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“Hey, you know what I saw online?” Marcus’ voice sounds over the phone.
I roll over on my bed and glance at the clock. 3:20 am.
“What?” I ask as I sit up in bed and open the window wider, leaning against the windowsill and breathing in the cold air.
“There’s a local photography competition. It’s hosted by the college nearby.”
“You should enter it. Your photos look amazing dude, I’ll bet you real money that you’ll win something.”
I smile as I continue staring out onto the quiet, dark street.
“The theme is the natural world,” Marcus continues. “But it’s very open ended.”
“Send me the details then.”
We hang up ten minutes later, but I continue sitting by the window, breathing in the cool, fresh air.
I put in my earphones and shuffle the playlist of piano music Marcus made for me. I pull out a notebook from under my pillow and begin writing.
Long, endless trains of thought. The past, the present, the future. Grief over losing Lucas. Anger at the world for letting it happen. Guilt at myself for letting it happen. Acceptance that it was not my fault. Fear over losing Marcus. Fear of what I feel for him. Fear of what it might mean for my future. Fear of my family. Tentative hope for therapy.
I let the trains of thought run down onto paper and stare at it separate from myself. A chronicle of racing thoughts, and a place for them to rest now.
My camera dangles from my neck as I make my way down the hall to the exit.
Suddenly, a foot flashes out of nowhere and I’m tripping, sprawling forward and rolling onto my side just in time to save my camera from being crushed beneath me. I lie there hugging it and I look up. Three familiar faces watch me from above. They begin laughing to themselves as other students hesitate, then walk around me.
“You should watch where you’re going,” Chip smirks.
I scramble to my feet, head spinning, ready to throw a punch forward but just before I can, Marcus steps into my peripheral vision.
He’s shaking slightly but he straightens up after a second of hesitation, not meeting my gaze.
“What the hell are you guys doing?” Marcus snaps.
“Hey dude, chill,” Chip replies, slightly stunned. “We’re just having a little fun.”
My gaze flickers between the few of them and their staring contest for a second before I step to stand next to Marcus.
“Have your fun drinking or going out or other shit I don’t care, but never do that to him again,” Marcus says, and I feel him trembling next to me, but his voice is steady.
“That’s funny, defending your little boyfriend,” Chip laughs harshly.
“Yeah, that’s right,” Marcus straightens up without a second’s hesitation and strides closer to Chip. “And if you have a fucking problem with that, then we’re through.”
Chip laughs again, and he and his other friends exchange an unimpressed glance with each other.
Marcus’ gaze finally meets mine, but I’m not looking at him anymore.
There’s a loud roaring in my ears, and my heart is racing faster and faster in my chest.
“You assholes aren’t funny,” I say.
“Isaac – ” Marcus begins tentatively, but I’m striding forward.
“What?” Chip raises an eyebrow.
I’m leaping forward, my hand clenched into a fist, my vision blurring, my heart beating louder and louder in my ears.
“Isaac!” Marcus throws an arm around me and pulls me back, and my fist flies through thin air. “Isaac, it’s not worth it. You’re going to get in trouble.”
“I don’t give a fuck,” I grit my teeth as Marcus shephards me backwards, a gentle hand on my elbow.
“I know. Isaac, I know. Come on.”
I whirl around and follow Marcus out of the school, cold sweat still building on me.
They laugh and laugh behind us but neither of us pay them any more attention as we leave the school grounds.
I only start shaking all over when we are out of sight and at the empty skate park where Marcus and I first hung out what feels like years ago.
I throw my bag down and sit down, still shaking, Chip and his friends’ laughter filling my ears.
“Hey, hey dude, are you alright?” Marcus asks, a tinge of fear crossing his voice as he crouches down before me, hand hovering over my shoulder.
“Please don’t touch me,” I plead, pushing him away. “Just give me a second, okay?”
Marcus backs off as I take several deep breaths, counting them, as Chip’s face swims in my vision, moulding into Victor’s, then back to Chip’s, a grotesque, unending dance. Laughter, harsh, relentless laughter, grows, a crescendo, in my ears.
My entire body is tense and I try to will my muscles to do anything, but suddenly they’re frozen, unresponsive to me, suddenly I’m behind a tree and Lucas is right there – he’s right there – and there’s Victor and his friends – and there’s the water – and I can’t move at all.
I close my eyes and clutch my legs, taking more deep, shuddering breaths.
“I think I’m gonna throw up,” I manage to stammer out, as the smell of river water fills my nose and mouth and throat.
I open my eyes and Marcus’ terrified face is close to mine, but it’s like it’s there at the far end of a long, long tunnel.
“Okay, that’s okay. You can do that,” Marcus says quickly. “Isaac, listen. You’re here. You’re with me. You’re at the park, with me. Nothing is happening. You’re safe, okay, dude? Nothing bad is going to happen here. I’m right with you. Just take a deep breath.”
“Mhm,” I acknowledge back, still nauseous, and I manage to lie down on the cold surface of the skate park, my heart still racing, staring up at the sky.
I study the clouds, I piece them into shapes – there’s a dog, there’s a flower, there’s a bird – I count the leaves fluttering down from the trees – I focus on the bird songs and the spluttering of car engines on the road.
The birds’ notes go once, twice, three times, the car engines roar – three, four, five of them.
The clouds move steadily. The smell of leaves and leftover beer near the park.
I turn and dry heave into my arm, body still trembling.
Bird song, car engines, clouds, leaves, I’m here.
My breath slowly calms a dozen minutes later; Chip and Victor’s faces fade gradually from my vision, until my body slowly relaxes, muscles untangling themselves from each other.
I slowly reach out and take Marcus’ hand, and he squeezes it reassuringly.
“Are you okay?” he asks finally, leaning over me, his eyes wide.
“I think so,” I reply weakly. “Can we just – lie here? For a while?”
“Yeah of course,” Marcus replies quickly. He pushes his bag to the side and lies down on the ground next to me. He holds out one earphone again and I take it gratefully as he places the same playlist of piano music.
The familiar notes dance in my ears and around us. I take several deep breaths, and I feel like my body has just been wrung out dry. It’s still trembling, but I focus on the piano notes, I count the beats, I breathe in the air around me.
I am here, and I am safe.