The first time that one of Jeff's successes becomes one of Todd's failures, Todd is five.
Little League is a lot of fun, Todd, Jeff says sympathetically, patting his shoulder as he leaves the room. It does make Todd feel better, but it doesn't change the fact that dad has signed him up for T-ball, even though they'd agreed it was okay that Todd didn't want to do it.
Todd has seen the boys fighting at recess, has heard them shouting at each other over whose turn it is to pick teams. He even saw Tommy Miller's nose bleed red onto the yellow, patchy grass of the playground once, and when he came home that day, he told dad he didn't want to sign up for T-ball. Dad hadn't looked happy, but Mom had looked at him over the dining room table, and he'd just hhmphed and said okay.
Jeff's team wins their junior championship that summer, though, and when dad puts Jeff's trophy on the shelf, he decides Todd better start T-ball after all. Jeff loves Little League, and he's great at it: Todd's going to love it, too.
Todd thinks he probably won't love it. He hates blood, and he really hates Tommy Miller. He guesses he might like it okay, but he's probably not going to be good at it. Not like Jeff.
It's not that Jeff winning a trophy is a bad thing. It's great. Todd's really proud of Jeff, and he even showed the trophy to Jimmy Newlin when he came over after school right after Jeff won the championship. But it's like every time Jeff does something good, it just makes Dad ask when Todd's going to get around to doing the same thing.
Todd's not really sure he's a sports kind of kid. And Dad had seemed okay with that—it had been great—until Jeff's trophy had somehow made him feel like Todd could bring home a trophy, too.
ONE'S-SELF I sing—a simple, separate Person
By the time Todd is fourteen, he's gotten pretty good at carving out a small space for himself to be himself. The space really is small—tiny, even—but he's gotten good at keeping other people out of it.
Jeff tries to help Todd out when he can: he helps keep Mom and Dad off his back, and he buys Todd comic books on the sly and gives them to him when he comes home from school, like Christmas in March. If Todd's honest, he doesn't really know what he'd do if he had a brother who wasn't Jeff. Which is ironic, because everyone else seems to think that, too. Just not in the way Todd does, at all.
It didn't take long for Todd to realize that the Little League trophy was only the beginning of it. When Jeff finished eighth grade, he got a little diploma that said Valedictorian. Dad put it up on the wall and every time someone came by the house he'd make a big show of kind of stumbling upon it, as if he didn't know it was there, and saying,
"I didn't even know they had valedictorians for middle school!" with a big, fake laugh.
Jeff would roll his eyes behind Dad, so that Todd could see, but Dad always looked at Todd disapprovingly when he laughed. It wasn't like Todd was laughing at the diploma: he hadn't even known what 'Valedictorian' meant until Jeff explained it.
At the end of the summer after Jeff's middle school graduation, Dad got Todd a tutor, and Todd went along with it even though he wanted to say, I don't think they have tutors for "Should participate more in class", Dad.
Thing is, Todd's always been okay at math and science and English. He doesn't need someone to explain equations or lab experiments to him. He just doesn't like talking an awful lot, and he's never quite been sure what the problem with that is. The way he sees it, at home, at the dinner table, it's always been a contest to see who can speak the loudest: Jeff or Dad, or sometimes even Mom. And Todd, he likes to listen. He loves that he can see when Jeff is making fun of Dad, even though Dad can't, and he likes it when Mom gets to speak about her work with the church. He doesn't mind staying quiet.
School's more of the same, because the fact is that his classrooms have always had more Tommy Millers than Todds in them. For every quiet kid like Todd there's always been seven loudmouths with sea monkeys or baseball cards or a new football, and so Todd has made it a habit to be quiet there, too.
In between the loud people in his life and the shelves full of Jeff's trophies and medals and diplomas, it feels as if Todd is always being pushed into some tiny cave, as if there's only two feet either side of him, between who he is and the walls that separate him from everything and everyone who expects him to be more like his brother, more like his dad. Todd spent elementary school trying to crawl out of it, and middle school hiding out inside it, and now that he's started high school he has, for the first time, thought, Oh, screw it (even though he felt really bad about thinking it immediately after he did), and decided to make the space his own.
He has some pretty good teachers and some pretty bad teachers: the bad ones are the ones that force him to give talks in front of the rest of the boys in the class, assignments that he always fails (and then they call Dad and Mom into the principal's office to talk about his lack of cooperation, which is the worst). The good ones are the ones that let him write stories or essays instead of doing things he hates doing, whether they understand why he hates it in the first place or not.
Jimmy Newlin's never stopped being his friend, not for a second, and Jeff's never stopped making him feel like he's a good little brother, so by the time he's fourteen Todd's pretty set on the fact that even if he'll never quite be who people expect him to be, that's okay.
It's not fine in the traditional sense: he hardly ever talks to anyone at all and people kind of think he's strange, or maybe even slow. It's not the greatest. The fact, though, is that he tried it Dad's way, and that was, without a single doubt, worse.
He likes Dean Martin and Les Baxter, he hates string beans, he doesn't like vests that itch at the collar, and (and it takes him a long time to make sense of this last) he maybe kind of likes Jimmy Newlin, and not just because he's a good friend.
Jimmy has always been nice to him, and he's stood up for him a lot over the years, and that's part of it, sure. But Jimmy also has what mom calls "cupid's bow" lips, and which Todd's dad once called "feminine", except they're not. Jimmy is nothing like a girl, and that's kind of what's good about it, about him.
Everyone has something to say about this kind of thing, Todd knows. Church and Dad and Mom and probably even Jeff and Jimmy, good as they both are at understanding Todd. But Todd's spent a lifetime doing things that people had something to say about, and a lifetime failing at being what they want him to be.
He's kind of an old hand at it, even. It'd be strange if it started intimidating him now.
Does the earth gravitate? Does not all matter, aching, attract all matter?
Dad making him transfer to Welton really throws a wrench in the proceedings. The thing about Todd's Jeff-free school was that even though most of the teachers had something or other to say about how Todd should be more social with his peers, no-one ever affixed Like Jeff was to any of their statements.
Todd's never really been sure what Dad's rationale was for not sending him to Welton in the first place; he sometimes thinks that maybe Dad was pretty tired of the comparisons, too. As annoying as it is for Todd, he knows it's trying for Jeff, too, being thought of that way, and maybe it's also a pain for Mom and Dad, trying to make sense of their second son, the one who is nothing like the promise of the first hinted he might be.
He'd kind of thought he'd gotten away with it, quite frankly, when freshman year came and no Welton uniform appeared folded up neatly on his bed, the way it had for Jeff. He's spent two pretty good years since not being compared to Jeff at all, because no-one knew Jeff to compare Todd too. But then Jeff graduated as Valedictorian (again) and went off to Harvard, and just like with that stupid trophy and the afterschool T-ball (which really had been as terrible as Todd had expected), Dad all of a sudden seemed to think that Todd could do Welton, too.
So here he is, watching boys that look as put-together as Jeff parade banners up and down the intimidating hall, and the Dean is saying something about 1859 and honor and privilege and Todd has no idea what to do. He's torn between not wanting to be there and being proud to be where Jeff was: he hasn't ever stopped looking up to him. He stands when his father jabs him in the side and tries not to stare at the boy behind the banner that says Excellence, whose cheekbones keep drawing Todd's eyes.
He doesn't know how he feels, and so he doesn't know what to say. He stays quiet.
Finally, after what seems like hours, the entire thing is over, and Todd follows Dad and Mom down the reception line, and gets what he privately calls the Jeff Benediction from the Dean:
"You have some big shoes to fill, Mr. Anderson."
He nods and smiles and tries not to look nervous or angry; he suspects he fails. He feels resentful towards his parents for putting him in this situation, for throwing him in at the deep end when he'd already made a home for himself at the far edge of the pool, however unimpressive a home it might have been.
It was fine, and had Todd's single friend in it, and Todd was used to it. There's value in that.
He seethes quietly, resenting his dad as they stand by the cars, where the younger boys are crying as they say goodbye to their parents.
When the boy who was holding the Excellence banner comes up behind him later, startling him and saying,
"I hear we're going to be roommates," Todd, in a moment that he's not particularly proud of, even resents Jeff.
Do you think the friendship of me would be unalloy'd satisfaction?
When Todd first walks into his room, he approves of it almost immediately. It's tiny, and though the second bed reminds him that he and Neil will be crammed in there, with hardly any space for Todd to fade into the background in, Todd's desk faces the wall, and that makes him feel as if he can find a way to do what he's always done. People never take much convincing to leave you alone, and Todd will just have to sit at his desk and keep his head down, and sooner rather than later, he'll have his old space back, the space that he's spent so much time working so hard for.
The illusion of quiet is shattered the moment that Meeks and Charlie and Knox come rushing in there, and though Todd feels briefly hopeful when Neil is called outside to get a talking-to from his father (because when he comes back in he looks the way Todd sometimes knows he looks after a talk about how Jeff never seemed to have problems doing this or that), the hope that Neil might be a little like Todd (quiet, unsure) is dashed when the rest of them start talking about a study group, when they're quiet when Neil asks them to be quiet, when they look to him for approval. He's clearly someone that people respect, look to, rather than someone that people look past, and Todd looks around the four walls of the room, and thinks, So you never had to share a room with Jeff at home: well, here's your chance!
The first day of classes is on the opposing end of the scale from 'good'. To start with, Todd has always been sub-par at Latin, and everyone else around him seems to have been born reading it. Then there's the crush of the halls, the sounds of dozens and dozens of voices bouncing off the stairs and the walls. Finally, and perhaps most discomfiting of all, there's the odd burn on his neck from where Neil put his hand that morning, as he looked straight into Todd's eyes and asked,
"Hey, Todd, are you okay?"
Todd imagines he must have looked a sight. He'd been standing at the door to their room, watching everyone throw clothes on and swap books back and forth, laughing and talking like living packed together like this was something normal, and he's sure he hadn't been quite able to keep the horror off his face. Neil had returned from the bathroom to find him gripping the side of the door (but trying to make it look like he wasn't) and he'd looked at Todd as if he were something to look at, as if the hubbub outside didn't completely drown him out. That alone had been odd, but then Neil had leaned forward earnestly, curving around the door into their room and into Todd, putting his hand on Todd's shoulder first, and then his neck.
"Yeah. Yeah. I'm okay," Todd had said hurriedly, grabbing his books from where he'd stacked them on the desk and practically running out. The speed had made it feel almost as if it hadn't happened, but the heavy feeling of disquiet that has followed him around all day as a result says otherwise.
As nice as it is to discover that Neil is a pretty decent guy, it's not reassuring to find that he seems not only willing, but able, to zero his focus in on Todd. It's just not a good feeling.
By the time the day is drawing to a close and he looks up from his books to see the new English teacher lurking by the door as his classmates talk amongst themselves in the classroom, he can barely muster up the energy to think, Great, one of the enthusiastic ones who think they can 'bring Todd out of his shell'. He doesn't know how he knows that's the sort of man Mr. Keating is; it's something about his smile, maybe.
Mr. Keating sees him looking, and for a second, he looks at Todd like Neil looked at him that morning. He doesn't say anything, though; he doesn't march in and ask Todd to introduce himself, the way some of his other teachers did. He just comes whistling through the classroom and takes them down to the mural downstairs without so much as looking at Todd again, to the trophy cases that remind Todd of home, though he's not about to tell anyone that. The boy at the left-most edge of the mural looks like him, even. How appropriate.
Make your lives extraordinary, Mr. Kaeting says, and Todd thinks, Yeah, right. But he also tells them that they're food for worms, something that the more pessimistic side of Todd has known for a long time, and when Todd thinks about it on those terms, Mr. Keating seems, in some way, to be speaking about carving out the sort of space that Todd has always sought out so carefully. A space to be yourself, because trying to be what other people want you to be never seems to work out that well, and seems almost like a waste of time in its worst moments. Maybe Carpe Diem is as simple as that.
Todd can only hope.
"Gosh, could you believe him?" Neil asks, later, when they're changing out of their sports gear, and Todd shakes his head quietly, not entirely sure what's being asked of him.
Neil's eyes are gleaming, and he looks the way Todd feels inside: ignited, a little curious, unsettled. Unfortunately, he also looks as if he can recognize in Todd what Todd recognizes in him: as if he can see Todd. Todd tries to shake off the feeling (and Neil's gaze) by busying himself at his desk, and when Neil asks,
"Coming to study group tonight?" perching on the door in a towel and smiling as if he knows what Todd is thinking, Todd can't quite muster up the courage to dislodge the Yes, okay, from his throat, Carpe diem or not.
He draws his eyes away from Neil and towards the wall, then towards his notebook. SEIZE THE DAY, he writes in large block letters, then laughs at himself. It's not as if writing some words on a page is enough to change a lifetime of habit.
You will not make your life extraordinary, Anderson, Todd reverses in his head sardonically, mimicking Mr. Keating's urgent whisper.
He opens his Chemistry book, huffs a breath out through his nose.
Probably not, anyway, he amends.
(He's not quite willing to give up all hope, after all.)
BEGINNING my studies, the first step pleas'd me so much
Todd wakes up after an evening of miserable sleep (he's not sure sleep can be miserable, but if it can, Todd's certainly perfected the art of making it so) and drags his way through the day, unwillingly eager to go to Mr. Keating's class again. He's sure it won't be what he expects (he doesn't like how unsafe that makes him feel, but it's also exhilarating, in its way), and Mr. Keating doesn't disappoint. He hoots at them until everyone has destroyed a part what Todd is certain is school property, no matter how much their parents may pay Welton every year, and Todd watches, fascinated and horrified.
It takes Todd a long time to gather the guts to rip his own introduction out (he won't admit that he only manages to do it after Neil does, in front of him), but at least he doesn't use a ruler like Cameron, the goob.
Afterwards, he opens his notebook and traces the faint outline of the words he'd written the day before. Something is tingling in his fingertips as he does, but he's not ready to do anything with the feeling, yet. He's busy hunching his shoulders and trying to escape notice, feeling ruefully amused at himself again, when he hears Mr Keating say,
"No matter what anyone tells you, words and ideas can change the world."
Todd's so busy thinking the opposite that he jerks his head up, then dips it again immediately when Mr. Keating's eyes flick towards him. He doesn't say anything, but when Todd looks around again furtively, it's to see Neil smiling at him. He gives a little nod towards Todd's notebook, and Todd tries not to let his breathing hitch, tries not to give any indication that he's noticed anyone else's notice.
He really doesn't like all this looking people are doing at him here—Neil, whom he can't escape even when he's trying to sleep, and Charlie, who is seemingly willing to shock whoever is willing to listen, and Knox, who Todd is beginning to suspect has the same quiet loyalty that Jimmy Newlin always showed him.
"What will your verse be?" Mr. Keating is asking as class wraps up, and Todd, trying to shove his pens and his binder and his books into some semblance of order, trying to avoid Mr. Keating standing near the back door and trying to make sure not to run into Neil as he exits out the front door, either, hears anyway and manages to think, God, no idea at all.
It's as if Mr. Keating follows them out of the classroom—he's what everyone talks about between bites of mashed potatoes and in the middle of pretending to run laps, looping back around when Mr. McMahon isn't looking. Todd's never had a topic of conversation to share with anyone outside his family, and as little as he likes being asked what he thinks, he can't help but be grateful that he actually has an opinion on something that other people are talking about, even if he doesn't know how to share it.
"What's your brother like?" asks Neil unexpectedly, when they're sitting in their room one night after another round of I wonder what he'll make us do tomorrows, once Charlie and Knox and Meeks have gone to bed.
"Uh," says Todd, blinking in surprise. "Well, you know. He's doing really well at Harvard. He's doing crew there, too."
People always ask Todd how Jeff is doing, so he assumes that's what Neil means.
"No," says Neil, wrinkling his nose at Todd. "I mean, what is he like?" and Todd eventually realizes what this is: this is Neil trying to get to know him better. It's an unusual feeling, but Todd's not about to miss his chance. He answers honestly.
"He's funny," he says, "and he wrote to me last week to say that he's joined a club that listens to rock 'n' roll on Wednesday nights."
"Yeah?" says Neil, smiling.
"Yeah," says Todd. "He always looks like he's doing exactly what Mom and Dad want him to do, but I think he actually has a pretty good idea of what he wants, for himself. He met a girl. Her name's Jessica, and he says she's really intelligent, and that she says women should be able to dress the way they want, and say what they want, like men are."
"Mmh," says Neil, tossing his sweater over the back of the chair and sitting down, leaning so that the chair is balancing on its hind legs. Todd can tell he's paying careful attention. Finally, he says,
"You know, I'm just not sure my brother's like that—"
"You never know," says Todd, surprising even himself with the interruption. Neil looks at him, eyes wide, presumably also at the fact that Todd butted in that way.
"It's just," Todd continues, quietly, "Sometimes people look like one thing, but they're maybe something else."
He hopes desperately that Neil won't ask him to explain what he means. He's not sure he wants to, and even if he did, he's not sure he can.
Neil looks at him for a long moment, and then, almost as if he knows Todd has used up all the words available to him for the one night, he nods and turns quietly back to his work.
I … am not contained within my hat and boots
The moment Mr. Keating tells them about the Dead Poets' Society, something hard knots low in Todd's stomach. He's never been good with clubs or societies, with things that require you to formally spend time with others. Sucking the marrow out of life sounds like the sort of thing they've been doing already, even if Mr. Keating is probably referring to something more dramatic (better) than what they've been doing in class. But words dripped from our tongues like honey sounds kind of intimidating, and Gods were created sounds like the kind of thing Todd ought to just avoid entirely.
"I say we go tonight," says Neil, and Todd looks desperately between the stones of the building behind him, lit up in the sunset, and the golden light on Neil's face.
He tries to look away, and can't.
(This is nothing like Jimmy Newlin, Todd spares some panic to think: there's something terrifying about Neil, about the quiet way in which he tilts his head when he's listening, about the way that he looks at Todd as if he doesn't know him well enough. Yet. As if he wants to.)
"Who's in?" Neil is asking, and then they're all running behind him, trying to avoid Dean Nolan's wrath, and Todd can hear them all agreeing one by one. For the first time in his life, Todd finds that he can't participate in something and hates it.
For the first time that he can remember, he actually wishes he could.
He's hoping to avoid the entire issue—he'll just pretend to be asleep when Neil goes that night, he thinks; they might not even make it past the dog—but then Neil comes to him, almost as if he knows (the way he always seems to know, even though they've hardly known each other two months) that if he doesn't ask Todd individually, Todd will just pretend he didn't know he was included in the Who's in?
When Neil asks again—"Todd, are you coming tonight?"—Todd finds himself saying not, I have a lot of work to do or I can't or even I don't want to, but the truth: there's no way he's reading in front of others, and it kind of sounded, from what Mr. Keating said, like it was a requirement for being there.
"Gosh, you really have a problem with that, don't you?" Neil asks, and Todd tries not to look at him impatiently.
You think? he thinks his eyes say.
Neil leaves Todd there, goes back to the rest of them, and Todd assumes he'll come back with a Sorry, the way Jeff sometimes did, when he tried to convince the neighborhood kids to let Todd play and they'd say no. Jeff wouldn't play either if they said that, on principle, (Todd wonders, probably stupidly, what Neil will do if faced with the same situation), but it was never pleasant to hear, anyway. He's not looking forward to it now, either. He thinks it will actually really hurt, this time.
A couple of hours later, Todd figures Neil might just not say anything—he might sneak out the way Todd was hoping to let him do, before he asked if Todd wanted to go and Todd got his hopes up despite his best efforts—but just when he's getting ready to go to bed early, Neil raps on the door and tells him he's "in".
You're in, like Todd's been in his whole life, like it's no big deal.
Todd doesn't even know how to begin explaining how much is strange about that.
It's the oddest feeling, this someone else helping to make a space for Todd, helping him build that space among other people, not just somewhere that's his alone, always welcoming but constantly lonely.
"Todd Anderson, because he prefers not to read, will keep the minutes," says Neil later, when they're all gathered around the paltry snacks they've managed to cobble together, and no-one looks up and says, That's not fair, Neil (Jeff), or acts as if anything unusual is going on. Neil doesn't look over to give him a wink, or look to the others with a shrug. Everyone just carries on as if Todd has always been there—nothing to see here, move along.
And Neil's actually given him something to do, a role all his own.
It's a heady feeling. Even headier is the look Neil shoots him while someone else is reading: See? his eyebrows say, as if he knows exactly what Todd was worried about, and is teasing him for it.
He gets the feeling he's getting made fun of, anyway. He can't be sure. If he is, though? It's great.
O you youths, Western youths / So impatient, full of action
When Mr. Keating comes up with the poetry assignment, it's true that Todd is terrified. But it's not for the reasons Mr. Keating seems to think: it's not that he doesn't think he can do it. He'd rather not, that much is true. But he could.
It's just—well, it just seems like an awfully big risk to take now that he's finally starting to feel like these people are his friends. It seems safer to stick to a tried-and-tested method of silence than it does to try something new, now that he has something to lose (for the first time).
Todd waits for the day to roll around, anxious and desperate. He goes to class and wonders if Mr. Keating is leading a life of quiet desperation: Welton's a good school, but it's still a school, and though he's sure that students like Charlie and Neil make up for it, a little, there's still Nolan. That can't be good. But if he is, he doesn't show it—he's funny, and he always seems to be laughing. Making other people laugh.
It's like he's changing everyone for the better: Charlie seems crazier, but more focused, and Neil seems to be all flushed cheeks and excitement and hope. When he comes home on a Tuesday, banging on walls, script in hand, Todd wants to shout in excitement, too. If he's cautious it's only because he knows what it's like to want something, or not to want it—T-Ball, tutors, acting in a play—and then to get the opposite of what you asked for.
"Jesus, Todd, whose side are you on?" Neil asks him angrily, when Todd pushes him too far, trying to urge him to be careful with his hopes.
Yours, obviously, Todd almost shouts. Neil knows that. He might even understand what Todd is trying to do. But in the end Todd can't bring himself to say that he doesn't want to see Neil disappointed if his father forbids it, and instead they end up talking about how Todd isn't stirred up by things—he is—and how he doesn't need anyone to take care of him—he doesn't need it, but he wants it, sometimes.
When Neil rips the notebook from his hands, Todd is, for one endless, terrifying moment, certain that he's about to get picked on as he never has in his life, as he's always managed to avoid by fading into the background. Maybe he pushed Neil too far; maybe the strange respite of fitting in, secure as it seemed, is over. But then Cameron comes in asking what the problem is, and Neil turns the joke on him in an instant, so that Todd feels as if teasing Cameron was his idea, too. As if he and Neil are in it together.
After they've run around the room for a few minutes, once the floor teacher comes to get them to stop, something sad and heavy settles over Neil again—it's as if he actually remembers about his father, then. Todd feels awful to have brought it on, and so he inches towards where Neil is sitting on the bed, looking at the wall.
"Neil, it's going to be okay," he says. "You'll think of something."
Neil doesn't say anything—his face is tight, pulled across a smile that looks like it hurts. Todd puts his hand on Neil's shoulder, squeezing experimentally. Neil doesn't move, doesn't acknowledge him, and Todd's chest feels filled to bursting with all the things he wants to say to him. None of them will come, so he eventually slides his hand down and squeezes Neil's fingers between his, trying to communicate You really will think of something and and if not, Mr. Keating will, and if all else fails, at least you tried. That's more than most people manage. Trust me. I would know.
Thinking about it, he's almost glad he can't bring himself to say any of it out loud, really: he's clearly no good at comforting people. He's about to pull his hand back and say Sorry, sorry when Neil presses his fingers, too, not looking at Todd, but just sitting there, together, and Todd thinks that maybe he helped despite himself.
It's that thought—that he can do things despite himself—that allows him to make something of that poetry assignment in Mr. Keating's class the next day. He's not even sure what he's saying (he probably doesn't want to know, he thinks even as he's saying it), but when it's over, he has an overwhelming sense of accomplishment, and something warm is pulsing in his chest and fingertips.
No-one has ever looked at him the way the entire class (well, the ones that matter, anyway) is looking at him now. No-one has clapped for him like Charlie is, no-one has smiled at him, private and knowing, like Neil is. No-one has looked as happy for him as Knox does.
"Don't you forget this," Mr. Keating tells him, and Todd almost laughs. As if there were a chance of that.
BEHAVIOR—fresh, native, copious, each one for himself or herself
The thing with Cameron and the textbook—being on the right side of a joke, like Mr. Stendhal used to say about the boys in Lord of the Flies and Piggy—fades into the thing with the… well, he supposes it was a poem, anyway, about the sweaty-tooth madman, and that blends into Knox giving him his pudding at lunch, because he knows Todd likes chocolate best. Todd has never felt this, this sense of belonging: he's never heard someone make a joke about someone else—Your parents collect pipes? That's pretty interesting—and felt okay to laugh, unafraid that someone would notice him joining in and turn the laughter on him.
Something else changes on the night that Neil brings the God of the Cave to a meeting. They all hurry back, their breath misting in front of them, the music of Charlie's sax still ringing in their ears, and they crowd around Knox as he dials Chris on the phone. There's something about his face—happy but desperate, like the beatific saints burning in the pictures on the wall at their church at home. Todd has never had cause to feel so unaccountably pleased for someone else, but he is for Knox, when Chris invites him to that party. He doesn't think Chris was really thinking of Knox the way Knox seems to think she was, but Knox thinks it, Knox is happy, and that's what matters.
Afterwards, in their room, Neil is quiet, clearly thinking.
"Knox was really excited," he says, and Todd thinks for a moment before answering,
"I guess that's the way it is, when you like someone."
The two of them look across the room at each other, and Todd feels as if they're maybe saying something other than what they are, saying something by looking at each other, even if they're not speaking.
"You think?" Neil asks, in the end, and Todd answers,
"Yes. I do. I—well, I think sometimes you can't get everything you feel out. You know, like it's building inside of you, and there's only so much you can say, or do, to show it. It feels like it's going to explode out of you."
Todd doesn't know what it is about Neil that makes him spill words out, like this. Neil just listens, though; he never presses, he doesn't even look surprised, all that often, though sometimes he can't help it. He just lets Todd speak, but he doesn't make him feel as if he's speaking into the air, the way Todd sometimes feels at the dinner table at home.
Eventually Neil walks over to Todd, a strange, determined glint in his eye, and says,
"The look on Knox's face," and Todd whispers, mouth dry,
"It's kind of like the look on your face right now," Neil says even more quietly, crowding into Todd's space.
Todd breathes in sharply, once, and then says, again, because he can't help it and because he doesn't want to help it,
When Neil moves towards him, pressing his lips gently against Todd's once, Todd doesn't say anything. He doesn't even breathe again. He just smiles against Neil's lips, and if the movement against Todd's mouth is anything to go by, Neil is smiling back.
Todd has always suspected that Mr. Keating has the ability to read the minds of his students, a little. More than once, he's taught something on a Thursday that is exactly what Todd was thinking on a Wednesday, or is exactly what Charlie was asking, jokingly, two days before.
He's heard from Pitts and Meeks that the government is developing the sort of tiny equipment that can be hidden in a room to record what's being said in it, but he somehow doesn't think Welton has access to that technology. He's been forced to conclude that Mr. Keating just has a part of him that's like them inside him, young despite his years.
So when Todd is wondering what it is he's supposed to do about this thing with Neil, whether he's supposed to wait for Neil to tell him what's next or whether it's okay to be the one to kiss Neil, next time (if there is a next time. Todd doesn't like to hope in advance), it's no surprise that Mr. Keating seems to provide the answer without knowing the question.
Todd's been thinking about it for hours, turning it over and over in his head, when Mr. Keating decides to take them outside. And like he always does, once they're there he seems to say what Todd needs him to, even if a little indirectly.
"Find your own walk," he says to them, and Todd thinks Mr. Keating looks at him for a moment right as he does. He might be imagining it, though.
Imagined nod of approval or not, though, Todd feels sure enough to, ever-so-casually, saunter his way over to Neil. Neil is walking quickly, and Todd is trying to make a slow drawl feel comfortable, but somehow, they manage to make it so that it feels as if they're walking together anyway. Todd trips and looks up, embarrassed but laughing in a way he never could have done before Welton, to find Charlie looking at him from where he's leaning against a pillar. He looks between Todd and Neil, smiling with that insouciant twist of lips that he does so well, and winks.
Todd flushes red to the roots of his hair, and doesn't quite dare to look up from the click, click-click, click, click-click of his and Neil's shoes moving in different rhythms.
But he is not afraid.
BEAT! beat! drums!
Todd has no idea what he's doing. But he didn't have any idea what he was doing at T-ball, and two and a half months ago, he had no idea what he was doing at Welton, and before that, he had no idea why Jimmy Newlin always stuck around, or why Jeff always seemed to think Todd could do a million things that Dad thought Todd couldn't.
He had no idea what he was doing at Little League, or in the Honor Club. Or in the Dead Poets Society.
He's lived a lifetime not knowing what he's doing, so he's had practice at, if nothing else, pretending he's not terrified.
Neil is practicing his lines—Thou speak'st aright; I am that merry wanderer of the night!—when Todd slams his Chemistry textbook shut and turns in his chair to look at Neil lounging on his bed. Todd sits very still and fights the urge to look down at the floor.
"Todd?" Neil asks, and Todd stands on shaking legs and makes his way to Neil's bed awkwardly.
"Neil," he says, and before he can lose his nerve he surges forward, pressing his lips roughly against Neil's.
Neil falls backwards onto his mattress, and Todd falls on top of him, thinking half Oh god, I didn't mean to do that, and Oh god, okay, here we go.
"It's not really something you have to think so much about, Toddy, once you start," was what Jeff had said to him, but Todd suspects now that the two of them were speaking about different things, maybe. There is no way that this doesn't require thought—Todd's forgotten entirely how you unbutton pants and how you undo ties, and when Neil stops, breathing loudly in Todd's ear, to say,
"Turn off the light, or Cameron is going to be barging in here any second wanting to talk about math," Todd is glad for the reprieve, and also glad for the dark.
Turning off the lights doesn't make the difference Todd though it would, though. He can still see Neil's pale, smooth skin by the light of the moon through the window; he can still see his own hands shaking, fingertips skittering with nerves. He can still see Neil's chest rising and falling rapidly, and he is sure Neil can still see the stupid, gobsmacked look on his face, shining like a terrible beacon.
But when Todd looks carefully it's to see Neil's face pinched with worry, too, and to make out the sight of Neil's fingertips curled carefully around Todd's hip, anchoring him. Making a space for him in the curve of his hand, as he has elsewhere.
Todd feels as if he might shatter with a combination of not knowing what to do and knowing exactly what he feels, the sort of unnamable thing that he told Neil about a few days ago.
"Neil," he says, and when Neil pauses to listen to him, head cocked at its usual angle, he says, "Welton has been nothing like I expected it to be."
"More travesty than was originally advertised?" asks Neil, smiling.
"Well, certainly more decadence," says Todd, running his hand along Neil's pale chest.
Neil laughs, and Todd is sure the two of them look equally surprised at the fact that Todd just made a joke. A sort of joke, anyway.
"No," he says, finally, once the shock of it has passed. "I just meant—it's better. Than I expected. Than anything, actually," he admits. "Ever."
Neil's face is soft. He pulls Todd forward and slides his cold hand down Todd's belly and then lower, and after that, Todd thinks stupidly, it's nothing like T-ball at all.
Sojourning east a while longer, soon I travel toward you
When the desk set comes, Todd isn't sad because it's the same old desk set—he hadn't expected anything else, actually. This lack of attention to detail is not even about him, really, not fully; Jeff got a briefcase two years running, once, and he has his own version of the desk set, fancier but still boring.
He's sad because it's an unpleasant reminder than outside of Welton, nothing's changed: out there, there's no Mr. Keating to know that Todd has fear and truth inside him, no Charlie to laugh at him, kindly, no Knox to stop him in the hall and say, "I got some cookies from my mother today, Todd."
There's no Neil to know him better than all of the others combined.
There's just his parents, expecting him to bumble towards something approaching where Jeff is, not really expecting success but hoping for it nonetheless. The familiar weight of it is heavy in his chest like the desk set is in his hands.
"Todd? What's going on?" asks Neil, and Todd hesitates for an instant before finally admitting what he's been meaning to tell Neil all week (because he wasn't quite sure what he or anyone else would make of it).
"Today's my birthday."
"Is it your birthday?" Neil asks, voice soft, and his eyes are shining, as full of promise as they always are, now. "Happy birthday!"
Thank you, Todd wants to say, but instead (as always) he ends up saying what he really means, what he's really thinking. He points towards the desk set.
When Neil asks if it isn't the same desk set that's already in their room, clearly trying to be tactful (because their room is small, and they've both looked at that desk set a lot), Todd answers that yes, indeed it is. He doesn't know what he expects Neil to do—he's good at knowing what Todd is thinking, but he surely can't know what Todd is truly afraid of, about what it'll be like when senior year at Welton ends, because that's a part of him that Todd has hidden even from himself, let alone from the others.
Neil tries once to make it better in a conventional way, first—"Maybe they thought you needed another one," he says, gamely—but when he realizes that that's not what Todd needs to hear, he changes tactics. Todd isn't sure what he's going to do (Neil or himself) until he's watching the desk set hurtle through the air, paper fluttering in the wind and the letter-opener clattering to the floor below them with a satisfying sound.
Neil brushes Todd's hand with his as the last of the paper floats to the ground, and though he hasn't said anything, Todd is reassured, anyway: there is nothing about what has happened to him at Welton that will not go with Todd when he leaves this place. He thinks. He hopes. He knows?
Neil is right: Todd is underestimating the value of the desk set. Because honestly, he's never particularly wanted a football or a baseball or a car. He's just wanted what he's found here, in this school, in his room with Neil, in Mr. Keating's classroom, in the curve of Knox's indulgent smiles: to feel okay in wanting the things he wants.
"No more T-Ball for Todd Anderson," Neil whispers quietly, showing, for the hundredth time, that he's always listening when Todd talks aimlessly in the dark.
"No," Todd says, drily. "Only flying desk sets from now on."
Neil huffs a surprised, sharp laugh, shocked again (but clearly happy. Todd makes someone happy regularly; he's good at it).
Rather aerodynamic, isn't it? he'd asked Todd. Todd hadn't answered, not in words.
But the truth? Is that there's a part of him, breathing in the cold air with Neil's warmth at his side and the not-accidental brush of his fingertips against Todd's, that does feel like it can fly.
And I stand henceforth bound to what I dream'd