“Are you sure you want to do this?” Sarah asked quietly, gazing back at her son in the rear view mirror. “We can always wait a few more days, you know.”
Before she’d even finished talking, the boy was shaking his head, arms folding defensively.
“Yeah, I know, mom,” James replied. “But I really wanna get back there. I’m sick and tired of just staying at home all day. I wanna see my friends. Please? You said I could.”
From his spot in the side seat, Peter raised a placating hand.
“No one’s stopping you, James,” he murmured. “We just want to be sure you’re ready.”
“Well I am, ok?” The boy replied with a hint of impatience. “Can I go now? I wanna say hi to Charlie before class starts.”
Sarah sighed, glad at least to see her son acting a little more energetic today.
“Do you have your phone?” She asked, turning in her seat to face him. James nodded.
“Yup. And it’s fully charged.”
“Mom,” James grumbled, shooting an impatient glance out of the window. “I have everything, I promise.”
“Alright, sweetie,” she murmured, reaching out to pull the boy into a hug. “Have a nice day.”
“I will,” James replied, grinning. He pulled back from the hug after a few moments to open the car door, hopping down onto the pavement with a light thud. “See ya later!”
The door slammed closed behind the boy and the two parents watched, smiling out of the window at their son as he made his way up the steps to the school building.
“Well done,” Peter said gently, still holding the smile fixed in place as James ascended the last of the steps. “Now just hold the smile till he moves out of sight, okay?”
“Yeah,” Sarah replied, her voice tense. “I know. Can’t let him know how hard this is.”
As James reached the top of the steps, he turned, glancing back at his parents and giving them a wave. Peter and Sarah waved back, smiling as best they could. The deception seemed to work, and James turned back away from them, stepping in through the wide double door.
The moment James was out of sight, Sarah lifted her hands to her face, covering her mouth before letting out a muffled noise somewhere between a scream and a primal groan.
Peter placed a hand on his wife’s shoulder, attempting to reassure her as best he could.
“It’s okay,” he said quietly. “He’ll be fine. There’ll be teachers around him the whole day and we’ll be here to pick him and Bex up the moment classes finish. It’s going to be fine.”
Even as he spoke the words, Peter was trying desperately to believe them himself. Even knowing them to be true, it was not easy.
Sarah, head still buried in her hands, nodded slowly.
“I hate this,” she whispered, her voice coming out slightly muffled. “Watching him cry in his sleep. Having to pretend I’m totally fine when it feels like I’m breaking inside. I hate it.”
“I know,” Peter replied, reaching out to wrap an arm around Sarah’s shoulders. “Me too.”
“You know what the worst part is, though?” She continued, leaning in against her husband’s chest. “The worst part is having to apply that fucking makeup every morning. Having to look at those damn markings for ten minutes and pretend that it isn’t bothering me at all.”
“I know,” Peter answered, slowly rubbing Sarah’s back in comfort. “If you want, I can take over makeup duty for a while.”
In spite of herself, Sarah let out a choked little chuckle, leaning backwards a little and removing her hands from her face to gaze across at her husband with slightly wet eyes.
“Oh please,” she rebuked gently. “As if you know the first thing about makeup.”
“What if I do?” Peter replied with the very smallest of smiles. “I’ll have you know it takes a lot of work to look this perfect.” He gestured to his face playfully.
“As if!” Sarah snorted. “You don’t need makeup. You have that perfect Asian face thing going on. You’ll look twenty right up until you turn forty, and then you’ll look like an old man forever.”
“Oh, so it’s an Asian thing, is it?” Peter grinned. “I take offense at that, racist.”
Sarah chuckled, adopting her best deep south accent.
“Sorry partner. All you Japs look the same to me. Yessir!”
The two gazed at one another in silence for a moment or two before both, near simultaneously, began to laugh.
“What was that voice?” Peter asked, prodding his wife gently in the shoulder. “That was terrible!”
“Sorry!” Sarah chuckled. “Guess I never spent enough time working on my stereotypes.”
After a few moments, the levity died away, the interior of the car falling slowly back to still silence.
“Thanks for being here today,” Sarah murmured eventually. “I don’t think I could have done this on my own.”
“Can’t say I blame you,” Peter answered. “It’s not as if I would have been able to focus at work today anyway.”
“Still,” said Sarah, giving her husband a small squeeze before pulling back and setting her attention to starting up the car. “Thank you.”
Casper arrived at the school early, as had become his habit in recent months. Arriving early meant that the emotions all around him would build up gradually, allowing him to slowly acclimatize to each new arrival rather than being overwhelmed in having to deal with them all at once. At the same time, arriving earlier made it easier for him to find a mind to focus on in order to help drown out the others. It was easier focusing on just one set of emotions. Doing so made it possible to discern his own feelings from the jumble.
He sat on the steps as the first of the other students began to arrive, slowly opening his power out and allowing their minds to brush against his. He ignored most of them as best he could, identifying each mind by feel before continuing his search for one that might make a good shelter for the day.
In the months that Casper had been taking refuge in the emotions of others, he had found three or four minds that he preferred over the rest. These were the minds that tended to be the steadiest or the happiest, rendering them both more comfortable to focus on and somewhat less distracting. These were also students whose schedules placed them close to him throughout the day, preventing the necessity of finding someone new as they moved away.
Casper’s attention was drawn for a moment by the arrival of a mind he hadn’t felt recently. A boy from the year below him; James, if he remembered it right. Despite never having spoken, Casper liked this boy. His mind had almost always been calm and cheerful, a trait that had led him to take refuge there a number of times and which was also what drew his attention now. Something was strange about James today, beyond the anxiety he seemed to be feeling. He felt… different somehow, more serious. Had something happened to the boy?
Curious, he glanced over to the spot where he felt the other boy’s emotions emanating from. He found James with relative ease. He was sitting in the back seat of a car, talking to an Asian looking man and a blonde lady who Casper took to be his parents. As he watched, the boy’s emotions shifted, moving from anxious excitement, to defensiveness, through irritation and then back into the same anxious excitement, tinted now with a small touch of relief. Had he just won an argument?
Confused, Casper expanded his power out slightly further, attempting to gain some sense of context from the minds of James’ parents. He reached out, brushing his mind against theirs for the briefest of moments. Almost instinctively, he recoiled, pulling his power back from the pair. He stared at them both as they waved their son goodbye. Both adults were anxious on a scale that he struggled to even find the words for.
Casper shook his head, trying to clear it of the sudden surge of emotion, before returning his attention to James. The boy’s emotions shifting slightly towards excitement as he encountered a cluster of his friends inside the school building. His curiosity piqued, Casper made his way inside the school, resolving to observe the strange boy further through the day.
Being back at school was, for James, an almost incomprehensible relief.
For the first time in what felt like an age, no one was looking at him strangely, aside, perhaps, from one or two teachers, perhaps noticing how he tried to keep his distance from them. It wasn’t really something he could help. Adults made him nervous.
James’ friends, however, didn’t seem to notice a thing, and he relaxed into their presence like a warm bath, chatting about tv and football and books at every opportunity. It felt normal. It felt right. He found himself smiling again without having to make an effort. It was nice.
James sat on the outskirts of the school oval at lunchtime, eating an apple as he watched his friends play some undefinable ball game they’d devised between themselves, one bearing a passing resemblance to both dodgeball and rugby. They’d invited him to join, but he’d declined, cautious of the delicate layer of makeup covering the marks on his face. James had instead elected to watch, sitting with his back to a wall. It felt safer knowing there was no one behind him. He took a bite of his apple, munching on it slowly as he soaked in the rays of the early afternoon sun. He’d missed this.
“Hey,” came an unfamiliar male voice from somewhere to James’ right. “Can I sit with you?”
James turned his head, his eyes falling on a sandy haired, freckly boy who he vaguely recognized as being from the year above him.
“Sure,” he shrugged, shifting to the side by a foot or so in invitation. “Plenty of room.”
The other boy took a step forward, his form slumping down beside James without ceremony. The two sat silently together for a few minutes, watching the game. James took another bite of his apple.
“Why aren’t you joining in?” The unknown boy asked, his voice mild, one hand gesturing to the other children moving in clusters around the ball.
“Didn’t feel like it today,” James lied with a shrug, only a touch regretful. In honesty, he’d have liked nothing better than to be playing ball with the others. He took another bite of his apple.
“Huh,” the freckly boy replied after a few moments, staring at the ball. “That’s kinda weird. I usually see you out there running with the others.”
“I didn’t know there was anyone watching,” James muttered, glancing sideways at the newcomer. “That’s kinda weird too.”
“Meh,” The pale boy shrugged. “Just saw you playing every now and again is all.” He grinned, casting James a mischievous look. “Or maybe I should say I’ve been watching from the shadows for years. For fate determined us to be star crossed millennia ago, when I was just a boy, and I have kept this form for years, waiting for you to arrive.”
“I think maybe you watch too many crummy romance movies.” James replied with a snort.
“Nah,” The freckled boy chuckled. “Mostly just anime, really.”
“Yeah?” James asked, interested. “Me too. My grandparents keep giving me boxes of them so I won’t forget my Japanese.”
“You speak Japanese?”
“Yup,” James replied proudly. “Ojiisan and Obaasan come from there, so they wanted me to learn it early.”
“Oji-” the other boy began, one eyebrow raised, before James cut him off.
“My grandparents,” he supplied. “Sorry.”
The two were silent for a few minutes, watching the game. The quiet was broken by a small grumble from the sandy haired boy’s stomach. James glanced at him, head slightly cocked to one side.
“Don’t you have your lunch with you?” He asked mildly.
“Uh… No,” the pale boy replied awkwardly, his eyes dropping to the grass between his knees as he began picking at a stray root. “I uhh… forgot to grab it on my way to school.”
James shrugged, one hand moving to his own bright red lunchbox by his side and digging around in it for a moment, before producing a small, plastic wrapped package.
“I have a spare sandwich if you want it,” he offered. “I’m not gonna eat it.”
The freckled boy shook his head awkwardly for a few moments, his face flushing slightly in embarrassment.
“N-no thanks,” he mumbled. “I’m okay.”
James gazed at the other boy for a few moments, before very deliberately placing the sandwich on the ground between them.
“Well, I’m not gonna touch it,” he said with a shrug. “So I guess it’ll just sit there till someone comes and cleans it up.” That done, he returned his attention to the game, watching the newcomer out of the corner of his eye.
After a few moments, the sandy haired boy picked up the sandwich, carefully avoiding looking at James the whole time. He held the package between his knees as he unwrapped it, looking almost as if he was trying to shield it from James’ sight. The boy took a bite, chewing for a moment or two, then swallowing.
“T-thanks.” Came the quiet mutter, sounding almost ashamed.
“S’okay,” James replied, smiling. “I’m James, what’s your name?”
“Casper,” the boy said quietly. “I’m Casper.”
“Nice to meet you, Casper,” said James, grinning. “So, what sort of anime do you like?”