Disclaimer: Though they may bear a striking resemblance to the Clark Kent and Lex Luthor of Smallville, these boys, in fact, belong to me. They are older, wiser and have used the word arch-nemesis only when watching Batman cartoons with Nicky.
Series: a Nickyverse story.
Feedback: does a body good.
Summary: With fatherhood comes love, responsibility and milk.
I see it just out of the corner of my eye. A pair of Batman pyjamas and a shock of red hair sneak down the stairs.
"We need milk," it yells from the kitchen.
I follow the voice and find Nicky, trying to pour the last of the milk into a glass that's already too full.
A mouthful left, he drinks it straight from the jug and looks up at me with the guilty look of a child that has been caught. I can't even count how many times Clark has been caught in this exact moment.
Nicky steps down off his plastic stool, carrying it and the empty milk jug over to the sink. Even half asleep, he knows his job. He washes the jug carefully before stacking it with the other recyclables being collected at the door.
A moment later, he's back in the kitchen for his milk. I watch him throw back half the glass in a gulp, swallowing with an exaggerated "ahh". He doesn't bother to lick away the milk moustache, just lifts the glass for another drink.
Peering over the rim, Nicky catches me watching him. He lowers the glass and licks his lips.
"Did you hear me, Papa? You need to buy more milk."
Families are all about co-operation, working together to make sure everything gets done. If Nicky finishes the milk, he know the empty jug has to be rinsed out before it gets recycled. That's Clark's job, carrying the newspaper, plastic and glass to the sidewalk. It's my job to make sure there is more milk in the fridge.
I was supposed to be more than this. I was supposed to be a child prodigy; a genius at age three, fluent in four languages, able to balance my father's chequebook by five. And, while I was always eager to use the adding machine - with it's musical clacking - the efforts went unappreciated.
Dad wasn't the only one disappointed. I had fantasies about running away to the circus. I was going to do long division in my head and call myself The Human Calculator. My math would improve later but the nickname never caught on.
"The boy's really going to do something with the Luthor name," I told Clark, the first time I held Nicholas in my arms. He's five now. It's too late for him to be a child prodigy but I know one day he will be great. Maybe we can call his son The Human Calculator.
Nicky runs fast. Not as fast as Clark, but he tries. I watch him launch himself, scraping his feet back, like they do in the cartoons when they want to go faster. He passes me, a tiny red-haired blur and stops with a screech, not from his feet but his mouth.
He turns back at the distance he's covered, looking, I think, for the cloud of dust. I want to take them to Arizona so Nicky and Clark can play Coyote and Road Runner.
Nicholas Luthor is the West Metropolis Elementary School Kindergarten Spelling Bee Champion. That's what it says on the plaque. We hung it on his wall, above the bed, just to the left. Leaving room, Nicky said, for next year's plaque.
He got nervous at the district wide competition and put too many A's in aardvark. He says his tie was too tight. Next year he's wearing a T-shirt and going all the way to the State Championship.
He's up before dawn every morning we spend in Smallville so he can help milk the cows. Most farm kids, they rescue the runt of the litter, learn to ride the horses. Milking the cows is just another chore to be done in a day with too few hours.
But Nicky loves the cows. Jonathan says he talks to them when he thinks no one is listening. He gets to name each new addition to the Kent farm. Milk doesn't last long in our house. I should have seen it coming.
Clark drinks it like he's still a teenager. Fridge door open, straight from the jug with milk dribbling down the sides of his mouth and onto the floor. Nicky wants so much to be like his dad but he can only handle the jug when it's almost empty. It's my job to teach him how to use the glass.
The Kansas Dairy Board recommends 4-5 servings for children under twelve. It's propaganda - arbitrary rules to sell more milk - but I follow a lot more rules for my son. A glass at breakfast, lunch and dinner and the ones I don't see in between; it's not often you see Nicky without a glass of milk in his hand. On top of that, he has cereal every morning and most nights that Superman keeps Clark away for dinner.
Nicky finishes his milk with a smacking of lips and is putting the glass in the dishwasher when Clark walks into the kitchen.
"What are you doing up?" he asks, running a hand through Nicky's hair, putting the curls back where they belong. Clark helps him with the dishwasher door and turns to me.
"Did you tell him to do that?"
"What? The glass?"
Clark nods, his fingers still combing Nicky's hair.
"No, he did it all by himself."
Nicky looks up, sticking his tongue out and running away giggling when Clark tries to grab him. Nicky makes it to the living room and crouches behind the sofa. He's not hiding; I can see him from the kitchen. He's waiting for Clark to find him. He starts laughing again when he's discovered and lifted willingly into his daddy's arms.
"Time for you to get back into bed," I hear Clark say. I listen to the giggles travel up the stairs until I can't hear them anymore.
I wander back into the kitchen, pushing Nicky's stool out of the way before I end up on my face. Again. I put soap in the dishwasher and start it up, leaning back against the counter to listen to the silence.
It's 11 o'clock. Work done. Chores done. It's late for the parents of a five-year-old but it's that other Lex screaming inside me, "It's early. The clubs aren't even open yet." This is what a mid-life crisis sounds like.
I'm talking myself out of another car when Clark is back at my side. He puts an arm around my waist, a kiss on my cheek.
"He'll be asleep again in a couple minutes."
"And up again in a couple hours."
Clark laughs. "I'd be worried if he wasn't an insomniac."
Restless, I pull away and open the fridge, only to be reminded that I'll have to go out tonight. I close the fridge with a sigh, resting my forehead against the door. I feel exhausted but I can't remember what I did today.
I turn around, opening my eyes to Clark's comforting grin.
"Are we out of milk?"
"It wouldn't kill you to pick up a jug on your way home from work."
He frowns at my voice. I sound like I'm angry but, honestly, I don't know.
"No," he says matter-of-factly. "It wouldn't." I wait for the smile to tell me that we're not fighting.
"But it's not my job." There it is. He gives me a kiss and I'm out the door.
Half of Metropolis has gone past in a colourful blur before I notice the bouncing speedometer needle trying to push itself further. I haven't found myself like this in a long time. I lift my foot from the pedal and the car crawls to a stop in the middle of the eerily deserted street.
It's one of the few things Clark and I have in common - speed. We just use it at varying degrees of safety. It's his voice in my head as I look both ways and move the car forward, one eye on that bouncing needle.
When I was younger I used speeding cars to escape my problems as fast as possible. The last time I looked for comfort in speed I found it instead at the bottom of a cold river.
I'm five miles under the speed limit when I pull into the empty parking lot. This isn't quite the Lex I know but I'm on my way back. Every time I give in to the discretions of my youth I forget about the Lex that has to buy milk so his son can have cereal in the morning. I thought I got over this when I turned 30.
I can't help but flinch, stepping into the neon lights of the grocery store. It's an ironically artificial environment, this place where we find our food.
The people working inside have no night and day, only slow and busy. The one cashier I can see has his nose buried in a thick hardcover - War and Peace as I walk past. This is slow.
Maybe I am old. These trips used to be fun. Times like these, Nicky likes to push the cart fast, skidding around corners and knocking over cans of soup. Even when I was alone, I would still ride the cart down the empty aisles.
Tonight's midnight run will be quick; in and out, only what we need. It's a bittersweet reminder of the times I used to run out for milk and diapers, ignoring the stares and realising only when I got back to the car that I was still wearing my pyjamas.
Dad sat me down for a talk about the Luthor image after those pictures showed up in People magazine. Apparently, even when I was suffocating in my mother's arms with an asthma attack, he still had time to slip on his Armani suit before we went to the hospital.
The shirt is old; Princeton Fencing almost faded from the front. The jeans are worn through to the knee on the left side. It's not the suit my father would prefer I was seen in but he does agree with Clark that it is in those tabloid pictures that I look happiest.
There's no pause as I make my way through the aisles. This store may be new but not unfamiliar. It could be the same store I always shop. Except for a few miles, it is.
Produce is on the right wall, next to the Meat. The Bakery's on the left and there's a Pharmacy in a corner at the front. Dairy is right in the middle, all the way at the back. People buy milk more than anything else and its placement ensure that, on your way to the basics, you can't help but pass the luxuries. It's brilliant planning and I would appreciate it if I hadn't been tempted into buying Oreos so often.
But tonight it's in and out and my mind isn't on anything but sugar-coated cereal and the art of getting older.
I open the cooler and reach for the jugs nearest the door, three tonight because I don't know if I can carry four. No need to dig for a later expiration date. Milk doesn't last long in our house.
There's no line but the cashier takes his time, thankful for something to do, someone to talk to.
"Did you know that most people buy in pairs?"
I tell him I didn't. He continues, a hand pausing on my second jug of milk.
"Yeah, it's true," he says, scanning the jug and then pausing again. I lift my head, hoping to tell him I need to go. Instead, when our eyes meet, he takes it as a sign of interest and continues.
"It's true. I mean, discounting the big stuff, like watermelon or the small things, like mushrooms. And, you know, the pre-packaged stuff like hamburgers and hot dogs and..." He fades away when the theory begins to fall apart. I give him a polite smile in his floundering and he continues to ring me through.
"It's 10.91," he says and I hand him a twenty from my wallet. He reaches for it but there's another pause and he stops, hand in mid-air. Then he grabs the money with a grin and starts up again.
"Two loaves of bread. Two jugs of milk. I see threes. Fours are a little less common; depends on how many kids in the family." He gives me the change and double bags each jug as he hands them to me. I don't think he charged me for the bags. "Do you have kids, sir?"
He looks right at me, waiting. "I do. I have a son."
"I bet that kid would eat cereal every meal of the day if you let him," he laughs. "I know I would."
I smile, giving him something before I make my exit.
"You're a good dad."
Clark and I always get a lot of 'good dad's. It's always the same tone, a little sing-song voice that they can all do. You always meet those people on Parents Nights. "Good for you," they say when they see us and I never know what we've done.
This one sounds real. The smile is nice and the voice genuine.
"Thank you," I say and nod goodbye. The bags aren't as heavy as I think they should be as I head out to the car. I've never left a Parents Night feeling this good.
Juggling the bags, I find my keys, get in the car and head home, slower this time. It's dark but I take in the passing scenery anyway, hoping to find something exciting in this unfamiliar part of my city.
There's a part of me that wants to turn on the CDs; knowing that it'll be Kermit singing "Happy Feet" but desperate for anything to drown out the silence. I thought I got over this at 30. And again at 35. But maybe that's the secret of getting old.
The other Lex is still there and I think I'm starting to realise that he always will be.
He's the one screaming at me when I catch a cute guy checking me out and do nothing about it.
He sulks in the corner when I'm trapped in a stuffy auditorium, smiling so hard my face hurts even as Nicky's class butchers Christmas carols.
And he's still up when, in front of the TV, head on Clark's shoulder, I close eyes for the night.
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