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Deteriorating mental state.
Travis wished he was any of the above, so he could have at least something to blame for his downward spiral of a life instead of his social inability and the horrible horrible knots in his stomach every time he heard only his own voice in a room of heartbeats. He tried to count the people before him, tried to watch their mouths, tried to listen to the words coming out, and tried to still the sweat from profusely coating his palms.
Then it was his turn. He wanted to clear his throat, so his voice wouldn’t come out raspy. In the end, he decided against it. Then he decided against that. A soft grunt escaped his predicament.
“My name’s Travis Rosenfelt.” He began, but his eyes were already skittering across the room, dancing over the teacher’s prompting eyes, over the students’ tousled brown hair, over the whiteboard, before landing on the crack in the wooden desk. “And umm.” He purposefully paused, luring the audience into believing that somehow he hadn’t prepared for what he was to say next. “I’m grateful that my brother didn’t stay in the restroom for 30 minutes this morning.”
They laughed, and the ripples washed over his fatigue like warm water washed over tired and sore feet after a long day of uncertain exploration, and his fidgeting hands behind his back stilled for split seconds.
That’s right. Humor was his thing. He was supposed to be funny, and the more laughter he drew, the better he would feel, the better others would feel. Cut the tension in the room between the seventeen barely-affiliated strangers.
That was his contribution to the world—his contribution to compensate for his existence. They didn’t listen, they never listened. They demanded what he could push himself to give, and he was tired.
“Travis!” Julian grossly drawing out his name forced a smile on Travis’s face. “Teacher said we’re gonna take a walk. Join us!”
Lance was already waiting with Julian, their features twisted in an inviting smile. “Okay.”
They walked, and Travis stuck to the right. Julian and Lance were having an animated discussion, and Travis offered his own piece of humor when he found the space to squeeze it in. They laughed at his stupid comments, they laughed when Travis faked-stumbled over the marble, they laughed when Travis gestured with his hands, they laughed at every attempt Travis was making to make them laugh.
It was inevitable that he hated himself for it. He hated himself for inserting pointless humor, for not being able to hold a normal conversation, for not being social enough, for being a so-called introvert, for not being a good enough ‘human being’, and for being a coward.
He wondered what it would feel like to die, to sink a knife into his heart or across his wrist, or to leap off the building—he had always wanted to conquer his fear of height—or to fall into the ocean and breathe in the water as he would breathe in the sharp smell of sharpie and cleaning supplies. It wasn’t the first time they crossed his mind, and he knew it wouldn’t be the last because he was a coward. He was too afraid to die, he was too afraid to live, and he was too afraid to confront his problem as any human being would.
He was running. And he hated himself for it. He told himself that it was okay, that it was fine if he leeched off the society as a human being with no contribution, that it was fine if he didn’t have any close friends, and that it was fine that the longest stable friendship he had was with his older brother.
His childhood consisted of his brother, toy guns, toy shop, comics, and if he were to try harder to remember, the friends in elementary school. They called it primary school instead of elementary school there, and the staircases that held the buildings together, tall as they were, reeked of primary structures and stained with grime and mud that the rain never managed to wash away.
His childhood was marked by cold summer rains. It was always raining in the summer.
He had his fair amount of fights with his brother, but then they were all childhood squabbles. Senseless, stupid, fun. He remembered the one time he had aimed the toy gun at his forehead, hands trembling at the trigger, wanting to test out the strength of the gun. The plastic bullets not being able to rip through a thin leaf at point-blank was a reason enough to convince him that the air puffing out from the empty chamber wouldn’t cause any more damage than a gentle southern breeze would to a skyscraper.
His hands had been shaking so badly, and the only thought he had had in his head was that he was a coward for not going through with his plan. He had planned for the trigger to be pulled for days now, to test out his little theory of whether or not it would hurt.
Stupid. Stupid. Coward.
It was that one word that had his fingers pulling the trigger faster than any other word would.
The shot had been deafening.
It had been painful.
“What was that, sweetie?” Mom, her hands still holding the pot, peered around the corner at him crouching on the floor looking as if he’d lost something precious to him.
“I can’t find my toy car.” He was quick to stick the gun in the waistband of his loosely fitted pants.
“Don’t cry, baby. I’ll find it after dinner!”
He never did it again. They gave him no time.
Or perhaps too much time.
His brother. Academy. Success.
Father. Harsh. Beating. Locked outside. No dinner.
Sometimes it was so hard to imagine how he managed to get up and get going because all he wanted to do was to lie down, and never open his eyes again.
Then he remembered. Love.
He loved art. He loved writing. He loved drawing. He loved everything that his father thought made him more a girl than a boy he was born to be, but his father supported some of it anyway. His bedroom was littered with art from the fifth-floor art class in a large tall building with white rocks beneath a flowing fountain outside. He used to skate outside the building, feeling the wheels on the glass, feeling as if he had wings, feeling as if he was free from all restrains.
He used to fly drones with his brother out there too, and watch the red and blue wings rose then fell when the signals reached their highest, watch them tumble out of the sky like broken angels, watch them flutter on the ground like dying butterflies, and watched as the grass got caught in the blade and the drone made pitiful noises in defiance.
The drone had been a Christmas present, and that was before he had realized Santa Claus that was not an old man with a long white bushy beard but rather his mom and his father sneaking out at night to the underground market where parents gathered to seek the gifts demanded. He had realized the truth from an article he read on how appreciative a child was of her mother playing Santa Claus. It had been stupid. He probably shouldn’t have read it, because the Christmas after he confronted his parents about it, his stocking had remained empty.
On a cold winter night, his father ripped his drawing to pieces because it wasn’t the task assigned. He cried. He clutched the pieces to his chest and he cried. He didn’t understand why. No, he understood why; he just didn’t understand why. Why he wasn’t allowed the freedom. His mother taped it back together, but the marks were still there, and the boy in the drawing was torn in half. Ripped papers couldn’t be fused back together without tear marks.
They lived on the second floor, and outside the balcony were rose bushes that never grew roses. He had stormed out of his room, tears flowing like the emotional being he was, and words incoherent like the second child he was.
“Why did you guys give birth to me? Why was I born?” He had yelled. The balcony door was open, it was inviting. The twinkling night skies beckoned him like sickening fairy tales. “You had Brother. Why do you need me? He’s always better at me anyway!”
The words I just want to die were on the tip of his tongue.
He didn’t remember what happened after that, but he didn’t jump. He didn’t make it to to the balcony. Mom probably played a part in that. Vividly, he remembered seeing his brother’s blurred face, remembered the computer screen before him flashing the next vocabulary word, remembered the way the yellow light above them tainted the dark brown sofa a lighter shade, and remembered the hollow sound the floor beneath him made on his path to the cold balcony.
For the first time that day, he had felt clearly the tears running down the dry tracks of his face in red-hot embarrassment. Because that was who he had been: an embarrassment to his parents, to his brother, to his friends. And that was who he was in the present as well. Fifteen long years, and he was still the same boy. Clingy, nagging, attention-craving, self-conscious and everything negative to the society.
He knew he was being self-deprecating, yet he knew this was only a phase. A phase of high school, a phase of life, a phase that would bound to move away if he were to leave it alone like he had left the other half of him alone for nine years.
“Hey, my friend and I just want to tell you that you’re really cute.” It was a warm summer day when the girl appeared, crossing the small bridge in the park just to offer him the beautiful words. “You here by yourself?”
He was flustered. They were definitely a couple of years older than him, but it was the compliment that made the tip of his ears slowly turning red. “Um, I’m with my mom.”
They left, laughing and sneaking glances at him, after that.
Ahh. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.
He could’ve said something nicer, something better, something to compliment them with. He could’ve said anything but that. I’m with my mom. Why did he say that? Why was he so inept at communication? Why was he failing so horribly at life?
That was the first time he prayed to God for a better future; he was an atheist.
When the first goldenrod leaf fell from the maple tree in the tiny secluded apartment complex two years ago, Travis had begun immersing himself in the world of fiction. His first story was about two boys and two girls embarking on a daunting adventure to fight against unforeseen foes threatening to upturn the world. Eve was the boy’s name, and it wasn’t until he finished the first rough draft did he began to question himself the suitability of the name. Eve was a girl’s name. Eve wasn’t supposed to be a boy’s name, the same way that ‘Artemis’ was a girl’s name. Yet Artemis Fowl was a boy, a genius.
Conforming to the social standards had always been engraved in his family. His father had berated him for going beyond what was considered the norms: girls should favor pink, and boys blue and black. Girls should be graceful, gentle, mild and obedient, and boys should be tough, determined, courageous, and obedient.
“We does not do things not normal.” His father told him one day, in laughable broken English, on a car ride back home from a picnic trip. “We follow normal.”
And he wanted to mock his father for his English, for his mispronunciation, for his grammar—for everything that wasn’t perfect. Nobody was perfect, but he was forcing it on his father because the man demanded too much, and Travis was always, somehow, giving too little. He wanted to kick the seats, throw the seat belt, or slam the door, but any of them would result in raised voice and punishment.
Bitter iron hands gripped his windpipe as he sank his bitten nails in his palm, feeling as they dug into his flesh. For a lone moment, he could tune out the world and focus on the pain. He hoped they would draw blood; dark red tears streaming from the tiny moon eclipses on his flesh. He hoped they would never go away, so he could remember his inability every time he stretched his palm out to touch the night sky.
Travis loved the night sky. Its dark beauty and cold breeze calmed his raging turmoil better than a warm crackling fireplace could. When it was dark, he couldn’t see himself. When it was dark, they were all asleep and the world was finally his. His to speak to, his to speak in, his to think out loud to, and his to smile to.
The clock by his computer would lure him to sleep with its beats, and he would dream. He loved dreams, especially ones where he soared above all the bony hands. Sometimes the nightmares had him startling awake, frantically sitting up and huddling into a pile—afraid that the terrorist would climb through the window and light the house on fire, afraid his father had left him, terrified that the gun in his hand would fire on his family.
He had one dream, the same dream, four times now since he was six, and each time the scene only grew more vivid. He was on his bike, then suddenly he wasn’t. His feet touched the ground, and something drew him to the building. There were two men, sitting around the stone table where the old ladies sat to gossip. One of them wore a dirty tank top, a pair of thin rim glasses sat on his face, and his black hair was greased with dirt and oil and unwashed years. Beside him, a man with a gray t-shirt was sharpening his knife on the table.
His mom was there too, sitting with the two men. His feet carried him closer, but they didn’t see him. Then suddenly, the conversation ceased. The blade in the second man’s hand was plunged straight into Mom’s back. She cried out in pain, her head lolling forward until she crashed head-first into the table and then onto the floor in a solid thud full of finality.
First came the dust, then came blood.
A hoarse desperate cry made itself known but died in his mouth the second it moved past his throat. Then they noticed him. Blood came spewing out of her wound as the man pulled the knife out. His tiny feet carried him across the courtyard that his father would make him run as a punishment. He ran, faster than his father had ever made him, faster than he had ever on the 200 meters track in his primary school, faster than he had ever run in his whole insignificant life.
He would wake, scared and scarred in the middle of the night. The first time, he was scrambling to the foot of his bed, wrapping the thin blanket tightly around him, waiting for the soothing green light from the air conditioner to wash over the room. He was afraid to turn on the light, afraid to leave the bed, because night in his bedroom was a territory he had yet to explore. The wind didn’t blow in the room, the stars didn’t shine, and the trees didn’t rustle. It was dead silent, except for his wild heart pounding on a door he could never close.
The fourth time he woke up from the same dream, Travis planted his feet on the cold wooden floor and grabbed his phone. The blue glow from the screen pushed all thoughts of sleep away from his mind, and his hands were trembling as he flipped for the first app he could find. Chess, TV, book, game, vocab cards, something, anything.
It was just a dream. Except it wasn’t. The phone fell.
“I want to kill…myself.” Silence. The room was still silent, as silent as it was dark. It felt wrong saying the words out loud. They didn’t belong in the same spoken sentence, yet they fit like magnets on paper. “I want to kill myself.”
It still sounded wrong, wrong like when a word was pronounced with the wrong emphasis. “I want to…”
The ceiling creaked, and he shut up fearfully. What if his father heard him? What if his mother was just outside, loitering to catch him on his late-night writes?
He never got to finish his sentence before the tears came.
They didn’t hear him. They never did.