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Day Two Hundred and Fourteen: The Angry Puppet

December 21, 2011 Leave a comment

For the month of December, I’ll be world-building. This means taking a look at the people, places, and institutions that I have created over the last six months and trying to figure out more about them. This will involve a look at the stories in which they’ve appeared, and then some speculation, stream-of-consciousness writing, and with any luck a few revelations. In addition, I may come back and add new material as the Elves in my unconscious ship out new ideas, so I’ll be sure to link them up.

Your feedback as readers is, of course, more than welcome. There are probably questions that I’m forgetting to ask and holes that I need to fill.

Wish me luck!

——————

Okay, time for another character sketch. This one will likely be short, for two reasons. First, I have to record my podcast tonight, so there’s lots of things to do, and I can’t do that until The Boyfriend takes The Dog out for a walk. Secondly, I don’t really know a whole lot about the character that my random number generator gave me: Kurt Brannon, from the story on day 26, Confrontation. Here’s what we know about him:

  • He was really ready to kill Jenna Birch.
  • He was nearly a state wrestling finalist in high school.
  • He was accused of throwing wrestling matches. Some classmates got into his emails, reported him, and he was thrown off the team. He also lost his college scholarship.

And that’s pretty much all we know about him. That, and he was so convinced that Jenna had been part of a plot to ruin his life that he was just about ready to shoot her in the head.

The natural question, then, is what would drive someone to such a level? I mean, stalking this girl to figure out the best time to strike, breaking into a university biology lab, and holding her at gunpoint is not the behavior of a rational individual. It’s pretty clear that Kurt has problems, and fixing wrestling matches is just one of them.

When I think of high school wrestlers, I think of Breakfast Club, which pretty much dates my teenage years right there. In that movie, the Jock was dealing with his father’s disappointment over a stupid prank, and that was the last straw on top of years of pressure and expectations. Kurt has something like that going, only worse. His father was a slightly less pathetic version of Al Bundy – a guy whose last major accomplishment was when he was in high school, and he hasn’t done anything since. Kurt’s father was a wrestler, and he went to State, and would have gone further if he hadn’t been injured. His wrestling career was over, leaving him only with the dreams of what might have been.

Dreams he naturally transferred to his son. The pressure for Kurt to be a wrestler and to be a winner was immense and unrelenting. But no one can withstand that kind of pressure for very long, and the way Kurt dealt with it was by fixing matches to make money off them. Not a lot of matches – just enough that he could make some cash on the side while not jeopardizing the future that his father wanted so very much.

Unfortunately, bad luck and the persistence of the Internet worked against him. Perhaps he didn’t log off a library computer, or he autofilled an address wrong – whatever it was, his emails regarding fixing matches got out. Some of his classmates turned him in, enlisting Jenna in their cause to give them credibility. With her and the evidence on their side, they were able to convince the principal and the coach that Kurt had in fact been cheating, and his dream was crushed.

His father didn’t react well. His dream had been taken away by bad luck. His son had thrown it away. It got so bad that Kurt had to leave his house. He stayed with friends, barely finished school, and then disappeared before graduation. No one heard from him or saw him again until he went after Jenna.

Kurt is a damaged boy, to say the least. He can’t accept responsibility for what he did, probably because he never really thought that he had the power to make any real decisions about his life. His father and his coach pretty much orchestrated his days and nights, so Kurt already saw himself as bereft of any kind of agency. That made it easier to blame other students for his downfall. He didn’t think he’d really been responsible for his own success – why should he be responsible for his failure?

Jail, of course, won’t do him any good. A shame, because that’s where he’s going. Best case scenario, he finds Jesus and repents, but then he’s just transferring power over his life to someone else. He won’t be whole until he can accept responsibility for himself and his actions – good and bad – and let go of the dream that was never his to begin with.

Day One Hundred and Ninety-three: Dream Intervention [REDUX]

November 30, 2011 2 comments

On the last day of each month, I’ll take a story from the previous month, clean it up a little, see if I can make it better than the first time it appeared, and post it up. Of course, this being the last night of my Elements series, with the category being “Aether,” there was really only one good choice of stories to revisit: Dream Intervention, from day 148. I extended it a little, but more important was the shift from first person to third. I did it mostly just to see what happened, and it worked nicely, I think. I still don’t know what Cory’s Big Problem is, as he is not being very helpful. Much like in the story…

—-

The dream trembled under Noel’s fingertips. He was barely even touching it and yet he could feel the tenuous fabric try to shrink away from him. He smiled and leaned in closer, trying to peer into the distorted, unfinished vision that lay before him.

Dreams were like that. A dream described by a person after they wake up is nearly impossible to recover. They search for words, they try to make comparisons that don’t make any sense. “She was my girlfriend but not my girlfriend, and for some reason she was a robot, but not like a Terminator robot but like one of those things you see in an auto plant. And made of marzipan.” They make perfect sense to the one who’s in them, and absolutely none from the outside. The internal logic is flawless, but to someone looking in, the whole thing is like a fragile, evanescent soap bubble just waiting to go.

It took a lot of practice to get in and out of them without breaking the whole thing down around you. Fortunately, Noel had had that practice. And a little bit of luck, which he was careful to appreciate. He’d been touching others’ dreams for more than a decade, and had learned the ins and outs of the dream world and the logic that ruled it. Or them, to be more precise. As it turned out, there was no singular dream world – no mysterious realm where all dreams come from. Every dream was a world unto itself, and yet all dreams shared a certain set of rules.

Noel took a deep breath, said a quick prayer, and touched – and he was in.

The dream was pretty boilerplate, and about what he expected of a sixteen year-old boy. All of the corners were dark, and nothing was really clear except when Noel was looking straight at it. It was hot and everything felt sluggish and slow. When he moved, it felt like everything happened a half second too late, as though the universe hadn’t been paying attention to what he wanted to do. He focused his mind on the dream, and everything snapped into sharp relief. All it took was a shift of perspective, much like watching a movie and reminding yourself that the guns are shooting blanks and the explosions are largely computer-generated. It took some of the fun out of it, yes, but to someone living in it – or visiting – it might be a lifesaver.

The school hallway brightened a bit as he reminded himself of where he was, and what he was doing there. He heard screams coming from down the hall, so he checked the notebook in his pocket to see what he needed to know about the kid: Cory Shillinger, a football player and probably the best on his team. A bit of a bully, but that often came with the territory. And that wasn’t why he was there. Not to punish him for anything. Just to remind him of something.

Noel knew perfectly well what Cory looked like now, but that would probably just make things worse. Or weirder. He pictured a much younger Cory in his head, at least how he imagined Cory looked when he was younger. Dirty blonde hair, skinny, teeth that hadn’t been fixed up yet. He felt the image wrap around himself like a tight corset, and when Noel called up a mirror on the wall, he looked at least enough like young Cory to pass in a dream. But there was one more thing he needed.

He pulled the badge out of his pocket and pinned it to the faded Star Wars t-shirt he was wearing. The badge had three simple words on it: I AM YOU. Cory would see it, but not really know what it was. It was a symbol, really, and nothing more, and it would be all that was really necessary to convince Cory of who Noel was supposed to be. Dreams operated on symbols, on personal interpretation of things. That was the only way dreams could work and not drive the dreamers utterly mad. Noel could have decided to look like Mark Twain or Marilyn Monroe or Jabba the Hutt, but he figured it would be best not to push his luck.

The real Cory came barreling around the corner a moment later, and Noel banished the mirror. The boy was running feverishly from something that was probably really horrifying, but the way Noel saw it, he was running from symbols that were simply floating bundles of words. “Terror.” “Humiliation.” “Pain.” “Danger.”

The usual stuff.

Cory himself was gorgeous, or at least mostly so. He had the body of a teenage quarterback – all lean and tight and muscled from head to toe. True to so many teenage dreams, all he was wearing was a pair of boxers, and even those were flickering in and out as Noel watched him. His skin was breaking out in sores that pulsed and opened and closed and moved about his body, never settling in one place but never fading away. His hair was falling out, and as he screamed, Noel saw that the boy was missing teeth. It was the grand package of nightmares, and for all the horror and terror, it was only a distraction for what Cory was really afraid of.

Time to get to work.

Noel put himself in Cory’s path and held out a hand. A great wind blew in from behind him, picking up papers and books and even the odd desk or two. It blew from Noel towards Cory, and bent in a tight circle around the boy to blow all the symbolic monsters away from him in great tatters and rags and rage. Cory screamed and wept as the wind blew past him and howled and shrieked horrible things that only he could hear.

Noel lowered his hand and the wind snapped off. Cory dropped to his knees, holding his head in his hands and whimpering softly. Noel let him sit like that for a moment, or however long that was for him.

“Hey. QB,” Noel said in the piping, cheerful voice of a young boy. “You gonna sit like that all night?”

Cory looked up, and Noel could tell that he’d be a heartbreaker if he just had clear skin and all his teeth. Noel shook his head. “This isn’t gonna work,” he said. “Stand up.”

Cory looked at him dumbly.

“C’mon, QB. Stand up.” Noel crooked a finger and the boy stood on unsteady legs. Noel raised a hand to Cory’s chest and laid a hand against his skin. Cory’s form rippled for a moment, and all the deformities and disfigurement faded away as if they had never been. “There you go.” Noel patted his chest with a hand which was his own again, and let it linger there for a moment longer than he had to. He felt the boy’s heart beating, fast and afraid, and it sent a thrill up his arm. If Cory noticed the change, he didn’t say anything, but Noel drew out the moment as long as he could.

“You… um, you might want to think about wearing some clothes,” Noel said eventually. He glanced down, and so did Cory. “But you can take your time.” Noel winked. “If you want.”

He didn’t. An eyeblink later and Cory was wearing his football uniform, pads and helmet and all.

“All right,” Noel said. He shrugged and turned around. There were a couple of comfortable chairs there that hadn’t been there before. “Have a seat,” Noel said. “And take that helmet off. It makes me uncomfortable.” As Cory sat, Noel took another button out and pinned it to the football uniform that he seemed to be wearing as well. Gotta be more careful about that, he thought. This button read YOU TRUST ME. It was blatant manipulation, and for a moment, Noel thought about seeing just how far he could push that button’s power. In the dream, anything was possible, and chances were that the boy wouldn’t remember a thing.

But Noel had tried that before. He’d succeeded, in fact, and it hadn’t worked out well for anyone.

The boy stared at him for a moment. Then he licked his lips and said, “Who are you?”

“Good,” Noel said. “You can talk. You’d be surprised how often that fails in here.” He handed Cory a drink in a cup labeled RELAX. He took it and blew over the top. Hot chocolate, probably. When he’d taken a sip, and the pads deflated from under his uniform, Noel started to talk again.

“Cory,” he said. “You’re in trouble.” He gestured over to one corner of the room, which had gone from being a school hallway to a bare stage. A spotlight clicked on and illuminated a strange tableau. Cory, holding another boy close, their arms wrapped around each other in mid-fall. Look at it one way, and it was the middle of a brawl – the other boy’s feet were about to come out from under him, and Cory was getting ready to pull an arm out for a punch. Cory’s face was a mask of rage, the other boy’s torn by fear.

Look again, though, and they were holding onto each other out of desperation. Cory was trying to hold the other boy up, his arms tightening around his waist and they both slowly dropped to the floor. The anger on Cory’s face warped to pain and anguish. The other boy’s face was still overwhelmed with fear, but it was altogether a different kind now.

Cory and Noel both looked at it, and then Noel turned to the boy. “So,” he said. “It looks like there’s something you might need to talk about.”

“I… I don’t understand,” Cory said. He looked like he was about to cry again, and Noel felt his earlier attraction to the boy fading. He’d hoped there would be a core of strength to him, but if this was his soul laid bare, then he wasn’t worth mooning over.

“Of course you don’t,” Noel said. “That’s the whole point.” He leaned forward, and Cory’s eyes widened. Noel wondered who he looked like now. “You have a problem, son,” he said. He pointed to the tableau again, which was slowly turning in the spotlight. “That over there is a hint to what it is. But without your help, I can’t get to what’s really going on.”

He stood up and crooked a finger. Cory, now dressed in a t-shirt and jeans, followed along to inspect the image more closely. Noel pointed to it. “You know who they are?”

“I know who I am,” Cory said, pointing to his own image. Noel raised an eyebrow. “But I don’t know who he is.”

“Well, then we have a problem,” Noel said. He cracked his knuckles and noticed that he seemed to be wearing a suit now. With black leather gloves. “Fortunately, problem-solving is my specialty. But first, there’s somewhere we have to go.” He reached out to the statue-Cory’s head and tugged on a lock of hair. A door opened up, spreading instantly to the floor, and a dim greyness lay beyond. The faint smell of woodsmoke wafted out.

Cory looked at the doorway. “What’s in there?” he asked.

Noel shrugged. “Damned if I know,” he said. “It’s your head.”

“No,” the boy said, holding his hands up. “I don’t know where I am or what you’re doing, but this can’t be happening. Not for real.” He was starting to change again, his form losing substance. He was beginning to look like a faded photograph, like a wet painting left out in the rain, and Noel cursed under his breath.

“Cory, you can’t go. This is too important.” He reached out for the boy’s arm, and it was like grabbing a handful of oatmeal. “Cory, you need to stay and do this.”

The thing that was Cory shook its head. “No,” it said in a slow, indistinct voice. “Not going.” The shape bubbled and twisted and folded in on itself. And then, without prelude or fanfare, the dream collapsed.

“Dammit,” Noel whispered. He lingered in the non-darkness that was the place where dreams emerged and tried to count all the things he did wrong. In the end, he let himself go back into normal sleep and the normal world. There would be other nights and other chances. But not too many.

Noel slept in the few hours remaining to him. He had to get up early to go to work, after all.

Perhaps he’d see how Cory was doing tomorrow, in class.

Day One Hundred and Fifty-three: The Factory Floor

October 21, 2011 4 comments

Another small crystal sphere was lifted up by an air current and deposited gently onto Belesse’s workstation. She took it and, with swift and practiced motions, began to assemble a dream within it.

She had the rhythm down, made into a ritual she’d performed six days a week for nearly three years. Twist the sphere to iris open the top and reach up for one of the dozens of nozzles hanging overhead. Check the work order, and then start mixing. A touch of self-doubt and existential terror, an old love and memories of childhood infused with a delicate mixture of old television commercials and abandonment issues. Twist the sphere to close it, give it a good shake, and send it on down the line for packing and distribution. Another arrives, and do the same again. And again.

There had been a time, she was told, when dreams were individually crafted for people. When each and every dream bore the fine attention of a master dreamcrafter – or at least a skilled apprentice or two. But the world got bigger, the dreams got more complicated, and sooner or later everything falls to mass production. The little old men who knew how to put together intricately built nightmares and illusions were now forced out. Put in management positions if they were lucky. In their place were the ones like Belesse, who needed the money and didn’t mind the monotonous work. The pay was good enough, and it wasn’t like she had anything else she could do.

She passed a dream off onto the conveyor belt with her right hand and took a fresh sphere with her left. She looked at the work order and grimaced. It called for Wet Dream 33-G, a delicate mixture that she rarely saw on her workflow and was never sure if she got right. She reached under her workstation and pulled out the manual, a dusty three-ring binder that she almost never consulted these days. The pages were brittle and yellow, and still covered with notes that she’d made back when she was new on the job. Some tips that she’d gotten from other girls, a few notes on substitutions and her early experiments, which had nearly gotten her fired. The floor chief had dragged her off to the manager’s office, and she was told in no uncertain terms that she was not to deviate from the prescribed formulae.

Page eighty-two had it. She ran her finger down the list and nodded. Pretty conventional ingredients, actually, with just a few twists to it. Adolescent gender uncertainty, patriarchal culture paradigms, a composite of popular teen boy bands, and all topped off with run-of-the-mill lustiness. She grabbed hoses and started filling the sphere, smiling grimly at the symbolism of the whole thing as she did it.

She squeezed the handle for the objectification of teen male sexuality and nothing came out. She squeezed it again, and once more, and let the hose go. “Figures,” she muttered. She opened the manual and started looking for substitutions, which is when she smelled the floor boss behind her.

The workers suspected that Rachok knew how despised he was, and that somewhere in what passed for his heart he had a subconscious desire to give them a chance to avoid drawing his attention. It may have been true, or it may not have, but there was no other reason they could think of for the thick cloud of foul-smelling cologne that seemed to precede and follow him as he went on his rounds. His mission was simple: to look for workers who weren’t working fast enough and to goad them with the threat of yelling, verbal abuse and eventual firing. This time, Belesse had been too absorbed in the recipe to notice until it was too late.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing,” he grumbled, and she stood up straight as she spun to face him. He was an ugly, ugly man – broad and oily with a permanent scowl and eyes that never seemed to rest on anything. The cologne was really the best part of him. “Do you think we pay you to stand around and read, woman?” She opened her mouth, but he didn’t let the words get out. “Oh, or did you think that the job wasn’t important enough for your full godsdamned attention? Did you think you could just slack off whenever you got bored with doing the job we pay you for?”

“No – no sir,” she stammered. “I was just -”

“I don’t give two farts in a high wind what you were just,” he roared. He picked up the sphere she’d been working on and shook it under her nose. “You see this, you empty-headed girl? It’s wasted now!” He threw it to the ground. The sphere shattered and the dream sublimated into a fine mist. Belesse felt a warmth in her belly and she blushed hard. Rachok reached past her and grabbed another. “Here,” he said, forcing it into her hands. “Do it again, and for once do it right. No more delays.”

“But I -”

“No buts!” He leaned in, and she was vividly aware that he’d had curry for lunch. Or perhaps dinner the day before. “I have had it up to here with you people and your excuses and your gripes and your complaints! Nothing’s ever good enough for you, is it?” He smiled, and it was like an uneven army of yellow bricks had been shoved into his mouth. “Well, there are a hundred girls out there who would be happy to work for less than we’re paying you right now, and I’m hard-pressed to think of any reason why I shouldn’t go and haul one of those half-wits over right now to take your place.” He poked her in the shoulder with a thick-nailed finger. “Get working,” he growled, “or get walking!”

He stood there, his flat, pock-marked nose nearly touching hers, until she gave a short, meek nod. The show of submission that he was waiting for. Rachok grunted and went back on his rounds, but he glanced back at her several times before he turned the corner.

Belesse wiped her eyes before they could actually start welling up, and told herself it was just the fumes. She sniffed as she re-made the recipe and thought about all the things she wished she could have said. It wouldn’t have mattered if she had, though. In Rachok’s universe, people like her didn’t stand up to people like him. The cognitive dissonance probably would have gotten them both killed. More’s the pity.

When she got to the missing ingredient she paused again, staring up at the tangle of hoses. They reminded her suddenly of the trees she used to play under when she was a child. The trees were always heavy with vines, and she and her sisters would race to see who could climb the highest.

“Hell with it,” she said to herself, and she grabbed a hose at random to fill the sphere. When it was done, she released the hose in shock and covered her mouth to stifle the giggle. The sphere glimmered under the ugly fluorescent lights, and she wondered what poor boy was going to have an erotic dream about trans-Euclidean geometry tonight. She rolled the sphere onto the conveyor belt with her right hand and took a new one with her left. She still wanted to laugh out loud, but nothing would have gotten Rachok thundering over there faster than the sound of someone actually enjoying her job. Still, it seemed that there was still some fun to be had.

The work orders came in one after the other, and she filled them diligently. All with one added ingredient, of course, and even she didn’t know what it was going to be until she did it. Someone would be dreaming about murderous clowns who debated tax policy as they chased them in slow motion; another would have a dream about his mother, but it’s not his mother, but actually it is and she’s really a small nation of ants masquerading as Hillary Clinton; and some little girl would find herself dreaming that she was a Disney princess, forced to defend her marzipan castle against the onslaught of zombies that would have her brains for breakfast.

Would it get her fired? Probably. She squirted a bit of overt racism into a dream about kittens and rolled the sphere along. But as ways to go went, this was a pretty good one.

She picked up another sphere, closed her eyes and reached up with a small, forbidden smile on her face. Tonight was going to be fun for everyone.

Day One Hundred and Forty-eight: Dream Intervention

October 16, 2011 5 comments

Cory’s dream trembled under my fingertips. I was barely even touching it and I could feel its tenuous fabric try to shrink away from me.

Dreams are like that. You ever hear someone try to describe a really weird dream that they had? They search for words, they try to make comparisons that don’t make any sense. You know: “She was my girlfriend but not my girlfriend, and for some reason she was a robot, but not like a Terminator robot but like one of those things you see in an auto plant. And made of marzipan.” Right. They make perfect sense when you’re in them, and absolutely none from the outside. The internal logic is flawless, but to someone looking in, the whole thing is like a fragile, evanescent soap bubble just waiting to go.

It takes a lot of practice to get in and out of them without breaking the whole thing down around you, too. Fortunately, I’ve had that practice. And a little bit of luck.

I took a deep breath, said a quick prayer, and a touch – and I was in.

The dream was pretty boilerplate, and about what I’d expect of a sixteen year-old boy. Lots of dark corners, nothing really clear except when you were looking straight at it. It was hot and everything felt sluggish – when I moved, it felt like everything happened a half second too late. I focused, and everything snapped into sharp relief. All it takes is a shift of perspective. It’s like watching a movie and reminding yourself that the guns are shooting blanks and the explosions are largely computer-generated. It takes some of the fun out of it, yeah, but if you were living in it, then it might save your life.

The school hallway brightened a bit as I reminded myself of where I was, and what I was doing there. I heard screams. The notebook in my pocket told me what I needed to know about the kid: Cory Shillinger, he was a football player and probably the best on his team. A bit of a bully, but that came with the territory. And that wasn’t why I was there. Not to punish him for anything. Just to remind him of something.

The photo I’d pasted into my notebook was all the reference I had, so I pictured a much younger Cory in my head. Dirty blonde hair, skinny, teeth that hadn’t been fixed up yet. I felt the image wrap around me like a tight corset, and when I called up a mirror on the wall, I saw that I looked at least enough like him to pass in a dream. But there was one more thing I needed.

I pulled the badge out of my pocket and pinned it to the faded Star Wars t-shirt I was wearing. The badge had three simple words on it: I AM YOU. He would see it, but not really know what it was. It was a symbol, and nothing more, and it would be all that was really necessary to convince Cory of who I was supposed to be. Honestly, I could have decided to look like Mark Twain or Marilyn Monroe or Jabba the Hutt, but I figured it would be best not to push my luck.

The real Cory came barreling around the corner a moment later, and I banished the mirror. He was running feverishly from something that I’m sure was really horrifying. The way I saw it, he was running from symbols that I saw as just floating bundles of words. “Terror.” “Humiliation.” “Pain.” “Danger.”

The usual stuff.

Cory himself was gorgeous, or at least mostly so. He had the body of a teenage quarterback – all lean and tight and muscled from head to toe. And I do mean head to toe – all he was wearing was a pair of boxers, and even those were flickering in and out as I looked at him. His skin was breaking out in sores that pulsed and opened and closed and moved about his body. His hair was falling out, and as he screamed, I saw that he was missing teeth.

Very impressive. Poor boy was pretty much getting the grand package of nightmares. I cracked my knuckles. Time to get to work.

I put myself in his path and held out a hand. A great wind blew in from behind me, picking up papers and books and even the odd desk or two. It blew from me towards Cory, and bent in a tight circle around him to blow the symbolic monsters away from him in great tatters and rags. Cory screamed and wept as the wind blew past him and howled and shrieked horrible things that only he could hear.

I lowered my hand and the wind snapped off. Cory dropped to his knees, holding his head in his hands. I let him sit like that for a moment, or however long that was for him.

“Hey. QB,” I said. “You gonna sit like that all night?”

He looked up, and I could tell that he’d be a heartbreaker if he just had clear skin and all his teeth. I shook my head. “This isn’t gonna work,” I said. “Stand up.”

He looked at me dumbly.

“C’mon, QB. Stand up.” I crooked a finger and he stood on unsteady legs. I raised a hand to his chest and laid a hand against his skin. His form rippled for a moment, and all the deformities and disfigurement faded away. “There you go.” I patted his chest, and I’m not ashamed to say that I let it linger there for a moment. “You… um, you might want to think about wearing some clothes.” I glanced down, and so did he. “But you can take your time.” I winked. “If you want.”

He didn’t. An eyeblink later and he was wearing his football uniform, pads and helmet and all.

“All right,” I said. I shrugged and turned around. There were a couple of chairs there that hadn’t been there before. “Have a seat,” I said. “And take that helmet off. It makes me uncomfortable.” As he sat, I took another button out and pinned it to the football uniform that I seemed to be wearing as well. Gotta be more careful about that. This button read YOU TRUST ME. Manipulative? Maybe. But one does what one must.

I sat and he sat as well. We stared at me for a moment, then licked his lips and said, “Who are you?”

“Good,” I said. “You can talk. You’d be surprised how often that fails in here.” I handed him a drink in a cup labeled RELAX. He took it and blew over the top. Hot chocolate, probably. When he’d taken a sip, and the pads deflated from under his uniform, I started to talk again.

“Cory,” I said. “You’re in trouble.” I gestured over to one corner of the room, which had gone from being a school hallway to a bare stage. A spotlight clicked on and illuminated a strange tableau. Cory, holding another boy close, their arms wrapped around each other in mid-fall. Look at it one way, and it was the middle of a brawl – the other boy’s feet were about to come out from under him, and I could see Cory getting ready to pull an arm out for a punch. Cory’s face was a mask of rage, the other boy’s torn by fear.

Seen another way, though, and they were holding on to each other out of desperation. Cory was trying to hold the other boy up, his arms tightening around his waist and they both slowly dropped to the floor. The anger on Cory’s face warped to pain and anguish. The other boy’s face was still overwhelmed with fear, but it was altogether a different kind now.

We both looked at it, and then I turned to Cory. “So,” I said. “It looks like there’s something you might need to talk about.”