“Jesus, Peter, you’re still up?”
Peter turned his head from BBC’s late night showing of Star Trek to see May standing in the doorway, dripping wet.
“Oh man, is it still raining?”
“Yes, baby, it’s still raining. For the fourth God-forsaken day in a row, it’s still raining. Now, what are you doing up so late?”
“What do you mean, late? It’s only ten. I’m watching a TV mara--”
“It’s one in the morning, Peter.”
Peter glanced over at the microwave clock.
“Oh. I, uh, guess I lost track of time. How was work?”
“The same. Miserable. I wish there was a way to inject coffee directly into your bloodstream. Or something like coffee. How expensive is heroin? I heard it gets the job done.” May walked over to the counter and picked up a jar about halfway full of loose dollars and coins; they were all that was left of her paychecks after the bills were paid and the groceries were bought. She stuffed a few dollars in and set it back down, then collapsed on the couch next to Peter and closed her eyes.
“How was your day, baby?”
Peter looked at his aunt. She had dark circles under her eyes, deep lines in her face, and the crusty remnants of hairspray on her scalp. Her clothes were wrinkled and stained from hastily microwaved burritos and Chinese food. He recognized her outfit; it was the same one that she’d had on two days earlier. She’d had no time for laundry, and Peter had been cramming for a long string of tests the entire week. A pang of guilt hit him for not helping out.
“It was fine. Pretty normal. I think I did okay on my chem test, but bio’s a coin flip. My teacher’s study guide turned out to be not so all-inclusive.”
May groaned. “Great.”
Another wave of guilt washed over him. “I think it’ll be fine, though. And, I mean, I’m not really looking to do anything in biology, so… no big deal.”
“It feels like everything’s a big deal, Peter.” May said. She pressed her hands into her face. When she pulled them away, her makeup was smudged.
Peter waited a few moments, unsure of what to say. “I’m sorry, May,” he said softly. “Can I help?”
He didn’t get an answer. May was sound asleep. Peter stared for a moment, then pulled a blanket over her, turned off the TV, and went to bed.
The next night went pretty much the same way, though Peter made sure to be in his room before May came home. He wanted to give her the idea that he’d been in bed for hours, when he had actually just crawled through the window after a night of stopping petty theft and giving directions. Y’know, hero stuff.
He was taking off his mask when he heard May walk in, throw off her shoes one by one, and grab the jar. He held his mask tightly and pressed his ear against the door as he heard her opening it and starting to count. She counted aloud at first, then her voice drifted quieter as she reached the bottom.
“Shit!” she said, then, realizing her nephew was supposedly asleep, her voice dropped to a whisper. Peter pressed his head further into the door. “Only seventy-eight dollars? That’s it? I’ve been saving for a month and a half for seventy-eight dollars? This won’t even begin to cover--how did this happen? Shit!” Peter heard her set the jar down just a little harder than necessary.
He slumped down on his bed. Wringing his mask through his hands, he turned over the thought that had taken root in his brain. May was already doing all she could, and yet ends were just barely being met. Peter needed to help out. He wanted May to live comfortably; he wanted her to have nice things and not be so stressed all the time. Peter’s mind flashed back to the help wanted sign he saw in a pizzeria window while swinging by to stop a mugging. He stared down at his mask, stood up, and tossed it over to his dresser. Enough was enough. May needed help, and he was done being a burden. Tomorrow after school he would stop by the pizza place and pick up an application. Peter shrugged off the rest of the suit. Tomorrow May’s troubles would ease.
A sniffle caught his attention. He pressed his head back into the door, and his heart wrenched as he heard May cry softly. Peter paced the length of his room.
There’s no way she’s gonna let me get a job, he thought. She already thinks I’ve got too much going on. But I don’t really have a choice, do I? May’s been so patient with me. She took me in, fed me, clothed me, and what did I do? Ate the food in her fridge and ran up the power bill. I’m just gonna have to keep it a secret. I can do that, right? I mean, I kept being Spiderman a secret. That was pretty big. Having a part-time job can’t be bigger than that, right? I’m sure I’ll have enough time for it. What all do I have to do, anyway? Go to school, be Spiderman, do stuff with Mr. Stark… I have more than enough time for a job. I’m an idiot for not thinking of this before. Okay, then, tomorrow I’ll start contributing. She deserves it.
Satisfied with his train of thought, Peter laid down and squirmed only briefly before falling asleep.
“So… Peter, is it? Why do you want to work here, exactly?” Mr. Diaz looked up at him. The two were sitting in a tiny, sparsely furnished and dimly lit back room. The bustle from the kitchen and dining room seemed to be amplified between the thin plywood walls. Peter had never seen a desk mold before, at least not when it was kept inside, but Mr. Diaz’s desk had thin strips of black spores spindling throughout it. A certificate of occupancy that seemed to have had some work done was tacked to partially obscure the small, dingy window.
“Well, sir, I… just think that--”
“You’re not interviewing for NASA, kid. Just give me some BS response so I can give you an apron and we don’t have to talk to each other anymore.”
“I… really like pizza?”
“Good enough. You’re hired. Go find Martha with the pink hair. She’ll train you.” Mr. Diaz waved Peter away, and the teen stood up and made his way for the dining room, smiling widely and silently celebrating.
You’ll get some more cash soon enough, he thought. Just a little bit longer, May.
Peter staggered into the apartment at ten o’clock. He dragged his feet to the sink, splashed water on his face, and collapsed onto the couch. He had to admit, the job was shaping up to be more of a handful that he’d been expecting, but it was all worth it. He reached into his pocket and grasped the twenty dollars in tips he’d already made from sympathetic diners who’d noticed it was his first day.
Peter hopped off the couch and picked up May’s jar. He shook out the first layer of change and stuffed his tips in, then replaced the top layer. A new stack of bills in her jar would make her ask questions, but burying them ought to keep her in the dark longer.
He flopped down on the couch and was nearly asleep when he heard May’s key in the lock. She slipped in, noticed her nephew dozing, then quietly set her purse down and unscrewed her jar. Peter heard the dry rustle of bills and the clink of coins, and then felt May tugging a blanket over him and kissing his forehead. Once she had closed the door to her bedroom, Peter smiled.
The next few weeks passed like clockwork. Peter would run from school to the pizzeria on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, work until eight or nine at night, then come home, stuff his tips into the jar, do one-sixteenth of his homework, and pass out before May came home. On Tuesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, he would run from school or home to Tony’s lab, stay there until six or so, and then be Spiderman until ten. Sundays were his day to rest, and he usually spent the entire day sleeping, eating, and studying while eating and being half-asleep. Yes, everything was like clockwork to Peter… a poorly maintained clock that was getting ever slower, ever less precise, and ever closer to giving out. Just that morning when he had been walking to the bus stop, just a block from his apartment, he had stepped out into the middle of the street without a second thought. Behind his dark-circled eyes, inside his overworked brain running on Red Bull and Cheez-Its, the idea that one should check for vehicles shooting down the road before walking across it had not occurred to him. Luckily, a taxi driver had slammed on the brakes in the nick of time and said some particularly colorful things to wake Peter up, but when Peter had scurried to the other side of the street, he couldn’t help but think next time luck might not be on his side.
Once he had managed to get to school in one piece, he walked into his homeroom, dropped his bag next to his desk, and had his deepest sleep in weeks during an enticing lecture on plasmids, which happened to be the next test he was bound to fail. Peter had been pulling off seventies in his easiest classes since the addition of his job, and in his hardest, most technical, most Stark-approved classes, he was lucky to have fifties.
After sleepwalking through an entire day of school, Peter was more dismayed than relieved when the final bell rang. For him, it meant that it was time to sprint over to the pizzeria in time for his shift, and he was getting worse and worse at punctuality. It started as being five minutes late because of overcrowded sidewalks, then ten minutes late because his web-slinging route turned out to be slower than he thought, then nearly forty-five minutes late because his APUSH teacher wanted to have a word with him about dozing during the Great Depression documentary. Peter’s once uncaring and nonchalant boss was starting to care a great deal about the exact time Peter clocked in, and the speed with which he left after the last customer walked out.
Finally, that night he snuck through his apartment window and slipped his tips (lessening every day with every screw-up he made) into May’s jar, and collapsed onto his bed. May would usually come home just minutes later, but Peter would already be sleeping too deeply to hear.
It was about a week later when everything really began falling apart. Peter was sitting in Tony’s lab, absently tapping a screwdriver against a workbench, faintly registering the blaring ACDC, and staring off into nothing. Tony had to ask the question twice to even get his attention.
“I said, how was your day?”
Peter snapped to attention, if only briefly. “Huh? What? My day? Well… uh…”
Peter stared at nothing with renewed focus, as if the air would remind him of the day’s details that had slipped his mind, which were all of them.
“Well… I know I went to school.” Peter put it out there, convincing his overtaxed mind that Tony would accept it as a normal, detailed answer.
“You know you went to school?”
“Any doubts about that?”
Peter thought hard. “No, I don’t think so.”
“Well, I only ask because the way you say it makes it sound like you were drugged and blindfolded the entire day, and you’re not sure what exactly happened. What did you do at this school you’re so certain you attended today?”
“Uh… I’m pretty sure we took a test.”
“Um… physics… no… biology? I think it was a science.”
“Really? Man, they’re working you kids hard nowadays.”
Peter slumped in his chair. “You can say that again.”
“I mean, if they’re making you take tests on Saturdays now, what’s next? No lunch? Sixteen hour school day? It’s getting ridiculous.”
The realization dawned on Peter at nearly the same speed a snail overtakes a turtle.
“Oh. Yeah. I guess I didn’t go to school today. Huh.”
Peter stared at the wall, eyes empty. Tony nudged him with a pencil.
“You okay, kid? You’ve seemed… off, lately, to put it nicely. I don’t know where my genius protege went, but I hate that his replacement is some sort of hyper realistic mannequin that’s programmed with over eight vague responses.”
When Peter didn’t react or even seem to register what Tony had said, Tony felt a slight tinge of fear in his gut. It wasn’t like Peter to be so… unreactive. Normally the kid was bouncing off the walls at every opportunity, and asking so many questions that little work actually got done. Tony had never minded, though, contrary to his griping. And now the kid was just… silent. He’d first noticed a couple weeks ago and he had thought it had just been a bad day, or a bad string of days. He’d offered to take Peter out for pizza, but the kid had vehemently refused, which in itself had struck Tony as odd. He’d never known Peter to pass up an opportunity for free pizza. When about a week had passed and Peter was still in a funk, he thought that maybe the kid was sick. But once he had chased Peter around with the thermometer and had finally gotten it into his mouth, much to the kid’s irritation, he’d found no fever. And now, weeks later, Peter was still acting just as strangely, but he also starting to go home much earlier, eat less, and sit idly by while Tony worked on the projects Peter once loved. Tony looked over at Peter. The kid’s face was paler than usual, and there were dark circles under his eyes.
“Hold on a sec, Peter. I’ll be right back.”
Tony stood up and left the lab, then made a beeline for the kitchen. He’d remembered that he had bought a quart of Peter’s favorite ice cream last week to try and cheer him up, but Peter’s perpetually changing demeanor had made him forget about it. He grabbed the quart and two spoons and Star Trek from the DVD cabinet, and made his way back to the lab.
“Hey, kid. I’ve got--”
Tony stopped mid sentence because Peter was snoring soundly on the workbench. Tony sighed, set the ice cream and DVD down, and stepped back out of the lab. He came back with a thick cotton blanket and draped it over Peter, then dimmed the lab lights and left Peter to rest in silence.
Five hours later, Peter yawned, sat up, stretched, and opened his eyes. He panicked for only a second before he realized that he wasn’t in his room because he had fallen asleep in Tony’s lab. A wave of embarrassment made his face flush, and grabbed his phone to check the time. He shot up out of the chair when he saw just how late it was, and winced to think how angry Mr. Stark probably was at him falling asleep during lab time. Peter grabbed his hoodie and darted out of the lab, down the hall, and to his surprise, right into Tony.
“Ack! Sorry Mr. Stark, I didn’t realize it was so late! I didn’t mean to fall asleep, I really didn’t! I swear I’ll come by later and make up the time, just tell me when!”
“Relax, kid! No one’s mad at you.”
Tony squeezed Peter’s shoulders to get him to stand still.
“Are you hungry? Pepper made fajitas earlier, and we saved you some in the fridge. You can eat them tomorrow if you don’t want them right now.”
Peter stared at Tony, trying to piece together what was happening.
“What do you mean, Mr. Stark? I’ve gotta go home. May’s probably already called the cops, and--”
“You’re exhausted and I won’t let you go home like this. I talked to May as soon as you fell asleep, and she agreed that it was best for you to just stay here tonight.”
Tony looked at Peter’s pale, confused face.
“She’s worried about you, Peter. We all are. You’ve haven’t been acting like yourself lately. You’ve been… quiet, moody. Tired. What’s going on?”
Peter now averted his eyes and stared at the ground instead. He wrung his hands together. He had no idea how to answer Mr. Stark. He hadn’t thought it was that obvious. Both he and May noticed? Well, he couldn’t tell Mr. Stark he got a job to help out May, because then he’d tell May about it, and May would make him quit and go back to having no money to spend on herself.
“You don’t have to answer me tonight, kid. Go get some sleep in an actual bed and we can talk in the morning. Sound good?”
Peter nodded slowly, then turned and shuffled towards the room that Mr. Stark always had reserved for him, whenever he stayed the night. Peter pulled off the covers, laid down, and was getting in another round of precious sleep before Tony walked in, adjusted the blankets over him, and switched off the light.
Peter groggily opened his eyes at noon the next day. When he slipped his hoodie on and made his way to the kitchen, Tony was waiting for him, jingling a pair of car keys.
“C’mon, kid. Let’s go for a drive.”
Peter opened the fridge and peered in.
“But I’d really rather stay in today and maybe for the rest of my life,” he said, munching a cold fajita.
“Not an option, I’m afraid. Get in the car. We’re gonna have a talk.”
Tony made his way to the garage while Peter rolled his eyes and followed suit.
Forty-five minutes later Peter was on the verge of a panic attack. It wasn’t because of anything Mr. Stark was saying--he was mostly just paraphrasing the Wikipedia page on teenage depression--but it was because he had just decided to stop for lunch, and the two were now standing in front of the very same restaurant Peter worked at. Peter had tried to get him to go anywhere else, but every time he had tried to say something, Tony would just repeat the Mayo Clinic’s definition of depression.
“--is a mood disorder that causes a persistent feeling of sadness and loss of interest.” Tony said as he held the door open for Peter expectantly.
Peter didn’t budge.
“C’mon, kid, I’m starving. We can’t stand here all day.”
Peter picked his feet off the ground as if each one weighed a ton, and stepped inside the restaurant. Tony moved towards a booth near the door and sat down. Peter followed, sticking his head inside the menu as quickly as possible. Tony cleared his throat but before he could tell Peter to knock it off, a waitress walked over.
“Hello, welcome to--are you Tony Stark?” the waitress, whose voice Peter immediately recognized as Martha’s, stared at Tony in disbelief.
“In the flesh. Could we get a large half-ham, half-pepperoni? I’ll also take a water and my protege here will have a…”
Peter knew Tony was staring at him, waiting for an answer, but Peter refused to be recognized. He kept the menu in front of his face.
“Coke,” he mumbled.
“What was that?” Martha asked.
“Coke,” he said, with just slightly more enunciation.
“Peter, she can’t hear you. I can’t hear you. Put that menu down.”
Peter thought some colorful words to himself. He gripped the sides of the menu so hard his knuckles went white. Finally, after weeks and weeks of being pushed and overworked and overscheduled, he had reached his breaking point. He tore the menu away from his face.
“I said I’d like a Coke, Martha.”
Martha stared again in disbelief.
“Peter? You’re hanging out with Tony Stark? What’s going on?”
“Nothing’s going on, Martha. Just life. This is just everyday life for me. I’ve got a million things going on at once, so of course they’re gonna overlap sometimes. And of course that’s never gonna end well for me.”
Martha realized that Peter seemed to be talking more to himself than her, but it didn’t stop the shock spreading over her and Tony’s faces.
“Oh. Yeah. That seems… reasonable. Uh, if you’re, uh… feeling okay later, are you gonna come in tonight? There’s three parties at once, and it’s gonna be… busy.”
Martha tapped on her notepad, wanting desperately to get away from whatever was going on between these two.
“Am I gonna come in later? Let me think… well, I’ve got no less than three weeks of homework to catch up on, I’ve gotta go home and calculate my grades to see if there’s any possible way for me to pass physics this quarter, I’ve gotta find some way to block out time this week to make up for missing out on a chance to use a billion-dollar tech lab because I was too tired, and I probably won’t do any of it because I’m sure I’ll be asleep the minute I get home. So, no, tonight doesn’t look so good for me. Maybe tomorrow? Who knows, maybe I’ll hit my head on the way in and I’ll forget how miserable I am for a couple of hours and be able to smile at the customers for the first time in weeks. You never know!”
Peter panted as his face went pale. He hadn’t meant to say the last part. Well, he hadn’t meant to say any of it, especially not with Tony right there, but bringing up how awful he’d been feeling was a line he had never wanted to cross.
Martha flipped his notepad closed and walked away, eyes wide. Tony stared at Peter with the same expression. Peter began to feel several pairs of eyes on him--every pair in the restaurant, including, oh God, his boss. His boss was standing only yards away, seemingly frozen in place. Peter went from panting to gasping as it felt like a twenty pound brick had fallen on his chest from eight stories up. Sweat glazed his palms and his face went pale, then flushed red, then pale again. Peter shot up and sprinted out of the restaurant, sprinted fast and far, sprinted to God knows where. All he knew was that he had to get out, had to leave and never come back, if he returned he would die, that’s all he knew.
He ran for blocks until the adrenaline drained from his veins, and he was exhausted once more. Peter collapsed on a bench, wheezing, and, as he came to realize, crying. Weeks of pent-up pain and exhaustion ran down his cheeks. Again, he was blushing, but he couldn’t keep the tears from coming. It was as if he was no longer in control of his body. He called upon his overworked muscles to scale onto a rooftop, where he could at least have some degree of privacy. There he sobbed, cursing himself for not being strong enough to hold out for May, for not being able to keep going and juggling everything so she could enjoy her life. Peter cried for nearly half an hour before being reduced to short, choked whimpers. He curled into himself and stared at the city below.
He nearly fell off the roof when he felt the hand on his shoulder.
“Agh! Mr. Stark! How did you get here?” Peter stared in bewilderment at Tony, clad in the Iron Man suit, sitting beside him.
“I got here about ten minutes ago, but you were too busy heaving and crying to notice.”
Peter looked down in embarrassment.
He pulled away from Tony.
“Why did you come here?”
Tony rolled his eyes and scooted closer.
“Why did I come here? Why did I chase after the child whose aunt left me in charge of him? Why did I chase after the kid that I love and that ran out of a restaurant having a mental breakdown? Gee, I dunno, kid.”
Tony put his arm around Peter.
“Tell me, please, before you yell at another waitress, just what the hell is going on.”
Peter glanced up at Tony. The concern in his eyes was unmistakable. Peter sighed. He couldn’t keep this up any longer.
“I got a part-time job, okay?”
Peter braced himself for the onslaught of “How could you”s and “What were you thinking”s, but they never came. He looked at Tony.
“That’s it? That’s what’s been causing all of this? ‘Cause I don’t believe it for a second. A lot of teens have part-time jobs, kid. They don’t have panic attacks over them. Tell me what’s actually happening.”
Peter wrapped his arms around himself.
“I… really don’t know, Mr. Stark. I thought I could handle it, but it was just too much. I couldn’t balance it with everything else going on in my life, with school and Spiderman and lab days. It was just too much. I mean, the only reason I got that stupid job was because I wanted May to have more money for herself, but I’m only bringing home about five bucks a night! I don’t know what to do, Mr. Stark!”
“Wait, wait… you’re doing this for May?”
Peter didn’t answer.
“Does May know you’re doing this for her?”
“Does May know you’re doing this at all?”
“Kid, how could you keep this from your aunt? I mean, I’m not thrilled about you keeping this from me, but you especially need to tell May about what’s stressing you out. I’m sure if she knew this was happening she’d shut it down right away. She’d quit for you. May knows how busy you are, and she would never ask you to do something like this unless you actually wanted a job, and I’m guessing from the circles under your eyes, you don’t.”
“It’s okay, kid.”
Tony pulled Peter in, and he rested his head against Tony’s chest.
“Why didn’t you tell me, Peter?”
“I didn’t want you to tell May and get me fired. I didn’t want anyone to know. I guess it all sort of fell apart, though, huh?”
“You could say that.”
Tony pulled him away and looked him seriously in the eyes.
“I don’t care if you never work another shift in that restaurant ever again, but you better go back and apologize to that waitress.”
“Of course, Mr. Stark. I didn’t mean to snap like that. I guess I just couldn’t handle it, though.”
Peter looked pensively at the skyline, then frowned and pulled back into himself.
“Hey, and about time spent in a billion-dollar tech lab? Don’t worry about it; consider yourself co-owner. Come over any time you like.” Tony shifted. “Alright, kid, we’ll head back in a second. I’ve just gotta make a call first.”
Tony stood up and walked over to another corner of the roof. Peter heard him take out his phone.
“Hey, you there?” Tony asked. “Yeah, Peter’s fine. I’ll drop him off soon. I was just calling to say that I overheard Pepper this morning talking about some hot new boutique that was opening up, and she mentioned that she could use a shopping buddy. Whaddaya say? I’ll cover the bill, of course. No, don’t worry about it, nothing’s too good for my protege’s aunt.”
Peter stared at Tony’s back in disbelief for only moments before breaking into a smile and laughing up at the sky. Finally, after weeks and weeks, the nightmare was over. Finally, Peter could rest easy.