Eye to Eye

Chapter 13

Isaac wakes before his alarm the next morning feeling exactly as depressed and hungry as he did going to sleep. His dreams, strange as they were, didn't help: he remembers something about a gigantic hamburger, as big as the school gym, that he couldn't figure out how to split up into threes. The moment was quite frustrating for him.

He gets up and goes through his routine a bit more slowly than normal, fully aware that his routine has already been thrown off. He considers the wrist brace on the dresser with aversion, but he knows that his mom will just yell at him if he doesn't put it on. He grumbles as he slips his hand in it and closes the Velcro straps on it. He opens and closes one of them a few times, just for a moment's enjoyment.

When he gets downstairs, he finds his mother waiting with an umbrella. Oh, great, he thinks with dread. It's raining. He wishes that something would go right for once in his life, but he knows better than to think that. He went to bed at the wrong time, after all; how is the day supposed to go right? Sighing, he follows her to the car, thankful that it's in the garage, and they head to school.

When they arrive, Isaac looks out the car door with revulsion. The rain isn't just sprinkling; he can usually deal with rain if it's light enough, but it was coming down heavily and quickly, making a good bit of noise on the windshield.

"Here," she says, handing the umbrella to Isaac. "Remember to walk carefully, even if you want to be inside fast. You don't want to slip like you did the other day."

"Mom."

"Yes?"

"I don't wanna go."

"Yes, but you have to. You can't miss school just because it's raining."

Isaac sighs dramatically. "But it's raining r-really hard. It's too much."

"Well, you have to go, one way or the other," she says with a shrug. "If you don't go on your own, I can walk you up there under the umbrella. Your choice."

Isaac actually strongly considers it, since she's way better at holding the umbrella at an angle that keeps most of Isaac's clothes dry, but then a thought intercepts that one at full speed: that's how little kids do it. Isaac knows that having his mom do things for him is just going to make him seem like a baby still, but on the other hand...sometimes that was easier, and more comfortable, than dealing with things on his own.

He finally takes the umbrella, maneuvers himself so that he can put his backpack on securely, takes a deep breath, and opens the door. The rain immediately starts to pelt Isaac's arm as he frantically fumbles with the umbrella. Finally getting it out of the door and pushing the button, Isaac clumsily maneuvers himself out underneath the umbrella and, fighting with it for the right to leave the car, he finally gets the umbrella unstuck from whatever it is snagged on and stumbles forward into the rain. He quickly gains his balance and runs toward the school at top speed, making extremely sure to avoid the painted eagle in the center of the courtyard.

When he's finally under the covered walkway, he looks back to see his mom reaching across inside the car to close his door. He calls out, "I'm sorry, Mom!" though he knows that she can't hear him. She drives off, leaving Isaac underneath the leaky metal roof of the covered walkway, wishing he could have just slept until next year. That is, if it wouldn't make the next day after that go bad.

He heads inside, shaking off his umbrella before going in the door. He goes through the motions of his morning routine, getting his breakfast (and making sure to pay for it), sitting down, and figuring out how to get up the motivation to eat. He's practically starving, but his French toast fingers don't interest him in the least. All he can do is sit and think of every single thing that's gone wrong already today, and even more so, all the crap that happened yesterday: making his mom scared, mad, and sad; doing stupid things that he knows he shouldn't do; and most importantly, ever believing that he could possibly be worth something to someone as popular and talented as Vin. He couldn't possibly have anything more to offer to Vin than someone like that girl -- Leila, was it? -- can. Sure, he and Vin share a love of music, and he really enjoyed doing things with Vin, and Vin did say that he loved Isaac...

That last part makes Isaac much more confused and emotionally tangled than he can deal with, making it hard to even contemplate, much less deal with other basic things in the process. Did Vin lie to him? Has he ever lied to Isaac before? If so, what else has he lied about? If not, why was he flirting with some girl? Some tall girl...that plays basketball with him...and is way better with words than Isaac is...

Isaac squints tightly, shutting the thought train off before it runs away with his emotions. He doesn't need a meltdown to ruin things more before school even starts. Isaac huffs. I know there's an answer to all this, he contemplates, but I can't figure it out. It's making me angry. I don't want to be angry. But I want to know.

Isaac growls at his plate in frustration. He only realizes a moment later that he just made a very loud sound in the cafeteria, so he quickly looks up and around to check how many people are looking at him. Not many, as it turns out, but that almost-bald kid from his reading class and the long-haired angry boy from the choir room are sitting together at another table, both looking straight at him. As soon as he sees them, though, he only gets the quickest hint of emotion from them before they turn their heads back to the cafeteria table and start talking about something, too quietly for him to hear.

He takes one last look at his breakfast; his stomach asks insistently for a few bites, but his throat feels like it has a lump in it, and he can't bring himself to eat. He walks his tray over to the trashcan, dumps a full breakfast into it, and leaves.

On the way to the Living Room, he hopes desperately that Vin will be in the hallway, and also that Vin will be nowhere in sight. He cannot decide which one he wants more by the time he gets there, at which point the empty hallway answers one side of his pleas. He doesn't feel any relief from it, though. He heads into the Living Room, taking a seat on the rug in the reading corner and running his hands through the plush pile of the material. He sees Ms. Jimenez tidying up the room. 

When she looks over to Isaac, she smiles and waves at him. "Good morning, Isaac! You're a few minutes earlier than normal."

"I'm a few minutes earlier because I didn't eat breakfast."

"Oh. Why not?"

"I'm not, um...I'm hungry, but...I don't feel like eating." That seems the best way to get out the confusing concept of whatever is going on between his throat and stomach.

"Hm," she says with a frown. Isaac has enough going on in his head to want to look into someone else's right now, so he focuses more on her lips, catching her eyebrow movements through peripheral vision. She continues, "You need to eat breakfast, Isaac, or you won't grow big and strong."

"I know," he responds. "I don't want to be strong."

"Are you having a bad morning?" she asks.

Is it that obvious? he wonders in silent response to the question.

Ms. Jimenez comes over and sits on the couch, looking down at him. "Is there something you want to talk about?"

The door opens before Isaac can even consider a response. To his surprise, David and Mr. Coleman come in the room. Quietly. David isn't kicking and screaming like usual. Granted, his eyes still dart around frantically, his breath quick as always, but he is letting Mr. Coleman lead him by the shoulders without too much hassle.

"Very good, David!" Mr. Coleman says emphatically as he leads David to a chair. "Impressive!"

David takes no action to show his cognizance of the compliment. Instead, he looks into Isaac's eyes, flooding his thoughts with barely-restrained panic, reined in by thin ropes of trust, ready to break at the slightest betrayal. Encompassing all of that is the vision in Isaac's mind of the hallway outside, completely empty. Isaac notices a strange phenomenon in the vision, though: the colored tiles interspersed throughout the white tiles on the walls are hard to pin down as far as what color they actually are. At all times, they appear to be both the familiar blue of his current school, and the olive green of his old elementary school.

The emotion of the link, combined with the confusing ambiguity of the image, forces Isaac to look away. David takes a seat at one of the tables, which is quite different than his normal routine of smashing himself up against the corner in the kitchen. He balls up a fist and gently hits it on the table a few times, his typical signal that he would like to draw. His breathing calms down fairly quickly, and his attention remains on the table instead of darting about the room.

Mr. Coleman obliges, setting David up with a piece of paper and a pencil, and David gets straight to work on something. Meanwhile, Mr. Coleman walks over to Isaac and sits down on the carpet next to him, facing the same direction as he. Isaac stares blankly at David as Mr. Coleman says, "Good morning, Isaac."

"Good morning, Mr. Coleman."

"How are you today?"

"I'm sad today, sir."

"Oh?" he asks, moving his head slightly. "Why is that?"

Isaac remains silent. Even thinking about yesterday still hurts, and he knows that talking about it would just make things worse.

After a long moment of silence, Christian comes into the room with his familiar heavy-footed, nearly stomping sort of gait. He sees Mr. Coleman and Isaac sitting next to each other and says, "Hi, Mr. Coleman! Hi, Isaac! Isaac, did you, did, um, how was ISS? Was it scary?" By this point he has found his way to a nearby table and swung his backpack on top.

"No, Christian. Well, a little."

"Did you fight anyone in there?!" he asks far too loudly.

Isaac snaps, "No, Christian! I didn't fight anyone!"

"Isaac," Mr. Coleman warns, "you can respond in a nicer way than that."

With a huff, Isaac asks, "Mr. Coleman, can you tell Christian to stop asking me if I got in more fights? I don't like it."

Mr. Coleman looks over to Christian. "Did you hear Isaac's request?"

"Yes, sir. Sorry, Isaac. I didn't mean to make you angry." Christian sits and pouts at the table for a few seconds. His mood changes just as quickly, though, when he says, "Oh! Isaac! On Clash Royale, I got a Mega Knight, and he's already level 10! I'm definitely gonna beat you now! You should play me!"

Isaac responds by wrapping his arms around his knees, hugging them tight, and gritting his teeth. I already feel bad for getting grounded from my phone, he 

thinks. He doesn't have to remind me.

Christian begins to say something, but Mr. Coleman interrupts. "Could you leave Isaac alone for right now, please? He's having a bad day. It's polite to let him be alone."

"Yes, sir," he says quietly, to Isaac's surprise. "I'm sorry, Isaac."

Isaac just puts his head down, pressing his eyes against his kneecaps until he sees the little sparkly lights start dancing around them. It keeps him from tears, at least.

The announcements come on about that time, so the boys all stand -- all except David, who is exempt -- and recite the Pledge with the principal. After the morning announcements finish, Mr. Coleman says to Isaac in a low voice, "I still don't know what you did with David, or how, or...or what, but...thank you. He has never seemed this happy. I really wish I knew how you did that."

"I..." Isaac starts, debating whether he should say anything. "I could tell what he was thinking, sir."

"But...how? He was hysterical, and--how did you know what he was thinking?"

Isaac knows he can't just stay silent on it forever, and Mr. Coleman is a nice person, so Isaac takes a deep breath and replies, "He showed me, sir."

"He 'showed' you? How so?"

"I don't know, sir." That much is absolutely true. He's still not sure what the whole thing with the images is all about or how it's happening. He doesn't really think to question it, any more than he questions the whole emotional perception thing.

Mr. Coleman looks up at the clock. "Would you mind talking to me about it a little more, sometime later?"

"Yes, sir," he responds quietly. "I mean, no, sir. Um, I wouldn't mind, I mean."

"I understood you," Mr. Coleman responds. "The bell's about to ring, though, so go ahead and get ready for classes."

Isaac obliges.

Reading class isn't too bad today; Mr. Guthrie is there, but the focus is on grammar, which Isaac isn't terrible at. The spelling bit always gets him, but he understands what form of a verb to use, or when to use apostrophes. Mostly. He actually works with Angelina, the girl with the long braid, on a card sorting activity with parts of speech; Mrs. Stone also puts the other girl that Mr. Guthrie works with into the group. Isaac assumes that she must be in special education for some reason, but he cannot really tell any particular way that she acts or thinks in contrast to anyone else.

The activity is actually engrossing enough that Isaac is able to forget the previous day's storm clouds for a while. At least, that is, until gym class. As soon as he enters the locker room, memories of the previous encounter leave him feeling completely on edge, to the point where he decides that it would be a better idea to go dress out in the stall like he used to. As he does, he hopes in vain that Vin will somehow show up and save him again, even though he has no reason to be there and nothing to rescue Isaac from, other than his own unease. As Isaac contemplates Vin not being in the same class anymore, he feels a pang of that same conflicted longing that he felt last night. It's a horrible companion, but it's all he has to keep him company for the present.

He sits in the stall until the noise in the locker room dies down, only venturing out once the majority of the kids have left. He goes to the gym, where the coach is gathering everyone up on the bleachers. He looks around, leery of any of the jerks normally around, but he remembers that Jason is still suspended.

A hand quickly goes up from the crowd, waving over at Isaac. He spots Juan with a big, toothy grin looking over to him. Juan calls out, "Over here!"

Isaac can't help but smile at Juan's infectious energy. He hurries over, and Juan scoots a bit to the side to give Isaac room. "Hi, Juan," he says quietly.

"Hey, Isaac," Juan replies, holding a hand out palm-up. Isaac looks at it a moment, full of mixed emotions, before Juan says, "Aw, don't leave me hanging!"

Isaac starts, pulled out of his minor reverie, and gives Juan a low-five, along with a few apologies for being rude. Just as Juan is about to respond, though, the coach's whistle shreds the air, making Isaac nearly jump off his seat.

The coach starts off with a short speech about fighting and the consequences thereof; Isaac manages to feel directly attacked, ashamed, and indignantly justified all at the same time, even though the coach never makes eye contact with him.

Afterward, he hands a small stack of paper to a kid in the front row and directs him to start passing the papers around. Meanwhile, he explains that everyone will have a new assignment: "Let's see," he says, surveying the bleachers, "I want you in groups of four or five; since the athletics boys all joined the other class now, that should leave us around five or six groups.

"Once you're in groups, you will be given three countries, which will be different for each group. You will research a game, activity, or sport from that country, and then you will present it to the class. If we like it enough, we might put it in rotation for things to do in gym.

"The front of the paper you are receiving will have the instructions, restrictions, and guidelines for what I want from you; the back side has a rubric for how I'll be grading you." He continues to look out over the bleachers, following the stack of papers as it is handed from one boy to the next. When it finishes traveling through the back row, the coach walks up the bleachers to collect the remainder.

"At this point," he announces, "if you have any questions, now is the time to ask them." He waits a moment for any responses; he is greeted with the low murmur of students already discussing grouping details. "Good. If you know the members you'd like to have in your group, go ahead and walk out off the bleachers and find a spot to group up. Then send one person up in line to me over at the table near my office so that I can give you your choices of countries."

The gym is instantly filled with the thunderous rumbling of excited students cascading off the bleachers and into the gym proper. As Isaac stands up, Juan is already asking, "Do you wanna be in my group?"

"Okay, Juan," Isaac says, still processing everything.

"Cool. Two more, then." The two of them get down from the bleachers and stand in a spot slightly isolated from the other groups that have already formed. Juan looks around. "Any ideas on who to have for the rest of the group?"

Isaac immediately freezes. He is definitely not the person to ask about who to have in a group. He looks around the room, coming up quickly with reasons that each person he sees would be a bad idea in his group. The only people he sees that might be decent partners, his ball-tossing group, has already formed into their own quartet.

"I don't know, Juan," Isaac begins to say, but just as he gets the last word out, he notices that Charlie and Dalla are also just a pair, looking for more. "Um, we could maybe group up with Charlie and Dalla."

"Oh yeah, they seem pretty cool," Juan says, following Isaac's gaze over there. "Wanna go ask 'em?"

Isaac just looks at Juan. Their eyes meet: excitement, connection, dread, cheerfulness, growing anxiety, and sudden, nearly-painful hunger. Isaac looks away as his stomach rumbles loudly.

"Dang, I'm hungry --" Juan begins to say, but as soon as Isaac looks away, he stops. "Well, I was. I--oh, OH, that...was that you? With the, uh, the thing you do?"

Isaac can't help but laugh at it a bit, seeing as his stomach almost sounded like it was farting. "Yeah, Juan. I'm sorry, Juan."

"That is just so cool that you can do that, though, man!"

Isaac almost reflexively tightens his abs as his stomach feels like it's turning inside-out. He tries his best to ignore it, though. Thinking back to the prospect of going up to Charlie and Dalla, he finally stammers, "Um, can...you go ask?"

"What, ask those guys? I mean, I don't really know them all that well," Juan says with a shrug. "You're cool with them, right?"

Isaac takes a breath. He does know them, and they've been pretty nice each time he's dealt with them. Why does it make me nervous to talk to them, then? he wonders, his heart picking up a little just at the thought. "I guess so," he replies with his own shrug.

"So...you wanna go ask 'em?"

After another short moment, he nods. Isaac walks over to the two of them, dodging other groups in the way. He finds himself inexplicably getting more and more nervous as he contemplates talking to them; by the time he reaches Charlie, he feels downright shaky, even a bit weak.

The two of them are facing so that neither of them see Isaac's approach. At this moment, he could just as easily turn around and not be noticed at all, a very appealing thought to him. But then he would disappoint Juan. The longer he thinks about it, though, the worse the adrenaline gets.

Isaac doesn't have a problem talking to teachers or other adults that he works with. He is fine raising his hand and asking questions if he needs to (though he doesn't like doing it in general). For people his age, though, especially in contexts where he doesn't know the person very well...Isaac would rather stand on a cliff and look down. He doesn't know why he feels that way, but he always has.

After an intense internal battle, Isaac finally takes a deep breath and says, "Charlie."

Charlie spins around and sees him. "Oh, hey man. You need a group?"

Dalla turns as well. "Sup? Yeah, we got room if you want."

Isaac takes serious care not to look either of them in the eyes; he doesn't want them to feel what he does right now, and he certainly doesn't want to have to process any other emotions. He takes a deep breath, looks at Charlie's shoes, and replies, "Um, actually, Juan and I h-have a group over th-there, and, um...do you wanna join? Both of you."

He looks up just enough to see them look at each other for a quick moment. Charlie answers, "Yeah, sure. Let's go over there."

Isaac looks back to see Juan staring at the group; he catches his eye for a moment, just long enough to feel a slight current of confusion get washed away by a wave of realization. Juan's eyes widen and his eyebrows raise a bit before Isaac looks away, navigating the room while intently staring at the floor.

The boys group up, and when it comes time to pick the person to go up, Charlie raises three fingers high in the air and announces, "I volunteer as tribute!"

Dalla looks up at Charlie's hand and forces his arm down. Looking up for a second, he says, "Bruh. That's not how Katniss uses the Three-Finger Salute. You're doing it all wrong."

Charlie stares blankly at Dalla for a moment and says in a low tone, "You ruined the moment. Now I just have to go up there all normal and stuff." He raises his hands in that gesture Isaac has seen people do when they usually say something like 'why would you do that' or 'what just happened'.

Juan laughs, his grin showing the contrast between his teeth and his skin. Meanwhile, Dalla responds by grabbing Charlie by the shoulders, turning him around, and lightly shoving him forward. "Then go forth, 'tribute.' Make District 69 proud."

"Nice," Charlie says with a smirk over his shoulder before heading over to the coach.

Juan speaks up after a moment. "I love those movies," he tells Dalla.

"Eh, they were good, but the books are way better. They leave so much out in the movies."

"Yeah, I should probably read 'em."

"Why don't you?"

Juan shrugs. "I got orchestra, cross-country, homework, taking care of my brothers, and sometimes Fortnite when I can, but yeah. ...Also I hate reading."

"Me too!" Isaac says emphatically, somewhat surprised at himself for the response.

Dalla throws his hands back and laughs, "Okay, okay, I get it, I'm a nerd. Also, Apex Legends is way better than Fortnite."

Juan raises his eyebrows, but he smiles as he replies, "You wanna fight about it?"

"Not after the talk from Coach, I don't," he remarks with a look at the bleachers. Juan and Dalla both laugh a bit; Isaac, who was ready to intervene, breathes a quiet sigh of relief.

Charlie shows back up with a slip of paper. "All right. We can choose Hungary, Morocco, or Mexico. Anybody have --"

"We can choose Mexico?!" Juan exclaims, his voice rasping out at the top of his inflection. "Bro, that's easy! I got all kinds of games from there!"

Charlie flicks the slip of paper into the air, which Dalla manages to catch. "Welp, that was easy. Next!"

Dalla takes the slip of paper and crumples it up. In one swift move with the same hand, he pulls the back of Charlie's shirt collar and shoves the paper in, patting it a few times. While Charlie is busy yelping "Hey!" and wriggling in his shirt, Dalla holds up the other paper they were handed earlier and says, "So it's gotta follow these guidelines. One, not too many pieces or equipment. Balls are fine. Two, it has to include movement, enough to get the heart rate up. Three, we have to be able to demonstrate it in 10-15 minutes. Sounds easy enough."

"I already got this," Juan says. "La gallina ciega."

Charlie manages to get the piece of paper to fall out of his shirt; he picks it up off the ground and pegs Dalla in the side of the head with it. Dalla barely reacts. Charlie asks, "Ballerina what who now?"

"It means 'the blind chicken' in Spanish," Juan explains. "It's where you put a blindfold on someone and then spin them around, and then everyone else tries not to get tagged. You call out things like '¡no puedes atraparme!' or ''toy aca!' to get them to try to come after you, and then you keep away from them."

"What do those mean?" Charlie asks. "I don't speak Spanish."

"Oh, sorry, uh, 'you can't catch me!' and 'I'm right here!'"

"Ah, gotcha." Charlie nods. "What do you two think? Dalla? Isaac? Sound good?"

Dalla shrugs and nods. Isaac replies, "Um...do we have to say those things in Spanish?"

Juan laughs, "You can say them in English. I don't have time to teach a bunch of people to speak Spanish just for a kid's game."

Isaac smiles at Juan's energy. "Sounds good, then."

After the groups decide their games, the coach sets the due date a week out; everyone is allowed a quick moment to go deposit the rules sheet in their locker or somewhere it won't end up on the floor, and the rest of the class is spent in free play. The four boys play a bit of Four Square; the game is really only a competition between Charlie and Juan, as Isaac and Dalla rarely get to move from the bottom two spots. Normally, this sort of thing would feel frustrating to Isaac, but with this group, it's more funny and goofy than serious, so he spends most of his time laughing along with them.

Back in the locker room, Juan sits next to Isaac to change. For once, Isaac notes, nobody tries to harass him in the locker room. It occurs to Isaac, though, that the only person that really ever gives him any problems in gym is Jason. He assumes that Jason was even the one behind the clothes-stealing -- though there were other boys involved in that one, nobody except Jason has done anything since.

Isaac and Juan dress out mostly in silence, but just sitting next to someone familiar makes Isaac feel much more comfortable. He does manage to sneak a look at Juan in his underwear; today, he is wearing dark gray boxer briefs which give Isaac more of a view than he expected to see. He quickly looks away before he finds himself in an uncomfortable situation, putting his pants on a little more hastily than usual.

Juan interrupts the silence after he's dressed. "Hey, Isaac?"

"Yes, Juan?" he replies after slipping his shirt on.

"Two things. One, I didn't realize that it was gonna make you that nervous to go talk to them. I woulda gone if I knew."

Isaac takes a moment to register why Juan would know that, when the obvious answer finally hits him. "Oh. I'm sorry I looked at you, Juan."

"No, that's fine, just...I feel bad for making you do that, now."

"It's okay, Juan," he replies. "You didn't know. Also, I don't know why I get nervous like that. I wish I didn't."

"Eh, everyone has their thing, I guess," he shrugs. "Oh, so number two: I never really got to thank you or Vin for saving me that day, and I was thinking maybe, like, you and him could come to my sister's quince. It's gonna be next Saturday, and they said I could invite a few friends so I don't get bored." He looks at Isaac directly, and Isaac feels a surge of hope, eagerness, the signature pulling feeling of attraction, and confusion -- though he knows he's the source of the last bit. Juan adds, "Oh, uh, a quince, a quinceañera, is a fifteenth birthday party for girls. It's a big thing, but Mamá said I could bring friends too and spend the night. You wanna come maybe?"

A river of thoughts rushes through Isaac's mind. Lots of people -- new place -- don't understand it all -- I like Juan -- we could hang out more -- won't be grounded -- still scary -- maybe Vin will go...I could be there with Vin. The last thought helps quiet all the others. "I can ask my m-mom, Juan."

"Cool!" he says with a sudden wide grin. "Thank God I won't have to be there alone with mis primos and my sister. They're annoying." The bell rings, and the crowd of kids gets louder. "Lemme know, okay?" he calls out over the noise, standing up to join the flow.

"Okay, Juan!" he calls back. As the pack filters out, Isaac leaves the gym filled with equal parts excitement and dread. He really wishes he would stop feeling opposite ways at once, but it's been happening a lot recently.

Thankfully, math class is subdued as normal, with Isaac teaching himself about functions while the rest of the class reviews slope-intercept form from the year before. Lunch is filled with Christian trying his best not to bug Isaac about the fact that he's the coolest person ever now that he got in a fight with a bully. Isaac finds it annoying, but Christian does as well as can be expected at not filling the air with praises. He finds himself without that annoying lump in his throat from the morning, so he finally gets to fill the all-consuming void in his stomach. Not only that, but it's cheeseburger day at lunch, so as a bonus, he gets to have some small amount of closure to the dream he had that night.

The rest of the day passes by in a flash; in fact, by the time everything is over, Isaac finds himself wondering where the day itself went. All he remembers thinking about is his current thoughts about Vin, and of what sorts of things might happen at a "kee-sin..." ...whatever the party was that Juan was talking about. He passes by the choir room and, on a whim, decides to peek his head in to see if either of the other boys are in there. No luck. He knows that he doesn't have any time to waste in getting outside, though, so he hurries to the front of the school to find his mother pulling into the parking lot already.

The afternoon and evening go by a bit more slowly with fewer things to do; he eventually tries to entertain himself by making different linear functions on graph paper and writing out the equation for each. It doesn't last long, though, until the grounding and the lack of a phone remind him of yesterday's events; as his brain likes to do, he thinks about the moments over and over, feeling them a little bit worse each time, until eventually he finds himself close to tears just as his mother calls for dinnertime.

He yells across the house, "I'm not hungry!"

"Isaac, get in here and eat dinner!"

"I'M NOT HUNGRY, MOM!" He knows that he is being extremely childish and rude, but at this point, it doesn't matter. Nothing matters. The one thing that he thought he had going for him is gone, after all, so why should he care?

He hears the heavy footfalls of his mother approaching his door. Bracing for the inevitable, he feels the rush of wind in the room as his door flies open. "Don't you yell at me, young man!" she snaps. "I don't care if you're hungry -- get in there right now!"

Isaac responds by flopping over on his bed, head on his pillow, and yelling, "I don't wanna eat!"

She sighs heavily. "What the hell has gotten into you?! I swear, if this is just because you're grounded, so help me God I will ground you until you move out!"

"It's not! It's not about that!" he snaps back with squinted eyes, feeling the tears welling up, as much out of anger as sadness.

"Then what are you crying about?! What--why won't you just come eat?!"

"I'M -- NOT -- HUNGRY!" His voice turns into a shriek by the end of his complaint; he reflexively starts crying, pounding the pillow with his fist in frustration at his own inability to process or control his emotions.

He spends a few moments sobbing loudly, but he hears nothing from his mother. He doesn't care if she's even there anymore, though. She can go eat everything. He's perfectly fine with curling up in a ball and not moving ever again. Finally, he feels his bed shift as his mother sits down on it. "Look. You're making me think that I've been too lenient with you, if you are just going to throw a fit every time you get the littlest bit of punishment. You know damn well why you're grounded, and then you went and made it worse by lying to me! If you're not going to be reasonable --"

"I SAID IT'S NOT ABOUT THAT!" he screams at the top of his lungs, fists balled up, face hot with rage.

"Fine," his mother says, more calmly than he expects, "then tell me what it is. I'm waiting."

"Vin doesn't LIKE me!!" he blurts out before realizing it. Regardless, even voicing the issue throws him into full-bodied sobs and wails. He begins to slap himself in the side of the head, trying to find something else to focus on than the emotions. At least if his ear stings enough, he can think about that, instead.

The bed shifts again, and his arm is caught mid-swing. He fights it for a moment, but his mother begins to move her other hand up and down his arm near the shoulder as she slowly lowers his arm down to his side. With her help, he manages to bring himself under the threshold of full-scale meltdown, but only barely. He wrenches his arm free and tucks it close as he curls into the fetal position and cries hard enough to gag himself. The entire time, he feels the gentle pressure of his mother's hand on his back, slowly rubbing up and down his shoulder blade and spine.

When the worst of it passes, his mother sighs and says, "Honey, you know that's not true. Vin likes you very much; I've heard what his mother said, what he's said, and I've seen that he likes being your friend. Why do you think he doesn't like you?"

"That's not what I mean," he mutters, sniffling a few times.

"Well, what do you mean? Can you explain it?"

"He likes some girl." Isaac's eyes shoot open wide as he realizes what he's saying, and where it might lead.

His mother stays silent for a short, agonizing moment. "You mean he has a girlfriend? It's like we talked about before: just because he has other friends, or even a girlfriend, doesn't mean that he doesn't still want to be your friend, too --"

Isaac interrupts her by breaking into heavy crying again. He doesn't have the energy to ramp up higher again, but it still hurts terribly.

After a moment, his mother asks slowly, "Isaac...are you worried that he doesn't want to be your friend?"

He finally croaks out, "...No, ma'am." She knows, he realizes.

"Isaac, can you sit up for me, please?"

Isaac doesn't expect that request, so he takes a moment to register it. She asks again, "Honey, please sit up. I want to see your face. You don't have to look at me, but please sit up."

He obliges, wiping his snotty nose on his sleeve and flicking tears off his cheeks. "Yes, ma'am."

"Isaac. Are you upset because he likes the girl more than he likes you?"

Isaac nods, his face scrunching up.

"Is it...is it because he spends more time with her than you, or is it something else?"

He doesn't answer.

A few moments later, she asks, "Why does it upset you so much that he likes a girl?"

"B-because...I want him to...to like me."

"As a friend, or...as more than a friend?"

He grimaces, gritting his teeth hard as he tries and fails not to start crying yet again.

He feels a hand on his bent knee as his mom asks, "Isaac, I'm not trying to embarrass you or anything, so don't take this personally: do you like Vin as more than a friend?"

Isaac nods, hiding his face in his hands. Suddenly, he feels his mother's arms wrapped around him, pulling him in for a hug. She holds it long enough for Isaac to eventually move his hands and use them to embrace her as well. She says, "I already told you I'll love you no matter what, honey. It's fine. Gay, straight, bi, whatever, it doesn't matter to me."

After a few more moments of hugging, they both sit back. Isaac huffs and whines, "I just don't want to be even more different than everybody else."

He feels a finger under his chin, and soon finds himself staring into his mom's eyes. He is immediately awash with an almost overwhelming feeling of love, with an undercurrent of pain, but a kind of pain like seeing someone else fall down or hearing a sad story about someone. She smiles at him and says, "It doesn't matter how different you are or aren't. You're exactly the person you need to be."

He's heard his mother say this before, but it made no sense then, either, so he ignored it. This time, though, he frowns, looking away from the intense emotion. "But why do I need to be...like this?"

"I don't have all the answers, Isaac," she says, "but I do know this: you make a lot of people happy just the way you are, and I wouldn't want you any other way. You are my favorite person in the whole world, and I am not jealous of other mothers who have to deal with their kids. Yes, you can be a little snot sometimes, but you're my little snot." She winks with a smile, and Isaac laughs a bit despite himself. "I don't care how different you think you are. I wouldn't care if you were two feet tall, purple, and walked on the ceiling. I would still love you."

"Mom. That would be weird."

She shrugs. "Oh well." Isaac laughs through his sniffles at the absurdity of both the example and her response. She continues, "So, dinner is probably cold by now, but honestly, it's just broccoli, corn, and chicken. How about I pack that up, eat it tomorrow myself, and we go to McDonald's for some chicken nuggets and fries? No haircut required."

Isaac's eyes light up, as does his stomach; apparently the cheeseburger for lunch wasn't enough to make up for two skipped meals. "Yes, Mom!"

They head to the kitchen, where he helps her clean up the original meal idea, and then they hop in the car to head to McDonald's. Isaac waits as patiently as his stomach will let him, and when Eileen gets back to the table with the food, Isaac can hardly stop himself from shoving nuggets in his mouth.

"I thought you said you weren't hungry," she says with a smile, sipping her Diet Coke.

"I wasn't hungry," Isaac admits with a full mouth, "but now I am."

"Well, good. Now chew with your mouth closed."

Isaac starts to apologize before realizing that it would require an open mouth to do so. He finishes his bite, washes it down, and says, "I'm sorry, Mom." The moment makes him smile a bit, though he isn't sure why.

She just smiles with him and takes a bite of her Filet-o-Fish sandwich.

The conversation pauses as grubbing commences. Isaac fills up fairly quickly and picks at his fries for a while as his mother finishes more slowly. She puts her sandwich down with a few bites left of it, however, and takes another sip of her soda. "Isaac, dear," she says after patting her mouth clean with her napkin, "why don't you tell me what happened yesterday?"

Isaac pauses, staring at his plate in doubt. Is she just asking so I can be in more trouble? he wonders. What if she gets more mad at me? What if--

"I'm not mad; I just want to know more about what happened so I can get more of the story. You won't be in more trouble."

He sighs, perplexed at her ability to read his mind even if he isn't looking at her. He replies, "I ran away 'cuz I saw Vin flirting with the girl, and I hid behind the trashcans of the man that I played his piano. Um, Jim."

"Could you start a little earlier? Let's go with after you left school."

He hazards a glance at her eyes, where he feels a mix of emotions: some concern, some care, and one like when Isaac is looking at a new math problem, but no anger or anything negative that he can tell. He looks back at the soggy fries that he left behind on the plate (he only eats the crispy ones) and recounts the story of the bus ride, the walk, lying to her about studying (he still feels really bad about that one), watching Vin play basketball, and the events up to Vin and the girl flirting.

"Do you remember what they said?" she asks.

Isaac shakes his head. "He called her a 'queen,' and 'hot,' and, um, she said he was cute. I don't remember the rest."

She takes another slow pull of her drink. "So you ran away because you were...upset that he was flirting with her."

"...Yes, ma'am." When she puts it that way, it makes Isaac feel awfully stupid for doing so.

"Sounds like you were pretty jealous of her."

"I wasn't jealous."

"Honey, that's what jealousy is, right there."

"But, I didn't want her shoes or, or her eyes, or..."

His mother smiles one of those enigmatic smiles that Isaac knows isn't happiness, but he's still not sure what it is. "That's called 'envy,' dear. When you want something that someone else has, that's envy."

"Oh." Isaac thinks back to the various times he's heard the word "jealous," and notices a mismatch in the way others use it. "Then what is jealousy?"

"Jealousy is when you get mad because you think you're going to lose something or someone. It's a complicated idea, but for example, people often get jealous when their boyfriend or girlfriend talks to other people that they might find attractive, because they secretly are afraid that their boyfriend or girlfriend might leave them for that person. Does that make sense?"

Isaac takes a while to process. "I think so. But Vin isn't...my boyfriend." Isaac hates how much it stings just to say those words.

She reaches across the table and rests her hand on top of Isaac's wrist brace, using her thumb to stroke his forearm just past the brace. "Sometimes people are jealous because they fear losing things they don't have yet...like losing the chance of having something. Like I said, it's complicated."

"I don't like it," he admits petulantly.

His mother laughs lightly, but Isaac doesn't get it. She takes another sip and says, "Nobody does." She sits silently for a moment. "Isaac."

"Yes, ma'am?"

"Do you know if Vin is attracted to boys at all?"

Isaac stays silent; he knows that Vin doesn't want anyone to know, and it wouldn't be fair of him to say anything.

"Let me ask a different question, and it's okay if you don't know the answer: do you know if you are attracted to girls at all?"

Isaac runs a few scenarios through his head, all of which come up negative. "I don't think so, Mom."

"Okay," she says with a slow nod. "Well, I'm only saying this because, now that you're finding out your sexuality, you'll need to keep this in mind: a lot of people that you might be attracted to aren't going to feel the same way about you. Some of them might just not like boys, and some of them might just not like you that way. It has nothing to do with you or who you are, or anything like that. It won't mean that you're bad, or wrong, or somehow not 'right'; it just means that you and that person aren't compatible for a romantic relationship. I don't know if that's the case with Vin, but I do know that he values you as a friend very deeply; even if he likes a girl, it's not going to change the way he feels about you. He will still want you as a good friend. Does that make sense?"

Isaac eventually nods his head. "Yes, ma'am." He still isn't sure how to fit the conflicting pieces together, but at least his mother's advice sounds decent enough as a worst-case scenario.

"Good. So do you feel a little better, now?"

"Kinda, Mom."

"That's good enough for now," she says with a half-smile. She stands up and starts stacking the trash on one tray, the signal for Isaac to get up and get ready to go. They walk to the trashcan, where she dumps the trays and places them in the receptacle. When they reach the car, though, she doesn't unlock it yet. Instead, she says, "So, I've been thinking..."

Isaac looks over and sees a strange smile on his mother's face.

She continues, "The last few days have been particularly rough for you, and the more I think about the fight, the more I realize now why you did that. You were defending Vin out of love, and that's even stronger than just defending a friend."

Isaac blinks, still not sure where she's going.

"Hand me your phone."

His eyes go wide and his confusion grows, but he knows better than to disobey, especially at this point. He pulls out his phone and gives it to her, and she messes with it for a moment. "There," she says, handing it back to him. "It's unlocked."

Gasping, he turns on his phone to see that the lock screen no longer asks him for an unlock pattern. "Thank you, Mom!"

"Thank you for being a good person, Isaac." She holds out her hands for a hug, which Isaac enthusiastically accepts. "Since I feel reasonably certain that you're not going to get in any more fights, and since I understand now why you acted how you did, and since I think you've suffered enough from your own mistakes...I'm putting you on parole."

"Parole?"

"It's what they call it when a person gets out of jail for being good, as long as they promise to continue being good. SO. Do you promise that you'll never do anything like that again? You won't lie to me, you won't disobey me like that, you won't run away, you won't scare me half to death again?"

Isaac looks up in fear, but sees a raised eyebrow and a small smile, along with emotions of love and a touch of playfulness; surprisingly, even with what she said, he doesn't even feel a touch of frustration, fear, or anger from her. Tentatively, he replies, "Yes, ma'am. I promise to never do anything like that again." Not that he'd ever want to; he'd rather forget yesterday ever happened.

"Then it's settled. You're ungrounded for now, but if we have any more problems, there's going to be hell to pay, and you don't want to pay that."

"Yes, ma'am." He doesn't even try to contemplate the complexity of what she said. 

They head home, where Isaac celebrates his victory with a game of Clash Royale before heading to take a bath. He luxuriates in the feel of the water creeping up his body, of the water being just hot enough that he can feel the stress of the day slowly leaving his muscles.

For the first time in a few days, he feels the urge to masturbate; it's been such an emotional roller-coaster that he could use the release. He lathers up his hair, sad that the bristliness of the sides of his hair is fading a bit, but it still feels great to him to mess with it. He takes a while with it, letting his mind wander to the usual idea of imagining different people being the ones playing with his hair. Just for the experiment of it, he imagines the nice girl in reading class with the long brown braid, Angelina, messing with his hair. It's nice, but it doesn't do anything for him; more proof that he's pretty solidly into boys only.

He switches the image to Vin, but the jarring inconsistency between what Vin has said to him and to Leila bothers him too much to focus on it. Instead, he imagines Juan's hands, which are much closer to Isaac's size, being the ones in his hair. The idea is immediately a turn-on for him. Leaving the lather in his hair, he switches his attention to business, focusing on the idea of interacting with Juan. He remembers the moment where he could see Juan's tenting briefs that first time, and the sight of him in his boxer briefs today. He thinks of the feelings he gets when he looks in Juan's eyes, and of the moment when he was playing together with Juan in the orchestra room.

That last thought sends the same inexplicable thrill through him as he had when playing with Vin, though to a lesser degree; he then imagines how it would be to play a song together with Juan again, and for some reason his mind adds in the idea of someone playing with his hair, someone with long fingers...

Isaac grunts as his breath catches and his body seizes, bringing him waves of euphoria and a few dribbles of thicker, whiter semen than he's used to seeing. As his mind swims in endorphins, he idly wonders whether that's a factor of having gone a few days without, of thinking of those things specifically, or if it's just another part of growing up. Either way, he washes his hand off and dunks his head long enough to scrub out the shampoo before getting out of the bath. He stays up for another few games of Clash Royale so that he can go to bed at the right time. No sense in ruining another day by doing it wrong.

 

---

 

Gentle blue chimes pull Isaac from a dreamless slumber, giving him exactly enough time to set his morning routine up exactly the right way: underwear, pants, shirt, glasses, socks, shoes, backpack, and go. He decides to leave the wrist brace off today; his mother checks his wrist and, finding it satisfactory, lets him take it back to the nurse.

He happily munches down on cereal for breakfast at school and goes by the nurse's office to drop off the brace on the way to the Living Room. David comes in even calmer than before, sitting down to continue his drawing. Isaac catches a glimpse of David's art: a drawing of an anime-style girl the likes of which Isaac has seen on typical game ads on his phone. He is amazed by the detail, though -- the entire thing is in pencil, but it almost looks like the girl is actually three-dimensional. Christian doesn't bring up the fighting at all; in fact, he acts as though it never happened at all, instead focused entirely on Clash Royale again. Mr. Coleman seems not to mention anything about yesterday, either, which makes Isaac almost feel like he either imagined or dreamed up the entire day yesterday. However, reading class continues the grammar lesson from before, which helps Isaac quiet the irrational suspicions in his mind; then, gym dispels any remaining doubts as Juan excitedly rattles off the plan he has in mind for their project, due next week.

Later on, at lunch, Isaac sits down with his plate of steak fingers and peach chunks, and Christian joins soon afterward. The conversation expectedly starts out about Clash Royale, but after a lull in conversation, Christian asks, "So did you ask Vin if he's gay yet?"

Isaac nearly chokes on his bite of steak; Christian seems completely unaware of his involvement in the issue. Isaac finally manages to croak out, "I--what--w-what do you mean?"

"I mean did you ask Vin if he was gay yet? 'Cuz you said that you were gay or maybe that you were, and then you said that you liked Vin as maybe more than a friend, but you didn't know if he liked boys like that, so I was wondering if you asked him so that you could find out if he liked boys, and if he did, then you could ask him if he wanted to be a, if he wanted to, um, if he wanted to be your boyfriend." Christian takes a bite of fruit as Isaac silently wonders how he managed to say all of that in one breath.

Isaac considers his options in what to say. It was confusing to him how to answer someone who had the wrong information entirely, but he knew that Vin wouldn't want Christian to know what they've talked about. Heck, Isaac didn't want Christian to know, either. But he also knew that Christian wouldn't give up the questioning if he didn't have some kind of answer, so he decides to go with, "He...I think he's going out with a girl."

"Oh." Christian frowns and pouts a bit. Chewing on a steak finger, he says, "But do you know that he is like for sure? Maybe, maybe you can ask him."

"Why do you care?!" Isaac snaps, surprising both of the boys at the table. "I'm sorry, Christian. I didn't mean to yell. I'm sorry."

Christian answers as though Isaac hadn't responded in any way abnormally. "I just want to, um, I just wanted to know. And, um, I just kinda want you to go out with him if you want to, cuz it would be sad if you wanted to and then he didn't wanna go out with you. You know?"

Isaac thinks about Christian's point. It is true that Isaac hadn't asked directly, and with the other things that Vin said before...and the conversation that he had with his mom...maybe it was an okay idea to just ask. At the worst, Isaac would be right about Vin liking Leila, and even though he knows he doesn't want to hear Vin say that, maybe it would be better than not actually knowing. "Okay, Christian. I can ask him."

"Yay!" Christian says with a mouthful of food. "Isaac and Vi-in, thitting in a tree, kay-eye-eth-eth-eye-en-thee!"

"Christian, stop talking with your mouth full! That's gross! And stop being a little kid!" Isaac picks up a piece of peach and chucks it at Christian's face, hitting him smack in the nose.

"Hey!" Christian giggles, picking it up and throwing it back.

Isaac is about to do so again when a lunch monitor walks by and stares at them both. Isaac puts his hands down, peach chunk included, and looks down at his food until she walks off. Embarrassed, he decides it a better course of action not to continue throwing food.

The conversation quiets down. Isaac takes the time to consider how he might ask the question of Vin, knowing that he very well may be upset at the answer. More importantly, he tries to figure out when he can do so; maybe he can text him right after school, or meet in front of the eagle and hope he shows up. Maybe both.

After lunch, Isaac prepares for another boring class in history, but a few minutes into it, his teacher gets a phone call from the classroom phone. After a moment, he hangs up and says, "Isaac Brooks?"

"Yes, sir?" he responds quietly.

"They need you in room 202."

Isaac has to think for a moment where that is before he realizes that is the Living Room. "O-okay," he stammers. "Do I bring my stuff?"

"I guess," the teacher says dismissively. "Just remember that we have a quiz over the Articles of Confederation tomorrow, so study up."

Isaac gathers his materials and heads down to his homeroom, where he sees an unexpected combination: Mr. Coleman, David, and Mr. Guthrie, all gathered at a table. Granted, Mr. Coleman and David are almost always in here, and Mr. Guthrie is occasionally, but it still isn't what he thought he'd see. "Um, hi?" Isaac says tentatively as he closes the door behind himself.

"Good afternoon, Isaac," Mr. Guthrie rumbles. "Have a seat." He gestures at the fourth chair around the circular table. Isaac takes his seat hesitantly, still unsure as to what's going on.

Mr. Coleman starts the conversation. "Isaac, I know this may seem uncomfortable or weird to you, but nobody's mad or anything. We just wanted to talk to you about what happened with David the other day."

Isaac swallows hard, but says nothing.

Mr. Guthrie says, "Isaac, I've been talking with Mr. Coleman about the various...phenomena that people have noticed about you." Isaac groans; he understands exactly what Mr. Guthrie is referring to. "I realize that you don't like to talk about it, that you think it just causes you problems, but from what I hear from Mr. Coleman, it has potentially become stronger, and may have even changed David's life."

"Listen," Mr. Coleman interjects. "Whatever it is you did with David has given him the opportunity to live a good life, one where he's not afraid at every moment. That's incredible, Isaac. I don't know if you realize how amazing that is."

Isaac looks at David, who is continuing his picture. His long black hair hangs over his face as he feverishly scribbles little pencil hashes into his paper, deftly shading them with a finger until they become lifelike in their realism. Still, he has no idea what to say...so he doesn't.

"Could you do me a favor, Isaac?" Mr. Coleman asks.

"Yes, sir?"

"Mr. Guthrie here says that the reason you don't like to look into people's eyes is because you can...feel their emotions, and vice-versa. Is that correct?"

"...Yes, sir." Isaac wishes he had never met Mr. Guthrie right now; Mr. Coleman was one of the last adults that he dealt with regularly with whom he felt truly comfortable, that he trusted. Now he was just going to be one more person begging Isaac to do things for them, to show them how different he is.

Sure enough, Mr. Coleman follows up with, "Can you look at my eyes for a moment, please?"

Sighing, Isaac looks up at Mr. Coleman's hazel eyes. He feels an expected amount of curiosity and confusion, some hope, and a sort of feeling that he sees in his mother when she hears about bullies or people making fun of Isaac. He also recognizes his own suspicion, disappointment, and discomfort ringing back through the link. He looks back at the picture after a few seconds, unwilling to accommodate the request any longer.

He hears Mr. Coleman breathe, "That's incredible. My emotions changed immediately. I had no idea --" He cuts off suddenly as he notices Isaac take off his glasses and put his head down on the desk. "...You're right, Isaac," he says. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to put you on the spot."

Isaac grunts in response, though even he isn't sure what he means by it.

Mr. Guthrie says, "To get to the point, though, Mr. Coleman told me that David quote 'showed you' what he was thinking. Was that the same thing as the emotional transference that you do?"

Isaac refuses to respond. Shortly, though, he feels a hand on his arm as mr. Coleman says softly, "Nobody's mad at you or wants you to feel bad. We are trying to find out if you can help us communicate with David so that maybe we can continue to help him. We want you to help us out in helping other people. Would you be okay doing that?"

Isaac takes a slow, deep breath and raises his head. "I guess I would be okay doing that, sir." He puts his glasses back on and takes another deep sigh. He does like to help people when he can; he just wishes he didn't have to feel like he was the center of attention when he did it. He knows that nobody in here is going to pull a prank on him or make fun of him, but it's still awkward and weird to him.

"Good," Mr. Guthrie replies. "First, we have to confirm that you are able to do something directly."

"Wait," Mr. Coleman says, "the fact that David isn't screaming his head off isn't proof enough?"

"We need to know exactly what is happening so that we can best consider how to utilize it," he responds with a slow nod. "So, Isaac, when you say he 'showed you,' what exactly did he 'show you'? Was it emotions? Words? Pictures? What did you 'see'?"

Isaac frames his response for a moment. "When I looked at David, I saw his emotions, and then he alsho showed -- also sh-showed me the bathroom from South View, um, like in fourth grade. He showed me when Ray beat him up in the bathroom, and then he showed me the hallway, like right outside, but Ray was there, and then he turned around, and, um...that's, that's what he showed me."

"So you saw...his memories?" Mr. Guthrie asks carefully.

Isaac stares at the drawing silently.

"Could I try an experiment, perhaps?" he asks.

"What does it involve?" asks Mr. Coleman in response.

"I'd like to show David a picture, and see if Isaac can figure out what it was based on looking at David. Nothing major. I know that David understands us, yes?"

Mr. Coleman looks at him. "David, if you can understand us, could you nod your head?"

David nods brusquely without deviating from his activity.

"Okay. Mr. Guthrie wants to show you a picture. When you see it, try to remember it. Then, I want you to look at Isaac and show him what the picture was. Okay?"

No response.

Mr. Coleman shrugs and says, "You can try; I make no guarantees."

Mr. Guthrie pulls out his phone and messes with it for a moment. "Isaac, please look away until I tell you to look back." Isaac obliges, and behind him, Mr. Guthrie says, "Okay, please look at this picture." A few seconds later, he says, "Okay, now Isaac, please look at David and see if you can tell me what the picture was."

Isaac turns around and looks at David, who continues to draw, completely ignoring the request. "Um, he won't look at me," Isaac states.

"David," Mr. Coleman asks in a soft voice, "can you please take a break from your drawing and help us? We're trying to help you out."

David quickly glances over at Isaac, and in that short moment, Isaac's mind is filled with sharp, sour irritation amid a small jumble of other emotions, and a view as if Isaac were looking directly at Mr. Guthrie's phone sitting on top of David's picture. On the phone is a black dog with a rope in its mouth. In another instant, David is done looking, and the picture goes away just as quickly.

Mr. Guthrie glances at Isaac. "So? Did you see anything?"

Isaac strongly considers pretending he didn't see anything at all, just to hopefully get out of this interrogation, but he knows how much problem lying has given him recently. "I saw your phone with a picture of a dog."

"And there you have it," Mr. Guthrie says, showing Mr. Coleman his phone. "You clearly saw that he had no way of seeing the image. Isaac, I think your ability may be getting stronger."

The thought doesn't particularly excite Isaac.

Mr. Coleman tilts his head and remarks, "Does that happen to you with anyone else other than David?"

"No, sir."

"Hm." Mr. Coleman frowns; Isaac hopes he didn't make him angry.

"Are you insinuating that perhaps David has more to do with it than Isaac?" Mr. Guthrie suggests.

"To be totally honest, I don't really know what to make of the whole thing. This is so far out of my training and, really, my entire worldview, that...I don't know. I can't deny what I've seen, but I can't explain it, either." Mr. Coleman runs a hand through his hair in a gesture that Isaac recognizes very well.

Mr. Guthrie smiles. "I think we're on the verge of an evolutionary breakthrough. Dr. Richard Hawkman has a theory about neurodiversity being the golden ticket to human evolution; he paid special attention to autistic savants, pointing out that their adaptations...well." Mr. Guthrie smooths out the sleeves of his shirt. "In short, I think he may be more correct than he expected."

"Who's this now?"

"A psychologist-slash-neuroscientist that I've been reading up on for some time. His theories were, for obvious reasons, widely regarded as quackery and he was mostly ignored. Yet...here we are." Mr. Guthrie gestures to Isaac.

David continues unabated; he has since finished the girl's face, and is now adding a very low-cut shirt to the picture. Isaac tunes out the adults, who have since started talking about uninteresting topics, and asks, "Who are you drawing, David?"

David finishes a sinuous line and looks up at Isaac. Isaac gets an image of what the picture will look like when complete: a fancy-looking woman with high boots, short shorts, and what looks like the left half of a dress tied onto her waist. One hand is on her hip, while the other holds a pistol. Interestingly, though, the picture in Isaac's mind is in full color, which reveals to him a very fascinating aspect of this girl: she has one green eye and one blue eye.

The image immediately fades as David goes back to his drawing; Isaac is left with a sense of wonder and curiosity at the coincidence. Isaac's attention is drawn to Mr. Guthrie as he says, "Hopefully you don't think I'm as crazy as everyone thought of Mr. Hawkman, especially now that you've seen direct proof."

Mr. Coleman takes a slow breath and responds, "I know what I've seen, but I'm not really willing to say anything more right now. I don't want this to turn into some kind of experiment, and not just because of legal concerns."

"No, no, I promise that's not what I'm trying to accomplish," Mr. Guthrie reassures him. "I just want to know the truth, here. Trust me -- I'm not trying to be famous or anything here; Dr. Hawkman proved well enough that people aren't ready for this kind of information."

"You're really starting to sound...let's just say maybe you should quit while you're ahead." Mr. Coleman raises an eyebrow at Mr. Guthrie, who purses his lips a bit.

"Have a good day, Mr. Coleman," Mr. Guthrie says with a smile. He looks over at Isaac, who catches a hint of a strange emotion, one that he can't identify, before Mr. Guthrie turns around and exits the room.

"Thank you, Isaac, for coming down and demonstrating for me. I just want you to know that I don't think of you any differently just because you can do that...thing. You're still just Isaac to me."

Isaac remains silent.

"Go ahead and go back to class for now, and thank you again for helping out with David."

"You're welcome, Mr. Coleman."

He spends the rest of class reading about the Articles of Confederation; it's boring, but he feels like he can do decently on a test about them if he needs to. The rest of his classes pass by more and more slowly as Isaac contemplates finding Vin and asking him the important questions.

As the final bell rings, he almost instantly takes out his phone and calls his mom.

"Hello?"

"Mom."

"Yes, dear?"

"I want to stay and play p-piano."

"Okay. I can come get you in an hour, then."

"Thank you, Mom."

"Love you, Doodlebug."

"Love you, Mom."

"Bye."

"Bye, Mom."

He immediately sends a text to Vin: "Do you want to play piano with me"; he looks back at it and, though it says everything he wants it to say, it bothers him, as if it was somehow the worst possible way to say those words. He just wants Vin to know he's going to be in the piano rooms, and then they can play piano together, and they can talk about the other stuff, and everything will end up okay.

Vin texts back an agonizing minute later: "Sorry bro / Got practice today / Maybe the weekend?"

Isaac stares at his phone for a while, mad at himself for being mad at Vin for having basketball practice. He just hopes that Leila isn't part of it. He heads to the piano rooms anyway, having missed the joy of playing and listening to good music.

He takes a peek through the window of the middle practice room door and, seeing nobody in there, quietly invites himself in. He also checks through the window on the other side that connects to the orchestra room, just in case Juan was there. No sign. Slightly disappointed but satisfied with his certainty, he sits down to play through the Moonlight Sonata again, half to enjoy it for the musical landscape, and half to relive that strange encounter with the old man and his wife.

The mahogany and crimson weave a sombre dance together, the shimmering curtains of arpeggiated melody entrancing Isaac even as he plays. He gets a few minutes into the first movement, and just near the end, he hears a knock at the door, breaking him out of his reverie and leaving him annoyed. He takes a look in the window, and his heart drops. It's that one kid with the long hair that he saw a few times in the choir room right at the end of the day, the one that was filled with anger when he looked at him the first time.

Isaac takes a quick look at the other door as the boy opens the first one; just as Isaac is about to get up, the boy quickly says, "Hey, Isaac, right?" in a voice that would plant the boy right in the middle of the alto section in the choir. "Vin sent me over here to come get you. He said he has something to talk to you about."

Isaac tries to look into the boy's eyes, but the boy busies himself looking around the room. He asks, "Why didn't Vin text me?"

"Oh, yeah, his phone's dead."

"But he just texted me a few minutes ago."

"Yeah, and then it died." The kid laughs a little through his nose. "So anyway, come on! He said he really wanted to talk to you."

"Where is he?"

"It's out near the courts. I'll show you."

"Are you his friend?"

"Oh, yeah, sorry, my name's Dennis." He starts to leave, but turns back around. "You comin'?"

Isaac is filled with conflicting ideas. Here's this boy that seemed to be very mad at him before, and...didn't he call me a 'fag' once? he wonders. It was hard to keep track of the jerks at this school, sometimes. Still, the thought of keeping Vin waiting, especially since he himself wanted to talk to Vin, seemed like a pretty stupid idea. "Okay, um, Dennis." He picks up his backpack and closes the practice room door behind him as he follow Dennis out into the halls.

Most of the kids have found their way out of the school by this point; Isaac hears the occasional rustle of paper from classrooms and some vague mumbling reverberating through the tiled halls, but overall, it's little different than if it were the middle of the school day. Dennis leads Isaac down the halls to the gym area, past the locker room, and out to the courts outside. As he looks around, his sight slowly adjusting to the sudden brightness, Dennis says, "Okay, so he said he has a surprise for you, so you need to close your eyes and come this way. I'll guide you."

Isaac does as he's asked, especially since he can't really see anything anyway. The boy leads him out, to the left, forward a bit more, and then into a more shaded area. They stop moving for a moment, and Isaac hears some rustling of cloth. "Can I open my eyes yet?" he asks.

Or at least, he tries to. The moment he opens his mouth, a thick, cottony object is stuffed into his mouth, forcing him to gag on it as he tries to scream. His eyes fly open just long enough to catch the quickest glimpse of Grease-Hair himself before a black shirt is whipped over his head and pulled tight, leaving him able only to see the vaguest of outlines of people through the cloth. It smells of caked deodorant and sweat.

He whips his arms up to the cloth to try to pull it from his face, but he hears another boy say, "Get his arms!" He is immediately restrained as "Dennis" grabs both of his arms, forcing them down and behind him with far more strength than Isaac can fight against.

Isaac takes a deep breath through his nose, almost gagging on the smell, and tries to scream as loud as he can. He manages for half a second to make a very muffled screech before his midsection goes flying backward under the impact of a fist, stunning his diaphragm and stalling his breath.

"That was for getting me suspended, little bitch." Jason's unmistakable voice was low and threatening. Then, stars erupt in Isaac's vision as he feels a foot smash into his testicles; the pain loosens his knees, sinking him to the concrete. "That was for what you did to me in the locker room."

Isaac's heart tries to pound through his chest as his mind races for something to do to get out of the situation, but all he can think about is how stupid he was to listen to a stranger again. "And this," Jason continues, "is for Ray." Isaac sees the barest outline of Jason's fist just before it slams into his nose, sending his head reeling backward; if not for Dennis holding his arms, he'd have easily fallen backward onto the concrete.

At this point, all he can muster the ability to do is try to scream it all away, even though he knows he probably can't be heard. Jason says, "You fucking weird little shit. You're the reason Ray moved schools." He feels a sharp kick in the side of his ribs. "I don't know what the fuck you do, or how, but I don't fucking care. You didn't listen when we told you to wear the sunglasses. You had your chance." Another kick, right in his knee. He weakly tries to wrest his arms free, but it's all he can do just to hold his own against the pain and his own fear.

A hand grabs his hair and pulls his head up; he can see Jason through the cloth, but he cannot make out his eyes. If he could only see his eyes...but no, all he can see is Jason cross his other arm over his chest and bring it back in a full-knuckled backhand on Isaac's cheekbone. He doesn't feel the pain of contact, though; instead, he finds himself on the ground, his head spinning.

He realizes that Jason is now right next to him, muttering quietly through his teeth at Isaac. Isaac seems to have missed the first part of what he's saying though: "...looking at another person again. Now. Listen here, fucking voodoo fag. If you ever tell anyone who did this to you, it's gonna be a hundred --"

"Oh shit!" one of the other boys hisses.

Jason gets up and turns around, and Isaac hears the sound of multiple feet pounding the grass. Immediately afterward, he looks over just in time to see three tall silhouettes sprinting toward Isaac and his assailants; the middle one chucks what looks to be a basketball as hard as he can at Jason, who can't react fast enough to move; he staggers back, stepping on Isaac's fingers, and by the time Isaac can retract his fingers, he hears Vin yell wordlessly at the top of his lungs as he leaps and takes Jason down in a flying tackle. The other two tall boys start going after Jason's accomplices. One of them calls, "Go tell coach!" and Isaac hears them both sprint off.

Isaac fights against the pain to finally pull the knotted shirt off his head and yank out the disgusting thing in his mouth; he sees that it is a spit- and blood-soaked sock, and he nearly vomits at the realization. Shakily, he turns to see Vin on top of Jason; they are both wrestling with each other's arms, but Isaac can't tell if either one is getting anywhere with their efforts. The looks on both their faces are strange: Jason's eyebrows are high, but he looks like he's squinting or flinching from something, while Vin's face is contorted into a look that chills Isaac to the bone. Isaac can clearly tell that Vin is more angry than he's ever seen.

Vin finally finds an opening and punches Jason straight in the eye socket; when Jason's hands fly to his own face in reflex, Vin grabs Jason's hair by both sides of his head, picks it up, and with a primal scream, slams it back into the concrete with heavy force. Jason's hands flail outward, and drop to the ground. Vin picks his head up again, and smashes it down. Pick up, smash. Each time, he screams again, though it sounds almost more of a growl or a roar to Isaac.

Isaac finally shakes himself out of his fascination to realize that Vin doesn't seem to be stopping. He is still slamming Jason's head back repeatedly, even though Jason isn't moving anymore. Isaac finally screeches hoarsely, "Vin! Stop!"

Vin looks over at Isaac, and when their eyes meet, Isaac is lost in a sea of terror and fury. He feels like he has to do anything, anything, to fix the problem, to stop the monster, to -- Vin looks away, back to Jason, and he opens his fingers, letting Jason's head fall back one more time, bouncing on the concrete. Vin looks like he's hyperventilating, he's breathing so quickly; his eyes are wide open in a way that is completely unsettling to Isaac, almost unnaturally wide. Nostrils flaring, lips peeled back, he grabs Jason's hair one more time; Isaac tries again, as loudly as he can, "Stop!! You're killing him!"

Vin suddenly lets go of the hair. He looks at the unconscious boy for a few seconds as he pants heavily. Isaac sees a small pool of blood forming under the boy's head, trickling down from the spot that Vin was smashing against the ground. Vin's shoulders slump and he sits down on the boy's legs, staring at his face. He begins to mumble something breathily, but Isaac can't understand it.

Isaac crawls closer, every injured spot in his body complaining loudly about it. He hears Vin chanting, "Not again. N-no no, not again." Vin looks at his palms; his hands are shaking tremendously. He quickly scrabbles backwards, off of Jason's legs, where he begins to breathe even more rapidly than he was before. "I truh-- I tried to stop it, and it's gonna happen again. But I was, I was trying to stop it."

"Vin, you're scaring me," Isaac admits quietly. "What w-were you trying to stop?"

Vin darts glances left and right, as if looking for something he can't find, and then quickly bends over with his ear to Jason's chest for a few seconds. He sits up again and starts frantically patting his pockets. He wrestles his phone out and punches in a few numbers. In a rushed, hyperventilated voice, he says, "Yes, uh, there's a dying kid here. He needs help. ...Uh, Oph-Ophelia Adler Intermediate...yeah. I don't know the address. ...Yeah, that's right. Quick, please, please, I don't want -- he can't die. ...He's unconscious. ...Because I smashed his head into the concrete. So, uh, h-head injury -- come on! Just send an ambulance!" His voice cracks sharply in the last sentence. "Okay," he says quickly. "Okay. Thank you." He hangs up, and the phone slowly falls out of his hand, clacking against the concrete, reverberating through the area under the bleachers nearby.

Isaac just watches Vin stare blankly off for a few more moments. Vin breaks the silence again: "I can't believe it. I did it again. I can't...I made it -- made it happen."

Vin looks again at Isaac; though he cannot begin to comprehend the strange, blank-eyed stare that Vin is giving him, the gut-punch of emotions makes Isaac reflexively shut his eyes. He can't even begin to comprehend what he felt in that short moment. It's clear to him, though, that Vin is about to cross over into meltdown. He scoots himself over a bit closer to Vin and says, "Vin, Please! You're scaring me!"

In response, says quietly, "I did it again. He's gonna die. He's gonna die...'cuz of me. I killed him. I...I killed him." The last words come out as a hoarse whisper as Vin's face contorts into the sort of grimace one does when about to burst into tears.  A second later, Vin lets loose with a wail that puts Isaac's meltdowns to shame. Full-lung, deep-breath screams that make Vin's vocal cords sound like they're shredding.

Isaac knows that looking in his eyes right now would be the worst possible idea, so he puts himself next to Vin and, without a solid idea of how to calm him down, he begins to rub Vin's back. Vin responds by balling his fists and pulling them to his chest as he keeps taking in deep breaths and screaming them out, devolving into choking sobs at the end of his breaths.

"Vin, it's okay," he says tentatively. He doesn't believe the words that much, but he knows that it's what someone is supposed to say in times like these. "It's okay, Vin."

Vin's arms suddenly spring open, and he wraps his hands around Isaac with surprising speed, pulling him in tightly. He still wails and coughs on his own sobs, but in between moments of breathlessness, he occasionally says one of a few phrases: "Not again," "I can't lose you," and "I'm a killer."

Isaac looks and sees a large group of people beginning to form around the area, including the coach, who is jogging up quickly and yelling, "What the hell is going on, here?!"

Despite all of that, the best thing Isaac can think to do keep up the hug, not that he has much of a choice, given Vin's strength. He wriggles his hands free and wraps them around Vin, squeezing with whatever strength he has, rocking slightly with Vin in his arms. His nose drips blood on Vin's shirt and his ribs ache with burning pain, but he keeps on, ignoring the people, ignoring everything except his goal to make Vin feel okay.