Alex quickly stepped forward and kissed her on the lips. “If I can’t get you any servants then I’ll be your servant.”
Katie was smiling. “Deal.” She stepped back into the house, reached back to grab his hand and pulled him through the door.
By the end of summer, Jack was doubting whether his power was of any use. He and Jonie had given up on their science experiments and the only person he had kind of helped was Ted.
One week before classes started students would return to school to receive their books and schedules. There were four lines in the auditorium organized by last name. At the front of each line was an administrator behind a window who would give a welcome message, a schedule and answer any questions about the new school year. During the school year these windows were used to sell tickets to sporting and theatrical events.
Jack saw Jonie near the front of her line. He waved to say hi as she was leaving but when he got her attention she made her way over to talk.
“Hey! I was hoping to catch you here! We need to meet later. Can you meet me at the Mean Bean after this?”
“Um, sure,” said Jack.
“Cool! See you there!”
Jack waved goodbye.
We’ve been hanging out every day. Why is she so anxious to meet? Jack wondered as a skimmed the room. The lines were moving slowly and he was uncomfortable being surrounded by students again. He noticed Alex had arrived. Ethan and his girlfriend Maddy were with Alex.
Ethan was tall and thin with long blond hair. From the back, he could be mistaken for a tall woman. Unlike the other skaters, he didn’t mark or pierce himself in any way. The only visual queue that indicated his clique was his wardrobe. He had a black t-shirt with a large, cartoonish skull and baggy jean shorts that went passed his knees. His girlfriend Maddy was a beautiful, naturally tan skinned brunette who was pretty enough to be one of the popular girls. She dressed like the popular girls too. She had on a white skirt with a red floral pattern and matching white sandals.
Scanning again, Jack noticed Kate was standing together in a different line. Fortunately, they hadn’t noticed him. Jack tried to remain inconspicuous by looking the other way and using other students to obstruct the view. He couldn’t help glancing over his shoulder. There was a high possibility that Alex now considered him an enemy. Jack tried to steal another quick glance but locked eyes with Alex.
“Welcome back, Jack!” Alex yelled over the noise. It was barely audible. Jack turned around and pretended not to hear. He remained forward facing until he reached the front of his line. By the time he had grabbed his things Alex’s group was about half way through their line. Jack watched out of his peripheral vision while making a quick escape outside.
Jack went straight to the coffee shop to meet Jonie. She was sitting right under the mascot painting. They had become less cautious about people overhearing their discussions of the light. People would most likely think they were crazy if they were overhead.
Jonie had her laptop open and a drink. She sat up and smiled when she saw him come in. Jack’s curiosity compelled him to forego ordering a coffee. He went straight to Jonie and sat across from her.
“Okay, I’ve got something to show you! I think you’re going to be excited.”
“What’s up?” asked Jack.
“Check out this website!” She turned the computer so they could both see the screen but the angle made it difficult for either to see the screen. Jack got up and sat beside her.
The site looked like something from the early internet. It lacked images and used various fonts and colored text. There was one textured background for the text and another that formed a border out the content. There was a lot of text and Jack wasn’t sure if Jonie intended for him to read it right then.
“What is this?” he asked, hoping to streamline the information.
Jonie looked at Jack while pointing her hands at computer. “It looks like it was made by someone else who can see the light, but they talk a lot about seeing different colors. Do you see different colors or just white?”
“Oh.” Jonie’s enthusiasm was quelled. “Maybe it’s not exactly the same thing but it sounds similar. Her name is Raina and there’s her email address. It wouldn’t hurt to reach out to her just to see.”
Jack tried skimming the text. There was a lot of information about different colors and feelings, interconnectivity, and as he scrolled down the same ideas seemed to be repeated. He was worried that the site may have been made by a lunatic.
“I know it’s poorly written but if there is someone besides Alex’s group that knows about the light–.”
“Have you read it? What is she saying?”
“She says she can see a light that corresponds to emotions, like you, but she says different emotions have different colors.” Jonie pulled the laptop to herself and began scrolling. “She talks about the light flowing in and out of rooms. She even talks about newborns and death.”
“Wow,” Jack muttered to himself.
“Unfortunately, that’s about all,” continued Jonie. “Her site is so disorganized and repetitive that I quit reading. The only other interesting thing I saw was that she talks about what some of the colors represent. Here it is.”
“Oh, there actually is a picture,” commented Jack. “Green is hope? That’s interesting.”
“Yeah, they don’t match cultural norms which makes it seem a little more credible. But you don’t see colors?”
“Nope. But it does similar to what I see. If anything, maybe she sees more than I do. I think I am going to email her. It can’t hurt.”
Jonie’s enthusiasm returned. “Let’s do it!”
They wrote an email introducing themselves, particularly Jack and his ability to see and move a light that could affect people’s emotions. They edited and overanalyzed the email for a while before agreeing it was sendable. Jonie let Jack send from his email address.
With the email making its way through the interwebs, conversation turned to class schedules. They were excited to discover they had college level physics and English together. Jack was excited to be taking calculus while Jonie was anxious about college applications. She felt as though her future was out of her hands.
When they stood to leave Jack checked his phone. Raina had already responded.
“She’s already replied!”
“Wow, that was fast!”
They quickly sat back down. It was a brief reply asking if they could meet in person but Raina lived over a thousand miles away in Miami, Florida. They wrote back telling her they were excited for a chance to meet her but that it wouldn’t work for logistical reasons.
Jack wanted this meeting to happen so he made a suggestion to Jonie. “Maybe this could be our big, senior year memory. We could take a road trip to meet her.”
“Yeah, that’s a good idea. I haven’t thought of anything else yet. I really need to get going though or else I’m going to be late for dinner. You know how my dad is. I’ll let you know as soon as I hear anything else.”
Raina responded again while Jonie was having dinner with her parents. The email contained contact information for someone named Tomomi who was only about an hour away. Jack sent Tomomi a similar email to the one they had sent Raina earlier. By morning he had received a response.
It’s good to hear from you. Raina told me you might be contacting me. Let’s meet this Sunday. You pick a place and I’ll drive to you.
Sunday was the last day of summer break. Jack let Jonie know about the emails. They spent Saturday making sure they were ready for the first day of school so they would have no reason to miss this meeting.
Jack wanted to choose the Mean Bean but thought it might be inappropriate. Instead he chose Cafe 301, an expensive diner with a more professional atmosphere. When he arrived he found Jonie, who was also habitually early, sitting at a table on the patio across from a petite Asian woman in her early thirties.
“Hi! I’m Jack.”
“Tomomi. Nice to meet you.” Jack was glad he picked Cafe 301. Tomomi was wearing a business suit and the mechanical greeting and smile she gave Jack made him think she must meet strangers as part of her work.
“I hope I haven’t missed much.”
“No, I just got here too,” said Jonie.
“Shall we go in?” asked Jack.
The restaurant was dimly lit. It had red brick walls. Jack had been there before with his family and knew that orders were taken at the back of the restaurant. There was a display of tempting pies by the register. Most of the items were out of Jack’s price range so he ordered a grilled cheese sandwich with a latte.
Tomomi sat at one of the black booths and Jonie took the chair across from her. Jack took the chair next to Jonie. The weight of the chair surprised Jonie and it let out a loud screech when she pulled it causing several other diners to turn and look. They were heavy, solid wood chairs. She lifted it completely off the ground.
“I wasn’t aware you were going to invite a friend,” said Tomomi.
“Yes, she’s the one who found Raina’s site and she has been helping me study the light.”
Jonie tried to scoot forward to the table but her chair squeaked again so she adjusted herself instead. Jack thought she looked uncomfortable.
Tomomi turned to Jonie. “Can you see the light, too?”
“No,” she answered. “I’m just trying to help Jack figure it out.”
“That’s nice. You’re a good friend but I don’t think you’ll be able to help much if you can’t see the light.” Jonie’s head dropped a little. The comment made some of her light disperse. Tomomi either didn’t notice or didn’t care. She turned her attention to Jack.
“There are only a few of us who can see the light. It is a gift but it also means you are going to have a hard time finding people who can help you use your gift. There are not many who can guide you.”
Jack interrupted. “I think I should tell you that I’ve already talked to some other people who can see the light and they offered to mentor me.”
“Who? Who did you talk to?”
“I’m not sure. They were part of some organization. I met a man named Eduardo who had his own servant. If you’re part of that group then I’m not interested. I won’t do that to people”
“I know who you’re talking about,” said Tomomi. She had an anxious expression. “They are bad people. I’m glad you didn’t join them.”
“Unfortunately, the person who introduced me to them goes to my school. I’m afraid it’s going to be awkward next year. Do you think I should I be worried?”
“Yes, probably. You should transfer schools if you can.”
Her solution seemed drastic to Jack. “Really? They are that dangerous?,” asked Jack who was beginning to perspire. “I’ve been worried and school starts tomorrow.”
Their order was called out. “I’ve got it,” said Jack. He got up carefully to avoid screeching his chair as Jonie had done. Tomomi’s remarks were stressing him. We made it a few weeks last year without much conflict but there is no way I’ll make it through a whole school year without a confrontation. What am I going to do? Fight Alex every time he messes with people? What if he tries to make me his servant? I’ve got to figure out how that works so I can stop him.
Jack brought the food and passed it out. “Okay, what do you know about them?”
“They recruit the selfish or use manipulative tactics to convince people to join them. They do take power over others who are helpless to resist, those who can’t see the light, and they feel they are entitled to hurt anyone who gets in their way. Anyone.” Tomomi picked up her fork and pointed it at Jack. “The main thing you should know is that they are reckless and will view you as an enemy, as long as you don’t join them. Stay away from that other student.”
“I’ll do my best.”
Jonie was quickly slurping down her soup.
“Really, it’s important for your safety and everyone else’s to stay away,” Tomomi reiterated. “I’m not kidding about changing schools if you can.”
Jack tried to change the subject. “Well, we contacted you because we want to learn more about the light. We’ve been trying to understand it but haven’t made much progress.”
“The light is emotion,” Tomomi said impatiently. She took a bite of her salad and started adding dressing to her liking.
Jonie interjected. “It’s obviously more complicated than that. People experience emotions. The light just correlates with emotion. Do you really think the light is emotion itself?”
Tomomi faltered. “Well I wasn’t trying to get so technical about it.”
Jack could tell that Jonie was still upset with Tomomi’s earlier remark. He tried to guide the conversation back to a useful topic. “Raina’s website talked a lot about color but I only see white. Do you see color?”
“I don’t. You and I are special, Jack, but Raina is in a class of her own. She’s beyond special. As far as we know, she is the only person who can see different colors of light. It’s like we see all the colors mixed together so they make white light but she sees through a prism. She has been studying the colors from a young age to figure out which colors are which emotions. For example, when someone is full of hope their light is greener than usual and happy people glow orange.”
“That’s amazing,” said Jack through a mouthful of grilled cheese.
“That’s part of what makes Raina so special. Not only does she see the different colors but she can move individual colors. Honestly, I don’t understand how that part works. Moving light is complicated enough. But then again I also can’t imagine what it’s like to not see the light at all like Jonie here.”
Jonie smiled and tried to hide annoyance which was impossible given the current company. She had already finished her soup.
“What I’m wondering, Jack, is how do you plan to use your gift?”
“I’m not sure. I know I want to use it for good but I’m having a hard time figuring out how to help people. I’ve stopped a fight and I’ve been helping a friend through a rough time.”
“Good. Then maybe you’ll consider joining us. We are helping people on a large scale.”
“I’ve got to be a little more cautious this time. I’ll want to know more before I make any decision.”
“Yes, I understand. Well, those who can see light have formed two organizations. One of the organizations, the one you’ve encountered, is motivated by power. We call their group the Hedonists since they use their gifts for their own pleasure. They just call themselves ‘the group’ and they do their best to pretend we don’t exist.
We’re a smaller group but we’re using our gifts to make the world a better place. If you want a community you have to choose between the two. Otherwise, you’re going to be on your own.”
Tomomi was so preoccupied with the conversation that she had hardly touched her salad.
“You make it sound like a choice between good and evil,” Jack replied. “Either that, or be a hermit I guess. Of course I would choose good but I haven’t been able to figure out how to use the light to help people.” Jack began to soothe himself by rubbing his cheek and chin. “What do you all do, exactly?”
“We balance the light. We call ourselves Balancers. You’ve contacted our leader, Raina. She has been slowly growing the group as we find more people who can see the light. It’s been difficult. Apparently, ours is the first generation that has been able to see it, making yours the second.
We have two core beliefs. First, people find contentment when they are equal with those around them and nobody is suffering. Negative people are the result of an accumulation of unfair, negative life experiences which in turn causes a disparity in light. We want to fix this so the world is a more fair place.
Second, we believe that because we have an opportunity to make the world a better place, we have a duty to make the world a better place. You have been trying to find ways to help people, so it sounds like you may be ready to take up that duty.”
Jack was getting impatient. Like Eduardo, Tomomi was holding back any actionable information. “I might be ready but I’m still confused about what you actually do,” huffed Jack.
“I’m getting there. I want you to understand why we do what we do.” Tomomi folded her arms on the table. Jack thought she looked like a teacher. He had finished his sandwich and moved on to the chips.
“Okay. We make the world a better place by digging paths. You saw how the Hedonist made a path to take someone else’s light. We make two-way paths. When people are connected by a two-way path, the light will naturally distribute itself equally across both people. If everyone in the world were connected with a network of two-way paths then everyone would have the same amount of light. Everyone would be content.”
“How do you know?” Jonie interjected, again. “What if there isn’t enough light for everyone?”
“When a baby is born, new light comes into the world with them. When someone dies their light goes out. That means each of us brings new light into the world and each of us takes it with us when we die. From our observations, babies bring a good amount of light, enough that if we were all at that level we should all be content. If you’ve never seen a birth, Jack, you should. It’s interesting to see the light scatter from the baby to the parents and then slowly flow back over the day. It’s a whole process.”
“I’m still not sure if this is the best way,” said Jonie. “Wouldn’t balancing all the light prevent anyone from ever feeling happy again?”
Tomomi paused a moment to swallow the bite she took when taking a quick break from talking. “Good question. Yes, there will be a price to pay but there are good reasons to give up emotional highs. For one, we’ll have a more peaceful world. People won’t feel strong hatred, jealousy, or anything that usually motivates them to hurt others. We also won’t have people like the Hedonists pursuing emotional highs at other people’s expense. No one will have an emotional advantage over anyone else. It will be the great equalizer. There won’t be highs or lows, just calm, peace, focus, and not only for you but for everybody no matter what they are facing in life.”
“How do you make two-way paths?” asked Jack.
“Well, every time light moves along a path you can imagine it like water flowing over a rock. If enough light flows often enough along a path it will wear down a riverbed. If you keep pushing in one direction then you dig a downward path with the water flowing one way. If you dig in both directions you end up with a lakebed. You could think of our two-way paths as a lakebed. All the light will settle.
If you want to help then you need to find people you encounter frequently and push light back and forth between them until a two-way path has formed. Kind of like what’s happening between you two.” She smiled.
Jonie sat up and looked as if she just started paying attention again. “What?”
“It’s just getting started, but I can tell you have pushed light back and forth between you two several times, haven’t you? It’s very light but it’s flowing!” Tomomi grinned.
Jack noticed for the first time. “It’s really subtle. I hadn’t even noticed before.”
“Jack! Are you kidding me?” Jonie growled. Her eyes were intense. “You’re messing with my emotions and you didn’t even notice?”
“No! I mean you can barely see it. It’s not bad.”
Tomomi was amused by the interaction and still not eating. “Don’t worry, it’s good progress. He hasn’t done anything to harm you and, if anything, he should keep making the path stronger. It would be good for both of you. Well, Jack? Can you think of anyone else who you could balance?”
“I guess I could try at school. We actually go back tomorrow. I’ll find some people I see everyday and start moving light between them.”
“Perfect! I’m glad I got to meet you and that you want to use your gift to help people.” Tomomi sat back and folded her hands in a way that indicated their meeting was coming to an end.
“Did you not like the salad?” asked Jack.
“I’m just not very hungry.”
Jack and Jonie shook Tomomi’s hand and they exchanged farewells. Jack didn’t realize how cool the restaurant was until he stepped outside into the warmth of the sun. When they reached the parking lot Jonie let out the irritation she had been trying to hide.
“I don’t like her and I don’t know about this whole balancing thing. What if people don’t want to be emotionally connected like that? Are we connected now?”
Jack wanted to calm Jonie. “She was a little rude but I don’t think it was on purpose. Like I said, we’re barely connected. I can see a stream when we’re close together and I look for it but I had never even noticed it before.”
“She noticed right before we left. She had to stare at us for a long time before she could even see it.”
Jonie was fuming. “Are you really going to start messing with people’s emotions now? I know you want to do good but maybe you should think about this some more. A lot of people probably don’t want this.”
Jack was getting annoyed. He just wanted some direction.“Who? People who would be happy at other’s expense? I have to do what I think is right.”
“Some people would keep the good times even if it meant there would be bad times, too. They should have a choice over their own emotions.”
“Well they don’t. I’ve got the power to make that decision.” Jack slapped his chest. He realized he was getting angry and tried to calm the situation. “I’ll think about it some more but I’m not sure what other path I can take.”
“What if there are other groups she doesn’t know about with other paths to try? Why believe that there are only two?”
“I would like to have other people around that know what it’s like to see the light and I would like to learn from them. You don’t know what it’s like.”
“Just please let me know before you balance me with other people, Jack.”
“Okay, I will.”
The argument ended there. Jonie still wasn’t happy but needed to leave since it was a school night. Jack assumed this was his decision to make and his alone. He had the gift and he trusted his own judgement.
The school always had a freshness on the first day back. The custodial staff had time to clean over the summer so rooms were in pristine condition compared to most of the year. Students would stake out their desks, homework packets were handed out and syllabi were briefed. The routine didn’t yet feel routine.
Although Jack didn’t enjoy school he did enjoy the first day. He decided to treat the first day as he always had before he knew he could move light. The inevitable difference this year was Alex. Jack went to every class with a sense of dread that Alex would be there.
Third period was AP Physics. He and Jonie sat next to each other. She had seen alex in the hall but had not had any classes with him either. They were mostly in advanced classes and the only advanced class Alex would take is calculus, and that was optional. There was a good chance they could avoid him completely.
The physics classroom was different from most other classrooms. Instead of carpeted floors there was tile. The room had counters along the walls, cabinets, and an emergency shower in case a student came in contact with dangerous chemicals. The counters were covered with scientific equipment such as Bunsen burners, test tubes, and even a few glass cages with various types of lizards. Instead of desks there were tall, black tables with stools. Jack found it invigorating.
Their teacher handed out lab packets and spent most of the time going over safety. Being a college level course, the students were free to choose their own lab partners. Jack and Jonie were happy to find out they were able to work together all year. Both were naturally bright with emotional energy. That class flew by.
Jack had the same lunch period as Ted. They went off campus to buy sandwiches. The commute and wait for food took most of they break. Ted had seen Alex around but had not shared any classes with him either.
Jack and Jonie’s other shared class, AP English, was sixth period. Jack had to cross the whole school. If he didn’t hurry he would be late.. As he was rushing through the hallways he saw Alex relaxing by a locker. Alex noticed him as well and motioned him to come over. Jack thought that it would be wise to see what Alex wanted but, never one to be late, Jack waved him off and continued to class. Jack’s light naturally dimmed a little.
By the time Jack arrived there were no seats next to Jonie. The classroom was nice. Ms. Whitaker kept live, potted plants near the windows. She had the windows slightly propped open to let in fresh air. Jonie’s light had also dimmed. Hers was down to a normal level.
They were given a long reading list for the year. More than Jack thought was possible. His routine would have to change to incorporate nightly reading. Other students seemed to be thinking the same thing. The tension could be felt but Jack didn’t have to. He could see it. Jack realized for the first time that the teacher couldn’t see everyone’s reaction the same way. Every other year when a difficult assignment was given Jack assumed the teacher noticed the student’s lights go dim.
However, Ms. Whitaker had been teaching AP English long enough to know what the students were thinking before she had even passed out the assignment. She assured the students that they could manage if they made time to read every night and that her students in previous years were able to get through the list. She also assured the students that there would be even more reading assigned in college and that this was just preparation.
Jack met Jonie in the hall after class. They only had a few minutes to talk. Jack seventh period Spanish down the hall but there was no need to rush. Jonie had swim practice which allowed her to take a longer break since students on swim team were given time to change and warm up.
“Could you tell how upset everyone was when we got the reading list?” Jack asked.
“Yeah, who wouldn’t be? I’m not sure I’m even going to be able to read this much. It’s a book a month.”
“I mean, I can see it,” Jack said, trying to be discreet, “How could you tell?”
“The same way anyone else does. People’s faces, the grumbles and sighs, the restlessness.”
“Huh, that’s interesting. I don’t think I’ve ever had to pay as much attention to that. It seems really subtle.”
“Well, we’ve only got a few minutes and I’ve got some back news to tell you. I’ve got a class with Alex.”
“Oh no. I wonder if there is a way to get back on okay terms with him. I don’t think he’ll want to fight all year either.”
Jonie had a long pause. “And if there isn’t? I have no way to defend myself. It’s kind of scary.” Jonie looked down helplessly. She had her arms wrapped around a binder. Jack had never seen her this way before.
“I don’t know. Can’t you switch classes?”
“No. It would mess up my whole schedule. I’d either have to drop classes I want on my applications or I’d have to drop swim team.”
“I don’t know what to tell you.” Jack scratched the back of his head. “But like I said, I’ll try to talk to him and see if there’s a way we can just stay out of each other’s way. Plus they may still be hoping I join them. Make sure to tell me if he messes with you at all.”
Jonie paused to think a moment. Her eyes were on the ground and she was biting her top lip. She suddenly snapped out of it. “Okay, I’ve got to get to practice. I’ll call you tonight!”
Jack had no plan to protect Jonie when he wasn’t there. The only solution he could see was for her to change her schedule. Her safety was more important than her college prospects.
Surely Alex knew they were best friends. Everyone at school knew. Jonie was either protected or she was going to have a target on her back. If Alex attacked her in class there would be nothing Jack could do.
Shortly after Jack arrived home he got a call from Ted. “Hey, man. How was your first day?”
“Pretty good. Jonie and I have two classes together and I think I’m going to like most of my classes. How’s yours?”
“They’re okay. So I don’t have any classes with Alex but I have one with Kate and Maddy and a couple with Son. Should I be worried?”
“No, I don’t think so. I’m pretty sure Alex is the only one who can move light so it sounds like you’re safe. Are you excited for senior year?”
“I don’t know. I’m not feeling great right now. Want to meet at the Mean Bean?”
“Is it because of school or your parents?”
“I don’t even know anymore. It’s weird being here alone with my dad. We’re not that close but I don’t want to go to a new school my senior year.”
“Sorry, I understand but I can’t go out right now. We’re about to have dinner here.”
There was a moment of silence. Finally Ted muttered, “Okay, talk to you later.” He hung up before Jack had a chance to respond. Jack was slightly offended. He had spent half the summer helping Ted feel better and Ted couldn’t expect Jack to be ready to meet at a moments notice.
Jonie called later that night.
“Hey! How was the first day of our last year?” she asked.
“Good. But we need to talk. I’m really worried about you and Alex.” Jack began pacing in his room.
“There is no way for me to stop him if he does something to you and I have a feeling he will do something to you at some point during the year.”
“Jack, I think you’re worrying too much. Alex is a jerk and I’m sure he will mess with me at some point but he messes with everyone. He moves on quickly though.”
Jack was concerned about her lack of concern but there was no way to force her to drop the class. “Are you sure? There is nothing I can do to help you if he is hurting you. If you stay in that class you’re basically on your own.”
“You’ve moved the light from me before and I know what it feels like. I’ll know if he’s doing it and I’ll take action if it becomes too much.” Jack sat on his bed. Jonie had convinced him it may not be as bad as he thought. “Also,” she continued, “since he knows I’m friends with you it’s likely he won’t want to start a fight.”
Jack wasn’t sure whether the Hedonists avoided confrontations. From what little he knew, they wanted to ride emotional highs – potentially by targeting easy victims – not go to battle.
“That’s a good point. You’re right. Maybe that will be enough to keep him from messing with you.” Jack was mollified and they happily discussed the rest of their first day. Both were excited to be in serious college level classes.
Much of the freshness of the new school year had faded by the second day. The new routine was starting to become real. Teachers were lecturing and assigning homework. Jack focused more on learning class expectations than moving light.
Jack’s calculus teacher did not rely on cold calling. They were given a skills assessment which Jack quickly finished. Math came naturally to him and he was always fast at the cost of making a few sloppy mistakes. After he handed in the assessment he was expected to sit quietly. Most of the other students were still working. He had time to create paths.
Layla and Aiden were sitting in the front row and still working on their assessments. They were in clear view. He decided they would be easy to connect without anyone noticing him staring.
Aiden was about five foot eight with dark hair and looked like he could be of Italian heritage. He was clean cut and dressed in nice polo shirts. Jack and Aiden had been friends in elementary school but ended up at different middle schools. By the time they were in high school together, social cliques prevented them from reconnecting.
Jack had never spoken to Layla before. She was a short, petite girl of Middle Eastern heritage. She was a cheerleader and most of her friends were either on the cheer team or in the popular group. Jack was jealous that she could be popular, beautiful and in advanced classes with him.
He had to be extra careful to keep the paths flowing equally in both directions so he squeezed a piece of light, making sure none of it slipped away. He started dragging the light back and forth between Aiden and Layla. It was a small amount so they wouldn’t feel ill at the fluctuating emotional energy. The work was monotonous and about as challenging as pushing a pencil back and forth across his desk.
Occasionally Jack would stop to check his progress, hoping to see light flowing between Aiden and Layla naturally. By the time class ended he had made no noticeable progress. Jack conjectured that the light was too small to create a pathway but he didn’t have an alternative. Balancing the light was going to be more complicated than he had first thought. At that pace it may take a whole semester to create a single two-way path, if not longer. What if he wasn’t creating a path at all?
Jonie’s voice was still in the back of his mind telling him that he shouldn’t be creating a path at all. Aiden and Layla weren’t friends and it seemed unlikely that they would want to be emotionally connected. Regardless, it was Jack’s prerogative and he decided he would go through with it. At least the lack of progress indicated that he wasn’t hurting anyone.
Weeks went by and he continued pushing the light back and forth, back and forth, with no noticeable results. The Balancers were less hands on than the Hedonists. He needed to reach out to Tomomi for direction.
How are you?
I’ve started balancing a pair of students at my school but it’s really slow. I take a little light and push it back and forth between two students. Is that what I’m supposed to do? Do you have any suggestions to make it go faster?
I use a small amount of light because I don’t want them to feel anything. Your advice would be appreciated.
Jack only had to wait about an hour for a response.
It sounds like you are doing it right. Good job!
It is hard work that requires patience but it is the right thing to do.
I agree that you should use a small amount of light so the other students don’t feel what you are doing, especially since they are trying to pay attention in class. We are trying to achieve an emotionally balanced, happy world and we don’t want to achieve that by putting people through the complete opposite experience.
I’m really glad you have started. Please let me know if you have any other questions. I’m always here to help when you need it!
If the balancers are right then I don’t have a superpower at all. I’ve got a responsibility to do a lot of boring, tedious work. Why must doing the right thing always be the harder path? At least the Hedonists were having fun and enjoying their power. There’s just no way I could hurt people the way they do.
I wonder how they create a one-way path. They must have to pull light from various sources and put it on their target, then move the light from their target to themselves. Over and over. It sounds even more difficult than creating a two-way path. At least I can use the same light and just move it back and forth.
Besides the freedom to go out to lunch, senior year was not much different from previous years. There were more assemblies and teachers were a little nicer but most days it was easy to forget about the looming end to this stage of life.
Moving light became boring in comparison to homework. Jack was enjoying his advanced courses and not enjoying sending the light back and forth between two strangers. Still, whenever he had free time in calculus he would tightly grasp a small amount of light and bounce it back and forth between Aiden and Layla.
Jack’s shyness benefited him. Whether students were expected to sit quietly or had free time to visit and walk around, Jack could keep to himself without anything thinking his behaviour was unusual.
A few more weeks after he had emailed Tomomi he began to see the fruits of his labor. There was a link between Aiden and Layla. It was very faint but there was a constant stream flowing between them. Layla had more light and it was trickling to Aiden but the rate was very slow. It was like water slowly dripping out of a bathtub and could take hours or days to level which would never happen since the natural rate of flow was faster.
Jack wondered how he could be sure that the light would flow equally in both directions. He wondered what the consequence would be if they weren’t balanced perfectly. He wanted to ask Tomomi but he always felt he was bothering her whenever he contacted her. He also wanted to be honest with Jonie so he decided he would tell Jonie what he was doing when she came over Friday to do homework.
Jonie was in her swivel chair staring up at the wall in front of her. She seemed to be in deep concentration. Jack was itching to tell her about his progress and decided to interrupt her thoughts.
“So, I’ve been balancing Layla and Aiden. I’m actually seeing progress for the first time.”
She turned around to look at Jack still in thought. “Do you mean the light?”
“I thought you weren’t going to do that. Will Layla and Aiden be linked forever now? What happens if they never see each other again after graduation? You’re messing with people without understanding the consequences.”
Jack tensed. “I’m trying to do something good and I could use your support.” The words came out louder than he intended. He had set Jonie off.
“Are you actually trying to help them or are you trying to make yourself feel important? You keep calling this a power but maybe it’s just another way to experience the world. Everybody has different capabilities, advantages and disadvantages. I can lap you in a swimming pool but that doesn’t mean I have powers. You can move emotions. Good for you!
“And think about this: What do most superheroes do?”
Jonie paused long enough that Jack knew she was expecting an answer. “I never said I was a superhero but anyway, what do you think they do?”
“They use their powers reactively, not proactively. Superman doesn’t go around experimenting with his speed and strength trying to figure out how he can make the world a better place. He uses his powers to defend people from the bad things. If you were Superman you would be trying to fly people to work so they could avoid their commutes or applying for jobs in construction.”
This was something Jack hadn’t considered. Perhaps he shouldn’t be trying to fix the world. Perhaps he should be fighting Alex and Miguel and their group, defending the people who would become their servants. Jack was now questioning everything he had done with his power up to that point. What had he done to Layla and Aiden? Could paths be undone? “You know what, you actually make a really good point.”
Jonie continued, “Maybe you should stop messing with people and think about how you can make sure everyone is safe from Alex.”
Jack realized this may be more personal for Jonie than she was letting on. “But I don’t even have a class with Alex.”
“Well, if you want to use your power for good, that’s how you can do it. No one else can defend themselves from Alex and you know he is going to hurt someone. It may be me or someone else. I always thought he was bad before but this year he is so cocky. Every time he says something I want to slap his stupid face.”
“So you think I could be a superhero?” asked Jack. “But it would mean acting reactively, stopping Alex from doing bad.”
Jonie let out a sigh. “You do have a power, Jack. Honestly, I’m a little jealous. You know, I try to be the best at everything I do but with this I can’t even directly participate. All I can do is help you. It didn’t bother me at first but now that I’m around Alex I’m vulnerable and I hate it. He’s also a jerk in class. He’s so disrespectful to Ms. Singh. When she tells him to be quiet he basically laughs in her face and I know there’s nothing any of us can do.”
“What does she do?”
“She just shakes her head and tries to continue lecture. What else can she do?”
“Well, what can I do? I’m not even in your class.”
“I don’t know, Jack. Just promise you’ll help me if I need it.”
“Of course. I mean, I still don’t know what I can do but I won’t let him hurt you if I can stop it.”
“I know.” She seemed unsettled but neither had a solution for their situation.
After his reprimanding from Jonie, Jack decided not to use his power unless it was to help someone solve a problem. He wanted to be a superhero even if there were few opportunities to help people. Even with fewer opportunities for action, it was less boring than balancing people.
Ted was still a consistent source of good works. He had not yet adjusted to his parents divorce. Everyone’s light fluctuates but they have a default. There is a center about which they usually fluctuate and the amount of fluctuation depends on how emotionally stable the person is. Jack had observed that whether Ted was having a good day or a bad day, his light was relative to a new low.
Their meetings had become less frequent during the school year due to schedule conflicts and partially due to Jack giving this work lower priority than balancing. Now that Jack’s focus had changed, he decided to stay out late to help Ted after his guitar practice. Jack went to the Mean Bean early and filled his light before Ted arrived.
“Hey!” Ted sat with Jack without ordering anything.
“Hey! You know I shouldn’t be out this late with school tomorrow.”
“Whoa! You offered to help me.”
“Yeah, sorry. I just don’t want this to go too late.”
“I don’t drink coffee this late anymore. It messes with my sleep. I came to call in a favor.”
Jack was taken aback and raised his voice. “Are you kidding? I’ve been helping you for months. I’m doing you a favor just by inviting you here.” He looked around to see that some of the other patrons were giving him dirty looks and his face burned red.
“Yeah, but you also said you’d help me with Preeti. You know the Fall Dance is coming up?”
Jack had forgotten this promise. He pretended to find dances boring but in truth he didn’t want to dance in front of other people. “I’m not going to go but maybe I can help you ask her though. Have you talked to her before?”
“No, so I’ll have to play it by ear. I want you to fill her up with light right before I go talk to her. My plan is to make her think talking to me is what makes her feel good so she’ll want to spend more time with me.”
Jack had assumed he was going to ask for the opposite. “I’m not sure it works that way. If she has high emotional energy she may be feeling too good about things the way they are and not want a date. Maybe she’ll turn you down because she’ll want to go by herself or she’ll feel too confident about getting asked by some other guy she already likes.
“What if I dim her light so she’s feeling bad about herself. Then she might feel honored that you asked her to the dance.” Jack believed what he had just said but felt sick about it as soon as it was out. Making Preeti, who was a third party in all this, feel bad about herself to manipulate her into dating Ted was not a superhero move.
“I don’t know,” said Ted. “If she’s feeling bad maybe she won’t feel like going to the dance or won’t feel like talking. Doesn’t a dim light make someone feel angry and defensive? I mean, I’ve had low energy lately I usually don’t feel like talking to anyone.”
Jack sat back to think. Perhaps there was a way to combine the strategies. He took a sip of his coffee and snatched up little bits of light to give to Ted. “How about this: I’ll make her dim so for a moment she’s feeling hopeless, like she may not go to the dance because no one will ask her. Then when you start talking to her I will increase her light so she suddenly feels good. It will seem like you’ve lifted her spirits and that’s when you can ask her.”
“Yeah, that might work! Also, there’s a perfect time tomorrow. We have an assembly and she always hangs out by the art room after.”
“Isn’t she usually with Chelsea and her other friend?”
“Liz. Yeah, I know but she’s always with her friends. With your help I think I’ve got a good chance.”
“Okay, we can try it. Also, please don’t say anything to Jonie about this.”
“Oh yeah, I was going to say the same thing to you.”
“Well, we should get going. I hope that was helpful.”
“Yeah, thanks. I need all the relief I can get. I’ve been really low. I’m not even sure it’s just about my parents anymore. I just feel depressed all the time. Which, by the way, I’ve been meaning to apologize that I haven’t been hanging out with you and Jonie as much anymore. I just haven’t been up to it.”
“Don’t worry about it. I’m on a new mission to help you until you get better but unfortunately tonight is over. I’m going to have to let go of the light.”
“Maybe next time we can meet for longer?”
When Jack finished his nightly routine he noticed an email from Tomomi.
How are things going?
I haven’t heard from you for a while. Let me know if you’re still making progress balancing students at your school.
Jack wasn’t sure how to answer so he procrastinated.
The next day at school, he, Jonie and Ted sat together during the assembly. It was another senior only assembly to drum up school spirit for the start of basketball season. The assemblies took place in the gym. There were enough bleachers to seat the whole student body and did for three assemblies a year. Those were the only assemblies that freshman and sophomores attended. For reasons Jack didn’t understand, there were assemblies on a monthly basis for seniors.
All of the students were clustered in one section on the bleachers. There were separate cheer and dance groups that performed and speeches by the coaches about how the team needs for support from the student body.
The dance team took the floor and the loud music gave the three an opportunity to speak with some privacy. Ted leaned around Jonie. “Are you ready?” he asked Jack.
“Ready for what?” Jonie interjected.
Jack leaned over and spoke as quietly as he could. “After this he’s going to ask out Preeti.”
“He’s going to ask out Preeti and I’m going to help him.”
Ted jabbed Jack in the arm. Jonie jabbed Ted’s arm and yelled, “Why didn’t you tell me? I could have talked to her for you.”
Ted was rubbing his arm. “I was planning to tell you after in case she says no.”
“Aww you’re so in love,” Jonie teased.
“Great! This is why I didn’t want you to know.”
“Why does Jack know?”
“I’m going to help him,” Jack shouted over the dance music. The routine came to an end and there was a moment of silence as the girls ran off the stage.
Jonie had locked eyes with Jack. She seemed to know what Ted was referring to but in need of confirmation. “You don’t mean– No, Jack. You can’t be serious.”
“I asked him to,” whispered Ted. “I just need a little help.”
The principal took the stage for one of his motivational speeches. Other students would be able to hear them more easily.
“You guys are messed up. You’re going to play with her emotions to get her to go to the dance with you?”
Ted spoke too loudly for Jack’s comfort. “What’s the difference between doing that and buying a girl presents or flowers? Big gestures are all about influencing her emotions in your favor. But now Jack can do it even better. He doesn’t even have to wonder if it will work.”
It came from a girl sitting behind them. Jonie whispered anyway, “Usually a girl wants to get to know you first. Those big gestures won’t work if you don’t know her.”
Jack jumped in. “How would you know? You’ve never had a boyfriend.”
Jack turned to see a girl with her finger on her lips and was embarrassed. He hardly talked at all in school and wanted to keep that reputation. Being a quiet kid, he felt every word carried more weight for his reputation.
After a few minutes of silence Jonie whispered, “Okay, I’m coming with you guys to watch.”
Jack put his finger to his lips.
“Please don’t,” said Ted.
A sigh came from behind them but Jonie continued anyway. “You’re so embarrassed.”
“Yes, I am. I’m not even sure I’m going to do it.”
Jack wouldn’t speak but he could see that Ted’s light was low, as usual. It would be especially difficult for Ted to approach Preeti given how he was feeling. Jack moved light to Ted, boosting his confidence. Ted looked over knowingly and nodded in appreciation.
When the assembly ended, Ted remained seated as the other students made their way out.
“What’s going on?” asked Jack. “Are you ready to do this?”
“I want to make sure she’s there. It will look creepy if I’m standing there waiting for her.” He took a deep breath. “Okay, let’s go.”
They made their way down the hall. Jack was nervous. When they were near he moved a chunk of light from Preeti. He saw her bend forward. It must have been close to the same feeling Mr. O'Connor and Jonie had but he was careful not to take too much light. “Okay, now’s your chance.”
“I don’t know.”
“Stop being a baby,” said Jonie. “The worst that can happen is she says no.”
“I already moved the light. Go. Now.”
Jack and Jonie watched as Ted approached. Jack wasn’t sure about timing but he started feeding the light back into her. She looked confused, then uncertain. Jack’s plan was to replace the light he had taken, then add some of his own light to give her an emotional high. However, the conversation only lasted a few seconds and Ted was coming back. Preeti and her friends were watching him, then they started giggling.
“She already has a date.”
“Sorry, Ted.” Jonie suddenly went from making fun to sympathetic.
“Maybe we used the wrong plan,” offered Jack. “Maybe I should have just kept her light high the whole time.”
“I don’t think it would have helped,” said Ted.
“Well, at least you asked her. That took a lot of guts,” said Jack. Ted nodded and smiled. “I think you felt me give you light during the assembly.” Jack smiled at Jonie, “I didn’t want him to chicken out. But I’m about to let go. Are you ready?”
Jack let go and Ted’s light scattered. He looked upset and quickly started to walk away. Jack and Jonie followed.
“Are you okay?” asked Jonie.
“Do you need me to put some light back?” Jack didn’t wait for response but added some back anyway.
Ted turned around. He had a tear on his cheek. “Sorry, with everything going on I guess I didn’t realize how much it would hurt. I hate this stupid school.”
“It’s okay, Ted. We’ll find you someone else,” said Jonie. “You’re a good guy I can help you find a date.” She looked over to Jack for further encouragement.
Jack thought something was off. Ted liked Preeti but it was a crush from a distance. “I’m going to let go of some light again just to see something.” Jack loosed his grip. The light started slipping away. It seemed almost as if Ted was repelling the light. Something was seriously wrong.
The bell rang signaling everyone to go to class. Jack and Jonie were headed to AP English together but Ted was going the other way. “I’ll skip today,” said Jack. “Ted needs help.” Jonie nodded and went to class. Jack and Ted quietly slipped out of one of the side doors of the school. It was Jack’s first time to skip.
“Something’s wrong. I’m getting worried about you.” Once again, Jack tried letting go of the light he had been pushing onto Ted. It quickly slipped away. “You’re not retaining light somehow. I’m afraid to completely let go.”
“What do you mean?” asked Ted, even though he had an idea.
“It’s just slipping away. You have been getting dimmer since your parents divorce. Before that you were gradually getting angrier at the school until you planned not to go to college and I think the rejection may have put you over the top. I think you might be seriously depressed or something.”
“Maybe we can meet more often. It’s been hard since school started.”
“No,” said Jack. “I think it’s the opposite. You’ve been finding ways to avoid dealing with your problems. You need to work through it. You’ve been at a low point and I think by continually filling you, you’ve been able to ignore your problems instead of confronting them. It’s like you’re using the light as a drug.”
Ted turned and began walking away. “That’s crazy Jack.”
“Is it?” Jack jogged and caught up with him. “It is really that crazy?”
They walked a few paces. Ted was visibly angry. “I mean, I don’t know. It’s just easier to focus on my guitar or make you make the pain go away. Honestly, I’ve been hoping my parents get back together. Their divorce even hasn’t been finalized yet.”
“I think you’ve got to stop thinking like that. It’s not helping you and I think I’ve made it so the light just slips off you.”
“Okay, well how can I get better?”
“I don’t know.”
“I can’t be depressed the rest of my life, Jack. You’re the one who’s supposed to have all these powers over emotions. What do I do?”
“Maybe your parents divorce and start processing it. You can’t keep avoiding negative things that have happened.”
Ted and Jack spent the afternoon hanging out in Ted’s car, driving around and enjoying themselves. They grabbed some fast food chicken nuggets and hung out in a church parking lot. When it was time to go, Jack warned Ted that he was going to be in pain. Certainly emotional pain and possibly some temporary physical pain. He let the light slip and it dimmed so low that Jack almost grabbed the light again in fear. Ted hung his head and looked miserable.
“If you can’t take it anymore, let me know, okay? Take care of yourself.”
“This is going to be tough. I don’t know how long I’m going to last like this.”
“What do you mean?”
“It just hurts. I’ve got to get better.”
Jack felt awful but couldn’t follow Ted around all the time to keep him lit. “Please, call me if you need me to give you some relief.”
“Okay,” said Ted. Jack got out of his car and waved goodbye. Ted drove off without responding.
After a few days with no reply, Tomomi tried again.
Did you get my last email? I’m just checking up to see how your progress is going. Don’t worry if you haven’t made much yet and feel free to reach out if you need to talk.
The only thing Jack was becoming more sure of was that he had no idea how to help people with the light. The Hedonists found something that worked. Unfortunately, it was pure evil. The Balancers had a goal but the goodness of the goal was ambiguous. However, the Balancers did know more about the emotional energy than Jack. Jack had recently nearly destroyed one of his best friends emotionally and decided it may be best to do as Tomomi asked. He could continue his work on Layla and Aiden. At least he would have company and there was someone else to blame if all went wrong.
I am sorry I took so long to respond. I have been busy with the new school year.
I have been making progress. There are two students who sit near the front in my calculus class who I have been connecting.
I do have a couple of questions. How do I know they are equally balanced? I’m afraid of giving more light to one of them than the other. Also, how do we know for sure this is the right thing to do? I don’t want to mess up anybody if we find out they are less happy because we balanced them.
Tomomi responded quickly, as usual.