She had been watching him for close to a week now, give or take a few days. She wasn’t sure what it was that was captivating about him- His long hair, especially for a boy his age, or his crooked glasses with tape dotting the edges- His lopsided smile, the sound his synthetic pants made when he ran, she noticed every detail.
And there was always the other boy. His skin had the complexion of tanned leather, dark and sunburned just one too many times, and he had a slightly Spanish accent- he was equally as curious as the first one. Taller, more muscular, intelligent.
Both of them were puzzling, and piqued her interest so much that she had sacrificed her recess playing with her other friends for sitting on the bleachers and studying these....Specimens. This was her experiment- She wanted to figure out what made these boys tick. She had shared classes with both of them, but had never exchanged more than five sentences with the two since she had moved to the district in 1st grade. Three years had done nothing to help her make friends.
They were different from anyone else. They would waltz around, their arms waving, and she could almost swear sometimes that they were dancing. They were dancing- And she wanted to know why.
Sometimes the Spanish boy would run so fast she couldn’t keep her eyes on him, and the other would follow, and they would laugh and then scream as they fell onto the wet grass-
And she never would have guessed it, but that was exactly how she had quite literally fallen into Collin’s arms.
Coming down off the bleachers, she fussed with her ponytail, realizing too late that she had tied it too tight and it was causing her pain. Her thoughts cast elsewhere, she gave no real caution to where she was headed and what she was doing coming back from recess.
As she took her last step, she could see something distant flit across her vision, but didn’t quite process it until it had smacked into her side, throwing her to the ground where she landed on something soft. Not the ground.
Coming back to her senses, there was something like dizziness as she tried to find the ground beneath her palms. Her reaching hands connected with something that felt like a nose. She jumped back and finally touched the grass.
“Oh my god, I’m so sorry!” She covered her mouth in horror as the boy- One of the ones she had been watching for a while- sat up, rubbing the back of his head where it had smacked against the half-frozen dirt.
“Collin! Dios mío! Are you okay?” The Spanish boy came racing up to the both of them, and gave her a sympathetic look before offering a hand. After giving him a strange look- What had he just said?- She accepted it before turning to see Collin getting to his feet.
“I’m….fine. I’m sorry about that. It was an accident,” the boy-Collin- responded. She finally had a name to place on his face. On this very interesting boy, who suddenly had become ten times more so.
“It’s okay. I didn’t even see you, you run so fast.” She laughed nervously, beginning to move off to walk back inside.
“Yeah, I guess I do.”
And that was the end of their momentary conversation, short, plain, and simple. She was grinning like a child to herself, though, not really knowing what to think.
That had gone much better than expected, and it hadn’t even been expected at all.
The next day, it got easier to speak in front of them. They were nice, almost… inviting. Except for the part when she asked if she could join their “game.” Collin’s walls immediately went up.
“It isn’t a game,” he said insistently, his brow creasing and his eyes turning dark.“It’s real.”
“What’s real? All I see is you guys running around like lunatics day after day, pretend fighting each other, and it doesn’t make any sense,” she countered, smirking slightly. “And I like it. I want in.”
“ ‘Want in’?” Esteban repeated. She knew the Spanish boy’s name now too. “No. You can’t see it, can you?”
“See it?” She gaped, crossing her arms over her chest. “What is there to see?”
Collin was shaking his head, almost disappointed. His eyes finally met hers. His voice was low. “The monster.”
She nearly laughed, but the looks on their faces made her stop. She bit her lip. She didn’t want to make him angry, so she just raised an eyebrow and gave him a confused look. Collin sighed and opened his mouth to give an explanation, but Esteban cut in.
“It would get everyone, but we fight it off. Like the people with the capes...That I see on the... uh..?”
“Television.” Esteban wasn’t so perfect at English yet.
He smiled. “Television. Yes.”
“Esteban, that’s not right,” Collin interrupted. “It’s complicated. For you, I’ll just say that it’s something that shouldn’t be messed with. And it does get people, and we do fight it off for the protection of other people. At least, I like to imagine that we do. I hope it actually works.”
“Works?” She couldn’t stop repeating his every word. What he was spewing was nonsense, it didn’t make sense. “Collin, it’s not real. It’s not true..”
“I’m not a liar!” There was a still silence hung between the three of them as Collin’s voice suddenly raised, his arms thrown at his side and his eyes growing wide with anger. She swallowed instinctively, her face ashen white at his infuriated response.
“I’m...Sorry. Okay, you’re not a liar. I just don’t understand,” she said. She repeated her parent’s words. “Monsters aren’t real.”
“Not the kind that hide under your bed. What’s scary about them is that they hide in plain daylight,” He explained, his tone serious. “The problem is that you can’t see them until you’ve been attacked by them at least once.”
That made more sense, actually. She crossed her arms again and looked around the soccer field where they stood. There were dark clouds looming on the horizon, a sure sign that rain was headed in their direction.
Her hair whipped across her face as the wind picked up, and she shivered. “I hope recess ends soon,” she absently remarked. Esteban nodded.
“Me too,” he agreed, and Collin’s eyes darted to the sky. There was another uncomfortable silence. Her gaze met with Collin’s and she nodded, choosing to put some faith in something she never would have thought she would have to.
“Okay, Collin. I believe you.”
She didn’t believe him. There wasn’t anything even remotely scientific about what they were saying, about a monster that they kept people safe from, day after day- Or that was how Esteban liked to tell the story. He would get excited, waving his hands about and babbling on and on about Powerania like it was something to marvel at.
Powerania. That was what Collin had named it, the first time he had stepped into this other world when he was in 2nd grade.
He wouldn’t go into much detail, but he described it as stepping into another body, another life. He tried to grasp for words constantly, but ended up just shrugging and giving a simplified version.
“It’s another world. Like ours, except a lot scarier,” he said one afternoon, as they all sat in the center of the soccer field in and amongst the freshly cut grass. “Really scary, actually. I cried the first time I went there.”
“You cried?” She laughed, and Collin shot her a dirty look.
“Yes, I cried, and you would have too if you had been there with me,” he fought back, and she closed her mouth yet was still smirking. “It was horrible. But that’s why I can see the monster. It comes from this world.”
“It comes from Powerania? I thought you said that you have to be attacked by the monster to be able to see it.”
“They’re pretty much the same thing. The way that you enter the world of Powerania is being attacked by the monster.”
She just nodded, doubtful. She had learned recently to just agree with whatever he said, and to never, ever, claim that he was lying. She let her head rest back on her shoulders, closing her eyes and pointing her face to the clouds. Today was a rare, nice day outside.
She noticed absently the look on Esteban’s face- As if darkened as their conversation got deeper into the specifics of the Monster and Powerania. Something about it all put them both off, which confused her since it wasn’t real- It was real. It was real to them, they had made that perfectly clear.
“El monstruo solía venir a mí también. Siempre heridoe,” he said between clenched teeth, burying his head into the folds of his sleeve which perched on the tops of his knees. She cocked her head to the side, wondering what he had said. She still wasn’t used to some of his random, foreign outbursts.
Collin seemed to nod in understanding though, sighing and giving him a sympathetic look. “I know. The first time it happens it’s….Scary.” Collin’s face passed into a dark look, staring off into the grass underneath their bodies. She sat there, just observing the two who seemed to be in their own worlds. They really did know each other. Collin knew Spanish well enough that it became apparent that the two boys had been best friends for a long time, most likely as long as Esteban had been in the United States.
Suddenly, she heard the bell ring from inside the school, which tore them all from their thoughts.
“Tomorrow?” She asked, and Collin nodded.
Twenty four hours later, and only a wall and a crowd of energetic school kids stood between them. She stormed past three young girls huddling together, whispering something fiercely as they scanned the crowd with vibrant eyes. She ignored them and elbowed one in the side, ushering a cry of pain. She vaguely heard them calling out to her to most likely complain, but she was already through the next two huddles of people that lined the hallway.
Finally, she reached towards the door to the playground, throwing it open and walking angrily out into the afternoon rain. It was drizzling, not a heavy rain, and not enough so that they would cancel recess and have it indoors. She scanned the horizon of the soccer field to find where she knew he would be. He was always in the same spot. Always in the same spot, and with the same person, it never changed.
Until today. There was an uneasiness working its way inside her as she approached Collin, who was instead of in the center of the soccer field, huddled under a low-bearing pine tree next to the darker skinned boy. They both wore expressions of sadness, oddly enough. There was something off about the situation. She picked at her already short nails hesitantly as she got closer.
“Hey...Guys?” She stammered, offering a hopeful smile before it quickly faded back into a placid expression. Collin hadn’t even bothered to give her eye contact yet, but Esteban made an attempt to return the smile. It was a dismal failure.
“Hey-” The Spanish boy started, but Collin cut him off.
“He’s leaving.” The boy finally turned to look at her, and she noticed that his eyes were red and slightly swelled, signs that he had been crying. This was bad. Suddenly her anger was lost to her.
She wanted to yell at him, tell him this whole world was fake. It was fake, and he had made it up. She had asked her parents- They told her that monsters weren’t real. He was lying, and no amount of infuriation this time was going to scare her away from that one single truth. She loved Collin like a brother, both of them, but she couldn’t keep going back and forth like this-
“I don’t understand. Leaving? Where is he going?”
“Back to where he moved from. Ecuador,” he persisted, tears brimming at the edge of his eyes once more. He bit the collar of his sweater, wrapping his arms around his dainty upper body. She felt so bad for him, sitting there, cold, and probably facing a situation he had never known before.
“Necessito volver mi casa,” Esteban mumbled. He gave her a sad look, then a small, almost nostalgic smirk. “I must….Return home sooner or later.”
Too many of her friends had moved before to really feel this pain. Collin was taking the disturbing news like a gunshot- Esteban was treating it like an old wound he knew was going to re-open.
“I’m sorry,” she finally stated, taking a seat in front of Esteban. She could feel it soak it’s way through her jeans. “I hope you get to see your friends again, at least.”
“We’re moving to a different part of the country. It’s just going to be worse,” he admitted, which sobered them all. “There’s going to be less friends there than I had here. And all I had were two.”
They sat in silence as they watched the rain patter down in larger drops. She felt oddly comforted by the fact that Esteban even considered her a friend. She was definitely going to miss him.
“It’s okay, Collin. You’ll still have me.” The boy said nothing to the comforting remark, instead burying his face into one of his sleeves as he stared off.
The bell suddenly tolled out of nowhere. She almost couldn’t believe at first that recess was almost done. Collin slowly got up off the grass before giving her a sullen look. Esteban had already walked past the both of them- She wondered if maybe this was his way of dealing with things. Just not saying anything at all.
There was an awkward parting of ways before she turned back towards Collin, giving him a small smile. She wanted to reach out her hand, wanted to tell him that she was there and that Esteban would come back one day, he had said so.
But she knew he would retract. He would shy away from any sort of contact between them, would give her a dirty look and cut off all connections. So she simply opened her mouth, and words came out by themselves.
“Collin, do you want to have a play date sometime? Like, outside of school?” She offered, and even if just for a tiny fraction of a second, his face lit up with something almost like excitement. She had missed that expression on his face for so long.
“You could always come to my house,” he confessed, biting his bottom lip. She could tell that he dug too deep and noticed the way he winced as blood filled his mouth.
“Deal,” she agreed. Really, genuinely smiled, and she felt like a million lights were finally illuminating the dark spaces of their friendship that she had never even knew were real-
And she hated to admit it, but Esteban leaving for Ecuador would be their beginning, not their end.
Two weeks of begging their parents to let them spend time together was finally accepted by Collin’s mother, who suggested that spending time with “the opposite gender might do some good for the boy.” Whatever that meant.
Collin’s parents intimidated her, to say the least. She noticed how they tensely made conversation with Collin, who made polite and small comments, yet mostly just gave him orders to do or just softly reprimanded him yet enough that it was off-putting. The mother always remained silent while his dad spoke, even though he constantly was cutting her off and intervening in everything she said. She thought back to her own parents.
They didn’t do that. She thought the situation weird, but brushed it off as just a different way of doing things.
She also kept picking up lines every now and then- Snippets of secular conversation between the adults that she could never quite grasp the start or finish of. His parents whispered in and amongst themselves- She almost wanted to compare them to the gossiping girls she had shoved aside to get to Collin to yell at him that one afternoon.
It pained her to think about that now. The way that she had wanted to throttle him, had wanted to yell at him and call him a liar and wanted to make him confess that it wasn’t true-
And she still wasn’t sure. She still wasn’t sure if Collin truly was telling the truth or if all of this talk of another world, another dimension, with this strange creature that only some people could see was something he had truly envisioned. She played with his ideas, skirted around the edges of his imagination and practically bathed in the creativity of his knowledge. He was the book she was trying to delve deeper into, always wanting to know more.
And he never seemed to be at a loss for words anymore. After Esteban had left for Ecuador a few days prior, his mood had lightened, even blossomed, one could say, talking to other people and being more engaged in their classes. His smile was filling the room more- Sometimes their shoulders brushed awkwardly and sometimes it wasn’t so awkward because there wasn’t that tense silence between them-
And suddenly she was ripped from her thoughts. “Guys, time for dinner!”
She felt relief wash over her. He had been on rant about something or other and now it was finally time to eat. She never walked down stairs faster in her life.
As soon as she entered the kitchen, she noticed how tense the air seemed to sit around her. It was silent, except for the dull thrumming of the still hot oven throbbing throughout the atmosphere. She wanted to swallow, but was almost afraid that small action would be too loud. Collin followed her, unfazed by the dull and bored stares her parents possessed as they served themselves dinner and sat down at the grand, mahogany dining table that sat poised along the wall of their living room. She moved to grab a plate.
“No, I got it,” Collin said, almost nervously, glancing between his parents and her and smiling quickly. His happy expression finally faded and he rushed to get her meal on the plate.
There was something about the way that he moved about, quickly and jerkily in front of his guardians. They were watching him too, silently judging his every move that he did around her. She was less put off by the situation, and more confused. She almost felt afraid for the boy.
“Here.” She accepted the plate of food graciously, and sat herself down at the table, across from Collin’s parents. She was watching their expressions now, as they both stared down at their plates in silence and she could swear they were avoiding her gaze and she couldn't figure out why-
His mother cast her a small, tight smile as she reached with her dainty fingers towards the wine glass that sat to the right of her plate. She sipped it soundlessly with thin lips that looked as if they hadn’t done enough talking in their time. It almost made her feel bad, imagining that.
To the left of her, Collin’s father was fidgeting rapidly with his fork, almost impatiently. His face was ticking every so slowly- So slowly it was hard for her to notice but she knew those movements too well because she had watched Collin’s face do nearly the same thing every time he was annoyed. She felt a sudden fear wash over her, oddly enough, although she knew that it was misplaced and not necessary.
Sitting there quietly at her seat, she didn’t notice how much time had passed. It had been a good five minutes since she had sat at the grand table. She wanted to call out to Collin to see if he needed help, but his parent’s pressured stares kept her firmly in her place. She swallowed.
“Collin, what the hell is taking you so damn long-?!” Collin’s father finally started, getting out of his chair quickly and pushing it along the hardwood with the backs of his legs. “I swear it’s like I have to do everything for you-”
And suddenly there was a crash. An ear-shattering, splitting crash that would have awakened dead people out of their tombs. She cringed, instinctively covering her ears with her hands. Her fork tumbled to the ground and clattered against the hardwood.
When she opened her eyes, the father was gone from where he had stood yelling. It all happened so quickly- His mother was now staring directly at her, as if trying to captivate her attention. Her small smile had still not faded, and if anything she was showing more teeth through it now.
She looked away, behind her, where she knew Collin had most likely dropped his plate or silverware or something-
-I never believed Collin’s story. I didn’t believe that it could be real, that what he said was of tangible substance besides what we created in storybooks. It was the elaborate tales our heroes wove at bedtime, something we feared when the night light finally went out and we had nothing to safeguard our consciousness anymore.
His mother would not look away from me, even as my head snapped around and I watched. I watched as the plate shattered to pieces on the floor, small fragments of china tinkling down onto his bare feet. I watched as his father grew closer to the boy, who, out of instinct, let out a wail of pain and hopped back, his hands coming up to his face. I watched as he looked down at the mess his son had made- An insidious rage burning through his irises that finally found Collin as their target.
I held my breath. I had to.
I watched as his father’s rough palm met the side of his cheek. There was a resounding, splitting cry from the small boy, and I felt it. I felt it as if it had happened to me.
I watched Collin fight back tears brimming in his eyes.
I watched as childhood crumbled around what I thought was security and a home.
But this was his home. This was his life. This was his world-
….She turned back to his mother.
“I think I’ve lost my appetite, ma’am.”
There is no imaginary drywall between harsh reality and the falsehood that we create through experiences. She had studied this, this, boy, who was and was not her experiment, her beautifully failed experiment- But if she had the choice she would have done it all again.
She never noticed how red his cheeks were. Red, like roses or cherries or when it was below freezing and you forgot a scarf. She never noticed how pure he was compared to the sunlight underneath those pine trees on the edges of the soccer field at their elementary school up on the hill.
She rubbed her thumb over the back of his hand absently. Words eluded them this time. They were less a construct of the boundaries between them, yet instead silence this time was their blanket. They wound it around themselves and pushed all the other screaming kids out. There were only two children, a white painted field, and a lone pine tree.
She looked at him. He struggled to smile. His features were still soft and childish. But his eyes-- hazel, flecked with slivers of gold--his eyes didn’t match.
He looked tired. He looked defeated.
He looked alone.
She squeezed his hand.
“Hey, Collin?” she mumbled quietly. “I believe you. I saw it. I saw the monster.”