Containment

by Kirsten Sea


With thanks to Destina and Signe, for corrections, comments, and insights.


Organisation was the only lesson both his mother and his father had ever tried to teach Lex. His father insisted that a tidy mind created a tidy life, something all great men required. Alexander the Great did not leave his broadsword lying in the road, Julius Caesar had not dropped his armour in the stables, and Alexander Joseph Luthor most certainly would not go to bed without first folding his school uniform.

His mother said it was important to be tidy because they had servants, not slaves, and tidiness was an easy habit to cultivate once it had bred a desire for organisation. His mother's closet was divided into seasonal wardrobes, items of clothing hanging together according to type. Her makeup drawer was similarly organised; lipsticks together according to season and colour, eye-shadows likewise. She wrote lists for everything, and her correspondence was filed alphabetically by senders' surnames. Letters from charitable organisations had their own place in the bottom drawer of her desk.

Lex used to sit on her bed and watch her write letters at her desk, paper positioned at perfect right angles to the table. Her posture was perfect, her movements elegant and economical. Lex tried to fathom her various systems and found them incomprehensible. Not that they were overly complex - he just couldn't quite grasp the reasons why. He was six; he liked to be messy and dirty whenever possible, and his mother and her adult tidiness seemed strange.

Three years later he still didn't understand, but it began to whisper in his mind soon after the meteor shower. He woke in the early hours of the morning, a choked scream in his throat. He'd tried his hardest to be stoic for his father and brave for his mother, but that particular night, after dreaming his mother had burned alive in a cornfield, he just wanted a hug.

He swung his legs out of bed and crept down the hall, trying not to think about the monsters lurking in the shadows. There seemed to be more of them since the accident, though his father shouted at him whenever he mentioned it.

It didn't take him long to walk to his parents' bedroom, but it felt like forever, and the ticking grandfather clock at the end of the corridor made him grind his teeth. The sound of voices within gave him pause. What if his parents were doing . . . parent stuff? He listened carefully, but he pushed the door open when he heard his name.

"Lillian." His father sounded impatient, but then, he often did. "Don't be so sentimental. The boy lost his hair. There's no need to make an issue of it."

Lex held his breath, and then dared to push a little further. He peeked around the door; his father was in bed, papers and files all over his lap, and his mother sat at her desk, folding something into a piece of fine tissue paper.

"I don't think you appreciate just what this has done to him," she replied, holding something red up to the lamplight. Lex didn't immediately understand, but he stayed still and watched his mother carefully wrap a lock of his hair. She placed the tiny package into a locket, and then placed the locket into a box Lex had never seen before. It was small and looked heavy - maybe it was silver.

She opened the middle drawer of her desk and put the box inside. Then she closed the drawer and locked it. Her hand lingered on the key, and Lex saw her blinking quickly.

"Lillian," his father said, and Lex blinked in surprise. He'd never heard his father sound like that before, all nice and soft, like he cared.

His mother stood and walked over to the bed. She climbed in, and brushed a kiss over his father's lips. Lex watched his father hold her close, and jealousy briefly shot through him. His mother was very lucky.

"We won't think about it," she whispered, her eyes sad. "For Lex's sake, we won't think about it."

Lex abandoned the idea of a hug, and went back to bed.

-

Understanding crept up on him still closer, on the day of Julian's funeral. The ceremony was small and private, friends and family only, the press kept at bay with a few choice words from his father's press secretary and tens of thousands of dollars from his father's bank account. Lex didn't usually approve of bribing the press, but in this case he was grateful, for his mother's sake as well as his own. She looked pale and unbearably fragile as she stood blinking back tears at Julian's graveside.

Lex waited with her until the last of the guests disappeared. His father had already gone, taking shelter in the limo from the wind and the rain - lest his hair begin to curl against his will, Lex thought bitterly, slipping his hand inside his mother's.

She looked down at him, and the tear tracks on her cheeks crinkled a little when she tried to smile. Lex smiled back. "I don't think Julian would want you to catch cold, Mom."

There. That made the smile a little better. It patched the cracks until they arrived home, anyway, whereupon his mother took her leave and went up to her bedroom.

Lex stood in the hallway, dripping water onto the polished floorboards. He wasn't quite sure what to do.

His father snapped at him. "Take off your coat, Lex. You're in the way."

Lex followed his father's helpful instruction, and then went upstairs to his room. At least, that's where he intended to go, but he found himself in Julian's nursery. The walls were painted blue, like the sky in summer. Lex could remember listening to his father complain about the colour scheme his mother had selected, but she'd been very forceful when defending her choice. "Blue for a boy," she'd said, rejecting Lionel's desire for bloody crimson out of hand.

There were clouds on the ceiling. Lex had never had clouds on his bedroom ceiling, nor anything of the sort. He wasn't jealous, exactly; couldn't be jealous of Julian, not ever, but he didn't know how else to describe the strange feeling that twisted in his chest when he thought about his brother.

He wandered over to Julian's crib. There were soft toys nestled in the blankets. Lex picked up the closest one - a bright green bear with "Mommy's Little Cub" printed on its belly.

Lex had never had soft toys.

The sound of sharp heels on the uncarpeted floor made him jump. He turned around and saw his mother enter the room. She was carrying an empty box. She brought it over to the crib and set it down on the ground beside him, then plucked the bright green bear from his fingers and said: "I think it's time to put Julian's things away." She tucked the bear neatly into a corner of the box.

Lex swallowed, hard. "Isn't it kind of soon?"

"Best we do it now, Alexander," she said, already packing away the rest of the toys from the crib. "It's better this way." She paused for a moment, glancing down at him. "Would you like to help?"

Lex backed away, shaking his head. "No. I need to . . . find Pamela."

She hesitated again and then closed the gap he'd created between them. She reached out to touch his face, then seemed to think better of it. "Alexander," she said, her voice soft. "It's okay to be sad."

Lex nodded. "I know."

She did touch him, then; her hand brushed over his face. Lex kissed her quickly on the cheek. His mother smiled, but it looked like it hurt.

Somehow, he didn't think putting things in a box would help.

-

Lex sometimes spotted that bright green bear about the house when he came home from school on vacation, and at his twelfth Thanksgiving it even sat at the dining table. Lex had thought it was odd, the way the bear appeared at certain times of the year; holidays, Julian's birthday, the anniversary of his death. After the first year, Lex had gone into his mother's bedroom and found the bear resting on her pillow. He'd glared at it for a moment, and then walked out of the room.

When his mother went to hospital the first time she'd been there for some weeks. Pamela said it was her heart. Lex didn't know a lot about hearts, but he knew his mother's was important, and the confusing fear that Something Bad might happen to her surfaced often.

The visits to the hospital hurt. He didn't like hospitals. He stood outside the door to her room, conscious of the photographers waiting outside the building. Security was tight, but he always worried that it might not be tight enough.

Lex peered in through the window. His mother lay in bed, starched white and crisp, bright red roses at her bedside and the auburn of her hair the only flashes of colour in the room. The flowers were from his father, a sentimental touch Lex found hard to reconcile with the firm hand grasping his shoulder.

"She's anxious to see you, Lex. Go on." His father's tone brooked no argument. Lex hesitated, until the nudge to his shoulder pushed him a couple of inches through the door.

His mother looked so tiny. He'd always known she wasn't tall, that she was slim, but she'd never looked so tiny as this, even after Julian. His mother could break, he realised, and it was such a shock he almost dropped the bright green bear.

She turned her head toward him and flashed him a brave smile. "Alexander." She opened her arms, though they trembled. "Come here, sweetheart."

He went to her. Crawled onto the bed with her and rested his head on her shoulder. He kissed her on the cheek when she rested a hand on his neck, but he didn't feel safe like he usually did. His mother could break.

He held up the bear. "Julian says hi."

She laughed, just a little, and took the bear from him and put it next to her roses. "It's nice to know he's looking down on us, isn't it?"

Lex wasn't so sure about that, but he nodded, to make her happy. "Yeah."

She tightened her hold for a moment, and he took the hint and snuggled further into her arms. It made her happy to hold him, so he would allow her to do so. If she ever looked like she might break, he wouldn't let her touch him. He didn't want anything to hurt her.

-

Lex worked hard at school so his tutors could give her good reports, doing his best to make her proud and well. He spent his spare time pouring over textbooks and journals, medical reviews and reports on the latest treatments. He worked so hard, and he learned a lot. For the first few months he even tried to share it with her, but it wasn't long before she lost patience with him.

"For heaven's sake, Alexander," she snapped. "Put that journal away and come talk to me."

Exhaustion made her voice soft and raspy, so he did as she asked. Often he kept working when it was time to go and visit her, until one day Pamela came into his bedroom without bothering to knock and ripped the books from his hands.

"You'll go see your mother, Alexander."

"But -"

"Now," Pamela said sternly, although there was something like pity in her eyes. Lex noted it, and then pushed it aside, deciding not to think about it.

He stood outside his mother's bedroom, listening for voices. There were none. Lex frowned; the nurse should have been with her. So should his father, but he was in Singapore on business, though Lex suspected there were women of interest there as well.

He pushed open the door and went inside. It was very quiet, and it made her breathing seem even louder. She was waiting for him, propped up in bed with cushions and huge pillows that made her head look like a tiny little marble. Her hair had been freshly combed, and she was wearing makeup. She'd tried to make herself beautiful, but she was so very thin, and Lex had to fight back his distress.

"Come here," she said, and he went to her and sat gingerly on the bed. "Tell me about school."

He stared at the wall and pretended everything was normal. He told her about chemistry and physics, and the piano lessons he'd been taking, about the plays and the books they'd been studying.

"Which was your favourite?" she asked.

"I didn't like any of the books. But The Tempest was my favourite play."

"Really?" She took his hand and kissed it. "Now, why was that?"

He didn't really need to think about it. "It's a magic island. Prospero's a wizard."

"Very profound analysis, Mr Luthor," she said, laughing at him until she began to cough.

He reached over to her bedside and poured a glass of water. He held it out to her, but her hands were shaking too much to hold it steady, so he looped an arm around her shoulders and helped her drink. He tried not to meet her eyes.

She took a couple of sips and leaned back into her pillows, rubbing dry, chapped lips with her fingertips. Lex put the water back on the cabinet, and smiled at her when she took his hand.

"I have something for you," she said. "It's over there - second drawer down." She pointed to her desk.

The drawer opened easily when he tugged at the handle. Inside he saw the box. He remembered it. It was lead, not silver, he realised, holding the weight of it in his hand. It had no hole for a key, nor even a clasp. Lex ran his hand over the surface.

"I bought it in Morocco," she rasped through another cough. "It's made from the armour of Saint George." When she caught her breath again, she said: "Open it."

Lex flipped open the lid. Inside was a watch. "Napoleon? It's slightly more original than Alexander the Great, but I don't see what it has to do with me."

"Come sit with me," she said, and told him the story of Napoleon and his dead mother. "I'll always be with you, Alexander," she added, determined and earnest. "Just like Julian is with me. It's important you remember that." She looked down at the box in his hands. "That's important, too," she said, reaching out to run her withered fingertips over the metal. "Perhaps it'll help you to slay dragons."

Lex stared at the open box. Napoleon's face stared back at him.

He fled. Three days later his mother was dead.

-

Lex wore the watch to her funeral. He barely noticed the flashing cameras that Lionel hadn't bothered to bribe away. He left as soon as possible, longing for solitude. When he arrived home, he went upstairs and sat on the edge of his bed and examined Napoleon. The detail was fine, the craftsmanship excellent. The piece was very like his mother, precise and correct. She had excellent taste.

He put the watch back in its box and put it down on his desk, making sure the edges were at perfect right angles. It was a personal act of remembrance, one his father would never understand. Lionel had discouraged sentimentality in Lex's mother, and would not allow it in his son.

Lex got up and went to his mother's room. He walked the silent corridor; there were more monsters than ever, but he could ignore them. Though the grandfather clock still made him grind his teeth.

He didn't pause outside the door - he pushed his way in and went over to her desk, ripping out the drawers and tossing their contents onto the floor. Her letters, her lists, her makeup; they skittered over the shiny wooden surface, and Lex crunched the lipsticks underfoot, and walked frosted pink and apricot footprints all around the room. When that was done, he went into her closet and ripped up her wardrobe, ripped up her clothes and spat on them, stamped on them. He went into her bathroom and filled a glass with water, and then went back to her clothes and poured the water all over them. They weren't his mother's, this room wasn't his mother's. The whole place stank of death and decay, of some lifeless shadow of his mother, and he hated every inch of it.

Spent, he sat down on the floor.

He didn't want to put his mother in another box.

"Do you feel better?"

Lex's head whipped around at the sound of his father's voice. "What do you think?"

"I think you're very like your mother." His father stood just inside the door, tall and pale in his black suit. He looked like an eagle, Lex thought, with his long hair that flowed like wings and his hooked nose like a beak.

"What do you mean?"

His father smiled. "Your mother was very emotional, Lex. She couldn't always keep her obsessions in check, and others suffered for her actions. She never gave a thought to how much her obsession with Julian's memory would affect her health, and us."

"My mother -" Lex began hotly, but Lionel cut him off.

"Your mother was an emotional wreck, and while she was ill, you were exactly the same. She needed you, Lex. You never gave it a thought, did you?"

Lionel didn't wait for an answer to his question. Lex sat in the wreckage of her room and watched his father walk away, remembering the last days of his mother. She'd passed in this very room, lonely and alone, while he'd hidden away, too afraid to face her end.

"Put it away, Lex," he whispered.

That's when he really, truly understood.

Find a place for everything. And put everything in its place.



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