Eye to Eye

Chapter 2

Isaac wakes up to a soft, round, blue chiming sound from his phone. He sits up and rubs his eyes, letting the sound continue for a minute before scooting off the bed and walking across the room to turn off his phone. His mom found out some time ago that he would just turn off the alarm and go back to sleep when it was closer to the bed; he doesn’t ever remember doing this, but she would not be convinced otherwise. He takes off his pajama top and bottom, and the briefs he was wearing; he throws the briefs in the hamper in the corner of his room, but takes time to fold up the pajama pieces so that he can put them neatly back into the bottom drawer of his nightstand.

He shuffles over to the closet and looks at the row of shirts hanging up. He doesn’t have a lot of them on the rack, just twelve of them: enough to wear for two weeks, minus the two that he already wore on Sunday and Monday. He takes the next shirt in line, a light gray t-shirt with darker gray birds flapping up one side and across the sleeve, and wrestles it over his head. He reaches into the top dresser drawer and pulls out a folded pair of white briefs and low-cut white socks, putting them on the bed behind him. He finally takes a pair of blue jeans out and lays them in the middle of the two, to make a nice assembly line for him to put on his clothes. This way he doesn’t end up putting his pants on before his underwear, or trying to pull them on over his shoes. Those always end up as days where nothing goes right.

He finishes dressing, right down to his black and silver velcro sneakers. He had tried for years to tie his own shoes, but his mother eventually gave up and bought him these for self-sufficiency. He liked them, though, especially the sound they made when he opened the velcro flap. He would sometimes open them just to enjoy the sound, but his mom warned him that it wears them out. He wonders why they make velcro that wears out; that seems like a pretty stupid idea. Finally getting his glasses from the nightstand and putting them on, he feels ready to leave his room.

Onward to the next step of his morning routine: can’t forget any parts, or bad things happen. He goes down the hall into the bathroom and looks in the mirror to see a pair of eyes staring back at him, above a black-and-purple nose (it didn’t grow to the size of his face like she said) and a thin-lipped mouth. There’s a pair of smallish ears there, and some short, light blond hair, as well, but he has always had trouble considering all of those parts as a single unit, a face. Other people have faces, sure, and those faces have all the same pieces, but somehow it just doesn’t mean the same thing when he looks at his own.

He runs the water in the faucet until it is at least warm, splashing some water through his hair to help get rid of the bed head problem. He spends a good minute working the water through his hair, just to make absolutely sure it looks okay, of course -- certainly not wasting time enjoying the feeling. Besides, he always makes sure he has enough time to do this, so it's fine.

Isaac takes a moment to study the other features on his face. There seems to be a red spot coming out right at the high point of his cheek; it wouldn’t be the first pimple he’s had, but they’re coming faster these days. His nose really doesn’t look good, and he knows that a bunch of people are going to ask him about it; the thought fills him with dread and anxiety.

He takes a moment to study his own eyes in the mirror. He doesn’t mind doing that -- it doesn’t carry with it all the weird emotions and connections like when he looks at others’ eyes -- but it just doesn’t mean anything to him. They’re a deep blue color, almost at odds with the lighter colors of his skin and hair. He estimates that their color would sound like a handbell tuned to middle C, or maybe the A below it. He knows that a lot of people have complimented him on his eyes, though he tries to ignore it; it usually means they want him to look at their eyes so they can see his better, but that just ends poorly.

He brushes his teeth and flosses using a little flosser pick, though he can’t watch himself do it through the mirror or he gets all kinds of confused. With his teeth sparkling clean, he rinses everything out of his mouth and heads out to the living room for departure. As he exits the bathroom, he muses about how he knows the color of his eyes, but he cannot ever seem to imagine them; he can only envision it while looking at them directly in the mirror. He wonders if that’s just one more thing different about him, or if other people have that happen for them, too. He’s far too afraid to ask anyone, though.

His mother is waiting for him in the living room, watching some show she recorded. When he arrives, she pauses the show and stands up, purse in hand. “You ready to go, Doodlebug?” She had been calling him that for as long as he can remember; as far as he’s concerned, it’s just another one of his names.

“Mom.” He states the name, rather than inflecting it as a question.

“Yes?”

“Can I stay after school again? I would like to play p-piano again.”

“Of course, dear. Will your friend be there, too? What’s his name...Vin?”

Isaac involuntarily smiles at the mention. He can’t help but be excited about the prospect of sharing new songs with Vin, and honestly, just being there with him is enough. He nods, not even attempting to hide the smile.

“Sure thing,” she says. Isaac glances up to see a huge grin on her face. “Maybe you’d like to have him over sometime so I can meet your new friend, especially if he makes you this happy.”

Isaac doesn’t answer, but he ponders the idea. It doesn’t seem all that bad, really; there are no pianos here, of course, but if it would make Mom happy, then maybe he would ask Vin to come over once. But not yet; the idea makes him more anxious than he expects it to.

In the car, Isaac gets an idea. Scanning quickly through YouTube, he picks a video and asks his mom, “Can I play something on the speakers?”

“That’s fine.” She keeps her eyes on the road, but fiddles with a couple of buttons on the steering wheel.

The dashboard stereo display changes to “Bluetooth”; it is already paired to Isaac’s phone, so he hits play and turns the volume knob up. The song is a performance of Debussy’s Arabesque No. 1 with a top-down view of the keys, but Isaac cannot watch the video without getting carsick (that, and the Bluetooth audio is delayed, so it ruins the whole thing anyway). He closes his eyes instead and watches the brilliant play of lights and colors in his mind, reliving the dance of ribbons and fireworks, the tumbling waterfalls of melody. When it gets to the part that Vin never played yesterday, Isaac listens intently to the new motifs and their combinations with the familiar brush strokes of earlier sections. There are sections that soar through the clouds delicately, like a flock of birds on a foggy night; sections where deep burgundy velvet carpets are marched upon by blue-purple swirls of seventh chords; a return back to the ribbon dance once again, with a faraway call-and-response from the waterfalls; and finally, the melody flaps its encompassing wings and disappears in the twinkling sunset of the song.

His mom knows better than to talk in the middle of a song -- Isaac is a pretty well-behaved kid until you splash your voice all over the beautiful landscapes of his music. She asks afterward, “What is that one called?”

“Arabesque Number 1 by Debussy, ma’am.”

“It’s very nice. Where did you hear it?”

Isaac waits a moment to answer. “From Vin, ma’am. Um, he played it and then I listened, and then I played it.”

“Is that why he’s your friend?”

Isaac isn’t sure why she asked that question, so he decides not to answer it. Thankfully, she doesn’t push the matter. He looks at her for additional information; he notes that she has a small smile, but nothing else that seems noteworthy.

She drops him off near the courtyard at school, the same place she picked him up the day before. He walks in a wide circle around the eagle that made him slip last time, and heads up the stairs. In the mornings, only the cafeteria door is open; the regular doors open only six minutes before the first class. He walks past the thin crowds of people standing outside and makes his way into the cafeteria.

On the way to the breakfast line, he hears the words “Mime Boy” and “beat up” pop out of the low mutter of morning conversation. He already regrets coming to school today, if all he’s going to hear is people talking about him getting beat up.

He does his best to tune them out, listening instead to his new favorite piece of music in his head, exploring each and every chordal interaction and rhythmic intricacy as if they were tunnels in an unexplored cave system. He gets so into it that he almost walks off without paying for his cereal and milk.

“Young man!” the cashier lady calls.

He stops and gasps. Immediately turning around nearly fast enough to topple the milk carton on his tray, he quickly walks over to place his tray back down on the rails. He reaches into his pocket and hurriedly pulls out the cash, repeating, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry...” in a soft voice.

“It’s okay, sweetie,” the lady replies, “no harm done. Have a good morning.”

He picks back up his tray, darts a few furtive glances up near the lady’s face, and ducks around to a nearby table. He almost stole something! She didn’t seem to be mad about it, he thought, or she would have said something else, right? Still, it takes a moment for his heart to slow down and his mind to clear; he didn’t want to end up a criminal just because he was lost in his own thoughts.

He centers himself by enjoying his morning cereal, Apple Jacks with whole milk. Since cereal is harder to break into chunks of three, he contents himself with chewing each bite in multiples of three before swallowing. In his mind, he plays various songs that are in triple time signatures, keeping the beat of the song with each chomp. Incidentally, it makes for a very efficient meal, which is pleasing to Isaac, as well.

As he finishes up his cereal, he waits at the table until the bell rings. While waiting, he overhears more conversation from the same table that mentioned him before:

“No -- well yeah, Ray beat him up, but then Ray said that he was doing some kind of voodoo shit!”

“What the fuck -- really?”

“Yeah! Fuckin’ Mime Boy, like, made him feel pain without touching him or some shit, like he was a living voodoo doll!”

“Dude, no fuckin’ way. That can’t be real.”

“I know what I heard, and Ray wouldn’t lie like that.”

“He would if he lost the fight, heh.”

“Bro, you know he ain’t stupid enough to lie like that, tellin’ us some spooky voodoo shit. If he says something that crazy, I mean I gotta believe him.”

“Oh shit, he’s right there!”

“What? Oh ff --”

And the conversation stops there. Isaac has no desire whatsoever to look over and see the people talking about him, so he just pretends he didn’t hear them, his usual -- but often faulty -- trick to avoid conversation.

It works (or at least they didn’t feel like pushing the issue) so he sits in his self-imposed isolation until the bell rings. He stands quickly and takes his backpack, hurrying out the door and into the hallway to beat the rush. He makes his way to Homeroom, where Mr. Coleman is waiting outside his door to greet his students. “Good morning, Isaac.”

Isaac stops just long enough to say “Good morning, sir,” before walking into the classroom. This classroom, though, is definitely different than the normal variety. Mr. Coleman refers to it officially as the Life Skills room, but Isaac and the other kids affectionately call it “The Living Room.” It has a small kitchen, a restroom, an area with student desks arranged in three groups of four, a comfy sofa, and a “reading corner”: a soft rug, a lamp, and a bookshelf full of different types of books. Isaac knows that the reason some of the other kids don’t leave this room is because they don’t know how to deal with the regular classrooms, and sometimes not even regular life. There have been times when he has wished he could just stay in this room all day and not have to deal with the jerks, the stares, the confusion; however, he also realizes that he actually can deal with all of that, at least somewhat. Some of his classmates, or “Room-mates” as Mr. Coleman likes to call them, would just be constantly ridiculed and bullied if they tried to be in a regular class. There’s one, Byron, who has a panic attack every morning while he’s in the hallways, and only calms down when he’s in the room. He can speak a few words, sometimes, but he mostly just stays silent or makes grunting sounds. He’d never make it anywhere else, so it isn’t fair for Isaac to be jealous of him and the others.

Isaac doesn’t feel sorry for them, though, or consider them as “worse” or anything. They’re just “different kinds of different,” another term that Mr. Coleman taught them. “Everyone’s a different kind of different,” he had said. “You’re different; she’s different in different ways; he is, too. Even I am. And not one single person in here is better than anyone else. Just different.”

Christian walks into the room and spies Isaac taking a seat on the microfiber couch. As Isaac slowly moves his hands over the tiny, soft fibers, Christian walks directly up to him and says (in a voice far too loud for the first thing in the morning), “Hey! Isaac, your nose is broken! What happened? Did someone punch you? Were you in a fight?!”

Isaac sorts through the barrage and picks one thing to respond to. “It’s bruised. It’s not broken.”

“Oh, I thought it was broken because it looks really bad,” Christian says tactlessly, drawing out the last two words for emphasis. “Like it looks like you broke it or something.” He looks to the floor and notices a glinting object on the carpet. He bends down fast enough that he almost hits Isaac in the nose with his dense, wavy black hair; oblivious to this, he stands and points out, “Hey! I found a penny!” and holds it out in front of Isaac.

Isaac would have to cross his eyes just to focus on the object that has been thrust in his face. Before he gets a chance to say anything about it, though, the bell rings for the official start of school, which means all of the students in the room are required to be sitting somewhere. Christian finds a chair next to the kitchen table, which is thankfully a decent amount of space away from Isaac. Christian is nice, he thinks, but sometimes I just want to push him.

The principal gets on the loudspeaker to welcome everyone to “another great day at Ophelia Adler Intermediate School” and to have everyone stand for the Pledge of Allegiance. Isaac stands with his hand over his heart and recites the words in time with the principal’s deep voice. Though the words themselves don’t mean much, there is a certain comfort in the ritual of saying the words together that had always helped Isaac center himself in preparation for the chaos of the day.

There are a few other announcements, but Isaac tunes them out. He takes out his math book and does a couple of the problems in the next section, writing the answers in a spiral notebook from last year that still has a few unused sheets in it. While he works, he catches a glimpse of the dark red, flowery dress that Mrs. Jimenez, one of Mr. Coleman’s assistants, likes to wear. She doesn’t say anything to him, but she is usually just here for the less capable students.

In an unfortunately short time, the bell rings for first period, and Isaac is forced to go to his least favorite class. He normally tries to be the first one out of class, both so that he can beat the rush of people and so that he can make sure he’s not late, but the reading classroom is literally two doors down the hallway. That, and he really, really doesn’t want to go.

Mr. Coleman walks up to him after a minute and kneels down next to him. Staring forward, he asks, “Why are you still sitting down? You have to go to reading class.”

Isaac doesn’t reply. After Mr. Coleman asks again, though, he mutters, “I don’t want to go.”

“What is making you feel that way?”

He thinks a moment. “I’m afraid that...that th-the people will make fun of me again, and then th-that I won’t get it. The work.”

“Well, I have good news for you: there’s going to be another teacher in there today, and he can help you with the work.”

Isaac absently picks at the side of his thumb. He already didn’t like having to meet all his new teachers last week, and the prospect of another new one doesn’t help him feel better. “Yes, sir,” he finally says, though he doesn’t feel very confident about the decision.

“Good. C’mon, Isaac -- I’ll walk you there and introduce you.”

Even with the conversation taking up a few minutes, the two of them end up walking into the reading classroom right as the bell rings. Isaac immediately spots the new adult in the room, a man with close-cut, nearly black hair and a short black goatee to match; Isaac is immediately entranced by the lustrous purple button-down shirt that the man is wearing, the color of a deep, rich major chord, and the way that it fits perfectly across his chest and arms. He gets a glimpse of the man’s eyes from the side, noticing the dark brown color that both matches his hair, and stands out against his light, almost pale skin; Isaac wouldn’t be able to find the words to explain, but the man definitely sparks a wave of emotion in him.

Isaac hesitates in the doorway, but Mr. Coleman’s reassuring hand on his shoulder slowly directs him into the room and toward the man. As Mrs. Stone begins her walk around the room as she does every morning, the man looks up to see Isaac and Mr. Coleman approach. Isaac is quick to cast his eyes down, where he notices the deep shine of the man’s black shoes.

“Good morning, Mr. Guthrie. This is Isaac Brooks.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Isaac,” Mr. Guthrie says in a voice far deeper than Isaac expected from the man’s frame; it was like the sound of a tuba coming from a trumpet.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Guthrie,” he repeats back.

Mr. Guthrie continues, “I’m your education specialist. I’m sorry I haven’t been in here sooner, but the first weeks of school are always a little crazy.”

Isaac is aware of what an “education specialist” is in this district: they are the people that come into the classrooms and help people who are having a hard time in the class. Isaac resents needing one, but he is more than happy to have one for this stupid, difficult class. He says nothing, but nods silently.

Mr. Coleman explains in a low voice, “He can be a bit shy, but he is definitely always listening. You’ve checked his I.E.P. and B.E.P.?”

The two of them engage in conversation that is full of letters and other definitions that Isaac probably should know but hasn’t taken the time to learn. He logs the conversation in the back of his mind, scanning it for when he’s needed again; he sits at his normal assigned seat, where the two boys and the girl with the long braid stare at him awkwardly. He hears a comment or two about his nose, but he’s already opening up his journal and beginning the warm-up, trying his best to ignore them.

Mr. Coleman leaves after the conversation, and Isaac spies Mr. Guthrie checking over the shoulder of a Hispanic girl with shoulder-length, silky black hair. Shortly, Mr. Guthrie leaves her and comes back to Isaac; the closer he gets, the more Isaac feels somehow smaller, inadequate.

Isaac tries his best to maintain concentration, writing a short paragraph to the prompt, “Write about a time when you were brave.” He describes the time when he first came to this school.

 

A time wen I was brave was when I came to this school in sixth grade. I was scard becuz I didn’t know ennybody, and becuz it’s hard to meet new poeple. I met some new frends, and now I don’t feel scard ennymore.

 

He has a pretty good grasp of grammar rules and his handwriting is neat; however, his spelling isn’t the best, and he hates when people read his work -- especially out loud. It never sounds as good as it does in his head.

Mr. Guthrie watches as Isaac finishes the last sentence and asks, “May I read it?”

Isaac considers saying ‘no’ or otherwise silently refusing, but he ends up hunching over in his seat with his hands tucked in between his legs. “Yes, sir.”

Mr. Guthrie glances at it for a moment and passes the journal back to Isaac. “Thank you,” he says, but makes no other comment about it. Isaac isn’t sure which is worse: people reading his work and judging him, or people reading his work and not saying anything. Then he doesn’t know what they think about it, good or bad. Mr. Guthrie then takes a seat in the back of the classroom at the “work table” where student groups often go to put together projects and the like. Isaac doesn’t want to risk knowing whether Mr. Guthrie is looking at him, so he just assumes that he is.

The next part of class is the same as always, with the teacher demonstrating the technique she is teaching to the students and having the students practice it together with her. This time it’s still about inference; Isaac really wishes she’d just talk about grammar and such more often. At least that’s something where words have rules to follow.

As she gets to the point where the other students are answering questions with each other in groups, Mr. Guthrie comes over and kneels next to Isaac. “Hey. Why don’t you come over to the table and work with me on this?”

Isaac glances to the table and at Mr Guthrie’s silky purple shirt. He stands up, grabs his pencil and the worksheet the teacher just passed out, and follows Mr. Guthrie over there. He takes a seat and stares at the worksheet.

Mr. Guthrie, however, puts a couple of pictures down on the table. “Don’t worry about the worksheet right now,” he requests. “We’re going to talk about what inference is, and how you already use it.”

“Yes, sir,” Isaac replies with no confidence whatsoever.

The man slides a picture to Isaac. Mr. Guthrie asks, “What are some of the things you notice in this picture? Can you describe it to me?”

“Um, there is a person holding an umbrella, and then a set of keys in his other hand.”

“Is there a background? Do we know where he is?”

Isaac shakes his head.

“Why do you think he’s holding an umbrella?” Mr. Guthrie asks.

“Because it’s maybe raining, or about to rain, maybe.”

“Okay,” Mr. Guthrie says, “And what about the keys? Why would he be holding keys?”

Isaac thinks a moment. “Maybe because he’s going to, um, u-unlock something? Like maybe his h-house.”

“Sure. And how is he standing? Is he standing still, or does it look like something else?”

“His leg is out, like he’s walking.”

“And where do you think he’s walking to?”

Isaac doesn’t reply.

Mr. Guthrie tries again, “If he has keys in his hand, and he is going to unlock something, what do you think he might be going to unlock?”

“Um, a door, maybe, and then he will go inside.”

“How do you know it’s not, say, a filing cabinet, or a dresser?”

“Because he is outside,” Isaac replies.

Why so?”

Because it’s raining, and then because you’re not supposed to open an umbrella inside.” Isaac smiles a bit at the thought of a man opening a filing cabinet in the rain.

Excellent,” Mr. Guthrie says emphatically. “All of those things you just did were inferences. You had to infer all of that information since there’s no background. You don’t know where he is, but because he has an umbrella -- and because you aren’t supposed to open umbrellas inside -- we know he’s probably outside, and also probably raining. We also know that he’s going to go in somewhere, since he has keys in his hand. I didn’t have to tell you that; you figured it out indirectly by using clues.”

Isaac doesn’t respond, but he is quietly pleased with himself. Then why is it so hard when she makes me do it? he wonders.

“Now,” Mr. Guthrie says, “How do you think the man feels?”

This is the sort of question that Mrs. Stone would ask. Isaac has no idea, so he remains silent.

Mr. Guthrie waits an uncomfortably long period of time for Isaac to answer, but he finally asks something else. “What are some of the ways we can know how someone is feeling?”

Isaac takes a moment, but he responds, “Um, if they’re smiling, you know that maybe they’re happy.”

“Good, so the shape their mouth is in can tell us something. What else?”

“If they say that th-they are feeling some way.”

Mr. Guthrie laughs a bit. “Yes, if they tell us. But it’s not very often that people just say how they’re feeling, right? What about another emotion, like sadness? How can you tell, or infer, that someone is sad, even if they don’t tell you?”

“Um, they might cry.”

“Okay, good. And angry?”

“They will talk loud and then maybe hit things, or people.” He wishes it were really that easy to tell; there have been countless times where someone was mad and did not give off any signs that Isaac could tell.

Mr. Guthrie nods. “Now what about the face? Can you see anything on the man’s face that would tell you how he’s feeling? Is he smiling?”

“No, sir.”

“What do his eyes look like?”

“Um, they look brown.”

“No, like, are his eyes wide open and surprised, or narrow and angry, or anything like that?”

Isaac is completely lost on this one. He knows that he could probably tell more about someone if he looked at their eyes more often, but even before this weird new “connection” thing started, he still hated looking at other people in the eyes.

“Here, look at me real quick.” Mr. Guthrie turns his body directly toward Isaac.

A wave of anxiety passes through Isaac as Mr. Guthrie asks the question. Isaac instead averts his gaze even farther, looking at the table.

Mr. Guthrie gently places his hand palm-down on the table where Isaac can see it. “Isaac. I promise it won’t take long; I just want to show you an example of how to tell certain emotions. It will help you in this class, and in other parts of life, too.”

“Yes, sir.” Isaac sighs and looks up at Mr. Guthrie, whose eyebrows flick up a little bit as his eyes widen slightly. Isaac stares at him as the complicated ball of emotions rises in his chest. Though he can’t pinpoint specifically why, one thing is immediately apparent to Isaac: the man is hot. Isaac feels that “too close” feeling as the sensation of the silken shirt sliding along his own arms and chest, the tightness of dress shoes on his feet, and the stirring of arousal cascading from his chest down to his crotch. He knows the shirt and shoes aren’t his own, but he has a pretty good clue where the excitement part comes from; embarrassed that he would feel that way and overwhelmed by the sensations, Isaac quickly tears his gaze away and looks out the window.

The man immediately starts smoothing out his shirt, clearing his throat a few times. “I’m sorry, I don’t know what just came over me.” A moment later, as Isaac is looking back, he notices Mr. Guthrie shift heavily in his seat, crossing one leg over the other.

Can I just look, um, at pictures of f-faces?” Isaac asks meekly. “I...I don’t like to look at people in the eyes.”

“Oh. Uh, yes, I can arrange for that. I think that’s all for today, though. Go ahead and find your seat back at your table. It was nice meeting you, Isaac.”

“It was nice meeting you, Mr. Guthrie.” As Isaac makes his way to his seat, Mr. Guthrie stands up as well, adjusting his pants very noticeably before walking quickly out of the room. Isaac takes a moment to pick at the crotch of his pants, trying to give his awkward erection some more room. Thankfully, it wasn’t so long that it poked out of his pants or anything; he’d heard of that being an issue for some people.

Isaac sits in his own thoughts for the remainder of class, both to process what he’d learned and to sort out his feelings. Mr. Guthrie is a very handsome man; Isaac spends some time analyzing what about him was so attractive. He liked the shape of his face, and how he had nice-looking muscles on his chest and arms. He really liked the thick, short hair on his head and chin, and he also had big hands, like Vin. He isn’t sure when all this started becoming a thing for him, but it is definitely a thing, now; looking at Mr. Guthrie definitely “turned him on.”

The sudden sound of the bell ringing for the end of class breaks Isaac out of his reverie. The bell almost has a blue sound, like his alarm, but it’s like it was trying to imitate it and failed; it’s more of a sea green color, and it has little holes all over it like a hard cheese. A green cheese bell is not a pretty sound at all.

Speaking of being turned on, Isaac realizes what his next class is. Please don’t let them take my clothes again, he thinks with dread as he makes his way to the gym. Or try to stuff me in a locker, like last year. ...Or call me Mime Boy.

He stops in the restroom to do his business and to check on the state of his nose. It’s definitely a colorful swirl of a bruise, absolutely noticeable. With a sigh, he laments, Or make fun of my nose. They’re definitely going to make fun of my nose.

Sure enough, he gets immediate reactions from some of the boys in the locker room once he walks in: “Damn, that’s a big bruise!”; “Dude, look at his nose!”; and, “Looks like he kissed a wall,” among others.

He opens his locker, the embarrassment of being the target of everyone’s attention burning hot on his cheeks, and takes his gym clothes to the stall. While quickly dressing out, he hears some jerk of a kid ask loudly, “Why does he hide in the bathroom? Is he like, secretly a girl or something?”

Someone else replies, “Wait, you’re saying Mime Boy is Mime Girl?”

Again with the “mime” crap, he mentally grumbles. He checks that off the list of things he didn’t want happening today as he finishes dressing into his gym clothes. He takes a moment to fold his regular clothes up nicely -- wrinkles against his skin are super annoying -- and, taking a deep breath, he heads back through the locker room to put his clothes up.

The same irritating voice pipes up again; Isaac identifies the source as a boy with round cheeks and greasy brown hair gelled to the side. The boy looks at Isaac’s bundle of clothes and turns to another boy he’s sitting next to, saying, “What the fuck? He folded his clothes! He’s either a girl or a little fag.”

Isaac averts his eyes before the jerk looks up at him; that boy is definitely not someone that Isaac wants to get lost in. He casts his eyes down and heads over to his locker, passing in front of the boy. The boy sticks his leg out, which Isaac clearly sees and steps over; the boy responds by kicking his leg up, not far enough to connect with anything, but far enough to block Isaac’s progress. He and a few boys laugh as Isaac freezes in place.

“Hey,” Vin says suddenly from behind Isaac; he sees Vin’s shoe land on the boy’s shin and slowly push it down. “Chill. Leave him alone.”

“What? I was just playin’,” he replies. As Vin walks past, Grease-Hair leans over to his friend again and mutters, “Probably a fag, too.”

Isaac takes his glasses off and puts them in the locker, as well. He follows Vin out, but hears, “Fag Mime Boy,” as he exits the locker room. He wonders if it’s noticeable; he’s just now figuring out that he likes boys, but is it possible that other people know already? How would they know? Then again, how does everyone seem to know everything about everyone else just by looking at them? Mr. Guthrie’s point that Isaac has been inferring things all along is fine, but how the heck does everyone else just automatically know what mood he’s in, or whatever? Do the eyes really hold that much information? All Isaac’s eyes seem to hold right now is a reservoir of tears waiting to fall at first blink.

Whichever way it is, Isaac is tired of being different. So Vin is cute, and Mr. Guthrie is hot. Why couldn’t Isaac just like girls like he was supposed to, like his mom said he would? Why would she lie about that? It’s just not fair.

“Hey, you okay?” Vin asks, startling Isaac and making him jump a bit. “Oh, sorry! I didn’t mean to scare you. I was just wondering what happened with your nose.”

Isaac realizes that he has already made his way out to the gym bleachers and has been standing in front of them; Vin is sitting on the third bleacher, just out of Isaac’s line of vision. Isaac squints his eyes and rubs the remaining tears away; then he darts a quick glance to see where Vin is, averting his eyes quickly enough to not cause a problem. (Normally, if he has his glasses off, he doesn’t get “too close” if they are blurry enough, but it happened yesterday with Vin from like across the room.) “Um,” he replies hesitantly, “I slipped and fell outside, and I bruised my nose.” He doesn’t mention the other incident that happened, nor does he mention his elbow. His arm doesn’t look that bad, though it’s a bit sore.

Vin hisses a sharp intake of breath. “Ouch! Dude, I’m so sorry. Are you okay?”

“I...yes, I’m okay, Vin.”

“All right. And hey, don’t let those assholes get to you, yeah?” Vin says with a half-smile.

Isaac isn’t sure what that means, but usually a full smile means someone is happy, so maybe he’s not? Ugh, why is this so difficult for me?! he bemoans. Outwardly, though, he mumbles, “No, sir. I mean -- um, thank you for, for stooping those stoppid -- um, stopping...” He stops and sighs. “For helping me again.” Stop stuttering! You look stupid!

“Hey, man, no problem.” A moment of hesitation grips both of them, but just as Vin looks like he is about to break it, the whistle slices off any further hope for conversation.

Thankfully, nobody messes with Isaac any further during gym class, mostly since they were busy doing different station activities the entire time. Time flies, and the whistle cuts Isaac’s ears before he even realizes it.

Isaac hightails it to the locker room, trying to be mostly dressed out before the other boys make it in as per the usual. After the bell rings, though, Vin calls out after him, “Hey, Isaac!”

Isaac stops in his tracks, and Vin catches up. “I was just wondering if you were gonna be in the piano rooms today.”

Isaac’s heart explodes into butterflies, but he suppresses his smile as best he can. Don’t ruin this, Isaac. “Yes, Vin,” he says, nodding furiously.

“All right, cool! See ya then?”

“See you then, Vin.” Isaac watches Vin’s feet bounce out of the gym in front of him. He ends up stuck in the crowd of kids, but he is sufficiently distracted to not find it a major issue. In fact, he is so distracted that he ends up at his math class before he even realizes it. Oh no, he thinks, did Mrs. Davis say hi to me? What if I didn’t say hi to her? The thought mortifies him, and he rushes back to her room. She isn’t waiting outside. She must have thought I was ignoring her. He walks into the room and turns toward her desk while saying, “I’m sorry, Mrs.--”

The old man sitting at Mrs. Davis’s desk is definitely not Mrs. Davis. He looks up from a piece of paper he’s reading and says, “Oh, Mrs. Davis is out today. Did you need her?”

“Oh,” Isaac says, averting his eyes quickly, but is otherwise speechless. He stands in the doorway for an awkward period of time, until a kid outside gives up on waiting for him and pushes into the room. A stream of kids follows suit, while Isaac stares at the floor in embarrassment. He waits until all of the kids file in past him and darts out at the earliest convenience; he hears someone asking someone else, “Who was that?” but he doesn’t stick around for the answer. He does, however, make it to class on time. He sits in his desk near the wall, picking at one of his thumbs and rocking slightly in his seat until he is able to calm down. A couple of kids look over at him during class; a few kids mumble to each other about the huge bruise on his nose, but nobody says anything else, thankfully. After the class gets quiet, though, everything passes by smoothly, and lunch time sneaks up on Isaac.

Tuesday is Isaac’s least favorite day of the week for lunch, since he has generally no idea what they are serving. If this year is anything like last year, Mondays are usually sandwiches, Wednesdays are always some kind of pizza, Thursdays are usually some kind of Mexican or Southwestern sort of thing, and Fridays are burger days. All of them are relatively predictable, but then there’s Tuesday. They might have Chinese food, or breakfast for lunch (how can anyone enjoy pancakes when it’s not breakfast? he wonders), or some other crazy thing like that. He bites his lip as he enters the lunch line, hoping against hope that they don’t have some terrible thing like Orange Chicken or some other weird combination.

They don’t have Orange Chicken. They have Orange Beef. The thought turns Isaac’s stomach. Meat isn’t supposed to be sweet. He sighs and puts the beef on his tray; they more or less require you to have an entree before they even let you leave the lunch line. On the plus side, lunch is free, so Isaac never has the problem of forgetting his lunch money -- or having it taken from him, for that matter. Either way, he grabs some broccoli, mashed potatoes (without gravy), a roll, and a tray of apple slices, and makes his way to his preferred table (with a mental note to bring his lunch on Tuesdays). He sits down heavily and stares at his food for a moment. Deciding that the broccoli and apples are the only decently divisible food, he alternates between eating three pieces of broccoli and one apple slice (in three bites).

Isaac’s table is shortly graced by the shadow of a wavy-black-haired companion. “Hi, Isaac,” Christian announces as he sits.

“Hi, Christian.” Isaac eats another piece of broccoli.

I was really worried about you this morning,” he admits loudly; he says everything loudly, though. “Your nose really looks bad.”

Isaac is about to put the third (and therefore most important) piece of broccoli in his mouth, but he drops it on his tray. “Stop talking about my nose!” he snaps, staring Christian down. There is no bundle of confused emotions this time; he feels equal parts irritation and surprise, though he’s pretty sure he’s not surprised at Christian. Maybe he’s surprised at how irritated he is.

Christian stops, speechless, eyes wide. He stares back at Isaac, tears beginning to form in his eyes. “I...I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to, to, to make you mad!”

Isaac instantly regrets being mean; he really hates upsetting people. He may not be able to tell the finer shades of emotion, but it’s pretty clear to him that when someone starts crying, they’re either sad or upset. He feels a wave of fear and sadness, but just looks down at his food and tucks his hands in his lap, suddenly not hungry. “I’m sorry,” he says. After a moment, he adds, “I don’t want to t-talk about my nose.”

An uncomfortable silence overtakes the two, though Christian continues to eat his food. After a few bites, he quietly asks Isaac, “Um, how come you’re not eating?”

Isaac stares at his food. He is hungry, and Christian doesn’t seem to be

upset anymore, so he picks up the third piece of broccoli again and eats it. “I don’t like, um, this,” he says, indicating the beef.

Christian looks at his tray, at Isaac’s tray, and then back to his again. “I can give you maybe my apples and broccoli if you want, and you can give me your meat, since I can see that you’re eating the apples and the broccoli, and I like the meat, so I can eat that.”

Isaac shrugs. “Okay,” he says plainly as he passes his tray of beef over in exchange. He takes the other two and decides to have a meal of apples and broccoli. He doesn’t even need the potatoes, now. It’s not the most filling meal he’s ever had, but it’s also not the first time he’s skipped the main course of a lunch. He knows that his mom gets upset if he doesn’t finish his whole lunch -- she keeps telling him that he won’t grow, and that he’ll stay too skinny -- but if food wasn’t so gross, he would eat more. Besides, beef just tastes like eating a bunch of strings.

“Um, hey Isaac,” Christian asks. Loudly, as always, of course. “Do you play Clash Royale? I got it on my phone finally and it’s a lot of fun. A lot of kids were playing it last year, but I was busy playing this other game I got on my phone, but it’s just a single player game so I didn’t play it with anyone else. But do you play the...uh, do you play Clash Royale? You could join my clan if you do.”

Isaac takes a moment to digest the rapid stream of words. “I have it on my phone, but I don’t play it. Not since last year.”

“Do you want to join my clan? You can get some neat things and more rewards and stuff, and we can play battles together.”

“Okay,” he replies.

“Cool!” Christian exclaims with far too much enthusiasm. “Maybe you can set it up after school and I can show you how to do all the things and maybe even remem--um, show you...maybe, maybe you can remember how to play and I can help you.”

“Oh, uh...” Isaac stammers, “I am going to be in the piano rooms after school with a friend. I’m sorry, Christian.”

“Oh.” Christian falls silent and looks down at his hands for a few seconds. Just ‘oh?’ Isaac wonders. What’s that supposed to mean? Did I upset him again? Quickly, though, Christian recovers his normal volume as he asks, “Is it a new friend? Is it somebody I know? Is it a boy? Are they ‘gen-ed’ or ‘sped’?”

Isaac shakes his head to clear the half-attempted answers to the barrage of questions. He can’t even follow all of them, so he starts with the last one. “Um, he’s in regular classes, I think. He’s in my gym class.” Isaac kind of hates that Christian always brings up the “gen-ed/sped” thing; “gen-ed,” or “general education,” kids don’t have any labels on them as far as education. They’re in all regular classes except for maybe one “core elective” class if they need to double up on a subject for the extra help. “Sped,” or “SPecial EDucation,” means that the kid has some sort of disability or problem, which usually means they have different goals in school. Isaac tries not to dwell on it, but it’s just one more label on him to make him different from everyone else, not that there weren’t enough reasons already. “His name is Vin,” Isaac finishes, not remembering the rest of the questions Christian shot at him.

“Oh,” Christian responds. “I don’t think I know a Vin...no, wait, ‘Vin’ like as in ‘Irvin’? The tall kid that was on the basketball team last year? I remember that he was like, not all that tall at the beginning of last year, but then he just went like really tall and everybody was scared of him in basketball so he usually made a lot of points because the other kids were still really short. Is that Vin? I mean is that the same, is that--is that who you’re talking about?”

If Christian slowed down, Isaac muses, maybe he’d know what he was trying to say. Isaac is aware that’s a rude thought, so he doesn’t voice it. “I don’t know,” he says instead. “I don’t watch the sports teams. He plays a lot of basketball in gym class, so I guess maybe.”

“Wow, he seems pretty cool! Can I come hang out with you and him, too?! Maybe after the pianos, we could all go play Minecraft and I could show you the castle that I made on the school server!”

A pit forms in Isaac’s stomach. He hadn’t realized it before, but he really wants to just be with Vin...alone. Christian is nice, he considers, but if he were there, everything would be about him. “I just want it to be me and him,” he admits quietly. He feels very uncomfortable saying those words, but he feels even more uncomfortable when he tries to lie.

Christian stares at Isaac for a long moment, which makes Isaac’s cheeks feel even warmer. “Why are you leaving me out?” he asks with a wavering voice. “It’s because I talk too much. I’m sorry -- I’ll never say another word!” Tears fill his eyes as he hangs his head.

This, of course, makes Isaac feel like complete crap, even though he knows that almost anything can make Christian cry. He begins to mutter, “I’m sorry,” over and over, half to make Christian feel better, and half to make himself feel better. Christian eats the rest of his food wordlessly, dripping tears and sniffling the entire time. Isaac just gets up with a thousand-pound knot in his chest and walks over to throw the remainder of his food away, not willing to eat anything.

He wishes he had some way to get the feelings out of his chest, but even crying doesn’t ever seem to help much. He makes it to the trashcan and throws his stuff away, but the intensity of his emotions overtake him; he sits on the stairsteps leading to the stage and hides his face in his hands, crying quietly. It still hurts his chest and presses on his brain. He wants desperately to hit himself in the head or scratch at his arm just to feel something else, to possibly distract his brain and ease the pain. He looks up and notices a few tables staring at him, and just seeing that many pairs of eyes staring at him breaks his last ounce of self-control. He takes his tray and turns it on its side, digging the edge into his forehead, hoping that the pressure will somehow help.

“Hey! Hey!” he hears one of the lunch monitors call out. The quick patter of business shoes approaches him and the tray is swiftly taken from his hands. The sudden removal of the tray, Isaac’s only real hope of help, causes him to break loose into full sobs and wails; he starts to scratch his nails down his forearm, but the lady restrains him further. By this point, Isaac looks out to see the entire cafeteria looking at him and mumbling, and the entire thing is far too much for him to process, to bear. He shuts down, hanging limply from the lunch lady’s arms, crying uncontrollably.

Isaac is too busy to hear the lunch lady ask the other monitor to radio for Mr. Coleman, who shows up quickly to escort Isaac out of the cafeteria. On their way back to the “Living Room,” Isaac gets lost in his own mind. Christian cries a lot, but this is the third time in two days that I’ve cried at school. Last year wasn’t even this bad! Why am I like this? Now everyone knows me as Mime Boy, as a crybaby, and as some kind of “voodoo” kid! Now the entire cafeteria watched me cry like a stupid baby and they’re all going to make fun of me forever!

In the room, Mr. Coleman instructs Isaac to sit on the carpet and rock. Isaac nearly collapses onto it, curling up into the tightest ball possible and rocking back and forth, moaning, “I’m sorry, I’m--I’m sorry” between hiccups and breaths.

After a few minutes, Isaac is able to focus in on the sensation of rocking back and forth long enough to center his thoughts and calm his rampaging emotions. Once he can breathe relatively normally, give or take a hiccup, he places his feet down and continues to rock back and forth with his hands on the carpet, feeling the soothing texture of the plush carpet brush across his palms and between his fingers.

Isaac knows that there is a difference between crying from frustration, crying because a bunch of boys just stole all of your clothes, and crying like this. This was a “meltdown,” as Mr. Coleman calls them. Sometimes things just get too much -- too much noise, too much embarrassment, too much emotion -- and Isaac can’t keep up with it all. I know I’m not supposed to hurt myself, he ponders, but how else am I supposed to fix it when the emotions hurt so bad? He wonders if he’s better off not being able to tell how people feel, since it always seems to affect him so much when he hurts them.

Mr. Coleman gives him time to cool off, checking his head and arms to make sure there is no injury. “Can you tell me what happened at lunch?” he asks, as always.

“I made Christian c-cry.”

“I see. Is that what upset you?”

“Yes, sir. And then...and then the whole room...all the other kids --” Isaac stops, squinting as hard as he can to stop from crying. He doesn’t want to go through all that again.

Mr. Coleman waits for Isaac to regain composure. “And did you try to hurt yourself?”

Isaac stays silent.

“Did your normal ways of coping not work for you?”

He means the rocking, the chanting, closing his eyes, and such. Isaac shakes his head, eyes still closed.

“Sometimes we hurt people’s feelings, Isaac,” he says softly. “Christian will be okay, though. Try to remember that we all make mistakes, and we always get better from them. Try not to be so hard on yourself.”

“I can’t help it,” he bemoans. “When I see s-someone get hurt, it hurts me, too.”

“That’s something we call empathy. It’s a good thing to have, but sometimes we let it get out of control.” He falls silent.

Empathy, Isaac thinks. Is that what I feel when I look at people’s eyes?

Mr. Coleman interrupts the silence. “How did you make Christian cry?”

“I told him that, um, that I wanted to go to play p-piano with Vin, but I didn’t want him to be there. I mean, I said that I just wanted it to be Vin and me.”

“What was his response?”

“He said that I was leaving him out because he talks t-too much, but that’s not why I said that.” While it’s true that he does talk too much sometimes, it’s more important that he’s not there while Isaac and Vin are together. He still isn’t sure why that thought is so thrilling to him -- they’re just friends -- but it’s an undeniable surge of excitement to think about. “I just...I just want to be with Vin and then without Christian.”

“Do you not want to be friends with Christian?”

“No, sir! I mean, sir, um, I do want to be friends, and then we can play Clash Royale together, but maybe later and then not today.”

Isaac glances to his side to see Mr. Coleman still next to him, staring forward as they often do while having a conversation, but he is smiling a little bit. “Okay. You aren’t being mean by wanting to be with one friend and not another, so don’t worry about that. Instead, the next time you think that somebody feels left out, or they feel like you don’t want to hang out with them, maybe you can invite them to do something later. When you see Christian again, maybe you should ask him to play Clash Royale or something, possibly tomorrow or Thursday.”

“Yes, sir.”

“You don’t have to, but you could make Christian feel a lot better.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Do you think you can go back to classes, now?”

“Yes, sir.”

“All right. Do you want me to walk you there?”

“No, sir.”

“Okay. Have a good day, Isaac.”

“Have a good day, sir.”

He goes to U.S. history, where only a few people even look up at him as he enters. He hands his pass to the teacher and sits down, and the day falls back into normal routine. Soon enough, the day ends, and Isaac practically races (while walking -- can’t disobey the rules) down the halls to the music room. He arrives as the last choir is filtering out, so he takes a moment to call his mom. He has the same predictable conversation as before, with the same results, as well. He waits for the last few to leave and slips in before the door closes.

Almost simultaneously, Vin opens the door on the other wall and scans the room. His eyes meet Isaac’s, and for a split second, Isaac feels a rush of excitement as he looks into Vin’s heterochromatic eyes. Somehow, though, the excitement feels like it’s twice as much as he would normally feel, but that he only made half of it, or that some of it’s not his fault, or something like that. The entire effect is nearly indescribable already, and to try to explain the emotions he feels during it is an exercise in futility. He breaks into a grin as he sees Vin do the same, and he quickly looks at the floor as he guides himself around the risers and to the practice room door.

“Hey, bud!” Vin says cheerfully. He holds out his hand palm-up, which Isaac slaps soundly in the middle. Vin then puts a closed fist out, which Isaac has seen people do when they’re greeting each other -- though nobody has ever done that with him, specifically. Regardless, Isaac bumps his own fist against it, feeling more than ever before like he finally belongs, or at least is connected to someone else. He can’t possibly grin harder. “How’s the day been?” Vin continues.

Isaac shrugs. His grin falters as he admits, “It’s been a bad day.”

“Aw, no!” he says. “What happened?” He opens the door to the practice room and motions for Isaac to go in first.

Isaac walks in and sits at the piano bench; Vin takes the chair on the side. Isaac stares at the piano keys as he tells the tale of gym class (even though Vin was there), of lunch being terrible, of upsetting Christian, and of having a meltdown. “So, s-sometimes I can’t stop...I can’t c-calm down, and it, um, Mr. Coleman coles--I mean, calls it a ‘meltdown.’ After I made Christian c-cry, it hurt really bad, and then I started crying and I hurt myself some.” Isaac feels the pit in his stomach, but it’s easier to talk to about since he’s discussed it already. That, and it also just seems easier to talk to Vin about these things.

“Aw, man. That really sucks. I hate making people upset too, though. I know how you feel.” Vin nods slowly. After a pause, he asks, “Hey, did you want to hear a new song?”

“Yes, Vin.” The smile grows back quickly on Isaac’s face.

Vin takes his place on the piano bench while Isaac moves to the chair. “Okay,” he begins, “so this one’s not actually a classical piece. This is, heh, this is actually from a game I played forever ago. Like, ‘Playstation 3’ long ago. There was this song that I always loved from it, and so one day I just decided to go look it up on YouTube, and there it was, in piano form. Anyway, this one is called ‘Shevat, the Wind is Calling.”

The song instantly captivates Isaac, and not just because Vin is playing it. The right hand starts off as echoing starlights in his mind’s eye, shortly joined by unresolved indigo waves in the left hand to create a sort of dance of windchimes. The entire structure lands on a single beat, and then the transcendent beauty begins. The right hand, once again like in the Arabesque, starts cascading down like emerald raindrops as the accompaniment curls upward, a forlorn soul reaching for the sky but never making it. The song shifts chords to a more intense, longing cry; the raindrops burn with a sour magenta, digging their way into Isaac’s heart. The melody emerges as a soaring breeze, dancing among the driving rain that still splashes upon the waves of the left hand, over and over. The windy melody carries the song through new chords and emotions, promising relief from the searing need, the unrequited longing that the emerald rain tries to drown. Finally, it is as if the lost soul bursts from his imprisoning waves to surge above the rain, leaving it far below in the left hand now as the soul takes wing in the imperious, golden winds. Still, though, the melody never quite resolves, instead dissolving back into the rain and waves once more.

Then the song ends abruptly, snapping Isaac out of his synesthetic journey and back to the bland, static world. “Sorry,” Vin says with a half smile and a slight shrug, “I don’t know the rest yet. But it’s really pretty, yeah?”

Isaac nods slowly. “Yes, sir.” An awkward second passes before he realizes what he said. “Um. Yes, Vin. It was beautiful.”

“So...I’m just curious, here, but...” Vin stands up, offering the seat. “Can you play any of it, now that you heard it?”

Isaac freezes, unsure of how to react. What if I mess up? he thinks. I can’t play the whole thing. I might make myself look stupid!

But, he argues inwardly, he can’t play the whole thing either. And he knows that I’ve never heard it.

Isaac hesitantly gets up and takes the seat, scooting it up to adjust for his shorter stature. He examines the keys for a moment, orienting himself. Tentatively, he hits the first key just to make sure he’s in the right spot, and then from there he looks at the rest of the keys. I start in the blue, then go orange down, lower purple up... He plans his path, and then begins playing it. Each note hit twice, like the echoing starlights that set the stage in the song. He quickly figures out the left-hand six-note pattern that creates the windchiming waves, and adds it into the mix.

“Holy shit,” Vin breathes.

When all the pieces stop on a two-handed chord, he tries to make all the notes land properly, but he didn’t get enough time earlier to explore the chord; he plays multiple wrong keys, and it sounds comically awkward after the beautiful intro, almost like a fart in a silent room. They both start giggling at the absurdity, and he tries a few more times to find the right notes.

“Here, let me show you,” Vin insists, and scoots over to the piano bench, next to Isaac. Reaching one long arm across Isaac’s shoulders, he places his large hands over Isaac’s fingers and plays the correct notes. “There we go,” he says, removing his hands. “Now you try.”

Isaac blushes fiercely, hoping against all odds that his immediate erection isn’t completely obvious. Vin just had his chest pressed up against my back, and his arm around me. Isaac’s head spins, almost making him dizzy with excitement. Focus! he chides himself, closing his eyes and taking a deep breath. He plays the keys, already aware of where they are even with closed eyes. Opening them back up, he stretches his fingers down to the low end of the keyboard and plays the three-note pickup to the next section of the song. At this point he doesn’t have enough coordination or practice to play both parts well, but he tries each side out and finds that they match what he saw in his visual exploration of the song. “I can’t do them both. I need to practice.”

Vin looks over at Isaac. “Dude. DUDE. You just learned -- and played -- more of the song than I could for like two weeks! I mean, I won’t lie; I seriously thought maybe you had learned some of the other song before and were just trying to show off, but like, nobody knows that one. That’s...that’s insane.”

“It’s insane?” Isaac asks, concerned.

“No, like, insanely good. I bet there aren’t a hundred people who could do something like that. It’s amazing.”

Isaac smiles bashfully, staring at the keys. “Thank you, Vin.”

“Hey man, thank you.” Vin shakes his head and laughs a little bit. “Incredible. Oh, hey, did you have any other songs you wanted to show off?”

Isaac thinks for a moment. He decides on an all-time classic, “Toccata and Fugue in d minor.” It’s the classic Halloween or spooky song, which works well in Isaac’s mind, seeing as the octaves always sound orange or brown to him. He has to go a bit more slowly in some of the sections of it, though; his fingers have trouble keeping up with the quicker parts. Nevertheless, he gets to the end of the song, hammering out the last few fortissimo chords.

Vin again applauds excitedly. “Bravissimo! Well done, as always!”

“Thank you, Vin,” he says with redder cheeks than before. “You play very well, too.”

“Aw, thanks,” he says. “I wouldn’t say I’m the best out there, but I enjoy it, so that’s what matters.”

“Um.” Isaac takes a moment to plan his sentence. “Are you on the basketball team?” He glances quickly enough to see Vin’s eyebrows furrow, but he doesn’t stare.

Vin responds, “Yeah, why? What’s up?”

“That means you are probably popular.”

“I mean, I guess so,” he shrugs. “Not like Prom King-level, or anything, but a lot of people watch the athletics here.”

Isaac begins picking at his thumbnail. “So why are you, um...friends...with me?”

Vin stays silent for a moment; Isaac is certain that his heart stops

beating for those few seconds. “Well, for one, we both like music. I mean, that’s like the main reason, really. I don’t have any other friends who are into music as much as I am.” Isaac nods, and Vin continues, “Also, I dunno. We haven’t really hung out a lot, but there’s just something about you that makes me feel like I can just be me: a big, tall nerd who likes music and video games -- and video game music -- instead of being ‘Vin the Basketball Star’ like everybody thinks I am. I mean, I don’t mind being popular, but it’s like, I gotta be this person everyone sees, and I come in here and play music so I can get away from that, sometimes. And then you show up, and show me up, all like, learning songs and rippin’ ‘em out over here, and I’m like, ‘I like this guy.’ So yeah, that’s why.” Isaac giggles at the way he describes the whole thing, which sets Vin laughing a bit, too. “What? It’s true.”

“I believe you, Vin,” Isaac states.

“Heh, good.” They sit there for a moment; just as soon as it starts feeling awkward, Vin asks, “Hey, so what’s your favorite instrument? Other than piano, I mean.”

Isaac thinks through all of his favorites -- there are quite a few -- and settles on an answer. “I like the harp. It sounds the most blue.”

“The most blue?” Vin asks.

Isaac’s eyes go wide. “Um, I...I’m sorry, I...” He locks up, frozen in panic. You know other people don’t see colors! he berates. Last time you admitted that, you got made fun of for weeks as ‘The LSD Kid!’ Great, now Vin is going to think you’re weird and different, and he’s going to stop coming here now.

“What? It’s cool, it’s cool. I just wanted to know what you meant.”

Vin’s voice doesn’t sound angry or anything, but Isaac has been tricked before. But this is Vin. He takes the chance: “Um, I like the harp because it sounds more blue. Like, the piano sounds brown down here -- ” he hits a few keys near the bottom to demonstrate -- “and then it sounds more blue up here.” He tinkles a few high notes in illustration. “I, um. It...it’s called ‘synthesia’...um, wait, ‘syn-es-thesia.’ My therapist told me about it, and then, um, I read about it on Wikipedia. There are other types, like sometimes, people see colors for some letters and numbers. Like, some people see ‘5’ as red, and then it’s always red. Or, um, maybe someone tastes things and then they see shapes.” Isaac realizes he’s been talking for a very long time, so he shuts his mouth.

“Duuuuuuuude,” Vin breathes slowly. “That is freaking cool.” He gets out his phone and starts tapping on the screen. “One sec...there we go. ‘Synesthesia.’ I wanted to pull it up on my phone so I could read more about it later. So like, you see colors for, what, instruments?”

Is he really interested in how I see things? Isaac thinks in wonderment. “I see colors for instruments, for sounds, and then for songs, or chords, or--or sometimes just two notes. And then sometimes s-songs have, they will...like, sometimes I can taste them. Or, like, they have, um, a flavor, or I can feel some sounds.” Isaac immediately feels as though he’s rambling and making no sense; he stops trying to explain, his cheeks turning red.

“God, I wish I saw music like that,” Vin laments. “So what does this sound like? What color?” He plays a C and the G above it on the piano.

“Red-orange.”

“And this?” Vin moves his fingers up to the E and the C above it.

“Blue. No, Blue-green...?”

“Like teal?” Vin suggests.

“Yes! Teal.”

“That is so cool! How about this?” He plays middle C, and the E that is one octave above it.

Isaac smiles. “That one is brown right here,” he indicates an area under his face in his field of vision, “and blue, maybe turquoise up here.” He waves his hand above the previous spot. “That one is my favorite.”

Vin practically bounces in his seat. “Oh my God, this is the coolest thing. So maybe that’s why you learn music so fast.”

Isaac hadn’t even considered that as a possibility. “My therapist told me that th-the people who can see colors for numbers can do math faster if the numbers are, like, really that color, like instead of black, they actually make the ‘5’ red. I don’t see that, but it would be neat if I did.”

“Seriously.” Vin sighs, “I wish I could see things like that; it might make math easier.”

“What do you mean?” Isaac asks.

“I mean math sucks, heh. Or at least, I suck at math. You’d think with rhythms and note lengths and stuff that I’d be better at math, but all those numbers and fractions just don’t work in my head, I guess, y’know?” He shrugs. “Like, this whole thing about evaluating equations. I don’t know, I just--it doesn’t make sense.”

Isaac thinks for a moment. Wordlessly, he rummages through his backpack and gets out his heavily-used spiral notebook and his math book (which he always brings home, even though he almost never has homework). He opens to the pages about evaluating equations with variables and chooses a random problem from the practice problems, writing it down slowly and neatly. “So, um, do you know how to do this?”

“Heh, that’s actually one that I had a problem with.”

“Okay. So, um, I look at it like a mirror: this one is plus eight on this side, so if you look at it in the mirror, it’s a minus eight on that side. It’s like it’s backwards,” he explains, flipping his hand, “like there’s a ‘plus’ here, but a ‘minus’ there. Or a ‘times’ here, but a ‘divide’ there.” He demonstrates with his hands as if he were flipping the numbers backwards with his fingers from one side of the equation to the other. “They’re the same, but you just see them as the opposite on the other side.”

“...Huh.” Vin stares at the paper for a moment. “So this one...if it’s x over three minus eight equals one...”

 

x/3 - 8 = 1

 

Then...so the minus eight looks like a plus eight on the other side, and the x over three becomes...three x, like this? Wait, then what goes on the left side?”

 

? = 3x(1 + 8)

 

“No,” Isaac interrupts. “It’s like a mirror, but, um, so everything needs to look l-like the x. So you see everyone on one side, and x on the other.” He stops and thinks for a moment, and says, “No, wait. It’s more like x looks l-like everyone every--, um, everyone e-else all together. Like x is looking in the mirror, and he sees all these over here, but they’re all just, um, him. X.” Isaac stops explaining, half because he’s run out of things to say, and half because he’s irritated at his stuttering.

Vin nods. “Oh! So, the ‘over three’ turns into ‘times three’ over here. The x stays, ‘cuz he’s looking in the mirror, and then...x...okay. So, like this?”

 

x = 3(1 + 8)

 

“So now, one plus eight is nine, times three is...twenty-seven. Right?”

“Yes,” Isaac says definitively. “And then you can just say that since x is looking in the mirror, and he sees that he is twenty-seven, then over here,” he points to the original equation, “if you just say twenty-seven divided by three is nine, minus eight equals one. And then you can see that it really is the same.” Isaac is talking significantly faster by the end of this than he normally does.

Vin stares at the paper. “Wow. That’s...so easy. Why the heck didn’t the teacher explain it like that? You’re a freaking genius.”

Isaac doesn’t respond, but he is filled with a combined sense of incredible pride and total bashfulness.

“You know, Isaac, you’re something different.” Vin laughs a bit, patting Isaac on the shoulder.

Isaac looks down at the floor. Different. Always different. But before he can say anything, Vin quickly adds, “Uh, ‘different’ like ‘good’ different. Amazing different. Different like ‘I can play a song the first time I hear it’ kind of different. Different like ‘I just taught the idiot boy here how to do math in one minute’ kind of different.”

Isaac, for some reason, finds Vin calling himself “idiot boy” hilarious, and he laughs out loud for a good few seconds. “You’re not an ‘idiot boy,’ Vin.” He snorts a bit at the label again.

“Well, you’re definitely a lot smarter at math than me, that’s for sure.” Vin shakes his head and sighs. “Maybe I need to pay you to tutor me.”

Isaac quickly responds, “Um, I can--I can do it for f-for f-f...” he closes his eyes and takes a breath. “I can do it for f-free.” Suddenly, his backpack starts playing the beginning of “Fireflies” by Owl City, his ringtone. He pulls his phone out to see “Mom” on the display, right above the time: 4:30. The time she said she’d be waiting to pick him up. “Oh, uh, um--” he stammers while scrambling to unlock his phone. “Hello?”

His mom says, “I’m waiting outside. Where are you?”

“I’m sorry, Mom! I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m--um, I’m coming. I’m sorry!” He hangs up and quickly shoves his phone into its pouch in the backpack. “Vin, I, uh, have to go.”

Vin checks the time on his own phone. “Dang, when did that happen? Aright, man, hey--thank you so much for helping me out. That was awesome.” He holds a hand out sideways for a slap-and-tap, like he did earlier, and Isaac accepts it with a smile. Vin continues, “Hey, you wanna hang out again later? I got practice tomorrow, but y’know, maybe later this week or something.”

“Yes, Vin, I would like to.” He looks at Vin, and their eyes meet again. The dark-brown bass piano left eye, and the sky-blue high note right eye both stare back, filling Isaac with an amplified excitement and contentment, a feeling of belonging, and of longing, and--he looks down quickly at his backpack and hoists it up on his shoulder. “I have to go. I’m late. Goodbye, Vin.”

“Bye, Isaac!”

Isaac practically dashes to the door and flings it open on his way outside. The typical group of people are there, but nobody pays him any mind. Though the day is dry, he takes a wide circle around the painted eagle and plops himself in the car, out of breath. “Sorry...Mom. I’m...I’m sorry,” he says between gulps of air.

She raises an eyebrow and smiles. “It’s fine, honey. I wasn’t waiting here long. Did you enjoy the pianos?”

Isaac catches a bit of his breath. As Mom pulls out of the parking lot, he explains, “Yes, ma’am. I...I played the “Toccata and Fugue,” and then Vin played a song that I hadn’t h-heard before, and then I learned some of it. And then, um, and then I helped Vin on his math.”

He looks over to his mom while saying this, since she is busy looking at the road. She blinks a few times. “You helped him on his school work?”

“Yes, ma’am. He h-had, was having a hard time on the math, so I showed him h-how I look at it, and then it made sense to him. He said I was a genius.” He beams at the compliment.

“Well, I knew that,” she says with a small roll of her eyes. “You’re the smartest son I’ve ever had.”

“I’m the only son you’ve ever had.”

“Right! So it’s still true.”

Isaac contemplates this truism and fails to come up with any significant increase in knowledge or understanding of the universe. He files the comment away under “Things Mom Says That I Don’t Understand,” a fairly large repository of things already.

“Well, I’m proud of you, Isaac.”

He thinks about it, but is stumped. “Why, Mom?”

She smiles more broadly. “Because you’re talking to new people, and even helping them out; because you’re proving to everybody that you’re the good kind of different.”

The good kind of different, he contemplates. Like what Vin said.

She continues, “I’m just proud that my son is being the best person he can be, and that he is finding new ways to be happy. That’s every mother’s dream.”

He idly wonders how every mother can dream the same thing; the very notion seems far-fetched to him. He doesn’t comment on this, though.

A minute or so passes in silence before his mom speaks again. “So this ‘Vin’ boy seems very nice.”

Isaac smiles. “He is, Mom.”

“So does he just play piano?”

“No, Mom. He plays basketball, too.”

“Oh, nice! Does he play for the school?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“My son, best friend and math tutor to a basketball star.”

“I...” he feels like he should correct her, but he’s not exactly sure how to do so, or if any of that is even wrong. “He’s not a star,” is the only thing he can come up with. Of course she laughs at this; there’s always some joke she says that Isaac doesn’t get, but he’s used to it by now.

After another moment, she asks, “Any more problems with those bullies?”

Technically, it wasn’t those bullies, but Isaac knows that it would be lying to say “no.” He can’t figure out a way to win here, so he says nothing, fully knowing that it basically means “yes.” Maybe she’ll ask something else that’s easier to answer.

“Isaac?” she asks. “Did those bullies bother you again?”

“N-no, ma’am,” he replies. She won’t leave it alone, so he guesses she really wants to know about those specific ones.

“Are you sure?” She drags the last word out a bit.

“Yes, ma’am. The bullies out front didn’t bother me again.”

“Then did anyone else bother you?” she asks. How does she know? Moms must know everything, Isaac swears to himself.

“Yes, ma’am. Some boy in gym class said that I was either a girl or a fag because I folded my clothes, and then he wouldn’t let me go past him, but Vin made him put his foot down, and then he said we were both fags. Um, the bully said...said that. Not Vin.” Isaac knows that the word “fag” is a bad word, but she asked for the truth, so he gave it.

Isaac’s mom falls silent for a moment. “That sort of harassment is intolerable,” she says, biting off each word in a peculiar, choppy way. “I need to call the principal and make sure he puts a stop to this.”

Isaac’s eyes go wide. “No, Mom, please, don’t call the principal, p-please!”

“Why not? These boys need to be taught a lesson, right now! If this isn’t addressed, they’ll keep bullying you, and who knows what else they’ll do!”

“Because, Mom, then th-they’ll make fun of me for being a stupid s-snitch, too. They make fun of me for being ‘Mime Boy,’ and then for dressing out in the restroom, and then for being a ‘fag’ since I fold my clothes, and then th-they--”

“Honey, don’t say that word. You’re not a ‘fag’ just because you care about your clothes. That’s just a dirty word they use to make fun of people. Don’t ever say that about yourself -- or anyone else, for that matter.” At Isaac’s silence, she adds, “You’re not in trouble, dear. I just want you to know that that is not a good word to use.”

“I know, Mom.”

“And you are absolutely not one of those.”

“I...” Isaac knows that “fag” also means “gay,” which means that he likes boys. Is he a “fag,” then? “Mom?” he asks. “Is there a difference between ‘gay’ and, um, that word?”

She doesn’t answer for a moment. Instead, she says, “Dear, we’re almost home. I’ll answer your question once we’re in the living room, okay?”

“Okay, Mom.”

They arrive shortly, and as promised, his mom continues the discussion in the living room -- after she gets herself a can of Diet Pepsi from the fridge. “To answer your question, I have to say a lot of things, so keep listening, okay?”

Isaac nods. “Yes, ma’am.”

“Okay.” She sighs, takes a deep breath, and says, “First off, the ‘F-Word’ that you used earlier is never something to call anyone, ever. Nobody is a ‘fag.’ Ever. Even if someone is gay, they are never one of those. The word is only there to insult people, not to define people or to say what they are. Do you understand what I’m saying?”

Isaac takes a moment to process it. “Yes, ma’am.”

“Good.” She takes another deep breath. “So. You remember the talk we had a while back about sex and girlfriends?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“We never talked about it specifically, but I see that you already know what ‘gay’ means. Can you define it for me, please?”

This is a routine they do when talking about new subjects; he doesn’t need the structure so much, but he’s never really mad at things that happen in predictable ways. He recites the definition from his mind as if it were on the pages of a dictionary, but written in his own words. “‘Gay’ means when two boys love each other, or when two girls love each other. And then there’s ‘bi,’ which means that a boy can love a boy or a girl, or a girl can love a boy or a girl.” At least, that’s how he understands it; he knows that there’s more to it, but there’s no way he can figure out to explain it. He doesn’t think that he “loves” Vin exactly, but he feels like he needs to be around Vin, that Vin makes Isaac excited, that Isaac likes to play with himself while thinking about Vin. He doesn’t want to tell his mom about that part, though.

“Very good,” she says with a nod. “Now I just want you to know that it’s okay with me if you find out later that you don’t love girls, or if you love boys, or anything like that. It doesn’t matter to me who you love, okay? I will always love you for who you are.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Why is she telling me this? he wonders. Does she know that I like boys that way? How do moms know everything?

“Now I’m not saying that you are or aren’t, or anything like that. That’s something that only you can figure out. But I just figured that I hadn’t ever said that it was okay, so...it’s okay if you end up gay, or bi, or straight, or anything. I hope that you understand that.”

“I do, ma’am.”

“Good. Now no more saying that ugly ‘F-Word,’ okay? Come give me a hug.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Isaac stands up from the couch and walks over to the recliner, where his mom pulls him in for a big hug, swinging him back and forth a little with it. When she lets go, he notices that she is smiling; it always makes him smile, too, when she hugs him like that.

“All right. Go run along, now.” She picks up the remote and turns on the TV.

Isaac goes to his room, hoping that his mom forgot about calling the principal. He doesn’t need any more reason to be bullied or made fun of, and he just knows that a phone call would make things far worse. He entertains himself the typical way he often does, listening to music on his phone and practicing random math problems for a while; he decides to get a few pieces of paper together and multiply two very large numbers together, and by the time he’s done, he has to look up the words for how to say the resulting number. “Quadrillion” is a new term for him, so he logs that one away in case he comes across something that large again.

Satisfied with numbers, he takes out his phone and checks out Clash Royale again, since Christian was so interested in it. Isaac found the game pretty fun back then; he doesn’t like games with complex movements, like ones that take a controller or really fast reflexes, but this one is decently easy to play. Just drag a card over to a spot on your board, and it becomes minions that march over and attack the opponent’s forts. No problem. He actually ended up pretty good at it; he did some number-crunching back in the day and figured out the perfect setup for his deck of cards, so that he’d have a nice balance of power. In fact, building the deck may have actually been more entertaining to him than playing games with it.

He logs in and checks his old stuff; the deck is still there, but now there are tons of new cards and such to look through and gain. It’s almost enough to make him close the app and never look at it again, but he decides that it might actually be fun to start collecting the cards again. He plays a few rounds against random people; he loses his first one while remembering how to play effectively, but then easily stomps the next few opponents, gaining a few chests here and there with some of the new cards.

Before he realizes it, his mom calls out, “Isaac! I made spaghetti for dinner!”

Isaac comes barrelling out of his room and down the hall; spaghetti and meatballs is absolutely worth running for. He scrambles into his chair and waits impatiently for the bowl to arrive in front of him; as it does, he quickly counts five small meatballs. He frowns at his meal, wondering how he’s supposed to achieve balance without another meatball. He curiously probes the noodles to see if perhaps...Ah hah! he thinks as he stabs into a buried meatball. Dinner is good, now, he thinks with a nod. Six meatballs.

Many multiples of three later, Isaac is stuffed with pasta and happiness. He heads back to his room, wondering what to do, when he realizes that he hasn’t taken a bath yet today. He hates hates hates going to bed without a bath; if the sheets don’t slide perfectly on his skin, he can’t sleep. He heads into the bathroom and goes through his bath-time ritual, checking the temperature, feeling the water fill up around him, imagining the plane that intersects him as it does, and eventually turning off the water. He thinks back to when he used to bring his toy dinosaurs into the water, and would have them fight each other until there was more water on the bathroom floor than in the tub (Mom was never particularly happy about this, of course).

He scrubs down every inch, even under his fingernails, or at least, what’s left of them; he has a bad habit of picking at them, especially when nervous, and of biting them when they’re too long. He never got the hang of using the nail clippers, and in an effort to be more self-sufficient, he developed a much less savory way of dealing with it; it didn’t bother him, though, as long as nobody gave him grief about it.

Isaac goes through the same routine as before, waiting until the end to enjoy scrubbing his hair. Suddenly, as he’s massaging the shampoo into his hair, he gets unbidden thoughts of Vin doing the same thing with those long fingers of his, and his penis perks up immediately. He notes that he normally has to willingly think about these kinds of things, but this time it was just automatic. He keeps his eyes closed and continues to rub his head, removing himself from the picture and imagining the hands to be Vin’s; the fingers aren’t nearly long enough, of course, but with just a touch of imagination, Isaac can almost feel Vin running his fingers lightly across the back of Isaac’s scalp, against the grain, across the temples, lightly brushing the tops of the ears...

Isaac’s heart by this point is beating faster than any song he knows how to play. He breathes rapidly, feeling like if he touched himself, he would probably orgasm very quickly. He opens his eyes and, unable to wait any longer, strokes himself a few times; he doesn’t even get to ten strokes before he quickly tenses, popping himself in the mouth with a glob of semen. The rest of it dribbles onto his belly, washing away with the water as he relaxes back into the water. He has never, ever felt that strongly about anyone or anything. Just thinking about Vin makes Isaac’s mind and body act absolutely crazy, like he’s more excited than he’s ever been in his life, which might actually be true. If he ever had a question about his sexuality, he knows right now that it includes at least one boy. Well, a boy and Mr. Guthrie. And all the boys in their underwear in the locker room, too, of course. He wonders if other boys feel the same way in gym class, too. How many people are gay? he wonders. What percent? Is it one in thirty? One in a hundred? Two in...three thousand? He amuses himself with coming up with more bizarre statistics for a moment, but the question does haunt him. If he’s already different by the way he thinks and acts, and he’s different by the weird things that happen when he looks at people, how much more different is he going to be now that he’s gay? I know mom always calls me “unique,” he thinks, but why couldn’t I just be normal? Vin is normal; the boys who bug me in my reading class are normal. Even Christian is more normal than me.

Isaac contemplates the notion that maybe he really is unique, and not just because his mom says so. Maybe there isn’t anyone like him at all. Is that a good thing? How does he fit in if he’s so different that nobody else comes close? Why do people even like me? he wonders. Unable to come up with the answer by bedtime, he tries his best to put the issue aside, washing it away in the sea of color that Vin’s song paints in his mind. He drifts off, dreaming of the next time that he can share another song with the most exciting person in his world.