The morning air nipped at every scrap of skin that wasn't covered by Ross' dressing gown. Even on the cream carpeted stairs, his toes were gradually going numb. Whether it was the silence or the shards of sleep still clogging up his head, mornings always felt a little off-colour to him.
The chill of the hardwood floor immediately bit into the soles of his feet the moment he stepped down into the hall. Every step sent another icy shock through him, but by the time he’d reached the end of the hall he’d gotten used to it. He reached up and pressed the ‘Increase Temperature’ button on the thermostat; the house replied with a bubbly ca-lump.
Yawning, he stepped to the right of the thermostat and pushed the living room door open. As it opened, a piece of paper got grinded up in the space beneath the door and brought it to a halt. Ross poked his head through the gap he’d managed to make and searched for the disturbance.
A set of mahogany drawers by the door allowed it just enough space to open. Today, though, the bottom middle drawer was hanging off the edge as if someone had pulled it out a little too far and forgotten to tuck it back in. A haphazardly stacked pile of opened letters sat just before the door. Ross sighed and slipped through the gap.
The rest of the living room was no better; the coffee table was littered with odd bits of paper and opened notebooks. On top of all the mess, there were two half-empty glasses and bowls of cereal with only the milk left in and a few loose Rice Crispies floating around in it. Dirty cups coated with a layer of drying coffee at the bottom leaned tenuously against the sofa on the carpet. It was the living room of people who didn’t have time to actually live.
Ross dragged himself under the arch that separated the living room and kitchen. For some reason, the spacious kitchen was in pristine condition. The plastic laminate counters shined as if they’d just been polished. He chuckled at the thought.
The linoleum floor didn’t do much better than the hardwood for his feet, but the rest of his body was starting to heat up anyways. He drifted across the room to the counters by the fridge. Across the counters, a breakfast bar and a wrapped up baguette were laid out. A note had been left on top of them.
Here’s your breakfast and lunch.
We’ll be back at 6.
Mum + Dad
Ross scooped the sandwich and the breakfast bar into his hands with one swipe. The clock hanging above the fridge caught his eye as he turned around. He let out a little pained sigh. Too early.
With his food for the day in toe, he ventured up to his room to get ready for school.
Senior art classes were all either full to bursting or half-empty. On the very first day of the semester, everyone in Ross’ class scrambled for seats at the front of the class, leaving the back rows desolate. Ross took one wide glance over all the strange faces, shrugged, and ambled his way over to an empty two-seater at the back of the class. It’d worked out quite well for him; it was a window seat, nobody bothered him, and unless he went out of his way to make himself known, the teacher left him in peace. It had been twenty minutes and she hadn’t even noticed the paper airplane he was masterfully crafting.
“Now- Art Nouveau was as much of an ideological movement as it was an artistic one, like most good movements are.”
Miss Conrad swept across the room. Her white blouse, dotted with multi-coloured simple cartoon flowers, reflected the sunlight coming in through the line of windows to her right. As she walked, the gentle breeze allowed a pink-tinted curl to come loose and fall across her forehead. She stopped at the projector screen and faced the class.
“The movement’s great figures used art as a way to convey an often quite political message, though it’s hard to tell when it’s taken out of context. So that’s why it’s important to read between the lines and decide…”
Ross finished off the last fold on his airplane. He gently turned it with his fingertip, inspecting the aerodynamics and paper quality. When he was satisfied that its nose was pointy enough, he slotted it in between his middle finger and his index finger. He lowered his head until it was in line with the plane and closed one eye. His other eye showed him a straight line towards the front of the class. He grinned to himself.
“So before the 1890s, there was a worrying trend in the art industry where…”
Ross jolted the plane back and forward, as if he was going to throw it but changed his mind at the last minute. When it had gained enough momentum, he aimed for the projector screen and let the plane loose.
Miss Conrad turned away from the class and reached down to the silver rim below the projector screen to hit the power button. As she stood up, a sharp point rammed itself into the small of her back. It irritated her skin for a moment and then dissipated. There was a short pause where all chatter ceased; then the class erupted into a 20-person laughing fit.
She froze in place as her veins caught on fire. Hot, molten fury pumped through every inch of her body until her head filled with black smoke. She whipped herself around to face the class.
“Who did that?” Her voice was as light and sweet as ever.
A few arms shot backwards, to the boy sitting alone by the window at the back of the class. Ross clamped his hand down over his mouth to trap his laughter. The hilarity soon died down, and soon his stifled snickers was the only sound in the room. He glanced up and looked around the room. Every blank, dead-eyed look he received from his classmates put another stone in his chest. He shrunk back into his seat, hoping to melt into it.
Miss Conrad’s heels clacked across the classroom floor. She stopped just inches away from his desk.
“Well, Mr. O’Donovan.” She crossed her arms; Ross’ stomach bubbled like a cauldron. “If you can waste your time assaulting me with paper airplanes, then surely that implies you don’t need me to teach you. So, go on; tell the class what was happening in the art industry before the Art Nouveau movement in the 1890s.”
Ross shot her a solid glance at first, but his gaze quickly trailed off towards the floor. “Um…it was, uh…” The weight of 20 eyes pressed down on his vocal chords. “…A lot of art before that, um, for a bit before that, it was…like, it was mass produced for a bigger profit, so a lot of it was really similar and dull and, like…it made artists really upset and they wanted to start making real art again, so…” Ross shrugged feebly.
Miss Conrad stared him down for few moments. Ever so gradually, a spark of pleased curiosity found its way into her eyes. “That’s actually…a really good way of putting it, Ross. You’ve obviously read ahead.” She looked around the room, and then back to Ross. As she crouched down, her voice became just loud enough for him to hear and no more. “Please just pay attention from now on, okay? You might pick up something important. You’ve obviously got the knack for this, anyways.”
Ross’ cheeks filled with warmth, tugging at the corners of his mouth. He nodded.
Conrad smiled back. “Good. Good job, though, Ross.”
She gave an affirming pat to the back of the chair and made her way back to the front of the classroom, talking as she did so. “So, if you didn’t quite catch that, the art industry in the period leading up to the Art Nouveau movement was…”
Ross’ body slumped against the back of the chair. His head gradually lulled backwards until his neck was resting on the rough plastic outline of the chair. Endorphin-fuelled sparks lit all over his body, spreading through his veins and painting every last muscle with soothing ecstasy. His head filled with the stuff candy floss was made out of; the bubbles in his stomach turned sweet and soft. Electricity built up in the small of his back and spilled out across his midsection. Blood laced with delicious heat rushed to the core of him. Every time Miss Conrad’s words replayed in his head, the barrage of sensation started again- albeit a little weaker every time.
He sat there, complacent, for a few minutes as pleasure wrecked through his body. At that point, what he was feeling and the sound of Conrad’s voice were the only things left in his world.
“…So in spite of the predominant art styles at the time, Art Nouveau typically had intricate interior designs, crazy flowing curves- it was really a breath of fresh air.”
Ross’ head slowly came back up again. He let out a quiet, contented sigh as the waves of sensation began to subside. His grin showed no signs of budging. He rested his chin on the palm of his hands and looked forward.
The fog clouding his thoughts dispersed last. He froze for a moment as he ran over the last five minutes in his mind. His eyebrows dipped. What the hell?
Even now, his stomach gently bubbled with anticipation. Did getting a teacher’s approval really affect him that much? He nibbled at his index fingernail. You are into some weird shit, dude.
An abstract drawing of a brunette surrounded by thick, intertwining plant stems took up the whole of the projector screen. Miss Conrad took a seat on the edge of her desk. “Now, what makes this piece of art different from the pre-1890 pieces we looked at last week?”
Ross’ hand shot up, along with a few others near the front row.
Miss Conrad surveyed the class. She stopped at Ross for a millisecond before her gaze moved on, but secretly her thoughts danced from all the good, smart kids in the front rows to Ross sitting at the back. She pursed her lips. “Ross?”
Ross’ hand fell down. “It’s very-uh, like it’s got a lot of natural influences. Like, plants and stuff.”
Conrad smiled. “Exactly. Well-spotted.” She turned back to the projector screen.
Ross barely had time to crack a smile in response before his head started to tingle again. The soft warmth growing in his stomach turned to pure heat below his waist. His chin fell lazily back onto the palm of his hand. His eyes grew hazy and a faint, sloppy smile crept over his face. I could get used to this.
“…So the inclusion of things like trees, flowers and general wildlife in Art Nouveau pieces was another indication that-“ The clock on the wall to her right caught Miss Conrad’s eye. She looked back over at the class. “Well, it seems like I’ve babbled a bit too much today.” She hopped off her desk. “Pack up and double-check you’ve written your homework down somewhere.”
Within moments, the room became a cacophony of screeching chairs. Ross tucked the pencil he’d superficially taken out at the beginning of the lesson into his pocket. He swung his dull brown, painfully light satchel around his shoulders and stood up, kicking the chair out from under him.
Miss Conrad picked him out from the traffic jam of students trying to leave the room. She smiled. By the time he passed by the desk, the room was almost empty. “Ross?”
“Mm?” He craned his neck to look behind him.
“You really stepped it up today.” She gave him a warm smile. “Keep it up and you’ll fly through this year.”
Conrad’s grin was infectious, spreading through Ross’ cheeks. “Thanks.”
He turned away from her and darted out the empty room. As he dragged the door shut behind him, Conrad chuckled to herself. At least he’s in a hurry for a change.
A few paces from the classroom door, Ross let his back fall against the wall. He kept his breaths slow and steady as his body started to tingle again. Warmth flushed over his face and his thoughts turned light and airy. God, it just felt so good to do everything right.
A hard, bony shoulder knocked him out of his reverie and across the corridor. His arms flailed, searching for something to hold on to. His balance righted itself before he could stumble into the opposite wall.
He looked across the corridor. Standing where he had been was tall, blonde heavy-set boy with a face that always seemed permanently screwed up in disgust. Ross’ jaw fell flat.
“H-hey, what the fuck was that?” Ross shouted. His voice jumped from being completely solid on one syllable to cracking the next.
The boy gave him a dismissive side glance. “You were taking up the whole corridor, asshole.”
Ross pushed himself off the wall and scrambled to catch up with the boy. “Hardly, I was just…I was just standing there, you didn’t have to push me.” Ross heard his own whiny, trembling voice. His chest clenched up.
The boy flicked his icy blue eyes over at Ross again. “Yeah, and your fat ass was blocking everyone from getting through. Christ, the world doesn’t revolve around you.”
Ross dug his nails into his trousers. Words clogged up his throat, all squabbling to be let out, to be screamed so loud they made the boy’s eardrums bleed. His stomach dropped, filled halfway with acid, and then shrivelled up. But he still kept up pace with the boy, even as he turned the corner into the physics corridor.
“A-am I not allowed to stand now?” His face fell flat as he heard his own voice turn brittle. More of a pathetic whine than a cutting retort.
The boy looked over at him, this time for more than two seconds. As he scanned Ross’ face, his features contorted into a picture of disgust. “Are you fucking crying?”
“No.” Ross mimicked his expression and then turned away. He tried to swallow the boulder in his throat, but his airway had grown too narrow. Under his breath, he whispered, “If you’d stop being such a fucking ass to people…”
The boy halted. Ross froze in place. He turned to Ross; his wide frame enveloped him from both sides. Ross flinched and stumbled into the classroom display behind him. Laminated powerpoint print-outs with sharp corners stabbed him in the temples.
“What the fuck was that?”
“What was what?” A shrill squeak.
“You said somethin’ about me there. What the fuck did you say, fatass?”
He slammed his fist against the wall beside Ross’ head. The vibration rattled through his body and stole the air from his chest. His breaths turned to pathetic wheezes as he frantically searched for the air he’d lost. Say something, for fuck’s sake.
“I didn’t- I didn’t-“
Beside them, a door rattled on its hinges and slid open.
“Be careful with the display, it took me ages to set up.”
Both of their heads shot to the side. The boy jumped off Ross. Ross turned his back to him and started sobbing into the display paper.
From the classroom door, a man with black wispy hair and soft blue eyes emerged. He marched over to the boy and shot him a deadly glare. “Where should you be?”
The boy looked up at him for a moment, then stared at the ground. He shrugged.
“Definitely not loitering about in the corridors, harassing students, hm?” He crossed his arms.
His eyes flittered around the corridor. He shook his head.
Wecht pointed his thumb to the double doors at the end of the corridor. “Go. Now.”
The boy gave him one last defiant look and scurried away.
Wecht rolled his eyes after him. Then he turned to Ross, looking him up and down- or the back of him, at least, since his head was resting between the laminated ‘Fun Physics Factfile’ printouts. “Are you okay?
Ross nodded into the display. Wecht let the corridor fall silent for a few seconds. Little, muffled soft sniffling sounds bounced off the walls. “You’re not okay, are you?” he asked, barely more than a whisper.
Ross shook his head. The sniffling sounds amplified and became more like subdued wails. Wecht lightly gripped the boy’s shoulder. “Come on. You’re not going to your next class like this.”
Ross attempted a deep breath and nodded, so slightly that Wecht didn’t notice. He moved his hands down to the top of Ross’ arms and ushered him into the classroom.
On autopilot, Ross drifted over to the desk in the middle of the second row. An earthquake raged on in his chest, squeezing and gripping tighter the more he tried to breathe, but his head was full of smoke. Panicked gasps from hyperventilation burned his throat like a bad case of hiccups; his tears finally rolled off his cheeks and made a small puddle on the table.
Wecht closed the door and then went to sit down on the desk next to where Ross was sitting. He folded his arms over his chest and looked over at him.
“Ross, can you hear me?” he asked, slow and soft.
Ross nodded between wheezes.
“Good. You’re perfectly safe here…perfectly safe to let your emotions out in whatever way helps you the most.”
Ross bolted upright. His eyes darted around the room. Little flashes of purple and magenta pulsed inside his head. Then, little snippets of conversations- words that played back to him too perfectly for him to have made up. Words like ‘listen’ and ‘stare’ and ‘relax’. As if by instinct, his shoulders slumped down into the back of the chair, leaving his arms dangling loosely. He would’ve shouted, swore, stormed out- he didn’t know why, but then again he didn’t really know why he did anything. On any other day, he’d have been out that door like a rocket.
But today, as deafening numbness and poisonous anxiety used his body like a battleground, all he wanted to do was sit there and take it all in. His gasps turned to quiet sniffles once again.
“Now, I know there are a lot of things you’re worried about, Ross. A lot of things building up…school, friends, classes…at your age, you have a lot to deal with. So if you have all that boiling inside of you…and you’re confronted like that, threatened and taunted…well, it’s a lot for your brain and your body to cope with. So things go a little haywire for a bit, but they always put themselves together again. Right now, your body and mind are in the process of getting themselves back together.”
Ross gradually turned his head to look at Wecht. His eyes were a little more dazed than before. “Y-you’re…doing that thing again.”
Wecht cocked his head a little. “What thing, Ross?”
“T-the thing. Yesterday. In detention.” The words came out as brittle grunts, the only sound that made it through the battlefield.
Wecht looked away for a microsecond. He raised his eyebrows and chuckled. “Oh, no, Ross, I’m not doing that. Even if I tried, I don’t think I’d be able to right now.”
Wecht looked him over with curiosity. He gave him a faint grin. “Because you’re worked up and stressed. For something like that to work, you need to be completely comfortable and not on alert mode.” He phased back into Teacher’s Mode, firing sentences and information in quick succession.
“Wouldn’t it-“ wheeze- “calm me down anyways?”
Brian shook his head calmly. “I’m afraid not, it doesn’t really work like that. I didn’t think you remembered th-“
“If I was calmer, could you do it?” His pitch got higher as he spoke, the swan song of the last few bits of sound to get past the lump in his throat.
“Uh…” Wecht cocked his head, furrowing his brow. “In theory, yes. Why?”
Ross shrugged, fixing his gaze on the light reflecting in the little pool of tears he’d made.
Wecht scratched lightly at the side of his chin as he studied the boy. When his head was slumped forward like that, his hair covered his eyes and his face. No clues, then.
“Remember, Ross. You can say anything you want- as long as its honest.”
His chest stirred as he searched for any sort of tell- any sign that his words had hit their designated mark. He hadn’t set up a trigger last time, for a good reason- but by now he’d remembered that it was Ross he was dealing with, after all.
Underneath the table, Ross took his fingernails out from his trousers and let his hand fall flat on his legs. “Okay.”
“So why did you ask me if I could hypnotise you again?” Wecht asked, in as sweet a voice as he could muster.
Ross’ breath sped up again. “It-it, I…”
“You can say it, Ross. You can say anything to me.”
“…It just felt really nice last time. Like I- like I didn’t have anything to worry about for a little while.”
Wecht smirked. “That’s really good, Ross. I know that was hard for you to say.”
Ross sat up straight as, slowly but surely, the fire in his chest wavered. Something else started to spread through his body, something warm and soft. It wasn’t quite strong enough to end the war going on inside him, but it was a welcome distraction. He fell against the back of his chair, staring at the ceiling as it all flooded through him.
Wecht couldn’t help grinning ear-to-ear. He’d expected to wait until Wednesday before he could test out his new little plan; watching the boy ravish in the pleasure of his suggestion was a show all on its own.
“That’s right, Ross…” he cooed softly. “Just let it all happen. Feels nice, doesn’t it?”
Ross nodded, his star-washed eyes slowly making their way over to Wecht. His smile was contagious, though in the state he was in Ross could only manage a lopsided, off-colour replication of it.
“How are you feeling?”
“Fucking good.” His words almost got lost in the sound of a deep exhale.
“Good.” Wecht’s grin fell on one side. “I’m glad.”
The conversation dropped for a few moments and the sound of Ross’ deep, exasperated breaths filled the room.
“I think you’re ready to go back to class.”
Ross’ pale eyes shot up at him. “But-“
“No buts. I’m here to help you do better in your classes, not give you an excuse to skip them.” He stood up. Instinctively, Ross stood up with him- though he found himself questioning the action a few moments later.
“I’m…I’m calmer now,” he said.
Brian chuckled. “Good. So you’ll be fine for class.”
Ross groaned, his eyes darting from place to place. Finally, he settled on Wecht. “So…Wednesday 5th period?”
Wecht nodded, gently ushering Ross to the classroom door. “Wednesday 5th period, that’s right. Oh, wait, Ross.” He put a stilling hand on Ross’ shoulder and went over to his desk. “You’ll need a note from me saying why you were late.”
Ross shrugged. “Don’t really need it.”
“Yes you do,” Wecht said. He looked up at Ross and smiled.
Taking a yellow sticky note from the stack lying by his computer, he jotted down a few sentences and signed it at the bottom. “There you go.” He held it out towards Ross.
Ross nonchalantly shuffled over to the desk. “I don’t really see why I need it, but whatever.” He took the note from Wecht’s hand.
Wecht stood upright. “Well, you’ve got to keep your attendance up, Ross. It’s a big year for you.”
Ross rolled his eyes and turned towards the door again. “Whatever.”
He bit back a grin as he left the room.