Teruki Hanazawa had become exceptional in the art of being average. If he attracted any attention, a vacant expression and aura seemed to shield him from it, and he remained but one face among many in a crowd. Indeed, he was at the very peak of the bell curve, a perfect median of the human experience.
Middle school was a time for exploration, and Teruki did try to discover something--an activity, or group, or class--that might pull him in. Yet he flowed through everything like liquid, bending infinitely to others’ wills and ultimately never cleaving. He eventually decided to join the going-home club. Simple pleasures, enjoyed alone--surely, that suited his plain self best.
Today, he unlocked the door to his apartment, neatly placing his school bag and keys on an entryway table, still holding onto a stack of mail from the lobby. The click of the door closing echoed through the empty house.
Teruki was average in most respects. Being a 14-year-old and living alone in an apartment might be one exception.
And having psychic powers, of course, was another. Perhaps the most damning.
He hadn’t thought much about that, though. He was rather occupied with daily chores--filing through the mail, sorting it into neat little stacks.
Advertisement--garbage. Coupon clipper--save it. Pamphlet--garbage.
His fingers stopped on the plain envelope, from an address he was once familiar with. Though he had, for a while, forgotten, he was reminded of things he would have rather not remembered. My parents are still sending me money, he thought, even though I haven’t talked to them in 4 months. He tried to quell the feelings rushing forth at this realization. That’s kind of them. I’m glad.
He really did expect the checks to just stop coming someday, upon which he’d either get a job or die alone.
Though, now, he was mostly just concerned about his daily chores.
He checked the clock, and it was nearly 4:30. Need to go back out soon.
He traced his fingers along the paper calendar on his kitchen counter, scanning for events. Thursday, which meant laundry. He had a chicken cutlet thawing in the sink.
He washed his hands, grabbed a bright pink tote bag from the entryway, then turned to open his pantry and produced 6 cans of minced fish and meat. These were placed into his tote, along with a plastic bag filled with dry food. He loaded 4 water bottles into his bag, taking a sip from the fifth before putting it inside. He checked to make sure he had his other “supplies”--bowls, strings with feathers tied to the end, tissue paper, squeaking mice, and a small tub of catnip. He looked up at the clock, and it was 4:25.
I was going to change into something more comfortable, but I don’t want to be late…
He grabbed his keys and walked out the door in a hurry, navigating automatically to his destination. Down the stairs, not skipping a beat, waving to the doorman without saying anything--around the back of the apartment building, near the dumpsters--it wasn’t glamorous, but it was one of his favorite parts of the day.
He stood for a few seconds, scanning the area.
“Hello? Anybody here?”
He saw a familiar dark head peek out from around the corner. An aloof calico came from beyond the fenced-in area, slinking under a hole in the metal. Another grey tabby peeked out from inside the dumpster. Then, two scrappy orange twins ran out from behind Teruki, one chasing the other’s tail. These 5 cats had surrounded him, not-so-patiently waiting for their daily treats, a cacophony of mewls, running circles around him.
“Alright, alright,” he said with fondness. “Hold on, everyone.”
He took out 5 plastic bowls from his bag, each in different colors, with names written in permanent marker along the sides (not that it made a difference to the cats). He set them in a circle, then started to open up a can. At this, the tabby started rubbing aggressively at his leg, and the tuxedoed cat meowed longingly.
Teruki attempted to soothe them, his voice gentle but adamant. “Come on, guys, just a second… Please wait…”
He dumped flaked fish into two of the bowls, and nearly everyone jumped at the chance for the meal. He then put chicken in another two, and the more discerning cats separated. Finally, he opened a can of beef and gravy, and the calico languidly walked over and began to eat. He squatted down and smiled gently at his furry friends.
“There you go, everyone. It’s good to see you again.”
He extended his hand and tentatively stroked the closest cat, the older grey tabby. This one, who he named Smokey, liked to think he was a wise old man, but Teru knew he melted at any affection. Smokey’s crooked tail stood up and he moved into Teru’s hand, not looking up from the bowl.
Then, Teru held out his hand to the calico, who he named Ray, but was given the cold shoulder. Her tail flicked from side to side, and he decided to let her eat in peace.
“My, my, Ray, always the princess…”
He didn’t even try bothering his dapper friend, Tux, who he knew would crawl over to him once he finished his meal. That being said, interrupting the voracious young man would be suicidal at best.
Having already scarfed down her food, one of the young orange tabbies rubbed against Teruki’s arm. He gladly pet the cat’s bristly fur. This one, with a bullseye pattern on the back, was Boog, and her more striped sister was Goob. He wasn’t sure if their names were a premonition of their whimsical nature, or if they grew into them. He scratched her behind the ears, and she began purring loudly, until suddenly she turned her head and went to sink her teeth into the meat of his arm. His barrier protected him from harm, but, yeesh, these twins were temperamental as hell. He gingerly rubbed his arm, unscathed but still a bit surprised, and chided the kitten. “You’re so full of energy now, sure, but you can’t go biting like that! Communicate with me…” He then went to pet Goob, but she was also in a feisty mood, so he held back. As he rustled in his bag for the dry food and toys, Tux sauntered over to him as usual and asked to be pet. With his free hand, Teruki smoothed his fur.
He hummed an absent tune, the chorus of a catchy rock song he heard on the radio, while tossing out some dry food for the cats to nibble on while he was gone. As he fished for the water bottles and saucers, he was shaken by a frantic howl.
“Goob--Seriously…?” His voice still did not break its monotone, but he was bothered. The twins loved to gang up on Ray, who hated starting fights but would always resolve to finish them.
“Break it up, please…” He pulled the cats apart, claws hitting an invisible membrane around his skin, and then quickly snatched his feather toy. In a moment, all 5 cats were transfixed. He gave them a small smile, slowly waving the feathered stick back and forth. Who would pounce first?
Though it seemed the younger ones might take the lead, Smokey swatted at the toy with his paw before biting and pulling at it. He looked smugly at the other cats, tussling with the tension from Teruki’s grip. Teru grabbed a squeaky mouse with his free hand and threw it, Ray jumping to catch it and then proceeding to beat it into the ground. Teru couldn’t resist a giggle, barely noticing the tips of his hair beginning to lift. After all, this was really the highlight of his day.
He wrestled the toy loose and had the cats racing to catch it. Sometimes they took turns, and sometimes they went out at once. He tried not to get too overwhelmed, tossing all his toys out for the cats to chase, and soon they had mostly separated into their own business while Tux decided to stay with him. He heard crinkling and rustling and squeaking and everything was comfortably blurred as the cats played. He barely cared that he was sitting next to a smelly dumpster on the ground behind his apartment. Another screech interrupted Teruki from gentle reverie, and he jumped to intervene.
“What’s with you three today?” The twins and Ray struggled and kicked and clawed at each other, rolling around violently. “There are toys right here, please, don’t play so roughly...”
Another yelp, and a hiss.
He tried to pull them apart, but they kept rushing back. He was unsure if they were playing or genuinely pissed.
Once the cats broke away, they went for Smokey, and at that point Teruki had had enough.
“Please, stop,” he exhaled, enveloping the energetic animals in a psychic aura. He lifted them a bit off the ground, attempting to soothe them with gentle pressure. Slowly, the cats settled down, agitated and confused but not rowdy like before. The others simply looked on with fascination and fear from afar. Having settled down himself, he became stricken with an increasingly alarming awareness of the cats’ beating hearts pounding against his own invisible force. He quickly let them down.
Sighing, he began to reach for the cat toys and put them back in his bag. He sought out one of the mice, turning around…
...And finding two other kids, his age, staring with awed grins.
Teruki tensed again.
“Black Vinegar student, huh?”
He did not want to answer. He did not want to be there. And he knew that this wanting crept up inside him and was dangerous, and he had to quell it. He swallowed.
One of the kids, a boy with cropped dark hair and a bandaged nose, nudged the other.
“Have you ever seen him before?”
“I--I feel like I have...”
The more contemplative stranger tapped her temple, trying to remember where she’d seen Teruki.
“Wait, aren’t you, like, everywhere?”
Teru blinked a moment, trying to process that he was, in fact, being addressed.
“I just go to school there…”
“Yeah, yeah, but, I feel like I always see you. You might be in my class? But I totally forgot about it. Your name… what’s his name?”
The kids kept switching back and forth between focusing on Teru and ignoring him completely. He could feel sweat accumulating on him.
“Ha--Hamazaki? Hana… Hana? Something?”
“You’d swear you’d remember him with that bottle-blonde hair, but…?”
Teruki, without shifting his eyes away from the kids--classmates--reached for the toys, the cats sticking closer to him now.
A bit too loudly, the girl asks, “Seriously, what’s your name?”
“Oh, Hanazawa. I was close.”
The two nodded at each other.
Then, they came a bit closer to Teru, and if he were to narrate this moment he might describe them as looming over him now.
The boy pointed at the twin cats, conspiratorial voice quiet and rhythmic.
“We saw what you did.”
That could mean a lot of things.
“I feed these cats every day… my building doesn’t allow pets, so, I--”
“You’ve got some kind of special power, don’t you?”
Teruki really, really wanted to leave.
“Yes, I do.”
He didn’t really want people knowing, because if they did, they might get curious, and get too close, and then they might get hurt. And if there was one thing he wanted, it was not to hurt people.
“What can you do, exactly?”
Teruki’s head was swimming because he knew what he could do but not what he should, he was thinking about what these people wanted and he was thinking about things he didn’t want to think about and all the while he was thinking about the cats confused and scared behind him and loudest of all he was thinking about how for his own good and everyone else’s he could not be thinking like this.
Slowly, Teruki asked, “Is there something you need me to do?”
The girl shifted weight onto one foot, ground into the pavement, and sighed, exasperated.
“Let’s cut to the chase. Salt Mid’s got some kid with crazy powers and he’s causing us a lot of trouble.”
“A lot of trouble!”
“See his nose? Thank that kid. I’ve got bruises all over from a week ago. He’s the real deal.”
“He’ll just touch you and you’re thrown all the way back!”
“Can you help us? He’s really doing a number on us… all our friends are getting totally torn up, it’s embarrassing.”
Teruki shivered a bit. Another esper? Using his powers to hurt people? He felt like he had to stop it. It was his responsibility, maybe even his calling. He felt somehow like this could be his special, shining moment, helping these kids stop a psychic bully, and this time his heart swelled with a nervous sort of warmth.
“I… I can help you. I can put up barriers, and I can talk to him… I’ll make him stop… I’m really sorry he did that to you. That isn’t right. Thank you…”
The two kids’ mouths twisted into grins and they gave each other an excited look.
“Lucky break! Can you meet us after school tomorrow, in front of the gate?”
They chattered excitedly to each other. “We’ll have to get him to come… we’ll bait him… yeah… yeah! Surely he’ll come… We’ll have a rematch.”
“Okay. I’ll see you then…”
“Yeah,” the boy nodded and then turned, and in a moment both students were gone.
Teruki looked up and saw the sun crawling toward the west, the sky an odd mix of pink, blue, and eye-searing orange. He sighed again as he turned toward his feline friends, still acting a bit skittish. “I’m a little worried,” he started to say. “But… this might be good? Maybe… this power of mine… is worth something after all?”
The cats’ silence was an adequate response.
Tension knotted up in his chest and he knew he wouldn’t be able to let it go. Purpose, happiness, nervousness--they were weapons, and his cognizance of it sharpened their blades to a fine edge. If he wasn’t careful, this time--
I need to be in control, he repeated, in time to the tap of his feet on the stairs back to his apartment.
His apartment, specifically designed to distract, to help him forget, to immerse him in anything but himself.
He buried himself in chores, that night, and slept well, not knowing what awaited him tomorrow.