She must have gone to a different school, of this he was certain. He’d searched the halls, scanned the cafeteria, even peeked in the classroom windows of his own school, but she was nowhere to be found. The only place he was guaranteed to see her was on the subway platform as they both boarded the train home.
And still Brian couldn’t talk to her. Instead, he sat nearby, a book perpetually in hand, half-immersed in story, half-imagining the clever things he might say to break the ice; ways to make her laugh, ways to make her notice him. Every day he felt closer to cracking the code. It would only be a matter of time before he found his voice and said something so simple, so charming that the doors of opportunity would swing wide to...
Her little brother beat him to it.
“What book are you reading?”
“Hm?” Brian looked up from the book he wasn’t presently reading, feeling caught but trying not to show it.
The boy, who couldn’t have been older than six or seven, pointed at the paperback in Brian’s hands. “What book is that?” Brian tilted the cover up to let the boy see. The kid leaned forward, keeping one hand on the metal pole so he didn’t lose his balance as the train swayed and shook. He squinted at the cover, his lips moving as he read the title to himself. “Sun...tuh-zoo?”
“What’s it about?”
“Danny,” she said with the perpetual annoyance of an older sibling. “Come on. Leave him alone.”
It took Brian only a split-second to realize this was his moment. This was what he’d waited for, and the door was already swinging shut.
He leapt for the doorknob.
“No, no, it’s okay!” Brian said, offering her a quick, hopefully-reassuring smile.
Boom. Eye contact. I’m on the radar.
He leaned forward to confer with Danny, his buddy, his pal, his new best friend. “Sun Tzu was this military General in ancient China. He wrote this book as... sort of like a ‘how-to’ guide on waging wars. It was a huge influence on a lot of people. Like generals all throughout history, from all different countries, have studied this book and actually won wars because of it. It’s kinda cool.”
Danny looked at Brian with a sober curiosity. “Why are you reading it?”
“I, uh...” Brian’s eyes flickered back to the boy’s sister, who watched them cautiously. He tried to come up with something cool and interesting to say, but in the end, just shrugged and smiled. “I dunno. I guess I thought I could apply it to my own life. Plus, y’know, it would be pretty cool to know how to win wars. Seemed like something exciting to read.”
“Not really,” Brian couldn’t help but laugh as he said it, surprised by his own honesty. He stole another glance at the girl and found her smiling. Excitement fluttered in his chest and he pressed on, this time addressing both of them. “It’s actually kind of boring. There’s a lot about managing the army’s food supply and stuff like that.”
“Yeah, ‘Never go into battle on an empty stomach or you’ll get the tummy grumbles.’”
She laughed out loud at that, “‘Tummy grumbles?’”
He was laughing as well, shaking his head, “I don’t know. Or something.”
A man sitting near them muttered to himself, agitated by their laughter. Brian and the girl cast him brief glances, noting his bedraggled appearance before refocussing on each other. Not wanting the moment to pass, Brian opened his mouth to say something else when the train arrived at the station he knew to be their stop. The girl also noticed this and tapped Danny on the shoulder. She took his hand and they both turned to face the exit door.
“See you later,” Danny said, looking back at Brian.
Brian smiled and waved to the boy... and then did the bravest thing he’d ever done in all sixteen years of his life. “See you guys later. Danny and...?” and he looked at the girl.
And he waited.
The train slowed to a halt.
People crowded around the exits.
Two warning tones sounded and the doors slid open.
People started exiting the train.
Instant regret. A heat descended over Brian’s head, starting at the scalp and slowly washing down over his cheeks. He was suddenly sure he’d overstepped his bounds, crossed that invisible social line from casual to awkward and was about to look like an idiot as--
“Claire,” she said, a brief glance given, the hint of a smile in her eyes. And with that, they were off the train and lost in the shuffle.
“STAND CLEAR OF THE CLOSING DOORS.”
Two more tones and the car was again insulated from the noise of the subway platform. The train lurched to life, beginning its slow departure.
Brian grinned all the way to his stop. He tried getting back into the book but all he could do was replay his brief interaction with the girl -- Claire -- over and over again in his mind, soaking up every tiny nuance.
The same man was muttering again, ranting to himself in a harsh whisper. Like everyone else in the car, Brian assumed he was homeless and seeking shelter from the cold, and like everyone else, Brian ignored him. It was the way of the city. When crisis struck, New York showed its community roots, but in all other instances its people kept to themselves. If there was one thing every New Yorker learned early on, it was the subtle art of indifference -- better known as Minding One’s Own Business.
And then something very odd happened.
He pushed off of them just as the warning tones sounded and they opened. Disoriented and off-balance, he teetered at the threshold. The people on the platform stared in wide-eyed shock, their afterimages stretching patterns in his vision as he looked around. He felt like he should walk, but his legs wouldn’t respond. Someone on the platform screamed.
Two more tones and the doors slid shut. That’s when Brian noticed the blood spattered and smeared on their interior. One window had a tiny hole in it that hadn’t been there before. Brian reached out to touch the hole and fell towards the door, catching it with his outstretched hand. He followed a line from the window to his chest and found a dark, spreading stain on his shirt.
You bang at the gates. You search for a way through.
You spin and you dive and you collide and you collide and you collide, but there are no cracks, no seams, no holes.
You rail against the world and the world is indifferent because you do not belong. You never did.
You only have one home now.
Brian’s eyes opened onto a stucco ceiling. He sucked in an icy breath and his entire body convulsed and shuddered. A sharp, hollow ache seared deep in his core, his lungs protesting as air rushed to fill them. The world tilted and spun, and for a moment, up was down, down was up and he felt as if in free fall, though he hadn’t moved; he’d only turned his head. He knew he was lying down. On what or where, he didn’t care.
It took a few tries to turn the air in his lungs into sound, but when he did, it erupted from him in a muted, ragged moan. His tongue was stuck to the roof of his mouth. He began to hyperventilate.
A blur of movement in his periphery made him jump, involuntarily gulping, nearly swallowing his tongue. Only its dry grasp on his palate kept him from seizing and choking on it.
“Calm,” a low voice murmured from somewhere above or behind. His vertigo worsened as he shifted to locate the source of the voice. “Calm,” it repeated, more firmly now. He felt a pair of hands alight on his shoulders, not forcing, not restraining, merely announcing their presence. With a clearer mind, the gesture might have comforted Brian, but instinct commanded his reflexes now. He resisted violently, swinging his arms and kicking his legs into painful cacophonies of pins and needles as blood spiked through muscles that had not moved in--
Trapped and hurt, his moan became a whine, infantile, raspy and cracking. He fought to work his tongue free of its captivity, but the effort only caused a dull ache where it rooted in his throat. More pain. His pitch grew frantic, feverish, and then his voice gave out. Tears formed at the corners of his eyes.
“Damn you, boy, I’ll not see you die twice in as many days, now be calm!”
Finally, Brian’s tongue ripped free and he released a gut-wrenching scream. It filled the empty space and washed back over him, overlapping layers of sound assaulting his ears. For a time, the scream was all that existed. All emotions, all thoughts, all-consuming.
After a while, his voice went flat, fading to a whispered hiss, but even that didn’t stop him. Every time he drew breath, it returned, broken, primal, agonized. Wet streams flowed from his eyes and nostrils, but it didn’t matter. All that mattered was his freedom. Freedom from silence.
His screaming continued until the last strips of daylight faded from behind closed venetian blinds. Until the room's only light came from candles clustered in a far corner. Still, the hands restrained him, gripping tighter with each wracking sob. Eventually, spent into exhaustion, Brian fell asleep, unaware that those hands now cradled him.
The apartment was vacant. White walls and brown wood floor, a hissing metal radiator in every room and brand new venetian blinds hanging over every window. He’d spent the memorable part of his life living in places just like this, but this place wasn’t his. It was empty, sterile. The floor didn’t shake with the footsteps of family. It didn’t smell like his mother’s cooking or his father’s incense. The familiarity here was isolating.
He heard the refrigerator door slam shut and a moment later the old man came out of the kitchen carrying a sandwich baggy and a tall bottle of water, which he set down in front of Brian.
“Eat,” the old man said. “You’ll regain your strength faster.” Then he went to the opposite wall, where a stack of books and his own bottle of water awaited him. He still hadn’t identified himself, or said more than a handful of words to Brian, despite caring for him the entire day.
Brian’s hand snaked out from beneath the layers of blankets the old man insisted he remain under, and snagged the bottle of water. His throat was still raw from the night before -- had it only been the night before? -- so he was thankful for the coolness as he drank.
The old man watched until Brian set the bottle down, half empty, and reached for his sandwich. Only then did he give a small nod and open one of his books, a huge, ratty hardcover with faded print on a fabric spine.
Hunching over the book, the old man’s silvery-white mane of hair fell over his receding hairline. It was long enough to hang past his face and matching beard, though years of being repeatedly swept back kept it from obscuring his vision. He swathed himself in layers of flannel and corduroy, his clothes a mix of dark, subtle tones accented by a black turtleneck and olive-green overcoat that covered most of his stocky frame. He looked every inch the distinguished vagrant, but lacked the soil and tarnish to finish the role. Not like...
...a homeless man, muttering to himself on the subway, then screaming...
Brian shivered, his free hand drifting to his chest under the covers.
“How do you feel?”
The voice, quiet as it was, startled Brian. He looked up to find the old man watching him, shaggy silver eyebrows lowered over piercing blue eyes in a look of obvious concern. Brian didn’t really know how to answer, so he didn’t. Instead, he looked to the room’s lone window. It was late afternoon outside and he could see the sky turning orange over the buildings in the distance. It looked how warmth felt, so he just existed in that for a while. Eventually, the old man went back to his reading.
“I... I died. Right?”
Brian swallowed, working saliva back into his dry throat. “The guy on the train. The homeless guy...”
“He shot you. Then he shot himself.”
“Day before yesterday.”
“I will explain everything to you. This, I promise. But right now it is important that you conserve your energy. We will need to leave this place tomorrow.”
“The new tenants are moving in.”
“Where will we go? Can I see my paren--”
The old man held up a hand, cutting him off. “Everything. I promise. After tomorrow. For now, just rest.”
Brian wanted to argue, but he could feel the pull of sleep beckoning him. The man started away again, but Brian had one more question.
“Who are you?”
The old man looked back at him, a small smile creasing his face. “My name is Sevellis. I am your guardian.”
The move wasn’t as far as Brian expected. The next day, around noon, when the halls were at their quietest, Sevellis roused him and gathered their few belongings. It took Brian several tries to regain his feet, his limbs rubbery and unstable beneath him. Everything ached. Once he was confident enough in his mobility, they left the apartment.
Walking down the narrow hallway, Brian was again reminded of the building he lived in. Apartment doors lined either side of the hall, staggered so that one didn’t open onto another. It was a hollow gesture; privacy in these buildings was mostly an illusion. As their footsteps echoed on the tile floor, Brian had a flash of memory.
“How come nob--”
Sevellis silenced him with a gesture. They took the stairwell up two floors and exited into an identical hallway. Their new temporary home was another empty apartment located at the end of the hall. Freshly cleaned, with a newly carpeted living room and the smell of drying paint hanging in the air.
“There. Now, what was your question?”
Brian studied the world outside. Their new vantage point afforded him a better view of the neighborhood. The opposite sidewalk was lined with houses, tightly packed together with modest yards. Behind them, nearly obscured by trees, he could just make out a strip of low, interconnected commercial roofs.
“Are we in Queens?” Brian asked.
This filled Brian with an unexpected rush of excitement. He turned to Sevellis. “Are we near my place?”
“No,” the old man seemed to hesitate. “No, we’re not.” He went into the kitchen.
Brian turned back to the window, deflated.
From the kitchen, Sevellis cursed. “No refrigerator.” He came back into the main room, the food bag hanging limply from one hand. “We shall have to make due with warm sandwiches, I’m afraid,” his voice was pitched in an attempt at humor, but he trailed off as he noticed Brian’s disposition. “We’ll manage, I’m sure.”
Brian said nothing else. Sevellis set the duffel bag full of blankets and pillows on the floor beside him, considering his next words.
“Do you enjoy fiction?”
Brian turned, not sure he’d heard the old man correctly. “What...?”
“Fiction. Do you enjoy reading books?”
Sevellis smiled. “As do I. Immensely. Which is your favorite?”
“I don’t understand what this has to do with--”
“Just... indulge me. Please.”
Brian stared at the man through narrowed eyes, not following. “Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman.”
Sevellis’s smile grew. “Mine as well.”
Brian just shook his head and spread his hands out as if to say, And?
Sevellis settled down, sitting directly on the duffel bag. “And in school? Tell me about your studies. What is your focus?”
“Dude, what the hell does...” Brian stopped himself, the look in the old man’s eyes telling him he already knew the answer. Resigned to the bizarre conversation, he slumped back against the wall beside the window and shook his head again. “Art. I’m an artist.”
“What do you draw?”
Brian was getting annoyed now, and since that was the first clear thing he’d felt since waking up, he clung to it, glaring defiantly at his companion. “Things.”
Sevellis didn’t miss a beat. “Real things?”
“I can’t believe I’m having this--”
“Let me tell you, then,” Sevellis interrupted, a little of his own impatience peeking through. “You draw pictures of imaginary things. Beasts and creatures and far-off lands. Do you enjoy science fiction?”
“No, you feel more at home in fantasy. You have your entire life. While others your age were reading comic books and playing video games and sports, you read novels and indulged in games of imagination.”
“I play video games--”
“To fit in, perhaps. What was your favorite subject in school?”
“It was History. At least until you reached the industrial age, then you lost interest. But the ‘dark ages,’ the age of discovery... that intrigued you, didn’t it?”
“I liked the swords,” Brian said, a little defensive.
Sevellis’s eyes twinkled. “Indeed.”
“Are you finished?” Brian felt more awake now, the adrenaline rush brought on by his anger making his senses sharp, attentive.
“Hardly,” said Sevellis. He seemed to be enjoying this, his gaze both challenging and studying at the same time.
“Well, I am,” Brian said and started for the door.
“Was I wrong? About any of it?”
“You read my report cards. Congratulations, you’re a wonderful stalker.”
Sevellis grinned as Brian passed him. “Yes. It would all be there, wouldn’t it. Your report cards don’t say anything about the dreams, though, do they? The ones where you’re running through the forest, strange animals keeping pace. And the castle...”
Sevellis cast Brian a sideways glance. “Have you drawn it?”
Brian stared silently at the old man... then shook his head.
Sevellis nodded. “Why?”
It took a moment for Brian to respond, and when he did, his voice was barely above a whisper. “There’s too much of it. I’d start, or at least I’d sit down thinking I was going to start, but... there’s so much, I didn’t know where to begin.”
“Have you ever once put a line to paper on anything you’ve seen in your dreams?”
Sevellis considering this for a moment, then gestured to the carpeted floor. “Sit.”
Hesitantly, Brian came back into the living room and lowered himself to sit against the opposite wall, mimicking their positions from the previous apartment.
“All your life you have felt like something in your world wasn’t right. Something was hidden, some truth. You sought it out in fiction and in make-believe, but have never quite found what you were looking for.”
Brian shook his head ever so slightly, not daring to speak.
When he tried to answer, Brian found his throat dry and had to swallow before continuing. “Because... the guy finds another world existing under his feet. It was there all along, he just had to see it.”
Sevellis nodded solemnly and leaned forward, locking eyes with Brian. “Let me tell you your story now.”
Brian held his breath in anticipation of what the old man would say next.