much I need him.  I’m scared that it’s going to fall apart, that we’ll end up hurting each other without meaning to.  I’m scared that I’m too broken for this to work.  But I can’t ever go back to the way things were before.  And I don’t want to.”  He sits with his hands tightly interlaced in front of him, his elbows resting on his knees.  “My whole life, I never even knew if I really existed.  But I do.  That’s how he makes me feel.  Like I exist.”

 

Still, she doesn’t reply.  Her mouth hangs open slightly, as if she’s a machine that someone turned off.

 

“Mom?”

 

She blinks a few times, holds the cigarette between her lips, but doesn’t inhale.  “There’s something I need to tell you.  About Thomas Wayne.”

 

Arthur’s throat tightens.  She’s talking about that man now?  Again?  “Mom.  Did you hear a word of what I just said?  For once in your life, can you please listen?”

 

She looks down and puts a hand against her head.  “I’m sorry, Happy.  I can’t focus.  I’m very tired right now.”  She gives him another unsteady smile.  “Will you help me to bed?”

 

He chokes down the lump in his throat.  There’s no point in starting a fight.  Who knows if she’ll even remember this tomorrow?  “Okay.”

 

He helps her up, and they walk to the bedroom.  He tucks her in.

 

“Happy,” she says.  “You won’t leave me, will you?”

 

“No, Mom, I won’t.  I promise, I’ll always take care of you.”

 

She smiles.

 

He turns off the light and retreats from the room.