Chapter 19


Poking gingerly at the sides of his nose, Phineas grimaced at himself in the mirror and then hissed through his teeth at the pain that making faces caused him. His nose was definitely broken, and to either side dark bruises spread across his cheeks beneath his eyes. At least it had stopped bleeding.

There was no way he could hide this from his father, especially not if he wanted it to heal correctly. He pursed his lips and exhaled loudly through his nose, but to little effect; the dried blood coating the insides of his nostrils and the current deviation of his septum, compounded by his fractured ribs, were making it hard to do anything but take shallow breaths through his mouth.

Through the open bathroom door, he heard the doorway in the room adjacent, his bedroom, slide open and then closed again. His father called his name and he swore under his breath in Yiddish before raising his voice to reply.

“I’m a little busy!” His voice sounded thick and wet.

“So I heard. Get out here.”

Phineas hesitated, gauging his father’s tone and judging how much rebellion he could get away with. He made another face into the mirror. Knowing that Maxwell was his father for real made the amount of manipulation and bargaining that went into their everyday interactions unsettling to him. It almost made him feel ill, but for the moment he was willing to attribute that feeling to the amount of blood he’d swallowed.

With a sigh, he pushed away from the bathroom counter and went into the bedroom, forcing himself to look contrite as he approached his father. He imagined himself from his father’s eyes: bruised and still a bit bloody, moving gingerly with shoulders slumped. He even imagined his hair drooping, though it was an unrealistic addition to the picture.

When he was within reach, Maxwell cupped his son’s face in one hand and tilted it back to get a better look at the damage.

“He really did a number on you, didn’t he,” he said under his breath. He turned Phineas’s face to one side and then released him. “Anything else hurt?”

“My ribs,” Phineas admitted. “They might be cracked or just bruised. I don’t know.”

“I guess we’ll have to get a doctor up here to look at you.” Maxwell sounded a bit tired. Phineas gave him a curious look as he went on, “Julian’s gone home, so at least there won’t be any more opportunities for this sort of foolishness. But you’re grounded. Two weeks, no terminal access.”

Phineas narrowed his eyes as best he could. “Why am I in trouble? He’s the one who beat the crap out of me!”

“You weren’t supposed to be near him in the first place.” Maxwell’s expression hardened somewhat. “And I hope after this little altercation, you’ve figured out why.”

Phineas crossed his arms over his chest, but didn’t argue. It would be better to accept his punishment with grace and forestall any other problems that might come about because of the inconvenience he’d caused. He dug his fingers into his upper arms, forcing himself not to blurt out all the things he wanted to say. One outburst was enough for today, and anyway, it wouldn’t get him anywhere; Maxwell didn’t tolerate impulsiveness or immaturity.

“I’ll have Ashe summon a doctor, but I want him to look at you in one of the sitting rooms, not here.” Maxwell turned away to leave the room as he spoke, his tone dismissive. “Someone will fetch you when he arrives.”

As he reached out to open the door, Phineas found that he couldn’t keep his teeth clenched around the words in his throat. He found himself speaking before he’d even thought through what he intended to say.

“So why didn’t you tell me?”

Maxwell looked back at him as though he was referring to something that was neither relevant nor significant. “What purpose would telling you have served? Nothing would be different between us, and it would have just made the possibility of a scandal greater.”

Phineas scoffed. “You’re oversimplifying the significance of this situation. Of course things would have been different! I’m not just a trophy son anymore. You actually had some legitimate claim to me.” He uncrossed his arms and looked at his hands for a moment. “Though I suppose I still am just a trophy, since you wouldn’t have wanted me if I was normal.”

“I would have.”

He looked up, glaring. It wasn’t the words themselves that made him angry but the complete sincerity with which his father had been able to speak them. He had to fight to keep his voice even instead hissing or yelling. “Don’t lie to me. I know better. I’d have been no use to you normal.” He gazed at his father for a moment through narrowed eyes, and continued speaking more slowly. “Of course, if I’d known you were my father, I wouldn’t have so easily dismissed the fact that you don’t seem to care for me at all.”

“I care for you.” Maxwell’s expression was unreadable. “I’ve given you every luxury possible, made sure you were given every opportunity you deserved to use and hone your intelligence. And I’ve made you strong and independent. You don’t rely on others for your happiness or your self-worth. Because I’m the one who raised you, you’ve grown up with the ability to define yourself based solely on you and not on those around you. You’d never have been able to do that if you’d been left with your mother.”

Phineas felt his expression go lax as his mind worked. He couldn’t deny much of what his father had said, and he could see that the man truly believed in what he was saying. There was some affection there--he didn’t think a man could really give so much to a child he felt no real obligation toward or any guarantee about without feeling something like love for it. Some part of him felt warmed by this realization.

But that didn’t make it right. It wasn’t right to develop confidence as a result of alienation, and Phineas now knew firsthand that a better familial network would have taught him many things about relating to other people that he had never been able to fathom. His thoughts drifted to the Ethan and the Chinese workers in No Town. He’d observed them intensely, wondered at the ways they interacted, marveled at the community they’d formed, and he’d known that he was missing something. He wanted that something, and he wasn’t going to be able to get it here, where everything was sterile and distant.

He pressed his lips together and nodded to his father to show he understood, though he doubted Maxwell could have predicted what exactly he’d gotten out of the conversation. He knew his course of action now, and watched through detached eyes as his father nodded back and left the room.