Eye to Eye

Chapter 12

The weight of the morning hangs heavy on Isaac as he prepares for his stay in ISS. Every action he takes seems to require more energy, every step more effort. The description of the punishment didn't seem that bad to him, but the fact still stands that it is a punishment, a stay in an unfamiliar place with unknown expectations, and the prospect isn't exciting to Isaac at all.

He finishes his breakfast and heads to the nurse's office on his mother's request. He hands the nurse a note; shortly, she rummages through a cabinet and outfits Isaac's left wrist with a sleeve to help keep it protected. His left wrist decided to stiffen up as expected, and though Isaac finds the brace somewhat bothersome, he is thankful for the fact that he won't accidentally bend his wrist painfully.

After that, he begins to head to the Living Room. On the way there, his mood immediately shifts gears; he gasps in surprise as he sees Vin walking down the hallway in front of him, even though he's never seen him in this area of the school before. Excited, he calls out, "Vin! Hi, Vin!"

Vin jumps a bit and turns around, adjusting his backpack on his shoulders. "Oh! Heyyy, Isaac! Scared me there, heh. What's up? How you doin'?" he says with a growing smile, walking up to him.

They meet near the Living Room door for the typical slap-and-tap greeting. "I'm not good, Vin," he says ruefully.

"Oh? What's up?" he asks with furrowed brows.

For fear of making Vin worry, he quickly replies, "I have to go to ISS because the fight." Realizing the question he was going to ask before, he adds, "Why are you in the Living, I mean, this hallway?"

"Huh? Oh, I was just leaving tutorials with Mrs. Stone."

"You have Mrs. Stone for your reading teacher?! I too d--I mean, I do too!"

"Oh, really? Heh, that's cool -- Hey! Maybe we could study together. How are you at reading? I know you kick ass at math."

Isaac feels his face warm a bit as he admits, "I really don't d-do good at reading."

"Oh?" Vin says, "I mean, I'm not that bad at it. I could probably help you; I mean, I'm doing pretty good in there. It'd be payback for helping me with math."

The idea, just as anything that Vin suggests as a course of action, sounds thrilling to Isaac. "Okay, Vin," he says with a toothy grin.

Vin grins right back. "Cool. Oh! Hey, still wanna hang out today after school? I'm gonna leave from here and go shoot hoops with friends at my neighborhood court."

"Yeah, Vin! -- Oh, um, I can't. I'm grounded today," Isaac groans. Just thinking about it makes him angrier at Jason for making him grounded.

"Wait, really? She actually did ground you? For what, defending yourself?"

Isaac grits his teeth a moment and grumbles, "She said that fighting is not the way w-we handle conflicts." Softening a bit, he points out, "And then, and then I started it."

Vin sighs. "Ah, right. Boo. Man, I was really hopin' you were gonna be able to go." Vin's face twists into a configuration Isaac isn't able to parse, and he looks out over Isaac's head. "Well, maybe we can find another time to hang this week, yeah?"

When Vin meets Isaac's gaze, Isaac is overcome with feelings of disappointment and longing, with only a small string of hope threaded between them. That knowledge makes it hurt all the worse when Isaac responds, "I'm grounded for the rest of the week, Vin."

"Damn, and I thought my mom was harsh," he says in a low mutter. He thinks for a sec, but the bell rings before he gets to say what he needs to. "Crap," he says with a roll of his eyes, "I meant to stop by my gym locker and put all this up. God, that sucks. I'm so sorry, Isaac."

"It's not your fault, Vin."

"I know, but it still sucks. A lot. Now I won't really get to see you at all this week."

"I'm sorry, Vin," Isaac says as the realization of Vin's words, mixed with his reflected feelings, coalesces into a lump in Isaac's throat. "I'm sorry."

"It's really not your fault," Vin sighs. "It's just unfair."

A silence falls over the two, or at least as silent as it can be with the ominous thundering of a legion of students reverberating through the halls as they enter. Vin breaks their moment with, "Hey, I got an idea."

"Yes, Vin?"

"How about we meet up at the big eagle statue in the main area after school? At least that way we can say hi to each other and stuff before we leave. Sound good?"

"Sounds good, Vin," he says, though Isaac does not feel much like smiling.

Vin, however, gives a half-smile to Isaac and claps his hand on Isaac's shoulder. "By the way, ISS isn't half-bad. At least it's quiet. I had it a few times last year. You'll be fine, yeah?" He winks at Isaac.

"Yeah. I hope so, Vin."

Vin's smile stretches to the other side of his face as he starts backing up. Waving, he calls, "See ya at the eagle, Isaac!"

"See you at the eagle, Vin," he says with a weak wave. Being the farthest hallway back, there aren't as many students that walk through, but Isaac pays no mind to any of them as he broods his way into the Living Room.

When he goes in, though, he realizes Mr. Coleman isn't in the room yet. He was hoping Mr. Coleman would be around to soothe his anxieties and possibly give him an idea of what to expect in ISS, but no luck. He sits down on the couch, rocking slowly and running his right hand on the pleasant microfiber upholstery. It doesn't help much in distracting Isaac from his newest concern: I made Vin feel bad. He's disappointed because of me.

What does help distract him, though, is the crescendo of screams as David is escorted through the hallways. Mrs. Jimenez and Mr. Coleman come through the door, each one holding one of his arms as if carrying him away from a fight. The moment he gets in the door, he breaks free from their grasp and scrambles practically on all fours to his preferred corner in the kitchen area, huddling and wheezing frantically. Mrs. Jimenez immediately heads to the closet to grab the heavy blanket while Mr. Coleman sits near David and talks soothingly to him.

Suddenly, as Isaac is watching the daily spectacle, David whips his head around to look straight at Isaac. A confused, rapid-fire jumble of emotions and images assault Isaac's mind: panic and dread in the same bathroom as before; anger and confusion at the image of that boy walking away; and a new image, full of uncertainty and stark terror, of sneaking up to the corner of a hallway and peering around the corner slowly, only to see that same boy turning around to look at him.

Just before Isaac can make out the boy's face, David squints his eyes and screams, fighting off Mrs. Jimenez's attempts at covering him with the blanket and kicking Mr. Coleman solidly in the shin. Mr. Coleman inhales through a hiss as he stands up and backs off, holding his shin and gritting his teeth. "God--!" Mr. Coleman snaps. "Just...gimme a moment," he growls through his teeth.

Isaac realizes that, whatever the reason he is seeing things in his mind, whatever events they are showing him, this boy is the reason for David's panic; every time he has seen the boy in the images, it has come with a feeling of absolute terror. As Mr. Coleman holds his leg and winces in pain, Isaac decides to try something new. He gets up and comes into the kitchen, staying out of reach of David's legs, and tries his best to feel calm, like how Vin did for him when he was anxious about playing piano for his mom, like Isaac did yesterday to try to calm David down. He manages to catch eyes with David again once he stops screaming, and Isaac is again presented with the same loop of images and emotions.

Though it is intensely uncomfortable, the lack of actual memory or reason for the emotions helps him stay grounded and maintain his composure. Somewhat. "Who is it?!" Isaac almost yells, but he catches himself and looks at Mrs. Jimenez with wide eyes. "I'm sorry! I didn't mean to yell!"

She looks at him with lowered brows, and her eyes speak of confusion and frustration. "It's fine, Isaac, but what did you mean?"

He doesn't answer her, instead looking back at David. Taking a deep breath to help weather the intense feelings rushing through his system, he asks again, "Who is it, David?"

David's eyes seem to go even wider, if it were possible, and his eyebrows peak sharply in the middle in a characteristic expression that even Isaac recognizes as the very model of "Oh no!"; both boys freeze as Isaac sees through his eyes the image of peering around the hallway corner, but this time, David's eyes remain peeled open. Isaac sees the boy turn around, and he immediately recognizes the face of the boy who fought him in the second week of school -- "Ray," as his friends called him. The image is of a much younger Ray, though, possibly in fourth grade or so, but it is undeniably him.

"Is that Ray, David?" he asks, more quietly since David had stopped screaming.

Unfortunately, at the very mention of the name, David picks back up with a banshee's wail, repeating the syllable, "Reh!! REH!!" while trying to squeeze himself tightly into the corner.

"Isaac, you're bothering David!" Mrs. Jimenez cries over David's screams. "Go sit down and leave him alone! Now!"

He ignores her. He puts all the pieces together, figuring out exactly what happened between the two: David was beaten up by this Ray kid, in the bathroom and elsewhere, which comes as no surprise at all to Isaac considering his own experiences with the bully. "David! Ray isn't here, David!" He calls out again, more loudly, "Ray isn't here!!"

David's screams stop. Still breathing heavily, he stares at Isaac, though the only impressions Isaac gets from the eye contact are emotions, with a sudden surge of confusion and hope. Then, Isaac sees a view of the door to the room, reaching for the handle, and looking outside. The hallways are empty. Another surge of hope accompanies the faint image.

In the tense silence, Isaac repeats quietly, "Ray isn't here, David. I don't think he goes here. I saw him once, but he h-hasnt been here in...maybe two weeks. ...I think he doesn't go here anymore, David."

"Who are you talking about, Isaac?" Mr. Coleman asks in a quiet tone.

David looks forward, eyes unfocused; as the image clears from Isaac's mind, he sees that David is more looking through him than at him. A moment later, David refocuses on Isaac, and the emotional landscape has changed completely: a huge bubble of hope is thinly holding back a tidal wave of relief. The image of the empty hallway resolves in Isaac's mind again, much more vividly than before. "Reh?" he repeats quietly.

Isaac shakes his head. "No, David."

David continues to stare, but his eyes immediately begin to mist over, tears freely dropping down his face. He says nothing, but his mind is an endless sigh of relief, mixed with a feeling of giddiness that he cannot quite express. He and Isaac stay with eyes locked as Mr. Coleman kneels down next to Isaac and asks, "What did you...how did you get him to calm down?"

"He...um." Isaac isn't ready to admit how he did it, but he hopes he can tell enough truth to explain it and get away without admitting anything. "He was afraid that Ray was going to beat him up again."

Mr. Coleman looks at Isaac's eyes, but Isaac looks away quickly; all he gets from Mr. Coleman is a moment of feeling completely lost, like how Isaac feels in literary discussions. Mr. Coleman hesitates before asking, "Who is Ray?"

"A bully," Isaac tells the floor in front of him.

"And how did you know he was afraid of Ray?"

Isaac picks at his thumb silently.

"Are you able to...did you...I--I don't..." Mr. Coleman runs his hand through his hair, a gesture that Isaac understands very well. "Well, whatever you did, it calmed him down. That's...thank you. That was very helpful."

"You're welcome," Isaac says to the carpet. He can feel his cheeks warm up a bit.

The morning announcements come on just then, and Isaac gratefully turns to face the flags. He notices that Christian has since entered the room, as well as a few of the others in his homeroom. He recites the pledges with the principal's voice and then sits down near Christian, who stares in his direction as he takes his seat.

"Is that thing on your wrist because of the fight?!" Christian asks excitedly, though with a surprisingly controlled volume level while the announcements are going.

Isaac puts a finger to his lips and shushes Christian until the announcements are done. When they finish, he answers, "Yes, Christian. It helps to keep my wrist from hurting."

"Oh." A short pause, then, "I bet that bully won't mess with you today!"

"He got suspended for fighting," Isaac points out.

"Oh. Did you get in trouble, too?"

"Yes, Christian. I have ISS today because of the fight."

"Ooooooh," he says in that hushed tone that kids reserve specifically for someone being in trouble. "That sucks."

"I know."

"But still! You're like, a warrior! Fighting bullies and stuff! That's so cool!"

Every time Christian goes on about that, it makes Isaac roll his eyes. "No, I'm not, Christian," he groans. "It was just one fight, and then I'm not gonna get in another one."

Christian starts punching the air in his typical shadow-boxing demonstration when he speaks of fights. Isaac just sighs and goes to sit on the couch again; Christian doesn't follow. Shortly, the bell rings; Isaac gathers his stuff and heads to the ISS room.

When he gets there, the door is locked. Somehow, that makes him feel more uneasy. He tentatively knocks on the door, wondering if maybe the teacher is inside already. Maybe they just aren't here yet, he begins to reason just as the door handle makes a chunk sound, startling him a few inches off the ground as the door opens into a stark white room with small, partitioned cubicles along the walls.

The person who opened the door, a stocky, younger Hispanic-looking man with a bushy beard and hard eyes, looks at Isaac. "Name?"

"Isaac Brooks, sir," he says, looking at the man's old black sneakers.

"Have a seat at that corner desk." He points to the corner farthest from the door.

"Yes, sir." Isaac walks in, afraid to look at anyone else in the room. He counts three other pairs of feet, but he doesn't look up to see anything else before reaching his seat. The partitions remind him a bit of the little walls between the urinals in the restroom, but they're still tall enough that he can't see over them. This suits him fine, since he figures the other cubicles are probably all full of the school's worst criminals.

Shortly after sitting down, the man comes back and hands Isaac a stack of papers. He takes a look: worksheets. Ah, he thinks. This is my work from each class. He isn't certain how he would have received his assignments otherwise, but the question never got a chance to be asked. He decides to try to follow the school schedule as close as possible, so he takes out the reading worksheet and gets to work on it.

For the most part, the day is quiet and productive for him, not entirely unlike his normal classes in history or math might go, but for the entire day instead. Isaac actually finds the idea somewhat comforting in a weird way; here, boxed in by walls, protected on most sides, left alone to do his work without anyone teasing him or bothering him, or having to work in a group with people that don't understand him, Isaac feels a sort of serenity and focus that he could definitely get used to, if not for the fact that he would have to misbehave to get here. The only part that interrupts his tranquility is his brain's nagging reminder of Vin's disappointment and his indignance at his punishment.

At least, that's the only internal interruption. At one point, Isaac hears the sound of a wad of paper being crumpled up, and then the quiet pfsh of the paper hitting someone else. The man watching them immediately stands up, fast enough that his rolling chair slides back a few feet, and snaps, "What do you think you're doing, Liana?! You think this is time for fun and games? Huh?!"

The sound of the man's voice reverberating off the walls of the small room pounds at Isaac's ears, making him yelp at the suddenness and cover his ears through the rest of the assault. Through his hands, he hears him berate her in a loud, angry voice, asking her what was going through her head, why she thought that was even remotely a good idea, reminding her that she's here for equally stupid reasons, and if she wants to stay out of here, she better watch it, among other things. By the time he's finished, Isaac can hear the ringing of silence hanging heavily on his ears, and his focus is shattered for a good ten minutes. Thankfully, nothing else of note happens until the group restroom break.

The man leads the line of them, five in total, down the hallway to the nearest restroom, where three girls line up on the girls' restroom side and Isaac stands behind one other boy on the boys' side. Isaac doesn't take the time to assess what the others look like; he'd rather not know, to be honest. He keeps his eyes on the boy's bright red Jordans that Isaac has seen many other kids wearing.

The boy in front of him goes into the restroom, coming out a few minutes later and patting his hands on his jeans. "They outta paper towels," he intones in a lazy-accented bass voice.

Isaac heads in and sits in a stall to pee. Afterward, he turns the sink on to a gentle flow and washes his hands, even though he really didn't touch anything except his clothes; only then does he remember that the paper towel dispenser is out. He finds himself in quite the situation: Do I wipe my hands off on my clothes, or do I shake them dry? Neither option is appealing; he can't stand the feel of wet spots on his clothes against his skin, and it would take forever for his hands to dry off.

He decides that the front of his pockets can take some of it, and hopefully the air can help with the rest. He exits the bathroom, where he waits back in line for the second and third girl to take their turns, flapping his hands to hopefully get them to dry faster. He has a passing realization that if Mr. Coleman saw him doing that, he'd ask if Isaac were okay, since that usually meant that Isaac was stressed; the idea makes Isaac laugh quietly.

"What's so funny?" the man asks in a low voice, though not very loudly.

Isaac freezes, not having wanted to cause a scene or anything. He doesn't know what to say, so he resorts to his typical response.

"Well?" the man prods, his eyebrows raising up a little higher.

"...Um," Isaac says timidly, "I was trying t-to dry my hands, but I realized that, um, it looked l-like I was...nervous." By the time he finishes the statement, he feels exactly like flapping his hands anxiously.

The man stares at him for a moment. "Are you one of Mr. Coleman's?" he asks.

After a moment's hesitation to make sure he understood what the man meant, he responds, "Y-yes sir."

"Mm." Isaac has no idea what the short utterance from the man means. He knows that "one of Mr. Coleman's" could only mean "one of the different kids," which makes him feel like shrinking in on himself a bit. He suddenly worries about the other kids making comments or doing things based on the revealed information, but he's not even willing to look up to find out if they're looking at him.

"Valerie," the man says, "when you go in, grab about six extra paper towels for the boys."

Isaac hears no response, but a few silent minutes later, the man hands three paper towels each to the tall boy in the Jordans and to Isaac. "Throw 'em away in the bathroom," he tells them.

Grateful for the fact that he won't have to deal with cold, wet hands, Isaac happily follows instructions. The rough paper is no good for rubbing his hands on, but he spends a good bit of time blotting as much as he can before shaking them dry the rest of the way to the ISS room.

Lunch is quiet, especially since kids in ISS have Silent Lunch as part of their punishment. He is allowed to get his food as normal, but he is told to stand at a desk up against the wall of the cafeteria and eat his food facing the window outside. While he isn't much of a fan of eating while standing up, it doesn't bother him terribly much. He stares contemplatively out the window at the courtyard as he eats three chicken nuggets, three bites of corn, three thirds of an apple slice, and repeats.

The rest of the day goes as before, but without incident; soon enough, the final bell rings, and Isaac packs up. Other than the yelling incident, the punishment really wasn't all that bad. On the way out, Isaac's brain busies itself mulling over the grounding problem and thinking of ways he could make Vin less disappointed; after all, he was the one that made him feel that way, so it only makes sense that he would be the one to fix it.

But how? he wonders. How do I make him feel better about it? I'm stuck being grounded so I can't do anything with him. Mom definitely won't let me hang out and play with him. I wonder if she'd even let me study with him while I'm grounded. She probably would, since she wants me to do well in school, and she knows I have problems with reading. But he's going to be playing basketball, so we couldn't study together.

Suddenly, his brain presents a solution. I could lie to her and tell her that we're going to study English. He doesn't like the prospect of lying to his mom -- she always seemed to know everything anyway, and he really hates lying in general -- but he also doesn't like being grounded unfairly. Besides, he considers, if I tell her I'm studying, she will probably be happy that I'm doing a good thing.

He takes out his phone and turns it on, only to be presented with the passcode screen. He growls in frustration and throws the phone at the ground, immediately gasping and panicking at his own actions. He quickly picks it up and looks at it; the case he has on it is thin, but it has stopped anything significant from happening to the phone. Breathing a sigh of relief, he puts it away and grumbles.

By this time, he doesn't even realize that he's made it to the eagle statue. He takes a look at his surroundings, and he spies Vin coming down one of the adjoining hallways. He waves happily to him and waits for him to get closer. "Hi, Vin," he says with his hand out.

"Hey, bud," Vin answers with a low-five and a fist bump. "How was ISS? Boring?"

"Yeah, Vin," he nods. It was boring."

"Heh," Vin smiles, "better 'boring' than 'painful,' I guess. Coach's punishments hurt." Vin lifts squeezes his thigh a bit. "So many squats."

Isaac isn't sure what Vin means, and the only idea he has looks extremely painful. He really hopes that Vin means something other than the coach squatting on Vin's legs.

Vin's smile falters a bit as he continues, "Well, I guess I'ma catch the bus. I'll miss you today."

Isaac would respond, but his brain kicks into high gear. He knows this is his chance to make Vin feel better, his chance to do something fun instead of being grounded unfairly. His plan has one fatal flaw, but the rest of it seems strong enough. "Vin," he says, feeling his heart pick up.


"I called my mom, and then she said...it's okay." He feels a touch lightheaded.

"Really? No way!" he says with a laugh. "So you wanna hop on the bus with me?"

Seeing the excitement on Vin's face makes everything seem worth it. "I wanna hop on the bus with you, Vin," he says with a grin so wide it almost makes it hard to say the words.

"Sweet!" He holds out a hand, which Isaac slaps. "To basketball!" he calls out with a hand pointed forward.

Isaac follows Vin to his bus and gets on, staying close behind him amid the crowd of unfamiliar faces. He's seen them in the halls, sure, but a bus is like a classroom, full of people that you have to be with for some time, but even smaller and more cramped. Isaac finds himself a lot happier about getting dropped off and picked up, considering the discomfort of the bus environment.

Vin gets to a middle seat that's still fully open and gets out of the way, beckoning Isaac in to the window seat. "Scoot in," he suggests.

Isaac scoots, and Vin takes the outer seat. As the other kids file in and the noise level grows, Vin asks, "Hey, you okay?"

Isaac realizes he's rocking in the seat and forces himself to stop. "Yes, Vin. I'm okay." A moment later, though, he begins rocking again and comments, "It's loud."

"Yeah, it is," he agrees, nodding with a strange sideways twist to his lips.

Isaac gets out his phone to potentially listen to some music, but is once again met with a passcode screen. He clenches his hand on the phone, but he notices a notification at the top of the screen, which gives him -- and his heart -- pause. "Missed call: Mom." He thinks for a moment, realizing that he has no way to call her back. Realizing that there is no problem that his phone can currently solve, he decides to put it away in his backpack and to rock in place with his hands on his ears for the majority of the trip.

"Hey, who's this?" a voice says from above Isaac, making him jump and squeal in surprise. "Whoa, there, bub, tranquilo, eh?" the voice says.

Isaac looks up to see a dark-skinned boy. nearly bald, with a wide nose and dark brown eyes looking down at him. He gets a flash of amusement and some other feeling, one that he really can't even begin to put to actions. It feels like irritation, but with a touch of disbelief. He quickly looks back down and takes a few rocking breaths to calm himself.

Vin says, "Oh, hey Mal -- didn't see you behind me. Still on for today, yeah?"

"You know, bro. You gettin' yo ass kicked this time, though."

"Sure thing, 'Free Throw.'"

"You shut your damn mouth," the boy replies. "You know I got more free throws than you did last time."

Isaac, surprised at the tone of voice and word choice, looks up far enough to see "Mal" with a huge grin on his face. I will never understand why people insult each other with smiles on their face, he resolves.

The bus comes to a stop, and Mal stands up. "I'll catch you at the court." He holds out a fist.

Vin connects with his own fist and nods sharply. "See ya there." He turns to Isaac and leans in to speak more quietly. "That's Malik, but we call him 'Mal.' He'll be there. He's pretty cool." Isaac nods.

As one large group of students gets off at a stop, the noise level drops to within tolerable limits, and Isaac is able to calm down for a bit before Vin stands up. "Our stop is next," he says with a nod forward. The bus lurches to a stop again, and Vin beckons Isaac out behind him; a few other people get in the way, but they all file out of the bus where Isaac rejoins Vin.

Together they walk down the street in silence to Vin's house; Isaac recognizes the view as they round the corner, and the sight of Vin's house fills his mind and heart with memories of the night he spent there. Isaac follows Vin up the path to his door, where Vin unlocks it and heads in. Isaac stands in the entry hall, once again marveling at the stuff that Vin's family has.

"Mom's probably taking a nap right now, so don't make too much noise," Vin says in a hushed voice.

Isaac doesn't reply, if only because that would be needless noise to make.

Vin puts up a finger to signal Isaac to wait; then he bounds up the stairs two at a time, though Isaac only hears one stair creak. Two minutes later, Vin comes back down wearing a white tank top and black basketball shorts, having dressed out faster than Isaac was aware could happen. "Let's go," he says. "It's a short walk."

Though it isn't a long walk, the time is made to feel much longer with the pressing heat and humidity of the late summer air; the year had been unkind as far as lingering heat, with no cold fronts mentioned even in mid-September. Isaac is usually somewhat cold-natured anyway, but he breaks into a sweat in just a couple of blocks.

Vin takes measured, slow steps with his long legs, letting Isaac keep pace easily. "I'm glad your mom let you get ungrounded," he says. "That was really uncool of her."

Isaac suddenly remembers that his mom tried to call him earlier. He thinks through the scenario: if she tried to call once, it was probably to tell him that she was coming to pick him up. She didn't usually call until she was there, but there was no way she could have been there yet, right? The buses were still there. She usually waited another little while before she showed up. She will probably call again, and then Isaac can just tell her about the studying. That should work, he thinks.

He realizes he hasn't responded to Vin, but Vin doesn't look at him or anything that might suggest he's waiting for an answer. Isaac just stays silent, though he can't help but think it's the wrong response to give.

"Everything okay?" Vin asks, looking down at Isaac.

Isaac realizes he's been letting out a low whine, which he quickly stops. Quick, say something! he tells himself. "Um...no, Vin." Isaac grits his teeth at telling the truth; now Vin's going to figure everything out, and he's going to get sent home, and he'll be grounded for the rest of his--

"Oh? Are you nervous about meeting my friends?"

Isaac contemplates it. "Yes, Vin. A little bit." It's completely true, after all.

"Aw, don't be," he says with a hand on Isaac's other shoulder. He squeezes Isaac's shoulder a little bit before letting his hand drop to his side. Isaac really wishes he'd leave it there, even with the heat of the day. Vin continues, "They're all really nice people. It'll be fine."

Isaac silently hopes so.

They walk a while longer, until they finally make it to Vin's neighborhood park. On one side, there is a large playground with a full suite of features: swings, slides, tunnels, monkey bars, a jungle gym, and even a tic-tac-toe board with swiveling pieces. In the back, there are various trees with benches scattered about, and a picnic table in a little clearing-like area. Vin, however, heads to the area close to this side, where there is a large slab of pavement with two basketball goals. As they get closer, Isaac notes that there are white painted lines in the typical design for a basketball court, though Isaac couldn't identify a single line's purpose.

On the court already are two other people: one is the boy that Isaac met on the bus, and the other is a boy of similar height, maybe even taller than Vin, though it was hard to tell at that distance. The new boy has shaggy hair the color of a ripening banana, and his nose hooks downward too quickly, almost as if someone pushed it in a bit. He dribbles a basketball a few times and shoots it, but it bounces off the backboard in a failed shot.

Mal looks over and breaks into a huge grin; Isaac is actually surprised at how big the boy's smile is. "Yo, Vinnie!" he calls out, stopping the bouncing ball with his foot.

"All right, 'Mallie,' you know I hate that name," Vin remarks with a slight smile, but a raised eyebrow. Isaac is curious what the combination of those two could represent.

Mal just laughs. He whips his foot back, rolling the ball toward himself, but he quickly kicks his foot underneath it, making the ball bounce upward into his waiting hands. He dribbles twice, calling, "Ye're just in time for warm-up," and he sends the ball soaring through the air at Vin.

Isaac reflexively flinches, but Vin effortlessly catches the ball, stepping up on the pavement. "Gotta let a brother change, yeah? I don't live on the freakin' park street like you, after all." The moment he gets onto the hard surface with the ball, he starts dribbling it, heading toward Mal. They immediately get into a contest over the ball, with Vin ducking and weaving out of Mal's way until a shot opens for him; with a smooth motion, he hops up, shoots the ball over Mal's head, and swishes the ball perfectly into the net. "Keep up, boy," Vin says with a half-grin, one that Isaac doesn't see on Vin's face very often.

"Hey, y'all ain't startin' without me, are y'all?" a higher voice cries out from a ways down the park. Isaac looks in that direction, squinting against the sunlight to see another tall person coming up, this one a more olive-skinned girl with shoulder-length black hair; when she gets closer, Isaac notices her deep indigo lipstick and matching nails, though her nails are shorter than what Isaac usually sees for girls with painted nails.

She walks up and nods to each of the boys. "Sup Mal, Vin, Drake. New guy." She says the last bit toward Isaac, who very quickly averts his eyes when she catches notice of him. "Who dis?" she asks with an unidentifiable accent, not particularly heavy, but different from what Isaac is used to hearing.

Vin nods over at Isaac. "This is my good friend Isaac: math tutor, chess wiz, and piano player extraordinaire." He does a little flourish with his arm and affects a fake British accent for the introduction. Switching back to regular voice, he says, "Isaac, this is Leila and Drake, and you've already met Mal."

"What, I don't get an intro like him?" Leila complains, walking up to Vin. "I don't get a, 'This is Leila, queen of the courts, kicker of asses, and...I dunno, hot chick' or anything?"

Vin busts into laughter. "You can have two o' those. Your choice." He looks over his shoulder, springs upward, and bats the basketball out of the air just as Drake tries to shoot it.

"Dammit!" Drake says with a laugh. "How do you always do that?"

"It's 'cuz you always shoot the same way, bro," Vin replies, slapping the ball once to make it bounce higher, grabbing it, and passing it to Leila.

"Bullshit," Leila says to Vin. "I'ma kick your ass on the court, making myself queen, and you know I'm hot."

"A hot mess, maybe," he retorts.

"Still hot," she says with a toss of the ball at the net. It hits the rim, rolling twice before sinking.

Isaac watches the interchange between Leila and Vin, and the black tendrils coil around his chest. He can barely follow their banter, but he's very aware that it's not something that he could ever imagine himself doing.

They keep up the banter for a bit, the other boys joining in with insulting each other and boasting about their own abilities and the like. Isaac tunes most of it out, but he suddenly gasps at the realization that he hasn't called his mom. "Vin!"

"Nah, I'm on Mal's team. You can't kick my ass if you're on my team," Vin teases Leila. Turning to Isaac, he softens his voice and asks, "Yeah?"

"Can I borrow your phone to call my mom?"

"Uh, yeah, sure. Here." He fishes his phone out of his pocket and hands it to Isaac, pushing the side button that turns it on. Isaac looks around the park for a quiet, secluded place to call; he doesn't want her to think that he's having fun -- regardless of if he feels that way or not at the moment. He decides on the grove of trees being far enough away; he stands behind a tree so that he can't see the basketball court, and he calls his mom from memory. (He has her in his contact list on his own phone, but he is equally comfortable just punching in the number.)

One ring, then, "Hello?"

"Mom. It's Isaac. I'm on Vin's phone."

"Where the hell are you?!"

"I'm...with Vin. We--"

"You're grounded! What made you think that it's okay to just go out and play when you're grounded?!"

"He's h-helping me study for reading," Isaac says meekly, his voice wavering at the end.

There is a short silence on the other line. "Okay...you could have told me you were going to do that."

"I can't use my phone, Mom."

Isaac hears his mother make one of those grumbling sighs. "Clearly, you're on Vin's phone now. Why didn't you call me earlier? I was worried! I showed up to pick you up, and when you weren't there, I called. Why didn't you answer?"

"I was on the bus, and then, and then I didn't hear the phone because it was loud."

"I already called the school to look for you, young man. This is not acceptable behavior."

"But Mom, I was going to call you, and then, but I couldn't." He says this with conviction; after all, it's absolutely true. "And then I thought about it, and then I realized I could c-call you on Vin's phone. I'm sorry, Mom."

Another silence, a little longer than the first. Just as Isaac's heart rate picks up, his mom sighs again. "How long do you think you'll be studying?"

"We'll be studying for maybe for like an hour and a half," Isaac responds. "I, I can c-call you when w-we're done."

"...And Vin knows you're grounded, right?"

"Yes, ma'am, he knows I'm grounded. I told him."

"All right. Are you still at the school?"

"No, ma'am. We're, um, at...I, I went home with Vin." And then he went somewhere else. Somehow, this rationale doesn't make Isaac feel any better, though.

"Okay. I'll be by to pick you up in an hour and a half, then. Be ready. I expect to hear all about what you studied and how it's going to help you in reading class."

Isaac gets a deep sinking feeling in his gut. "Yes, ma'am."

"Goodbye, Isaac."

"Goodbye, Mom."

Isaac stares off, wondering how he's going to get himself out of this one. Maybe they can do a little bit of studying at the end, or they could review or something. Isaac doesn't even have his textbook with him, though. He hates lying. He hates how hard it is to keep up a lie. He hates himself for lying. He does his best to keep calm, though, as he returns to the court and hands Vin his phone.

"Actually, you mind just putting it on that bench over there?" Vin says, pointing to a nearby seat while catching his breath. "I don't wanna crack it or something -- these shorts pockets are loose."

"Okay, Vin." Isaac walks over to the bench, a chain-mesh construction with a thick resinous coating, with holes far too small for most things to fall through. Isaac sits down and places the phone on the other end of the bench, as if it needed its own space.

He came here in the first place hoping that he would enjoy spending time with Vin, but more importantly, that he wouldn't make Vin feel disappointed. This Leila person flirting with Vin, and now his mom demanding proof of him studying, quickly sours his mood. His mind races, looking for a solution to the issue at hand. When nothing comes up, he begins to feel defeated, dreading the moment his mother shows up.

Isaac hears the dry grass crunch under the footsteps of long shoes. "Heya, my man," Vin says. Isaac looks up enough to acknowledge Vin, but not enough to see his face. Vin points his thumb behind him. "You wanna join us?"

"N-no thank you, Vin," Isaac says softly.

"Oh, right, your wrist. I guess that wouldn't..." he trails off. Vin asks in a lower voice, "Is everything okay?" as he kneels down and looks at Isaac's face.

Isaac nods, unsure that he could tell the truth if he opened his mouth. He rocks in place, staring at Vin's bright crimson shoes.

"O...kay," Vin says slowly. "Is this, like, one of those 'too much' kinda things, like at my house the first time?"

Isaac thinks about it a moment, and nods again.

"You, uh, you want me to sit with you for a bit?"

Isaac shakes his head.


He hesitates. He wants Vin to sit next to him, maybe for the rest of the day, but he doesn't want to take Vin away from his friends, and he definitely doesn't want Vin's friends to look at them together like...well, like they're together. "I'm sure, Vin."

"A'right," Vin says, popping back up. "Lemme know if there's something I can do, yeah? Oh, uh, we'll be done in like thirty minutes or so, and then maybe you and I can do something together. Sound good?"

Isaac says with a little more energy, "Oh. Okay. Sounds good, Vin."

Vin rejoins his friends, while Isaac continues to worry about what his mom is going to do to him when she finds out just how many times he's lied today. He rocks in place, barely managing to keep his emotions in check; he spends most of his time watching the basketball game to distract himself.

Suddenly, he makes a realization, one that usually wouldn't grace his mind, especially since it's related to reading class. He is struck with the image of the girl standing outside the fence of the basketball court in the story he had read; though he realizes his is the opposite case -- whereas she was excluded even though she wanted to play, Isaac refused an invitation to play -- but he can't help but understand her a little better. There is no fence stopping him, but he still feels like he can't join them, like he would just make things worse if he did. The fact that such a realization would probably help him in reading class makes no difference to him; he is too busy trying to figure out why he did any of this in the first place. The idea of doing this for Vin seems less and less sufficient to him as he feels less and less important.

Isaac looks back up just in time to see Leila spin, jump, and shoot a ball high in the air over Vin's grasping hands; it comes down hard on the rim, bounces once, and sinks through the net on its way down. "Hah!" she barks. "'Hot mess' that!" She lopes over to the goal and scoops up the ball, tossing it to Drake. "Shoulda listened to the Queen," she says with a narrow-eyed smirk.

"We're down by one point," Vin replies, almost devoid of inflection in his voice.

"Yeah, well, you'd be down by ten, if Drake could keep up," she calls, turning her head to the side. Drake, who is behind her at the time, holds up a middle finger as he dribbles with the other hand.

"That's bullshit and you know it," Vin says with a similar expression on his face.

Leila walks up to him and puts her hand on his cheek, slowly caressing his face with her fingers. "Aw, you're cute when you're angry."

Vin rolls his eyes and moves to a new position on the court. "All right, 'Queen Hotmess,' let's keep it rolling. I wanna end this in about twenty or so."

Isaac stares as Leila strokes Vin's cheek; the black tendrils crawl up his neck and invade his brain, making him lightheaded and short of breath. And then, Isaac recounts in stark horror, he called her "Queen!" Is he...was that a joke? Did he mean it? Does he...does he like her...like a girlfriend?

The pieces fall together for Isaac. He didn't want to go out with me, because he wants to go out with her. It makes perfect sense that Vin would want to be with someone who plays basketball, his favorite pastime. She's tall, and athletic, and can talk like a normal person. Of course.

Isaac begins to feel completely empty, almost like someone ripped his emotions out of his chest and threw them away. He takes stock of the situation: he has lied multiple times, maybe more than he has done in his life; he broke the rules of his grounding; he's sitting on a bench watching Vin play games with other people; and now he sees Vin flirting with someone else, someone taller, better-looking, smarter, and overall better than Isaac.

He needs to get away. It doesn't matter where.

While the other four are embroiled in a furious round of fighting for the ball, Isaac gets up and numbly starts walking toward the grove of trees. Every step he takes makes the next one want to come faster, and by the time he reaches the edge of the park, he is almost at a sprint, tears flowing down his cheeks. As he runs to escape the situation, he cannot run away from his thoughts; he keeps seeing images of Leila caressing Vin's cheek, and each time the image replays, the tears come faster.

Isaac darts across the street without looking, hardly even caring that he's breaking yet another rule. Panting deeply, his legs burning worse than even during the Pacer test, Isaac finally collapses on the sidewalk in a completely unfamiliar area. He knows he made a few turns here and there when the opportunity presented itself, or when the street ended, but he has no clue where he is, how exactly he got there, or what he's supposed to do next. It doesn't matter, though; when he has his breath back, when he can feel his legs again, he's going to start running farther.

Until then, though, Isaac's emotions pummel his consciousness over and over, berating him for being useless, ridiculing him for thinking that Vin and he could ever be a thing. He wails at the top of his lungs, practically screaming as he smacks his fist into his forehead over and over, both to punish himself for his own stupidity and to try to hit back at the emotions hitting him.

Over the sound of his sobbing, he hears a distant cry. He hushes to see if he can hear it again. Echoing down the street, he hears a faint, "Isaac?!" from Vin. A new, fresh panic hits him, one that he cannot define, but one whose goal is clear: Isaac can't face Vin right now. There's no way he could possibly look at Vin and be able to function at all.

Isaac quickly scrambles to his feet, staggering slightly from the lightheadedness that comes with overexertion and adrenaline. He whips his head around to look for a place to hide, finally settling on the side of a nearby house, near their back fence. The house has a convenient corner he can hide behind, with two garbage cans he can use as further cover. He sneaks behind them, crouching down in the damp, crumbly almost-mud where the grass cannot find enough sun to grow. Practically hyperventilating still, Isaac quiets himself as much as he can, though he finds himself still letting out the high-pitched whine he often does when stressed. As much as he hates to admit it, it helps, so he hides himself and hopes that Vin won't hear it.

He hears a few other voices calling out his name. So they're all looking for me?! he thinks with dread. He scrunches up in a tighter ball, unsure as to why he's even hiding, but dead-set on not being found right now.

After a few more calls, though, he no longer hears his name. He hears nothing but the sounds of cicadas buzzing in the late afternoon air and the rustling of the trees in the light breeze. He begins to wonder if they finally gave up on the search, a prospect that fills him with deeply conflicting emotions: relief that the hunt is over, and the cold fear of abandonment.

Suddenly, the sound of the latch on the fence clicking open sends Isaac straight to his feet, screeching in startlement. It opens to reveal a man with harsh wrinkles in his forehead, solid white hair combed over to the side, and deeply furrowed eyebrows, staring down at Isaac while holding a white trash bag. Isaac immediately feels a rolling wave of confusion and a slowly growing amusement from looking in the man's brown eyes. "Hello?" the man says, his lips slowly twisting into a small smile. "You playing hide-and-seek over here or something?"

"I'm sorry!" Isaac says with wide eyes, clumsily trying to weave between the empty trash cans, knocking them over in the process. "Oh no! I'm, I'm sorry, sir! I'm sorry!" he says as he futilely wavers between picking the cans up and dashing away.

"Oh, I don't really care," the man says with a chuckle. "Happens all the time. Apparently I have a good hiding spot over here." He picks up one of the trashcans and puts it back, dropping the trash bag in it. Bending over to pick up the other one, he says with a bit of a grunt, "I don't think I've seen you around, though. You belong to the new neighbors?"

Isaac stares at him blankly, mostly unable to process what exactly is going on, and certainly not sure how to approach the new question.

After a few moments, the man turns his head a little to the side. "You okay, son?"

More staring. Isaac takes a moment to try to formulate an answer to the question, but there's so much going on that he doesn't even know where to start, especially with the "son" moniker. Eventually, after six or so extremely awkward seconds, Isaac finally shakes his head.

"Do you even live on this street?" the man asks, narrowing his eyes a bit and scrunching his eyebrows up.

"N-no, sir. I...I ran away, and then, and then, I..." Tears flow back into his eyes as he verbalizes his realization: "I think I'm lost."

"Hm." The man pushes the other trash can back against the wall of the house. "Do you have a phone so you could call someone to pick you up, maybe? I can give you the address."

Isaac looks around quickly, only now noticing that he ran away without his backpack. Stupid, stupid, stupid! Isaac berates himself as his face scrunches up in frustration and powerlessness. He hits his forehead with the side of his fist with each repetition of his internal insulting.

He feels a hand press down on his shoulder. "It's all right, son. I know I'm still old-fashioned, but I have a land line you can use. Why don't you come in for a quick moment and we can call your parents?"

"I only have a mom," he responds automatically.

"Then we can call her. Come on in."

A slick wave of dread washes over him when he realizes what calling his mom is going to lead to, but at this point, he really has no other choice. He looks up at the man, warring against himself in breaking yet another rule by going into a stranger's house, but he finally looks directly into the man's eyes to see a heavy dose of pity, concern, care, and a kind of love that Isaac isn't quite familiar with. Weighing his options, he slowly nods. "Okay, sir."

The man leads him through a backyard with a wide-spreading oak tree and a garden stretching along the entire back fence, filled with flowers of multiple colors, shapes, and sizes, onto a deck with at least a dozen different types of cacti in pots, and finally into a living room with a large flatscreen TV, a long couch and a recliner in the same style, a glass coffee table, and pictures of landscapes on the walls. As they walk by the recliner, it begins to rock slowly, making him gasp slightly.

"Norma, we have a guest," the man says. "He's just going to call his parents and find his way home."

There is no response. The man doesn't seek one.

Isaac continues to follow the man into the kitchen, where there is a small desk with an old-style corded phone on it, one of the phones that Isaac really only sees in offices and other places anymore. Isaac picks up the phone and cautiously dials his mom's number. She picks up in less than two rings.



"Isaac! Where are you?!"

"I'm...I'm not with Vin, Mom."

"I know; he called me already. I'm on the way to the park. Tell me where you are."

"I'm at, um, a house. Um..." He asks the address, which the man provides.

"Okay," she responds. "Just... Don't. Go. Anywhere."

"Yes, ma'am."

He hangs up after he hears the phone click, wondering why they didn't go through the typical "goodbye" routine they always do on the phone. He just knows that he's grounded for the rest of his life now, and he doesn't care. He doesn't want to do anything ever again. Why should he care if he can go anywhere? Nobody cares about him, after all. Even Vin likes some girl more than him. It's not fair.

"Well," the man says, "you're welcome to have a seat on the couch while you're waiting."

"Yes, sir," Isaac says perfunctorily. He turns to go to the couch, but he catches a glimpse of a sparkling grand piano in the room near the front door. He stares at it long enough that the man says, "Oh, are you looking at our piano?"

"Yes, sir," Isaac says, moving a bit to look at it. It really is a beautiful piano, much better-looking than the ones at his school. It looks like the pianos you'd see in a hotel on a movie, or on display at the mall; though black, it practically gleams from the light by the chandelier in the room. Its splendor seems completely out of place in the relatively plain house.

"Do you want to come see it closer?" he inquires, walking over to the room.

Isaac follows him wordlessly, drawn to the one object of comfort he's seen today. He actually has missed the sound of the piano in recent days, almost feeling somehow like his world is less colorful without the music he usually has in it.

Isaac enters the open area; full-length mirrors lining one wall reflect the light to an almost uncomfortable level, but they give a perfect view of both sides of the piano and the rest of the house. The man turns to a decorative corner stand with a tall plant in a white porcelain vase; he picks up a small white cloth from the base of the plant and uses it to flick away at a few spots on the piano. "This is a Bösendorfer Concert Grand 290 Imperial. Best sound you're likely to ever hear out of a piano."

"It looks...awesome," Isaac says in reverence.

"To be honest," the man replies, "it's worth a fair bit more than this house, and probably everything else in it."

Isaac just stares in awe, at least until the man says, "Do you play piano, young man?"

Isaac nods. "I like to play p-piano."

"Would you like to give it a try?" he asks, sliding the cushioned bench smoothly out across the hardwood floor.

Isaac feels a simultaneous rush of excitement and anxiety, with a touch of smallness. "Um, is it, um, okay?" he asks awkwardly, taking a few steps toward it.

"Certainly. My wife has certainly put this thing through its steps in her younger years; it can stand a lot of punishment. Go on. Let 'er rip." He puts a little growl in his voice on the last bit, and grins afterward.

Isaac takes a deep breath and sits down on the surprisingly comfortable bench; he's never sat on a cushioned piano bench before, much less has he ever expected a bench to be capable of this level of comfort. The keys are shiny enough that he can see his reflection in each one, dozens of Isaacs staring back at him.

He reaches out his hands to the left and right, but he stops suddenly when he realizes that there is a key difference to this piano: "It has 92," he states, staring at an additional set of black keys at the left end of the keyboard.

"It's quite the special piano," the man says with a large emphasis on 'quite.'

Isaac reaches over tentatively, but as he puts his hand to where it would normally be to play the piano, his wrist guard clacks against the keys. Contemplating it a moment, he decides to remove the wrist guard and place it on the seat next to him. He reaches again and touches the lowest key; the rumbling reverberations from the sound make it feel like his stomach is moving around in his belly. The sound seems bigger than the room itself, like a huge, bellowing creature calling out. The sound startles him enough that he quickly lets up, though the sound resonates for just a moment longer. "Whoa," he breathes.

"Told you," the man replies. Isaac can see him wink in the mirror.

Feeling giddy with euphoria, Isaac grins as he starts to play the "Arabesque." The sound comes out as the same colors, but it is as if the colors and textures were upgraded to have a whole new dimension of quality to them: sharper, fuller, more vivid, larger; in every sense, more. Playing the song almost puts Isaac into a dream-like state, watching the waterfalls cascade into the forests, the playful melody soaring high and drifting down, the regal march of the notes exuding violet and crimson curtains of sound as they stride by.

Throughout the song all the way to the last note, Isaac is transported into a world of sound the likes of which he has never seen quite so brilliantly. As the last note fades and Isaac's consciousness returns to the mundane world, the man sighs. "It is such a joy to hear the beauty of this thing once again," he muses. "I wish I had learned to play when I was younger. Norma was the one who knew how to play it. Haven't had a chance to hear it in its full glory in years." He sighs again. "What's your name, young man?"

"Isaac, sir."

"Well, Isaac, you have made an old man very, very happy. My name is Jim, and it is an absolute pleasure listening to you play." He holds out his hand. Isaac takes it; the skin is tough, almost leathery, but his grip is gentle enough. The man smiles from ear to ear and asks, "Do you know any other classics?"

Isaac thinks. The only other classic he knows fully is the "Moonlight Sonata," so he turns back to the piano and starts to play it. The deep, rich waves of crimson and mahogany seem real enough to Isaac that he could almost touch them, feel the silken texture of the higher notes and the ridges of the lower ones. The sound is truly amazing to him.

A bit into the song, though, he begins to hear a voice matching the melody. He looks up in the mirrors to see if it's Jim, but Jim is looking behind him into the living room. Suddenly, Jim looks back to Isaac, his eyes wide open. He whispers intensely, "Keep playing!"

Isaac didn't have any intention of stopping, but he heeds the man's words regardless. As he continues to play, a soprano voice joins him in the melody, one with heavy vibrato, almost like those opera songs his mother occasionally listens to (though the wildly-fluctuating voices sometimes make him feel sick to his stomach). The voice matches each note perfectly, especially the higher ones.

The man walks into the other room hastily; through the mirrors, he can see the man take the hand of the person sitting in the recliner in both of his own. The recliner has since stopped rocking; Isaac can barely see a bit of an older female face, but not elderly, likely around the same age as Jim, as she opens her mouth and intones the notes along with Isaac. He feels peculiar again, having someone perform alongside him and add to the musical landscape he is creating, but instead of an erection, it just fills his chest with an almost uncomfortable warmth, something that should feel like happiness, but is more intense than he wants to deal with. He takes a deep breath and looks away, which seems to help.

He makes his way through the rest of the first movement of the song, hitting the final minor chord once, then once more. The woman has to switch octaves to sing along, but she keeps a beautiful melody the whole way through. As soon as he finishes, he hears Jim say, "Norma?"

No response.

"Norma, I know you can hear me. Did you like that song?"

Isaac doesn't dare move from his spot, but from his vantage point, he sees the barest evidence of a nod.

"Yes? Yes! You said yes!" Jim squeezes her hand tightly. Laughing, he says again, "You said yes!" Turning to Isaac, he swiftly walks back into the room and locks eyes with Isaac; an absolute onslaught of emotions slams into Isaac, who immediately squints and bows his head to avoid any more exposure to the confusing, overwhelming assault. "My boy Isaac, you have worked a miracle today!"

Isaac doesn't respond, still afraid to open his eyes or lift his head.

"My wife has been...she has dementia, and she hasn't responded directly to me in a long while. She nodded her head! You...of course that would bring her back! Of course!"

As Isaac just listens to the man continue for a bit, Jim finally asks, "Do you know any other classics?"

Isaac looks down. "No, sir. I'm sorry."

The man puts both his hands on Isaac's shoulders. "Don't you worry. You've done an amazing thing for me as it is. I would be happy to pay you to come over here a few times a week and just play that song, if that's all you know. Anything to let her have a little joy in her life once in a while."

"I--I don't...um..." Isaac says, but his stammering is interrupted by the doorbell. Jim goes over and opens the door to reveal Isaac's mother, who immediately scans the area for Isaac. Her eyes land on him and communicate a mess of tangled, complicated emotions that Isaac doesn't get to understand before she looks at Jim.

"Good evening, sir," she says formally, "I'm here to pick up my son and apologize for the terrible inconvenience." Before the man can even respond, she turns again to Isaac and snaps her fingers. "Come on, Isaac. Get in the car."

"Quite to the contrary; Isaac has brought joy to my life in just this short time. He's quite the miracle worker." Jim smiles over at Isaac. "He stirred my wife to lucidity for the first time in over a year. Please, let me treat you to dinner or something as repayment."

"I...appreciate the offer, but...we really do have to get going. Come along, Isaac."

Isaac gets up from the bench and sullenly trudges over to his mother, fully aware that his life is over. Jim takes a step closer and says, "Are you sure? I wish there was a way I could properly thank you; at least give me your address, so I could send you a proper thank-you."

Isaac's mother pauses a moment. "What exactly did you do, Isaac?"

Isaac, feeling torn between confusion and guilt, answers, "I played p-piano 'cuz he said I could, and then his wife sang with me and then she nodded her head."

Jim adds, "You must understand, my wife has dementia. She has been unresponsive, but I just knew that she was still in there somewhere. When he played -- beautifully, I might add -- she sang along. She was there, if only for a moment. She responded to me! I..." He stops, wiping his eyes. "Your son showed me how to reach my wife again. That means everything to me. I beg you, let me find some way to repay you. I, I could pay you handsomely to come over occasionally and play for her, or --"

Ms. Brooks calmly places her hand on Isaac's back and guides him closer to her side. "I don't think that would be in Isaac's best interests, Mr...."

"Jim. Jim Carwell."

"Mr. Carwell," she continues. "But...tell you what: do you have a piece of paper?"

"Yes, absolutely; one moment." He briskly walks into the kitchen, though Isaac notices one leg seems not to work as well as the other. Jim comes back with a notepad from the phone desk, handing it to Isaac's mom. She takes a pen out of her purse and jots something down on it. "Here. My address. I'm glad that Isaac is safe, and I appreciate your hospitality."

"Thank you again," he says, receiving the notepad back from her. "I really can't express my gratitude enough. Your son is an amazing young man."

Isaac feels the pressure of his mom's hand lighten up a bit on his chest as she replies, "Thank you, Mr. Carwell. I have someone waiting in the car, so we do have to get going. Thank you again."

He smiles. "The pleasure was all mine. Have a good day."

Isaac and his mom walk back to the car in silence; Isaac starts to go to the front passenger's side, but he sees Vin sitting in the seat. Vin's eyes widen as he turns to see Isaac; in that moment, Isaac feels flush with hurt, exasperation, confusion, betrayal, concern, fear, relief, safety, and deep attachment. He knows some of those are his, but he isn't able to tell them apart. Vin opens his mouth to say something, but nothing comes out before Isaac jerks his eyes away to go sit silently in the back seat. When he sits down, he notices his backpack in the foot space of the seat next to him.

The air hangs heavy in the car as his mother drives them to Vin's place. Before Vin gets out, Isaac's mom says, "Thank you again for calling me."

"Yeah, of course," Vin says hesitantly. Swallowing, he adds, "Uh, sorry for...what happened. I really had no idea."

"I'll find out the details from Isaac," she says without taking her eyes off of the street in front of her.

Vin stalls for a moment. Finally, he gets out of the seat, but before he heads out, he turns back to Isaac. "Hey, uh...I dunno why you ran away, and I'm sorry if I did something, something wrong to, to make you do that, but..." He hesitates. Isaac looks up and sees Vin's misty eyes, along with ripples of hurt, fear, guilt, desperation, and longing. "...Please don't do that again. And, and you don't gotta lie to --"

"I think it's best to leave Isaac alone, now, Vin." Her tone is flat, her consonants sharp.

Vin glances at Isaac's mom and back to Isaac. He hesitates one moment longer but then closes the door, walking up to his house with a slower than usual step. His mother drives off with Isaac still in the back seat, but Isaac is too busy feeling sad for making Vin cry, and mad at him for wanting to go out with some girl who is better than Isaac in every way. The combination is just enough to stop him from tears, himself.

When they arrive, his mother commands, "Sit on the couch when you go inside."

He listens. When she comes in, closing the door behind her, she sits down on the love seat, facing Isaac silently. Isaac is afraid to look her in the eyes, and not just for the emotions he's sure she's feeling.

A long moment passes in silence, with Isaac shriveling underneath both his mother's disapproval and the oppressive ringing of the silence itself. Eventually, the silence unnerves him so much that he begins to quietly chant, "I'm sorry. I'm sorry, Mom. I'm sorry."

"Isaac," she says in a low tone. "Tell me what you did wrong."

"I went to go hang out with Vin, even though I was grounded."

"Keep going."

The pit in Isaac's stomach grows. "I talked to a stranger."

She shakes her head slowly. "That's the smallest concern. What else did you do?"

Isaac's bottom lip quivers as he admits, "I--I lied to you."

"You lied to me," she confirms. "About what?"

"I lied to you about, about going to Vin's to study."

"Right. While you were grounded."

He squints against the stinging of his eyes. "I'm sorry, Mom."

"I'm not done, Isaac." She holds out a hand and starts ticking her fingers. "First, you didn't tell me that you weren't going to be there for me to pick you up, which had me worried. Then you lied. You lied to me about studying. You lied to me about where you were. And to top it off...did Vin know that you were grounded?"

Isaac momentarily feels almost as if he's falling. "Y-yes, ma'am."

"And he still let you hang out with him?" she asks with a raised eyebrow.

His face contorts as he whines, "No...I told him I wasn't grounded anymore."

"So then you lied to him as well."

Isaac's only response is a snotty sob.

"And then...then you run away for no apparent reason -- Vin still has no idea what happened, either -- and you go off to who-knows-where, scaring both of us to death, so when I get the call from Vin that you're missing, when I'm sitting here thinking you're supposed to be studying..." She trails off. Isaac only notices after a few moments of voiceless sobs; he looks up to see that his mother's eyes are full of tears, as well. She adds, with her own grimace, "I was scared I was going to lose you, Isaac! You could have gotten lost, or been kidnapped, or--or worse, and..."

Isaac starts to cry full-lunged sobs and wails, chanting, "I'm sorry! I'm sorry, Mom!" He balls up his fists and runs the flats of his fingers across his face heavily, trying to rub away the emotional pain.

His mother stops talking. She wipes her eyes and sniffles a little bit, but she otherwise remains silent as Isaac continues nearly screeching between sobs. She doesn't respond even as Isaac throws himself on the floor, curling himself up in a ball and screaming at his knees.

For a subjective eternity, Isaac's only thoughts are of how horrible he is, and how to get rid of the pain of being so horrible. At one point, as he starts to bang the side of his head against the floor, he feels a pillow slide underneath him, preventing him from impact. The disruption to his self-harm manifests as a return to wailing, hard enough to gag and choke him on his own exertions.

Eventually, he runs out of steam, and his emotions feel flat, like an empty void. He still insults himself for his decisions, but they have no sting anymore. When he finally opens his eyes again, he sees his mother staring at him. He is utterly afraid of meeting her eyes, so he immediately goes back to staring forward at the crown molding on the far wall.

After a protracted silence, punctuated only by sniffles and occasional whines. Isaac's mother says, "I'm beginning to wonder who you are, sometimes."

Isaac frowns. "I'm Isaac," he states.

"Really?" she replies. "Because the Isaac that I know, the Isaac I raised, would never lie like that to me, or to his friends...he wouldn't try to run away from his punishments...he wouldn't do things that scare everybody like that."

"But Mom, I...I don't get it. I'm Isaac." Isaac feels equal parts confused and scared at what his mother means.

"I know, Isaac. It's..." She sighs. "I know. But when someone starts acting completely differently, like you are, it makes me wonder what happened to make you be like that. Why? Why did you even do all this in the first place?"

Isaac takes a moment to think. "Because it wasn't fair."

"What wasn't fair? Me taking your phone? The grounding?"

"The grounding."

"Isaac, you got in a fight at school. You started it. You can't do that. You know that."

"I had to!" he snaps back, sitting up. "He insulted Vin!"

"So you talk to an adult. You don't start a fight."

Isaac stares up at her, his determination and indignation more than a match for her stubborn frustration. "He wouldn't stop if I just told on him. Then he would just call me a snitch and it would get worse."

"I am not arguing this," she states firmly. "You can make yourself a sandwich for dinner, but then you're going to your room. You're still grounded. Vin can wait another week to see you, and if you don't show up to get picked up immediately after school, I will find you, and may the Lord have mercy on your soul if I have to find you again."

"I don't want to talk to Vin anymore," Isaac replies softly. "I don't want to talk to anyone anymore." Ignoring his stomach, he trudges off to his room, defeated. Routine be damned; all he wants to do is be miserable. He doesn't even have tears left to cry, so he undresses, puts on his pajamas, and goes to sleep.