Chapter 2 - Dinner with Selina
Dinner was a disaster.
Maybe that's too bare a statement or ruins the suspense to say it right off like that. My English teacher at school says good writers build up the suspense for a while and let the reader guess what's going to happen and give them clues, too. He told me this after I approached him with my paper which had a big C- in green ink at the top. (All the teachers use green ink to help us feel better about our grades. Yeah, right – like a C- is better in green ink than in red!)
"Dick," Mr. Horton said, shaking his head sadly like he was really disappointed that the ward of Gotham's billionaire made such bad mistakes, "you need to draw out the tension longer. Look at your first line – 'What did I do this summer? I went to a museum.' Then you spend the next two pages giving hints about where you went. 'A building with lots of marble,' 'has many rooms,' 'even has a gift shop to buy stuff – guess what it was.' You already told us it's a museum!"
I was supposed to show Bruce that paper; instead, I ripped it into two in the hallway and flung it in the trash when Mr. Horton closed his door.
But back to dinner – not good at all. Very, very bad - possibly the worst dinner I have ever gone to, and that's including the time we were eating with the troupe and we had boiled okra and I choked on it and globs of green, stringy slime spewed out of my mouth. No one too a bite of okra after that.
We did not eat okra tonight so that was one good thing. We had some kind of beef in a weird sauce – Alfred's always coming up with crazy food for us to eat. When I first came here, I didn't want to have the weird stuff, but Bruce said if I was old enough to sit at the dining room table and stay up for a little while afterwards, I had to eat whatever was served. Otherwise I could eat in my room and go straight to bed right after, just like some dumb little kid. So I chose to eat at the table with Bruce and I learned to choke down stuff like duck and mussels and liver and even something nasty like broccoli salad. I would choose hamburgers or hotdogs for a great supper, but Alfred doesn't serve a lot of those.
But maybe I'm still telling the story wrong. Bruce always tells me to start at the beginning, not to jump all over. I guess dinner really started that evening when we went downstairs after our – uh, talk. We came down at seven, but Selina wasn't arriving until eight. I was hoping Bruce might let me play on the computer for a few minutes, but he parked me in a chair next to a desk and made me start on the homework that didn't get blown up.
My butt was still aching, and I tried to hide it, but he didn't care. He made me open up my English notebook, and he looked at every page inside.
"Those are all of the papers since September," I protested. "A lot you've already seen."
"Then you won't mind me having a second glance through them," Bruce shot back. "Be quiet while I go through them."
I sat, trying not to squirm on the hard chair, while he frowned over the papers. His frown deepened with each turn of a page until he was scowling his fiercest Batman scowl at me.
"All right, Dick, I think I understand the C average in English now."
"Mr. Horton's got it in for me!" I replied. "He wants to make an example of me to the whole class. He even said that once to the whole class!"
"Did he say he wanted you to live up to your potential?" Bruce was not impressed with my sad story. "Did he say it was a shame that the boy who has everything can't find time to do his homework?"
"Something like that," I muttered. I didn't like it when Bruce agreed with my teachers. He should feel sorry for the boy who lost his parents and his brother. Instead, he smacked me on the back of the head.
"Ow!" I objected.
"Wipe that self-pitying look off your face," Bruce ordered.
"You're hitting me so I'll do better in English?"
"I'm trying to knock some sense into that thick skull of yours," Bruce growled. "Look here, on this grammar quiz. You listed firm as a noun. How can firm be a noun?"
"You can say 'The chair is firm'," I pointed out. "The chair is something, and that something is firm. That makes firm a thing, so it's a noun."
"Firm is an adjective," Bruce insisted. "You can say 'the firm chair' so it's an adjective."
"You can say 'the metal car,' but metal isn't an adjective," I raised my voice.
"It's a modifying noun!" Bruce almost yelled.
"Nouns are modeling now?" I demanded.
"Modifying!" Bruce roared.
In the midst of all the grammar shouting, Selina arrived so Bruce wasn't in the best of moods to greet her. She came into the room like she owned it, all strutting and slutty in her black dress. (Don't tell Bruce I said that – I'm not supposed to know that word, much less use it.) She shook Bruce's hand, but she looked like she'd like to jump on him and start slobbering kisses all over him. When she finally let go, I stuck out my hand, trying to be polite.
"Oh, Bruce," she gushed. "Isn't he darling? Shaking hands all serious – such a sweet ten-year-old."
"I'm thirteen," I insisted, but she just smiled sweetly at Bruce and patted my head like I was an adorable puppy.
"So cute," Selina observed. "How can you bear to live with such an angel?"
"He has his moments," Bruce said, almost sarcastically.
"I'm sure he does," Selina gave me a smile, her eyes intense and hard as if she wanted to eat me right then and there. The look passed, and she turning adoring eyes on Bruce. "Well, is he off to bed now?"
"No, he's eating with us," Bruce told her.
Selina gave me another I'm-going-to-swallow-you-whole glare before replying, "Oh, he wants to be a big boy, does he? Takes after his guardian I suppose."
Bruce gave a short laugh. "Let's go into dinner, shall we?"
He put one hand on her back and gestured to the dining room door. She started for the door, but I saw his hand stay on the small of her back for a few seconds longer than it had to. Gag.
Our formal dining room has twelve chairs at the table, but only three places were set: the head of the table, a seat to the right and a seat to the left. I don't remember where the guest is supposed to sit so I hung back while Bruce pulled out the right-hand chair and seated Selina. I got into the chair across from her, and Bruce took the head. He said a short grace (which I'm sure Selina didn't close her eyes for though I closed mine!) and Alfred began serving the first course.
Manners . . . well, I have them, sort of. My parents taught me to eat correctly as much as they could, and Bruce made me learn even more manners when I came here. Alfred used to tie a huge napkin around my neck so I wouldn't spill food on my nice clothes. Thank goodness he stopped doing that, or I'm sure Selina would be laughing her pretty face off.
I do know how to eat right, but there's a difference between manners when Bruce and I eat in the small room of the kitchen and manners when we have company in the dining room. Then he wants me to sit up, elbows off the table, napkin in my lap, mouth closed when I chew, no talking with food in my mouth, no stuffing in large bites, and pretty much no talking unless someone talks to me first.
I think the last rule was made when Commissioner Gordon came to visit a few years ago, and Bruce was scared I might give away his secret identity. I wouldn't, but he insists that I be respectful to adults and not hog the conversation. It didn't matter anyway because Gordon began asking me about the Gotham Knights, and I knew all the football scores, and we discussed that year's team while Bruce looked on with a half-smile.
But I could tell there would be no sports talk with Selina. She ignored me right away and began talking about the Gotham Ball next month. She wanted Bruce to ask her, I could tell, and I could also tell he wanted to ask her, but he didn't.
Adults are so stupid.
It was in the middle of the third course when stuff started getting rocky. I had listened to Selina talk about her dress for the ball for nearly half-an-hour, and she was starting to describe the way she would do her hair, when I decided to change the subject. I was eating some French bread, and I pretended to choke on it.
I began coughing lightly, and then I deepened my coughs until they were deep-throated hacks. Bruce turned, all concerned, and reached over to clap me on the back. I wasn't so thrilled to have him bring that hard hand of his down on my back after he had applied it so thoroughly about twelve inches down. But it was worth it to see Selina's face as my coughing interrupted her in the middle of her story.
"Sorry," I coughed lightly, "I didn't mean to interrupt."
"It's all right," Bruce told me. "Take smaller bites."
"Where is the ball going to be?" I asked as I took small sips of water.
"I think at the Masquerade Grand Hotel," Bruce glanced to Selina. She nodded tightly, and he looked at me suspiciously. "Are you expecting an invitation?"
"No," I said slowly. This was tricky ground. If I said I didn't want to go, Bruce would find a reason to make me go, saying it was time I met more people in Gotham and I needed to learn to behave at parties and all that. But if I said I wanted to go, he would know something was up and start questioning me about what I was up to.
So I shrugged. "I read something about it in the paper."
"Really, Bruce," Selina's voice was high-pitched, "you aren't thinking of taking him. He's a child."
"There will be other children there," Bruce replied before I could protest. "I think Commissioner Gordon might bring his daughter. You remember her, Dick? Barbara?"
"Yeah, I know her," I muttered. It was not the time to start talking about how I felt about stubborn, fast-talking, I-do-it-my-way Barbara Gordon.
"So it's a family event now," Selina said, pressing her lips together. "One big picnic, I suppose."
"Why do you care?" I demanded. "You'll be too busy worrying about your stupid dress."
"Dick!" Bruce turned stern eyes on me. "You apologize at once."
The ache in my bottom told me to obey, and I mumbled, "Sorry."
"I apologize for his rudeness," Bruce told her. "We've had a hard day today."
"Oh?" Selina raised perfect eyebrows. "What happened?"
I swore if Bruce told her the truth, I was running right out the front door and I would never come back. If Selina Kyle knew how Bruce had punished me, I would never live it down.
"Just some school matters," Bruce explained. "Dick's having a little trouble with the homework."
"Maybe he needs to repeat a grade?" Selina suggested as she took a sip of her wine.
I glared daggers at her, but Bruce waved it aside.
"No, we worked through it. Some of the coursework is harder than I guessed it would be. I suppose middle school is harder now than it was when I went to school."
I loved Bruce for sticking up for me then, and I think the rest of the dinner would have been fine except that Selina couldn't let anything go.
She arched her eyebrows and said, "Or it could be what happens when you take in a child raised in a traveling circus."
The room went quiet. I froze with my hand in mid-air.
"Selina," Bruce said gently, "I'm not sure that's called for."
"What do you mean?" she asked blankly. "You told me yourself, Bruce, that you thought his parents didn't have time to teach him anything concerned with school."
I waited for Bruce to deny it, but the expression on his face was so worried that I knew he had said that.
"Take it back!" I ordered, speaking to both of them.
Bruce opened his mouth, but Selina leaned across the table before he could speak. "I know all about your parents, little boy," she hissed. "They were poor acrobats in a circus that was about to declare bankruptcy. And you were taken in by Gotham's hero because he felt sorry for you, not because you belong here."
Just like throwing the box, I didn't think. I grabbed a handful of beef off my plate and threw it at her. It hit her black dress, splattering on her bare neck.
"Richard Grayson!" Bruce bellowed.
"Take that back!" I yelled, reaching for another handful of food.
"My dress!" Selina screamed. "I'll scratch your eyes out!"
She leapt out of her seat, moving faster than anyone I have ever seen. But Bruce had already gotten out of his chair and grabbed me by the collar.
"You apologize to her, young man!" he ordered.
"I won't!" I clenched my hands into fists. "She can't talk that way about my parents."
"How dare you let him do that?" she screeched. "You let him treat your guests like that? He's an animal."
"He's going to apologize," Bruce began, but I shook my head.
"No! I'm not saying anything to her ever again. You say you're sorry first about my parents."
"I told the truth," Selina snarled. "Everyone thinks it's ridiculous that a brat like you with Gypsy blood and no family should get to live like Gotham's prince. It's ridiculous, and you should be raised as a servant with Alfred, not parading around the place like you own it, you stupid circus freak."
Bruce stared at her, amazed that she could be so spiteful.
"I'm not speaking to her," I yelled, but my voice broke on the last word. I could feel tears stinging my eyes, and my bottom hurt, and I was tired, but as usual no one cared about me.
"Selina," Bruce spoke very quietly, "I think you better leave now."
She raised huge eyes up to him, and I thought she would start crying. But she made an enraged sound deep in her throat and whirled around to stomp towards the door. I saw Alfred rush down the hall to open the front door for her.
Bruce looked down at me, and I gulped. He clapped his right hand on the back of my neck and he marched me out of the dining and up the stairs to my room. Once we got there, he shut the door and turned around very slowly.
"Richard," his voice made my heartbeat increase, "what was the meaning of all that?"
"You heard her," I squeaked, hating that my voice was choosing now to break. "You heard what she said."
"I did," Bruce glowered. "And believe me, that is the only reason you are not getting spanked right here and now for acting so awful."
Thank goodness for Selina's meanness then. I don't think I could handle getting spanked twice in one day.
"I admit, she was not as kind as she could be, but I won't have you antagonizing guests in this house."
"My parents weren't dumb," I insisted. "They were smart and they taught me a lot. I didn't have time to go to school, but Mom taught me to read, and I learned really quickly."
"No one is doubting your parents," Bruce assured. "But I can't let you talk to people like that and lose your temper so quickly. Besides, it's common courtesy to treat guests like you would treat your friends. Do I treat your friends like that?"
"You don't like Tom Fowler," I pointed out, my voice still shaky. "You said I couldn't invite him over."
"Because he has blue hair, two earrings, and smokes cigarettes in eighth grade," Bruce told me. "You're not hanging out with anyone like that."
"But you can invite Selina over to be all bitchy," I said the word before I could stop myself.
Bruce looked at me, and I closed my eyes, sure I was about to be spanked. For some reason, I just couldn't stop myself that day. I almost wished Bruce had put a gag on me before dinner started so I would have stopped talking.
He reached out and grabbed me by the ear. I went along with him as he pulled me into the bathroom. My bathroom is huge and has marble floors and two sinks with brass faucets. But Bruce pulled me over to the first sink and grabbed a fresh bar of soap from the counter.
"Open," he told me.
I did with a sigh, and he stuck the bar in my mouth. It wasn't a big bar, and it was flat, kind of like the size of a chocolate bar. But I kept my tongue pressed down so it didn't touch the soap, and I breathed through my nose.
"Twenty seconds," Bruce ordered. "And if you swear again, I'll triple the time."
I wanted to point out that the word I said meant a female dog, and I didn't see the problem because he would let her call me a cute little puppy dog in a second. But I couldn't speak with the soap in my mouth which was probably a good thing or I'd be in more trouble.
Twenty seconds is an awful long time, and I breathed a sigh of relief when he took the soap out. But he was satisfied?
"Tongue out," Bruce ordered.
"Aw, Bruce," I complained. He refused to budge, so I stuck my tongue out. He rubbed the bar of soap back and forth on my tongue. It tasted awful, and my mouth had extra saliva from trying not to swallow for twenty second, and I nearly gagged.
"You better shape up," Bruce told me. "I've lengthened your restriction from the playstation to three weeks, and no TV for a week as well."
I didn't even argue, just nodded glumly. I felt my eyes stinging again, and I turned to the side, hoping he wouldn't see.
"What is it?" he asked, his voice a tiny bit less stern.
I wanted to say nothing, just glare and him and stomp into my room to go to bed. Instead, tears filled my eyes, and I cried out, "I miss my parents!"
I felt like such a baby. I wanted to stop, but I could only blink back the tears and pray I didn't start crying like I had in the afternoon.
I heard Bruce shift uncomfortably. "Dick," he began, sounding very awkward.
I shook my head and ran for my room. I threw myself on my bed and buried my face in my pillows, hugging my arms around one as I cried. I hated myself for being such a baby, and I hoped Bruce would just leave and I could fall asleep and forget this awful day.
Instead, I felt the bed move as he sat down on the edge of it, and he put a hand on my shoulder.
"Hey, come on," he said gently. "Don't cry. It's okay, Dick. It's okay to miss them."
"But you're mad at me," my voice was muffled by the pillow.
"I'm mad you were throwing food and yelling," Bruce said. "And if you ever throw food again in this house, I will take that playstation to the cave and run over it with the Batmobile."
It would have been funny except that he was serious.
"I know dinner was hard," Bruce continued. "We were all scared after the bomb this afternoon, and I know you're still sore, but you really have to stop acting so – so –"
"Like a kid?" I asked from the pillows.
"I was going to say like a teenager," Bruce sighed. "But I have a feeling we're going to have a lot more of that in this household. I am sorry about your parents though and your brother."
The simple honesty in his voice made me roll over and looked up at him. Sometimes his quietness makes me mad because he takes everything so calmly while I want to get upset. But at other times (like now), I like how reliable he is, always there for me to trust.
"I'm sorry, too," I admitted.
"Good enough," Bruce stood up. "Why don't you go on to sleep? I'll send a note to your teachers tomorrow about why you're missing homework."
"You're going to tell them it blew up?" I asked hopefully.
"I'll tell them that you misplaced them and need to make up the work over the weekend," Bruce replied. "Good night."
"'Night," I called him.
"Don't sleep in your clothes," Bruce said as he headed for the door. "And brush your teeth."
He wouldn't have to tell me twice tonight, not with the gross soap taste still in my mouth.
A few minutes later as I got into bed, I felt better that I had in several days. Bruce and I were friends again, and maybe I would never have to see Selina again. Everything would be all right.
Little did I know how awful the rest of the week would be.