Eye to Eye

Chapter 4

Credit goes out to NeverAnywhere for helping with formatting, editing, and suggestions.

 

 

A haircut. One of the best and worst things that could happen to Isaac. Getting haircuts has always bothered him to no end, but the result is the best thing ever; he could spend hours just running his hands across the back of his scalp after a fresh haircut. When he was younger, he'd always have to be convinced to go, kicking and screaming, and only the promise of ice cream could convince him to even get in the car. These days, he'll go for the haircut, but there better be ice cream afterward -- if only for the comfort.

Isaac spends most of the rest of Friday fretting about the haircut. He tries to hide from his thoughts in Clash Royale on his phone, but it only holds him for so long. He spends some more time on YouTube watching videos where people play songs on piano and an animated light-up display shows the upcoming notes, not unlike Rock Band or Guitar Hero. It's both educational and utterly transfixing to Isaac; it's a good thing he has more days to do his homework, or he would be going to school without it. In fact, he almost misses his bath time just from being so absorbed.

The next day, Isaac wakes up to his alarm (at the same time, even on a Saturday) and quickly sits up, putting his hand down his briefs to check for dampness. He finds none, though he is definitely hard. He's not sure what he was dreaming about, but the prospect of another nocturnal emission scares him. What if I was about to have one? he thinks to himself. Do I have to have an erection? I didn't have one when I woke up last time. He idly plays with his hand in his briefs for a little bit, moving his skin up and down, lightly dragging his fingers over his balls to feel his sack pull up tight. He's not really in the mood to do anything more, but it's just nice to play with, sometimes.

He gets out of bed and turns off his alarm, going through his morning routine as always (though he doesn't put his shoes on unless he's about to leave; he would find it weird to wear shoes around the house all the time). He pours himself a bowl of frosted flakes and, since his mom isn't awake yet, gets a spoonful of sugar to pour on top of it. He's not the most dexterous of people, so most of the sugar just gets dumped in the middle, but the point is to make the milk taste good afterward, anyway. He gets his phone out and puts on some music to listen to as he cheerfully chomps away at the cereal; it's not easy to hear over the crunching of the flakes, but it's more just to occupy his ears and give him a rhythm to eat to. Later, he puts on some Saturday morning cartoons. Adventure Time is always on right when he's done with cereal, so he zones out to an hour of episodes before his mom wakes up.

"Good morning, Doodlebug," she says as she comes in from the bedroom hallway into the kitchen, passing Isaac on the way.

"Good morning, Mom," he replies in almost the same tone of voice.

"Anything good on?" she asks.

"Adventure Time." This conversation has played itself out nearly every Saturday.

"Does the dog have really long, wiggly arms this time?" she inquires from across the kitchen as she pours some coffee grounds into a filter.

"No, ma'am. He doesn't." It's a fair question. Sometimes the dog does have wiggly arms by this point, but not every episode.

She brews herself a cup of coffee and sits on the couch behind Isaac as he watches TV from entirely too close. "Honey," she suggests, "why don't you come sit on the couch with me and watch TV from up here?"

"Yes, ma'am," he responds, hopping up to go sit on the couch next to her. As soon as he settles in, his mom puts her arm around his shoulder and squeezes him, occasionally rubbing her fingers on his arm and up his shoulder. Isaac rests his head on her shoulder, and they enjoy an hour of stretchy-armed cartoons.

"All right, Doodlebug," his mom says after the credits of the final cartoon, "Why don't you go have some fun for a while -- say, until about eleven? Then we can go get lunch, then a haircut, and then some ice cream."

Isaac feels his eye twitch slightly at the thought of the haircut. "Yes, ma'am," he responds meekly.

He does his best to forget about his impending doom for the moment, listening to music and playing games on his phone in his room. A few minutes before eleven o'clock, his mom knocks at his door.

"Come in!" he calls out, not taking his eyes off the phone.

She stands in the doorway. "Let's go get your hair washed, honey. Then we can go get lunch first; how do chicken nuggets sound to you?"

Isaac stands up, eyes still on the game he's playing. "Yes, ma'am. Chicken nuggets sound good, ma'am."

He finishes up his game and puts the phone on the bathroom counter; he takes his own shirt off, but he doesn't wash his own hair; he waits for his mom to get the water temperature correct and then bends over the tub, bracing himself with both arms. His mother figured out many haircuts ago that he would only take an hour-long bath, and maybe longer, just to delay the inevitable; that, and he doesn't have the coordination to wash his hair under the faucet like this. His mom quickly pours water over his hair, running the shampoo through it with her fingernails lightly pressing in on his scalp. She goes quickly, making sure each area is both washed and rinsed, but the blood still sort of rushes to his head in this position; all in all, though, it's not entirely unpleasant. He likes to be able to do things on his own, but he still enjoys when his mom takes care of him once in a while.

It's over too soon, of course, and the only thing between now and the haircut is Isaac's Last Meal. Since neither he nor his mom are particularly fancy, they head to McDonald's near their preferred salon. Isaac gets a Happy Meal with a six-piece chicken nugget basket -- his mom has no problems continuing to let him get a Happy Meal, even at thirteen years old -- while she enjoys a crispy chicken sandwich, herself. While Isaac eats, he reminisces about when he used to play in the PlayPen; it was fun, but the other children constantly screaming in there always made him feel anxious and bothered, so it never lasted long unless there were no other kids in the area. He liked crawling through the tunnels and curling up like a turtle in a shell inside the big dome-like windows, or sliding down the slide over and over. Even with all the high-tech games these days, slides still held some sort of magic in them. Sadly, he knows his mom won't even consider saying "yes" to him playing around right now, since they're on a schedule. That, and he's a bit too big to go on them, anyway; he hasn't grown a whole lot since puberty started, but he doesn't get mistaken for being under ten years old anymore.

Soon, they head out into the muggy late summer afternoon and get back in the car to drive to their little salon, A Different You. As his mom opens the door, Isaac looks up exactly in time to hear the deep blue chime indicating a new customer. It's similar to his alarm, but much deeper, both in color and sound. He takes a look around. The Lego table is still in the corner as always, with one kid stacking nearly every Lego brick on top of each other in a tower as high as he can reach. Another corner is filled with model cars and even has a few large stools that are basically cars for people to sit on. Isaac notices a younger kid, a bit pudgy with glossy black hair, sitting on a shiny red sports car stool while a stylist occasionally pulls up a strip of hair between her fingers and shears off a bit. The child seems to be completely oblivious of this as he watches some movie on a cellphone.

One of the stylists, a man with a long chin and straw-blond hair combed over and backward, spots Isaac and his mom walking in. "Isaac!" he says with a grin on his face. "How are you?"

"Hi, Tom. I'm good." Isaac smiles back at the man, who is sitting on the floor behind a young girl, as he looks around the room more. The whole place is cleverly disguised as a game room; there aren't even that many of the typical swiveling chairs or large mirrors on the walls like Isaac has seen in pictures of other hair salons. He's been going here for years, though, so he's come to expect this of a hair place.

"Have a seat, my loves -- I'll be with you in just a moment." Tom continues working on the hair of the girl, who appears to be in her teens; she keeps swaying back and forth, but somehow he manages to keep the same rhythm as her swaying as he expertly trims the tips of her long auburn hair.

Isaac sits in a beanbag near the wall and takes out his phone. He puts on Debussy's "Arabesque No. 1" and puts in a pair of earbuds to minimize outside noise while he focuses in on the scenes in his head. He unconsciously begins rocking in the beanbag slightly, trying his best to minimize stress while waiting for his turn. Soon enough, he jumps slightly as he feels his mom's gentle touch on his shoulder. "C'mon, dear, it's your turn."

Isaac closes his eyes and breathes deeply, as he has been taught to do when he feels stressed. "Yes, ma'am," he acknowledges, getting up and following her to the stylist's chair. He passes by the girl who just finished up; her father is brushing the hair off her pants and shirt, but she's not a fan of it at all. She begins to scream and bat at his hands. Isaac can hear her over his music, and it eats away at the delicate shell of calm he has constructed.

Unlike the others, Isaac is somewhat comfortable sitting in the chair, as long as he can zone out to music or something else. He climbs up in the chair and situates himself as Tom asks, "What are we doing for you today, hmm?"

Isaac pauses his music. His mom answers for him, "The usual, I think: nice and short so he doesn't have to worry about it."

"Um," Isaac starts, "Can I do it different this time?"

They both look at Isaac like he's grown another head. His mother says, "You want to...change your hairstyle?" Tom glances at her, and then back to Isaac.

Isaac nods. "Can I keep the top part a little l-longer?"

"Well," she says, "it'll mess with your cowlick in the front, but I could see it working. Are you going to take care of your hair every morning?"

Isaac looks at his mom wordlessly with his best pleading face.

Tom snorts and busts out laughing. "I think he's serious, Eileen. I can make it work, no problem, and the cowlick will look cute in the front. You ready to rock this?" He directs the last bit at both of them.

Isaac's mom shrugs. "All right, dear, but if you don't like it, you're going to have to live with it for a few weeks at least."

"Then let's roll!" Tom announces, grabbing his scissors and getting started. he does not put the typical "cloak" over Isaac, though; the one time they tried that, he freaked out at being unable to move his arms around.
Isaac closes his eyes again, squinting them tightly as he listens to the same song on repeat. He feels Tom's hand apply pressure to his scalp, lift some hair, and snip it off. The pressure is almost comforting, but every single strand of hair that drifts down off his head onto his arms causes intense discomfort, either tickling or itching his skin. Try as he might, he is unable to ignore the sensations and begins fervently brushing his arms off.
Tom says something to him, but he can't hear over his music. He begins to whine, his old fallback when he's not supposed to rock or make too much movement. He keeps rubbing his hands over his arms to make sure there's no hair left. Why do hairs have to itch so much? he wonders in frustration as he brushes another small clump off his arm.

Isaac waits for another snip, but it doesn't come. This should comfort Isaac, but the worst part is about to come: the clippers. He opens his eyes long enough to see Tom grab the clippers and put the shortest attachment on them. Tom squats down in front of Isaac and mimics taking one earbud out of his ear. Isaac follows his suggestion; Tom asks, "Are you ready for this part? I'll try to keep it quick, okay?"

Isaac takes a deep breath and nods, closing his eyes and putting the earbud back in. Suddenly, there is a loud clack followed by the horrendous sound of the clippers, a sickly, rusty-brown sawblade of a sound, one that feels almost literally like burning when Tom slides it against his scalp. He tries his best to remain still, but he flinches when the cold blades first touch the side of his head. He whines louder; somehow, the feeling of his voice vibrating through his neck and head helps a little bit to counteract the assault from the clippers themselves.

He can hear the high-pitched hissing of his hairs being cut by the thousands, the burning growling of the clippers, and his own feeble whine all fighting for dominance over the music. He squints tightly, hoping against hope that it would reduce the sound from outside; he knows better, but it's all he's got.

Another swath of hair down, and tiny little splinters of hair fall like a stinging rain directly on the back of his neck, immediately setting him off. He can't even articulate the problem, it bothers him so greatly; all he can do is make frantic grunts and slap at the back of his neck. Quickly, though, he feels the smooth touch of talcum powder on his neck, followed by a sandpaper-rough towel rasping the hairs off his neck. He screeches a bit, not expecting the attack; a few tears escape his squinted eyes.

He feels an earbud pop out of his right ear, and his mom says softly, "Breathe, Isaac. You're going to be fine." He obliges, taking a deep breath through his nose and expelling it the same way.

Shortly afterward, Tom says, "You know, I have an idea. One moment." Tom walks off behind him, and Isaac hears a sink turn on in the distance.

"How you holdin' up, Doodlebug?" his mom asks.

"I hate it," he replies truthfully.

She rubs her hand firmly on his back. "I know, dear. You're doing very well, this time, though! Just think about the ice cream; we're almost done."

It's going to be banana-flavored, he thinks. With caramel sauce. Like last time, and many times before, of course.

"Actually," Tom says from behind him, "better idea: I think a warm towel would help out against the hair and not be as restrictive as the plastic cover. But we'll need to take his shirt off so that we don't soak the collar. Nobody likes a wet collar."

She puts her hand pensively across her chin and mouth. "Hmmm...is that necessary?"

"If you're worried about a shirtless boy in this salon, I assure you we've accommodated stranger requests. Let's give it a try; let's shampoo him now so that his shirt doesn't pick up all the stray hairs, and then I can use a warm, wet towel to help guard him against the clippers. It'll leave more freedom than the plastic cover, and we can do another shampoo afterward, no charge. Isaac, let's take a hair break and go get a shampoo, hmm?" Tom beckons Isaac to follow.

Isaac frowns, confused at the change of routine, but he hops up and walks over to the shampoo chairs as directed. He sits down and leans his head back, but he flinches when his mom reaches over and takes his earbuds and cellphone. "Can't wear those right now, dear," she reminds him.

"Yes, ma'am," he responds. He would do anything at this moment for a pair of waterproof earbuds.

Tom gets the water to the right temperature and starts spraying it through Isaac's hair to get it wet. Where the clippers and stray hairs are by far the worst part of a haircut, the shampoo is easily the best. Isaac luxuriates in the feeling of the warm water massaging his scalp. If his showerhead at home felt like this, he'd probably take showers instead of baths. He's not sure exactly why the shampoo is coming first, but it's not an important question to him.

The water turns off, and shortly afterward, Isaac feels Tom's fingers begin to massage shampoo through his hair. Tom always makes sure to wash out behind Isaac's ears in case of tiny hairs hiding back there, but all that matters to Isaac is that Tom's fingers are bliss on his scalp. He closes his eyes and sighs contentedly at the circular scalp massage working the shampoo into every spot on his head. After another soothing rinse, Tom hands Isaac a towel to dry his hair out. On the way back to the haircut chair, Isaac blots his hair since the towel is a bit too rough to rub across his head.

Isaac gets himself situated back in the chair. Shortly, Isaac hears Tom walking back up. "Ms. Brooks, if you can go ahead and help him out with the shirt? I'll make double sure not to get any hair on his chest or back." He adds in a lower voice, "He'll have enough of that, later."

"Tom, you stop that," his mom says, but she has a smile on her face. Isaac supposes it's some sort of joke. His mom looks at him and pantomimes a "lifting" motion. "Isaac, honey, take off your shirt."

He looks at her, confused. "Why?"

"So you don't get nasty, itchy hairs in it."

That makes immediate sense to Isaac; he practically whips his shirt off, completely unconcerned that he's in a public place. Tom laughs as he does so, and he catches a glimpse of his mom shrugging at Tom. Shortly afterward, he feels a comfortingly warm, wet towel gently placed around his neck. "How's that?" Tom asks.

"Good, sir," Isaac says.

"Good. This will catch all the stray hairs and hopefully help keep your skin from being too irritated."

The pressure of the wet towel on his shoulders is also soothing to him. This becomes evident as he flinches a lot less to the sound of the clippers and the feel of cold steel on his skin. Even the whining lessens and eventually stops, just before Isaac hears the clack of the clippers turning off. He opens his eyes and looks in the mirror to see Tom staring back at him. In his ragged state, he has no idea which emotion belongs to whom: pride, relief, love, exhaustion, hope, excitement, caring, irritation, impatience...

He looks quickly at his own reflection, ignoring the collection of facial features that never seem to mean much to him. He focuses instead on his new haircut: short on the sides as always, but a little bit longer on the top, like Vin's. He uses his hand to brush it forward, but a bunch of loose hairs stick to his hand, causing him to flail that hand wildly. His mom catches it and helps pick off the few hairs there, allowing him to calm down.

"So?" Tom asks. "What do you think?"

"Are we done?" Isaac asks. It is what he's thinking about, after all.

Tom laughs. "Let's get you washed up and ready to go."

They head back to the shampoo station, which Isaac absolutely did not expect; he could happily spend an entire day getting this done, though. A shampoo-massage and rinse, followed by another round, and Isaac could almost fall asleep with how relaxed he has become. Well, most of him -- his penis has decided to wake up from all the scalp stimulation and is struggling upward against his khaki pants. He blushes a bit, hoping that if he doesn't say anything, they won't think that he's attracted to Tom or something.

"Isaac?" his mom says; he realizes that he's staring at his crotch and making it completely obvious.

"I-it was the shampoo," he blurts out. "I'm sorry." He makes extra-sure not to make eye contact with either his mom or Tom.

She stares at him a moment with furrowed eyebrows before closing her eyes and laughing. "Oh. Don't worry about it, honey. We're done; let me pay and we can go get ice cream. Go ahead and put your shirt back on after you dry your hair."

Tom leads them up to the front cash register and takes care of everything. "You look very handsome, Isaac!" Tom says with a grin. "See you soon!"

"See you soon, s-sir," Isaac says, reaching in his pants to adjust himself without regard to who's watching.

"Isaac," his mom mutters next to him, "don't do that in public."

"But it was bothering me," he explains.

"You need to do that without putting your hand in your pants, dear." She begins to walk toward the door; Isaac follows.

When they get outside, he asks, "But Mom, how do I do that without...?"

She sighs. "Never mind, dear. Let's go get ice cream, shall we?"

"Yes, ma'am."

 

***

 

Ice cream is everything it should be, as it always is: a nice, big waffle cone full of banana-flavored ice cream topped with caramel drizzle, licked until gone and finished on the 18th bite. (Isaac doesn't take huge bites; he has a small mouth and an aversion to brain freezes.) Isaac's mom enjoys herself reading a book on her Kindle while Isaac devours the treat, and they head home quietly.

Once home, Isaac checks his phone contact list to see Vin's name in there; as Isaac was freaking out about forgetting to call his mom yesterday, Vin reminded him that they needed to have a way to contact each other. Just staring at the name in his phone fills him with excitement and anxiety. He wants so bad to text him and ask when he can come over, but he doesn't want to annoy him, or to find out that something has come up and it can't happen...or that Vin has decided that Isaac isn't worth his time. Isaac hasn't seen any evidence suggesting that, but he can't ever shake the fact that when people treat him nicely, it's only because they're supposed to. Polite people aren't supposed to make fun of you if you're different. But Vin does seem really interested, Isaac assures himself, and he's the one who offered...

Then there's the whole aspect of going somewhere new. It throws off routines, it adds new unknowns in, and it generally makes Isaac very, very uncomfortable. He wonders if it would have been better to invite Vin over here. Maybe it's not too late. Vin said that it's pretty cool over there, and there's not a whole lot to do here, but at least Isaac knows everything about this place, boring though it may be.

As if reading his mind, his mom asks, "So, Isaac. You're sure you want to go over to Vin's, right? Not have him come over here?"

Isaac stares blankly at the wall for a moment. "Yes, ma'am. He invited me, and then he said that it's, um, that he has a cat, and then he just has an older brother. And, um, a...his parents." He's not sure why he just listed all the people over there, as if that explained why he wanted to go over. In an attempt to better explain himself, he adds, "They don't have any dogs." Reviewing what he's said so far, Isaac feels utterly inadequate in his explanation.

"Well," she says with a half-smile, "you seem to be very interested in doing this, which is good. I'm happy for you. I just want you to be okay, and not to do something that will stress you out too badly."

"I can--I won't be too, too stressed out." He realizes he's picking at his thumb again and wills himself to stop.

"Well, would you mind if I gave them a call real quick to make sure everything is okay? I just want to make sure that--"

"Everything is okay," he insists, taking his mother by surprise. "I...just, please, Mom?"

She takes a moment to answer. "It, it's fine, darling. I just want to make sure you're going to be okay."

"I'm going to be okay!" he emphasizes, raising his voice.

"Okay, okay," she says, putting up her hands defensively. "So when are you going over there, and where do they live?"

Isaac stops in his tracks. He has literally no idea, other than that they're meeting up in the afternoon -- and it's already after noon. He looks back at his phone. "Um, I can c-call him. Let me call him." He could text, but it might take forever to get a response, and that's valuable time wasted. But calling means talking to Vin on the phone...talking to his mom is fine, since it's always the same conversation, but talking to Vin for some reason makes him extremely nervous. "I will be right back," he says, walking into his room for some privacy and focus.

He sits on his bed and stares at the phone, building up the willpower to push the "call" button. He takes long enough that the phone screen turns off; he quickly opens his phone back up, only to stare at the button for longer. Finally, the desire to make something happen overrides his trepidation.

Ring. Ring. "Hello?"

"Hello, Vin." After an awkward pause, he adds, "This is Isaac."

"Hey! How's it going?"

"It's going good." Another awkward pause.

Vin speaks up, "So what's up? Did you need something before -- oh wait, we never talked about where I live!" Isaac hears a slapping sound. "Duh! Is that what you called for?"

"Yes, Vin," Isaac says with a smile. "Also, I need to know when I can c-come over."

"God, I'm an idiot," Vin chides himself. "My bad, my bad. So how about this: I'm still out doing a few last-minute things, but I can text you my address so you can plug it in to a map app, and let's meet up at, like...one sec." Isaac hears the sound on the phone get muffled; he can barely make out that Vin is speaking, but he can't hear any of the words. After a short moment of that, Vin clearly says, "How's four o'clock sound?"

"That sounds good, Vin."

"Great! Um, how does spaghetti sound for dinner?"

"Spaghetti sounds good, Vin." Vin laughs a bit, making Isaac confused. "Why are you laughing?"

"Nothing, it's nothing. Just...I just thought about something funny. Anyway, lemme text you the address real quick, and I'll see you at four?"

"Okay, Vin."

"See you!"

"See you, Vin."

Isaac relays the important information to his mom; he gets the text shortly afterward with Vin's address, which is only a neighborhood away. Isaac checks the clock: two-thirty. Still over an hour to go. Isaac does his best to remain entertained while waiting for the right time, though he checks his clock almost every ten minutes. A bit closer to time, he hears his mom knock on his door. "Come in," he calls out.

She comes in and sits on the bed, asking him to do the same. "Okay, Doodlebug, I want you to listen up, okay?"

"Okay, ma'am."

"Now I've noticed that you're really excited about this, and I can't tell you how happy that makes me."

"Why not, Mom?"

"I--" she stops and sighs. "It's an expression, dear. It means that it makes me so happy that I can't figure out the right words to say to show it."

"Oh." Isaac makes a mental note about that one.

"So I just want to go over a few things and make sure that you know what to expect, okay?"

"Okay, ma'am."

"First off, it is going to be a new place, but if you ask Vin to take you on a tour, you can learn where everything is so you don't get lost or confused."

"Okay, ma'am."

"Secondly, are you going to have dinner over there?"

"Yes, ma'am. They are having spaghetti."

"Oh, good. You usually like spaghetti. If you don't like it, though, I can make you something to eat later, okay?"

Usually Isaac is fine with a lot of different foods, but things like beans or other foods with weird textures will make him throw up. Regardless, spaghetti has never caused him any problems, so he just replies, "Okay, ma'am."

"Finally, if you get stressed out, remember your calming exercises. Breathe, rock, count, rub the carpet, whatever you need to do. You can always call me at any time and I'll be right there to pick you up, okay? This 'Vin' seems like a good kid, but sometimes people don't understand each other and might get into fights or arguments, and I don't want you to feel like you're trapped over there, okay?"

"Okay, Mom..." He drags the last bit out, showing his impatience.

"How about a 'yes, ma'am' instead of that attitude?"

"Yes, ma'am. I'm sorry, ma'am." He hangs his head.

She rubs his knee. "It's fine, dear. I promise you I'm just looking out for you because I love you and don't want anything bad to happen, okay?"

"Okay, ma'am."

"Good." She stands up. "So. You ready to go, then? You bringing anything over?"

Isaac freezes, unsure which question to answer.

After a pause, she says, "Right...sorry. First, did you want to bring anything over?"

"No, ma'am."

"Then are you ready to go?"

Isaac stands. "Yes, ma'am."

 

***


Isaac and his mom pull up to a large two-story house in the suburbs, complete with a basketball net and beautiful flower-covered bushes lining the way to the front door. Isaac checks the address; this is Vin's house, he thinks with equal parts excitement and anxiety.
His mom turns off the car and steps out, waiting for Isaac on his side of the car, but he hesitates inside. She opens the door for him and asks, "Are you coming?"

He sits, still in his seatbelt, rocking slightly and staring forward. You can do this, he thinks to himself. It's for Vin. You can do this.

His mom squats down and looks at Isaac. "Are you gonna be okay? Do you want me to stay with you for a bit, until you get more comfortable?"

Isaac squints and shakes his head. He takes a deep breath, unbuckles his seatbelt, and clambers out of the car. He instinctively takes his mom's hand; she closes the car door behind him and starts walking up to the house. Isaac knows that most thirteen-year-olds don't hold their mom's hand anymore, and for what it's worth, he doesn't do it all that often anymore. He just...needs it for right now.

They make it to the front door, but neither one makes a move. His mom looks down at him and encourages him, "Go on. This is your visit; you knock."

Isaac isn't sure why he's so ridiculously anxious about this whole thing, but he takes another deep breath, lets it out slowly, and knocks firmly on the door three times. He counts the seconds. One, two, three, four...where are they? Maybe nobody's home--

The door clicks and opens to reveal Vin in a pair of basketball shorts and a white tank-top. "Hey! Come on in!" He backs up to reveal a nicely-tiled entryway.

They both enter the area as Vin continues, "You must be his mom. Nice to meet you; I'm Vin Ward." He extends his hand.

"A pleasure; I'm Eileen Brooks." She accepts his handshake; Isaac notices smiles on both their faces. He idly wonders why a handshake would make someone so happy.

Isaac takes a moment to absorb his surroundings. To the left is a dining room with a long table and a china cabinet full of dishes; in front of him is a staircase leading upstairs to the left; beyond that is a large living room with a fireplace, a proportionately large wall-mounted TV, and an entertainment center underneath it; and beyond all of that is a kitchen that connects to both the dining room and the living room in a big circle. He looks up to see a landing, beyond which he can see a room with bookshelves and a large pool table in the middle of it. He is struck with both a feeling of awe and the realization that Vin's family must have a lot of money. He can't quite articulate why, even in his own head, but this makes him feel afraid in a way he's never really experienced before.

Vin laughs a bit. "I guess I shoulda been dressed up better...sorry about that."

"Oh, it's perfectly fine," Ms. Brooks says with a dismissive wave. "Don't get dolled up on my behalf."

At this point, the TV in the background is muted, and Isaac sees a woman come in from the living room; her straight brown hair is parted in the middle, curling inward just underneath her jawline. "Welcome! I'm Deborah." She reaches out for a handshake as well, which Isaac's mom reciprocates. "And this is Isaac, yeah?" she asks, indicating him. He notices that she asks questions the same way Vin does.

Vin answers for him. "Yes, this is my friend, Isaac. Isaac, this is my mom. I think Dad's outside in the shed right now, but I can go get him, if you'd like."

"I--" Isaac begins, but his mom cuts him off abruptly.

"Say, why don't you two run off and play? I just want to have a short conversation with Vin's parents, and I'll be on my way." She smiles at Vin's mom, and the two share a silent moment that Isaac can't even begin to parse.

The two women begin talking, primarily about Isaac and what Vin has said about him, as they walk into the living room. Vin puts his hand on Isaac's shoulder. "Hey, let's head upstairs so they can talk, yeah?"
Isaac is still processing most of his emotions; he doesn't have a ready response, so he wordlessly follows Vin upstairs. At the head of the stairs is a cross-hallway with a bathroom in the middle and three bedrooms: one on the right and two on the left. Isaac sees the room with the pool table just around the corner on the right, noticing that it's big enough to have its own entertainment center and couch, with plenty of room left over for the pool table. On the far wall is a stand-up piano, and there's an electric keyboard just to the left of that. Isaac is momentarily transfixed by the multiple pianos, but there's so much other stuff going on that he can't focus on any one thing for long.
Vin reaches the top of the stairs and points to a room. "That one's my bedroom, and there's the game room. So, uh...what'd'ya wanna do first?"
Isaac snaps out of his reverie and tries his best to come up with something to say. He freezes in the hallway, unable to think of even one thing to respond; he feels the pressure to say something, anything, but he can't--wait, he thinks. What did Mom suggest? Oh yeah! He asks, "Um...could you take me on...a tour?"

Vin grins. "Yeah, sure! That's a great idea! So let's start up here...so this is the game room, yeah? We've got pool over here, and a shelf full of board games there, and just about every Nintendo console there ever was over there -- Dad collected them from decades ago. I think they all still work. Oh, and I have a PS3 and a PS4 as well, so yeah. Anyway, over here is Brandon's room, my brother; don't mind the heavy metal music blaring in there. That's his thing." Isaac was wondering why the walls seemed angry on that side of the hallway. Vin continues, "This is the guest room, and this is my bedroom." He opens the door to a smaller room with a window that overlooks the driveway. On the right wall is a dresser with pictures of family members and the like sitting on top; there is a display case just underneath the window on the far wall with a variety of trophies in it; the left side of the room is dominated by a full-size bed; and the closet is flush against the near wall with the doorway. "So yeah, this is my room. It's nothing exciting, really, just, y'know, where I sleep, heh."

He pauses, and Isaac takes a second to check everything out. He asks, "What, um, are all the trophies?"

"Oh, those?" he asks, as if there were any other trophies to speak of. "Those are just different trophies from basketball games last year, from Little League baseball games when I was younger, things like that. I've always been pretty into sports, I guess." He rubs the back of his neck. "Eh, it's whatever. The parents like to see them once in a while, yeah? So, uh, you wanna go check out downstairs a bit?"

"Yes, sir. I mean, yes, Vin." Isaac feels his cheeks heat up at the mistake.

Vin looks at Isaac with a strange smile, but doesn't respond to Isaac's mistake. "Anyway, uh, come on downstairs, I'll show you around. You can come check out the backyard, too; I think the cat might be out there with Dad right now."

Isaac feels small and vulnerable, though he can't explain why. "Um, actually...can, can we just sit here for, for a moment? Please." He says the last word more as a statement.

"Oh, yeah, sure. Have a seat!" He sits on the bed cross-legged and pats on it for Isaac to sit across from him. "What's up?"

"It's a lot," he explains poorly, but he doesn't try to say anything else; he just rocks slightly on the bed.

"Oh, uh, a'right. Is there something I can do to, uh, help? I don't wanna, y'know, overload you or anything."

Isaac continues rocking for a moment before muttering, "I don't like new places. They're...they're just a lot. I don't know how to..." He gives up and continues rocking silently. He can tell that he's not spiraling out of control or anything, but he's just at an upper limit at the moment.

They sit there for a moment in awkward silence, Isaac rocking on the bed, Vin looking around the room. Vin says, "By the way, I like your haircut. It looks great on ya."

Isaac stops rocking and looks up at Vin's hair. "I got it because it looks like yours."

Vin blinks a few times with a strange look on his face. "I mean, thanks, I guess?" He laughs a bit as he runs his fingers through his own hair. "I guess I've had this style since I was like nine or so. It's easy to take care of, and it doesn't look too bad, yeah? I mean, it looks good on you, too, uh...for what it's worth." He smiles a bit. "But I mean, was it just 'cuz it looks good on me, or...?"

"It was 'cuz it looks good on you," Isaac agrees. "I really liked how it looked on you."

Vin rolls his eyes. "Ah, well, y'know," he says, looking to the side and messing with his hair a little bit. Isaac isn't sure what that's supposed to mean, but Vin doesn't say anything else on the subject. Instead, he says, "So, uh...you ready to continue the tour, or did you wanna sit for a bit longer? It's okay, either way."

"I'm ready to continue the tour." Isaac slides off the bed and waits for Vin to take the lead.
"A'right!" Vin says, hopping off the bed with his lanky legs and heading out into the hallway. They go back downstairs, where Vin restarts the tour. "Ahead of us you'll see the master bedroom door -- that's where the parents sleep, obviously -- and then right here is the living room...where apparently my dad has come inside. Dad, this is Isaac."

Vin's dad, a mostly-bald man with a stern face even despite his smile, nods to the both of them. "Nice to meet you, Isaac," he says in an accent that Isaac can't quite place, but one that Vin's mom and dad seem to share; Isaac thinks about it a moment and realizes that Vin sounds a little bit like them, as well.

"Nice to meet you, sir," Isaac says quietly.

"Anyway," Vin suggests, "let's let them talk. Come over here; I'll lead you through the kitchen." He takes Isaac the back way through the dining room to the kitchen. "This is our fridge, where you will find an unlimited supply of freezer pops." He demonstrates by opening the left wing of the refrigerator; indeed, there are multiple boxes of those little plastic tubes full of different fruit-flavored liquid. Isaac usually just got frustrated with those because there was always some juice left in them that he couldn't suck out.

Vin heads over to the door to the backyard. "And out here..." he says, opening it up, "is our backyard. Come check it out!"

Isaac follows him outside onto a covered patio with multiple ceiling fans swirling lazily in the late summer heat. There's a collection of white wicker patio furniture here; sprawled out on top of the table is an orange-striped, short-haired cat who is watching them languidly. Vin walks over and scoops the cat up, which the cat seems to be completely okay with. "This here is Mack. Short for 'Mackenzie.' He's the laziest thing you'll ever meet, unless you have catnip or a laser pointer." Vin kneels down and slings Mack over his shoulder, who looks at Isaac expectantly.

Isaac meets eyes with the cat; he cannot remember if he's ever looked into the eyes of an animal ever since the weird stuff started, but he gets a vague impression of contentment as he looks at it. There's no real rush of back-and-forth emotions or the like, just a calm contentment that seems to be part of the cat itself.

Vin, looking over his shoulder at the cat, says, "Go ahead, pet him. He loves attention."

Isaac reaches out very cautiously and runs his hand along the fur atop the cat's head. The cat closes its eyes and begins to purr at the attention. Isaac giggles nervously and pulls his hand back. "It's so soft," he remarks.

"Everyone seems to say that about ol' Mack," Vin says. "Heh, looks like he likes you, so that's a good thing." He stands back up and slings the cat back over onto the table top; the cat stands for a moment, licking a spot on its shoulder, and then flops over heavily, back into its previous spot.

"He's very happy," Isaac points out.

"Yeah," Vin nods, "He usually--wait. Do you mean, like, just 'cuzza how he's acting, or, like, is that one of those things with your...y'know...?"

Isaac thinks about it a moment. "I think it's because of my, um, gift. I felt him being...being calm and happy when I looked at him. At his eyes."

Vin's eyes go wide. "Y'mean it works with animals too?! That is just...wow. That is the coolest...I mean, that's pretty neat, yeah?" Isaac notices a strange way that he finishes his sentence, almost as if he suddenly dropped to a lower level of excitement.

Isaac shrugs. "I don't know. He just seems happy. Maybe...maybe I can tell better with animals, like their faces, or." It does help that the cat is purring and acting very calmly. Isaac doesn't have a lot of experience with cats, but it definitely doesn't look like it wants to attack anything.

Vin points to a few other structures out in the yard. "Over there is the swingset we used to use; both Brandon and me grew out of it already, though. Oh, and out that way is the shed that Dad likes to work in. It's like his little Man Cave. And, of course, there's the pool." Vin gestures over the moderately-sized in-ground pool shaped a little bit like a kidney bean. "It's not the biggest, but it's full of water and it's fun to splash around in. So yeah. There's basically my house. What'd'ya think?"

Isaac stares with equal parts awe and fear at the pool; he doesn't know how to swim, but he's always wanted to. "It's...so much."

"You, uh, you swim?" he asks.

Isaac shakes his head.

"Really? Maybe one day you can come over, we can teach you how, yeah? It'd be fun."

Isaac doesn't have a ready answer to that idea, so instead he walks timidly back over to the cat. The moment the cat sees him, he rolls over and stretches out, presenting his belly to Isaac. Isaac stares at the cat for a moment, trying to figure out if he's "feeling" the cat's emotions, or if maybe he can just tell that it's happy. He gently runs his hand along the cat's side, and it begins to purr again; he watches the cat's face as he does so, and he gets the impression that the cat is much happier. He pets him a few more times, enjoying the soft, fluffy fur, but he gets a weird pang of hunger just before the cat flips over and stands up. Mack stretches and hops off the table, waiting at the door with expectant eyes at Vin.

"Yeah, we're comin', Mack. You ready to go back inside, Isaac?"

Isaac nods, and Vin opens the door. The cat quickly trots inside and heads to his food bowl. Isaac realizes that it wasn't his own hunger that he felt. They head inside, where Isaac overhears the last bit of conversation between the parents as his mom says, "So don't hesitate at all to call if you have any questions or need anything at all. He really wants this, so I can't thank you enough."

Vin's mom replies, "Oh, it's nothin', really -- Vin's been talkin' up a storm about Isaac as it is, so I'm sure everything'll be fine."

Isaac's mom flicks her eyes over to catch the boys closing the door; her eyes fall on Isaac's, and he feels a momentary twinge of worry, shame, hope, and something he can't identify before they break eye contact. She says to Vin's parents, "Great. Well, I'm only a few minutes away if you need anything. It's really nice to meet you both."

"Sure thing," Mr. Ward says, shaking her hand one last time. "Again, great to meet you."

Isaac has been watching the interchange, and he only just now notices that Vin has already walked through the kitchen and is about to head through the dining room. He hurries to catch up; Vin hears him and stops, saying, "Oh! I'm sorry, I thought you were right behind me! Sorry, my man." He waits for Isaac to catch up, and they both head toward the stairs.

Before they can ascend, though, Isaac's mom interrupts them. "Hey, how about a hug before I go?" she asks, spreading her arms wide.

Isaac looks at Vin and then his mom. He wants to look more mature, but he knows his mom won't leave him alone if he doesn't. He gives in and hugs her, but she goes the full mile with it, taking entirely too long and rocking slightly with it. Normally Isaac would be completely fine with that sort of hug, but he has to mumble, "Mommm..." into her shoulder before she lets him go. She kisses him on the cheek and says, "I'll be by around 9:00 to pick you up, okay?"

"Okay, ma'am." That's almost four hours to do things, which seems like entirely too short of a time to Isaac. It's what he's allowed, though, so it's what he'll get; he knows his mom.

She leaves, and the boys head upstairs and into the game room. Vin asks, "Hey, you wanna play some Soulcalibur 6? It just got released. It goes back to the time of the first one, but it's got a completely different story mode and all that."

Isaac replies, "I don't know Soulcalibur."

"Oh. Do you have Playstation or XBox?"

Isaac shakes his head. "I sometimes play Clash Royale on my phone, but I don't d-do, um, video games a lot."

Vin drops onto a couch seat. "Well, howzabout we give it a go, then, yeah?"

Isaac sits next to him on the couch, making sure to leave a little bit of room between them, and takes a controller. They start the game up and play against each other for a couple of matches, but it becomes quickly apparent that Isaac is no good at it. There are entirely too many buttons on the controller, and he can't figure out which ones to push in what order to make anything cool happen. In a fit of frustration, he throws the controller on the floor. Horrified at his own actions with someone else's stuff, he immediately gasps and whispers, "I'm sorry! I'm sorry, Vin! I'm sorry!"

Vin looks over at Isaac and says, "Hey, man, it's okay." He puts his controller down on the floor much more gently and leans forward to turn the Playstation 4 off. "I've done way worse to them and they're not broken yet. Uh, sorry that the game didn't work out so well. You, uh, wanna maybe play a board game instead?"

"Okay, Vin."

"Cool. Come check out what I have." They go over to the display case, where Vin has a pretty nice-sized collection of board games; some of them look older than the boys are by far, whereas some of them look like they haven't ever been opened. Vin says, "So we got some o' the classics like Sorry! or Monopoly, uh, the Game o' Life, all that...then we got some new ones here, like Dominion, but that one takes a long time to start up. Hm. See any that look interesting?"

Isaac takes a look. Of all the interesting, flashy titles and boxes he sees, though, he narrows in on a deck of cards. "Can we play cards?"

Vin jerks his head backwards, almost as if he were poked in the nose. He furrows his brow and laughs, saying, "I...yeah. That's cool. I didn't even think of cards. What games do you know?"

"I know Twenty-one, poker, Crazy Eights, Go Fish, Rummy, and War. I like Rummy a lot."

Vin shrugs and nods. "I played it a long time ago. You might need to teach me the rules again."

"Okay, Vin," Isaac happily replies as Vin gets the deck of cards. Vin pushes the Playstation equipment back toward the entertainment center to make some room on the floor. "We need a pencil and paper for score, yeah? You wanna set it up, I'll go get those?"

"Okay, Vin." Isaac takes out the deck of cards and sees that it's already mixed up, so he shuffles them once, just in case. He has his own way of doing it, though: he puts the deck on the ground, smears it all around, and then picks up each card randomly, putting it back into a stack. By the time he's most of the way done, Vin comes back upstairs and into the room with a small notepad and a pencil. Isaac carefully deals out ten cards to both of them and turns over the top card of the deck to reveal a four of diamonds.

"Okay," Isaac announces, "are you ready to learn the rules?"

"Hit me," Vin replies.

Isaac stares at him for a moment. "That's Twenty-One, not Rummy."

"I--" Vin says, but stops. "Right. You're right. Go ahead." He looks like he is trying not to smile, but he's failing at it pretty badly.

"Okay, so." Isaac puts his cards down so that he can use his hands to explain better. "How you win is you get the most points, and then you get points when you put cards down that are three of a kind or a run. Um, that's like a two, three, and four of hearts, or, um...a jack, queen, and king of spades, or something. And then, um, so, you...on your turn, you take a card from here," he points to the deck, "or here." He points to the discard pile. "And then you, and then...okay, I'm going to show you my cards so I can show you the game, okay?"

"Sure," Vin says.

Isaac reveals his hand. "Okay, so. I have this pair of fours. I can pick this up," he says while drawing the four of diamonds from the discard pile, "and then I put the th-three fours down together like this. And then, so, I always have to discard. Okay? So I put, um, this one in the discard."

"But you just discarded a king," Vin points out. "I remember those being a lot of points, yeah?"

"Yeah, Vin, but...but not if I don't have a run or a three-of-a-kind. Then I lose points if I don't use it."

"Ah, right, right." Vin looks at his hand. "So lemme see here. I don't have anything to use the king on, I don't think, so I'ma draw one...okay, a five of spades. So I can put down the five, and this six of spades and seven of clubs to make a run, yeah?"

Isaac darts forward and puts his hand in the way of Vin's attempt. "No no no! You hafta have all the same thing, the same..."

"Oh!" Vin says, picking them back up. "So a five, six, and seven is fine, but all hearts, or clubs? The same suit?"

"Yes, Vin, the same suit." He sits back up. "And then if you don't have a thing to put down, then you just discard, and then it's my turn."

"Got it. I think I remember, now. Aces can be high or low, but...what was it, no 'king-ace-two'-type things, yeah?"

"Yeah, Vin."

"Cool. Let's make it happen."

They get into the game; Isaac points out the rule where you can add on to someone else's run or set, and the fact that you can't win if you don't also have a card to discard. At the end, Isaac is the one to put his last set out and discard, ending the round. Isaac scans over his cards and writes on the notepad what points he has.

"So how do you score points, again?" Vin asks. "Wasn't it that numbers are 5, face is 10, something like that?"

"Yes, Vin. Numbers are five points, except for tens. Tens and 'face' cards, like jacks, queens, and kings, are ten points, and then aces are 15." Without even glancing down, he adds, "You have sixty points, and then you hafta minus the cards in your hand."

Vin frowns at the cards on the floor. "You already counted them?"

"You have six cards that are numbers under ten, and then you have a ten, a jack, and a queen. I just counted when we were playing."

Vin starts to say something, but he just ends up closing his eyes and shaking his head. "I don't know how you do that. I can't keep two numbers in my head even going downstairs."

Isaac laughs. "Why would you need to do that?"

Vin rolls his eyes and throws his hands up. "Man, I dunno. Maybe I was tryin' to remember how many pairs of socks and underwear I had so that I could tell Mom if I needed more. No idea." He laughs a bit at the end.

Isaac matter-of-factly states, "I have fourteen pairs of underwear and ten pairs of socks, but I keep three pairs of socks in case I lose some or if the others are dirty."

Vin stares at Isaac for a moment. "You are somethin' else. Really."

Isaac meets eyes with Vin; he gets a cresting wave of interest washing over him followed by a spacious feeling of fascination, with an undercurrent of amusement. Hidden deep in the back of those main three emotions, Isaac can vaguely sense a few other things lurking in the background; one of them he can identify as curiosity, but the other one is a complex knot of emotion that Isaac has never felt before.

He quickly looks downward, at Vin's exposed legs and long-fingered hands. He notices a thin coating of hair on Vin's lower legs, but nothing on the part of his thighs that Isaac can see outside of the basketball shorts. "Does that mean that I'm different?" he asks.

Vin takes a moment to answer. "Aw, Isaac, you know I don't care about that," he says, reaching forward and ruffling Isaac's hair.

Isaac immediately inhales sharply; adrenaline floods his system in a fight-or-flight response. He freezes in place, stuck in a loop of thoughts: Vin is playing with my hair--oh geez--I can't tell him how it makes me feel--but Vin is playing with my hair--
Vin gathers up the cards in front of him. "It doesn't mean you're different...um, did I--did I do something wrong?"

Isaac realizes that he hasn't moved from the spot and is still breathing heavily. "N-no, Vin. You--I--um." Isaac feels like he needs to go somewhere else to process all this, but he thinks, I can't just leave. I can't call Mom. I don't want to leave. I want this, but I don't want to... "I need to use the bathroom, please. I'm sorry. I'm sorry." He gets up and heads to the restroom without waiting for a response, muttering "I'm sorry" the entire time he heads there. He hears Vin try to say something, but he can't stop; he needs out. He heads into the bathroom and removes his pants, sitting on the toilet like he would normally do, regardless of if he actually needs to go.

It turns out that he does actually need to go, which is a timely intervention from his rampaging train of thoughts; the problem is that he has to struggle with his penis and point it downward, since it has decided to stay erect. He doesn't feel overwhelmed or near a meltdown, but he cannot figure out how he is supposed to feel, and he certainly can't figure out how to act around Vin. He sits on the toilet and sheds a few silent tears as his brain tries to process everything; as usual, the rocking helps a bit, as does running his hands on any smooth surface, his thighs being the only nearby suitable place at the moment. He decides to make a mental list of the things that are in play right now.

1. I like Vin like a boyfriend.

2. Vin does not know that.

3. Vin probably doesn't like me like a boyfriend.

4. When Vin plays with my hair, it makes me feel excited.

5. Vin also does not know that.

6. Do I want Vin to do that? Yes and no.

7. I hate when a question is both "yes" and "no."

He settles on a plan: I won't say anything about it. Maybe he won't play with my hair again. We can play another round of cards, and then maybe do something where he won't play with my hair. Isaac realizes that this isn't the best plan, but it's a plan where he had none before.

He flushes the toilet and pulls his pants up, thankful that his erection is soft enough to not be visible. When he gets back over to where they were sitting, Vin is shuffling the deck of cards in that neat way where people can not only split the deck in half and make the cards magically interleave, but he also bridges the cards, making them slide into place. Isaac watches for a moment, spellbound by the liquid motion of the cards.

"Wanna play another round?" Vin asks. "Now that I get it, I wanna see if I can do a little better. Oh, I wrote down the minus twenty points from having a king and jack in my hand, so I only got forty. That puts you, uh, lessee...thirty-five points ahead. Geez. By the way, it's ten cards each, yeah?"

Isaac sits back down as Vin deals out the cards. "Yeah, Vin. It's ten cards each."

"Heh," Vin laughs with a half-smile, "I like how you repeat back what I say to answer. You even kinda use the same tone of voice."

Isaac thinks back and analyzes it. "I didn't know that I did that."

Vin shrugs. "It's just a thing I noticed. Don't worry about it. Okay, I'll go first this time."

They play through the game; Isaac once again lays down the last set, discarding his last card to signal the end of the game. He scans the playing field to see what is out, scribbling his score down. "What card did you have left?"

Vin sighs, "Just a four, thankfully. Only minus five points."

"Okay, then that means you have forty-five points this round, so you have eighty-five points and I have one hundred thirty-five."

"Did you even need to write those down?" Vin asks with a raised eyebrow.

"I'm supposed to write them down," Isaac explains.

"No, I mean, like, are you just remembering them? I didn't even see you look at the paper when you did mine."

"I write them down because Mom told me that's how you're supposed to do it. I remember the scores. Last game Mom played with me, I had only ninety-five points, and she had one-hundred five."

Vin narrows his eyes. "What about before that?"

"I had one-hundred twenty, and she had eighty-five--no, ninety points. We accidentally missed a card she put on a run that I made." Vin throws his head back and laughs, making Isaac ask, "What's funny?"

"You're like a genius with numbers," he replies. "Heck, I can't even remember the score two basketball games ago, unless it was incredibly close or something. Oh, and the whole thing with making the equations work in math class? No problem, now. You can do some pretty incredible things, man. Pret-ty incredible."

Isaac smiles and blushes. "Thank you, Vin."

"Boys?" they hear Vin's mom call from downstairs. "You guys gonna be ready for dinner in about fifteen minutes?"

"Yeah, Mom!" Vin calls back. "Cool. I'm gettin' pretty hungry as it is. So, uh, one more game, then?"

"Yes, Vin." They play; Isaac wins.

As they head down to the kitchen for dinner, Isaac again feels exposed, vulnerable to the unfamiliar territory he's in. It's already not as bad as before, though; he actually feels like he's getting used to the place a whole lot faster than he normally would. It took most of the first week just to get used to the new classrooms and seats he's in this year. Shortly, they find themselves in the dining room, lined up into the kitchen near the stove. Isaac catches himself looking around for his cafeteria tray, and the idea sets him giggling and blushing. Vin looks back to see what's up, but it's his turn to receive food next, so he doesn't get a chance to ask.

Vin's mom serves each person, no matter their station in the household, a bowl with spaghetti, tomato sauce, and four moderately-sized meatballs. As the rest of the family and Isaac take their seat, she follows up with her own bowl and sits down at the table, where there is already a basket of garlic bread slices and a large bowl of tossed salad. Isaac is directed to sit in the fancy wooden chair that was brought in from the dining room, which makes him feel a bit pretentious and silly. He ends up sitting between Vin and his mom; across from him to the left is Vin's father, and then on Vin's other side is Brandon.
Isaac for the first time gets a chance to see Brandon; he looks a bit like Vin, though he's easily a foot taller, putting him in the category of The Tallest People Isaac Knows. His eyes are the same color, both dark brown, but his hair is so short that it's almost impossible to tell what color it is. He almost looks to Isaac like an angrier version of Vin. Isaac steals a quick glance at the parents' eyes and notices that they also have brown eyes. This sets Isaac's curiosity going; he knows about genetics, particularly dominant and recessive genes, but he has no idea how Vin has only one blue eye when nobody else in the family has one at all. Maybe a grandmother or grandfather has blue eyes, he considers.

Everyone helps themselves to a few pieces of garlic bread and some salad -- it looks like it has some kind of Italian dressing on it, which Isaac hates -- and digs in. There's very little conversation at first, just face-stuffing, which Isaac is completely okay with. In a noisy cafeteria, it's nice having a wall of chatter from Christian to take up the airwaves, but when the only sounds are the clink of forks on bowls, it's perfectly fine without.

Shortly, though, Brandon waves a fork in Isaac's direction and asks in a low baritone voice, "Who's this?"

Vin raises an eyebrow and uses his fork to push Brandon's away. "'This' is a person, and his name is Isaac. He's a friend from school."

"Does he ever talk?"

Vin retorts, "Do you ever shut up?"

"Boys!" their mother snaps.

"What?" Brandon asks defensively. "I'm just asking. I didn't even know people were over until now."

Vin finishes a bite of meatball and replies, "You mean you didn't hear us over your music? Surprise."

"Vin, that's enough," Mrs. Ward demands. "Isaac is our guest for dinner today, and that's all you need to know. Treat him like a guest."

Isaac finds it almost difficult to keep up with the rate that each member of the family speaks; it's like those auctioneers that Isaac has seen occasionally on old cartoons where you can only hear a number once in a while.

Brandon stabs his fork into a meatball and turns to Vin. "Look. I'm tryin' ta be friendly here, yeah? God, ye'd think I just kicked a puppy. Mom, was I this pissy when I was thirteen?"

Her mouth is full, but the dad swallows and quickly replies, "Yeah, son. Y'were. Y'still are when I ask you to mow the lawn, too." The mother looks as if she's about to butt in, but she rolls her eyes and chomps down on a piece of garlic bread.

Isaac feels that he is the cause of the dinner discussion going sour, so he tries to ignore everything as best he can and just eat his food. He eats close to a third of the pasta, one meatball, and a third of a piece of garlic bread, and then he starts the rotation over.

Vin sighs. "A'right, a'right, sorry," he says, with a much thicker accent on the "sorry" than Isaac is used to hearing from him. "Isaac and I go to school together. We got gym class together."

His mom points out, "That's gonna change when they get the athletics started up for the year, right?"

"Well, yeah, but that's not for a few weeks."

Isaac is stunned. He doesn't say anything, but his mind is full of questions: What is going to change? Is he leaving my gym class? Will I be able to see him? What if he doesn't have time to go to the piano rooms anymore?

The conversation and dinner go on without Isaac's input, as before. "So," his mom responds, "do you two have anything other than gym class together?"

"Oh, yeah, definitely," Vin says. "We hang out in the piano rooms after school, yeah? So like that's where I found out that Isaac is a genius when it comes to piano. Like, he can hear a song and just instantly know how to play it. It's wild!"

Isaac snaps out of the Worry Zone when he hears them talking about him. Brandon chimes in, "That's cool, like those, uh, whaddya call 'em, idiot savants?"

Vin says through his teeth, "They're just called 'savants.' But anyway, he's just really good, okay? Like I actually learned a thing or two from him."

"That's very nice," his mother says. "So, Isaac, what else do you like to do?"

Isaac pauses, considering his answer. He hates getting put on the spot. "Um. I like to play p-piano, and then I like, um, I like to do art in art class, and I like to...listen to music, and I like to do math." His heart rate is up a few tempo markings, but his answer was truthful and decently complete, so he feels confident about it.

Brandon looks at Vin for a moment. He lowers his voice, but Isaac can still hear him ask, "Is he...'special'? He talks kinda..."

Vin grits his teeth and hisses, "Brandon!" without even looking at him. He takes a breath and says in a smoother voice, "He's a friend of mine, and a guest. Okay?" He says the last word with a very obvious emphasis.

Brandon looks at him with narrowed eyes and a small smile. "Is this about the other--"

He is interrupted by Vin slamming his fist harshly on the wooden table, making the salad bowl jump. "Mom. May I be excused?"

"You may not," she responds. "Brandon. Vin. Eat your dinner before it gets cold."

Isaac is still spooked by the sudden slamming sound, so he slowly begins rocking to calm himself down. Brandon looks over at him for a moment, but his attention returns to his food shortly after. Out of the corner of his eye, Isaac sees a weird smile on Brandon's face. He doesn't know what it means, so he tries to ignore it as best he can and finish his food. His appetite has been damaged by all the emotions flying around, but he manages to eat a few more bites of spaghetti, meatball, and garlic bread until there's only a small pile of pasta and the fourth meatball left over.

Nothing else is spoken until the father puts his fork down in the bowl for the final time. "Maureen, that was a wonderful meal. Thank you."

"My pleasure," she says with a solemn face. "Boys, you know where the sink is; I expect you won't need the garbage disposal with the one in your stomachs."

Isaac isn't used to following manners like this family does, but he mimics Vin's request from earlier: "May I be excused?"

"Of course," Mrs. Ward says as she herself gets up. "What a polite boy."

Isaac heads to the much smaller downstairs restroom while the family cleans up after dinner. He sits down on the toilet, which faces the mirror, breathing deeply and processing the information that flew about in conversation. Vin is leaving my gym class. I need to ask if he will still be at the piano rooms. Brandon knows that I'm different. Maybe his parents do, too. I'm sure everyone does. I can't hide it. I'm not normal: I talk funny, I can't look at people's eyes, I freak out like a little crybaby over stupid things...

He looks in the mirror idly as a few tears begin to blur his vision. He knows that his nose is getting better, but the black-and-blue has turned to yellow-and-green. It looks gross, like the sound of blowing through reeds without an instrument attached. The pimple has subsided mostly, and it doesn't look like any new ones are showing up. His eyes look the same as always, but at least his hair looks like Vin's...mostly. There's a little spot in the front that wants to stick straight up, so it's not exactly the same. He stands up and approaches the sink, taking off his glasses to get a closer look at his face. His vision is still good enough that he can see his face with decent clarity at this distance. He looks different without his glasses, but he cannot quite articulate how; he doesn't necessarily think it's bad, either, just different. Like what Vin says about him. Different, but in a good way. Isaac takes what solace he can in that thought and tries his best to put aside the depression about his differences; he takes a few more deep breaths and exits the bathroom in time to see Vin having a quiet but animated conversation with Brandon in the living room. He goes on for a few more seconds after Isaac leaves the restroom, and then the two of them split; Brandon heads upstairs while Vin makes his way back to Isaac. He takes a quick, deep breath and exhales through his nose, smiling at the end of it. "You ready to go back upstairs?" he asks.

"Yes, Vin." They get to the stairs just in time to hear a door click shut upstairs; shortly afterward, the walls begin to pulse with angry music once again.

At the top of the stairs, Vin hooks back around to the game room area. "Hey, how about some piano time? Not on the stand-up piano -- that one's an antique -- but on the keyboard. Sounds good, yeah?"

"Yeah, Vin." Isaac happily trots over to the piano, where Mack has commandeered the bench. When he sees them, he uncurls and stretches out as if he were attempting to take up the entire bench on his own (which he almost manages to do).

"Mack, up up! C'mon -- we're gonna use the piano bench. I need an extra seat." The cat purrs languidly, ignoring Vin's request.

Isaac goes over and pets the cat's side, looking into its eyes again. The cat gives off an aura of pleasure, and underneath that there is a certain longing feeling, one that goes away a bit as Isaac strokes the cat's fur from shoulder to tail. Isaac gets an idea: "Vin? Can I hold him?"

"Eh, I dunno," he warns, "he really only lets me and Mom hold him. Not even Brandon. Dad doesn't really like cats, so I dunno if he ever tried."

Isaac, undeterred, asks, "Will he bite?"

Vin shakes his head. "Nah, he'll just use you as a springboard and leap over your shoulder. He's never scratched or bit anybody."

Isaac reaches down and puts his hand near the cat, but he hesitates. "Um, Vin?" he asks.

"Yeah?"

"Could you put the cat on me?"

"Uh...sure. C'mere, Mack." He deftly scoops up the cat underneath the shoulders and guides it to where his forepaws will end up on Isaac's right shoulder. "Now make sure to put your left arm under his back legs so he's not just dangling, yeah?"

Isaac is handed a cat that is easily as long as his torso; he quickly finds Mack's back feet with his other hand and helps push him up a bit as he gets situated. Mack, for his part, seems completely content on Isaac's shoulder, purring loudly right next to his ear. Isaac takes his right hand and pets Mack's soft fur; he is suddenly filled with a rush of giggly euphoria, as he's never been able -- much less allowed -- to hold an animal, and here is this long kitty that is happily draped on his shoulder and across his chest.

As Isaac pets the cat, Vin just watches the two. "...Huh. Would ya look at that." Vin walks around behind Isaac; he feels the pressure of Vin's hand petting Mack's head. "I've never seen Mack be this comfy with anyone else, especially not the first time. I guess he really can tell who's, y'know, a good person." He laughs a bit. "Amazing."

Isaac continues to pet him for a good minute or so, just calmly stroking his fur; Mack seems content to stay there until the end times. Sadly, those times are when Isaac's other arm starts to get exhausted from the weight of the cat's back half; he asks, "Um...how do I put Mack down?"

Vin barks a laugh, "Man, usually he's even jumping offa me by this point! Do this. Come over to the couch and face away from it."

Isaac does so, and Mack instantly springs out of Isaac's hand onto the couch back. He stands there a moment, licking a forepaw, and then hops down to go downstairs. The surprise of the cat leaping off of him leaves Isaac laughing a bit in amusement and childlike glee.

"Well, I know who to call if we need a cat sitter. Geez. So yeah. Keyboard?"

"Oh yeah."

"So check this baby out." He walks over to the electric keyboard and powers it up. "Go ahead, sit down; play around a bit."

Isaac does so, sitting in the folding chair in front of the keyboard. He plays a C Major chord; it sounds very much like an authentic piano would, just that the sound comes out of speakers instead of the back of some piano. "It sounds good."

"How about this?" he asks, fiddling with a few buttons and dials.

Isaac hits the same chord, but it sounds like he's in a vast cathedral, playing a massive pipe organ. The sound is a rich golden color, vibrant and shimmering at the top with darker bronze timbres at the bottom register. On impulse, Isaac plays Toccata and Fugue in d minor; with the church organ instrument, it sounds exactly like there should be thunder pealing in the distance as some unfortunate couple's car breaks down in front of a dark, scary mansion.

Vin suddenly says, "Ooh! Be right back." Isaac keeps playing, enjoying the interplay of the reverberating notes. In his mind, he sees rippling curtains of gold that shine fuchsia and pink at just the right angles; ceilings full of sharp, crystalline stalactites that glow reddish-purple and threaten to fall upon him in the chaotic string of diminished 7th chords; and star-like twinkles of gold and yellow in the lighter sections.

Vin shows back up with a flashlight in his hand; he hides at the side of the keyboard, squatting down so that only his head is seen. He clicks on the flashlight, illuminating his face from underneath, and lets loose with his spookiest evil laugh he can do. It is not spooky in the least; Isaac finds it impossible to keep a straight face at how ridiculous Vin looks, making him crack up laughing hard enough to hold his stomach.

Vin stands up and gets a hurt look on his face. "What? You didn't like my evil laugh?"

Isaac catches his breath and sees Vin's face; he suddenly realizes that he may have hurt Vin's feelings. "I-I'm sorry, Vin!" he says, but as he looks into Vin's eyes, he gets this feeling of barely-repressed laughter, of playfulness and silliness, but not an ounce of hurt or offense. "I'm sorry--wait." He stops, paralyzed between the conflicting information of what Vin said versus what his eyes say.

Vin's pouty frown slowly grows into a stupid grin. "Ah, I'm just kiddin' with ya, man! I couldn't help it."

Isaac smiles, as well. "Okay, Vin. I thought you were really sad for a moment."

He dismisses the thought with a gesture. "Nahhh. But that sounds awesome on the keyboard, dunnit?"

"'Dunnit'?" Isaac repeats, unsure what the word means.

"Sorry, I mean 'doesn't it.' Sometimes I slip into my old accent--sorry about that."

"You have an 'old accent'?" Isaac knows that Vin's family speaks differently, but he's not sure how to figure out if that's an 'accent' or just a different way of talking. Now that Vin points it out, though, he does notice that Vin speaks noticeably differently at home.

"Heh, yeah, we're all from New York originally. Dad wanted to live well without spending his life savings, so we moved down here when I was like seven."

"Oh." Isaac has never been out of the state. Just the thought of going somewhere else, especially on a plane, scares the daylights out of him.

"Yeah, so, uh, sorry if I talk too fast. I know Texans talk a whole lot slower, yeah? Anyway, oh, check this out." Vin messes with a few other things on the keyboard. "Try that."

Isaac hits middle C. It's a gorgeous harp sound, a deep, rippling blue. He plays the intro to Shevat, the Wind is Calling using the instrument; it makes the emerald rains shine with a twinkling sapphire center, and the plaintive souls of the left hand take on a new undulating, oceanic feel, as if the gemstone raindrops were crying to find their way back up. He stops at the end of the beginning section. "That sounds really really cool."

"Yeah, it does," Vin says breathily.
"It's almost like...like water, or, um, the ocean maybe."

"Yeah?" he says, but then his eyes light up. "Ooh! Here's an idea..." More dials and such, and then he says, "Try now."

Isaac starts it out, but now the harp reverberates as if he were playing it in a wide cavern, with the rock walls reflecting the sound back to him. "Wow...that is really cool!" Isaac says.

"Wow, heh, I've never seen you get that excited about something. But I know, right? Play it now!" Vin drags the piano bench over so that he can sit near Isaac and listen. "I wanna watch and see how you do the last part again."

Isaac suddenly gets a flash of nerves. It just seemed like he was playing around a moment ago, but now he's supposed to play a song for Vin. I've done this before, he reminds himself, but it doesn't seem to matter to his nerves. He takes a deep breath. It's just like last time, he tells himself. He starts up the song, and instantly his mind's eye is transported to a vast underwater cavern where the walls hum and glow with the blue light of the sound, and the emerald-sapphire raindrops cascade down from the ceiling into a deep bluish-purple lake. He can almost feel the air change to fit the cold, windy melody.

"That sounds so cool," Vin says quietly. "This is amazing." He leans in closer to listen and watch.

Vin's compliments lift Isaac's spirits, but his proximity sets Isaac's heart racing. He tries his best to ignore it, as it's absolutely not in rhythm with the song, but there is only so much he can do; he misses a note or two, but he keeps playing for the sake of the song.

"You are ridiculously good," Vin says, shaking his head. After a moment, Vin looks at Isaac's head; then, Isaac feels a set of long fingers creep up the back of his neck and run across the short bristles of the back of his scalp. He responds almost as if he were shocked by electricity -- he freezes and gasps, and the music comes to an abrupt stop. Vin says, "Oh! Sorry, I just--you got a fresh cut and I love messing with really short hair. I do the same on mine. I, uh, I can stop if it bothers you."

Make a decision, Isaac demands of himself. Do I want Vin to play with my hair?

Vin says, "I'm sorry, I'll stop. That was rude of--"

Isaac interrupts, "You can play with my hair."

"...Oh. You sure?"

"I'm sure, Vin." Yes and no, he reminds himself.

"Cool. Keep playing, then; don't mind me." Vin goes back to moving his long fingers up the back of Isaac's head, sending shivers and goosebumps across his entire body. Isaac almost sees stars in his vision at the stimulation. His heart picks up the pace, rivaling a Chopin piece in its fury.

Isaac breathes heavily, but he tries to continue playing. He actually manages to get back into the rhythm, fighting every step of the way to concentrate through the feeling of Vin's fingers caressing his hair. He plays through the marching chords of the new section of the song, but it's almost like his synesthetic movie is obscured with pinpoint stars every time Vin moves his hand.

Suddenly, Vin stops for a moment. Isaac doesn't know how to feel about it, but he keeps playing as he is supposed to do. He hears the bench shuffle against the hardwood floor on little non-scratch pads, and then there are two hands on his head, running their fingers up either side, next to his ear, igniting the nerves underneath the hairs on his temples. He physically shivers at the touch, missing a note or two in the most complex part of the song.
Vin talks over the song, "Your hair feels so neat. It's not the same if I do this to my own head. Weird, yeah?" He runs his hands up Isaac's head again; Isaac is aware that he has a painfully hard erection, and his heart is running fast enough that he feels like he is about to go into panic mode. Vin blithely adds, "Sorry, I'll shut up."

One more time Vin's hands run slowly up Isaac's head, and Isaac cannot withstand it anymore. He whips his hand up and grabs Vin's hand off his left temple, plastering it against his ribcage over his heart. He clasps it there with both hands, hoping that Vin will see what he's doing to Isaac.

"Wha--" Vin starts, but falls silent. "...Oh."

Isaac doesn't let go or move, but he begins to chant, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry..." in a whisper.

Vin doesn't reply for a tense moment. "It's okay, Isaac," he says, though his voice is much quieter than before.
Isaac feels a tug as Vin stands up from the bench and carefully maneuvers himself in front of Isaac, who does not let go of his hand. Vin kneels down to get a better view of Isaac's face; Isaac stares forward at the keyboard, not meeting his eyes.
"Uh...Isaac?" Vin asks, almost in a whisper.

"I'm sorry, Vin," he says, tears welling in his eyes and dripping onto his khaki pants; still, though, he just grips Vin's hand more tightly. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry, Vin."

"Do you..." he starts, but he stops and frowns. He opens his mouth a few more times as if to say something, but each time, he says nothing. He finally settles on saying, "Hey, it's okay, Isaac. Really, it's okay. I just...I just want to understand." Vin falls silent again, but then Isaac feels a hand underneath his chin as Vin says, "Here. Can we just...?" Vin gently turns Isaac's head to face him; Isaac automatically zeroes in on Vin's beautiful, mismatched eyes. He feels that connection happen, stronger with Vin than with anyone else; through Vin's eyes, Isaac feels concern and care, curiosity, wonder and awe, acceptance, a comforting emotion -- belonging, perhaps? -- and a desire. Not a burning desire, but a receptive one. He also feels his own emotions, and he knows that Vin feels them, too: desire and attraction, both strong enough to suffocate someone; vulnerability, like being naked in the Arctic; fear, roiling just under the level where Isaac might sprint downstairs and out the door; and frustration -- undirected, unresolved frustration. But poking out through all the middle of that is a pinpoint of hope. Isaac knows that if that pin breaks, all of the rest of the emotions will take over, and Isaac will have a meltdown the likes of which he may never have had before.

"Isaac..." Vin says quietly, darting his eyes down through the railing that separates the game room from the entry hall, "are you...ugh, how do I say this without..." He takes a deep breath and sighs heavily. "Ah, screw it. Why is your heart beating so fast? Is it...because of me?"

Isaac nods his head slowly, keeping eye contact.

"Is it because you...are you attracted to boys?"

Isaac keeps eye contact, but his face begins to wrinkle up as he admits, "I'm gay. I'm sorry. I'm sorry." A lump of shame, deep-reddish purple like a fresh bruise, shows itself in the melange of emotions.
Suddenly, Isaac feels a wave of fear from Vin, followed by an intense vulnerability side-by-side with both relief and longing, as Vin darts his eyes toward the railing and stairway again. He says in a breaking voice, "...Look. It's okay. I--I mean, I think I might be bi, so..."

Isaac's eyes go wide. "Really?" he asks. With their continued eye contact, the entire sea of emotions changes shape as the pinpoint of hope swells like a pufferfish to block out the fear and frustration; the shame sinks like a stone out of sight.

Vin smiles strangely, shifting his weight so that he is squatting on his haunches. "Um...maybe we should talk a bit. You, uh, you wanna spend the night maybe? I got a guest room, of course, and I don't got anything...sorry, I don't have anything to do tomorrow morning. Your mom, uh, would she be okay with that?"

Isaac takes a deep breath and lets go of Vin's hand, furiously patting at his pants to find his phone. He fishes it out with shaky hands and calls his mom.

As the phone rings, Vin says, "Lemme go ask real quick while you do. I'll be right back."

His mom answers the phone with, "Isaac? Is everything okay? You ready to come home?"

"C-can I maybe, uhm...can I s-spend the night?" he manages to ask through multiple stutters and fried nerves.

"Honey, are you okay? You sound upset."

"N-no, ma'am, I'm okay. I promise." He's far better than "okay," so that's still the truth.

"You sure? I can come get you--"

"Mom. I'm fine." His irritation and frustration at his mother actually helps steel his nerves and still the wavering in his voice. "Can I spend the night?"

There is a pause on the other line. "I guess so, dear. Is it okay with Vin's parents?"

"Um, he's, he's going to find that out right n--" He stops when he hears Vin pounding up the stairs two at a time. Vin swings around the corner and slides into the game room on his knees with a thumbs-up held far out in front of him and an excited smile. "He, um, it's okay."

"All right. I'll bring you a fresh set of clothes, okay? Do you want me to bring your pillow?"

Isaac puts his hand over the phone. "Do you have an extra pillow?"

Vin nods. "Oh yeah. The guest room is totally set up, and there are extra pillows and blankets in the closet."

"No, ma'am," Isaac answers his mom.

"Okay. I'll bring you your toothbrush, too; oh, do you want me to bring you your favorite towel? It's freshly washed, so it's nice and soft."

Isaac thinks about it a moment; most other towels are horrible-feeling on his skin. "Yes, ma'am. Thank you, Mom."

He hears his mom sigh on the phone. "Okay, dear. I'll be over there in about twenty minutes."

"Thank you, Mom."

"Love you, Doodlebug."

"Love you, Mom."

"Bye."

"Bye, Mom."

As Isaac hangs up, he and Vin lock eyes again; the primary emotion is a distinct feeling of possibility running both ways through the link.

 

End of Chapter 4

 

As always, I absolutely love hearing from my readers, especially if they have anything to say on the subjects presented in my works. Even if it’s just to stop by and say you liked it, it still means a lot to me, and I do answer every email. Hope to hear from you, and stay tuned for Chapter 5! <3XPud