- Maria Catalina Higuera
I looked down, horrified, at the mess that was my dad's shoulder. Much as I had suspected, the wound was deep, but I hadn’t expected this. There was a hole through his shoulder and chest as big as my fist, the wound had been violently made, and had irregular edges. After more close examination it almost looked like something made by a harpoon, it had shot him from behind and ripped the flesh away as he struggled to get free. The thought was sickening, that something like that may have happened to my father, worst off, even if it was that big it should have been at least halfway close by now, but the wound looked almost flesh, with only minimal signs of healing.
“Dad…” I whispered, trying to stop my voice from shaking, “What happened to you? Why aren’t you healing?”. He sighed, getting up from the stool, and moving over the bathroom sink, were the bandages that had been previously wrapping the wound laid. “As I told you Ahser…”, he began, grabbing the bandages, “It's better if you don't know.” He said, sitting down on the stool again. “But, just keep one thing in mind… The people who did this to me would do much worse to you if they got the chance, so be careful at school, keep your eyes open for anybody suspicious”.
Immediately I knew what he meant by that, from the moment I had told him about my new friends as we ate, he had looked worried, had asked me a lot about them, even going so far as to ask me to describe them in detail, seeming even more concern as I told him just how easily they had accepted me into their fold. Several times through diner he had told me to be careful of strangers, to avoid getting too close to anybody and avoid anybody who acted too friendly. Although he didn’t explicitly said it, I still caught his meaning - he didn’t like Daenerys, Jake or any of the other kids, and he especially didn’t like that they had been so friendly towards me.
I wanted to argue with him, to defend my new friends, the only people in hundreds who had been willing to help me out, but just in that moment all the waiters from the restaurant had appeared, one of them carrying a piece of cake with a candle. What followed was probably the most embarrassing moment of my life, apparently my dad, in an act of treason, had informed the restaurant it was my birthday. That was the first time somebody sang happy birthday to me, and hopefully the last, I would rather die than go through that again, especially when some of the other tables around us clapped as I blew the candles, some going so far as to get up and congratulating me.
My dad had looked innocent during the entire thing, like he was just as surprised by all the fuss over me, however I did see him recording the event, especially my face the moment I realized the waiters were very much coming towards us. In those moments I probably received more attention from a complete stranger than I had in my entire life, and had been too stunned to even think about arguing with my father, not until now, that we were back home, and I began helping him to dress the deep ugly wound on his shoulder.
I wasn’t sure whether we should be reusing the bandages but he had been incistant and as I wrapped them around his arm and shoulder I noticed that they glowed slightly, a soft bluish color, oddly enough they also masked the scent of blood, way more than any normal bandage should, probably why the full smell of his wound hadn’t hit me until I took them away.
“When will you start healing?” I asked, trying to be as gentle as possible while I worked. “Probably in a few hous.” He said, providing me with no explanation as to why his healing seemed to be languishing. “Will you be okay?”, I asked for what must have been the hundredth time. I couldn't see his face, since I was standing behind him, but I could still feel as he slightly flinched as I tightened the bandages, “Yes Asher…”, he assured me, “I'll be fine”. With a sigh of relief I finished wraping the bandages, the smell of his blood now almost completely gone from the air.
He turned to look at me, his face still pale; “Asher,” he began, “I'm not telling you to not talk to people, or to be a loner, but promise me you will be carefull, don't let anybody get you alone, always stay in as much of a crowded area as you can. If you can do that, you should be okay”. He made a motion towards his injured shoulder, the bandages covering most of his marking that spread from the back of his neck, around his shoulder and arm, and ending just before his elbow. “This is what they are capable of doing to us”, he said. “I don't want to see you get hurt or worse.” Of Course he didn’t tell me how they were but only the way he said it was enough to make a shudder go down my spine.
His words, conbined with his concerned face, were enough to bring the fight out of me, any arguments I had wanted to make on behalf of the kids I had met today going out the window. Not being alone with anybody, staying in the crowds, that shouldn't be too hard, and I could still have friends, if they truly cared about me they wouldn't make me do anything I didn’t want to right? And if they tried to force me, I would take it as a warning sign. “I'll be carefull,” I said; “I promise.” In that moment I wanted to hug him but I was scared of causing him pain because of his injury, he, however, didn’t seem to care, as he brought me forward with his good arm, the familiar warmth and scent of his body comforting me as I, gently, returned the hug, feeling safe in his arms. “I love you Asher”, he whispered. I hugged him tighter; “I love you too dad”.
Looking back now, I wished I could have stretched that moment forever, that moment of peace and quiet, feeling completely safe with my dad’s strong arms wrapped protectively around me, if only I had known what the next few weeks had in store for me, I would have hugged him for longer… But I didn’t know, neither of us knew just how much our lives would be turned upside down during the next few weeks, just how much pain was waiting for us.
“You should join an after-school club.” My father told me over breakfast the next morning, a comment which almost made me choke on a piece of scrambled egg. “What?” I asked, taking a sip of milk in an attempt to wash the food down. He looked at me like I needed an ear checkup, “As you heard it, Asher, join an after-school club; just not anything to do with sports, I'm sure you can find something you like”. I felt like telling him that I had heard him correctly the first time, I was just confused as to why he was telling me this. “Um… But why?”. I asked, really not sure where he was going with this conversation. He frowned down at his coffee as, if considering how to answer. “I have to...take care of some business”, He finally said. “I can't bring you along, it's too dangerous, and school is the safest place for you to be while I'm away, just let me know how long practice takes and on which days they will be, and I promise I'll be there in time to pick you up.”
Of course it had something to do with some mysterious business that he couldn't take me along for, I thought bitterly. I wanted to trust my dad, but lately, things were becoming too confusing and complicated, or maybe they had always been, and I was just now becoming old enough to see just how many things just didn’t make sense. I sighed after a while, resigning myself to doing as he said. “Sure… Okay… I'll look into it today, and tell you what I find.”
My father only nodded at me, taking another sip of his coffee. He appeared to be deep in thought, his gray eyes looking out the kitchen window. He looked much better this morning, the color having returned to his face and, to my relief, when I re-check his wound this morning, it had almost completely healed. I took a few more bites of food, leaving nothing on my plate. I was about to get up but my dad stopped me. “Here don't forget this”. He said, handing me three shiny blue, oval shapes, pills. “Three?” I asked, getting up to fill a glass of water from the tap.
He shrugged like it was no big deal, “You are growing fast”, he said, “They’ll help you along”. Somehow I felt like there was another meaning behind his words, and he wouldn't catch my eye as he pretended to be suddenly engrossed in the morning news on his phone, scrolling down as his eyes scanned for anything interesting. Grabbing the pills I sat again opposite to him, swallowing them one at time, observing with newfound interest the container where they were stored. It looked like a normal pill bottle, all white and with a safety lid, with one exception, the bottle had no name, or labels - it simply read “Supplements” in bold black letters like the kind of thing you would see on a kids cartoon, easy to animate and easy to read, even for little kids.
Dad had begun giving them to me from around the age of four, oddly enough it was close to the last time the masked man visited us. It could be a coincidence, but I was beginning to doubt everything in my life. At first it had been once a month, but as I got older he increased the frequency to where I had been a few days ago, at two pills a week, and now it looked like he had made another change, increasing the dosage to three. I wondered if those were truly supplements, or if they were something else entirely, a very plausible theory, but at the moment I was running out of time to get ready and had little time to wonder what exactly I was taking.
The blue letters and symbols swam every which way as I desperately tried to focus on what was written on the board, grabbing onto the edge of my chair so as not to fall sideways as another wave of dizziness hit me. “What's wrong with me?”, I wondered for what must have been the thousandth time that day as our physics teacher, a short stocky tanned man went on and on about the current topic, but his words never reach me, it was like background noise to my fuzzy mind, no matter how hard I tried to understand what he was saying it was all the same mass of meaningless blabber.
It had started on our way to school, as dad drove me, at first I felt like all of my senses got duller, significantly, which was strange enough in itself. But then came the feeling of lethargy that spread all through my body, and finally the disorientation. By the time we got to school I practically stumbled down from the car, “Dad…”, I said, grabbing my head, turning to look back at him, still sitting in the driver's seat. “I feel weird…” I admitted, leaning against the car for support. His expression didn’t change but I saw his fist tighten around the wheel. “I'm sorry Asher…” was all he told me; “I'm really sorry.”
Even in my muddled state of mind, I wondered what he was sorry for, but before I could form the words to ask him he had leaned over, closed the car door from my side and drove away leaving me in the school parking lot, disorientingly looking on as our car moved away and out of sight. The day had gone on smoothly from there, apart from the fact I felt terrible. I had physics in the first hour, one of the toughest subjects, and I couldn’t even focus my eyes enough to read the whiteboard. “Hey, Do you feel alright?” Jake asked, leaning towards me from his chair beside me. This was like the third time he asked - or was it the second? I couldn’t remember.
“I'm fine…” I said, hoping I wasn’t slurring my words. My vision wasn’t particularly good at the moment but I could still notice how his expression lacked his usual spark, instead, replaced by worry. Daenerys had looked at me the same way when she had seen me that morning, persistently asking me if I was okay and I had repeatedly told her I was, saying that I just hadn't gotten a lot of sleep the night before.
I could tell neither Jake nor Daenerys bought it, but the alternative was telling them I felt like I was about to faint, which really wasn’t an option since then they would probably force me to go to the nurses' office, which wasn’t a good idea for me. Of course there was the option of calling my dad, but even my muddled mind, as I looked at him this morning, could tell that he probably knew what was wrong with me, but he had still chosen to leave me at school, it would be little use to call him and ask to be picked up.
The class dragged on and on and several times I caught myself almost falling asleep. I had just met the teacher this morning but I could tell he won't particularly appreciate me using his class as nap time. The rest of my day dragged on in the same manner, walking from class to class, somehow sitting through it, trying to pay attention, trying not to fall asleep, and repeat.
By the time it was lunchtime, I was too tired to even hold my head up, ending up falling asleep with my head in between my hands, too tired to even bother to eat despite my stomach's protest. I felt like only a second later than Daenerys woke me up, gently shaking me by the shoulder. “Asher, time to get up - lunchtime is over.” she said as I made an attempt to roll my head away from her and fall asleep again. It took a while for her words to get through the fog but finally I lifted my head, rubbing my eyes as if that was going to magically make them work better. “We have history again today,” she continued, “So let's walk together.” “I… Um…” whatever I was trying to say I just didn’t manage and instead looked down embarrassed, grabbed my stuff, and shuffled after her, glad that she hadn’t mentioned the fact I had fallen asleep, nobody at the table had.
Today the noise in the hallways didn’t even bother me, it was like nothing could penetrate the fog that covered my mind. As I walked behind Daenerys, who was wearing a shirt of the famous band “Kiss”, with all of their most famous song names written on the back, I felt like I was forgetting something, I had told dad I would do something today at school but my mind couldn't, for the life of me, figure out what it was. It was as we passed a group of students putting up posters for the science club that I remembered I was supposed to look into joining a club, or some form of after-school activity. Of course which club I was going to be joining was obvious, me not being a big fan of speaking to strange people, it wasn’t like I was about to go around asking to join clubs.
“Hey, um, Daenerys?” I said, walking beside her, “I'm joining the theater club”. That came out a lot more blunt than I had expected, but at this point just formulating coherent sentences was a challenge, and I was only in partial control of my mind. “Really?” she asked, looking surprised, “Are you sure… Because… Well….” “Yea not like acting, I suck at that.” I interrupted her before I could help myself. “But like in… Um you know… The guys who move stuff around the stage but don't act?” I'm sure I knew the world but I just couldn't summon it, I just hope Daenerys could pick up on my meaning.
“You mean backstage crew?” She asked just as our classroom came into view. “Yes, that.” I said, making a weird hand gesture that I had probably intended to look something like “Yes!”. But probably came out more like me swatting a fly. “Well... You have to be strong to move all the heavier scenery around” She said, as we entered the classroom and took the two seats closest to the back. I felt like laughing and telling her that, short of lifting the entire theater, I could manage; Instead, I shrugged; “I'm sure I can do it.”
She tapped her pencil against her head for a few seconds before nodding. “All right then… We have practice today; if you can stay, I'll talk with our theater director so he can get you an application paper.” I was very much hoping dad would say no, tell me he was going to pick me up the moment the final bell rang, but our conversation from this morning still lingered in my mind, he was a lot more likely to just ask me how long practice would take. This time I didn’t even make an attempt to pay attention to the class, instead putting my head down on the desk. I think I mumbled something to Daenerys that sounded like, “Wake me up if the teacher notices me.” before I completely succumbed to the darkness.
“After this scene they are practicing right now, we have to get this thing out there and to the center of the stage.” The short, burly boy informed me, pointing at a tower made out of plywood and cardboard, painted to resemble old stones with vines and moss growing on it. “Okay.” I said, already completely forgetting what he had told me.
School had ended an hour ago, and as I had predicted Dad sounded thrilled when I told him practice was two hours long. After school Daenerys had taken me to the school theater, looking slightly old and worn down from years of use and abuse, but nevertheless quite an impressive place. There I had been introduced to the theater director, who turned out to be Mr. Aven, my history and homeroom teacher who apparently doubled as the acting coach for the club. He warmly welcomed me into his club in the same manner he welcomed me into his classroom, giving me an application that my legal guardian had to sign to make it official, but for today I could stay and see if it really was the right thing for me.
The current play they were working on was Hamlet, an interesting choice and a story I was familiar with, dad having made me read it a few years ago. It was certainly not a tale with a happy ending, as is often the case with Shakespeare's work. The story follows the journey of a young prince, Hamlet, whose father was killed and his kingdom stolen by his uncle, the same man who then married his mother. The ghost of Hamlet's father, the old king, appears to his son and revealed how he was killed by his own brother and betrayed by his wife, a message that sent Hamlet on a mission to avenge his father, a quest that eventually ends with a lot of people dying, himself included.
The main role, Hamlet, was being played by Jake, who could, apparently, shed his happy-go-lucky personality to play a dark, broody character at a moment's notice. Ophelia, a young girl in love with Hamlet, and who, like many other characters, ends up dead at the end of the story, was being played by Amelia. Her pretty looks, shy nature, and the fact that she looks younger than her age oddly made her a great fit for the role. Jordan played the villain, Claudius, Hamlet's uncle and king of Denmark, while Daenerys had the role of Gertrudes, Claudius' wife, and Hamlet's mother - I certainly could see her in the role.
There were more characters, but before I could be told more about who was who by Daenerys, the head of the backstage crew had found me and whisked me away to the back to meet with my “co-workers”, and get familiar with the scenery, props and general layout of the backstage. It seemed the stage crew didn’t get too many new recruits, and he was eager to get me started. He seemed like a talkative type, but few of his words were getting through to me, and I had forgotten his name as soon as he had told me along with all the other kids who worked back here.
“All right that's about it!”, He announced when he had run out of things to show me, which was a relief as I was beginning to think he was about to begin showing me the stuff from other plays. “The acting guys are only practicing their lines today,” He told me, “So we are going to repaint some stuff to make sure it is in good shape for when we need it, but…” He rummaged around in a plastic bin full of paper, bringing out a copy of the script. “Here,” he said, giving it to me. “Since it's your first day, and you don't have the protective clothing for painting”, he said, signaling to his own blue jumpsuit that looked a lot like what a mechanic would use. “I promise I'll get you one for next practice but for today just sit outside, study the script and all the notes of what scenario should be used in each part… That okay with you?”
I felt like telling him that was the most wonderful thing I had heard in the entire day. “Yes, of course.” I said a little too enthusiastically; “I'll go do that.” I added, already walking away and out to the stage, down the stairs, and onto one of the comfy red audience chairs. Before me practice was in full swing, several of the actors on stage, reciting their lines to each other, some held the scripts in their hands, others had already memorized it and moved around without it.
I thought of looking in my own script and trying to figure out exactly which scene they were in at the moment, but I wasn't sure I could even manage that at the moment. One thing I did notice was that Jake wasn’t on set, despite all the main characters being present. Instead, there was a younger kid, probably a freshman, but one small enough to pass as a thirteen or twelve-year-old, which if I could recall correctly, was how old Hamlet was at the beginning of the story. It made sense for him to be there if they were practicing the scene at the beginning, still, it seemed strange that I hadn’t seen Jake around, he wasn't exactly the kind of guy who went unnoticed. As if summoned by my very thought he appeared, running down the aisle in between the seats. “I'm here!”, he shouted, like anybody could have missed his dramatic entrance. Curiously his hair was wet, like he had just taken a shower.
“All right people change of scene”, Mr. Aven shouted, all the actors scrambling around, some staying there, others switching places with other kids. More importantly, Jake changed places with the young Hamlet actor, who now that I saw them standing close to each other, looked really similar, both with sun-tanned skin and light brown hair, probably why they played the same character.
“Why is Jake late?” I asked Emma, who was sitting a few seats from me, her colorful hair pined out of her face as she fervently brushed at something that looked like somebody had put a live Poodle in a washing machine - I half expected the thing to move. “Hmmm… who, Jake?”, she asked, looking up from her task; “He had football practice.” I blinked at her slowly, trying to process what I had just been told, “What!?”, I asked after a while, probably a little too loudly, “Jake plays football?” “Oh yes,” she said, moving the thing on her lap, that I was beginning to realize was a badly matted curly wig. “Not only does he play, he is the quarterback.”
I waited for her to laugh, to tell me it was a joke, but she just continued wrestling with the hairy thing. “Like Troy Bolton.” I blurted out, the only thing I could think of as a response to this new revelation. She snickered, “Oh yes, exactly like Troy, just don't mention it in front of him, I think he's tired of people making jokes about it.” “But… Why?” I asked after a while; “Does he.... like both? Acting and football?”. It seemed difficult, balancing the two things, especially in football season during which practices were long and arduous.
She frowned at that, “It's better if you asked him yourself”, she answered carefully, which let me know that it was a touchy subject. We lapse into silence after that, the sound of her continuing brushing of the wig and the voice of the actors in the scenes slowly lulling me to sleep. As the darkness surrounded me I heard a voice calling my name, at first I thought it was somebody trying to wake me up but as the minutes passed and I didn’t find myself once again conscious, I realized the voice was inside my head… That, or I was going crazy, which wasn’t a far-fetched conclusionif I was being completely honest.
In the darkness I could see a tiny speck of light floating in front of me, growing slowly at first but then faster and faster until it was a vaguely humanoid shape. I tried to move away from it, afraid of what it could be but I felt like my feet were fused together with the nonexistent ground, not a very pleasant feeling. “Asher,” it called again, this time more clearly and I could tell it was a male voice, a young one, probably belonging to someone my age. “Who are you?” I asked, trying to sound confident in the situation despite my growing confusion and fear. “Am I… Am I dreaming?”
“Yes and no.” He said, his image flickering slightly as he seemed to wince. “Listen closely Asher, I don't have much time, just know that you are in danger, don't trust the humans - there are demons wearing angel’s faces among them.” What was this? Some period drama?” I thought to myself, turning his message over in my head, trying to understand it. “What? What does that even mean?” I asked him, attempting to get some more information, or at least for him to give me his message again, but without the metaphors this time. But his light was fading fast, and he flickered, going back to the little speck of brightness. “No time… Can't explain.” Now his voice sounded like a radio with bad reception. “Don't trust her!” was the last thing he shouted as the tiny speck of light finally went out, plunging me into complete darkness once again.
I practically jumped out of my skin when somebody called my name again, but this time from the real world, pulling me out of the realm of dreams. “Wow there” Daenerys said, peering down at me. “Didn’t mean to scare you.” I must have given her a strange look because she backed away slightly; “Are you all right?” She asked with a little less cheerfulness in her voice.
Around us, the rest of the world slowly came into focus as my mind slowly pulled away from the drug-like state of half-sleepness. It looked like practice was over, a few of the crew kids were sweeping the now empty stage. Most of the lights had been turned off just allowing enough illumination for people to move around. “I'm fine”, I said softly, turning to look away from Daenerys, the dream had felt like less than a minute, but apparently I had been out for much longer.
Despite the fact that it had only been a dream, dread began settling in at the pit of my stomach. It hadn’t felt like a normal dream, one you forget once you wake up, or laugh at yourself for just how silly it was and wonder why you were so afraid - No, this felt different, I couldn't say why but the entire experience had left me dazed as the mysterious entity's voice still echoed in my head, “Don't trust her.”
Who was this “Her?” That was the question that circled in my mind. If I had asked myself the same question last week I wouldn't have been able to come up with even one theory, since I wasn’t close to,, or even personally knew any woman or girl.... but now things had changed. There was Margarita, Emma, Yuki, Amelia, Theo… and Deanerys. Those were all the girls I knew by name at the moment, and that I could call at least acquaintances. in Daenerys case, despite the fact we had only known each other for two days, I would call her a friend. Of course I could include my female teachers, which just expanded the circle of people to not trust.
I got up slowly, grabbed my stuff, and threw the script into my backpack, not much caring if it got wrinkled. Daenerys waited patiently until I was ready to go, despite her having already collected her own stuff. I felt a pang of guilt as I saw her there waiting for me, because no matter how much I tried to get rid of the distrust that blossomed in my mind when I looked at her, the feeling just wouldn't go away. Realizing I had been staring I shook my head, feeling embarrassed, “Um... let's go… I mean, if you’re ready?”.
She gave me a small smile, making me feel even more guilty; “Sure”.
4:00: PM, SCHOOL PARKING LOT
As promised dad was waiting outside for me, leaning casually against the car. He looked up as soon as he saw me, waving at me. I waved back half-heartedly, said goodbye to Daenerys and the other kids, and walked over, collapsing into the passenger seat, muttering something that probably sounded like a fusion between a “Hi”, a “Hello”, and a grunt. Unlike yesterday, dad didn’t question me, also important to note that this time around he looked unharmed, or that is all that I could gather since my senses weren’t even working at half capacity.
He didn’t ask me how my day was at school, or anything of the, “Normal parent questions”, kinda thing. He only gave me a quick greeting as he put the car in reverse to get out of the parking spot. “It was the pills wasn’t it?”, I blurted out, finally voicing the suspiciousness I had harbored all through the day, as he put the car in drive; “They are doing something to me”.
He didn’t say anything, only accelerated as we left the parking lot and took to the street. “Dad”, I said again, beginning to get angry, “I feel sick… I spent the entire day falling asleep everywhere, barely being able to think”, I practically shouted, sitting up straighter, trying to get his attention, “What did you do to me?”. At my words a flash of guilt crossed his features, so fast I half thought I imagined it as his face went back to its stone-cold expression, still refusing to give me any form of explanation. I looked at him, willing him to look at me, to not ignore me, feeling like screaming at him, or crying, but I wasn’t sure either of those two would work. “Fine”, I said after a while, swallowing a lump, hurt as I turned to look away from him, “Don't tell me anything… same as always huh?”.
Fighting back tears, I placed my head against the car window, my eyes closing on their own as the tiredness that had chased me through the entire day trapped me once again.
The feeling of being moved was what woke me up, I cracked my eyes open just a tiny bit, enough for me to realize what was going on. Dad had picked me up as easily as he had done when I was a toddler and was now carrying me towards the house, careful not to wake me up. His action brought back a flood of memories of all the long road trips we took as we moved around. A lot of the time dad would move from one end of a country to the others, sometimes we even change continents which involve arduously long car rides since we never travel by plane, or boat. Somewhere in between those long monotonous rides I had learned it was easier to just fall asleep, dad would always wake me up for food, to stretch my legs out, or if there was anything interesting to see on the road.
Other times I wouldn't wake up even as we got to our destination, and he would carry me inside, just like he was doing now. Despite my anger at him it felt oddly comforting, if not a bit embarrassing to be picked up like a little kid but I was too tired to let him now that I was awake and could walk myself inside, so I pretended to be sleep, even as he climbed the stairs and gently deposited me on my bed. I expected him to turn the light off and leave but instead he sat on the edge of the bed, one hand brushing through my hair with his fingers. “I'm sorry”, he whispered after a while, barely audible even to my ears, “I'm sorry…”.
His voice was so choked with emotion it caught me off guard and I almost, almost opened my eyes to let him know I was awake but it now seemed too awkward, it was too late for that so I simply focused on making my breathing as even as possible. “I'm sorry…”, he repeated, “I'm sorry for what I've done… but… if I don't do it, then… then you will be taken from me.” He paused and I could hear him taking deep breaths trying to calm himself, “Is it selfish of me?”, he asked, clearly not expecting an answer. “Maybe if you went there then you would finally meet others like you… you would make friends and be safe, but…”.
Despite his best efforts I could still hear the moment he completely broke down. That was the first time I had ever seen, or well, heard my father cry and it threatened to bring tears to my own eyes. “I'm just… i'm not ready to let you go.” He whispered, stroking my head. “Forgive your father Asher, but he is a selfish man.”
I came so close sitting up and hugging him, to tell him it was alright, to console him and tell that I love him, that I forgave him, to tell him I also wanted to stay with him, no matter what I had to endure...but I just didn’t have the courage so I stayed still, pretending to still be sleep until he eventually left and I could open my eyes to stare at the white sealing of my room as the tears I had been so fervently holding back finally poured out.
5:00 PM, SCHOOL THEATRE
“Hey! Can you just pass me the damn paint?”. Startled out of my thoughts, my mind quickly came up with the very eloquent response of “Hu?”. “The paint”, the girl repeated, exasperation clear on her face as she pointed to a half-opened metal can that was beside me.
I grabbed it. “This one?”.
Judging by the expression she gave me I feared I was about to get murdered in cold blood; “Yes that one”, she said, emphasizing every word like she was talking to a toddler, “Can you hand it to me please?”. I tried to ignore her condescending tone as I stretched myself across the canvas to hand it over, some of it sloshing and falling on an already painted part of the piece, one that was a completely different color. “Oh gosh, are you always this stupid?”. She asked a little too loudly, making a few of the other crew kids turn around from their tasks to stare at us.
I blushed in embarrassment at her question and at all the sudden stares, “I'm sorry…”, I murmured, looking at my hand, the floor, anywhere but at her sharp ice blue eyes. It certainly would help my case if my brain was working even at half capacity, but at least it wasn’t as bad as the first few days, that or I had just gotten used to living like a zombie. “Forget it”, she said, rolling her eyes at me, “Just sit there and don't touch anything”.
Her words were cutting, making me feel like a child that had just been scolded but it wasn’t like I could really argue with her, at the moment I would really be for the best if I didn’t touch anything that required too many motor skills. That of course had limited my use to the backstage crew who were in the middle of repairing, repainting, and fixing their scenery; in some cases, they were building it from scratch, and my lack of natural artistic skills plus my clumsiness was fast turning me into the group's construction crane, my only talent being carrying heavy things.
The job wasn’t half bad, I could even find time to doze off, an activity that had fast become a hobby of mine, however, getting publicly humiliated wasn’t exactly what I had signed up for. I couldn't even remember the name of the girl that was fervently painting a mural across from me, I couldn't even remember seeing her at the last practice, but then I hardly remember faces let alone names so it was perfectly possible I had just not registered her.
Looking more closely again I began to wonder how I had missed her since she was, well, hard to miss. Even with her dark brown hair tied back messily and wearing the baggy blue working overalls, she still looked beautiful. She had gotten red paint stains on her face, which just made a sharp contrast to her very pale skin. I hadn't quite paid attention to her when Rafael, our team leader, had sent me here to give her a hand, my shyness kicking in, meaning that if she didn’t speak to me first, which she didn’t, I wasn;t about to start a conversation. What's more, I tried to avoid one at all cost which just meant looking at anything but at her, but now I found that I could hardly take my eyes off of her.
I swallowed and looked away, very aware that I was probably as red as a tomato. If she noticed my sudden attention to her she didn’t show it, instead kept on painting, once in a while scuttling back onto the floor to admire more of her work. Her skill was truly impressive, the spring field of lush green grasses and colorful flowers coming to life under her hand and I found myself even more impressed with her. I wished I could tell her how amazing I thought her painting skills were but of course I was now too scared to even breath in her direction, especially after she had practically shouted at me.
A few minutes passed in complete awkward silence, the only sound coming from the other crew kids who chartered amongst themselves as they worked. “Look…”, she said after what seemed to be an eternity, “I'm sorry for shouting back there, that wasn’t very nice of me I just… I get mad when people mess up my work okay?”. I turned to look at her, not sure if I was hearing her currently, instantly averting my eyes as I caught hers, “Um...it's alright”, I squeak out, trying to blush from under her very intense gaze. “No it was my bad”, she said, extending her hand toward me, “Let's start over, I don't believe we have met each other yet, my name is Sara”.
I looked at her outstretched hand, noticing just how slender and pretty her fingers were, so delicate looking.Slowly I extended my own hand suddenly, very conscious of the fact I was wearing gloves, hoping she wouldn't think that was weird. “I’m… Um, I'm Ashe-”, I began to say as I clasped her hand, but got interrupted as I felt like I had suddenly been very violently electrocuted, pain passing from my hand, the one that held hers and into the rest of my body like a wave of agony. It was way different than the pain my marking caused, no, this was a deep and sharp pain reaching my very bones, feeling like I was being dismembered.
I shouted in pain, letting go of her so fast I think she hardly registered what had happened, her eyes looking confused and angry as I clutched my right hand to my chest, probably giving her a not-so polite look. “What the hell is wrong with you?”, she shouted at me, angry and clearly hurt, “Is this some sort of sick joke?” “All right, what's going on here?” Rafael said, walking over towards us, my scream of pain having attracted the attention of everybody around us.
“Asher did you hurt yourself?” He asked me, noticing how I was holding my hand, and probably the fact that I was shaking, still feeling the effects of whatever had just happened. I looked down at my hand dubiously, it still ached and throbbed but the pain was becoming duller by the second. “Um…” I began, unsure of what to do, “No… I'm fine… just… my muscle cramped… I’m really sorry for screaming”. The story was far from convincing but it was the best thing I could come up on the fly. I looked back at Sara who was glaring daggers at me; “I'm sorry…” I said, not sure just how many times I had apologized to her so far. “I… I didn’t mean to do that - just… um…”
Her stare only intensified, making me cringe, “I… just give me a minute to clear my head”. I said, getting up and walking away feeling incredibly self-conscious as I could feel all the lingering stares of the kids around me, their eyes following me as I walked across the gym and out the swinging doors. The school halls, normally so full of life and noise, were now completely deserted as classes had ended more than an hour ago. Normally I appreciated the quiet that the halls could provide after class but right now they felt almost eery.
I was still clutching my right hand; the pain had almost completely vanished, but I was still scared that I would return somehow. ‘What had even happened back there?” I wondered. I had never experienced anything of the sort and it rightfully scared me. I thought of calling my dad and telling him what had happened but I felt like he already had enough on his plate, judging by his increasingly jumpy attitude the past few days I was sure there was something going on, something big and dangerous that had him on edge, I hadn't even told him about my weird dream, somehow I felt like that would make him freak out even more.
As the last of the pain faded away I notice with some surprise that something else was coming to replace it - my markings were burning, something they hadn’t done in days, my senses were also back to their usual sharpness, and for the first time in a week, I felt like I could finally think clearly. I stopped dead in my tracks, looking around me like I was seeing everything for the first time, the lethargy that had plagued me for the past few days finally gone, making me want to run down the hallway hollering and screaming in happiness.
Of course I did none of that, first things first, I needed to check my hand, make sure I was truly uninjured. The best place to do that was the bathroom where I could be sure that not even the security cameras around the school could see what I hid under my gloves. As I walked I felt like something was nagging at my mind, like I had forgotten about something important but couldn't quite tell what it was. I was so engrossed in my own thoughts that I didn’t notice another figure standing in the hall until it was too late and he spotted me. Jake was leaning against the lockers, phone against his ear as somebody on the other end lectured him.
“Dad…”, he said, making a desperate hand gesture, “Dad just listen to me, I promise I'll bring my grades up just, let me stay, please…” I wasn’t sure whether to get closer, since it would be impolite to eavesdrop on what was clearly a private matter, but he was practically standing in front of the bathrooms and had sure as hell already spotted me. Accelerating my pace I walked past him and into the bathroom, trying to avoid eye contact, luckily he seemed to be way too engrossed in his conversation and apart from the first glance he cast toward the when he had first spotted me, he had mostly ignored me.
My reflection stared back at me from the bathroom's cracked mirror, the smell of cleaning products fresh on every surface, I had looked at the bathroom door behind me, not wanting to have to lock myself in one of the stalls and considering how empty the school was I doubt anybody would be coming my way. Carefully I peeled off the black glove from my right hand, inspecting the skin under the white light the bathroom illumination provided.
I was relieved to find it looked okay, no burns or injuries, but that of course still left the question of what exactly had happened. Again I thought of calling my dad but again I desisted, determined to deal with this myself. Was it her skin, her touch, something about her that had caused the sudden pain? reasonably speaking it was the most likely possibility but also there wasn’t a single reason I could think of that could have caused such a violent reaction in me.
Outside I could still hear Jake arguing on the phone, vaguely I wondered what that was about but I wasn’t about to ask, so I was more or less stuck in the bathroom until he was done since no power of earth was going to make me go outside and into that awkward situation again. I washed my face as I waited, hoping the cold water would help to clear my thoughts, and reorganize everything. Again my mind seemed to be nagging me about something, like I wasn’t seeing a crucial part of the equation. In my pocket, my phone buzzed with a new message, something that didn’t happen often. Intrigued, I brought the phone out, noticing that the message was from a strange number, I taped their profile picture, trying to figure out who it could possibly be.
It was a message from Sara. I had no idea how she got my number, but something in me made me both incredibly happy and at the same time afraid of what she could have possibly texted me about.
“Hi”, the first message read “It’s Sara” “Sorry about screaming at you…”, “Everybody has tried to assure me you aren’t the type of person to do that kind of prank and that something genuinely happened so.. .I'm sorry.” “There, I said it, but I'm not going to do it again so be happy with it and get your but back to work, they need you to move stuff”.
My eyes scanned the texts several times, not quite believing they had actually convinced her that I hadn’t done that intentionally, I wasn’t sure who had come to my rescue but I sent them a silent thanks. I wasn’t sure of how to answer her, for once, even more self-conscious about myself than usual, but at least in the text message I wasn’t as bad of a speaker.
“Hi” I greeted back, the only thing I could think of to start the conversation “Don't worry about it, it was just a misunderstanding”, I added, responding to her apology. “I'll be there in sec”.
Almost as soon as I sent them the app indicated she had read the messages, and I nervously observed as she typed something back.
That was all she wrote, and I found that I was somewhat disappointed, had I been expecting something more?, what was I even thinking? I shook my head, damn… I had only met her less than an hour ago and she had already taken a powerful hold of my thoughts. As I put the phone away back in my pocket I noticed my senses were beginning to dull again, the burning from my marking had completely disappeared and I could already feel the tiredness spreading across my body like I hadn't slept for several days. Dammit, I whispered in between greeteth teeth, it seems the effect wasn’t permanent, but at least it didn't look like the lethargy was coming back in full force, my mind hadn't slowed down as much.
Outside the conversation had finally stopped now all I could hear was Jake’s heartbeat, he was still outside, part of me wanted to wait till he went away but I had also promised Sara that I would be back soon, so I wasn’t exactly in a position to wait. I began opening the door when I finally figured out what had been nagging me, “Don't trust her'', the words from the message I had received. From the beginning I had suspected that “her” was Daenerys, since the other part of the warning had said that there were demons wearing angel's faces.
That part was easy enough to figure out, somebody would act nice towards me but truly had other intentions. Everybody who I had met so far, Daenerys, Jake, and all the other theater kids had been nothing but friendly and nice to me, well except for Theo but after a week it looked like she was beginning to warm up to me, however, none of them were as close to me as Daenerys. if I really thought about it she had practically been my guardian angel, appearing out of nowhere to help me figure things out on my first day, introducing me to great people, and guiding me through the strange experience that was school. Sara on the other hand…
She hadn’t been exactly friendly. She had probably directed more insults and shouts at me over the past twenty minutes than normal words, but somehow that made me suspect her less than Daenerys, the message had said demons wearing angel's faces, right? Not the other way around. And it probably wasn’t helping my judgment that I found her so captivatingly attractive. What is wrong with you?, I chastised myself, “get your head straight - yea she was gorgeous, and she probably also had a nice body under the work overalls - Stop!” I told myself. No more thinking about Sara, it wasn’t helping the situation.
“Hey are you just gonna stand there for the rest of the day?”, It was Jake, calling me from outside, making me realize I was standing completely still, holding the door halfway open. “No?...”, I said like it was a question, which was a new level of stupid for me. “How are you guys doing with the reparations?”, Jake asked, ignoring my nonsensical response, something he has probably gotten really good at over the last few days. “Uh...we are doing good”, I answered despite having no actual idea of the state of our projects. I had been operating on autopilot, much like a machine, somebody said to move something and I did, simple as that.
“Hmm… That's good”, he said, nodding, and I sensed that he wanted to talk about something else, he was just waiting for me to start the conversation, or to ask him about it, figure out what that was, a task that, honestly, was asking a lot from my half powered brain. I swallowed, uncomfortable with the silence that had settled among us, “Uh…” I began, taking a desperate shot in the dark, hoping I hit the target, “What was that all about?”, I asked, making a hand gesture towards his phone which he still held in his hands. His expression morphed into something close to relief, it looked like I had hit the mark, or at least hadn't offended him, which I also considered a victory.
“Just my dad…”, he explained, “He really doesn’t like me to be in the theater club - but he has a good reason.” he quickly added. “It takes a lot of my time and already keeping up with my grades is exhausting, plus the football team…”, he tapped his head, “I'm up to my head with everything. He is just concerned about me.” This was the first time I had seen Jake without his usual smirk, and I noticed how tired he looked as he passed his hand nervously through his hair awaiting my response and I realized why he had wanted me to ask him about the phone conversation. He was worried about what I would think of his dad, he was explaining things so I wouldn’t get the wrong impression.... I could understand him, I too would hate for people to get the wrong impression about my father but I was still wondering about something and it looked like if there was ever going to be a time for it, it was now.
“Jake, Can I ask you something?”. I began He shrugged, some of his usual spark returning, “Sure… Spit it out”. “Why are you in both the theater club and the football team, and the A.P classes on top of that?” Dad had explained to me what the A.P classes were a few days ago when I finally remembered to ask him, A.P stood for advance placement; basically, it gave high school students college-level classes and exams. I could see why I had all A.P classes, dad had educated me to a point where other classes would be too easy, but why Jake was struggling through so many of them I wasn’t sure.
He sighed, again passing a hand through his hair in, what I was begging to notice, was a nervous gesture, “It's… complicated”, he said, leaning back against the lockers, “Both my parents were immigrants, my dad was Syrian refugee who grew up in England, he later moved here to America and met my mother, a Venezuelan immigrant. Both basically worked their bones off to get enough money to live a decent life and to give me a good home… I feel like I owe it to them to go to the best college I can, I'm not that good at studying but I still try. The football team, however, I'm hoping will be my card to get a scholarship”.
“Oh…”, Was all I said, not sure how to properly respond to that.
“The theatre thing is, well, I have always had a love and passion for acting. I've always wanted to get to the big screen for people to recognize me in any movie I'm in…” He almost looked embarrassed as he spoke. “I know it sounds cheesy and egocentric but that is what I have always wanted.” Now his expression changed to one of cold resignation, “I've never told my parent about it, and I never will, making it as an actor is next to impossible, I won't disappoint my parent, so I'll just study something that I can get a lot of money with and give them the life they deserve. The theater thing… I guess I will just quietly let go of my love for acting… I'll enjoy it while I can, even if it’s kind of overwhelming”.
I stood in silence observing him; finally, I cleared my throat. “Jake… that’s really a lot of dedication”, I said, unable to come up with something more appropriate to respond to him but also feeling a new level of admiration, to think the happy go lucky boy I had gotten to know over the week could be carrying such a burden on his shoulders. “All right that's enough serious talk for today, I feel like a middle-aged accountant.” he said, the cheerfulness coming back into his voice as he slapped my shoulder in a friendly gesture.
“What about you Asher? What do you want to do with your life? Planning to be the next Einstein?”. I raced and eyes brown at him, “What even makes you think that?”. He looked at me perplexed before he chuckled, shaking his head, “Man you are in all the A.P classes the school has, I'm surprised they didn’t put you in A.P lunch! You have slept through all the calculus classes so far, and still managed to get a perfect score on today's mock exam... your brain is insane”.
“Uh…” I said, I hardly thought of how it would look like to somebody else when they saw me answering and memorizing stuff. For me, it was just natural, but to normal people like Jake, it was remarkable. “Come on now, no need to be humble.” he said; “How do you even do it? To learn your wisdom I wish.” He added in an imitation of master Yoda. I was about to try to explain to him that I just sort of looked at stuff and took a perfect mental picture, same thing with hearing, I could memorize everything word for word, but I didn’t get the chance as my phone began vibrating.
My message app was quite literally getting assaulted with texts from Sara.
“Hey, where are you?” “Did you get lost?” “What are you a child?” “Sorry that was mean but seriously...:” “What is taking you so long?”
Jake's eyes widened as he caught a brief glance of my screen, “Better get going mate”, he told me, patting me on the shoulder. “That looks serious”. By his tone I could tell he was trying to imply that something was going on between me and Sara, which made me want to explain that I was not like that but that would probably only make it more suspicious. “Yea… I should get going”, I said, already walking away, hoping he wouldn't notice how much I was blushing. By the way he chuckled as I walked away it looked like he very much did which just made me accelerate my pace as I walked back to the gym.