Guiding Light: Part 1

Jack’s stomach dropped. Mr. O’Connor had called him. His anxiety was irrational, and he knew it was irrational, but that didn’t make it any less real.

“Pi over four.”

Jack almost always knew the answer. That wasn’t his concern. What sent electricity through his nerves was being forced to speak in class. In that regard, Mr. O'Connor’s class was a nightmare come true.

“Speak up, please,” said Mr. O’Connor impatiently. Mr. O’Connor’s voice was deep, thick and didactic. Jack’s voice had gone quiet from it’s lack of use. He sat up and cleared the phlegm from his throat.

“Pi over Four,” Jack repeated. This time his voice was louder but slightly crackled.

“Correct. Thank you, Jack. And how did you get that answer?” asked Mr. O'Connor.

Jack wanted tell Mr. O’Connor that it wasn’t his job to teach the class but he would never actually talk back to a teacher. The quickest way to end this was a correct answer.

“I divided two pi. The input, I mean,” said Jack.

Mr. O'Connor paused for a moment, giving Jack enough time to articulate his thoughts.

“I divided the input by two pi.”

“Right. I think that’s what you meant the first time,” Mr. O’Connor said as he drew a circle on the chalkboard. “You take the input, here, and divide by two pi.” He drew the fraction on the chalkboard and continued with the explanation. This marked an end to the follow up questions. Jack could finally relax. Mr. O’Connor never called the same student twice in one day.

Mr. O’Connor was one of the oldest teachers at the school and was the only teacher who relied on cold calling. He was a white haired, pudgy faced man whose face was usually red and who always wore cheap dress clothes that covered everything but his hands and face. Because of his attire, Jack could never tell whether he was fat or muscular.

Most classrooms in their school were nearly cube shaped beige boxes. The flooring was industrial strength carpet that could endure the wear and tear of high school students for several years. Besides desks and cabinets, the rest of the decor was the teachers prerogative. Some would hang art or inspirational quotes. A few even adorned their windows with plants. Mr. O'Connor’s room had one poster. It was a strange story that drew Jack’s attention every few weeks.

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What’s water?”

-David Foster Wallace

Jack was good at math. This was not good in the sense that he had too little to concentrate on during math class. He had spent a significant amount of time overanalyzing the story. When he read it, the running list of questions he had formed would pop into his head.

If fish could speak, wouldn’t they come up with a word for water just like humans have a word for air? Why would the old fish use the expression ‘How’s the water?’ if water wasn’t common knowledge in the fish world? Are the fish supposed to be so young that they just haven’t learned yet?

Jack’s analysis was interrupted by a cold, wet thwack on the back of his neck. He turned to see Alex Brenner holding back laughter.

Alex was a troublemaker and everyone knew it. He went around school with short, spiky blond hair and baggy clothes. His shirts often had large prints across the front. Jack, on the other hand, was a six foot tall, lanky, dark haired boy in plain clothes who could have easily been a target for bullies if there were any serious ones at his school. Alex was as close to a bully as they had but he seemed to choose new targets at random each day.

Just an unlucky day, thought Jack. He shrugged, hoping it would end there. A second spitwad hit the back of his elbow. The thought of Alex’s spit on his arm was irritating but he once again pretended not to notice.

After class, Alex and his friend Son were laughing as Jack passed in the hall. Son was a short but strong looking Asian kid whose stretched earlobes disturbed Jack. Ignore them, thought Jack. It’s Friday and they’ll have a new target by Monday. Jack put his head down and walked directly to his next class.

***

Jack’s best friend, Jonie, was one of the top students in the school. She was in competition with two other students for class valedictorian. Every Friday she would come to Jack’s house and they would finish their homework together. This ritual gave them two days to complete anything left unfinished and when they finished early they could hang out.

Jonie was a skinny, pale, red-headed girl with a freckled face. She had a very unassuming presence and often hunched her shoulders forward in a way that hid her competitive spirit. Jack thought she was sort of pretty but there had never been a romantic connection between them.

She had her own desk in Jack’s room. It was originally given to Jack by his parents but Jack preferred sprawling his books and notes across his bed. He gave the desk to Jonie and she had turned it into her personal corner. Jack was okay with this since he was aware of how much he benefited from studying with her.

Besides the desk and bed, there was a closet full of Jack’s childhood toys, a television resting atop a set of clothes drawers, and little floor space left over.

Jonie swiveled around in her office chair. “Have you realized how close we are to the end of the school year? I can’t wait for senior year.”

“I know! I’m really tired of having lunch in the cafeteria.”

The food in the school cafeteria was abhorred by all but Jack faced a greater problem that year. Lunch periods were determined by class schedule and Jonie and Ted, his only two friends at school, were in a different period. He was forced to eat alone, which in itself wouldn’t have been a problem, but at school it meant being judged. However, seniors were allowed to leave campus for lunch.

“I’m going to research universities this summer and start getting  application materials together. Have you thought about where you will apply?”

“My parents are only letting me apply to local schools. I have to stay in state,” said Jack.

“Most of my schools are out of state, so we probably won’t see each other much after next year. I’ve been thinking, we should do something crazy next year so we’ll always have something to look back on.”

“That’s a great idea! What did you have in mind?”

Jonie thought for a minute, then shrugged.“I don’t know yet but we should get Ted involved, too.”

“Yeah, of course.”

Jack often forgot to include Ted. Jack and Jonie had grown up down the street from each other and, though Jack had since moved, they had been best friends since early childhood. When changing from Middle School to High School, the student body changed and Jonie met Ted. She started inviting Ted to hang out until he became part of the group but Jack still considered him a second tier friend.

“Cool, I’ll let you know what I think of,” said Jack. Jonie finished her homework but Jack was now preoccupied with possibilities. Should we plan a class prank? Shoplift something? Skip school for a day to go on a road trip?

***

“Jack, please come to the board and draw this curve,” said Mr. O'Connor as he pointed at a trigonometric function.

Going to the board was infinitely worse than speaking. Jack’s hands started shaking as he made his way to the front of the room. Calm down. You’ve got this. Everyone is staring, yes, but pretend they aren’t there. Just focus on the equation. You don’t care about them anyway. His internal monologue couldn’t hold back the adrenaline rush.

He grabbed a thick piece of yellow chalk and put it to the board. A loud screech sent a shiver down his spine and everyone in the class jumped or yelled.

“Hold the chalk at a slightly downward angle,” said Mr. O'Connor.

Jack tried but the chalk still squeaked a little. His overactive nerves caused him to be sloppy. He had to erase and tweak, spending more time at the board then if his hands had been steady.

“Don’t forget to label your axes,” said Mr. O'Connor.

Jack rushed the axes and returned to his seat. He steadied his hands against the bottom of his desk. Mr. O'Connor cleaned up the picture and fixed the axes. As Jack watched he realized he had made a mistake in his rush to return to his seat. Mr. O'Connor continued with the explanation. Jack was relieved that there were no follow up questions.

“The period determines– Alex!”

Jack turned to see Alex sitting straight and feigning ignorance but the girl next to him was slapping his arm.

“Keep your hands to yourself!” huffed Mr. O'Connor.

Alex just yawned. Suddenly, some of Mr. O'Connor’s light flew to Alex. Jack had never seen the light move this way before. Mr. O'Connor doubled over and leaned on his desk.

For Jack, the light was ubiquitous. Everyone had a light that emanated from within. Jack could tell whether a person was in a good mood or bad mood based on the intensity of their light. Usually, unless it was especially bright, it didn’t distract him from a person’s physical appearance.

To Jack’s eyes, nearly transparent streams of light flowed constantly through walls and other solid objects. The light travelled from person to person. Highly populated areas had a hazy appearance but Jack never thought it was unusual. He assumed it was a universal experience.

Under the circumstances, it was clear that Alex had somehow moved the light. Jack had only seen the light move naturally, flowing between people like water flowing to reservoirs. He was so surprised that he spoke in class before he could catch himself.

“How did you–?”

All eyes were on Jack, as if everyone thought this was normal.

Mr. O'Connor addressed the class. “I’m sorry. I’m not feeling well. Let me get Ms. Tumner from next door to watch you while I step out for a minute.”

Ms. Tumner sat at Mr. O'Connor’s desk while the class quietly worked on their homework. The rest of the class passed in silence. After class Jack found Alex waiting in the hall.

“Jack, come here,” said Alex, nearly whispering. “Do you see the light?”

“Just leave me alone, Alex. I don’t want any more trouble.”

Jack tried walking away again but this time Alex grabbed his arm.

“You can see it, too.” Alex smiled. “You saw what I did, didn’t you?”

“What are you talking about?” asked Jack as he pulled his arm away and started quickly to his next class.

***

For the rest of the day Jack couldn’t stop thinking about what happened in math class. Why was Alex interrogating me about seeing the light? Did he actually move it? How?

Jack’s parents decided they would have dinner at the kitchen table. Every time they had dinner at the kitchen table his parents claimed it would be their new normal but they ate in front of the television half the time. Eating in the kitchen not only meant family time but also cramming around a circular glass table on uncomfortable, postmodern, black plastic chairs that Jack’s mom thought were stylish. Jack preferred sitting around the television where he could avoid small talk and lay out on the couch.

“How as school today?” his mom asked, while starting to spread butter on a roll

Jack knew that the light was a taboo subject but after what he had seen in math class he needed answers.

“I know this sounds weird, but I’ve got a question about the light. I think someone took light from Mr. O'Connor in class today. Like it floated to him on purpose.”

His parents stared for a moment. Jack’s dad raised his eyebrows indicating his confusion, a habit which annoyed Jack. Either we’re not supposed to talk about moving light, or I should know how to move it by now, or they can’t believe it either. Why am I getting the eyebrows this time?

Jack’s mom broke the silence. “What?”

“Um, I know it sounds crazy,” stammered Jack as he laid down his knife and looked between his parents, “but it looked like Alex took light from Mr. O'Connor in my math class today. Not in a natural way but like he intentionally took it.”

“Hold on,” said Jack’s dad. “Think about how you are expressing what you are trying to say. What kind of light was Mr. O'Connor holding?”

What kind of question is that? It’s like they don’t even see the light. Wait, maybe they don’t? Perhaps this is why Alex was interrogating me in the hall. Oh no. I’ve just started a really awkward conversation.

“Oh, yeah sorry. Yeah, he was holding a lightbulb. Somehow the lightbulb floated over to Alex as if he moved it. It didn’t look natural.” Jack was embarrassed by acting concerned over what now sounded like something silly.

“Oh, so like a magic trick,” his dad said as he went back to his meal. “Did it have anything to do with the lesson?”

Jack started to push the vegetables around on his plate in an attempt to conceal his disappointment. “No. We were just killing some time before class. I have no idea how they did it but it looked real.”

His dad started talking to him as if he were a child, perhaps because of the genuine concern with which he had started the conversation. “Don’t worry son. It’s just a trick. Tomorrow you should ask them to explain it.”

After dinner, Jack went to his room to call Jonie. He wanted to know if she could see the light but this time he would be more cautious when broaching the subject.

“So, something kind of strange happened at school today.”

“Yeah?” asked Jonie.

“You know how people kind of have a glow about them?”

Jonie feigned a laugh. “Did you join some New Age religion?”

Jack feigned a laugh in return. “No, you know how people seem to have a glow about them when they are happy and they seem dim when they aren’t? You can see it, right?”

Jonie paused for a moment.“I’m not exactly sure what you’re talking about. I know the expression that a person can light up a room. Is that what you’re referring to?”

Jack realized Jonie couldn’t see the light either. He had misunderstood his whole life. “Nevermind. Anyway, are you going to the basketball game on Thursday?” Jonie went with the new topic of conversation, allowing for the change in subject.

Jack was mind-blown. Common decency dictates that certain body parts not be discussed publicly. Women’s breasts for example. Jack never commented on them and rarely heard people discussing them public. The same was true for elderly people’s ear hair. It was taboo. Jack thought the same of the light. People never discussed it because it would be rude to point out how someone was feeling to their face. That was their own, internal experience.

He now understood that there was nothing taboo about the light. People didn’t discuss it because they didn’t even see it. At least one other person could see it. Unfortunately, that person was Alex Brenner. Jack decided he would have to approach Alex, whatever the risks.

***

Jack was nervous the next morning and escalated to terrified by the time he was in math class. Focusing on lecture distracted him from what he was about to do. Jack’s social anxiety made talking to any student difficult, initiating conversation nearly impossible, and initiating conversation with someone like Alex Brenner unthinkable.

The ticking of the clock entered his consciousness and wouldn’t leave. Finally, class ended. The ringing of the bell caused Jack to jump and his adrenaline to kick in. He used the adrenaline to approach Alex.

The words came out meekly.

“Hey, Alex. Can we talk?”

Jack almost forgot to breath.

“What’s up?” asked Alex, as he started to place his books back in his bag

“About yesterday. So,” Jack lowered his voice, “you see the light, too?”

Alex stared for a moment as if in thought. He responded softly, “I’m surprised there are two of us in the same school.”

“Honestly, I’m confused. Before yesterday I thought everyone could see it. I thought it was just taboo or something.”

Alex broke the quiet with a laugh. “Ha! You’re pretty dumb for a smart kid!”

Jack was annoyed at this but overall it was going better than he expected. “Yesterday I saw you move the light. How did you do it?”

“You’ve got a muscle you can use just like any other muscle. I had to figure it out myself but I could show you if you want.”

Students were beginning to clear out of the hallways as the next class was starting. Jack was never late and had a long walk to his next class.

“Maybe later,” he said. “I’ve got to get to class.”

Jack grabbed his books and started quickly down the hall. I’m sure I look like a geek but I’m not going to be late. Wait, we’re just discussing the Civil War again like we do every year. Now I’ve got a special power and I turned down an opportunity to learn how to use it. Crap! I guess it’ll have to wait ‘til tomorrow.

There was a loop behind the school where buses waited for students at the end of the day. The buses were randomly ordered based on when the drivers arrived and hundreds of students would wander back and forth looking for their ride home. Jack happened to see Alex through the chaos and the haze.

“Hey! Alex!” Jack called as he pushed past the crowd

Alex turned around.

“Okay, I want you to show me how to move the light.”

“Why should I?” asked Alex.

Jack’s face fell. “I thought you were going to show me earlier. Is there a better time?”

“I’ve changed my mind. You’re smart. You’ll figure it out like I did.”

Jack stood silently as Alex turned to go. Fine. I am smart and I will figure it out, thought Jack.

***

Jack tried to move the light that week at school but he didn’t have a clue about how it would work. At first he would try flexing various muscles, starting with arms, legs, hands and feet and eventually moving to his face, core and back. This exercise only helped him realize how much tension he carried in his core and back.

After trying muscles he already had access to, he began to stare at people in class and to move the light with different parts of his mind. Sometimes it felt like he was trying to wiggle his ears and other times it felt like he was trying to perform telekinesis.

Should I try asking Alex again? Maybe only Alex has this ability and I don’t? I’ve seen my baby cousin discover her toes. I wish I could remember what it’s like to discover a new muscle. This is so frustrating! I’ve got to figure this out!

Late in the week, Jack was in history trying to move Daina’s light. Daina was a cute, round faced brunette who wore a lot of dark mascara. She was a popular girl but seemed to linger in their outer circles. Jack was focused on her back. She had a lot of light. It sort of seemed to pulse naturally, getting slightly brighter or slightly dimmer every five minutes or so. Jack was searching his mind for muscles, sometimes causing him to tense his physical muscles. This time he was determined to figure it out.

He tried and tried until he was tired and decided to take a short break to reset. That’s when he noticed she had her elbow resting on her desk, hand on her mouth, with her head half turned staring back at him. Jack looked away quickly.

Why did I do that? That’s only going to look suspicious! Crap! Now Daina’s going to think I like her. Well, if she likes me back I guess I’d go on a date with her. What do I do now? I’ve got to stop trying to move the light in class. If people are noticing me staring they are going to think I’m creepy.

***

Alex grew up in difficult circumstances. His mother had worked hard to provide for their family but they still had less than most people in their suburban town. Alex’s mom was a teenager when she had him. A few years later she had Nelson, Alex’s half brother. Nelson only stayed with the family for half the week and stayed with his father the other half.

Financial difficulties were a part of their lives. When Alex was young his mother lived from paycheck to paycheck when she had work and relied on family and prayer when she didn’t. They had never been homeless but did live with Alex’s grandparents from time to time.

Even though Alex was too young to understand what was happening, he did understand that his mom was unhappy. One day when she lost a job she came home and cuddled with Alex and Nelson in their bed. She held them and cried. For a moment she had lost hope. She didn’t know then that Alex could see how low she was. Alex was driven to make her feel better. That’s the night he learned to move light. He would never let her be that dim again.

As Alex grew to understand more of his mom’s struggle, he began to hate bills, the self-centered men she dated, her uncaring bosses and catty co-workers. He became very protective of Nelson as well. Whenever the family’s light would get dim, Alex would use what he had to light them up. He would often store extra light in case such a need were to arise. To Alex, family was everything.

Lack of stability during his early childhood made friendships difficult to maintain. Every time Alex made a friend either his family would move or his friend’s family would. Friends meant people who lived in his proximity at a given time.

When Alex was in fifth grade, his mom landed an office job. They were able to move into a trailer park and establish some stability though it felt tenuous for years. One decision by a boss or one hospital visit could have uprooted the family again.

They had a community skatepark down the street. Most of the skaters were teenagers but Alex was drawn to them because they were usually bright. He and Nelson watched for several weeks before they decided to join. They watched for so long partly because they were nervous to approach high schoolers but mostly because they couldn’t afford skateboards. Alex found some skateboards left outside during the school day and stole one for Nelson and one for himself.

The skate park looked rough. Everything was made of gray concrete and colored with graffiti. The people looked rough as well. The kids had tattoos, dyed hair and piercings. Alex was surprised at how welcoming they were. Some kids were willing to teach them tricks. For a while Alex and Nelson would go to the skatepark at every opportunity but Nelson didn’t stick with it.

Alex found other kids at school who shared his interest in skating including his two best friends, Ethan and Son. Their classmates referred to their clique as the skater kids even though not all of them skated. For the first time Alex felt like part of a group outside of his family. The skaters were different from the other kids at school. They weren’t particularly good at sports or school, mostly because they didn’t care. They weren’t popular but they weren’t social outcasts either. Other students identified them as rebellious kids who loved extreme sports and an extreme dress code.

Alex met his first and long-term girlfriend, Kate, in seventh grade. They had an on-again off-again relationship and spent almost as much time broken up as they spent as a couple. Before high school they had given each other their virginity. She was one of the few people who knew about Alex’s ability to move the light. He had used it to help her feel better when she was down.

Kate joined the skater clique through Alex but by high school she had adopted a goth wardrobe. She dyed her hair black, used black fingernail polish and wore black clothes. She had a pair of thick black glasses that she wore on occasion. All of which contrasted with her pale skin. Sometimes she wore skirts but no matter the weather she always had long sleeves.

They considered school a waste of time. Alex was naturally good at math, did poorly in anything that involved writing, and refused to read books. Kate was an artist. She created ink sketches using colored pens during her classes.

Alex used the light to entertain himself at school. Sometimes he would grab light from a student to give himself a boost. Then he would antagonize the student just to see them react to their negative feelings. Other times he would mess with someone to see how the light moved on its own. This earned him a bad reputation at school.

***

Ted invited Jack over in the middle of the week. Jonie had told them she wasn’t allowed out during school nights but they wondered if she was ditching them to study.

Ted’s house was within walking distance from Jack’s. It was slightly larger and in a similar suburban neighborhood. Neither of Ted’s parents were home when Jack arrived. This was not unusual since Ted’s dad seemed to be at work all the time and Ted’s mom was always attending classes or social activities.

Jack enjoyed playing video games with Ted. Ted always had the latest consoles and newest games. Jack may only get one new game per month and his parents were slow to buy new consoles.

They took turns playing a metroidvania game, switching each time someone died. When Ted played, Jack would cheer him on. When Jack played, Ted would strum his guitar and complain about school. Most of the complaints were directed at the other kids.

“We’re not that good looking but we’re not bad. I’m a guitar player. You and Jonie are smarter than most of them. I mean, Jonie’s like the smartest kid in school. We should definitely be more popular. Our school is dumb.”

Jack wished they were more popular as well but wasn’t as concerned as Ted.

“I bet that will all change in college,” said Jack.

Ted looked up from his guitar and began plucking at the strings. “Nah, I don’t even know if I’m going to college. It’s a huge waste of money and the same kids from high school will be going. It’s going to be the same thing in a different place.”

“Why do you want to be popular so badly anyways?”

“Because. Everybody would like me. Girls would like me. It’s not fair. Why does everyone like dumb jocks?” He put his head down again and resumed strumming his guitar.

“Or pretty girls?” asked Jack.

“Exactly. They have it easier than anyone,” said Ted. “They don’t have to do anything and everybody likes them.”

Ted continued whining but Jack had lost all interest in the conversation. Instead of listening, Jack absorbed himself in the game. When it was Ted’s turn again, Jack started trying to move light. He focused on Ted’s light. He felt something.

The light felt as though it had mass. It was a similar experience to putting a hand on a ball but it was all happening in Jack’s head. Ted’s light was dim. His light was always dim when ranting. Jack could feel the curve. It was almost as if he could wrap all the way around. He felt his own light also which was presumably much brighter as he was having fun playing games and trying not to think so much about Ted’s ranting. There was less curvature, as if touching a larger ball. He couldn’t grip but was able to feel around it.

Though he felt the light, he couldn’t push or pull it. He went back and forth between his light and Ted’s, feeling the difference and practicing enough that he would remember how to do it later.

***

Ted joined Jack and Jonie on their Friday study session although he didn’t study. While Jack and Jonie had their heads in their books, Ted was providing background music with his guitar. Jack wasn’t studying either. He was feeling the light, pushing and pulling and trying to make it move.

Ted’s eyes were pointed down and Jonie was in her desk with her back to Jack. This gave Jack freedom to stare at his friends unnoticed. All of his attention was on Jonie, pushing around on her light, when suddenly it budged like an inflated beach ball. He could push inward and make a dent but it would reform as he softened his touch.

Jack gave a hard push. Light scattered from Jonie, shooting off in various directions. It was more light than he wished to move. Simultaneously, at the excitement of having figured out how to interact with the light, particles of light came from all directions and coalesced on Jack. The excitement was short lived.

Jonie hunched over on her desk. “Oh, guys, I don’t feel well,” she moaned. She was frozen for a moment.

“Are you okay?” asked Ted. “What happened?”

“I don’t know. but I think I need to go home.”

Jonie started putting her books in her back. The light stopped flowing in for Jack. He felt guilty but he had seen Alex do something similar to Mr. O'Connor and knew Jonie would recover quickly. Nature would dictate that she should be in a better mood and the light would flow back her direction over time. He tried to prevent her from leaving.

“Please don’t go,” said Jack. “If you’re feeling sick I’ve got some soup.”

“I’m sorry, I’d rather just go home.”

“Okay. I’m sorry. I’ll call you later to check on you.”

Jonie nodded, grabbed her bag and left. Ted walked her out the front door leaving Jack alone in the room for a moment. He was surprised at how much light he could scatter with one hard push. It was more than Alex had moved.

Ted returned and sat down with his guitar. “I really hope she’s okay.”

“Yeah, me too.”

Ted resumed playing and Jack resumed feeling the light under the guise of studying. He gently pushed Ted’s light, increasing in strength until he moved a little. He was now aware of the muscles that move the light and was developing the dexterity to move a particular amount of light. He then grabbed a little of his own light and moved it to Ted. There was a pre-existing natural path between himself and Ted. The light followed along that path, but he could hold it still or move it along in either direction.

Jack only had a little time to practice. Ted left shortly after Jonie but by the next morning Jonie was feeling better and they all went to the gym together for Jonie’s swim practice. The gym required membership fees but their were happy to pay. Jonie’s parents encouraged her to pursue competitive swimming. She had been a dedicated swimmer since middle school and practiced year round to stay in shape. Ted’s parents seemed to pay for anything he asked and Jack’s parents, who wished Jack would socialize more, were happy he had a reason to get out of the house.

They entered together through the front by the racquetball courts so they had to pass through the weight room. Jack felt awkward every time he entered the weight room. The room smelled of sweat and was full of muscularly built regulars who would become impatient if they needed to wait for equipment. Still, Ted insisted on going sometimes. Jonie went out the back to the outdoor pool. Ted and Jack went to the basketball courts to play pick-up games. The basketball courts were less trafficked than the weight rooms and the games were casual. It was the level competition Jack enjoyed.

They met Jonie right as her practice ended.

“How did it go?” asked Jack.

“Not great. I’m still recovering from that bug last night but I am feeling much better.” Jonie answered while wrapping the towel around her waist.

“Sorry about that.”

“It’s not your fault,” said Jonie. “It was so random. I had a sudden pain and sick feeling but it was actually much better by the time I got home.”

She left to change into her clothes. Jack still felt a little guilt for causing her pain but realized he should stop apologizing since she had no idea what had happened.

***

A few days later Alex was up to his usual trouble.

Jack couldn’t understand Alex. Alex must be intelligent, even rational, to be in honors pre-calculus but somehow he wasn’t intelligent enough to capitalize on his opportunities. It was as if Alex didn’t care about his future. Jack assumed most of the kids in the skater clique were going to be poor, homeless, or locked up when they were older.

Math class was about half way through when Jack noticed Alex taking some light from Kurt. Poor Kurt was a grade below them. He was a short, thin boy who wore glasses and still had a high pitch, prepubescent voice. Kids were often mean to him but he usually maintained a positive and friendly demeanor as if he never noticed.

Alex would take a little light from Kurt, then a little more. He was watching Kurt as if he were the subject of a science experiment. Kurt’s usual positivity was gone. He was leaning back with his feet propped on the desk in front of him and had a book in his arms. He had a frown and looked as if he were about to break into a sweat.

Even though Jack had moved the light that Friday, it was surreal to watch it being moved. As Kurt’s light was being depleted, Jack’s light naturally decreased making him feel anger. Jack’s anger grew until he momentarily forgot about his fear of speaking in class. Jack turned around and almost yelled. “Leave him alone, Alex!”

Everyone turned to look at Jack, then back and forth between Jack and Alex. No one else could see Alex doing anything wrong. Murmurs of confusion filled the room.

“What’s going on, Jack?” asked Mr. O'Connor who had stopped writing on the chalkboard to put his hands on his hips.

“Sorry, I thought I saw something,” Jack mumbled. His cheeks burning from embarrassment.

“See me after class, please. We need to get through this today or we’re going to fall behind. Everyone please pay attention,” said Mr. O’Connor as he turned back to the chalkboard.

Jack looked back. He could tell Alex amused. Moments later Jack noticed his own light was dimming. He turned to see a cluster flowing toward Alex who was now leaning forward over his desk, staring straight back at Jack. Jack grabbed the light and started pulling it back.

A tug of war ensued. Alex proved stronger. However, Alex’s strength backfired. The light crashed into him and scattered. Both boys leaned over on their desks as they tried to hide the sting of what just happened. Their eyes were locked, each waiting for the other to make the next move. Alex quickly sucked up a little light from people around the room and was back to normal.

Jack wasn’t sure whether he had the skill to refill his light that way. He became aware that he was turned in his desk, staring at Alex, which may draw further attention. He turned around to see that Mr. O'Connor had stopped lecturing to stare at him, hands on hips again.

Why won’t Mr. O'Connor leave me alone? I always have the right answers when called on and I’m never in trouble. Maybe if he tries to get me in trouble I’ll knock away some of his light like Alex did.

After staring Jack to his content, Mr. O’Connor returned to the lecture. When class ended Jack made it to the doorway before remembering he was supposed to see Mr. O'Connor. He turned around and went to Mr. O'Connor who was sitting at his desk.

“Hi, Jack. That was an unusual outburst today. Did something happen that I should be aware of?”

“No. It was my fault. Sorry for interrupting class.”

“Okay. Just try not to do it again. And if you do need to tell me something, you can always come to me. Okay?”

There was no way Jack could explain to Mr. O'Connor what had happened even if he wanted. “Thank you, Mr. O'Connor.” Jack was relieved there wasn’t more. As soon as he went into the hall he was slammed against a wall of lockers. A sharp pain shot through the side of his head and his ear rang. Alex put his forearm to Jack’s throat.

“Stay out of my way.”

Jack realized that Alex was physically stronger. Alex pushed Jack to the ground and disappeared into the mass of students going to class. Jack jumped to his feet, hoping no one saw the encounter, and went directly to class.

***

Why, of all the people in the world, does Alex Brenner have to be the other person who can see the light? Jack wondered.

He decided to start training so he could come out victorious in any future encounters. Fortunately, his best friend was one of the best competitors in their school. He needed to approach the subject without sounding too crazy.

Can she even help? Would Clark Kent ask a regular person to train him to be Superman? At least if she knows about the light there will be someone I can talk to about it besides Alex.

Jack decided the best time to tell Jonie would be at the Friday night study session. Fortunately, Alex didn’t mess with Jack for the rest of the week. He did mess with the light of one other student but Jack pretended not to notice. With summer break being a few weeks away it was possible they could finish the school year without another encounter.

Freedom of summer was blockaded by the stress of final exams. Jonie would miss swim practice for a few weeks to study. That Friday she and Ted both came over so Jack wasn’t able to broach the subject with Jonie. Ted was not as serious about school as Jonie, or even Jack, so Jack decided to bide his time.

On Saturday Jonie came alone. The study session began normally with Jonie at her desk and Jack on his bed, each studying alone. Jack reached a stopping point and decided it was time.

“Ready for a break?” he asked while closing his book.

“Sure, let me wrap up. Five minutes?”

“Sure.”

Jack was trying to plan his words but couldn’t think of a logical way to start a conversation about a superpower. He would have to endure looking foolish until he could back up what he was saying.

“Okay, want to grab some coffee?” Jonie asked.

“Actually” Jack tried to swallow his nerves, “can I tell you something first?”

“Okay. What’s up?”

“I found out something about myself recently. It’s really cool but really strange and I’m not sure how to explain so I’m just going to get it out. Do you remember when I asked about seeing light in people?”

“Oh no! You’re getting really weird. What is going on?”

Jack hesitated, knowing what he was about to say was going to sound stupid. “Well, I don’t know how to say this without sounding weird, but when I look at people I see a light.”

Jonie made an expression that told Jack he had said something childish or silly. It was a look he hadn’t seen for a while. He rushed to explain.

“I actually thought everyone could see it but I’ve recently found out that I’m unusual.”

“Have you thought about getting your eyes checked?” she interjected.

“It’s not my eyes. Somehow I’m seeing something that other people don’t see. Alex Brenner sees it too. That’s how I know it’s real.”

Jonie sat up with surprise at the last statement. “Alex Brenner? When did you start talking to him?”

“We have math together.”

“He’s a jerk. You should stay away from him.”

“I know. But one day in class I saw him move the light. It has its own natural way of moving but it bounced in an unnatural way from Mr. O'Connor to Alex right after Alex had gotten in trouble. Somehow I knew he did it. Then he saw my reaction and he knew I could see it too. We talked after class and that’s when I realized nobody else can see it. I always thought it was inappropriate to discuss, like talking about how much money your family makes or pointing out how fat someone is, which is why I never brought it up.”

Jonie readjusted herself and put her legs in her chair. “Whoa, let’s slow down. So you actually see a light in people?”

“Yeah, and it’s always flowing between people. Right now I can see it flowing between you and me and in and out of the room.”

“And Alex can see it too?”

“Yes, and I just learned that we can move it. That was something else I figured out recently. And now that I’ve figured out how to move it I can prove it to you.”

“How?” she asked cautiously.

“Well, the light tells me how people feel. Bright people are in good moods and dim people are in bad moods. I can change how you’re feeling right now just by changing your light. Do you mind?” asked Jack as he sat on the side of his bed.

“Okay, go ahead.”

Jack was still getting used to the muscle control but this was the easiest situation he could imagine. Jonie had turned in her desk to face him. The room was quiet and there was no one else but them.

Jack took a steadying breath. “I’m going to make you feel better.”

Jack grabbed a chunk of his light and moved it to Jonie. Many negative feelings arose together. He felt anger mingled with sadness, hopelessness and loneliness. There was even a little pain and itchiness.

“Oh wow! My stress is gone. It’s weird, like it was taking up space in my mind and now it’s free. You’ll have to make it normal again or I might end up studying like Ted.”

“I’ve got to admit this isn’t the first time I’ve moved your light. Remember when you got sick the other week and went home?”

Jonie squinted her eyes and nodded.

“That was actually the first time I moved the light. I was trying to figure it out and ended up knocking a bunch of your light away. I’m sorry I made you feel bad.”

Jack had trouble seeing his own light so it was difficult to know how much he had moved to Jonie. He let go of the light so it could return to normal.

“This explains why your so empathetic. It’s like sometimes you just know when I’m having a bad day. I always thought you were really good at reading people or something.”

Jack blushed a little and smiled. He never knew she considered him empathetic. “Nope, I don’t think I can read people. I can just see if you aren’t feeling well by looking at you.”

“Weird. I’m returning to normal. Can you do it again?”

“I moved my light to you which was actually pretty uncomfortable for me.”

“So you can’t create more?”

“No, actually. That’s a good question. I’ve never seen it be created or destroyed.”

“Huh. It must be conserved.” Jonie thought to herself for a moment. She put her feet down and sat up again, returning to her studious posture. “It’s like a kind of energy. It’s neither created nor destroyed, and has a natural flow.”

“Yeah, it flows between people in small amounts. That’s why it was obvious when a large glob suddenly went from Mr. O'Connor to Alex. It doesn’t ever move in a large chunk from one person to another like that.”

“Interesting. And it tells you how a person is feeling? Can you see if a person is feeling pain? You could use it to help anesthesiologists.”

“No, I’m not sure why someone feels physical pain when a large chunk moves all at once.” Jack gazed at his ceiling in wonder. “It’s always corresponded to mood. Of course, mood and physical pain could be linked but it’s possible for someone to be positive when enduring pain or in a bad mood when they aren’t.”

“So it’s like an emotional energy?”

“Yeah, that’s a good way to describe it. Maybe the best way to put it is that I can see an emotional energy that moves between people naturally based on how they feel and I’ve figured out how to move that energy myself.”

“Wow! This could be a whole new branch of science. I’ve got so many questions.”

“Well, I’m needed to tell you this because I need your help. You’re better at training and self-discipline than anyone I know and I need to get better at moving light. I got in a fight with Alex the other day and he won. I need to get stronger so I can be ready next time.”

“When did you get in a fight with Alex Brenner?”

Jack waved his hands. “No, no, no. Not that kind of fight. We were fighting over the light in pre-calculus. He was trying to take someone else’s light and then he tried to take mine. Although he did push me down after class. But I move light with a muscle so I think I can work it out and get stronger.”

Jonie paused to think. “I guess you just need to figure out how to practice and create a regimen. I could help by making sure you don’t miss practices. We could also try to figure out more about how the energy works so we can strategize.”

“Awesome! Do you want to start today?”

Jonie smiled. “It is really exciting but right now I’ve got to studying for finals. We can start in a couple of weeks.”

“Okay, sounds good,” said Jack. “That’s why I came to you for help with the light. You’re always eyes on the prize.”

Jonie gave him the look again.

“What? That wasn’t that cheezy.”

“Could we could it emotional energy?” she asked. “Calling it light sounds mystical or religious.”

“I guess. I’ve gotten pretty used to thinking about it as light though.”

Jonie laughed, “Well, you can’t go around telling people you can see the light. Anyway, I need some coffee before we keep going.”

***

Teachers were instructed to assign no new homework the week before finals so students could have more time to study. Rules were lax the week before finals as well. Students were stressed so many teachers ended class right after taking attendance, allowing students to wander the halls.

Jack used the opportunity to practice moving light. He would move small amounts of light from students he passed to himself or other students. He was learning to grab such small amounts of light that his target wouldn’t feel any change in mood. The amounts he was moving were so small that they hardly disturbed the natural flow. Moving large chunks of light would result in a quick correction, similar to holding a bucket full of dry sand upside down on a beach and then pulling the bucket away to watch the sand level.

The natural flow involved little bits of light zipping around, bouncing from person to person or entering and exiting a room through walls. That’s why it was so easy to notice when a student suddenly went dim. Jack looked over to see Tim – a class clown who was usually brighter than most – had lost much of his light. Such a change could happen naturally if a person received terrible news. Jack had always liked Tim and started walking his direction to see if something was wrong.

As Jack neared he could hear Alex yelling. “I swear! Tim said he could take you! Didn’t you say that the other day, Tim?”

Brandon and Tim were facing off. Brandon was one of the few black students in the school. He wore his hair in a large afro that made him easy to identify even from a distance. Usually he was average brightness but at that moment he was also dim. Jack thought Brandon was outspoken but friendly.

Brandon was yelling. “What’s up, man? Why’ve you been goin’ around talkin’ about me?”

Jack didn’t want to see Tim and Brandon fight, especially so close to finals week. Suspension at that time of the school year could seriously affect their grades.

Alex was especially bright. He was up to something. Jack walked quickly toward Alex. This time he had the element of surprise. He grabbed much of Alex’s light and pushed it onto Tim and Brandon, holding it in place. Alex went from encouraging the fight to anxious. He initially looked down at himself in confusion.

Rather than just move light away from Alex, which Alex may potentially counter, Jack tried a new tactic. He held onto some of the light and moved it back to Alex. Then he took a chunk away again, holding it in space between Tim and Brandon, reversed direction and gave it back to Alex. Over and over he bounced a large chunk of light off Alex hoping to send him on an emotional journey.

Alex ran down the hall. Jack gave chase, holding onto his own light in anticipation of a counter attack. Alex reached an intersection and spun around in confusion. Alex noticed Jack and tried pushing his light but it was mostly ineffective. By this time Alex looked ill. He fell to his knees for a moment but jumped back to his feet and continued running in desparation. Jack pursued hoping to maintain his advantage but lost control of the light he had been bouncing off Alex.

Alex’s light stabilized so he stopped to confront Jack.

“Okay, stop!”

Jack was out of breath from the chase but still holding hard onto his own light.

“What’s wrong with you?” asked Jack.

“You’ve got to learn to enjoy what you’ve got sometimes, or what’s the point?”

“We should be helping people, not hurting them.” Jack surprised himself at the boldness with which he was speaking.

“Helping who? You’re a fool. That’s why it took you so long to learn how to move light.”

Jack was tense in anticipation of a counterattack. He held up a finger. “Don’t even try it!”

Alex gave him a condescending look. “Calm down, man. It’s not worth the fight. Look, I’ll make you a deal. How about if I don’t use my powers at school for the rest of the year?”

Wow, thought Jack. That tactic must have been really effective. “Okay, sure. I don’t want to fight you but I can’t let you mess up Tim and Brandon like that,” said Jack. “They could be suspended during finals week.”

“Yeah, okay. We’re cool now.” Alex looked around. “Later, man.” He turned and walked down the hallway as if nothing had happened.

Jack noticed that a small crowd had formed. He did not want the attention so he walked back in the direction from which he came. He passed Brandon on the way back. Under usual circumstances, Jack would have trouble approaching Brandon but after what had just happened with Alex it didn’t seem like a big deal.

“Hey, did you get in a fight with Tim?” asked Jack.

“Nah, it’s not worth it,” said Brandon who continued walking.

“Oh, good. I was afraid you all were going to get in trouble right before finals.” By the time Jack finished his sentence he was talking to Brandon’s back.

Jack went into a room to calm down but he felt great. He realized Alex’s power may not be so much stronger after all. Alex had most likely never trained since he never had a reason. However, Jack couldn’t give much weight to Alex’s promise. Only exercise and strategy could guarantee protection.

***

Finals week came quickly. Jack was free to meet Jonie and Ted in the evenings that week though Jonie wanted to study alone but Jack and Ted convinced her to meet them at their favorite coffee shop on Tuesday evening.

Coffee shops had recently overrun their slice of suburbia. A few years prior coffee chains had appeared on most corners. Upon their success, local coffee shops started opening. Students supported the local coffee shops due to the coolness factor. The coffee shops tolerated loitering, sprawling books and papers, and extended use of free wifi which made them excellent study places.

Their favorite coffee shop was a local place called The Mean Bean which featured an angry looking coffee bean mascot and served a Mexican inspired, spicy coffee drink of the same name. Despite the name, the staff were friendly. There was a large seating area populated with silver trimmed, black top tables and individual metal chairs. The decor was sparse and lacking except for the large mascot painted on the wall but the high school and college students enjoyed the minimalist ambiance.

Jonie arrived with bags under her eyes and ordered a double-shot espresso before taking her seat with Jack and Ted.

“How many cups of coffee have you had?” asked Jack.

“Too many,” said Jonie with a smile. “I’ve been living off caffeine. My history exam is tomorrow and I’m not ready yet so I’ll probably stay up all night.”

“It’s the same thing every year. You always stress out and then you always do great. If there is one thing you need to learn, it’s how to relax.”

“Yeah,” Ted chimed in. “You do this every time and we all know you’ll get another A. If my grades were as high as yours going into finals, I wouldn’t even study.”

“I’m not guaranteed an A every time. Mrs. Stein is really picky. She even takes off points for grammar mistakes.”

“I hate teachers like that. When you’re rushing to write an essay by hand in an exam, how do they expect you to use perfect grammar?” asked Jack. They all shook their heads in agreement.

“Do you need to go study now?” asked Ted.

“No, I’ll be up all night either way. I just need a break. I’ve already studied for four hours today.”

“I’ve never studied that much for an exam in my life,” said Ted with a chuckle.

Jonie gave him a sly smile. “Well, that’s why you aren’t in my classes.”

“Here, take this,” said Jack.

Jack grabbed a little light from a few people around the coffee shop and gave it to Jonie. He had gotten good at moving small amounts of light without people noticing anything. However, the cumulative effect could be significant for the receiver. Jonie’s face told him it worked before she said anything.

“Thanks, Jack. That feels great.”

“What?” asked Ted.

“We haven’t told Ted yet,” said Jack.

Jonie was excited to be the first to share with Ted. “This is going to sound crazy, but we figured out Jack can see emotional energy. He can see it and push it by flexing a muscle, or something like that. How would you describe it, Jack?”

“Yeah, that’s pretty close. I don’t really know how to explain it well but here it goes.

Apparently my whole life I’ve been able to see light that most other people can’t see. I’m sure I must’ve brought it up when I was younger but people didn’t understand what I was saying. Later on I thought it was a taboo subject or something.

The light gathers in people and shows me their emotions. Then recently I figured out I can move the light which means I can change people’s moods.”

“Okay, you guys playing some kind of weird joke on me.”

“Here, I’ll show you.” Jack moved a little light from himself to Ted.

“Whoa, that is really weird.” Ted straightened up as he felt the effect of the light. His forehead and eyebrows seemed to relax.

“Yeah, I know. I’m doing it.”

“How, exactly?”

“I told you, I can see your mood and move emotional energy between people. I’m moved some of my energy to you.”

“Wow! You’ve got a superpower!”

“I know!”

Ted and Jack were visibly excited.

“I wouldn’t exactly call it a superpower,” said Jonie. “I mean, it’s not like he’s going to go around fighting crime or flying through cities.”

“Actually, I’ve already used it to stop a fight between Tim and Brandon,” said Jack as he sat back in his chair to gloat.

“When?” asked Ted.

“Last week I saw them about to fight. I used the light to stop them.”

“Oh yeah, I heard something about that,” said Ted. “Apparently they were yelling in the hall after fifth period. You could probably use your power to stop all kinds of fights!”

“Just so long as you use it to help me feel better,” said Jonie. She smiled at Jack. He nodded, then took a little more from the coffee shop patrons to split among the group. It was a very nice feeling.

***

Jack thought of himself as the type of person who would always do the right thing even when no one was looking. Under normal circumstances there is some chance of being caught doing the wrong thing, no matter how small. When it came to the light, however, it was only Jack and Alex. Jack had done some good already. He had stopped the fight between Tim and Brandon and had helped Jonie handle the stress of finals week.

However, taking small amounts of light from random people was morally ambiguous. Since the stakes seemed low, Jack decided he would continue. He planned to fill up on light in the mornings and hold onto it for an emotional high until he got tired. Besides feeling great much of the time, he would be able to exercise his muscles and have extra resources on hand.

Gathering light during finals week was easy. Young people naturally had more light and Jack was surrounded by them. He was cautious not to take too much light from any one person. As finals week drew to an end more students were in the halls. Those that had finished most of their exams were free to socialize.

Jack was taking a long walk, grabbing little bits of light from anyone he passed. Suddenly he was shoved from behind, causing him to take several quick steps to catch his balance.

“What you’re doing?” asked Alex.

Jack looked around to see if he had drawn attention but the other students were occupied with conversation, studying, or going places. Alex was standing almost nose to nose with Jack and spoke quietly.

“Meet me at the mall tonight. I’ve got a friend you need to meet.”

“I, uh, I don’t think so,” Jack stammered.

“There’s more you need to know.”

“It doesn’t sound too safe to me.”

Alex let out a laugh. “If I wanted to fight you I’d do it right here, right now. Seriously, he’s older and he’s teaching me. He wants to meet you. Do you know the place behind the mall where the ramp goes down to the dumpsters?”

Jack thought a moment. He had passed the ramp when walking through the parking lot. It was a feature of the mall he had never given much thought but it was etched in memory for some reason.

“Yeah, I’m pretty sure.”

“Meet us there at 6 tonight. I promise you’ll regret not coming.”

Jack didn’t want any trouble. “Okay, I’ll be there.”