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How To Build a Friendship

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I can do this. I can of this. I can do this. Dr. Bright said I could. She said I could make things better. I could use my power to finally fucking fix something. I could make Adam feel better. Hopefully. My thoughts get so loud they almost block out the emotions. Almost.

But today is just another English class. And there’s Adam leaving class, with no Caitlyn to interrupt this time.

“Adam!” I call out. He freezes and turns to look at me. I feel him panic, but I’ve already said his name. It’s too late to stop now, “Hi, I’m Caleb.”

“I know,” he says. Of course. What a stupid thing to say. Why didn’t I think this through?

“Um yeah. I just wanted to say… I, uh, liked your Macbeth presentation.”

He didn’t say anything. I could still feel his panic.

“I was wondering if you want to have lunch together?” I ask. I’m nervous but I can tell he is too so it’s not so bad. The feelings kind of…blend.

“Sure,” he says. I can tell he’s still confused but we go to the cafeteria together. I buy lunch there. He has his in a bag from home.

“So, where do you want to sit,” he asks, looking nervously towards the table most of the football team sits at.

“I like to eat outside,” I say, “it’s just, really loud in here.”

“Outside, huh?” he looks up at me and smiles, “Outside is good.”

We head outside together and I can feel my nerves, and his nerves. We match, I think and I feel a bit better. I put the pizza and fries I bought down on the table, I open the ketchup packets I took and empty them onto the plate. Adam pulls a sandwich out of his bag. I see some lettuce and salami sticking out the the edges. I start to eat my fries. I’m not sure what to say. 

“I, um, also like it better outside. Where it’s quiet and all,” I’m glad he started talking. I mean, I don’t think he was sure what to sat either, but he made an effort. Which was…cool.

“Yeah, it’s just so hard to even, like, think in there. Sometimes I just need a break.”

“Me too. I normally come outside to, uh, draw,” he looks at the ground, kicking the dirt with his converse.

“You draw? What kind of stuff?” I wonder. I’ve seen him doodle a lot but he always covers the page when people try to look.

“It’s nothing. It’s not very good.”

“I doubt that.”

He doesn’t say anything.

“But, like, honestly. I wasn’t joking, your Macbeth presentation was really good,” I mutter.

“Uh huh?” he raises an eyebrow and I can feel some doubt rise beneath his nervousness.

“Like, really. It was good. With the witches and everything. You, uh, really understood the book. It actually made me think about, like, destiny, you know?” I notice my fries are gone. Adam’s only had a few bites of his sandwich.

“I’m glad you liked it,” he smiles and I can feel his happiness. I like how it feels, it’s much nicer than his sadness. I kind of want to make him feel like this forever. Is that selfish? Maybe I just want his happiness for me?

“Well, yeah. My presentation was just Spark Notes, you know?” I laugh a little, he joins in. It’s awkward but not in such a bad way. In a nervous-happy kind of way. Excitement.

“I actually did notice that. Most of the class did the same, but, uh, I couldn’t do that. Not with—,” he cuts himself off, his emotions are all mixed up, “Well, my parents are pretty strict about homework and stuff.”

 “Oh. Mine are pretty relaxed about that.” 

They have bigger worries, I think. I don’t say that out loud, it’s not something you say to someone the first time you talk to them. Actually, I’m not sure what you say. Normally I just meet guys from football, so we talk about that. Adam doesn’t do football. I’m realizing that I pretty much know nothing about him. Maybe this whole conversations is just another fucking mistake to add to my long list.

“That’s cool,” Adam cuts off my thoughts and I’ve never been more grateful for an interruption. His worried excitement tingles through mine and it’s good to know I’m not the only one who isn’t sure what to do, “My parents are, like, over the top, a bit. Like, A plus marks, curfew at 10, very nosy.” He laughs, sort of at himself.

“I mean, my mom’s pretty protective. But, like, she gets I’m a teenager so she gives me my space and stuff.” 

My mom is maybe some kind of superhero, she’s helped me deal with my empathy and she found Dr. Bright and everything. I can’t talk about her or my dad without feeling love, even when I’m mad at them. When Adam talks about his parents he feels love but also worry, even more than he felt when I called his name. But I don’t want to push.

“Oh, no. When I went to watch the new Star Wars I had to tell her which theatre it was at and calculate how long it would be between the movie and the drive.”

“Wow. But, uh, you saw the new Star Wars? What did you think?” I ask. I saw it wth some guys from the team when it first came out.

“It was amazing. Especially, like, considering the prequels were terrible—“

“I loved those!” I interrupt. 

“Have you watched them since you were a kid?” he asks. He feels more comfortable talking about this then he has so far. I guess Star Wars is, like, his nerd thing. I remind myself not to be such a dick. Dr. Bright is always telling me not to “use insults to connect to people". And besides it’s nice to feel his emotions now. He’s happy again.

“No.”

“Maybe, leave it that way,” he grins, “they’re alright if you just want a few explosions, but rewatching when you’re older you notice the plot is pretty thin. But back to, uh… Oh, yeah, the new movie. It was great, the story and the characters.”

“And the explosions,” I smile.

“Yeah, they’re also pretty great,” he laughs. “But they understand a good story is about a lot more than explosions. It’s about well, mostly just well-timed explosions. You have to put action into a good story to make it more effective. If they’re just willy nilly the audience gets bored and…” he trails off.

“What?” I ask. Did I do something stupid again?

“Just, you probably don’t want to hear about that,” he looks down at his sandwich.

“Why? Because it’s ‘smart’ stuff? Just because I do sports doesn’t mean I’m stupid,” I feel hurt. Our emotions had been so in sync. I had totally believed Dr. Bright that maybe that meant something more. That it meant I’d find a someone who understood me.

“It’s not that. It’s just really geeky. You know, ‘loser’ stuff.”

“Oh,” I say. I realize I might have thought exactly that a few months ago. But going to Dr. Bright has helped a lot. Sometimes I don’t even notice, but I think I’ve gotten less mean, “It’s actually pretty…cool. That you think about it a lot. Because it, like, means a lot to you. There’s nothing, uh, wrong with that,” I smile at him as he finally looks up to meet my eyes.

The bell rings and for the first time in a while I’m sad to leave a conversation with another teenager. It was nice to talk to Adam. My mind was quiet. But more than that, I like him. Maybe Dr. Bright was right. This could be the beginning of a really good friendship.

Chapter Text

I get home from school and unlock the door. I’m the first person in my family to get home on weekdays. I put my shoes on the mat—my mom freaks out if I get the floor dirty—then I head up to my room and open my laptop.

I go Facebook and see I have a message from Dan, the captain of our football team, reminding me we have practice tomorrow.

I’ll be there, I send back. Then I search up Adam, remembering his last name is Hayes. We aren’t friends yet so I add him. I also realize I don’t have his phone number. I wonder when people ask for that? And how? I scroll through my feed for a bit until I get the notification he accepted my find request, then I open a chat window. 

Hey, I type, it was great talking today :)

Yeah, he says. Now what do I say? Facebook chatting is so awkward. I always sound stupid.

Do you have a snapchat? I ask.

Yeah, adamhayes99

Cool, i’m calebmichaels. i’ll add you

I open my phone, add him, and send a picture. Just my face captioned, “Hi.”

He immediately sends a picture of a textbook, it looks like math, “Homework I should be doing :P”

I say, “Have fun.”

He replies with another picture, one of his face this time, “You too”

I put away my phone. It’s weird to realize I’ve gotten so used to my empathy that it feels wrong to have conversation where I don’t feel the person’s emotions.

I open up my own textbook and start my work. I’m feeling pretty excited about English class this Friday, even if we are reading Nineteen Eighty-fucking-Four. I just want to talk to Adam again.

I pull out my science textbook and I work on the problems until my mom calls me down for dinner. I go downstairs and see my mom made meatballs and spaghetti—my favourite. We all dish up for ourselves. My sister, Alice, is already talking about her day. She’s in grade 7 and always has drama and shit going on, today she’s complaining that her best friend, Mia, has been hanging out some other girl more than her. I can sense that she’s feeling kind of insecure or something about it. I guess she’s worried about no longer being Mia’s best friend. It’s pretty ridiculous though because Mia has been Alice’s best friend since grade 1. She’s at our house almost as much as I am. I think about telling Alice this, but I can tell she’s not super worried, and mostly just likes to complain. 

“How was your day, Caleb?” my mom asks. I used to get so pissed when she asked. Back when I first got my ability. She was always so worried and fucking careful about how she talked, like she pitied me. But now she just asks every day and it’s normal. She doesn’t even mind that I normally don’t have anything to say. It’s actually kinda cool.

“Today was good,” I say, “I spoke to that kid, Adam. The one Dr. Bright told me to talk to because I feel his emotions more.”

“Oh that’s nice. How was it?” my mom feels happy and also surprised. I guess I haven’t really talked about friends much the past year. I haven’t really had many because everyone’s emotions get in the way.

“It was, um, nice. His emotions are different, somehow? Like, they don’t get in the way.”

“Oh, Caleb, that’s great,” she smiles, “You know, you can invite him over any time.” I can feel that’s she’s proud of me and it’s kind of embarrassing. But she’s also pretty happy and unworried which is good. Normally my empathy stuff, just stresses my mom out. I’d rather have her proud and happy.

“Um. Cool.”

“So what’s he like?” Alice asks. She’s feeling excited about him. She also wants to bug me.

“He’s nice. Pretty nerdy, but fun,” I mutter.

“You should study together. Then you’ll do better in school,” she teasers.

“I do fine in school.”

“Still...” she says. It’s actually a pretty good idea but I’m not going to tell her that.

“Sure.”

“You’ll never believe what Helen did today at work,” my mom says, distracting Alice. We spend the rest of dinner laughing at my mom’s story about Helen, the old lady who works as a secretary at her office. She’s really bad with technology and apparently spent an hour trying to print an email to show it to my mom.

The next day is a pretty regular Thursday. I have math, phys ed, and history. No English, though. which means no Adam. I feel weirdly sad about that. I really did had fun with him on Wednesday. I zone out through math, we’re doing quadratic equations and it is the most boring topic I have ever studied. Phys ed is fine. It’s one of my favourite classes, since it has the least thinking. Not because I'm stupid or whatever people think. It's just—people don’t feel as stressed out when they’re just working out. Everyone is relaxed. Except during the beep test stuff. But today is a boringly normal day—volleyball. I’m pretty good at it. I let myself just get in the zone. Focus on the ball. Just feel people a bit—to know if they’re planning a risky move. I guess it’s kind of cheating to use my ability like this, but it’s not like I’m psychic or anything. Then I have my lunch spare. Next is history class. We’re learning about World War I. No one really cares about it, except for Mr Brown. One of the major nerds in our school, James, is sitting in front of me and even he is just doodling on his paper. I can feel his boredom and I take a second to zone in on it. Try and figure out the details like I’ve been doing with Dr. Bright. He’s bored but confident, not worried about missing stuff. I guess he already knows the material? He’s also unfocused, just zoning out. Pretty much exactly how I feel. At the end of the day I have an hour of football practice, overall a normal day.

If my life was some kind of cheesy high-school movie the next week would have been told through a quick montage, unfortunately I have to live through every boring second. And I have to do all the tests and projects that are due. Every day in English I say hi to Adam. We don’t really talk about anything except in our daily snapchats. Then we mostly complain about how much homework we have. The week goes by stupidly slowly but then it's time for the Sadie Hawkins dance. I still feel kinda bad about leading Caitlyn on when I don’t want to date her or anything, but I’m not some huge dick who’s gonna leave her to go to the dance by herself. I just hope nothing gets awkward.

I go to her house to pick her up and drive her to the dance. Her father answers the door and gives me a stern look.

“She’ll be down in a moment,” he says. Luckily I don’t have to say anything back because just then Caitlyn comes downstairs. She’s wearing a dark purple dress, it’s nice I guess but I still don’t feel any butterflies except hers. I smile even though it makes her butterflies even worse.

“Um, hi,” I say.

“Hey,” she smiles as I put the corsage I got her around her wrist, “Let’s go.”

We drive to the dance and I play music to try and hide the fact that I don’t have much to say. I barely know Caitlyn. Do we have any common interests? I don’t know. I don’t think the music makes much difference. We make basic small talk, but I can feel Caitlyn just getting more and more nervous which is not helping me keep my fucking calm. It’s a relief when we finally park and head to the school. Well, relief for a second until I’m hit by the emotions of everyone at the dance. Teenagers’ emotions are bad enough in regular life. They’re way worse when everyone is drunk or high from the pre-parties they went to, alcohol and drugs make people’s emotions even louder, like they’re yelling about them, or something. It’s even harder to ignore.

We walk into a the gym together, her arm on mine like we’re in one of my mom's Victorian romances. I see a few guys from the football team, Dan and Brad, and we walk towards them. We talk for a bit but it's just more small talk, and I zone out until Caitlyn tugs on my arm. 

"We should go dance," she suggests. We go to the dance floor and it would be fine if I could just stop feeling her fucking emotions. On the outside everything is fine. We're dancing, and that's easy. Just moving my body with music. It's the insides that the problem. Caitlyn has the butterflies again and they're worse than they've ever been. Now that I know that they're attraction they feel awkward, because I don't like Caitlyn back. And I also feel kinda, like, bad. I really don't want to lead her on. I also really don't want to date her or anything like that. A Taylor Swift song comes on and she seems distracted for a bit, signing along with the lyrics, but when the next song comes on the butterflies are just as bad. I sorta wish Adam was here, that would distract me. But I shouldn't rely on him. I just need to get used to awkward emotions. I try the method Dr. Bright has been teaching me, taking deep breaths and focusing inward, on my own emotions. It helps for a bit but after a few minutes I just need a break.

"I'll go get us drinks," I say. 

"Sure," she smiles, "Thanks."

I go to the table of food set up at the side of the room. As I'm filling our cups with the punch I feel Caitlyn getting nervous, and not in a butterfly way. In a super uncomfortable way. I head back as fast as I can to see what's up and then I see Henry talking to her. His body language is, like, super aggressive, he's in her personal space and his emotions are — ugh. He's drunk and attracted to her but also mocking her. It's gross. 

"Hey, Caitlyn, here's your drink," I head over to her and she smiles gratefully, but Henry doesn’t back off. He comes closer and stretches his arm out toward Caitlyn and I can just feel that she's so uncomfortable and kind of scared but also helpless. Then I start to feel that way too. Except that I'm not helpless. I can sort of tell that I'm about that lose control the second before I do. Then I punch Henry in the face. 

"What the fuck?" he yells, turning to me. 

"Why don't you back off?" I reply. 

He punches me. We begin to pretty much all out brawl until then the chaperones arrive and separate us. Ms. Kappel drags me out into the hall while Mr. Travis takes Henry to a nearby classroom. 

"Mr. Michaels," she says, "would you care to explain just what that was?"

"I- I don't know? Henry was just, like, harassing Caitlyn and I just got so mad at him. I lost control," I mutter. 

"That is not acceptable," she frowns, "you're not a child anymore, Caleb. You need to learn to work out these kinds of issues in nonviolent ways."

"I know!" I tell her. And I do. It's just the really hard, with the empathy and everything.

"Now, after that kind of behaviour I cannot let you go back to the dance. I'm going to call your parents to come pick you up. Be glad you’re not in more trouble."