This story is by Lynn D. Dewees and was part of our 2021 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The sun filled the world with brightness, warmth, happiness. If the colors were any brighter, the flowers would be glowing. All shadows had been banished.
His knees were weak and it was all he could do to walk without stumbling. But her hand in his steadied him. There was electricity where they touched. A current ran up his arm and powered his smile.
MacKenzie was the only girl for Neil. She’d always been the only girl. She would always be the only girl. He knew it and now she knew it. He had known her since the second grade and had loved her for nearly as long. He had finally reached her. She now recognized what he’d known for so long; that they were perfect together and their love was fated to be.
“Neil, God damn it, I’ve been calling you for 15 minutes. Get out of bed and come down for dinner. I swear you’re deaf and dumb.”
The sound of his mother’s voice dragged Neil away from the colorful world of his dream and back to gray reality.
God damn it, Mom. Why do you always have to yell like that?
He sighed. He wanted so badly to yell back, start a fight, but his brain refused to cooperate. He didn’t have the stamina.
Better not to think about it. Choke down the anger. Pretend you don’t care.
His mind ran into a dark pit and shut down.
He took off his headphones and shuffled towards the door, head down, staring at the floor.
Why is it always like this?
The five of them sat around the dinner table, Neil, Mom, Dad, brother Mike and sister Ginny. The kitchen was small. The table wasn’t large but it filled the room. The lighting in the kitchen was dim, making even bright colors dreary. The dull cramped space weighed on Neil’s mind.
We’re right on top of each other, he thought. If I move, I’ll bump Ginny or Mom. And that will set them off for sure. And don’t knock anything over. The last time you’d have thought the world had come to an end.
The conversation was desultory, touching on one topic after another but never settling into any rhythm. Neil didn’t say much, only replying if someone spoke to him directly. He watched and waited, picking at his food.
Will they explode tonight? Another screaming and yelling match? Mom vs Dad? Dad vs Mike? Tag team?
He used to love Mom’s meatloaf. Now, he couldn’t taste it, the tension driving away any sense of taste.
This would be delicious if MacKenzie was here.
Finally, dinner was over with no fights, no arguments. He breathed a sigh of relief but it was never safe. Any imagined slight, no matter how insignificant could set them off. Neil kept his head down.
“I’ve got homework,” he said.
He didn’t, but it got him away and into his bedroom. The headphones and the music would allow him to escape, at least for a while. He could go to a world where he wasn’t traumatized and didn’t long for release.
A world where he made MacKenzie happy by singing love songs.
What song would you like to hear next, he’d ask her. She’d smile her sweet smile. His heart would melt.
Later, he lay in bed, tossing and turning, thinking about MacKenzie. There was a force field surrounding her in his mind. He would push against it and the more he pushed, the harder it would push back.
It sent jolts to his brain and heart.
His emotions would be rubbed raw.
Tendrils of fire would run up the sides of his stomach and chest.
His chest would become hollow and his heart would begin pounding a jack hammer beat.
He would choke up and struggle not to cry.
It provoked a painful melancholia but he kept pursuing the misery. He kept pushing against the force field.
Like an addict after a fix.
Like picking at a scab.
He knew he was torturing himself. But it was exquisite in its way, the suffering bringing some twisted sense of comfort. He waded into the agony again and again and again.
He worried his pain and pleasure circuits had been crossed.
“Where the hell have you been? It’s after midnight! I told you to be home by 11!”
He was torn from his self torture by his father hollering.
It was a nightly ritual. Ginny would go out. She’d come home late. And the yelling would begin.
Immediately, he felt pressure in his head. A heavy weight crushed his brain, squeezing out all sensory input except the yelling. Demons flapped their wings in the back of his mind, threatening to take him down into the pitch black pit. The pit was consuming his thoughts, turning his brain to mush, making the world evil.
Oh, God, stop yelling! Why are they always yelling? I wish they would just shut up.
He wanted to howl, to scream at them but he knew that would only make him the object of their ire. He did not want that, not under any circumstances. Best to keep his head down, pretend he was oblivious. And never, ever say anything about it. Treat it like it never happened. Climb into the pit and hide.
The next morning, he dragged himself out of bed. His thoughts were sluggish, his legs and arms weighted down. It was like that every morning. Sleep was never refreshing.
Before first period history class, he had time to think about MacKenzie, what he’d like to say, what he’d like to do. In the back of his mind, a sense of trepidation lurked.
He was surrounded by the sounds of kids getting their day started, catching up. Laughing. Joking. And the room was bright, every bulb in the room was pumping out extra light. The noise and light were harsh, it made him edgy.
MacKenzie walked in and everything went silent, became calm.
He got up from his desk, taking care not to trip over anything. He pushed his hair out of his face and walked over to her, slowly but purposefully. She looked lovely. She always looked lovely.
Her beautiful hair was parted in the middle and fell over her shoulders, partway down her back. Her eyes seemed to sparkle, like she could barely contain her happiness. But her smile was what captivated him. Shy, sweet, almost like she was afraid someone might notice her. It made him want to hug her.
He reached out his hand. She took it in hers.
The bell rang, bringing him back.
Neil sighed and opened his notebook.
His fears kept him alone and lonely, locked inside his own head, his dreams of a joyous world so starkly contrasted with lackluster reality.
Does anyone else suffer this way? Will it ever get better?
He feared he would die alone and unloved.
At the end of the day, he collected some materials to take home. He tucked books under his arm and turned to leave.
Someone pushed the books out of his arms and they fell all over.
“Hey, Neil! You dropped your books!”
It was Kenny. He seemed to take a special delight in disrupting Neil’s day. They had been friends in grade school, but since reaching junior high, Kenny had succumbed to testosterone poisoning.
Neil knelt down and to pick up the books. He kept his head down, concentrating on his task. His hands shook from anger.
He wants you to react so he can push you around, he thought. Don’t give him the opening. Keep your head down. Ignore him. With a little luck, he’ll go away. It’s easier to let him mock me.
Why is my life so hard? No one else has these problems. What do they know that I don’t know?
What did I do to deserve this? Am I being punished? Am I cursed?
He looked up and MacKenzie was standing in front of him. She was holding one of his books out to him, which he accepted gratefully.
“He’s such a bully,” she said. “I hate to see him pick on you like that.”
Neil smiled. “You’re here now, so everything is OK.”
She smiled and took his hand. They walked out of the school together. Gray storm clouds had been gathering all day, but now they cleared and there was just blue sky and sunshine.
“Hey kid! Watch where the hell you’re going!”
A car sped past, the sound of its horn shattering Neil’s fantasy.
Neil put his head down and kept walking.