The students were distracted. The class at the end of the day was almost always distracted. After a full day of school, none of the kids wanted to sit still and listen to him talk about history. The classroom was hot, the ancient air conditioning only partly managing to assuage the heat. It was late spring, and while the students should be thinking about their finals, most of them were bemoaning the lack of vacation days until summer.
Everyone was tired at the end of the school year. The teachers were tired, the students were tired, even the buildings and play yards seemed tired. As much as Ryan loved his subject, it was hard to force his kids to pay attention. He could see their exhaustion on their faces. He could feel it in their minds. There was only so much new knowledge a mind could absorb in one day. Push it past those limits, and things started leaking out. As a result his last period always got a lot more slack than the rest of his classes. He wouldn't tolerate them goofing off. His classes were always well behaved. But he didn't cover material as fast with the last period. He'd rather give them time to absorb everything, than force them into learning things they wouldn't remember anyway. He was just grateful he didn't teach maths!
The bell rang. There wasn't a mad scramble for the door such as other teachers had. Instead a collective, silent sigh of relief rose from every mind. The students roused from their heat stupor. They stretched surreptitiously, put their things away, a shuffled for the door. He watched them go. It was always safer to let them exit first, though he really wanted out of the school as much as they did.
One of the teens approached his desk. The mind of this one was a bright, sharp spark compared to the dull, exhausted softness of the other students. Ryan frowned. Maybe this one was a little too bright and hot. Tim stood at his desk, fidgeting nervously as the last of the students trickled out. The child started to speak when there were still three or four left, but he held up his hand. Tim nodded and subsided, but his leg jiggled nervously. He looked like a tea kettle about to explode, all nervous energy barely contained.
Tim was like him, but had the added difficulty of being a teenager as well. He didn't have to look to know there was a faint golden glow at the youth's feet. "Mr. Ger--" Tim began nervously, shifted his feet so fast it was almost a dance.
He sighed. "Charm wore off again?"
Tim nodded so hard his teeth clattered.
"Hand it here," he said with resignation. Tim extended his right wrist. A small wooden charm hung on a simple twine. It looked partially burned. He grasped Tim's forearm with his left hand, their pulse points resting together. It was like touching a live wire, the energy painfully sharp. He grimaced, but absorbed Tim's energy into his own body. The boy sighed and relaxed minutely. Adults had a much higher capacity for such energy, and were better able to control it as well. That done, he released Tim's wrist, and took the charm in his right hand. An effort of will, and it was renewed, no longer burned looking.
"You need a way to ground yourself," he said for what felt like the hundredth time. "Have you tried swimming?"
Tim nodded, more sedately this time. "I was in the bathtub sometimes, but it's not enough."
"I mean real swimming. There isn't enough water in a bathtub to ground you. Perhaps if I recommended you for an afterschool program--"
Tim's eyes went wide. "Oh, no sir! My parents--they'd go spare! They just don't get it."
He sighed sadly. No, a lot of parents didn't understand what it was like to have this additional burden. "Alright, well off with you. And don't wait so long next time!" he called after the fleeing child.
He sat at his desk for a while longer, until he thought it was safe to leave. He gathered his books leisurely, placing them in a bag. He rested the bag on his lap. He released the brakes on his chair, and rolled himself out from behind the desk. He moved toward the door, automatically performing the gymnastics required to get out. There were few people in the hallways, just the way he liked it. Less chance of rolling over someone's toes that way. He headed toward the exit leisurely, nodding to people he recognized.
"Ger!" someone called his name. He paused and turned himself.
"Hey, Rigby," he greeted a fellow teacher. The maths teacher was a wiry fellow, and nearly as excitable as Tim.
"Have you seen the new teacher?"
"New teacher? This late in the year?"
"Part of the new art program. If she does good, they might offer her a permanent position," Rigby grinned and wagged his eyebrows. Ryan snorted and rolled his eyes in good natured humor. He allowed himself to be led to the faculty room. Rigby didn't offer to push him, for which he was grateful.
The new teacher's name was Megan Hanson. She had reddish hair, clear skin, and muddy green eyes. She was beautiful. Her mind was soft and gentle, and spoke of genuine kindness and concern. He smiled, and allowed himself to appreciate her beauty. Then it was time for him to catch his bus. He left the room without more than a brief greeting to her.
"Hey, Ger!" Dick greeted as his bus came to a stop. With a hiss of escaping air, the bus lowered itself several inches, and a ramp unfolded.
"Hello, Dick," Ryan greeted his bus driver, rolling onto the bus. He swiped his card, and moved to an empty spot for his wheelchair. Six stops later he got off. It was still another two blocks to his destination, and there was a closer stop, but he found it best if no one suspected where he went. He wheeled the two blocks to the library. The sun beat down on him, but he still pushed himself on the inclines, and coasted on the downslopes. The city sidewalks weren't very sloped. He doubted that the people who walked noticed the tiny elevation and drops at all. But anyone who was on wheels noticed it. It gave him a mild workout, and he'd built up a light sweat by the time he reached the library.
It seemed so innocent. It was only a plain stucco building, not very big. The worn sign read, "Zellock Public Library." As always, it made him chuckle, and think of a sign over a water fountain, "For Coloreds Only." Perhaps you had to be a history teacher to appreciate it. He couldn't fit in the revolving door, so he went to the back and used his key to open the fire exit. The sides of the doors were so scraped from his wheels that they'd stopped repainting it. The door was old, and if his wheelchair wasn't on the small side, he wouldn't have fit at all.
The back room was cool and dim compared to outside, and a welcome respite. He panted for a moment. He was still sweating from his trip here. He drank water and refilled it from the staff room cooler. Finally, he parked his chair in a corner where it wouldn't be in the way. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. Something snapped inside. It wasn't so much as snapping out of place, as snapping in to place. Strength flooded him. A rush of energy made his toes curl and his hair stand on end.
He rose from his chair, setting his bag on the table. He stretched his spine happily, arching his arms over his head. The ground showed a strong golden glow at his feet, in the shape of esoteric crescent moons and stars. His appearance even seemed to change. His hair was not mousey brown, but red-brown. The silvery strands had returned to full color. He was taller and leaner, broad shouldered and narrow hipped like swimmers often are. His face was full of more life, and he seemed younger.
Sparks trailed from his fingertips, and he laughed in delight. It took a moment for him to contain them, and then he walked out confidently into the main library.
"Someone's in a good mood," Belinda commented, glancing at the golden circle at his feet. Her own circle was much fainter, and took the form of twisting vines and leaves. He smiled sheepishly. "One of my students was overcharged again," he said sheepishly. He thought about making an effort to dim his circle, and decided against it. Here of all places, he didn't have to hide.
"He's lucky to have you, Ryan," she said.
He rolled his eyes. "And for that I'll have to swim an extra hour tonight."
"Like you mind! You should have had waves, not stars," she laughed. "I've never known anyone who swims as much as you."
He smiled politely. He stayed at the library for hours. He volunteered as much as he could there. All the volunteers were zellocks like him, as well as most of the patrons. They took care to be surreptitious with their magic for any of the mundanes that wandered in--there were a few--but Zellock Public Library was where they didn't have to pretend. It was reassuring to feel the brush of other minds against his. Even normal mundanes craved the company of others. For zellocks, used to using their minds as an extra sense, it was even more imperative to be with others.
He left at six. The public hours at the pool opened at seven, and the bus route was about 45 minutes. He said his goodbyes, and headed back for his chair. As always, something inside him balked at the thought of returning to it. It wasn't just the pain that would come, or the helplessness. He hated that chair. He hated the chair more than anything in his life. It was a symbol to him. It was a symptom of the crippled nature of the government, that forced him to hide. Segregation against race had long ago been banished and deemed unconscionable. But prejudice against his kind was still very alive today.
"Ryan?" Belinda stuck her head in the room cautiously. They all knew his temper at this time. He didn't look at her. "I thought, maybe you could come to my place today. We could catch a movie, maybe. I'll make dinner."
He was tempted. He wanted to be tempted. But the touch of her mind made him feel guilty. He could never be what she wanted him to be. Being with her would be pleasant, but it would hurt her because it would never be enough. It wasn't fair to her, and he wasn't going to hide his problems in her presence. He shook his head mutely. She retreated silently. His clenched his fists in fury, but forced himself to walk forward. He grabbed his bag from the table, and sat in the damn chair. His hands shook. He had to take several deep breaths before he was able to calm himself.
And then he broke his back.
As always it was an instant of agonizing pain, followed by terrible absence. He felt old. He felt tired. His appearance changed to reflect this. He was no longer the vibrant young man, but one who was slumped and worn by the cares of life. The golden glow by his feet died into a stale pattern of ash. Tears glinted in his eyes. He rolled his chair out the door, viciously taking more paint with him. The government couldn't even bother to give zellocks a library that was handicap accessible.
The afternoon bus driver only grunted to him. Neither of them were in a sociable mood. The bus stank of stale sweat and hot oil. It reflected his temper. His spirits lifted a little as he got off at the pool stop. Belinda was right, he did love swimming. It wasn't just the fact that water grounded magic and bled off the extra energy. He loved the smooth repetition of swimming laps. He loved the soft drag of cold water, the burn of muscles as he swam. It was his reward for hiding in this damn chair.
He was well known at the pool. This was another place he came every day. He made a brief stop in the stalls to change to his swim trunks, and then placed his chair by the poolside. He pushed himself out of the chair, making an awkward splash in the water. The first few times he'd done it, the lifeguards had pulled him out of the water. Eventually they realized he knew what he was doing. As soon as he was fully submerged, he healed his back. Life powered through him again. The golden glow that might have betrayed him was absorbed and washed away by the water. He felt baptized.
He swam laps, the steady rhythm soothing him. His anger and frustration were stripped away. When the pool closed at nine, he emerged from the water cleansed. Even the act of having to break his back and sit in the chair didn't bother him too much. He went home through another series of buses. Secure in his apartment, he made sure all the blinds were tightly closed, and once more rose from the chair. He made himself dinner, and did some school work for an hour before finally going to bed.
In the morning, he started his day all over again.
Two weeks passed. The weather got hotter. The pool was more of a relief. There was a minor explosion in the library--caused by overexcited magic, not a malicious attack--and he cleaned it up. Ryan decided he liked Ms. Hanson. She was passionate about her subject, and encouraged the students to express themselves. She had patience even for Tim. The young zellock was often a source of exasperation to his teachers, between his general twitchiness and his overloaded magic. Ryan helped to drain the excess away, but teenage zellocks always had this problem.
Ms. Hanson turned down dinner with Rigby, something with Ryan attributed to her good taste. Rigby was a good friend, but also a known player. Eventually, Ryan got up the courage to ask her out. She also declined him. It hurt, but he could tell from her mind that she didn't do it because he was in a wheelchair. He fell a little in love with her in that moment, realizing that she didn't pity him. She called him Mr. Fitzgerald, formally. He winced--his name was so pretentious, and told her to call him Ger like everyone else, or Ryan.
She chose to use Ryan, and gave him permission to call her Megan. Despite what could have been an awkward meeting after she refused to go out with him, they remained on friendly terms. He admired her secretly.
One day, she came to his classroom after school to talk about Tim.
"I'm worried he's being bullied by the other kids," she said.
He nodded sadly. He'd seen it too. "I know what you mean. He really does try to make friends, but it's not easy for him. I stop everything in my class room, but for some reason they don't want me as a playground monitor." He rocked his chair back and forth meaningfully.
They shared a laugh. It felt good to make Megan laugh, and she was so beautiful it made his chest ache. In the next moment she smiled at him, a brilliant, glorious smile that was worthy of a classic painting. "I know you watch out for Tim. You're his favorite teacher, he really looks up to you. Have you ever seen his sketchbook? He draws you as some kind of hero."
His face softened, and his face warmed. This was why he loved teaching. He didn't have to be the most popular teacher, or everyone's favorite. But when just one student looked up to him, when he could help just one soul in this confusing time between childhood and adulthood, then it was all worth it. His throat grew tight, and he had to blink a few times. "Tim is the hero. Anyone who can survive high school is a hero." He tried to laugh and brush it off, but Megan could see how much he was touched. She pressed his hand briefly, and he felt her regard for him.
The next day, Tim died.
Ryan got the school just as an ambulance was pulling away. He could feel the focus and drive of the paramedics. He could feel the fear and excitement of the students and staff milling around. And worse, he could feel the bright, sharp spark of Tim's mind rapidly fading away. He didn't have to ask who was in the ambulance. He knew. He twisted toward the ambulance, reaching for his magic. His job be damned, he would not hide if he could save Tim's life. That was what the moon and stars on his circle meant, when he wasn't hiding. He was one of the greater zellocks, able to perform huge feats of magic, miracles even. But he could not bring the dead back to life. He had to stop the ambulance, to get to Tim before he passed away.
He started to push himself to his feet, reached out toward the ambulance--and the bright spark of Tim's mind winked out forever.
"No!" he screamed. He collapsed in his chair. He hadn't even had time to heal his back. Even had he not been hiding, had his full powers been available to him, there was nothing he could have done. It was too quick. Life was too fragile sometimes. The paramedics were working on a dead boy. He cursed and pounded on the arms of his chair. Grief and rage tore at him. Who had done this? Who had destroyed a precious soul? Zellock or not, Tim was just a boy like the rest of them.
Rigby came up to him, and grabbed the handles of his chair. He snarled viciously at his friend, but Rigby pushed him off to the side. "It was just a prank," Rigby said, his face white. "I saw it happen. They were just boys, playing around. They had a ball and a bat, and they were having a game. And one of them swung the bat, only he let it go. It hit Tim in the face, and he just fell. They were laughing. They thought he was faking it. But he started having seizures, and--" Rigby swallowed sickly "--there was a light at his feet. You don't think--he couldn't have been a zellock, do you think?"
A cold fury came over Ryan. A boy had just died, and Rigby was worried that Tim might have been a zellock? He was tempted to unleash his powers. He could level this school by God! Then they would see what a real zellock could do! He knew it wasn't the answer, but he just wanted to destroy something, to hurt something else as Tim had been hurt. Across the parking lot he saw Megan walking fast. He felt her own grief and horror over what happened. Her emotion undid him.
He ripped his chair out of Rigby's hands, and pushed himself out of the schoolyard as fast as he could. He took a bus to the pool, only because it was faster than pushing his chair all the way there. The pool wasn't open to the public at this time, but the swim instructor there recognized him, and let him in. It was a good thing he did, or Ryan would have blasted the lock off the gate and gone swimming anyway. His raw emotions had built up the magic in him, and he needed to ground it out. Other zellocks could use their magic to bleed the excess off. Belinda could work with her plant magic in her garden. Others had animal magic, or magic to build things, or flight, or elemental magic. But his magic--it was built for major works. He could take out entire city blocks. He could lift the top of a mountain. He could cause a volcano to erupt. He could make the ground shake. He could build a skyscraper brick by brick. Every. Single. Day he broke his back and healed it again. And for all that he couldn't save the life of a single boy.
He swam all day. It was more than getting rid of the magic that burned in him. It was losing him in the pattern, in drowning his grief before he acted on his emotions. When he finally returned to the edge of the pool, his was exhausted. He almost didn't have the energy to break his back. He hadn't thought about his classes all day. He wasn't sure he was going back to work tomorrow. That night, he laid on his back in bed, staring at the ceiling.
He smelled like chlorine, even after his shower. He didn't know what to do. There was a message on his machine, saying that school had been canceled for the day, and there would be an emergency assembly in the morning. Did he show? What would be said? Did he dare not come? He barely slept all night. Guilt and sorrow churned in his stomach.
In the end, he went to the assembly. And he wished he hadn't. Tim's death was deemed a "dreadful accident." Ryan remembered Rigby's account. Tim wasn't the kind of kid that was invited to a friendly game of ball. He recognized the teens responsible as well, bullies known for their cruel pranks. Maybe they hadn't meant to actually kill Tim, but they had meant to hurt and humiliate him. Ryan looked away from the boys, seething inside. If he hurt them, he would be no different than they. But didn't they deserve to feel how it was to be helpless against a much stronger force?
And worse, it was revealed that Tim had been a zellock. The principal couldn't expressly say it, but it was clear the boys responsible were given no more than a slap on the hand. Tim's death was not considered a loss. If anything, it was a relief, that there would no longer be a zellock going to school with the normal kids. Ryan didn't have to look around to feel the horror of the three or four other zellocks attending this school. They would have to keep their heads down, to hide their reactions if they didn't want to be singled out as well. The lesson of the day was that it was fine to kill a zellock, even by accident.
Ryan returned to his classroom, but he wasn't up to teaching any lessons. Days went by in a blur. He didn't feel like teaching. He didn't feel like swimming. He didn't go to the library any more. What was the point? Hadn't it just been proven, that no matter what happened, zellocks would never be accepted?
Megan came to his classroom on day. Her mouth was stretched into a thin, unhappy line. She looked as drawn and pale as he felt.
"Do you want to go catch dinner tonight?" she asked abruptly. He blinked dully at her, and resentment stirred in his belly.
"Why now?" he asked bitterly.
She clenched her fists angrily. "Because as far as I can tell, you're the only one actually upset over what happened!" Her grief pulled at him. She'd liked Tim. She hadn't cared that he was a zellock. Ryan stared at her for a long moment, and came to a decision. "I know where we can go," he said firmly.
After school, Megan followed him onto the bus. She offered to drive him, but he wasn't sure his chair could fit into her car. He wanted her to see his world, to see what he put up with. He took her to the library. He felt her surprise as she saw the faded sign, but she didn't hesitate. He no longer felt like chuckling at the sign. It seemed like a grim slur now. Megan opened the door for him and his chair. She winced as he scraped the sides with his wheels.
The door shut behind them, and then he healed his back. He stood, the golden circle at his feet glowing brightly. He faced Megan, and waited for her reaction. She stared at him, her mouth open. Instead of horror, her mind felt betrayed. He felt suddenly guilty for the lie he was living. She didn't speak. Instead she opened her bag, and handed him a battered journal. He opened it. Tim's familiar writing made his heart clench.
This was Tim's sketchbook. He flipped through the pages. Tim had been a good artist. He had a keen eye for lines and shapes. There were even sketches of buildings, with various scribbles such as an architect would make. It was clear Tim's magic had been with building and design. What might he have accomplished had he lived? What monument or landmark might have borne Tim's artwork for all time?
He turned the page, and there were several loose, translucent pages. They featured Ryan, drawn in loose shadowy lines. No single sketch was complete, but they seemed almost militarily precise. He was always in the same position, a pose that could perhaps be considered heroic. He frowned, and on a whim lined up the semitransparent pages. They matched exactly. Each one built up on the last, and formed a complete picture at last. It showed Ryan, but Ryan as he was at the library, standing tall and complete, the golden circle at his feet. He hadn't realized that Tim ever saw him at the library.
On another series of papers were the beginnings of a self-portrait. Tim hadn't had time to complete it. It was on the same style as Ryan's picture, hiding and revealing what he was at the same time. He looked up at last. Megan's eyes were sympathetic. She reached out and touched his arm gingerly. She looked down at his circle nervously, but stepped into it bravely. He felt like an ass suddenly.
"Uh," he said awkwardly. "Can I take you out to dinner?"
He had to get back into his chair to leave the library. He could feel Megan's curious eyes on him, but she forbore asking questions. They took the bus back to school, and picked up her car. He was forced to sit in the passenger seat while she took his chair to her trunk. He hated having to let her do the work. He flexed his magic, and saw Megan give a start of surprise as the wheelchair suddenly floated under her hands. She flashed him a brilliant smile. Despite the heaviness in his chest, his heart jolted a little.
At the restaurant, Megan asked him about the chair. It was one of the first questions he'd been expecting. "I was in an accident several years ago. I broke my back. Regular medicine couldn't help me. I was able to fix it with magic, but there was a problem. Because I used magic to fix my back, every time I had to hide my magic, had to pull it in, my back was broken again. So I could live in the open, live exposed, or I could hide, and be a cripple."
She nodded. "You're very brave, to make that choice every day." She touched his arm again. He felt it down to his bones.
After dinner they went back to his apartment. She witnessed his transformation again. She was fascinated by his circle, and tried to touch it. It was only light. He explained about the different symbols in the circles, what the symbols meant. They talked late into the night. They did not make love, but they slept in each other's arms that night. In the morning, Ryan woke to the sight of Megan's face. He marveled at her. This woman, who had treasured a student despite his differences. Who had not run when she realized what Ryan was. He knew, suddenly, that his future was with her.
He kissed he forehead chastely. She roused slowly. They shared a warm smile.
"Are we going to school today?" he asked her softly.
"Don't you think we should?" she responded.
He sighed lightly. Once more into that stupid chair. But when he reached for it, Megan stopped him.
"Not today, Ryan," she said. "I don't think you should hide any longer."
He felt an instant of fear as he thought about facing the world without his familiar mask. He looked at Megan, and her courage bolstered his own. No matter what happened, he would have her at his side. His bright circle attracted a lot of attention even in the short walk to Megan's car. His palms were sweaty, and his heart beat a staccato rhythm. Then she touched him, and he felt better.
They parked at school. Ryan took several deep breaths, trying to calm himself. They stepped out of the car. There were gasps and startled looks as his circle came into view. More than one student pointed, and hastily retreated. Ryan saw Rigby, and automatically greeted him. Rigby did a double take when he saw them. Ryan's mouth was dry. Megan slipped her hand into his. He smiled at her nervously.
Hand in hand, they walked into school.
© 2013 Copyright held by the author.