Eye to Eye

Chapter 3

The next day is a bit quieter for Isaac. Christian is absent, for starters. Isaac feels a pang of guilt as he wonders whether his actions made Christian stay home; he is normally never absent.

For another, Mr. Guthrie brings in a laptop for Isaac to practice essential inference skills, such as the emotion thing with faces. There’s a cute little game to play where Isaac has to guess what the person is thinking based on their facial expression, dragging the right thought bubble over their head; it’s a bit childish, but it’s still useful. That, and it’s far less awkward than interacting with others or Mr. Guthrie directly. At least he knows that he won’t unintentionally get lost in the eyes of some computer-animated boy. Mr. Guthrie, for his part, occasionally checks on Isaac’s progress before looking over other students’ work; he talks to Isaac, but he seems to studiously avoid looking at him at all while they talk. This suits Isaac fine, of course -- he doesn’t need to see Mr. Guthrie’s eyes to hear his deep voice, nor to understand what he wants. He does catch Mr. Guthrie looking at him from the edge of his vision a few times, but he doesn’t bother looking up to see why.

Gym class is actually boring for once: nobody harasses Isaac for changing in the stall, Vin is happy to see Isaac (and vice-versa), and the physical activities are all fairly tolerable. Near the end of class, after they get dressed again, Isaac works up the nerve to approach Vin. “Are, um, are you going to be playing p-piano today?”

He smiles a weird smile, not a happy one, and he says, “Sorry, my man, but I got practice today, remember? That and I have a stupid dentist appointment Thursday, like right at the end of school. I’m actually missing my last class.” He rolls his eyes. “I’d rather be in school, y’know?”

Isaac doesn’t see anything wrong with Vin’s teeth, but maybe it’s just like a regular visit thing. “Oh, okay,” he says. It’s not okay, but he doesn’t know how else to say it. “So, um, maybe we can play on Friday?”

“I think so,” he says slowly. “No guarantees, but I’ll try to be there.”

“Okay, Vin,” Isaac responds quietly as the bell chimes over his words. Vin waves and heads out; Isaac contemplates whether he should even get his hopes up. He shelves the thought for now, realizing with irritation that he took too long and now has to worm his way through the crowds of people to get to class.

Things are uneventful until lunch, but Isaac immediately gets a pit in his stomach as he enters the cafeteria; the events from yesterday are still harshly imprinted in his memory. He expects every eye to stare at him as he walks in, but strangely, not a single person seems to even notice his entrance. Give them a moment to see me, he thinks as he trudges up to the lunch line. There aren’t a lot of people at the tables yet -- Isaac made his way early -- but still, even standing in line behind others, nobody even looks to see he’s there.

He gets a piece of stuffed crust pizza for his entree and puts some green beans and some jello on his tray. It’s a pretty decent-sized piece of pizza, he notices, so that way he won’t have to worry about eating the other stuff; it’s just there to make the lunch ladies happy. As he gets to the head of the line, the lady there smiles and says, “How you doin’, dear?”

Isaac pauses a moment. He’s not sure why she’s being so nice to him, especially since he almost stole something yesterday morning. Still, the best response is to be polite, even if he’s confused, so he replies, “Good, ma’am.” He stares at the wall, making sure he can see her movements and some of her facial expression out of the corner of his eye.

“Good to hear. Enjoy your lunch!”

“Yes, ma’am.” He walks over to his typical table, still completely lost as to why she started being friendly to an almost-criminal such as himself. At least nobody else noticed that moment during breakfast yesterday, or he’d be embarrassed beyond belief.

Still, since it doesn’t seem to bother her, he tries his best to shrug it off and go enjoy lunch. He rather enjoys Wednesdays -- pizza day -- and is quite happy to see that there are seven pepperoni slices on it. He takes one off and leaves it to the side, arranging the rest so that each one takes up about a bite’s worth of pizza. It already looks tastier to him.

He is both somewhat pleased and vaguely regretful about the general silence at lunch. It is nice to be able to concentrate on his food without having to listen to someone and prepare responses all the time. Then again, he is sure he’s the reason Christian didn’t show up to school today, so he does feel bad about it. Maybe I can text him later to ask if he wants to play Clash Royale, he wonders. He really hates texting, but it beats talking on the phone.

It’s very strange to Isaac, though, that nobody seems to mess with him. Nobody calls him a crybaby, or Mime Boy, or Voodoo Boy, or anything weird like that. Nobody even comes near his table, and when he gets up to throw his trash away, nobody says anything. It actually makes him feel weird, like his routine is being thrown off. In the mornings, he dresses the same way; he says the Pledge of Allegiance the same way; he eats the same way; he even gets insulted the same way. He’s not sure why today is so different. In an odd way, he almost feels worse for not encountering any problems at lunch. Maybe I’m just being oversensitive, he considers. Regardless, the bell rings, and he leaves to go to the rest of his classes.

After school, he heads to the practice rooms, already an indelible part of his routine. He calls his mom and asks; she goes through the ritual with him and says that she’ll be by at 4:30 as usual. He heads in and freezes at the door when he notices a few people still in the choir room hanging out on the risers, a boy with smooth brown hair down to his chin, parted in the middle, and a girl with similarly-colored hair pulled up in a loose bun. The boy looks over at Isaac, meeting his eyes; Isaac feels a fleeting feeling of surprise followed by fear and an intense, seething resentment. Isaac quickly breaks eye contact, confused and afraid; he hears the boy mutter something to the girl, and the risers creak as they get up and walk out the back entrance to the choir room. Do I know him? Isaac wonders. Regardless, the boy was intimidating. Isaac glances quickly up to see that they actually left, slinking across the walls of the choir room to the nearest practice room.

He goes into the room and sits on the bench, opening the piano and staring at the keys to clear his mind. He starts out with the “Für Elise,” enjoying the shimmering curtains of yellow and blue that delicately dance about in the melody as the open octaves of the left hand paint a red sandstone landscape. He gets through the beginning, but he’s not a fan of the second movement; he contemplates another classical one he knows, but instead decides to practice the “Shevat” song that Vin played. He plays through the emerald rains and the lost souls of the left hand, nailing the wide chord in the middle, then soaring through the windy melody.

He breaks off where Vin stopped last time, realizing that he hasn’t actually listened to the entire song, yet. He reaches into his backpack and digs out his phone, where he notices that he has a text message.

 

Christian: hey i saw u on clash royle u wan 2 join my clam??

Christian: clan**

 

It takes Isaac a good moment to decipher Christian’s attempt at a text message; he has to read it out loud before it makes any sense to him. At least he doesn’t say as much in text messages, Isaac muses. He replies with just a simple “Yes.” He wonders why Christian is texting him even though he wasn’t here today; maybe he just was a little sick, he considers. I guess he doesn’t hate me anymore.

While looking at his phone, waiting for it to vibrate with a reply from Christian, there is a sudden knock at the door -- not loud, but in the quiet of the room, it startles Isaac enough that he drops his phone into his backpack. He looks up through the thin window in the door to see a face staring back at him: a boy with deeply tanned skin and black hair slicked over in a wave to one side, with the other side shaved almost completely bald; a slight smile with teeth that appear too big to fit in place, judging by their crooked arrangement; high but soft cheeks that accent his smile; and a pair of eyes that at first glance seem to be nothing but large black pupils -- the brown of his irises is so deep that it takes a moment to even notice it. In a strange way, the boy’s face almost reminds Isaac of a mouse, but in a good way. Isaac is too busy noticing the interplay of emotions tangling up in his chest, however, to think about it much more than that. Irritation and surprise mingled with confusion flow outward to be met by a wave of awe, splashed with an apologetic timidity, all wrapped up in a shell of hope and tied off with--

Isaac doesn’t get a chance to finish analyzing the emotions he feels, as the boy looks down at the doorknob, opening the door. As he enters, carrying a small black violin case, Isaac stares at the boy’s black Nike shirt. He looks to be as tall as Isaac, or maybe a tiny bit taller. The boy holds the case up to Isaac as he begins to speak in a very husky voice, almost like he had lost it to illness or yelling, or something. “Hey, uh, sorry...but I figured maybe you were done in here. The, uh, other practice room, there’s someone already in there in voice lessons, so...could I use this one? It’s fine if you’re still using it, just, if you’re done...”

Isaac feels a hot flush of shame as he realizes that he’s taking up valuable practice space for other people who need it for their classes. “Oh, uhh...” he stammers as he gets his backpack together. “I’m--I’m sorry. I’m sorry. Um, Excuse me. I’m sorry.” He begins to shuffle his backpack into his back.

“Um, I’m just--it’s okay,” the boy says, but Isaac continues to get his stuff situated so he can dart out. The boy tries again, “No, seriously, it’s fine. I...you’re allowed to be here, you know. It’s not like it’s my room or anything.”

Isaac calms down a little bit, but he still feels in the wrong. “I don’t, um, practice, I mean, I don’t sing s-stuff, um, choir or, play...” He casts his eyes to the floor, defeated. “Can I go?” he asks, his eyes flush with tears of frustration and shame.

The other boy doesn’t respond for a moment. “Oh!” he says, stepping out of the way in the cramped room. “I’m sorry. Hey, um, you, I really liked your song you were playing. It was really good, like, really really good.”

Isaac takes a step to the door but stops when he hears the compliment. After an awkward pause, Isaac remembers that he’s completely forgetting to be polite. “Um, thank you. I’m sorry. Thank you.” Isaac squeezes by him to leave, muttering, “Goodbye. I’m sorry.”

He closes the door behind him, not waiting for a reply, and hastily makes his way to the courtyard outside. He looked familiar, Isaac realizes on his way out. Where do I know him from? Perhaps he’s just been around the halls.

There’s still a good thirty minutes before his mom shows up, but he doesn’t have anything else to do in the school. He sits on a bench in the covered walkway area out front, picking at the side of his thumb and rocking slightly. There are quite a few people hanging around outside, most of them talking to one another or having fun, throwing soccer balls against the brick side of the building and the like.

He sees a piece of skin he has accidentally picked open on the side of his thumb and places the side in his mouth to stop the bleeding. At that moment, he sees two pairs of legs walk by; one of them spits, “Fucking freak sucks his thumb, too?”

He turns red with embarrassment, but he responds (with the side of his thumb in his mouth), “I’m not sucking my thumb. I’m bleeding.”

The boy repeats him in a mocking tone. “I’m not thucking my thumb. I’m bleeding. Little faggot.” He spits a disgusting loogie on the ground and walks off with the girl as if they had never stopped to taunt Isaac at all.

Isaac gags at the sight of the glob on the concrete, looking away before it grosses him out any more. He looks instead at his thumb, which has already stopped its marginal bleeding. He wishes he could stop doing that to his fingers, but it’s impossible to stop doing it when he’s upset or nervous, which is...often. As a random side thought, he realizes that he’s been bullied once today, so things are a little back to normal. He has long ago accepted that if someone’s making fun of him, it’s because he’s different and therefore deserves it. When his mom finally shows up, he gets in the car and heads home, being careful not to say anything about the bullying, for fear that his mom would get mad.

Later that day, he spends a good bit of time playing Clash Royale. He joins Christian’s clan, giving them both some added benefits, but for the most part, they just end up playing match after match for hours. It’s an easy way for Isaac to spend the majority of the day, and soon enough, between dinner and bathtime, the day is done. Isaac just wishes that he could skip Thursday and get to Friday so that he and Vin could be together again.

 

***

 

It turns out that Thursday isn’t too terrible of a day, at least at the start. Isaac’s morning routine goes without a hitch, and Christian is back to school, as well. They have a mostly one-sided conversation during homeroom about Clash Royale and how awesome it is that Isaac is playing again; he agrees that it is pretty fun, but mostly he’s just quietly glad that he didn’t ruin his friendship with Christian. They recite the Pledge, tune out the morning announcements, and head off to their first class. Isaac is actually decently at peace with the current setup in reading class, since Mr. Guthrie is having him do a different set of things than all the annoying things Mrs. Stone wants. Isaac does notice that Mr. Guthrie has started writing down a lot of things on a pad of paper whilst Isaac is working through the computer games, but the contents of what he’s writing are completely unimportant to him.

About three-quarters of the way through the class, Mr. Guthrie gets up from the table and asks something to Mrs. Stone. He comes back and kneels next to Isaac; Isaac notices that the color of his fancy shirt today is the same turquoise of a minor sixth interval. “Hey. I’d like to ask you a few questions; please come with me to my office.”

Isaac hesitates, but he acquiesces. He wonders what this is about and why Mr. Guthrie is breaking the routine. They head out of the class, down the hallway, around the corner, and into the office next to the library. Isaac remembers being in here once or twice, usually to take a standardized test in a small group or whatnot. He is instructed to take a seat at the long table in the middle of the room; Mr. Guthrie puts the laptop and his other materials down on the table, as well.

“Isaac,” he says in his deep, rumbly tuba of a voice, “can you explain why you don’t like to look at people in the eyes?”

Isaac takes a long moment to answer. “Am I in trouble?” he asks meekly.

“No, no, not at all,” he reassures Isaac. “I ask because...if we can figure out what bothers you, we might be able to get you past this issue and help you out, both academically and socially.”

Not a whole lot of that sinks in for Isaac, but he tries to answer. “Um, I feel...mmm. I feel...bad?” He sighs and hangs his head. “I don’t know how...”

“Hold on,” Mr. Guthrie says. He goes to his desk in the corner of the room and comes back with a box of colored pencils and a sheet of white paper. “Take some time and see if this helps you come up with words. You can draw whatever you need to.”

Isaac stares at the tools he’s been given. How could I show this? he thinks, analyzing the possibilities. He settles on drawing himself as a little bit better than a stick figure -- he likes drawing geometric shapes, but he is terrible at living things -- and then someone like Mr. Guthrie (taller, that purple shirt he wore the first time, a little goatee). He does his best to make it look like they’re looking at each other, but it doesn’t look nearly as good as he’d like it to.

Apparently, Mr. Guthrie is aware of Isaac’s frustration, as he says, “Don’t worry if it’s not perfect. It’s only to help both of us understand things better. I promise I won’t show it to anybody else.”

Isaac takes a deep breath, trying to put his irritations aside. He then takes a moment to consider his next step: he takes a black pencil, a pink pencil, and a yellow pencil, and places them at the ready. He draws a black arrow pointing from his eyes to Mr. Guthrie’s, and vice-versa. Then he takes the pink pencil and draws a bunch of scribbles in his chest to represent how his emotions feel to him, like a big tangle. He takes a few other colors and scribbles in there too, for good measure.

Finally, after a moment of deliberation, he takes the yellow pencil and draws a line from Mr. Guthrie’s eyes going into Isaac’s own eyes, down his neck, and scribbling their way into his chest with the other emotions. Then, as a finishing touch, he takes the black pencil and draws lines that circle both of them like a large rope being wound around both of them. He puts the pencils down and considers his work; it’s far from perfect, but it actually makes some sense to him. He passes it to Mr. Guthrie.

“Interesting,” he says, “very interesting. Very good detail. Now, I want you to take a moment to think about it, and then I’d like you to describe to me what this picture means: who these are, what the arrows mean, what these ovals are, and what that jumble of colors is. If you can, that is.”

Isaac rolls his eyes a bit unconsciously; why does this have to be so hard? he wonders. He stares at the picture as his ideas assemble themselves the best they can. “Um, so, when I look at someone’s eyes, um...that’s th-this arrow here, and this one coming back. And then, um, all this,” he indicates the scribble in his chest, “is my...if maybe I’m happy, or sad, or...um. My emotions. And then when I see s-someone, all this,” he indicates the jumble of emotions in his chest, “gets all...like this.” He demonstrates by mashing his fingers together in a big tangle. “And then, and then I feel something else, like, um, other...emotions? Maybe? But they’re not me, or--or they’re, um, I don’t know. Um, I think maybe they are inside the other person’s eyes. And then maybe here, too.” He scribbles some yellow in Mr. Guthrie’s chest on the picture. “I...” he starts, but suddenly feels very stupid and silly for what he’s saying, and finds himself chanting, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay,” Mr. Guthrie insists. “Emotions are very hard to describe. You’re actually doing very well.” He spins the picture around to examine it better. “So you’re saying that you think you might be...feeling their emotions through their eyes?”

Isaac doesn’t answer, half because he’s not entirely sure if that’s true, and half because it sounds completely impossible and stupid.

“Well, what do these mean, here?” he asks, indicating the lines encircling both bodies.

“Those are...um. I feel like...” He clenches his fists a few times, looking for words to describe the sensation. He finally clasps both his hands together. “Like this...like, too...too close. Or, um, too...together?” He sighs deeply, red-faced from the vulnerability of this exercise.

Mr. Guthrie breaks the momentary silence that follows. “I would like to try something. Isaac, would you please look at my eyes?”

Isaac swallows hard, hesitating a while. Finally, he says, “Yes, sir,” and looks up at Mr. Guthrie’s eyes. Looking at his face reignites that same feeling of attraction that he had the first time he looked at the man, but mixed in with that is the uneasiness of this entire session, the frustration of not being able to express himself, and a complete sense of elation, of extreme happiness that he’s sure doesn’t belong there; this, of course, adds confusion into the mix, and before long, he has to break eye contact before he becomes overwhelmed by it.

Mr. Guthrie maintains a completely stoic face through the entire thing, so Isaac has no idea how he feels about the moment -- not that he’s any good at reading emotions, anyway. Mr. Guthrie, though, asks Isaac, “What did you feel?”

He tries his best to relate the information in whatever words he can find; at the end, he adds, “And, um, there was like, this really happy feeling, but I don’t think I’m really happy. Um, I’m sorry.”

Mr. Guthrie breaks out into a huge grin. “I was remembering my daughter’s first softball win, and how happy it made me. I was the proudest father in the stadium. I think you have a gift, Isaac. You said you can’t read faces, but you knew how I felt even without a facial expression.”

Isaac looks back at him in surprise, and feels that same pride and excitement as he did before, which immediately disappears from his chest when he looks away. “Is that th-the th...um, the th-thing you said before? Empathy?”

“I’ll be honest: I don’t know what it is. I don’t know if anyone has ever encountered it, but I do know that it goes both ways, and that it is completely astounding.”

Isaac frowns, but says nothing. Mr. Guthrie continues, “When you look at me, I can see the emotions on your face like others can, but you made me feel other emotions while you looked at me. It was hard to tell, but I felt the confusion that I saw on your face and the frustration that you were showing with the drawing. Really, Isaac, this is amazing! We might be on the verge of something incredible!” Isaac doesn’t want to be something incredible; it sounds like it might get him a lot of attention, and that’s the last thing he wants.

Mr. Guthrie continues, “I think you...here. Let me try this.” He gets a piece of paper and writes something on it. He puts it face-down on the table and asks, “Okay, can you look at me again? I want you to tell me what emotions you feel that aren’t ‘right,’ or don’t feel like yours.”

“Yes, sir.” He looks up into Mr. Guthrie’s eyes again and feels an intense irritation and indignation, all leading to anger. He looks away quickly, intimidated by the onslaught of emotion.

Mr. Guthrie asks, “What emotion did you feel?”

Isaac is almost afraid to say it aloud. “Mad.”

“Now look at the piece of paper,” he prompts, sliding it over to Isaac.

Isaac flips it over to see the word “angry” written on it. His eyes go wide; there’s no way, he thinks. Then again, what else would explain all these weird feelings he’s been getting when he looks at people? What else would explain why the feelings go away when he stops? And -- wait, he said he felt my emotions. Oh, oh no. “Mr. Guthrie?”

“Yes, Isaac?”

“Did you feel...um...when I looked at you, did you, um...n-never mind.” Isaac is deathly afraid that Mr. Guthrie knows about his attraction; Isaac is going to be in so much trouble.

Mr. Guthrie’s face stays stoic, but he begins to talk with a very animated inflection. “This is absolutely incredible, Isaac. I hope you realize how much of a discovery this is. You...you may be the first proof.”

Isaac doesn’t understand what Mr. Guthrie is talking about at all. Proof? He asks himself, perplexed. Proof of what? What does that mean?

Mr. Guthrie looks over Isaac’s head at the clock on the back wall, careful not to give eye contact to Isaac. “It’s just about time to go to class, so you need to get ready. Thank you very much for your time today.” He and Isaac stand up, but Mr. Guthrie walks over to stand uncomfortably close. He says in a low voice, “If I were you, I wouldn’t talk about these things to other people. They might not understand it, and they might be afraid of it. Do you understand?”

Isaac stares at the wall with wide eyes. “Um...y-yes, sir.”

“Good. I don’t want you to get hurt.” Mr. Guthrie walks away just as the bell rings. “Have a good day, Isaac.”

“H-have a good day, Mr. Guthrie.” Isaac quickly exits the room, thoroughly uneasy about the interactions they just had.

The unease travels with him to gym class, where he takes a little longer dressing out in the stall than he normally would. I have a gift, he thinks. But what if I don’t want it? Can I somehow stop it? Maybe knowing what people are feeling isn’t all that good. What if people find out and try to hurt me, like Mr. Guthrie said? Maybe I shouldn’t ever look at people’s eyes again. I don’t want to know what they’re thinking, if that’s how it works. But I need to--

Isaac’s train of thought is interrupted by the coach’s whistle. He hurriedly folds his regular clothes up and brings them out of the stall, putting them away and rushing outside to gym class. He sees Vin sitting on the bleachers already; he hurries over to take a seat next to him, but they don’t get to say anything before the coach starts up class. The class itself is mainly just learning how to stretch so that they don’t get injured when they start more strenuous activities next week. Isaac is pretty limber, so he doesn’t have much of a problem with most of them; he watches as a few boys put their legs out and struggle as hard as they can to touch their toes to no avail, but he just grabs his toes and pulls forward. It feels pretty nice, really; however, the butterfly stretch actually doesn’t feel like anything to him as he puts the soles of his feet together, tucks them up near his crotch, and plants his forehead on his shoes. There’s almost no stretch at all involved there to him.

Vin looks over at him as he does so and whispers, “Damn, dude.”

Isaac turns to his side, pressing his ear on his shoes. “What?” he asks, noticing that Vin is having a bit more trouble bending that far down.

“You’re just...you’re like a rubber band,” Vin says, laughing. “How do you bend that far?!”

Isaac giggles and shrugs. “I just do.” To prove it, he puts one leg over the back of his head. “See?”

“What the hell, man!?” Vin says, cracking up laughing, his voice spiking with each peal of laughter.

One of the other boys points to him. “Dude, look at that kid!” A bunch of other boys pick their heads up and stare at Isaac. Isaac quickly removes his leg and goes back to the butterfly stretch, staring intently at his shoes until everyone stops staring at him and talking about it. Thankfully, the coach blows the whistle -- “thankfully” in that even though it slices his ears, it gets everyone’s attention -- and everyone else returns to their stretching routine.

At the end of class, everyone gets dressed again without incident; on the way out, Vin passes by Isaac and says, “Remember that I have the dentist appointment today. See you tomorrow?”

“See you tomorrow, Vin,” he says with a grin.

Lunch is quiet again, at least as far as bullies or hecklers go. Christian returns to his typical spot across from Isaac at the empty corner lunch table. “So I’m super glad that you’re in my clan on Clash Royale, so now we can donate cards to each other and get a lot better than we are right now even though, even though you’re like already two levels higher than me. So, um, can you donate some cards to me so I can maybe catch up to you so that I can beat all the other people and make the clan better? We could get more things and then maybe I could catch up to you and we could, we could, um, we could beat all the other people.”

Isaac finishes cutting his chicken fajita into sixths and eats a piece, chewing it in rhythm to “Für Elise.” After he swallows, he replies, “But I need my cards.”

Christian pouts. “But you don’t need all your cards, do you? Maybe, maybe you’re, um, maybe you have some cards that you want to get better, and I can trade you those cards and you can trade the ones you’re not using to me so I can get better and catch up to you. Like, um, I just got a Sparky and, and it’s my best card so I could make it a lot better.”

Isaac eats a spork-full of corn, counting to make sure there are the right number of kernels, first. “But you can’t donate Legendaries,” he points out.

“Oh,” Christian says. “Oh yeah. Well, um, also I have a lot of common cards that aren’t max level yet. Do you have some extras?”

“Probably,” he says, “like bats and skeletons and stuff?”

“Yeah, cuz I have a lot that I need to have more cards to get max level.”

Isaac shrugs, eating a chunk of watermelon. “I guess so,” he finally says.

“Yesssss!” Christian hisses, pumping his fist. “I will be the strongest Clash player ever!

Isaac highly doubts this; for one, he’s still higher level than Christian, even though he hasn’t played in over a year. For another, bats and skeletons aren’t going to win him anything. Isaac’s too busy eating more fajita to respond, though.

The conversation drifts through other aspects of the game: which cards are the best, which other cards takes those ones out, how come Isaac always wins, etc. Soon enough, lunch passes by, and the boys are off.

None of the rest of his classes are strange in any way, thankfully; reading class and Mr. Guthrie were already strange enough, and there’s only so much routine-breaking that Isaac can endure. At the end of school, Isaac briefly considers calling his mom to ask about piano time, but since Vin’s not there and he’s already had an embarrassing encounter with another person, he’s not keen on the idea. He doesn’t like breaking his routine, but in a battle between a broken routine and an awkward encounter, he’d much rather skip the chance altogether. Instead, he waits the usual amount of time -- inside on the benches next to the office, this time, not out with the skaters and jerks -- and darts out when she calls. The rest of the day is spent between finishing up some boring but easy history homework, playing hours of Clash Royale (including donating some of his cards to make Christian happy), and the regular dinner and bathtime. The entire time he is playing Clash Royale, though, he has his earbuds in, listening to the “Shevat” piano song on YouTube over and over again, never seeming to tire of it.

He doesn’t feel the need to jack off today, so bathtime is a bit shorter than normal, giving him more time to play Clash Royale (and listen to the song) before bed. He actually almost drains his entire phone battery before putting it away. He doesn’t like to go to bed late, so he sets his alarm, brushes his teeth, puts on his pajamas, and snuggles into bed.

 

***

 

Isaac wakes up with a start, his dreams still fresh in his mind. He struggles to make sense of the quickly-fading image of him sitting down with Vin straddling him from behind, slowly rubbing his back and running his fingers through Isaac’s hair. It seemed so real; even his heart is beating at around 150 beats per minute, to his estimate.

He listens for the pleasant blue sound of the alarm, but he hears nothing but the gentle gray swishing of the ceiling fan quietly swirling the air about the room. This is a bad thing, he thinks. He’s not supposed to wake up before his alarm. That’s not how things are supposed to go, he worries. He lays in bed, wondering if he should just wait for the clock to go off so that things are back on track, but another strange sensation takes him off-guard: a cold dampness on his privates.

He quickly sits upright, scrambling to get the covers off himself. Did I pee the bed? he questions with a growing horror. He had stopped peeing the bed only two years back; it wasn’t right that he would go back to that. First the clock, and now I peed in the bed? This can’t...he pauses in his thoughts. There’s no big wet spot on the sheets. Confused, he checks his pajamas and finds only a tiny dark spot on it; it’s wet, and cold, but it’s not a very big spot. Maybe he stopped before he finished peeing; maybe he only had to pee a little bit. Regardless, Isaac finds himself unable to process this. The sensation of the cold dampness on his privates is intensely uncomfortable to him, so he slips his pajama bottoms off, where he finds the wet spot is bigger on his briefs. Just the sight of it makes him feel disgusted at himself, so he scoots his briefs off and kicks them and the pajama bottoms away instead of folding the pajamas up and putting the briefs in the hamper like he should. He knows this, but he just needs the source of his stress far away from him, as fast as possible.

Isaac still hasn’t heard the alarm, and now he is sitting in bed, naked from the waist down, and his privates are still cold. Without any better ideas or ways to cope, he begins to cry, the sort of cry a child gives when seeking attention. He knows he sounds like a big baby right now, but it’s the only thing he can manage to do.

Shortly, his door opens to reveal his mom. He doesn’t look up, but from his perspective, he can see that she is dressed, though she doesn’t have her shoes on or her purse in hand like usual. But my alarm hasn’t gone off yet, he remembers, so she wasn’t ready either. This is all my fault. The sight of her makes him begin to cry harder; he starts to hit his forehead with the palm of his hand to get himself to stop it, to stop feeling worse and worse...

She rushes over and kneels in front of him, slowly pulling his hand down from his head and rubbing her hands firmly and slowly up and down his arms, a method she has used many times before to calm him down. The pressure helps, somehow; the feeling of her warm hands on his arms is a reassuring, comforting feeling that fights against the impending meltdown. Isaac shakes his hands as if he were trying to flick water off of them, a motion that he used to do a lot more often to when he was anxious, but right now it seems an adequate replacement to hitting his forehead. They both keep up the pattern until the storm breaks and begins to simmer down. All the while, she chants, “It’s okay, baby. It’s okay. It’s okay.”

Eventually, the crisis is averted; he sits, sniffling and breathing heavily, eyes shut tight, occasional hiccups breaking his rhythm. After he is calm enough, his mom asks softly, “What’s the matter, Doodlebug?”

Through his hiccups, Isaac replies, “I--I peed the bed. I’m sorry. I--I’m sorry, Mom.”

She leans over to examine the bed. “Honey, I don’t see anything. Are you sure? Where are your pajamas?” Isaac points to the far wall. She walks over and picks them up, looking carefully at them. This makes Isaac uncomfortable, and the sniffling increases. Finally, she says, “Isaac. Listen, honey. You didn’t pee the bed.” She drops both articles of clothing into the hamper and comes back over, sitting next to Isaac on the bed. “That...you didn’t pee the bed. Don’t worry. You had something called a ‘nocturnal emission’; some people call it a ‘wet dream.’ It’s completely okay, and I’m not mad at you. Okay, Doodlebug?”

Isaac doesn’t answer for a moment. “But, um...what...?” he tries to ask, but he realizes he doesn’t even know what he wants to say.

“You are a growing boy, and you are changing in a lot of ways,” she explains. “We’ve talked about some of them, but this is just another thing that sometimes happens when you’re growing up. Now that your penis and testes are growing, they are starting to make something called ‘semen,’ which has sperm in it.”

Isaac interrupts, “I know what sperm and semen is. We studied it in science last year.” The fact that his mom used the words “penis” and “testes” to him doesn’t register in the least bit as awkward, as might be the case for other kids his age; they’re just words to him.

“Right,” she says. She takes a deep breath and continues, “Then you probably already know that it...comes out when you have sex or masturbate. Sometimes, though, it comes out while you’re asleep. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, and you don’t really have any control over it. If it happens, just change your underwear like always, and if your pajamas get messy from it, I can wash them before you go to bed. I promise you I won’t be mad.”

This doesn’t comfort Isaac at all; his body shouldn’t be doing things that he can’t control, especially if he doesn’t know they’re going to happen. “Is it--is it all the time now?” he asks.

“No, honey,” she reassures him, “it will probably only be once in a while. We’ll see, but if it bothers you, you can always let me know.”

The pleasant blue sound of his alarm begins to play, which sets Isaac off again. He knew from the start it wasn’t going to be a good day. Isaac’s mom turns off the phone and asks Isaac, “Would you like to stay home for the morning so that you can calm down?”

Isaac nods, wiping his nose on his arm. “Yes, ma’am.” He quickly gasps, though, when he realizes what that would mean. “Mom. I need to be there by 9:32.”

“Why then?” she asks.

“9:32 is the start of P.E. class, and, um...” he trails off. He doesn’t want to tell his mom that it’s because Vin is there. It’s not like we’re going out or anything, he reminds himself. We’re just friends.

Mom stares at him for a moment. “That’s the class that Vin is in, isn’t it?”

How does she know everything?! Isaac wonders incredulously. “Yes, ma'am.”

She smiles a big smile. “Then let’s get you dressed, eat some breakfast, and then you can watch a cartoon or two before school.”

Isaac sniffles deeply, trying to clear the snot out of his nose, and nods with a small smile. “Okay, Mom.”

Isaac enjoys a rerun of a Pokémon episode as his mom cooks breakfast for the both of them; in short order, she calls him to the kitchen table and presents him with a true work of art. On his favorite plate (it’s one of Mom’s fine white china plates with a blue rim) are arranged three strips of bacon pointing outward radially; three triangles of toast placed in the spaces between each; and three small portions of eggs, each one sitting just outside the toast. Each piece of toast is buttered and spread evenly with strawberry jelly, his favorite. Isaac is elated at the perfection of his food, enough so that he bounces in place for a moment before deciding how to eat it.

“Well?” his mom asks as she takes a bite of toast from her own, less-well-arranged plate.

Isaac looks at it a moment longer, and stops bouncing. “I don’t know where to start.”

“Start at the top, like a clock, and eat around! It’ll taste better that way.” She punctuates the sentence with the crackling of a strip of bacon in her mouth.

And so he does: he eats the top strip of bacon, and then the bit of eggs, and then the toast, washing it down with a bit of milk. He does the same with each third of his meal, but by the very end, he feels too full to finish the last bit of bread; he stares at it, wishing he could figure out a way to eat it without feeling like complete crap later.

“Isaac!” his mom whispers loudly. “Is that a Pokémon in the living room?” She looks aside intently.

Isaac immediately whips his head around, wondering what could possibly look like a Pokémon that his mom would see. He knows they don’t really exist, so how could one be there? Clearly, Mom is just seeing things, he rationalizes. He turns back to his plate to see that there is nothing left to eat. “Hey!” he says with a huge smile, looking straight at his mom. “You ate my toast!” He feels nothing but playfulness and amusement as he stares at her, and the feelings seem to echo back in his chest. He knows from what Mr. Guthrie said that those are what she must be feeling, too; the thought is still weird to him, though.

She looks behind her, up at the ceiling, down at her plate, and under the table. “What? What do you mean? I didn’t do anything! Someone must have stolen your food! I bet it was a Pokémon. They have to eat, too, you know.”

“Mommmmmmm...” he groans, “Pokémon aren’t real.”

She shrugs as she looks back down at her plate, stabbing a clump of eggs with her fork. “Well, I dunno what happened, then.”

Isaac giggles. “You stole my food and you know it!”

She smiles even bigger. “But your plate is so pretty now! All nice and empty. Ready to be washed and dried later. Go run along and watch another cartoon or two. We’ll leave around 9:15.”

Isaac rolls his eyes and obliges; as he watches a few more episodes of his favorite shows, his mom busies herself on her laptop, sifting through a stack of papers she has on the coffee table. Isaac knows she works in “real estate,” but when she explained it to him, it was both boring and confusing; all he knows is that she sells houses sometimes. Soon enough, though, it’s time to go, and the two make their way to the car and off to school.

Isaac arrives in school almost exactly at 9:30, so by the time his mom checks him in, the bell rings for second period. He waves goodbye and hops off with his backpack on his shoulders, excitedly jogging down the hallway toward the gym and nearly bowling a few people over in his path, despite his stature.

As he passes a cross-hallway, he hears a loud, womanly voice call out, “Walk, young man!”

He slows down immediately, blushing a bit that he forgot about the rules in his excitement; he turns and scans the hallway to find the teacher and, without moving from his spot, he calls out, “I’m sorry, ma’am! I’m sorry!” He would continue saying it, but she continues walking down the hallways away from him; that, and the other students begin to push him out of the way.

Isaac realizes that it doesn’t seem as important to anybody else, so he turns and merges back in with the flow of traffic. He gets to the gym with more time than usual, considering he came from the office instead of his reading class at the far end of the building, so he gets his clothes from his locker and heads to the bathroom...where the stall is occupied.

Isaac is hit with a wave of anxiety. He knew this day wasn’t going to be right. He begins to nervously pick at his thumb with his index finger, keeping his eyes trained on the stall door. A couple of kids walk past him on the way to the urinals; one of them looks over at him and laughs a bit as the other asks, “What are you making that sound for?” with a strange look and a weird smile on his face. “Do you have to pee or something?” He doesn’t wait for an answer, though; he looks at the other boy and laughs as they head to the urinals, continuing whatever conversation they were having. Isaac realizes he’s been making a sort of whining sound. Even though he realizes it’s probably one more thing people are going to make fun of him for, it’s not something he really has control over.

The bell rings, reverberating throughout the locker room and bathroom. Right after the sound stops, Isaac hears, “Hey! What’s up?”

It’s Vin! Isaac turns to see Vin’s smiling face, but he is very quick to look down before any more emotions hit him; he doesn’t think he could deal with any more of that right now. Still, just knowing that Vin is here calms him a little bit. He replies, “The bathroom is full. I can’t dress out.”

Vin pauses a moment. “Hey, just dress out in here. I promise nobody is going to give you any problems. If they do...” he smacks his fist into his other palm to finish his sentence.

Isaac considers the idea. Dressing out in front of all the boys means that he’d be surrounded by other boys in their underwear. That’s no longer confusing to him, but it is exciting...and scary. He might get an erection, and he knows very well that boys make fun of other boys who get erections. They might start calling him gay -- well, more often than they already do. But then, he realizes, Vin is here, and he can stop them if they do anything wrong.

He takes a deep breath and walks past Vin over to the locker room benches, putting his clothes down neatly beside himself. Vin comes over and sits near him, slipping his dirty white shoes off without even untying them. This fascinates Isaac for a moment; if he could figure out how people do that, he could wear shoes with regular laces. Until then, though, Isaac bends down and unfastens the velcro straps on his shoes.

“Does he...are those velcro shoes?!” that annoying boy with the greasy hair calls out with a crack in his voice. “Guys, Mime Boy is wearing velcro shoes!”

“And you’re wearing a hairstyle that looks like a ‘50s drug dealer!” Vin snaps back.

The locker room erupts into a chorus of “Oooooooooooh!” as everyone hoots their approval of Vin’s insult. The sound is annoying to Isaac, but he tries his best to ignore it as he takes his shoes off and slides his shorts down as quickly as possible.

“Wh--! It does not!” the annoying boy responds. “What the hell--what’s your problem? You’re not even part of this!”

Vin wheels around on the bench to face the other way and then stands up. Isaac listens to the conversation as he folds his pants neatly on the bench. Vin says, “I’m part of it because you won’t leave people alone. What’s your problem? Are you jealou?”

Grease-hair just laughs. “No, bro, they’re freakin’ velcro. That shit’s like third-grade.”

“And?” Vin asks.

“Dude, whatever,” Greasy replies. “Just leave me the fuck alone. I was just playing. Jesus.”

During this, Isaac stands up to put his gym shorts on, and to hazard a glance back at Vin to make sure he’s not, like, about to fight someone or anything. As he does, his eyes stop halfway, resting on the boy that he saw in the practice rooms yesterday. The boy isn’t looking at his eyes, though; they’re resting directly on his briefs. Isaac freezes, unsure of what to do. Is there something on my underwear? he questions. Did I--did I do the ‘nocturnal emission’ thing again?! He quickly looks down at his briefs to make sure that he didn’t do something embarrassing, even though he doesn’t feel any dampness or cold. He even feels the area just to make sure; it’s as dry as it looks, so he looks back up. Suddenly, his eyes meet the other boy’s. In that instant, his mind is awash in feelings of surprise, embarrassment, and the same sort of feeling he gets when he thinks about Vin’s hands and eyes. The boy very quickly looks away and hastily finishes dressing out. Isaac notices both a stirring in his own briefs and a slight elevation in the other boy’s green plaid boxers. The boy slips his gym shorts on and very quickly darts into the restroom to stand at a urinal, covering his crotch with his hands as he does so. Was...was he getting an erection from me? he wonders in disbelief. If Mr. Guthrie was right...the thought makes Isaac’s own erection swell up that much more quickly, so he rushes his basketball shorts up his legs and adjusts himself so his briefs hold him from poking straight forward. He’s not that long, but it’s long enough to show if he’s not careful.

Vin continues, “No, you weren’t ‘just playing.’ You were bullying.” Vin slips his shirt off and starts putting his gym shirt on.

They say a few more things to each other while the other boys egg them on. By this time, Isaac is done with dressing out, and all the rest of the noise and tension has reduced his erection to a quickly-shrinking memory; he folds his other clothes back up nicely and puts them away with his glasses before hurrying out of the locker room. The last thing he hears is the annoying boy saying, “I didn’t hit him or anything--just leave me the fuck alone...”

Vin comes out of the locker room a minute or two later, when the coach blows the whistle to start class. Everyone else follows suit and gathers on the bleachers, waiting for instructions. “Hey,” he says as he approaches Isaac and sits next to him. “Don’t listen to that idiot. He’s just jealous.”

“Why w-would he be jealous of my shoes?” he asks honestly. Seriously, I wish I could just tie my shoes like everyone else. Why would they want my shoes?

Vin shrugs. “You never know, eh? Anyway, he’s an idiot. Leave him to me.”

Isaac sighs anxiously. This part of the day is fine so far, he considers, so maybe it’ll straighten itself out. Still, he mutters, “I don’t want you to get in a fight or something because of me.”

“If I do,” he says, puffing his chest out, “it’ll be because of me. But mostly ‘cuz that asshole deserves it.” Isaac giggles at Vin using a curse word; it just sounds funny, for some reason. He doesn’t remember Vin ever using one before.

The coach starts up class, allowing everyone a Free-play day; Isaac goes to bounce the ball back and forth with some of the younger kids, like he often does on Free-play day. Everything finally starts to fall back into a regular-feeling day.

Then his entire world shatters under the assault of a stabbing, searing sound that reverberates throughout the gym once, twice, three times. Again, the sound attacks his ears three times in pattern. He sees a blinding strobe flashing over the doorway to the gym: the fire alarm. It’s always once a month, but Mr. Coleman always warned him when it would be so he could be prepared. Why didn’t he tell me--oh no. I missed homeroom! This was quickly becoming the worst day in history, just like he had suspected.

He immediately flings his hands over his ears to try to protect them against the stabbing, jagged attacks from the sirens. The coach yells out for everyone to get in line, but Isaac misses most of what he says with his ears covered. He gets in line, trying to organize his thoughts: we just go outside and turn left, walk down the hall, go through the door, and turn around. That’s all.

The line starts moving; as Isaac passes under the siren, it becomes painful to him, and he darts forward out of line. The coach yells something at him and physically moves him back in line, right at the back. His breathing quickens, his heart is racing; he can’t even keep track of the beats. They all march on, nobody talking, nothing but the agonizing sound blaring through the halls, the strobes stabbing Isaac’s eyes. He doesn’t have his glasses, either, so everything is blurry; he doesn’t know if he’s going to step on something, or miss something important.

He desperately wants to shake his hands, or hit something, or do anything to help with his anxiety, but he has to keep his hands on his ears to prevent the pain. He can only walk with the group. No running ahead, no falling behind. Step. Step. Step. Everyone else just looks like nothing is wrong, but he is one step from losing it; he can feel it.

That step is the one leading into the entry hall, a short stretch of hallway blocked off by two sets of double doors. He tries to walk inside, but the sound of the siren just above him breaks every last shred of sanity he has left. He screams, shuts his eyes, and runs.

He has no idea how long time passes, or how fast his heart is going, or what’s happening around him; he finds a wall by smashing into it sharply with his shoulder, and he slides down into a fetal position with his eyes shut tight and his hands over his ears. The only things in his consciousness are his abject panic, his own screaming, and the stabbing pain of the sirens.

He hears a voice through his hands; the coach is yelling at him to get up and come outside. The anger in his voice only makes Isaac scream more loudly as his brain refuses to cooperate or process anything. It’s as much as he can do to just keep screaming.

He hears a few more boys calling out his name, but the coach blows his whistle, only adding to the pain. After that, nothing but sirens and screeching remains.

Suddenly, there are hands on his arms. He screams even louder and tries his best to wriggle free; the voice that he hears, though, isn’t an angry coach. “Isaac! Listen to me. We have to go!”

It’s Vin. Isaac wants desperately to go with him, but he can’t figure out how to get past his own defenses, his own pain. If he goes with Vin now, he’ll still be attacked by the siren.

He hears Vin call out, “Hold on, Coach!” Then, directed back at him, he hears, “Okay, um...okay. Can you hear me? Nod if you can.”

Isaac nods.

“Good. Now. Here’s the plan. On the count of three, we’re going to stand up. Then can you make it outside with me here?”

Isaac shakes his head, wailing as loudly as the sirens.

“I...I can guide you, okay? Just, just...here.” Vin puts his large hands over Isaac’s own hands, forming a double barrier against the sound. Isaac sees the strobing effect through his eyelids become shadowed and dark; he looks up in the near silence to see Vin’s eyes staring straight at him. A rush of concern, underlying anxiety, and...confidence, perhaps, slam into Isaac’s chest, followed by weaker versions of his own panic and pain. Vin squints his eyes shut, stopping the rush of emotions and feelings, and takes a deep breath, blowing it through his nose. “Can you stand up?” he sees Vin say, though he can barely hear him through both hands.

Isaac feels somehow emboldened by the emotions he received from Vin. He nods and stands up, carefully keeping the strobes out of his eyes.

“Good,” Vin calls out. “Now walk with me. I won’t let you fall.” At least, that’s what Isaac thinks he said; he can really only read his lips. Vin begins to walk backwards, staring down at Isaac’s head as they move toward the door. They slowly make it to the antechamber, where Isaac can no longer keep his eyes open; even the sound makes it through both sets of hands, though it’s greatly diminished. Isaac hesitates a moment, but he feels Vin’s hands clamp a bit more tightly around his ears, and the sound is almost gone. He feels Vin move up closer, close enough that Isaac can feel the heat of his own breath reflecting from Vin’s chest; he can smell the crisp, clean scent of Vin’s deodorant. He opens his eyes just enough to see a face-full of Vin’s gym shirt, but the strobes still reflect off of it, slamming his eyes reflexively shut. He grits his teeth and screams through them; every one of his instincts is screaming at him to collapse, to curl up so tightly that he could just disappear. The only thing keeping him from abandoning all willpower at all is Vin: his presence, the pressure of his hands on Isaac’s head, his reassurances, and the confidence he felt from Vin’s eyes.

He takes a step. As he does, Vin steps back with the same foot, as if they were dancing. The other foot. Then the other. Left. Right. And as fast as that, they’re out of the Room of Death.

Vin continues to lead Isaac a few more steps away, until the only sound he can hear is his own uncontrollable sobbing. Soon, Vin stops; Isaac almost bumps into him, but stops just in time. Vin removes his hands. Isaac opens his eyes, but refuses to take his hands off his ears -- he can still hear the blasting sirens from the externally located ones. He doesn’t dare turn around, for he knows if he can hear the siren, he can see the strobes. For now, he feels as though the torture is over; his shaking legs collapse underneath him, depositing him in a heap into the grass. He pulls his legs tightly close and begins to rock, still crying furiously.

He hears Mr. Coleman’s voice approaching quickly. “Is he okay?” he asks.

Vin responds, “He freaked out when the sirens came on, but we made it outside.”

Isaac feels a thump next to him as Mr. Coleman kneels down. He places his hand on Isaac’s back, allowing him to rock but applying a comforting pressure not unlike what his mom does to his arms. “Breathe it out, Isaac.”

Isaac keeps sobbing, but intersperses it with deep breaths. In, out. He begins to calm a bit, but suddenly, the sound stops. A few seconds later, he hears one kid start clapping, followed by a round of applause and cheering; he lowers his hands from his ears and looks around to see a bunch of people clapping with smiles on their faces. He’s not sure what the celebration is; he just about peed himself in panic and looked like a stupid idiot.

One of the boys he was playing ball with calls out, “You made it!”

Another cheers, “Go Isaac!” He doesn’t even know the boy’s name, but the boy knows his.

The coach comes up and mutters something to Vin, patting him on the shoulder; Vin nods at the coach and smiles. Mr. Coleman stands up and says something to Vin as well, something about “sensory processing” and “good thinking.”

Isaac sniffles, but is able to minimize his sobbing down to the anxious whine that he sometimes has. All the people smiling around him is somewhat infectious, though, and he begins to smile, as well. Vin looks down and offers a hand. “You’re okay, now,” he says reassuringly.

Isaac takes his hand and is hoisted up easily. He tries to respond, but he is filled with emotions too strong and complex to describe. The only way he can figure out how to express it is by breaking into more tears and hugging Vin as tightly as he can. Vin laughs a little bit, but wraps his arms around Isaac, as well.

Isaac holds on for dear life for a while longer, at least until the beep of the intercom rings out over the field outside the school. The principal announces the “all-clear” as the students all file back into the school, line by line. When it’s their turn, Vin says over Isaac’s head, “I’ll keep him company on the way back in. We’ll be at the back.”

The coach says something in agreement and Isaac hears the mumbling of the kids as they pass by. A few of the boys pat Isaac on the shoulder as they go by; one of them whispers, “Go Isaac!” Finally, as they all pass by, Vin says quietly, “Hey, bud, we gotta catch up. You ready?”

Isaac hugs him even more tightly for a second, and then lets go. “Yes, Vin,” he states, sniffling. He looks at Vin’s chest and adds, “I made your shirt wet.”

He shrugs. “It’s my gym shirt, and it’s Friday. I’m washing it today, anyway, right?” He laughs, making Isaac laugh a bit, too.

They make their way inside, where everyone goes to sit down on the bleachers. When Vin and Isaac make their way over, a few of the other boys relocate to form a little circle around Isaac. He looks around in concern and confusion at first, but most of them are just smiling and giving him pats on the shoulder or thumbs-ups. It actually feels kind of comforting, like a wall around him that nobody else can get through. He feels a dampness on his index finger; he looks down to realize that he’s picked his thumb to bleeding again. He sighs and sticks that spot in his mouth again, but at least there’s nobody around to make fun of him again. He finds himself rocking slightly as he sucks the side of his thumb.

The principal comes on over the loudspeaker to congratulate everyone on following directions and reminding them how important it is to practice these fire drills in case there is ever a real fire. Eventually, everybody gets back to playing, but Isaac is already defeated for the day. Still, the coach said that everyone needs to be doing something, so Isaac gets up and trudges off the bleachers.

Vin meets him at the bottom. “You gonna be okay?” he asks.

Isaac shrugs and starts walking the perimeter of the gym as he’s seen others do on Free-play days in the past. Vin joins him, and they silently walk the area a few times. Isaac looks up to see that Vin is also staring forward; he has a strange expression on his face, one that Isaac can’t interpret. Neither of them say or do anything other than walk, but Isaac feels much better just knowing that Vin is next to him. Soon, the coach blows the whistle to go change back into regular clothes, and everyone stampedes into the locker room.

As Isaac bravely changes out on the bench again, Grease-Hair doesn’t say a word. Nobody says anything to Isaac except for Vin, thankfully. The boy with the sparkling deep brown eyes doesn’t even look his way.

Vin, however, asks, “Hey, so, uh...you still gonna be in the piano rooms today? I got a couple things I wanna ask you. And, y’know, share music ‘n stuff. So you gonna be there?”

“Yes, Vin,” Isaac responds with a big nod.

Isaac smiles widely. “All right, cool. See you there, yeah?”

“See you there, Vin.”

On his way to math class, Isaac is elated to see that Mrs. Davis is back, waiting outside her classroom as he walks by. “Good morning, Isaac!”

“Good morning, Mrs. Davis.” He stands near the wall so that he doesn’t get barrelled over like earlier.

“I’m sorry I wasn’t here yesterday,” she says. “I hope you’re doing okay today.”

“I’m...today is really bad.” He takes a deep breath and sighs.

“What happened? Did the fire alarm bother you?”

He shudders. “Yes, ma’am,” he says glumly.

“I’m so sorry, Isaac. But at least there won’t be one until next month, right?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Well, I hope your day goes better. Have a good day, Isaac.”

“Have a good day, ma’am.” He continues onward, merging back into the traffic down the hallway on the way to his math class.

Math class is as quiet and boring as always, so far the best gift to Isaac’s day that he could hope for (other than Vin, obviously). At the end of class, he lines up first so that as soon as the bell rings, he is out the door on the way to the cafeteria.

Friday is burger day, one of the best lunch days. It’s perfectly fine to eat a burger in thirds, and fries are easily divisible. Isaac gets his food and sits down, watching as Christian makes his way through the line to join him. They talk about all the amazing things that Christian was able to accomplish with the cards that Isaac donated, how much better Christian is now, how much he’s leveled up, how much he’s gonna win against Isaac soon...essentially, all about Christian and his Clash Royale prowess. For today, Isaac is fine with Christian’s wall of speech; as usual, he isn’t required to respond, nor talk to anybody else when he’s occupied with this “conversation.”

“Isaac?” Christian asks after a rare pause.

Isaac looks up, mouth full of burger.

“Do you like me as a friend?”

Isaac blinks. He wasn’t expecting that question. He nods, still eating the bite of food, but when he finishes it, he adds, “Yes, Christian. You are my friend.”

“So why do you tell me to, why, um...how come you told me that you wanted to just hang out with Vin and not me?”

Isaac’s face flushes a bit. He is definitely not prepared to answer this question, emotionally or mentally. He stays silent for a moment, trying to make a coherent thought about it. “I...” he starts, but nothing seems to want to follow at first. He tries to think of anything at all but the two real answers: one, he wants to be alone with Vin because he is attracted to him, and two, Christian would be annoying and get in the way.

“Is it ‘cuz you like him better than me?” Christian asks in a much quieter voice than he normally uses. It’s still not “quiet,” per se, but it’s quieter.

No, Christian!” Isaac snaps, sounding more angry than he expected to. “I just...I like Vin. Um...a lot. But not just like a friend.” He doesn’t finish the sentence, but his cheeks speak volumes of what is left unsaid.

Christian takes a good long time to process what Isaac is trying to say. After an awkwardly long pause, his eyes go wide. “Are you two boyfriends?!” he practically yells throughout the cafeteria.

“Shut up!” Isaac whispers as loudly as he can. Isaac ducks his head and takes cover as if the ceiling were about to fall on him. “Shut up, shut up! Don’t say that out loud!”

“Oh!” Christian says loudly, and then as softly as he can manage (which actually ends up sounding like a loud whisper), he says, “I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to!”

Isaac still continues hiding poorly from the world; his face and neck feel like they’re going to ignite. He takes a peek around the cafeteria to see if anyone is staring at him, but nobody seems to be looking their way. They must all be deaf, Isaac decides. There’s no way they didn’t hear that. “Christian,” he says firmly. “We’re not...boyfriends.” Isaac has so much more to say about it, but he can’t find a single word to put to those thoughts.

“Oh, but do you think, do you...” Christian trails off, for once trying to figure out what to say without filling the air with words. “Um, are you gay? I didn’t know that you liked boys.” He says it at a respectable volume, which is a feat unto itself.

Isaac stares straight down at the table. He knows that Christian wouldn’t care; they’ve been friends only since the beginning of last year, but Christian doesn’t seem to care about anything except for hating bullies and loving video games. Still, it feels scary to say the words out loud. I am gay, he thinks. That’s all I have to say. Just those little words. He takes a deep breath...and exhales slowly, staring at the table silently.

Christian asks again, “So are you gay?” He takes another bite of cheeseburger, as if their conversation were about what class they had next or which card they got last in Clash Royale. When Isaac doesn’t answer again, Christian tactlessly prods on. “Isaac? Are you? Are you gay?”

“I don’t know!” Isaac snaps. “Maybe?” He runs his hands roughly through his hair back and forth a few times, hoping to let some anxiety and stress out. When he’s done, his hair is sticking up in a few places, though not by much at its current length. “I...I like him. I maybe like him like--” he drops his voice a bit, “--like a boyfriend...but he, uh, I don’t think he is, that...that he likes me like that.” The words burn his chest as he admits that.

“So are you gonna ask him out, then?” he blithely inquires.

Isaac pauses. He didn’t think Christian would hate him or anything, but he expected at least a little reaction from him. Maybe I really don’t understand people at all, he thinks with a sigh. “No, Christian. I don’t know if he, um, likes boys.”

“But how can you know if you don’t ask him?” he replies. “Like maybe you can ask him if he likes boys and if he says yes, then you can ask him out or to be your boyfriend, and if he says no, then, then you can just, then you can just be friends.”

Isaac rolls his eyes. “But what if he h-hates me if I’m gay?”

Christian furrows his eyebrows. “Vin isn’t a bully, is he? ‘Cuz if he is, I would beat him up so bad. I would--”

Isaac interrupts the oncoming tirade, “No, Christian! He’s not a bully. God. Um, I don’t want to talk about it anymore, please.”

“Okay,” Christian says, surprisingly. Isaac expected resistance to the request. Maybe Christian is different than I thought, he ponders. Then, even more surprisingly, he continues, “But if he ever bullies you, you just let me know. I’ll fight him.” He makes a few punches in the air and ridiculous martial arts cries to emphasize his point.

This breaks Isaac’s storm clouds and makes him giggle stupidly. “Thank you, Christian.”

“I don’t let nobody hurt my friends. Bam! Boom!” He punches a few more times. “Um, but I hope that he doesn’t, ‘cuz he’s really tall and maybe would be hard to fight.” He starts punching upward at the sky, which makes Isaac outright laugh.

After lunch, Isaac is struck with a sense of wonder; it just seems weird to him that people would care so much about him. Vin, Christian, the boys from P.E. whose names he didn’t even know...he’s really not sure why they care about a weird little boy who speaks funny, can’t look at people in the eyes, and is completely boring. Well, except for the weird eye contact thing that apparently is special. He just figured it happened to everyone at this age, but then again, so many things about other people mystify him, so this just seemed to be one more thing to confuse him. Even so, he didn’t look at people that much, so it couldn’t be that. So why do all these people like me? he wonders. He doesn’t feel like he is undeserving of it so much as he just doesn’t get it.

He manages to focus in his other classes despite the distraction of that question. In art class, he finishes up a perspective drawing of his room at home. Then, after finishing the pencil shading, he takes his colored pencils and draws colored auras around the objects that make those colors of noises: blue rings from the dresser where he leaves his cellphone; gray swirls coming off the fan; and tiny, jagged orange lines from the creaking of his door.

Mrs. Hobbes, the art teacher, passes by Isaac’s table and stops a moment, smoothing out her artist’s apron. “That’s an interesting addition to the drawing. Those weren’t in the directions, but I’m curious: what do all of these represent?” She points to the various colors on the otherwise grayscale drawing.

“I’m sorry, ma’am,” he mutters. “I just, I’m sorry.”

“No no, it’s fine,” she reassures him, “I won’t take any points off. You’ve done what I asked and proved you understand perspective. So what is all this?”

“Um...it’s my synthe--synseth... my syn-es-the-sia.” He figured it’d have been easier to say one word than to describe all of it, but that proved to be a bit worse than he expected.

“Really?” she asks. “Then this is, I assume, ‘colored sound’ type synesthesia?” Isaac doesn’t respond immediately, so she continues, “Do you see colors for sounds?”

He nods. “Yes, ma’am. The phone plays a blue sound when I wake up, and the fan makes a gray swirl kind of sound. Um, and the door sounds orange. Only when it opens slow.”

“Fascinating.” She takes a moment to brush some of her mane of wildly curly, dark red hair back over her shoulder so that she can see better. “Tell me, does music do that to you, as well?”

“Yes, ma’am,” he says with a bit more excitement. “Music can have a lot of different colors in it, like blues and greens, or sometimes purples and pinks if it is, if it has, um, harmonies. Or chords.”

She nods with a strange frown on her face, but her eyebrows aren’t furrowed or anything -- it’s incomprehensible to Isaac. She says, “Would you be interested in doing a unique assignment?”

Isaac thinks silently a moment. “What kind of assignment, ma’am?”

“I’d like you to try to draw or color a picture of your favorite song.” At Isaac’s confused silence, she adds, “Make the picture from the colors that you see. It doesn’t matter how you want to do it: colored pencils, crayons, paint, I don’t care. I would like to see your perspective on it, and I think you might enjoy it, as well.”

Isaac nods, “Yes, ma’am. I can do that.”

“Excellent. Do you have supplies at home?”

“No, ma’am.”

“Would you mind doing it for homework? You could borrow some art supplies and just bring them back later.”

“Yes, ma’am. Um -- n-no, ma’am, I wouldn’t mind. And, um, yes, ma’am, I will bring them back.”

Mrs. Hobbes chuckles at him. “Good. You can borrow whatever you need, but just make sure to tell me so I can keep track.” He ends up taking some acrylic paints at the end of class with a piece of canvas, putting the former in his backpack and the latter in his binder.

Science is decent for the day; the class is learning about ecosystems, and the work is pretty easy. After that, the bell rings, and Isaac practically sprints to the practice rooms. He gets there while everyone is still crowding out of the room; he waits impatiently, leaning from one foot to the other, almost hopping in place as the crowd walks awkwardly past him. Though short, he keeps trying to peek through the onslaught to see if he can spy Vin possibly walking to the practice rooms.

No luck, though. By the time everyone leaves the room, he darts in and weaves past a couple of music stands and loose chairs to get to the practice rooms. He looks in the first one; no dice. The second one is also empty, which leaves Isaac immediately wondering if Vin is going to show up. You ran here, he has to remind himself. Maybe Vin isn’t here yet.

The choir director, a balding man with a enough of a limp in one of his legs to require a cane, notices Isaac and asks, “Are you looking for someone?”

His voice surprises Isaac; Isaac knew that the man was still out here -- he’s normally either in the choir office or the large practice room doing section rehearsals with some group of boys or girls -- but he somehow didn’t expect him to say anything, especially not to Isaac himself. Isaac turns around and looks near his face (avoiding eye contact), saying, “Um, yes, sir. I’m sorry.”

“It’s fine, I was just checking. You’re welcome to wait in a practice room if you’d like. Who are you waiting on?”

Just then, the side door opens to reveal Vin. Isaac, hardly able to control himself, bounds over to meet him at the door, nearly throwing his arms out to hug Vin but stopping just short. Isaac! you’re not supposed to hug him! He doesn’t know you like him like that!

“Heh-hey!” he says, laughing. He holds his hand out low, which Isaac energetically slaps, followed by the traditional fist-bump. “You seem to be in a much better mood now.” He looks up and waves, “Good afternoon, Mr. Truman. Mind if we take a practice room?”

“Not at all,” the teacher replies, hobbling over to his office. Isaac watches him; he’s usually not good at telling age, but the man doesn’t seem all that old. He’s not wrinkly or all gray hair or anything, just balding on the top of his head. “I’m just glad the pianos are getting good use.”

“Thank you, Mr. Truman!” he calls out after the teacher as the office door closes with Mr. Truman on the inside. “So yeah, you feeling better?”

Isaac nods animatedly. “Yes, Vin.” He knows he’s grinning stupidly, but he doesn’t care how he looks right now.

He and Vin head over to a practice room, where Vin opens the door and asks, “So, you wanna go first this time? Got anything to show?”

“Yes, Vin.” Isaac goes in and sits on the bench, opening the piano as Vin takes the nearby chair. “I, um, think I know the rest of the ‘Wind’ song,” he says. He knows its name is “Shevat, the Wind is Calling,” but he’s not a fan of the weird word in there.

All right,” Vin says, crossing one leg over the other. “Let’s see what you got.”

Um, one min--um, m-moment...let me do this first.” Isaac takes a moment and closes his eyes, watching the synesthetic movie of the song in his head, paying close attention to the colors involved in the part he hasn’t yet played. Unconsciously, he begins to move his fingers across the keyboard without pressing them, simply exploring where they would go if he played the song. There are a few points where he knows something doesn’t feel right, so he hits a key or two to see how something should sound, but all in all, the picture painted in his mind is crystal clear in how to interpret it musically.

After a moment, he snaps out of his reverie when he hears Vin mutter, “Hm. Okay...” He stops, waiting for Vin to say something else, but Vin just continues, “Oh! I’m sorry. Go ahead. I didn’t mean to interrupt you.”

“It’s okay, Vin,” he replies, “I think I can play it now.” Isaac takes a deep breath, a bit nervous about doing this. He’s not nearly as nervous as the first time he played for Vin, though. He starts with the normal area of the song, the part that both of them know. The emerald rains and crying winds soon give way to a roiling unrest in the deep left-hand keys and a ladder of parallel fourths climbing out of it, only to dissolve into a delicate reprisal of the rains, but this time of a soft blue, lightly falling down the scales, but with the memory of the windy melody echoing throughout. Eventually, it reaches the point where the wind swirls one last time, bringing the last motif of the rains to fall upon pastel pinks and waving beige chromatic ripples, and it leaves off with a rich, impressionistic chord with hints of gold, orange, and fuchsia streaked throughout.

When he finishes, Vin is silent. He worries a moment that Vin isn’t happy, but before he can say anything, Vin takes a deep breath and sighs, shaking his head. “That was beautiful. I dunno how you do it, but it sounds even better when you play it.”

He smiles bashfully. “Thank you, Vin. Um, did you want to play a song?”

He smiles a half-smile. “Actually, I was wondering if I could ask you a weird question.”

Isaac hesitates; he has no idea where this is leading. “O-okay, Vin.”

Vin frowns and sighs again. “Okay. So. Like I said, this is going to sound super weird, but I know that there’s something going on, and either it’s you, or it’s just me going crazy.” Isaac still isn’t sure what Vin is trying to say, but it begins to make him a bit anxious. Vin continues, “So, even from the first time I met you, I felt something when I looked in your eyes.” Vin pauses, and shakes his head rapidly. “No--I mean, like, literally felt something when I looked in your eyes, and only when I look in them. Like, if I look at your hair, it’s nothing; if I see your hands, nothing; but if I look directly in your eyes, it’s like my brain is just overrun with emotions. Seriously, I almost fell over the first time I felt it, just because it was so surprising. And--and then when I saw you in the gym later, right when I got hit by the basketball...then the choir room when we looked at each other. Every time, it’s just like...my brain goes crazy. I don’t get it.” He stares forward for a moment, and then lets out a long, frustrated groan. “Wow, I sound absolutely stupid right now, but I know what I feel. I just don’t know what it means. I...I dunno.”

Isaac feels very anxious; he begins to tap one of his legs as he picks the skin of his thumb. He begins to chant at the floor, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, Vin. I’m sorry.”

“Why?” Vin asks. “This isn’t your fault. This is just my brain being weird. Right?”

Isaac shakes his head, but says nothing more than, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry...”

“Isaac,” Vin asks slowly. “Could you look at me?”

Isaac squints his eyes shut and shakes his head quickly. He stands up from the bench and starts to back up toward the door on the other side of the room, still chanting.

“Isaac, hold on,” Vin says. “I’m not mad, I promise. I just...I just want to know what’s going on. Please?”

Isaac doesn’t shake his head, but he stands there for a long time, his squinted eyes still pointing to the ground. A tear drips from one of them and lands on the carpet. He’s not mad. I can do this. No, I don’t want him to feel what I feel right now. But he asked nicely. He wouldn’t lie to me if he’s not mad, right? Isaac’s leg continues to shake as he breathes it out. Finally, he opens his eyes and blinks a few times to clear them, looking into Vin’s blue and brown eyes. He is quickly assaulted by other emotions: wonder, awe, confusion, embarrassment, followed by a sort of...realization? Like the emotion that follows someone yelling, “Eureka!”

Isaac keeps his eyes on Vin for far longer than he is used to, and the flow of emotions almost seems to settle out, even to the point where it’s difficult to tell which emotions were his to begin with. Vin says breathily, “This. What is going on?”

Isaac closes his eyes, and the invading emotions quickly fade. “Um,” he starts, “I think...I think it’s called ‘empathy’ or something. Mr. Guthrie says that, that I have a...gift.”

Vin stays silent a moment, but says quietly, “You’re serious.” Isaac’s eyes go wide, but before he can say anything, Vin adds, “No, I mean, you really are serious that you have some sort of...I dunno, power. That’s incredible!”

Isaac squints again. “I don’t want to be ‘incredible.’ I don’t want to be...different.” He tries to squint hard enough to keep more tears from flowing; he’s so tired of crying all the time.

Isaac hears the chair move and feels the floor shift as Vin walks toward him. Suddenly, he feels Vin’s hands on his arms, his long fingers wrapping around Isaac’s thin biceps. “Isaac,” he says. Isaac opens his eyes to see Vin’s face close to his; his heart immediately begins racing, and he looks down as fast as he can to avoid showing his feelings. Vin continues, “You don’t have to be afraid of being different, okay? Look...” Vin lets go of Isaac’s arms and backs up, sitting down on the piano bench. “...people used to make fun of me for my eyes. Stupidest things, too, like ‘Poop-Eye the Sailor Man,’ and they’d ask me where my eye patch was. Or they’d call me ‘mutt,’ or they would say I’m probably deaf in my right ear since that eye is blue -- it’s a thing with white cats, apparently -- but just anything they could say to get a rise outta me. It was stupid, and it made me seriously hate myself. I...” he sighs, and tries again. “I even tried to wash the brown out of my left eye once with soap. I, uh, won’t talk about how bad that hurt.” Isaac is aghast at the thought. Vin says, “So...everybody is different. Everybody. Don’t be afraid of it.”

After a quiet moment, Vin restarts the conversation. “So. Can you tell me about this...‘gift’ you have? How does it work?”

Vin scoots off the bench and goes back to the chair so that Isaac can have a seat. Isaac looks at the floor as he describes the same sort of things as he did with Mr. Guthrie: feeling other people’s emotions, them feeling his, feeling even other sensations, like how their clothes feel on their skin, “...or like when you got hit with the basketball, I felt it, too.”

Vin barks a laugh, “Ha! I was wondering why you stumbled when I did. That’s so weird, but cool!”

Isaac sighs, “But I don’t want other people to know about it. I don’t want to be more different...than I already am.”

Vin says quietly, “I promise I won’t tell anyone. So only me and Mr. Guthrie know about it, right? Has this been, like, all your life?”

Isaac shrugs. “Maybe just like a year? Maybe less.”

“Oh, so this is pretty new to you too, then.”

Isaac nods.

“Well,” Vin says after another pause, “I’m honestly just glad I wasn’t going crazy. When I helped you get out of the building earlier today, that’s when I totally knew that something was up; I’ve heard the fire alarm before and all, but when I looked in your eyes, I was suddenly panicking, even though it’s never bothered me before. That’s when I realized that maybe it was you, somehow. I-I mean, I’m not blaming you or anything, I’m just saying that I knew it wasn’t me. If anything, it helped me see how you felt and why you weren’t able to move on your own.”

Isaac feels his cheeks flush. “I don’t want to t-talk about that anymore.”

“Oh, sorry, that’s fine,” Vin says quickly. “Sorry. Um, so. Change of subject, then. I was wondering if you...maybe wanted to come over to my house tomorrow. We could play board games or video games; I have a piano -- well, an electric keyboard, but it’s really nice -- and some other cool things, too. Whatcha think?”

Isaac’s eyes go wide. The last time he went to a friend’s house was years ago, and he remembers feeling very anxious about it. But, he thinks, It’s Vin’s house. If you say no, maybe you’ll make him angry or upset. Also, you like being around Vin. But it’s a new place! What if they have scary dogs or his parents think I’m weird?

Vin must have read Isaac’s expressions, because he says, “It’s totally okay to say no, but I mean, there’s only so much we can do in the piano practice rooms, yeah? There’s, y’know, us and a piano.”

Isaac hesitates a bit longer, but finally asks, “Who...who will be there?”

“Just me, my older brother, my parents, and my cat. C’mon, it’ll be fun.”

Isaac chews on his lip and picks at his thumb while processing the idea. Eventually, he says, “Okay, Vin. Um, what time?”

“Oh, right, uh, how about some time in the afternoon? I have some stuff to do in the morning, but I’m free after that. Sound good?”

“Yes, Vin.” Despite his anxiety, he finds himself smiling. He looks up in time to see Vin staring at him with a huge grin on his face; he feels a rush of excitement sweep in and overtake his anxiety, followed by some sort of other emotion, one that Isaac hasn’t really ever felt, something akin to relief, but not the same thing.

Vin nods. “Awesome! This is gonna be great. Maybe we can talk more about your, y’know, ‘gift’ tomorrow. If that’s okay.”

Isaac grins with him, still staring at him for a moment longer; a ribbon of hope and possibility swirls itself through the sea of emotions already churning about in Isaac’s chest. “Yes, Vin. That’s okay.” He looks down when he hears his phone ring, and his heart immediately sinks. “Oh no!” he breathes, “I didn’t call Mom first!”

His mom, of course, knew exactly where he was and why; she is not concerned in the least, and is more than happy to let Isaac go to Vin’s. “But first,” she states, “You need a haircut.”