“Cool. Then see you tonight!”
Jack and Ted met that evening for a final study session. Ted appeared to be copying something over from a textbook into his notes. Jonie was still studying on her own.
“I can’t study too long tonight,” said Jack.
“Why?” asked Ted.
“I’ve got to meet some people.”
Ted stopped writing. “You never meet people. Who on earth would you meet during finals week?”
“It’s about my power.”
“You know Alex Brenner?”
“Yeah, I hate that kid. I think he stole some of my stuff in 9th grade.”
“Really?” Jack wanted to hear the story but stayed on point. “Well, he’s the only other person I know who can see the light and he’s been moving it longer than me. I’m meeting him and his friend tonight at the mall.”
“Alex Brenner? Are you sure you want to start hanging out with him?”
“I don’t know what else to do. He stopped me in the hall and told me to meet him and I said I’d come.
He told me there was more I needed to know and right now he’s the only person who might be able to teach me anything. I’m hoping I can use whatever they tell me to figure out better ways to help people.”
Ted paused to think. “There’s something you might be able to help me with.”
“What’s that?” asked Jack.
“Do you know Preeti Patel?”
“Yeah, I’ve had classes with her. I don’t think I’ve ever talked to her”
“I’ve had a crush on her for about a year now,” said Ted.
“Really? On Preeti? I never knew you talked to her.”
“I haven’t. I just think she seems nice and she’s really pretty.”
“If you say so. I mean, she’s not my type but she seems alright.”
“What’s your type?” asked Ted. “Because I’m starting to think you don’t even have one.”
“I’ve given up on girls in high school. I’m hoping they’re more mature in college.”
Ted laughed. “You’re hoping you have the guts to talk to them in college. Well, anyway, I’m wondering if you could use your power to help me ask her to the dance.”
Jack thought for a moment. He was so shy around the girls that he had never considered playing matchmaker.
“I’m not sure I know how to help with that. I’ve never even had a girlfriend.”
“But you control people’s emotions, Jack! It’s perfect! Girls are emotional creatures.”
“It’s more of an emotional energy. I could make Preeti be in a good mood or a bad mood but I can’t make her fall in love.”
Ted’s stone faced expression indicated to Jack that he was undeterred.
“But, I only recently learned that I could even move the light and there’s probably a lot more I don’t know. That’s why I want to meet with Alex and his friend.”
“I see. Then I’ll come with you. Maybe we’ll figure out a way for you to help me.”
“Okay,” said Jack, despite not wanting Ted to tag along. “Preeti Patel, huh?” He shook his head and made a tisk-tisk noise.
“Shut up!” blurted Ted as he through his pen at Jack.
“Hey! That could have hurt!”
Jack kept appointments as if tardiness was a capital offense, even appointments with himself. He and Ted stopped studying early to go to the mall. Ted didn’t mind since his grades were mediocre and they not likely to change whether he studied or not. They passed time at the mall window shopping and checking out girls. Jack used the extra time to calm his nerves.
There was only one mall in their town so it was always busy. Except for a few multi-level department stores, everything was all on one level. Most stores were clothing chains but there were a few electronics and game stores, a food court, and stands in the walking paths that offered massages, make up, and toys.
The layout of the mall was a Y shape with a food court at the intersection of the three branches. The boys would walk down one branch, turn and walk back. The dumpsters where they were to meet Alex were only accessible from outside the mall.
When the time for the meeting neared they walked down the appropriate branch of the mall and out the door. The sun was setting. Jack’s nerves were going haywire and he was now glad that Ted had come. Somehow Ted didn’t seem concerned but dangerous scenarios were racing through Jack’s mind.
What if Alex’s friend is a criminal or gangster or something? Are we ready to fight? Should we have brought weapons? What if it wasn’t just one friend but a whole group? Why do they want to meet in such an isolated, dark location if they aren’t planning something bad?
They found the ramp. Jack hadn’t paid it much attention before. It led down to a dimly lit, concrete room with grimy walls and oil stained asphalt. Jack had spent his life in a middle-class suburban bubble but imagined this was the kind of place where thugs would hang out to jump people or plan crimes.
About as soon as Jack and Ted stepped on the ramp, Alex and another man emerged from the darkness. Alex’s friend was a fit Hispanic man about the same height as Ted and was probably in his mid-twenties but he had the rough, leathery skin of someone who had spent much time in the sun.
“One of you must be Jack?” the man asked with a slight accent.
“I’m Jack.” Jack and Ted slowed their pace. They could see a long hall of parking spaces and dumpsters that presumably reached the entire mall.
“Nice to meet you, Jack. I’m Eduardo. And who is your friend?”
“This is Ted.”
“Hi, Ted. Can you move light, too?”
“Nope,” answered Ted, “but Jack’s told me all about it. He’s trying to help me.”
The basement was eerily quiet and carried their voices.
“That’s good,” said Eduardo with a smile. His friendly demeanor was putting Jack at ease despite the unsettling surroundings. “Helping friends is important. Alex tells me that I should speak with you. He says you learned about your power only recently. I too can move light and I’m part of a group that will teach you how to make the most of your power.”
“How many people can move the light?” asked Jack. “I didn’t think it was very common.”
“I don’t know exactly but it’s not many people. We’re special. That’s why it’s important to use our power wisely.”
“I’m a mentor to Alex and it’s possible that I could mentor you, too. But first I will need to get to know you. This is your chance. Some people, even with our power, aren’t in the group. And as they say, if you aren’t with us you’re against us.”
“You don’t want that,” said Alex.
Eduardo held up a hand to silence Alex. Jack liked the idea of having a group but was unsure about any group that had Alex as a member.
“I’d like to know more,” said Jack. “I’m here to learn from you if you’re willing to teach me.”
“Great!” Eduardo exclaimed at a repressed volume which was still loud enough to create an echo. “Then let’s go inside. Follow me and don’t talk about the power until we get inside.”
Eduardo led the boys back up the ramp. Alex seemed excited to have new companions. “We’re going to be so powerful, Jack. We could start with the school and expand our power until we’re kings. Just listen to everything Eduardo tells you.”
“I don’t know. I’m really just interested in learning more,” said Jack.
Since Eduardo had instructed them not to discuss light and Alex made Jack and Ted uncomfortable by his presence, they made the rest of the walk in silence. Jack was known for being quiet so he assumed Alex would think it natural if he didn’t hold a conversation. The sun had set and there was a little natural light on the horizon. They went to the food court at the intersection of the three branches.
The Pain de Boulangerie bakery and cafe was at the edge of the food court with seating that protruded into the intersection. The seating was separated by a waist high divider, driving foot traffic around the diners.
“Let’s get something here,” said Eduardo pointing to the Pain de Boulangerie. “It’s on me.”
As they were ordering, Alex looked Ted up and down. “Wow, you are glowing,” said Alex.
Ted blushed at the statement. He didn’t understand what Alex was referring to which made the comment awkward.
“He means your light,” said Jack. “You do seem pretty excited to be here.”
“It’s cool,” said Ted. “It’s like I’m hanging out with a bunch of superheroes or something. “Plus, nothing beats free food.”
“The night’s going to get even better,” said Eduardo. “I’ll grab the stuff. Alex, you show them where we’re going to sit.”
“C’mon,” said Alex. Most of the tables were occupied but he walked past a few open tables to one which was right next to the rail.
“This spots perfect. It’s weird hanging out with you guys,” said Alex. “I mean, you always seemed nice, just really quiet. I never imagined we’d be talking outside of school.”
“I’m strange for me, too,” said Jack.
Eduardo arrived and passed out the food and drinks.
“We’re ready to start,” said Eduardo. “Okay, Jack. Watch me.”
Little bits of light started trickling in from the passerby and gathering on Eduardo until he was brighter than anyone Jack had ever seen.
“See, that’s why we chose these seats,” said Alex with a smile. “I’ll go next.”
“What’s happening?” asked Ted.
“I can’t explain right now,” answered Jack, “but I have a feeling you’ll know soon.”
Alex grabbed little bits of light until he was also very bright. Then Jack took a turn. The exercise was similar to what Jack had been doing at school except he didn’t recognize anyone and he didn’t need to concentrate on where he was going. There were so many people going by that he felt light everywhere he reached. It rained on him. All the stress of finals and the fear he felt about the meeting melted away. It was a dizzying euphoria.
“Don’t forget your friend,” said Eduardo.
“I think you’re going to like this.” Jack grabbed little bits of light from the crowd and pushed them onto Ted.
“Oh wow,” Ted sighed. “This is amazing.” He sat back in his chair with his hands resting around his coffee. “It’s almost like getting high.”
“Yeah,” said Alex, “except we don’t have to worry about cops.”
Eduardo leaned in to speak quietly to Jack. “That feeling of excitement that you’re feeling now, Jack, let it sink in. The world is ours for the taking. This is just the beginning. If you join us your whole life will change in ways you can’t imagine yet.”
They rode their emotional highs in silence for a while. The light trickled away slowly until they were back to normal. Jack noticed that Eduardo had an unusually bright resting state as well as a lot of light flowing in and out. What’s his secret? Jack wondered.
“Well, that’s all for today,” said Eduardo. “I’ll be in touch soon.”
“Thank you for meeting me,” said Jack.
“And Ted, you can come too.” Eduardo stood up and gave a slight wave of his hand. “Alright, you guys take care.”
With Eduardo gone, Alex took over the conversation. “We shouldn’t be fighting each other at school, y’know? We should be running it.”
Jack was trying to comprehend what was happening. His emotional high was gone but he wasn’t sure whether Eduardo’s mentorship was contingent on how well he got along with Alex.
“Okay, let’s work together. What do you have in mind?”
“Well, this year’s almost over but here’s what I’m thinking. I won’t mess with your friends and you don’t mess with mine but everyone else at school is fair game. If you see me messing with people, you can’t get involved.”
“That’s not so bad,” said Jack. “Okay, unless they’re my friends, I won’t get involved.” He almost felt sick to his stomach and worried that if his light dimmed Alex would notice.
“Also, if I hear anyone making fun of you I’ll let you know so you.”
Jack wasn’t sure if Alex was being supportive or trying to imply that people often made fun of him behind his back.
“Thanks. Same. If anyone is talking bad about you, I’ll let you know.”
“Well, I’ve got a big final tomorrow. I better go study,” said Jack. He and Ted got up to leave.
“Okay, see you at school.”
“See ya,” said Ted.
Once they were out of earshot, Ted let out his excitement. “Are you guys really going to run the school? That would be awesome to finally get back at all the jerks, y’know? You could really make them suffer!”
“I don’t really know what he means but I guess he kind of already ran the school before I knew I could move the light. He’s had the ability a lot longer than me.”
Jack never had any kind of power before but he didn’t want revenge. Despite not being popular, he didn’t harbor animosity towards the popular kids like Ted. Now that Jack had a superpower he wanted to be a superhero which meant doing good for people.
“Well, unfortunately I didn’t learn anything tonight that would help you win over Preeti but I’ll see what I can do.”
“Okay, let’s go over here,” said Eduardo as he pointed down an empty road.
He and Alex were taking one of their walks in the neighborhood across the street from Alex’s trailer park. The neighborhood was made up of small, old homes with long, thin yards. The quality of the homes varied depending on the effort each owner had made on upkeep. Some had gardens and fresh paint while others had broken fences and shingles hanging off the wall. The yards matched the houses. The neighborhood streets were a windy maze and were, for the most part, empty.
“There’s one thing I really admire about you, Alex. You are very loyal. I hear it in the way you talk about your friends and especially your mother.”
“I guess that’s true,” said Alex. “I never really think about it like that.”
“Loyalty is important.” Eduardo paused. “I’m going to recommend that you be inducted into the group.”
“So I’m in?” asked Alex.
“Well, it’s not up to me.” Eduardo turned to yell at the man following them. “Hurry up!” The sudden yell made Alex jump. “My superiors will make the final decision. If they accept you then you will be invited to a meeting where everything will be made official.”
“Then you’ll teach me how to take my own servants?” asked Alex.
“Yes.” Eduardo looked over his shoulder again. “Hopefully ones that are more obedient that this!”
The man silently jogged to catch up.
“I don’t want to waste my effort having to punish you,” Eduardo hissed. “Keep up or you’re going to have a bad day.”
“Yes, sir,” said the man.
The last few days of school quickly came to an end. Jonie and Ted went to Jack’s on Friday night as usual but instead of doing homework they watched movies.
Jonie resumed swim practice so the first weekend was not a change in routine from the school year. Jonie had missed several practices to study for final exams so that Saturday was going to be tough. Jack and Ted went to the weight room at Ted’s insistence. Jack wasn’t feeling the weight room so he kept himself lit by grabbing little bits of light from other lifters. The light gave him a calm and positive mindset. It was one of the best days in the weight room he had ever had. Ted even commented on how well he was doing.
They caught the end of Jonie’s practice. Since Jonie had complained about how difficult this practice was going to be, Jack gave her the light that he had gathered for himself. It was impossible to tell how she felt while she was swimming. He had to wait until after practice to find out the impact. When she got out of the pool to dry off Jack went down to meet her.
“So, was it as bad as you thought?” he asked.
“No, actually! I got a second wind near the end. I think I could have kept going. How long have you guys been watching?”
“Just the last fifteen minutes or so. Is that about the time you got your second wind?” inquired Jack.
“Maybe,” Jonie answered suspiciously. “Why?”
“I lit you up to help you perform.”
Jack was still holding the light onto her but it became unwieldy so he let it go. The light shot in different directions. He realized he had let her anger come through. “Jack! Is that why I was performing so well?”
“Maybe, I can’t be sure though. All I know is that I was having a good day in the weight room and I wanted you to have a good practice, too.”
“Does that mean you plan to come to all of my competitions? Because if I start practicing with your help then I’ll need to compete with it too. And what about next year when we’re in college? Are you going to drive out to all my swim meets?”
“Okay, I’m sorry. I won’t light you up during your practices. You were saying today was going to be hard and I wanted to make it easier.”
Jonie sighed and brightened a little. “Thank you for trying to help and sorry I got upset. It’s just important that I practice in the same conditions I compete in.” Jonie had finished drying off but carried the conversation instead of going to change clothes. “So does that mean you are you still trying to find ways to help people?”
“Of course. I thought helping you through a rough practice would be one of those ways.”
“Cool. I see what you were thinking. What else have you been doing?”
“I haven’t been able to help many people yet but I would like to.” He almost mentioned his plan to help Ted win over Preeti but thought Jonie might get angry again. Even after being friends for so long he didn’t understand how she thought about relationships. It was a topic they rarely discussed.
“Now that it’s summer, we need to start your training.”
“That’s right!” exclaimed Jack as he remembered.
Jack had a bad habit of checking his phone when he was having dinner with his family. He tried to be discreet by holding his phone under the table. He received an email from Eduardo titled “Next Meeting” which caused him to abandon all consideration for his parents and pull the phone out on the table.
“Jack,” said his mother.
“Sorry, let me check real quick. It’s important.”
“Jack!” his dad yelled. “Put the phone away.”
Jack begrudgingly slid his phone back under the table and quickly scooped the food in his mouth until he had mostly finished. He threw his dishes in the sink and ran to his room to check the email. Eduardo left instructions to meet at 3 o’clock on Wednesday and to come alone this time. Alex was copied. Jack assumed that Alex had guessed his school email. All student emails used the same format based on name.
The next day, Jack and Jonie went to Ted’s house. Everyone had poor moods as indicated by the dimness of their lights. It was a few weeks after summer break because despite the freedom summer offered it brought with it a lack of structure and lack of accomplishment. They would readjust over the next couple of weeks.
“Do you guys want to go on a hike this Wednesday?” asked Ted. “I found a trail about an hour from here. It’s just four miles to the peak and it looks like there are some really nice views.”
“I can’t this Wednesday,” said Jack. “I’m meeting Alex again.”
“What?” asked Jonie. “Don’t tell me you’re hanging out with him now.”
“Well, he and his friend know more about the light and I’m trying to learn from them. Ted went with me last time. It wasn’t bad, was it?”
“No, we had a good time,” said Ted. “Can I come again?”
“He told me to come alone for some reason.”
“Really? Last time he said I would be welcome.”
“You guys are crazy,” said Jonie. “Alex is one of the worst kids in school. Besides, you asked me to help you. Do you still even want my help?”
“Yes, I’d still like your help but like I said, Alex knows more about the light and Eduardo, his mentor, said he may mentor me too.”
“It kind of sounds like you don’t need me anymore,” said Jonie. “You’re going to have a mentor who knows the light more than I do and if you’re getting along with Alex anyway you won’t need to fight him.”
“It’s nothing personal.”
“It’s kind of personal,” Ted interjected. “Eduardo specifically uninvited me. I’m kind of with Jonie. We know Alex is a jerk and Eduardo is helping Alex but you’re smart, she’s smart, and she’ll help you get stronger. I bet we can figure out whatever they know.”
Jack pondered in silence, not what to say next. He wished he had some extra light to give them so they wouldn’t be so angry.
“So what do you say?” asked Ted. “Will you go hiking with us on Wednesday?”
“No, I’m going to meet Alex and Eduardo just to see what they have to say. If I don’t learn anything then I’ll stop meeting with them.”
“So basically you’d rather hang out with them than us?” asked Jonie.
“Why don’t you leave?” asked Ted.
Jack knew that they both despised Alex and were already in bad moods. He decided to excuse himself.
“I know you’re not going to like me saying this but you’re both just in bad moods. I could see your lights were low when I arrived. I’ll leave now but hopefully you’ll come around to my viewpoint if you think about it.”
“Don’t try to blame it on our light,” said Jonie. “It’s not because we were dim when you arrived. We’re mad because you are ditching us to hang out with the biggest jerk in school.”
Jack gave up on trying to fight. “I get your point. I’ll see you later.”
Jack understood his friend’s perspective but he with they’d understood his. Sure, Alex was known for causing trouble around school and he had messed with Ted and Jonie in the past but he also knew about the light. Not only that, the organization was not just Alex. Alex was his link but it was Eduardo that Jack was most interested in.
He wondered how long they could really be mad. They seemed to overreact when they threw him out and he would have no one to hang out with during the long summer days until they got over it.
Under previous circumstances Jack would have stewed in anger at the unfairness of the situation but he was no longer subject to his own emotions. They may be mad at him for befriending Alex but they couldn’t make him suffer, at least not this way. He grabbed a book from his room and told his parents he was going to a coffee shop to read.
The Mean Bean was closed but Jack found a boba tea place near their town community college. The place was full of a lot of well lit young people. It had a bright interior with white tables and walls, red chairs, and brightly painted images on the walls. There were two TV screens playing a K-pop music video and the soundtrack was blaring over speakers. Many of the customers were playing board games or card games with their tea.
After ordering a green apple black tea with regular milk, extra sweetener and crystal boba, Jack had to wait a few minutes to find out what it was he actually ordered. He took a seat in a corner where he could people watch without being noticed. He refilled his light but had to hold onto it because it was naturally trying to escape. Nature wanted him to be angry at Ted and Jonie but he had decided his emotions would no longer be dictated by nature. Now he was in control. He took much more light than he needed and held it tightly, giving himself an emotional high.
Jack decided this shouldn’t be part of a training regimen. This should be a daily routine. Why suffer emotional pain when he didn’t have to? Every morning he could grab a book, go to the Mean Bean, enjoy reading and the familiar faces and an emotional high. He would only have to suffer negative emotions when he was too tired to hold onto the light or when he woke from sleep.
Time passed quickly on the good emotions. Jack hardly minded that he hadn’t heard from Jonie or Ted by Wednesday. He would fill up on light twice a day, only spending the middle of the day relaxing. During his relaxation time his light was low but it was a few hours of dwelling in anger instead of three days. Besides filling up on light, he passed most of the time playing video games, watching television, and going for walks.
Jack arrived early at the park on Wednesday to find Eduardo and Alex already there. They were seated at a picnic table. Jack had to squint as his eyes adjusted to the sunlight. It was still early summer and the temperature was only a few degrees above comfortable. The grass was turning brown from the heat and drought but the bushes and trees were still a healthy green. There were a few empty basketball courts nearby and a moderately busy walking trail visible from where Jack parked.
Jack walked toward Eduardo and Alex. Eduardo addressed him while he was still about twenty feet away.
“Looking bright my friend!”
“Hey!” Jack shouted back. “Yeah, I’ve been keeping these days. You too. How do you stay so bright all the time?”
“It looks like you may have already figured it out. How are you doing it?”
Jack took his seat at the table. “Every morning I go to a coffee shop and fill up, kind of like how we did at the mall. There are always a lot of people in the mornings and recently I found a boba tea place that’s busy in the evenings.”
“Ah, that’s too much work,” said Eduardo.
Jack tried to hide is disappointment. “It’s not too bad. I usually bring a book to read and I drink coffee anyway.”
“Doesn’t that mean you’re having to concentrate on holding the light all day?” asked Alex.
“Well, yeah. That part sucks. Sometimes I do get tired and have to just let go. Then I have to rest a while.”
“There’s a better way,” said Eduardo. He sat up and folded his arms on the table. “It takes work but you won’t have to hold onto the light and you will even stay lit while you’re sleeping.”
“I have no idea how you do that,” said Jack. “But I want to learn.”
“I can train you, but not yet. You have to be accepted by the group first. However, I can show you how it works.”
Eduardo leaned back and whistled. A haggard looking man with a dim light hobbled out from behind some bushes. He was unkempt, had a lot of facial hair, and kept his gaze lowered.
“This was a bad man,” said Eduardo. “I met him when he was getting out of prison. He murdered his wife about ten years ago. By the time they released him from prison his friends and family wanted nothing to do with him. He needed help and I found him. Before long, I had done this.”
Eduardo turned in his chair and held up a finger. He moved some light to the man and Jack watched it flow back to Eduardo. He then took a little light from Alex and Jack. He moved it to the man and again it siphoned to Eduardo.
“What’s happening?” asked Jack. “I can’t tell whether you’re moving the light or it’s moving on its own.”
Eduardo whistled again and waved his hand. The man went back behind the bushes. Now that Jack knew he was there he could see him just sitting in the middle of a small cluster of plants.
“The light has a natural flow like water,” explained Eduardo. “You can make water go where you want by digging a trench. We can dig trenches. We can change the natural path the light will take. That man can never be happy again unless I deliberately hold the light onto him. Any light he would have naturally flows to me.”
“He looks like he’s in bad shape,” said Jack.
“Don’t worry. I told you he was a bad man. Now he’s making amends as my servant and it pays off for me. I naturally have more light all the time. I don’t have to work to hold it and I don’t lose it when I’m sleeping. I’ve changed the natural flow so I’m now getting the light of two people.
You see, we have the power, Jack. We are forming our own community with our group and our friends and families. We can connect all of them with their own servants, multiple servants, so they never feel bad again. Anyone of our choosing can be made our servant but we think the servants should be those who have done wrong. We will rule with justly.”
Jack was terrified. Can they do this to me if I try to leave? I better not upset them now. They could come for me, my friends, my parents. Will Eduardo really teach Alex this ability? Alex is reckless and may try to enslave the whole school or something.
“I’m curious what it’s like for the servants. Are they constantly suffering?” asked Jack.
“Oh, I could make things worse. He doesn’t have much light to spare now and I don’t think he wants to lose it. However, if he behaves well for a while I let him have a good day. Of course, he can always pay for a good day when he’s got the money. It’s another benefit for me.”
Jack needed to get away to think. He was thinking of ways to excuse himself.
“I can see that you are becoming dim, Jack. This must be bothering you.”
As seconds passed, Jack convinced himself that there was no way to justify what he had just seen. He mustered every ounce of courage he had so he could give an honest reply. “Yes, it is actually. That’s not right, what you’re doing.”
“I thought you would be more receptive, Jack. You take light from people all the time.
Think about it this way. Who determines the rules for how the world works? Whoever has the power. We have been given power Jack. We can create the world, or at least our piece of it, to be how we want. Most importantly, we can ensure our friends and family live safe, happy lives. Don’t you want that for them?”
“Yes, I do, but not at the expense of other people.”
“But you can choose the people. Thieves and murderers, they take what’s not theirs. We’re only setting things right by taking back away from them.”
“I’m sorry, but I can’t do this. Thanks for considering teaching me but I’ve got to go.” Jack got up to leave. He walked directly to his car.
Eduardo called after him. “Jack, where are you going? If you leave now you may not get another chance.”
Jack was worried they may attack so he clenched his light and nearly jogged to his car. He got in safely and looked to see Eduardo and Alex still seated at the picnic table, just watching. Jack’s hands were trembling, causing him to fumble as he put in the keys. He backed out quickly. He looked back to see that Eduardo and Alex had resumed talking.
The whole way home Jack couldn’t stop imagining what it would feel like to be Eduardo’s servant. Jack’s empathy caused his light to dim significantly allowing him to feel disgusted. For a moment he considered going to the Mean Bean but quick emotional refill was an artificial and unsatisfying fix for what he had witnessed. That man had his emotions stolen. Another person controlled whether he could feel happiness, peace of mind, pride, self worth. In a sense someone had taken his humanity.
Jack called Jonie as soon as he got home. He hoped her anger had subsided though there was no way for him to know without seeing her in person. She answered.
“Hey, we need to talk.”
“Aren’t you ditching us to hang out with Alex Brenner today?”
“Actually, that’s what I called you about. It was worse than I could have imagined.”
Jack was pacing with excitement.
“Wow, you’re breathing hard. What happened?”
“Sorry, I’m kind of freaking out right now. Can you come over to talk?”
“Sure. I’m on my way.”
When Jack hung up the call he noticed an email notification from Eduardo. He read it immediately.
I’m sorry to have scared you off today. Usually I wait a few meetings before explaining about the servants. For some reason I thought you’d be more receptive. You had no problem taking light from other people to make yourself feel good before and that was from random people. Why do you are you opposed to taking light from bad people in a way that can permanently benefit you?
You have a strong moral compass and we have the power to punish those who are bad, who hurt people, and make them pay back those they hurt. We can use their pain to take away the pain they caused. And for those who need to be punished with no particular victim, we can take their light and help ourselves.
Think about it. You will realize it makes sense. We have more to discuss and I would like to meet you again. I will give you one more chance if you will meet me at the park again on Friday.
Jack had an internal monologue. What if I did join them just to make sure they weren’t corrupt? I might even be able to change them from within. Or what if there are really people out there who are so vile it would be okay to take their light? I could make Jonie and Ted feel good all the time.
He was interrupted by the doorbell. Jack let Jonie in.
“Hey, what’s so urgent that you needed me to come over?” she asked.
“Let’s talk in my room,” Jack murmured as he looked around to see whether his parents were in the vicinity. The house appeared empty but they went to Jack’s room to assure privacy. Jonie took her desk. Jack shut the door and sat on the edge of his bed.
“I’m not exactly sure how to explain this, but Eduardo, Alex’s friend, is using his power to basically enslave people.”
Jack waited for a reaction. Eventually Jonie shook her head in confusion.
“What? Okay, how does that even work?”
“I’m not sure but somehow he’s able to change the natural flow of light so it will flow from other people directly to him. There was a man who has no way to defend himself and has to feel bad all the time unless Eduardo gives him some light. His light automatically flows to Eduardo keeping Eduardo bright all the time, even when he’s asleep. Now Alex is going to learn how to do it, too.”
“I knew it couldn’t be good if Alex was involved. We’re going to have to get really serious about stopping them. But before we do, you owe me an apology.”
Jack rolled his eyes. “Okay, I’m sorry for ditching you guys. I thought you were going hiking?”
Jonie smiled. “Bet you’re glad we didn’t go now, huh? Ted said he wasn’t feeling up to it today. I’m not sure what he’s doing.”
“So you’ll train me?”
“I don’t know much about emotional energy but I’ll do what I can. I can keep you accountable and try to help you learn more.”
“So you’re still calling it emotional energy, huh?”
Jonie gave Jack an obnoxious smile. Jonie was perceived was quiet and humble by those who didn’t know her but Jack knew she believed she was smarter than almost everyone else. She annoyed him at times, especially when they had a disagreement and she would go out of her way to prove she was right.
“Let’s create a training regimen,” she said. “We will spend a few hours a week at the Mean Bean or some other busy places where you can grab a lot of energy, or light as you insist on calling it, and move it around to work out your muscles. With two of us there you will be able to move a large amount back and forth. We’ll also spend a couple hours a week trying to understand the light so we can strategize in case you need to stop Alex.”
“I’d also like to think of ways I can help people. There must be more to this than just fighting Alex and Eduardo.”
“Yeah, I like that. And maybe we can get Ted to join us.”
“If he wants but this doesn’t seem like Ted’s thing. He’s never been the type to stick to a training schedule and he doesn’t like science.”
“True. You better be ready for this. If I’m training you then we’re going all in.”
Jack let out an exasperated sigh and leaned over on his bed. “I can take things seriously when I need to and this is serious. We could all be in danger.”
Neither Jack nor Jonie heard from Ted for almost a week. He called Friday morning to remind them that the Battle of the Bands competition took place late that night. Jack didn’t enjoy going to live music shows but wanted to support Ted.
The competition was at the park where Jack had met Alex and Eduardo but at an amphitheater about half a mile away from the picnic tables. Usually this part of the park was empty but that night there were several hundred people, vendors selling food and toys and music blasting through the speakers.
Ted asked for help carrying his equipment. He didn’t have much. Jack grabbed the speakers and Jonie grabbed the synth pedals. They went behind the stage where the artists were getting organized. There were dozens of people running around with equipment. Many of the other groups were whole bands with singers, basists, and drummers. Jack began to worry for Ted.
“What made you decide to sign up for this?” asked Jack.
“I’m getting good and I need to practice playing in front of people,” said Ted.
“Yeah, but look at the other groups. Like that one.” Jack pointed. “They’ve got a drummer, keyboard, two guitars, and they’ve probably a singer. It’s going to be weird if you just go out there and play guitar.”
“They don’t have two guitars. One of those is a bass. Look, I know I probably won’t win anything but it’ll be a good experience for me.”
Ted began to tune his guitar.
“Don’t discourage him,” said Jonie. “It’s hard enough to play in front of this many people. Your negativity won’t help him now.”
“Thank you,” said Ted.
“You know what you’re doing and I know you’ll do great,” said Jonie. She gave Ted a quick hug. “Now let’s go find seats.”
“Sorry about that,” said Jack. “Good luck! And here, take this.”
Jack gathered little bits of light from the other performers and gave them to Ted. Ted looked up from his guitar to give Jack a smile and nod. Unfortunately, Jack couldn’t hold the light onto Ted since he was leaving to take his seat and it quickly slipped away.
They laid out a blanket on an open patch of grass. Jonie bought herself an ice cream cone. A few bands played before Ted. As Jack feared, all of them were bands.
Suddenly Jonie screamed. Jack looked up to see Ted taking the stage. Jack tried to cheer but his voice didn’t carry far. Ted played a song on his guitar. Jack couldn’t gauge how much skill it took to play. It sounded like an advanced guitar solo. Everyone applauded and cheered when Ted finished just like they had done for the other performers.
Another band played their set before Ted found Jonie and Jack. At the end of the night they announced the winners. Ted didn’t place as he expected.
“Sorry, Ted. It’s because you don’t have a band but you were really good and it took a lot of guts to go up there,” said Jonie.
“It’s okay,” said Ted. “Like I said, I just wanted a chance to play in front of people. If I’m ever going to be a professional I’ve got to get used to it.”
Jack noticed Ted was dim so he offered more encouragement.
“You know, you might find a band if you keep performing for audiences like this. People will hear how good you are and they’ll want you to join them.”
Ted had gone back to strumming his guitar. “Yeah, maybe.”
Ted attended the first science meeting with Jonie and Jack. They met in Jack’s room. Jack had an empty document open on his computer ready for note taking.
Jack was willing to be the subject of the experiments but they settled on Jonie. Since Jack was the only one who could see the light he needed to observe what was happening and the anticipation of hurting himself was like the anticipation he would feel if he needed to prick his own finger with a needle. Not only that, but he had trouble seeing his own light which would make the observations less accurate.
Jonie sat straight up in her chair, ready to be the subject of the first experiment. They decided to begin with something simple. Jack would push light away from Jonie and she would describe everything she could feel. Jack would type everything she said.
On the first run Jack couldn’t keep up with her description and lost track of the light. Ted was sitting at the edge of Jack’s bed strumming his guitar and observing. They asked Ted to type. He sat cross legged on the floor with the computer on his lap.
“Okay, I’m starting again,” said Jack. “Are you ready?”
“Yes,” said Jonie. She had her eyes closed and was sitting upright with space between her back and the chair. Jack pushed very cautiously so as not to push too much and hurt her. Jonie raised her hand indicating that she didn’t want Jack to take any more light.
“It’s strange. There is some physical pain for a moment but not too bad. Mostly in the head and stomach. Then it goes away and there are all these negative emotions. It’s almost as bad as when Ginger died.”
She opened her for a moment to look at Ted.
“She was my tabby cat. She fell asleep on a car tire and was accidently killed her. I loved her.” Jonie’s voice broke and she looked as if she were about to cry. The light became easier to keep away.
“Should I stop?” asked Jack.
Jonie took a deep breath. The light wobbled and Jack let it increase a little.
“No, I’m okay,” said Jonie. “If I think about it, there are a lot of emotions. I feel sad, hopelessness, anger, jealousy. It’s strange since usually there is a motivation to feel an emotion but I’m just feeling a concoction of emotions for no reason. It’s like I feel kind of mad but at nothing in particular and I feel jealous but in a vague, fear of missing out on life kind of way. The emotions are just there.
I know it’s irrational to be angry or jealous at nothing. I’m pretty sure the light hasn’t affected my thinking at all. I can still reason and I’m aware it’s just something that you’re doing.”
Jonie’s eyes opened. Her thought process seemed to magnetize the light. Light was coming in from all directions. Jack tried hard to keep her steady. He was losing control and pushed back too hard.
“Oh, please stop. It’s getting worse now,” said Jonie. She closed her eyes again and leaned further forward in her chair. Her face grimaced and her hands and feet were clutched.
Jack reversed the direction he was pushing so the light would flow in quickly. When Jonie recovered Jack saw streams down her cheeks that were left by tears.
Jack frantically apologized. “I’m so sorry! I was losing control.”
“No, it’s okay.
So I think that even though it hurt for a moment in the beginning, it was just my body trying to adjust to the quick emotional changes. The light is definitely emotional rather than physical or mental.”
“How did the note taking go?” asked Jack.
“It was easy,” Ted answered. “I’m a quick typer.”
“Great. Can you add that Jonie’s thought process attracted the light to her. When she was thinking about how there was no reason to feel bad the light started flowing to her naturally. That’s why I started losing control. It was too hard to keep that much light away.”
Jack and Jonie had agreed to work towards three goals that summer. They would work out Jack’s light muscles, study the light scientifically, and figure out how to use the light to help people.
Working out was accomplished by frequent visits to coffee shops and other highly trafficked places. All that was required was dedication and both Jack and Jonie were dedicated. They created a routine that included meeting at the Mean Bean every morning and setting aside time in the evenings for workouts. Ted joined occasionally because he liked having his light filled but he was quickly bored with sitting around. This led to one scientific conclusion: Boredom was a mental rather than emotional and couldn’t be controlled with the light.
The scientific endeavor was on the whole less successful than the workouts. Jack and Jonie had difficulty formulating meaningful experiments. Ted found the meetings too similar to schoolwork and opted not to attend most of them despite being a useful note taker.
They knew from the beginning that more light corresponded to better mood and less light conjured bad feelings. This was enough to make a few deductions. The light had a causal relationship with emotion, otherwise changing a person’s light would not affect their emotions. Some semi-predictable natural rules governed the light. Those rules were only semi-predictable since a person who had positive experiences would usually gain light and a person who had negative experiences would usually lose light but what counted as positive and negative and how much was impossible to measure.
Jonie conjectured that the light was a kind of energy that could neither be created nor destroyed. Though this conjecture aligned with Jack’s observations they didn’t know how to truly test it.
Nomenclature was a point of contention. They agreed on the formal name ‘emotional energy’ but the informal name ‘light’ since whatever it was, it emanated light and Jack, Alex and Eduardo naturally called it that. However, it didn’t have the properties of conventional light. It passed through opaque objects like chairs and walls, flowed along channels that connected people, and gathered in people in varying degrees of intensity. For these reasons, Jack agreed that light wasn’t an accurate name so they settled on ‘emotional energy’ as a more formal, scientific name.
Brain chemistry is correlated to emotions so the light wasn’t the only entity to play a role in an emotional experience. After some brainstorming and discussion they conjectured that emotional experience was the result of the following chain of events:
These ideas were impossible for two high school students to test.
Jonie noticed another unfortunate use of language in the first step. She wondered what made an event positive or negative. Was a birthday party a positive event because it makes a person happy, which therefore attracted light, or was is positive because it attracted light, therefore making a person happy? According to steps one through four it was the latter. She decided they should think of events as positive or negative based on whether they attract or deter light as opposed to whether they make a person happy or sad. Jack found this point confusing but conceded after about an hour of arguing.
Their final scientific result was that natural changes were usually small and that if Jack changed even a moderate amount of light the subject would feel a significant effect. Some events, such as winning a lottery or losing one’s home in a fire, could naturally have a significant effect on one’s light. In a typical day people’s light would change gradually over time.
In one of their summer experiments, Jack tried moving Jonie’s light up then back down quickly. She could only describe the feeling as a confusing emotional roller coaster. In particular, if someone lost a large amount of light then adding it back wouldn’t entirely cancel the experience. Oscillating light was extremely unnatural. Jack tried it on Jonie, then on himself out of curiosity. Both felt sick afterwards.
The third summer endeavor, finding ways to help people, was the least successful of all. Jack only found two opportunities to even try and only considered one of them successful.
The first opportunity came at random when Jack was shopping at a grocery store. It was a typical supermarket. Jack was walking down the bread aisle when he saw a distraught, middle aged woman who was muttering to herself. At first Jack thought she was either crazy or ill-tempered. As he was grabbing a package of cinnamon raisin bagels he overheard a couple ask the woman if she was alright. She apologized and held back tears as she explained that she recently lost her husband in a car accident and was now raising her daughter alone.
Jack was still carrying light from his morning workout. He realized he had an opportunity to help someone so he increased her light to a normal level. She stopped her story to thank the couple for taking the time to ask her how she was doing. She said their concern had helped her feel better.
The woman went on her way and turned to go down the next aisle. Jack realized he was going to lose track of her too late. He ran towards the end of the aisle but saw light zipping in all directions like a firework. It was over in a fraction of a second. He heard a yelp and came around the corner to see the woman bent over crying. One of the checkers left his register to help her. She followed him back to his register, rang up her items and left. Jack realized that he couldn’t use the light as a quick for stranger’s problems.
The second opportunity was to help Ted. Ted’s parents separated that summer and planned on getting a divorce. Ted wasn’t taking it well. He was avoiding Jack and Jonie and was unusually rude when he was around them. They tried to be understanding. Ted’s light constantly dim.
After about a week of feeling miserable, Ted decided to join Jack and Jonie for one of Jack’s workouts. It was the first relief he had felt since his parents had announced their divorce.
“Would you help me get through my parents divorce?” asked Ted.
Jack was noisily slurping the last remnants of an iced latte. “What do you mean?”
“C’mon Jack. You know.”
“No, I don’t. Do you want me to fill you up with light? Because I can do that but it will go away as soon as I let go. Otherwise, I’m here to talk about whatever you want.”
“Yes. Use your powers to help me. I want to stop thinking about what my life’s going to be, even if it’s just for a little while. Apparently divorces take a long time and I’m not even sure where I’m going to live yet. I could stay with my dad but if I go to my mom’s new place I’ll have to transfer to a new school.”
Jack wanted to say no but he could see Ted’s concern. “Okay, why don’t you come with me in the mornings when I’m working out. I’ll fill you up so you won’t feel bad for a while.” Jack raised a finger, “but know that as soon as we leave you’ll feel bad again.”
Ted looked happier than he had been all week. “Awesome! Thanks, Jack!”
“Also, it won’t make you forget. You’ll still know what’s happening. You just won’t feel the negative emotions.”
“It almost sounds like you don’t want me to come.”
“I just want you to be aware that it won’t solve all your problems. I’ve tried helping people before and it’s harder than you’d think.”
Ted attended Jack’s workouts regularly for the remainder of the summer. When Ted and Jonie both came, Jack had the opportunity to move light between multiple people at the same time. This helped his concentration and strengthened his muscles.
He and Jonie also enjoyed Ted’s company, at least when Ted was lit up. They discussed plans for the future and, to Jack and Jonie’s surprise, Ted had decided he didn’t want to attend college. He claimed he never wanted to work an office job and after graduating high school he was going to pursue a music career. Neither Jack nor Jonie could talk him out of it and neither felt the time was appropriate to put too much pressure on him.
Jack felt he was helping Ted. The consistent meetings and the understanding on Ted’s part were key to actually helping Ted. At the end of each workout Jack would have to let go and watch the light slip away. Letting go was like watching a fistful of sand pass through his fingers. Jack always warned Ted when it was about to happen. Ted complained about how bad he felt when the light would leave but he never broke down as the woman in the supermarket did.
Alex was awaiting his induction into the group. Eduardo believed Alex was progressing well and was ready to teach him how to take his own servants. Alex planned to find enough servants to fill the lights of his mother, Nelson and Kate.
He was sitting on the gray leather sofa in their living room. His mother had found the sofa at a garage sale when they were younger. It now had puffs of white sticking out and a missing cushion.
The lock on the front door began to jiggle. His mom burst in with mail in her hands.
“More bills! They just never stop coming.”
She tossed the mail and keys on a card table in the corner that had once served as their dining table but had been converted to a catch all several years ago.
“I’ve been meaning to talk to you,” she said as she went into the kitchen. “Did you know I had a job when I was your age? I’ve been thinking, maybe you could start helping out around here.”
“I will be helping soon but not by getting a job.”
“You’ve got another way?” she grunted. She had started cleaning something and the sink was running.
“Yeah, I’ve been learning from Eduardo.”
“I’ve been learning from Eduardo!” Alex shouted over the sink.
“Oh, about your talent?” His mom turned off the water and took a seat next to him on the sofa.
“Yep. Eduardo has shown me how to make money.”
“I had a feeling it would pay off someday. So how do you make money?”
“Well, it’s a little complicated. First, you have to get someone’s light to flow to you naturally. There are ways to make it do this but it takes time.”
“Oh, what happens to the other person? Won’t they feel bad?”
“Yeah, they will. So we have to find people who deserve to feel bad like criminals. And they can’t help but feel bad unless you help them. I mean, not you of course. Someone like me. Someone will have to hold light on them or it will just come to me.”
“You’re going to be messing with criminals?”
“Well, we have to find people who are vulnerable and deserving. That’s part of the training. Eduardo has an ex-con. The guy murdered his wife but he’s already out of jail. The justice system’s a joke so now Eduardo is making sure he gets the punishment he deserves.”
“Okay, I think I’m following but how does that help me pay my bills?”
“If the person I’m are punishing wants to feel good then they have to pay me money. Once I get a few people I can be charging money all the time. It’s perfect. I’ll have an emotional high when they don’t pay and I’ll have money when they do. And they’re always going to want to pay when they can.”
“How much can you make doing this?”
“I’m not sure but Eduardo says some people live off it.”
Alex got up and grabbed his longboard.
“Where are you going?”
“I’m supposed to meet Kate.”
“I thought you all broke up?”
Alex paused in the doorway. “We’re back together again. You know we never break up for long.”
“Say hi to her for me!”
Alex shut the door. It was a breezy, cloudy summer day. Kate’s neighborhood was about a mile away. She had a small house but it was nicer than the trailer. They had newer furniture, family photos and other decorations on the walls.
Alex took a route that mostly followed neighborhood roads. He loved kicking the pavement and zooming along. I’m not ever going to work a job, he thought. And I’m not going to just pay bills. I’m going to build my own kingdom. Mom will see. I’m going to have a whole army of servants making sure our lives are perfect. We’re going to have all the light and money we could ever want. I’m going to build a huge house and get us all out of that trailer park.
Alex rang the bell to Katie’s door. She poked her head out. “We’re broken up, remember?”
Alex could see she was happy that he had come over. He hid how much information the light gave him and it gave him extra confidence which Katie found attractive.
“Oh come on. Just because I talked to Patricia. You know we were just messing around.”
“It looked like flirting to me. You know I don’t like when you talk to other girls.”
“But you know I’m going to make you a queen one day and no other guy can do that for you.”
Katie opened the door half way but stood in the entrance. “What about your friend Eduardo? He could make me a queen.”
“Okay, go ask him out.”
“Besides, you promised me I’d have servants.” She looked around and held up one hand in a shrug. “Looks like I’m just as just as well off without you.”