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Ain't It Fun

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Andrew decided to do some good.

Being the five-foot, angsty menace that he was, this was a rare occasion. However, he understood the maelstrom of emotion in the piercing blue eyes, the anxiety of being watched by students passing around this certain corner, the constant battle between needing help and denying that whatever the fuck was happening wasn’t real and that others had it worse.

“She’s a nutcase.”

The boy looked up, startled. He was almost frightened, but Andrew understood that he’d come out of the blue. His eyes were really fucking blue. His hair was a mess of curls, uneven brown, like hair-dye. Yeah, definitely dye. He could see a lighter colour at the roots. The scars on his face were impressive, most certainly not done to him by himself, and all of a sudden Andrew’s pathetically gay brain screamed interesting!!!!! “What?”

“You’re better off going to the free service in Columbia. This school counsellor won’t help you: She doesn’t help anyone.”

The boy glanced nervously towards the door. “What do you mean?”

“I mean that she’s a shit psychologist. Do you want the number of the place in Columbia? They have psychologists and psychiatrists who actually completed their degrees.”

Andrew didn’t understand why he was hesitating. Was it because he was Palmetto High’s notorious pain in the ass? Andrew was sure he’d never seen this boy before, anyway. He had to be new: He must only have heard the rumours.

“Come on.” He tugged on the boy’s long-sleeve, careful not to touch his arm. It wasn’t hard, being that his clothes were four times too big, and his arms had the scrawny nature of someone malnourished. Andrew remembered looking like that. The boy stumbled after him as they ran down the stairs and out of the building. Andrew stopped behind the cafeteria.

He was no longer scared, but apprehensive. He tugged his sleeve out of Andrew’s grip and circled his arms around his stomach.

Andrew nicks a pen from the diary in the front pocket of his bag and gestures to the boy’s arm. He looks as his hands: They’re calloused and scarred as well.

“Well shit.” Andrew remarked. “And you’re only seeking help now?”

He pulled his sleeves over his hands. “Wasn’t allowed to.”

“Who are you?”

“Neil Josten. Sophomore.”

“Are you new?”

He nodded again.

“Thought so. Listen: You might have no idea who I am, or too many ideas, but there’s a fair few of us who are pretty fucked up here.” He tapped his head. “I don’t know what kind of issues you have going on, but that counsellor isn’t going to help you. Almost everyone I know goes to the practise in Columbia, because they’re good. Except Reynolds, but she has a rich father forking it out for her. All their funds come from fundraising and donation, so it’s not a cent out of your pocket. Sounds too good to be true, right?”

Neil shrugged. “I don’t know what’s appropriate.”

Andrew mirrored his shrug. “You’ll figure it out. D’you want me to program the number into your phone?”

Neil shook his head. “Don’t have one.”

Andrew was almost surprised: Then he remembered that nothing really surprises him, and that Neil’s sort definitely wouldn’t have a phone. Trailer trash? Homeless? Andrew couldn’t quite pin it, but he had definitely gone through the wringer a handful of times.

He scrawled the number on a corner he ripped out from his diary and Neil folded it up carefully and put it in his pocket. “Thanks. I guess.”

“Don’t thank me now, when you haven’t got any of the benefits yet. That just doesn’t make sense.” Andrew saluted him. “Have fun.”

Neil muttered something under his breath. Andrew wasn’t really bothered to hang around and take the chance whether or not he’d repeat it any louder, so he left for his next class, leaving Neil with piece of paper burning in his pocket and a fear of being so blatantly transparent.

*

Neil sat on in the arm chair instead of the couch: He didn’t like how the cushions were so neatly placed. Everything was pretty neat in here. He imagined clutter might make some anxious: Maybe this Dr Dobson dealt with a lot of OCD patients. The impeccable placement of every decoration, however, put Neil on edge.

His father’s study had always been neat and orderly: By default, Neil always pinned secrecy to neatness. If Neil ever disrupted his father’s order, he’d be beat black-and-blue. This meant Neil was incredibly anal about restoring whatever he used to its’ original state, or not going near anyone else’s shit whatsoever. Avoiding was better than meddling and fixing. Precaution and prevention was better than cure. All that shit.

The psychologist ducked into the room and closed the door, sighing in relief. She turned to Neil and smiled. “I love my coworkers, but we’re on a tight schedule. Just narrowly missed a lengthy conversation. Wouldn’t want to be late, would I?” She sat on the edge of the couch but extended her hand over the coffee table between them. Neil took her hand out of obligation. “I’m Betsy Dobson. Dr Dobson, Betsy, Dobson, Bee, Bitch, Ms Psych Lady, I don’t mind. Whatever makes you comfortable.”

Neil swallowed and nodded.

Apparently, a lot of her clients had graduated last year, and she specialised in high schoolers. Neil was lucky to have got a slot so quickly with her, or with any of them, but she’d had enough vacancies to make him a weekly thing.

She smiled and took the clipboard. “You’ve already filled out all the consent forms and agreements, which is excellent. I’ve also already looked at your brief reasoning for why you’re coming here, and I have to say that it is very brief. I assume you’re going to talk it all out instead. Writing it down is a little too real, isn’t it?”

“I don’t know.” Neil said, and it was the first thing he’d said since his conversation with Andrew yesterday. He hadn’t offered any opinions in his classes — As usual. And Stuart wasn’t home when he got there — Also common. His voice was croaky at a result. “I’m not good at talking.”

“We’ll figure out a method that’s comfortable for you to convey information to me, don’t worry. You’ve stated three things: You get a lot of a nightmares and can’t sleep, you are worried that will affect your grades, and you think you’re overly paranoid.” Betsy put the clipboard down and clasped her fingers together. “I’m going to say this outright, because you strike me as someone who appreciates honesty. I can see disfigurement on your hands and face. I don’t need you to tell me who it was, but I’m guessing it was a traumatic event. That event, or however long the string of violence occurred, is haunting your subconscious. Yes?”

Neil nodded.

“This is normal.” Betsy promised. “Human brains are influenced by anything and everything. They hold onto small moments we didn’t think they would and they bring back things we want to forget. Are you willing to try and communicate with me in order to work with your brain’s behavioural patterns?”

Neil nodded again.

“This will mean we’re going to talk about traumatic events and your past.”

Neil tensed reflexively.

“Not today.” Betsy promised. “You don’t trust me and you don’t know me. I can tell that we need to build a relationship of trust before you are okay with telling me anything.”

“Yes.” Neil managed. “I’ve been described as having trust issues.”

“To what level did this person describe them as?”

“Serious ones.”

Betsy laughed a little and nodded. “Who was this?”

“My uncle. He’s the only family I have left.”

“Do you live with him?”

“Yes.”

“What does he do, Neil?”

He was a gang member. He killed Neil’s father, trying to rescue his sister, but Mary died and Neil lived, and now Stuart lived with the constant reminder of his failure. “He’s a mechanic.”

“Have you always lived with him?”

“Only for six months or so. We only moved to Palmetto in August.” Two months ago. After all the shit with his parents, his uncle set him up with a new name and a chance at living out the rest of his teenage years with a little bit of normalcy. They couldn’t have gone back with the Hatfords: Stuart was rejected for trying to rescue his outcasted sister. Neil didn’t want anything to do with that family anyway.

“How are you enjoying South Carolina?”

“It’s warm.”

Betsy smiled. “It’ll cool down soon.”

Hopefully.

She asked mundane things. School, classes, did he have any friends? Did he like any sports or do any hobbies? No friends, he said. He likes Exy. Stuart wants him to go to college with a sports scholarship. He used to live in Baltimore: He can drive. He likes the colour gray, even though it isn’t a colour. He doesn’t own a phone or a laptop. He doesn’t see the need for either. He liked drawing: He liked worrying, and worrying about his worrying, and worrying that worrying about his worrying was fucking with his head. Which it was.

“Neil,” Neil was standing. The hour had ended. Betsy held out one hand in hesitation. “I have to ask. Are you safe?”

Neil wrapped his arms around himself. Technically, he was. His father was dead. He wasn’t going to come out of his grave, even if Neil was convinced that his hatred for his failure of a son was potent enough. “Uncle Stuart wouldn’t hurt me.” That was true. He was Mary’s son, and Stuart wasn’t an unnecessarily violent man.

“I’m glad to hear it.” Betsy promised. “But I also meant from yourself. Between this session and the next, do you fear you’ll hurt yourself, even take it to the extent of suicide?”

Neil shook his head.

Betsy nodded. “I’ll see you next week, Neil.”

Neil left.

He must have been considerably shaken when he got home, because Stuart gently held his shoulder. “You alright, Nate?”

Neil hated that Stuart called him that. “Fine.”

“You had that therapy session, didn’t you?”

Neil nodded, shouldering past him to the kitchen.

“How’d it go?”

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Okay.” Stuart nodded slowly. “Well, why don’t you have a shower. I bought more dye: We’ll do it after dinner.”

Neil swallowed and unpacked his schoolbag onto his end of the dinner table: It was a long, thin one. They ate opposite each other in the middle, and Stuart’s study was at one end, Neil’s at the other. The rest of the house was a mix and match of antiques and simply out-dated furniture. Stuart liked fixing things that were beyond repair. Neil was convinced it was why he’d taken Neil in.

There was only the kitchen and dining room, living room, Neil’s room and Stuart’s. The bathroom was between their bedrooms, the washing machine and dryer crammed in there too. The mirror has a towel draped over it: That was for Neil, and Neil was grateful.

Stuart described Neil as a puzzle where all the pieces have been hacked at, bent, warped and disfigured, and they remotely fit together but they’re very close to falling apart. Stuart likes metaphors: He said that the sticky tape holding them together won’t always stick, and that it’s time to straighten out the pieces, one by one.

Nate, Nate, with issues so great.

Neil sat at the dinner table and finished his maths homework as Stuart steamed vegetables and stirred mac-and-cheese. It was a quiet night on Perimeter Avenue, coming off one of Palmetto’s main drives, Perimeter Road.

And yet, when Neil got into bed, sleep was the furthest thing from his grasp. He laid there for half an hour until the whispering in the back of his head was too much to bear, grabbing his English text and settling down with that instead.

*

He’d never seen Neil until two days ago, but now Andrew was seeing him every where. Walking out of gym class still in his gym gear, disappearing into this roll-call class, lining up for food in the cafeteria.

Andrew wanted to know if he’d taken Andrew’s advice, but he wasn’t going to sidle up to the human embodiment of paranoia and make friendly conversation about therapy. Andrew didn’t do friendly conversation. And the last thing he wanted to talk about was therapy.

He finally realised a solution when he saw Kevin and Neil walking together, which he was so sure he’d never seen before, but their mannerisms were more relaxed than they were with anyone else, and they looked to be arguing about something they’ve argued about before.

“Kevin.” Andrew crossed his arms and waited by his locker. Kevin paused and looked over his shoulder to glare at Andrew.

The two of them were at an impasse. Andrew dropped off the Exy team when Kevin joined after transferring from Evermore Academics, purely out of spite. He trained with Kevin when he felt like it, just to keep Kevin hooked on the idea that he’d join the team again.

He glanced at Neil, who was shrinking back a little. “Neil.”

Kevin glanced at Neil. “You know Neil?”

“You know Kevin?” Neil asked Andrew.

“I can’t believe you haven’t realised this in our long lasting friendship, Neil.”

Neil scowled, unappreciative of the sarcasm. “Funny.”

“I know.” Andrew deadpanned. “I’m hilarious. Kevin, let’s go.”

Neil was left stood alone and looking lost when Andrew dragged Kevin away.

“What’s your deal?” Kevin asked. “And how long have you known Neil?”

“Since Tuesday.”

“Oh.”

“Kevin, you’re so thick sometimes.”

Kevin punched him weakly in the shoulder. “Fuck you.”

They were unlikely friends who, for the most part, hated each other. Unsurprising: Andrew hated everyone. Kevin and his pretty face was no exception.

Renee latched on, walking beside Andrew. Andrew didn’t pay her any mind: She still smiled. “Hey.”

Andrew rolled his eyes. “What do you want.”

“Nothing?” She said innocently. “Just to say hello.”

“You said hello to me this morning.”

“To involve myself in whatever riveting conversation the two of you were having, or start one.” She looked at them pointedly as they walked, little silver crosses hanging from her earlobes. “Kevin, I know.”

Kevin looked stricken. “When did Wymack tell you?”

Renee shook her head. “I caught him before school. He’s breaking it to rest of the team at practise this afternoon. I’m going to visit her after, before they move her off.”

Andrew pieced two and two together. “Janie Smalls is in hospital.”

“Don’t spread it, Andrew.” Renee warned.

He looked at Kevin. “That’s why you were arguing with Neil before. You want him to join the team.”

Kevin sighed. “Well, we only have one functioning goalie—“ Renee beamed. “—And only two strikers, now. We’re so fucked for the season. Neil still refuses to join the damn team.”

“Interesting.” Andrew’s odd spark of intrigue started and stopped with Neil. 

“We could introduce him to the team?” Renee offered. “Maybe he’d be more comfortable trying out if he knew the rest of us?”

“Special circumstances.” Kevin argued. “He’d prefer an even playing field and earn his position. I think Wymack should hold try-outs for the senior team instead of just drifting them up from the junior team. Then we could try and get some fresher meat and some reserves, don’t you think?”

Renee and Kevin argued across him. Andrew tried to convince himself he couldn’t care less about a brown-haired, blue-eyed fuck up. It worked.

Mostly.