In retrospect, it's hard for me to believe I became best friends with a guy who was literally a high school superstar. We still had arguments about ideals and opinions, but they were usually pretty amicable fights, especially since we had too much fun covering the Kings and Chiefs on a regular basis. We double-dated often, and he eventually settled down with a gorgeous young woman from St. Louis. I still dated some women, but I never found that someone else. Wilbur said it was because I was still in love with Jean Grey. I guess all the redheads I went out with gave me away.
Of course, there was always the conversations with infamous copy chief Tony Duncan in the newsroom.
"Mutie-lover," he called me one day.
"What?", I replied. "Just because I think people should be considered as individuals and not grouped together because of their DNA?"
"Wake up and smell the coffee, Joey," he returned. "All these muties are out to take over the planet and use us as their dutiful slave-boys. I, for one, don't intend to let that happen."
"I'm sure everyone appreciates your ability to discern someone's personality from their genetic code. Wilbur's genetic code is a little different from yours. You gonna hold that against him?"
"Oh, don't even get me involved in your ozone expeditions," Wilbur replied, contact sheet in hand. "You two can fight that out amongst yourselves."
"See?", Tony continued, "Wilbur knows the truth. Muties have gotta go."
"You are one jealous bastard of a copy boy," I said.
"Jealous of what?", he replied. "That I'm not some four-legged, mauve-skinned freak?"
"No," I said. "Jealous that you can't fly, or shoot lightning bolts from your hands, or manipulate any metallic object to your liking."
"Please," he replied. "If I were like Magneto, I'd probably kill myself."
"If you were like Magneto," I said, "your ego would be even bigger than his."
"It already is," muttered Wilbur.
I remember the conversation that day, because it was the day the regular baseball beat writer was out sick, and I finally got my chance to talk to George Brett. He seemed well on his way to hitting .400 that season, and I got my big shot to ask him all those tough questions I had prepared for him months ago. Just when I had shoved my way through the gaggle of writers and prepared to start the interview, I could feel a tap on my shoulder.
"Not now, Wilbur. Tell me, George..."
The tombstone seemed so plain. Jean Grey, 1956-1980. It said nothing about how beautiful she was, both inside and out. How could something that ordinary do her justice? Wilbur and I just stood there in the cold as I looked at this rock blankly through the mist of my breath.
"Wilbur," I said, "can you keep a secret?"
"All these years, and I never told a soul. Do you remember that day the 3:15 almost tore our bus in half, save for what some people called a miracle?"
"Yeah, I remember that. You went chasing after Jean that day."
"It was her, Wilbur. She was the miracle."
I could almost feel his head turn toward me. "You mean she did that?"
"She was a mutant, Wilbur," I said. "She was capable of moving objects around just by thinking about them. She entrusted that secret to me just before she transferred out. I promised I would never to tell a soul. I just didn't think it would end like this."
"That's why you've put up with all those guys calling you a mutie-lover for so long, hasn't it?"
"It was the truth. I was in love with her, and she was a mutant. She deserved better than to be branded like that, though. The word mutant is so ugly, so negative. There has to be a better way to describe someone as beautiful as she was."
"I think you did it just fine, bub."
The third voice surprised both of us. He was a short, muscular, and very hairy man wearing plenty of flannel and holding a single red rose in his hand. I was wary of saying anything else about Jean being a mutant, as suspicious as he looked.
"You a friend of hers?", he said in this gruff voice.
"We knew her in high school," said Wilbur. "You?"
"I'd known her for a few years," he said. "Doesn't really seem like she's gone, ya know?"
I looked back at this stranger, seeing the obvious sadness in his eyes. "She meant a lot to you, too, didn't she?", I said.
"Yeah," he said, almost in a whisper, "but she loved someone else." He put the rose down by the stone and looked back up at me.
"I heard what you were saying a minute ago," he said, "and you're right -- Jeannie did deserve better. Don't ever stop keeping your promise to her, okay?"
"I will," I said to him. "Her secrets are safe with me, mister..."
"Name's Logan," he replied.
"Joey," I replied.
"You look like a good kid, Joey," he replied. "Stay that way." And with that, he walked away. I
started to wonder about the company Jean had been keeping the last few years, but I stopped
myself when I remembered her words on the bus that day. We're all human beings here. We all
have feelings. What's the point of stepping on someone just because they're a little different?
Those words seemed to mean more now than ever.
Several years had passed, and Wilbur and I were still in Kansas City covering sports. We both had our eyes set on other goals -- ESPN, mostly -- and we both had a field day in the papers when the Kings bolted for Sacramento. One day, we're headed for New York to cover a Royals-Yankees weekend series, when we arrived at the airport to what appeared to be total panic. People were running all over the place, and the lines to get flights out of town were longer than Disneyworld's.
"I bet there's a story behind this," muttered Wilbur.
"Let's go," I said, letting the much bigger Wilbur lead the way. As he snapped pictures of the crowds, I noticed a man with a laminate on his jacket. He was with the Daily News.
"Joey Bilotti, Kansas City Star," I said to him. "What in the Benny Hill is going on around here?"
"Ryan Adridge, Daily News," he replied. "Some mutie bastard calling himself Apocalypse has sicced his 'horsemen' on the city. Mutants and casualties everywhere, Avengers supposedly on their way."
Wilbur walked up behind me. "X-Men involved?", I said to the Daily News reporter.
"Story right now is they're wrapped up in Dallas fighting someone else," he replied.
"What about X-Factor?", chimed in Wilbur.
"Nowhere to be found. I think this guy's beyond their reach."
Another man ran up to the reporter, a beige vest filled with camera equipment on his back.
"You got room for a couple more?", I asked him.
"They're from the K.C. Star," added Adridge.
"One more at the most," the guy replied, "and it'll be tight."
There's nothing like the adrenaline rush of a pressure situation. "Okay, Wilbur, go up with these guys and get some aerial shots of the city. I'll meet you at Yankee Stadium later tonight."
"Where are you going?", said Wilbur.
"Avis desk, baby," I replied. "I'm goin' where the action is!"
As I ran past the crowd down the terminal I could hear the conversation behind me.
"He is not...", said the reporter.
"Don't worry," replied Wilbur. "God looks after idiots."
God must have been looking after me, because most of the action seemed to miss me completely. I struggled to drive slowly through streets filled with abandoned cars, and I could hear the sounds of falling glass and booming explosions in the distance. After traversing numerous sidewalks, I finally had to abandon the car six blocks from my destination in the hopes of getting any closer to where I was going. All I could think was that there had better be some good copy here for me to justify that expense.
The ship hanging in the sky above the city blocked out the sun for miles. I watched from a distance as it knocked the mast of the Empire State Building clean off its base, just barely missed the Statue of Liberty, then landed with a thud not a football field's length in front of me -- right on top of X-Factor Headquarters. If there were mutant hunters in there before, they were gone now.
When I finally picked myself up from the ground, I noticed that other journalists, especially television crews, were running past me. No way I was going to let them get ahead of me, I thought. I ran as close to the front of that ship to see who was there, hoping that I would finally get some semblance of a story.
When I got there, four members of a mutant team were standing on a platform, trying to deal with the hordes of media surrounding them. One was made totally out of ice, another was large and somewhat brutish with huge hands and feet, the third was wearing some strange red glasses and stood tall in the thick of the media crush, and the fourth was a woman -- a rather attractive redhead.
I froze solid in the crowd. The more I looked at her, the more I was sure that this wasn't a dream.
"Joey?" Wilbur stood right behind me, snapping a few pictures along the way. His voice was just barely audible in my head. "What's up, Joey? You okay?"
I pointed up to the platform at my high school dream girl. All I could say was, "It's her." It was mere seconds later that she caught our blank stares.
"No, Joey. Not like this."
Her voice in my mind could not have been my imagination.
"Meet me in front of Rockefeller Center in an hour. Both of you. We have to talk."
I turned back to Wilbur.
"Did you hear that?"
"Louder than a bomb. Let's go."
The hectic bustle of people trying to reclaim their cars and other possessions seemed to be a good enough cover. It was a little more than an hour when Jean finally arrived to meet us, but that didn't matter; I would have waited forever for her. She wore a simple blue sweatshirt and jeans, her long, fiery hair tied up in a pony tail. She was more beautiful than ever.
"Hi, guys," she said, a welcoming smile spread across her face. "It has been so long..."
"A little too long, if you ask me," said Wilbur, who hugged her first. "How have you been?"
"Up and down, lately," she replied. Then she looked at me. I hugged her, but I didn't know how to say what I wanted to say.
"How are you, Joey?", she said finally.
"Better," I said, a bit choked up. "I didn't know you had joined a new team."
"What do you mean?", she asked.
I paused for a moment, looking at her with eyes that had to be on the verge of tears. What could I say? Well, Jean, I'm so glad you're not really dead. What's new? Wilbur finally broke the silence.
"Joey told me...after you died."
A horrified look covered her face. To her credit, she quickly regrouped herself. "Walk with me," she said to us. "We have to talk."
We strolled across the rubble and mess that dotted at least a dozen city blocks. Her story was amazing -- the private school she went off to attend was actually the training ground for the infamous X-Men, and she was none other than Marvel Girl, for a time the only woman in the group. She told us stories that would boggle the imagination. Had I ever seen anything other than a black-and-white photo of the X-Men, I might have made the connection -- telepathic redhead thwarts Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, film at 11 -- but I could only speculate whatever happened to her all these years.
She also told us about some of the people she met while she was an X-Man -- a man with wings, an African weather-goddess, a man who could turn himself into solid steel -- as well as all the details about the boy she met all those years ago. His name was Scott, and they had gone through hell and back together, so much so that they couldn't see themselves without each other.
Finally, she told us about Phoenix.
"That was YOU?", I asked her. I remembered the ruckus that Phoenix stirred up over New York. Again, though, I didn't make the connection that it was...
"No, it wasn't." She was adamant in her denial. "She was an impostor, some cosmic force that stole my identity and lived my life for me. She fooled my family, my friends -- she fooled Scott..."
She began to crumble there on the sidewalk. We led her to the nearest bench and sat her down, watching helplessly as she buried her head in her hands and sobbed.
"It was all for her," she whimpered. "They mourned her death, not mine. Scott lost two women in his life, and neither of them were me. Do you know what that's like, Joey? To have someone take over your life for you like that?"
There was nothing I could say. She had lived through far more than I had ever dreamed, and she was living a situation I couldn't have fathomed at the time. I put my arm around her and gave her a handkerchief, hoping what I could do meant more than what I could say.
"They didn't know, Jean," said Wilbur finally. "They couldn't have known. You ain't got a reason in the world to be kicking yourself. You're here, now, alive. That's gotta count for something."
Jean looked up at him as she wiped her eyes. "You're right, Wilbur, and I know I have to deal with this somehow, but it just hurts to see everyone I knew so...so wary of me."
"Just remember, Jean," I said, trying to lift her chip up as she bowed her head, "no matter what happens, you've always got friends."
She finally looked up at me, and my heart must have jumped when her lips formed a tight smile. She put each of her arms around our shoulders.
"You guys are the greatest," she said, the lump still firmly in her throat. "We need to catch up on old times."
We walked together to one of the few open delicatessens in the city and sat down for corned beef and reminiscence. Wilbur and I talked about our exploits at Syracuse and in Kansas City -- the parties, the big breaking stories, the night clubs, the sporting events, the '85 Series, and so on. It all seemed so small compared to Jean's life, but she listened to us so attentively, trying to live out all our experiences, as if they were so much more fascinating than hers.
As we were about to leave the deli, she asked us about the women in our lives.
"Gina and I just had a son last year," said Wilbur. "He eats like a horse, too."
"Must be tough on the family budget," said Jean.
"Oh, we manage. She gets paid as much as I do these days. She keeps asking me when I'm going to get a better job, and I have to keep convincing her I love what I do."
They went on for a few minutes about his family. That was the one thing I always envied about Wilbur.
"What about you, Joey?", Jean asked me.
"Oh, I've had a few girlfriends here and there," I said to her. "I guess I'm...still looking, though..."
My eyes turned away from her, and her sigh hung in my ears for an eternity. Even if she weren't a telepath, I think she would have known. She finally put her hands on my shoulders and made me look her in the eye.
"Look at me, Joey Bilotti. You have got to get over me. You can't carry this torch your entire life. You're one of the closest friends I've ever had, but we just weren't meant to be. I'm not this perfect woman you see me as. Now more than ever I'm damaged goods, and besides, I've already given my heart to someone else. You can't live with memories and ideals all your life, Joey. You've got to move on."
"It's not that easy, Jean," I said, the lump firmly entrenched in my throat. "I've spent my whole life with these unattainable standards, or pursuing unattainable women. How could I ever find anyone as incredible as my first love?"
"I can make you forget me, Joey," she replied quite seriously. "I can erase every memory of me you ever had."
"I'm sure you can try, Jean," I said, "but I don't think that would ever be possible."
"Oh, Joey," she said softly, and we hugged each other tightly. "What am I going to do with you?"
"Stay with me," I replied, knowing how dumb it sounded.
"I wish I could," she said, "but I have a higher calling. Great power comes with great responsibility, and I have to live with that. Please tell me you will, too."
"I'll do my best," I said. I wasn't sure if I meant it, but I owed it to myself and to her to try.
"Thank you," she replied, and she kissed me again on the cheek. I thought back on that scared little cheerleader in the woods, and the promise I had kept to her all these years. All of the sudden, it seemed like everyone had grown up except me.
"You're gonna make some woman really happy someday," she said. "I just know it."
I was reluctant to let go of her, but we finally parted, and she looked back at the two of us with pride.
"You take care of yourselves, okay?", she said, "and give my love to your son, Wilbur."
"I will," he replied. "It was good seeing you again, Jean."
"You, too. Good-bye, Wilbur." She glanced back at me and tilted her head, as if to say I was being a fool for thinking there was nobody else but her.
I stepped toward her. "I have to know -- that shot I made..."
"I never touched the ball, Joey," she replied. "You scored against Derrick all by yourself."
And that was the truth.
"Thank you, Jean."
"Thank you, Joey."
And we watched as she walked away.
That was the last time I ever saw Jean Grey. Thirty years later, the sentinels that fly over my home every day remind me that I will never see her again.
I have written many articles for The Zone in the last decade and a half, and this one will be my last, assuming that they choose to publish something that is not only far-removed from the world of sports, but quite possibly illegal in this new America. Nevertheless, this is a story that must be told.
I have seen many things in my life -- the artistry of Joe Montana, the elegance of Stephon Marbury, the raw power of Ken Griffey, the joy and pain of a World Series victory in Chicago, the rise of corporate-owned pro sports teams, the untimely death of my longtime partner Wilbur, and the rise of his son, my vicarious child, Everett, to football stardom -- but never in all my years have I seen such seething hatred and pronounced cruelty against one small group of people. Never have I witnessed such inhuman deeds committed in the name of humanity. Never have I seen man so eager to exterminate an entire population simply because they were born with even the tiniest of differences.
Perhaps if you had known Jean Grey, if you had seen her smile, or admired her grace and beauty, or watched her fly off into the night like a bird soaring through the air, maybe you wouldn't have been so quick to judge mutants. Maybe you wouldn't have thought mutants to be ugly and vile and unworthy of living among us. Maybe you would have known that mutants were as human as anyone else, perhaps even more human than the demagogues that carried out their genocide, or the hands that may have already slain the only true love of my life.
This is your legacy, humanity, and I hang my head in shame to be counted among you. Her blood
stains your hands for eternity, and now and forever I swear to you -- as you have sown, one day
you shall reap.