Guiding Light: Part 4

“Hi Jack,

I’m glad to hear you are making some progress!

Let me start by answering your second question. Do you think some people should get to feel better or have more emotional stability based on luck or how they were born? Would you rather live your life going through emotional highs and lows, or be able to face every day with an even temperament?

One thing I’d like to suggest is that you look up some Buddhist teachings. Some of their philosophy influenced how Raina came up with the idea of balancing. Keep in mind that she grew up in Mexico, though, and is not Buddhist.

As for getting the balance between your classmates perfect, don’t worry about it. Just get as close as you can. If you cannot see the difference then it will not be enough for them to feel. Besides, nothing in this life is perfect! Just do your best!

I will check in again soon.

Best regards,

Tomomi”

Jack thought the Balancers may be onto something. They had certainly thought about the implications of a balanced world more than he had. He decided he would continue balancing but, just to be safe, he wouldn’t make any paths too strong until he knew more. Now that a connection had begun to form between Aiden and Layla, he decided he would switch to another pair of students.

***

Halloween was approaching and Jack wanted to find a new pair of students that he could link. His Spanish class had a mix of students from all grade levels. There were two freshman girls who sat across the room that would make easy targets and as an added benefit, he didn’t know them or their friends and wouldn’t have to worry about the aftermath if linking them went wrong. Besides, he was still only going to create a light connection.

Unfortunately, Ted had recovered very little. His light was consistently low and his personality had changed making him difficult to be around. Jack discussed what had happened with Jonie and they both agreed to endure Ted’s company for the sake of his recovery.

Jack shared everything with Jonie. Hiding his balancing work and its associated struggles and successes was difficult. He decided enough time had gone by since their last argument that he could say something again.

On a cool October evening he and Jonie met at an outlet mall. It was a strip of well maintained storefronts connected by a sidewalk. Some of the stores had seasonal decorations and a temporary Halloween supply store occupied one of the few vacant spaces.

Fall was Jack’s favorite time of year. The cool weather was a relief from summer and he enjoyed wearing light jackets. Holidays were fast approaching. His light was naturally bright and he decided it was as good a time as any to let Jonie know about rejoining the balancers. They were walking past a clothing store which caught Jonie’s attention. She was window shopping the displays of women’s clothing leaving Jack with nothing to do.

“So, you remember Tomomi from the Balancers?”

Jonie side stepped away from the glass and they continued their walk. “Yeah?”

“I’ve been in touch with her. You know I discuss everything with you. Well anyway, I want you to know she convinced me to keep balancing and I have started again.”

“What did she say to convince you? I thought we decided it was a bad idea.”

“She just convinced me that life could be better if our emotions were balanced. But I’m only digging light paths until I know more about what happens. If it’s bad or people don’t want it then they won’t really be affected. People will be stabilized a little but not so much that their emotions won’t go up and down.”

Jonie went silent. After they had walked about a store length Jack finally asked, “Well? Aren’t you going to say anything?”

“Can you just take me home?” She was serious and her light was dim.

“What? Why?”

“You are messing with people’s lives like it’s nothing. I thought you better than that, Jack. Maybe we don’t know each other as well as you thought.”

“We’ve been friends for our whole lives. You probably know me better than anybody. I’m supposed to be better than what, someone who keeps trying to find ways to help people? I’m trying to do something good.”

“Yeah, but it’s not clear what good is! Anyway, I don’t want to fight about this now. Please just take me home.”

“I see you’re upset. And you know I mean that literally. Here.” Jack moved some light from a few passersby to Jonie.

“That’s not what I want Jack. Just because I’m not angry right at this moment doesn’t mean I’ve forgiven you for what you are doing and it will just come back as soon as you let go of the light anyway.” She stopped walking and crossed her arms.

“Fine!” said Jack. He let go of the light letting her anger return. “I hope you think about it though and get over it soon. I need someone to talk to. I’m doing the best I can. It’s what I think is right and I’m being cautious about it. Isn’t that all we can ever do?”

Jack saw his pleading soften her a little. He knew Jonie was stubborn and wouldn’t change her mind about being taken home. She didn’t speak to him the whole way. Once they arrived she hopped out of the car and grabbed her stuff.

“Thanks, Jack.”

“Bye.”

“Just know you could people. You may have even been the one who hurt Ted. I know it’s by accident and I know you’re trying to help but it’s dangerous.”

“You think Ted is my fault?”

“Bye, Jack.” She turned and walked towards her house, not looking back.

Jack felt an emptiness as he drove away. He had a sure way to feel better. He drove back to the boba tea bar, grabbed a deck of cards, a tea, and a bunch of light. Still, his mind was nagging him. By trying things, exploring to find what was good, he had betrayed and hurt his best friend. Though he didn’t feel the pain and regret, the experience was similar to watching a doctor amputate an anesthetized hand.

The next day, Jack saw Jonie in AP Physics. It was a lecture day so the students quietly took notes during class. He and Jonie didn’t speak. When class let out, the teacher waved Jack over. She was leaning on her desk.

“Hi Jack, how’s it going?”

“Okay.”

“So, I’m not sure what’s going on between you but Jonie emailed me last night requesting a new lab partner. I’ve assigned you to work with Aiden for the rest of the course.”

“Okay.” Jack put his head down and left.

The words were a punch to the gut. Jack couldn’t remember a time Jonie was this angry with him. Aiden was a particularly strange choice for a new lab partner. Earlier in the semester he had treated Aiden as an experiment. He wondered if Jonie had somehow changed the lab partners this way on purpose.

Jack thought that Jonie may be terminating their friendship. He tried catching her after English but she pretended not to see him.

“Hey, Jonie!” Jack yelled, then became self-conscious about shouting in school.

She stopped and faced him but had a neutral expression.

“I just wanted to say I’m sorry. I understand why you got mad.”

“Jack, everything has gotten so complicated with this light thing. It’s your whole life now. Hanging out hasn’t been the same and in a few months we’ll go our separate ways anyway. It wouldn’t hurt to spend more time apart now.”

This caught Jack by surprise. He suppressed a lump that formed in his throat. Another girl from the swim team was flagging Jonie. “Okay.”

As Jonie turned and left Jack felt a pang of loneliness and a heaviness in his chest. Jonie was his childhood friend and his only other friend at school, Ted, was trapped in a depression that may partially have been Jack’s fault. Jack shed a few tears as he drove home from school. There was no one to call that evening and no one would call him. He wondered if this is what college would really be like. Not some new life where he would be cool and have lots of friends but more of the same without his childhood friends as Ted believed.

Jack locked himself in his room as soon as he got home. He had tried to help Ted by masking his pain with good emotions and it wasn’t working. He decided instead to process this pain. The near future held significant changes. He would leave home to attend a local college. Jonie and Ted would be part of his past. Maybe they already were. He would have a chance to reinvent himself but whether he could was still a question. For the rest of his senior year he could incrementally detach himself from his current life and prepare for a new one.

Thinking through solutions didn’t make his light much brighter but it was enough to feel better. He decided the light he had received must have been hope or optimism. The future looked bright and that was exciting enough to negate the inevitable loss of his friends.

***

Jack set a few goals to pursue for the remainder of the school year. Good grades, get into the best local college he could, and continue to support the Balancers. These partially masked his loneliness. He started paying better attention in lectures and worked harder on homework, only using downtime to balance light.

Things went well for a short time until the final senior assembly of the semester. It was the day before the big Fall Dance and besides the usual sporting events they discussed school activities happening around the holidays. Jack sat alone in the crowd of seniors. He spotted Jonie and Ted sitting together. It was easy to blend in with the mass of students so he didn’t appear alone. When the assembly ended the students dispersed across the gym floor as they made their way towards the exits.

“Hey, Jack!”

It was a familiar voice he had nearly forgotten.

“Why didn’t you join us?” asked Alex. Son and Ethan were with him. Jack assumed Alex must have told them about the light and what happened over the summer.

“You guys are hurting people. I can’t do that,” Jack said confidently. He felt good about standing up for his beliefs at school. It would have made the old Jack nervous.

“Then I’m going to rule the school alone.”

“Can we just stay out of each others–”

Alex landed a punch in Jack’s stomach. Jack bent over winded. For some reason he had let his guard down this time.

“You’re going to stay out of my way.”

Alex shoved Jack to the floor. “I’ll do what I want!” He gave Jack a kick. “There’s no compromising.” He pushed some light away from Jack to add extra emotional pain to the embarrassment Jack was already feeling. Then Alex walked away quickly.

Jack’s head was spinning. He forced himself up and notice he was surrounded. Though the blows were to his torso there was some blood. When he checked himself he found that he scraped an elbow in the fall.

A girl he had seen around offered to get a teacher. Jack declined, knowing that Alex may hurt the teacher if he were caught, and went alone to the bathroom to attend his wounds. The onlookers were bright from the excitement so Jack grabbed some light on the way to the bathroom. He hoped it would not only make himself feel better but quell some of their excitement.

His stomach was sore and his elbow was stinging from the fall. Jack began reflecting on all the negative that had happened recently with Ted and Jonie and now Alex. His light went dim. He was in a dimly lit bathroom by himself so the lighting of the whole room suddenly went darker. He yearned to have his friends back. If it weren’t for this gift, if it didn’t exist, he would be hanging out with Jonie and Ted. They would be having a fun senior year studying together, meeting up on weekends to play sports, and planning a lifelong memory. There would be no fight between him and Alex Brenner.

Unlike his physical pain, he had a choice whether to endure the emotional pain. Facing the pain seemed like the right thing to do. Last time he faced his pain he realized he found solutions. Unfortunately, in this scenario he was not able to think away the problem. Instead, he would use the pain as motivation to be ready for Alex.

***

Jonie ignored Jack at school and didn’t communicate with him outside of school. Ted stopped meeting with him well. Occasionally Jack would see Ted in the hall and tried to wave him down but Ted made a stop motion with his hand and continued walking. Jack was sure that Jonie told Ted to stop talking to him but he wondered if Ted’s depression contributed to his unwillingness to talk. Jack’s attempts to help had failed.

Over the course of the next few weeks Jonie gradually got dimmer. She was usually one of the brightest students – confident and sociable. Despite Jack deciding to move on, he still cared for Jonie. Eventually he was concerned enough that he decided to ask her what was wrong.

Jack waited to catch her leaving after English. “Hey!” He tried to sound friendly but expected a negative reaction. She kept walking without acknowledging him. He tried again, louder. “Hey, Jonie!”

She stopped. “What do you want?” She seemed annoyed and the words made her sound exacerbated.

“I just wanted to make sure you’re okay. Your light has been getting dimmer and dimmer ever since we stopped hanging out.”

“I’m fine, Jack. I’m not hurting because of you and we’re about to go our own ways anyway. I can’t rely on you to fix my problems.”

Jack wasn’t convinced. “I can clearly see a difference so something’s up. What’s wrong?”

“If I want your help I’ll ask you!”

They were quiet for a moment. Jack was staring quizzically.

“What now?” asked Jonie, using her exacerbated tone once again.

“There’s a problem.”

“What?”

“There’s a stream of light coming off you in a funny way. It’s faint so I almost didn’t notice it. Wait, it’s gone again.” Jack was squinting in concentration, trying to see the light. The way he was staring made Jonie uncomfortable.

Jonie’s tone changed to sincere. “Honestly, I haven’t been feeling like myself lately. I’ve had some trouble getting motivated. If it keeps getting worse I’ll come to you, okay?”

Jack let out a sigh. “Okay. I just don’t want to see you hurt.”

“Thanks, Jack. You’re sweet, just a bonehead sometimes.”

“You know I never meant to hurt anyone.”

“Maybe, but you’re reckless. You shouldn’t be messing with people’s emotions. Especially in ways that could permanently damage them. Are you still balancing light?”

Jack felt like he had been caught red-handed. He tried thinking of a way to bend the truth.

“See, Jack. It’s like you don’t see others as whole people. How would you feel if someone was doing that to you?”

“You’re right. Okay, I’ll stop.”

“Promise?”

“If I do, could I come with you to your swim practice this weekend? We still have a little more than half the school year left. I think it would be more fun with friends.”

Jonie thought a moment. “I think it’s better we don’t rekindle our friendship. If we start hanging out again then it will be just a few months before we stop again. We’ve already gone our separate ways and we’re already getting over the pain. It’s best we keep it that way so we don’t have to go through it all over again. I need to go to practice now. Bye, Jack.”

“Bye, Jonie.”

***

Though he failed to rekindle their friendship, Jack decided Jonie was right about balancing. He had no right to possibly do irreversible damage to other students in the school.

Tomomi had been in contact a few times over the semester to give Jack encouragement. She was always impersonal but friendly. Jack decided that to take action on his decision he would need contact Tomomi and let her know.

He was worried about how Tomomi would respond. It shouldn’t matter, he thought, because he was doing what he believed was right. But Tomomi was also doing what she believed was right and she had been very friendly and encouraging. Didn’t he owe her something?

Jack was also concerned about further isolating himself. Having lost his friends and being a recluse in school, he had not had much positive interaction with others outside his family. Tomomi was one of the few people in the world who would drop him a friendly message now and then, even if it was motivated by work. Jack used this work to distract himself from his isolation. If he stopped balancing he would have nothing to do with his downtime at school.

Writing the email was more difficult than he anticipated. His light dropped almost as soon as he sat in his chair. Jonie’s chair. Once again he felt like shedding a few tears at the loss of his old self. This time he didn’t want to face the emotional pain. Instead, he drove to the Mean Bean and filled up his light. He could use their wifi to send the email.

The experience reminded him of a time he, Jonie and Ted were hanging out at Ted’s house. Ted was playing guitar and they were gossiping about school. Jonie had to leave. A few minutes later Ted put down his guitar and grabbed something from his bag. “Want a joint?” he asked.

Jack had never done drugs and had never wanted to. However, he had recently been feeling down so he went along. It made for a pleasant afternoon. His problems were gone and everything was fun until the next day when it had worn off. The melancholy returned for a few days. Since he couldn’t move light at that time it had to be endured, all but for that one escape.

He wondered if this was the same. Instead of having a superpower, he had a new drug. He wasn’t changing his situation. The isolation was there and the feeling of it would return. But the light Jack grabbed at the cafe masked any pain he was feeling. This time it would be worth doing because he needed to email Tomomi and he needed to be in the right mental state to do so. However, he also made a vow to himself that he would stop going to cafes and moving light.

“Hi Tomomi,

I’m really sorry to have to write you this but I’m leaving the Balancers. I wanted to help people and I think what you are doing may be helping people but I’m not 100% sure so I have to stop.

I know you believe it is the best way. Everyone will be equal. But there may be people who don’t want that and I don’t think I should change them, permanently, in a way that will affect their lives without them knowing.

I hope you are right and you are successful but I just can’t do it right now. Again, I’m really sorry.

Jack”

Jack’s hands were shaking as he clicked send. Tomomi never failed to answer quickly.

“Hi Jack,

I’m really sorry to hear this. I’ve been rooting for you to succeed in balancing your school.

We are doing the right thing. I’m convinced about that or I wouldn’t be doing it. However, if you can’t keep helping us then I will need to focus my attention elsewhere. As you know, there is a lot of work to be done.

Goodbye and good luck,

Tomomi”

Jack didn’t feel anything when reading the response. He was still holding onto his light. He remembered how good he used to be at doodling in class. It didn’t quite carry the same weight as saving the world but it would be an enjoyable way to spend his free time at school.

***

Aiden turned out to be a nice lab partner. He wasn’t part of the popular crowd but Jack saw him joking around with the popular kids. In fact, Aiden had a tight-knit group of friends who were all accepted by the popular crowd.

They were finding spring constants in their physics lab. The lab required them to hang weights on springs and measure how far the springs expanded. Every table was given a set of springs and weights. Before long, Aiden and his friend Mark were shooting springs at each other. Bill joined in and accidentally hit Jack in the back of the elbow. He quickly apologized.

The old Jack would have shied away but this time he decided to join in the action. He waited a moment until Bill was looking away and shot a spring back. Bill laughed. A few minutes later Mark shot Aiden again and Jack retaliated by shooting Mark.

Mark looked surprised. “Is Jack playing?”

“I guess so,” said Aiden. Jack just smiled.

“I didn’t think he ever played,” said Mark as Bill shot Jack with another spring and made him jump.

At the end of class students were to put up their equipment and write their reports. Neither Jack and Aiden’s group nor Bill and Mark’s group wanted to be the first to put away their equipment, thus being unarmed. Eventually Bill grabbed the equipment from both tables.

“What was the constant for spring four?” asked Aiden. He was leaning over his notebook.

Jack found the page. “I wrote 144.”

“Okay.” Aiden was writing.

“Hey, would you want to meet up this weekend?” asked Jack, timidly.

“Uh, well, I’m meeting everyone to play Ultimate Frisbee this weekend. You want to come?”

“Sure, although I haven’t ever played before. I know how to throw a Frisbee.”

“That’s okay. We could use more players and it’s all different skill levels. We meet on the soccer field.”

“What time?”

“Three. On Saturday.”

“Okay cool. See you there.”

“Cool. See you then.”

Jack handed in the lab work before leaving. Aiden was walking out of the room with Bill and Mark. Jack overheard them talking.

“Did you invite Jack to Frisbee?” asked Mark.

“Yeah.”

“Are you sure? He’s always so quiet.”

“He’s nice. Plus we can use another player.”

They exited into the hall and Jack couldn’t hear the rest of the conversation. He was stoked. Maybe there was real hope that he could change his social standing in college.

***

Jack grew to appreciate his new lifestyle. He found joy in reading and doing his schoolwork. In the past he had done enough to get good grades but for the first time he found himself intrinsically motivated to learn.

The Ultimate Frisbee game gave him something more to look forward to. By the time Friday arrived he was slightly nervous about playing a new sport with a group from school. He was more excited about becoming the new, more sociable Jack. His light was naturally high.

The school day was almost over. English had just let out and he only had Spanish remaining. After school he planned to go to the Mean Bean to do homework and read. He wouldn’t need to absorb light.

The halls were mostly empty since many of the students didn’t have a seventh period. He caught something coming towards him in the corner of his eye. He side stepped to evade a shove but still caught enough to be pushed a few steps. It was Alex, again.

“What’s your problem?” asked Jack. He was furious. “I haven’t done anything to you. Why do you keep messing with me?”

“I know you haven’t done anything,” said Alex calmly. “And I’m going to make sure you never do. You’re the only person who could get in my way and you didn’t want to join us so I’ve got to keep you down. That’s just the way it is.”

Jack noticed there were funny patterns of light coming off Alex. He was a strange sight. There were a few weak light streams flowing into him and his internal light was bright. He looked like some kind of deity.

There were no teachers nearby and only a few students. Jack felt he had no choice but to fight back. He held onto his light and pushed against Alex. Alex did the same. It was an arm wrestling match. Both boys struggled to shift the momentum their way.

Alex punched Jack in the jaw. It was enough to give Alex the advantage with the light as well. He knocked away the extra light Jack had been carrying around for himself. Then he continued to press harder, trying to take some of Jack’s natural light disperse. Alex threw another punch but this time Jack was ready. He dodged the attack and threw one back. It was awkward and ineffective. Jack hadn’t been in a fight since his playground days.

Alex landed another blow on Jack’s cheek and Jack went down. He rolled over and put up his knees in defense. Alex was on top of him landing kicks on his legs and torso. In desperation Jack came up with an idea. A few onlookers had gathered around and were bright with excitement. Jack stopped pushing against Alex’s light and focused on blocking kicks, which were painful but not well aimed, and gathered light from everyone around.

Jack took all the light he had gathered and pushed it onto Alex. This made Alex especially bright, so bright it was hard to see his facial features. With this much light, Jack reasoned, he could not feel anger or fear or whatever it was that was driving him to fight.

Alex stopped fighting due to surprise. “I like that. Good job, Jack. Seems like you know your place.” Jack wasn’t sure if he had passified Alex or sufficiently submitted to him but either way the beating stopped and Alex left. Jack rolled over. He planned to lie on the ground for a few moments before going to Spanish. A teacher ran up to Jack. One of the students had brought him to stop the fight. Unfortunately, it was school policy that Jack go to the principal’s office.

Jack inspected himself on the way. This time his wounds were more visible. He had a busted lip and some bruises on his arm from where he blocked kicks. He was not used to sustaining such injuries. The most pain he had suffered in years was a sprained ankle while playing basketball or getting a dental filling.

In the principal’s office Jack pretended he didn’t know who the attacker was. Unfortunately, no one could help him. He wasn’t sure he could help himself. Moving large amounts of light from himself to Alex would not be a long term solution since he could inadvertently create a one-way path from himself to Alex. He didn’t want to enslave himself that way.

There were only a few times that Alex could attack. After an assembly, in the hallways between classes. Jack decided he would watch his surroundings carefully during those times. He also decided he should ambush Alex, at least once, so Alex would be nervous about him too.

Unfortunately, the principal insisted on calling Jack’s parents. He came home to a lecture. As if the beating wasn’t painful enough, now he had to discuss the beating with his parents. They called him into the living room and made him sit on the couch. His dad told him the only way to keep this from happening again was to find out who had attacked him and “give him a taste of his own medicine.” His mom thought he should avoid the student instead. That way Jack would avoid a possible second beating and suspension.

As usual, the lecture didn’t give Jack any new information. His parents didn’t know about the light and couldn’t advise him even if they did. He tried to end the conversation as quickly as possible so he could ask whether he could still go to the ultimate game.

“I just want to make sure, since I was the one who was attacked. Can I still go to the Ultimate Frisbee game tomorrow?”

“How do you know it wasn’t one of those kids who attacked you?” his mom asked. “You said this was with a new group. Maybe one of them is mad you are coming.”

“Aiden and his friends aren’t like that. I know most of his friends and they are all good students and just like to have fun. I know it was one of them.”

Jack’s mom looked over to his dad, giving him the final say. “Well, you’re moving out next year. You’ve got to start making these decisions for yourself.” His mom threw up a hand and made pinched one side of her lip as if to say “whatever.”

“Thanks, dad.”

***

Alex knew about power dynamics from his mother. He remembered her coming home with good news. She was up for a promotion. It would come with a $1.25 per hour raise and she promised to buy Nelson some books on chess strategy. Nelson was briefly into chess but gave it up when he couldn’t find people to play.

Over the next few days, Nelson bugged their mom about the promotion. Every time she went to work Nelson would ask when she got home. It annoyed Alex and he imagined it annoyed his mother more. She kept reminding him that the interview was over a week away until one day she surprised them with an answer.

“No, honey. I’m sorry but I didn’t get it.”

“So that means no chess books.”

“I’m afraid not.”

“That’s not fair! There’s no way for me to get better.”

“You know, you are a really smart boy, Nelson, and you can figure out anything that are in those books if you put your mind to it.”

“What happened?” asked Alex. “Isn’t your interview not until next week?”

“Well, my friend Colleen,” she said then turned her head to the side and almost spat out, “or who used to be my friend, anyway,” and turned back to Jack with a forced smile. “She told everyone I was lying to customers and going slow. Management decided I was no longer up for a promotion. Now Colleen’s probably going to get it.”

“That’s not fair! Why don’t you tell them she was lying!”

“You’re right, it’s not fair. And if I catch her outside work she’s going to get it. But it’s something you boys need to know. Just because people act like their your friends doesn’t mean they are. People will stab you in the back to get ahead. You’ve always got to look out for yourselves first. And each other. Take care of each other because you are all you have in the world.”

Alex internalized this lesson and wasn’t the last time he observed it. From coworkers to lovers, Alex saw people try to take advantage of his mother when her guard was down. She had learned to be aware and he learned by watching her.

Alex was sure that, if left alone, Jack would find ways to work against him. Jack didn’t join the group when given an opportunity meaning Jack wasn’t on their side. He’ll work towards his own interests, whatever they are. The only way Alex could be assured success was to keep an advantage over Jack.

The most straightforward way to achieve this was through intimidation. By keeping Jack in the defensive he would be preoccupied and not achieve any of his goals. Alex didn’t enjoy going out of his way to keep Jack intimidated but he knew how the world worked. He wasn’t going to wait to learn how Jack got the upper hand.

It was easy, too. Jack wasn’t a fighter. He was well behaved and feared getting in trouble. Alex knew trouble, knew how to avoid getting caught, and had friends to help him. Jack wasn’t going to survive in Alex’s world.

***

The next day Jack woke up early to stretch out the soreness from Friday’s beating. He didn’t want to be a liability at his first Ultimate Frisbee game. He grabbed a muffin to eat in the car and went to the field.

Jack had not been on a soccer field for a long time. He was in relatively good shape since he, Ted and Jonie had been meeting at the gym where Jonie practiced. The field green and open. The air was fresh, the sky was big, the grass was soft.

Aiden and his friends were already warming up. They had formed a semi-circle and were tossing discs. A few girls had come. A few of the other students were heavier and some were uncoordinated which gave Jack a little confidence. He could throw better than a few of them. On the other hand, there were some who were making fancy throws Jack had never seen before and chucking the disc across the whole field.

Jack couldn’t help feeling like he wasn’t really supposed to be there. He had never met so many students outside of school for a social activity. He wondered how many were watching him and wondered why he was there.

Garry, the high school quarterback, and Terrell, a six-foot-three basketball player, were the team captains. They were genuinely trying to form balanced teams. Jack remembered the jocks stacking teams in his middle school gym classes and clobbering the other kids. They matched Jack against a girl. Jack minded a little but was worried he may be bad at the sport since he had never played before.

Jack’s team captain was Terrell. Terrell was black, thin and had short hair. He wasn’t as skilled at throwing the frisbee as some of the other players but was known around the school for his athleticism. Aiden was on Garry’s team so Jack decided to ask Terrell for tips.

“Hey, Terrell. This is my first time to play. What should I do?”

“Who are you guarding?”

“Lindsey.”

“Oh, she’s pretty tough. You’re going to have your work cut out for you,” Terrell laughed.

“She is?”

“Yeah, man. She’s on the track team. We’re about to punt it to them. That will put us on defense. Line up in front of her and run down the field once I throw it. You’ll be guarding her until we get the frisbee, then she’ll guard you. She’s not too fast but she won’t stop running.”

Jack felt better knowing that Lindsey was a challenge. She was a grade behind Jack and he had never spoken to her. He didn’t know she ran track. He lined up in front of Lindsey as Terrell had instructed. Terrell launched the frisbee and it went almost the entire length of the field.

Terrell was right. When Lindsey was on offense she kept moving at a decent pace. Jack had to maintain a medium jog and he wasn’t in good enough shape to keep that up for long. She was also skilled at throwing the disc. Jack used most of his energy to keep up.

Terrell had the frisbee and passed to Jim. Jim was one of the best throwers on the team. He launched the frisbee towards the end zone. It went over Jack’s head and Jack realized there was no one else between him and the endzone. He chased the frisbee at full speed about twenty feet until he caught up. It was too high to grab. Lindsey caught up to him about the time he was able to jump and snatch it. He turned to look for someone to pass to but Lindsey turned and walked the other way. Jack looked down and realized he had scored a point. It was his highlight for the day.

“Nice job! What sports do you play?” asked Terrell, as the other team was walking across the field.

“I do like basketball.”

“I’ve never seen you try out,” Terrell said with a smile.

Jack laughed. “I don’t think I’m that good.”

“Maybe. That’s for the coaches to decide. It looks like you can jump, though.”

Jack was surprised at how friendly everyone was. He wondered if he had missed out by not having more friends in high school. There was time to try again in college. Jack made a couple of mistakes but no one was too upset. He dropped a catch that went right through his arms and he made a throw to someone that caught his finger and went directly to the right. Other players also made mistakes and everyone was patient. Jack felt the underlying bond of friendship in the group. He missed Ted and Jonie.

After ultimate Aiden asked Jack if he would like to grab lunch. Jack wasn’t immediately hungry after exercising but knew he would be as soon as he had a moment to catch his breath. He agreed to meet Aiden for some tacos.

They went to a small restaurant with outside seating. Jack ordered a set of three chicken tacos and met Aiden outside. “You have a cool group of friends. Thanks for inviting me to play,” said Jack.

“Yeah, it was fun. You could make more friends. Why are you so quiet?”

“I don’t know. Something about being at school makes me nervous so I usually don’t talk.”

“There’s no reason to be nervous.”

Jack wasn’t sure that was Aiden understood but for friendship sake he went along with what Aiden said. He wasn’t sure why school made him so uncomfortable. Sometimes the thought of speaking would give him an adrenaline rush. Of course there was no reason to be nervous, it wasn’t a rational response.

“Do you know Alex Brenner?” Jack asked.

“Yeah. Why?”

“He’s causing me trouble. You’ve got a lot of friends. Would you know someone who could talk him down?”

“What kind of trouble?”

Jack thought for a moment about how he could get reasonable help without having to explain the light. “I think he wants to fight me. I just want him to back off.”

“I don’t really hang out with his friends but we could stick up for you if we see him messing with you. What made him want to fight you?”

“It’s actually kind of complicated. I might tell you about it another time.”

***

Alex was skateboarding that Saturday morning at the skatepark near his house. Son was with him and they were taking turns perfecting a trick called a frontside disaster. Son was on the sidelines watching. Due to the cool weather, only the serious skaters were at the park. Besides Alex there were only four others. Alex heard someone yell loudly from a distance.

“What’s your problem?”

This was followed by arguing which Alex tried to ignore so he could achieve this new trick. He almost landed the frontside disaster but his wheel caught on the ramp and fell off the board. He ran down the ramp and scraped his knee. The injury wasn’t bad but he decided it was time to let Son have a turn. That’s when he saw the yelling was coming from Son and Ethan. Ethan was angry and looked like he was about to start a fight.

Alex ran between the two. “Whoa! Guys, what’s going on?”

“Why don’t you tell him, Son?” Ethan shouted. His face was red and looked as though he wanted to fight but he kept distance from Son.

“Dude, it’s not true,” Son yelled. He was throwing his arms around while speaking. “She’s lying.”

“Screw you, man.” Ethan turned and walked away.

Alex was stunned. “My turn?” asked Son. He picked up his board and walked towards the ramp.

“What was that all about?” asked Alex. Son kept walking as if he didn’t hear anything. Alex pushed Son back by his shoulder. “Tell me what’s going on. Ethan was about to bust your head open. If you want me to get your back then you need to tell me what’s going on.”

Son paused a moment. “Okay, I didn’t want to have to be the one to tell you this but Maddy and Ethan broke up last night.”

“No way,” said Alex quizzically.

“Yeah, Ethan cheated and she found out. And we’re still friends so she came over to talk to me about it. Now he thinks I made some moves on her.”

“Ethan cheated?”

“Yeah, and he’s accusing me of hitting on her. He’s the cheater, not me. He’s lost his mind. First he cheated on Maddy. Now he’s attacking me just because I was there to talk to Maddy last night. It’s not my fault you and Kate were out and she had no one else to talk to.”

“Well, he was our friend first. I’d rather lose Maddy than Ethan. I’m sure you guys can make up.”

“It’s not about who was first. Besides, Kate and Maddy are like best friends. What are you going to do, break up with Kate?”

“No.” Alex deflated. “How can we stop hanging out with Ethan, though? He’s been with us from the beginning, back when we started skating together.”

“Well, you can’t stop hanging out with Maddy unless you want to stop hanging out with all of us. She didn’t do anything wrong. Ethan is the one who screwed her over and burned bridges. I don’t know what he was thinking and I don’t know why he thought he was going to come here and fight me.”

Alex was confused by this situation. Ethan was part of the inner circle. Ethan was going to be part of his kingdom. His plan was to give Ethan servants and fill him with light. Those who he made kings were going to have irreversible connections. The gift would be irreversible and the granting of the gift had to be unconditional. Would this work if people in his inner circle stopped getting along?

On the other hand, Maddy was more of a hanger on than part of the main group. She wasn’t a skater or a goth and she dressed like the popular girls. She wasn’t rebellious or independent. In fact she was more of an easily amused air head. The only reason Alex tolerated her was because Kate and Ethan wanted her around. However, Son was right. Maddy shouldn’t be punished by losing all her friends for being cheated on. She had every right to dump Ethan. But the world isn’t fair and Alex would rather hang out with Ethan.

“I’m done with Ethan,” Son continued. “And if you want to hang out with me and Kate you should be too. I mean, c’mon, you know Kate is going to hang out with Maddy and she’s going to be mad at Ethan too.”

“You’re mad right now. You should wait ‘til you calm down first,” said Alex, though he was thinking of a way to fix the situation. He was the one with the power. There had to be a solution using light to make everyone get along. Perhaps if they were all full of light this wouldn’t have happened. When the goal was achieved these problems would go away. Ethan wouldn’t have cheated because he would have been happy with Maddy. Perhaps he was happy with Maddy and just made a mistake. Alex didn’t know the details. But if they were full of light then she wouldn’t be so mad even if he had cheated. She wouldn’t be able to be so mad. Something about that thought was unsettling.

“Also, you better have my back in case Ethan attacks me again,” said Son. “You know I’m just trying to help Maddy.”

“I know. I’m sure he’ll get over it. I just hope his all blows over and we can hang out again. I don’t want to break up the group.”

“I don’t know, but it’s my turn. Did you ever do a frontside disaster?”

“Close. I caught my board on that last one.”

***

Jack dreaded returning to school. He didn’t know when Alex would strike again and would have to be cautious while making his way to each class or risk another beating. Jack moved quickly between classes. He stayed near the walls and frequently looked over his shoulder to make sure Alex wasn’t behind him. Each time he made it to his next class there was a burden lifted and each time a class ended he felt the pressure to run again.

Classes were more fun this year. He had begun making small talk with Aiden’s friends who he had played Ultimate Frisbee with. Lectures were interesting and easy to follow since he spent all his time free time studying. The only drawback was that he was often ahead of the class and found the lectures to be slow.

The whole week passed by without incident from Alex. On reflection, Jack realized there had only been two encounters the entire year and if the frequency remained that way there may only be two or three more encounters before the end of the school year. Now that Jack was paying attention it may be even less than that.

That weekend he played Ultimate Frisbee again. Aiden’s friends had accepted him but the relationships were more casual than friendships. Jack got the sense that most of the relationships between the people at Ultimate Frisbee were that way and that there were only pockets of close friendships. Still, life was improving for Jack as long as he could avoid Alex.

The opposite seemed to be true for Jonie. In English, where Jonie sat a few rows in front of Jack, he was able to notice her light was gradually getting dimmer throughout the school year. He was observing her light when he noticed a strand that stuck out. It was a deep path. Light was pumping out from it constantly. Perhaps it wasn’t the loss of their friendship that caused her to be dim.

He decided to catch her in the hall after class. It had been a few weeks since they last spoke and he hoped she was no longer angry despite the dim light indicating otherwise.

“Hey, Jonie! We need to talk.”

“Why do you keep waiting for me, Jack? Can’t you just leave me alone?” She shook her head and started walking off.

“Your light is getting dimmer and dimmer. I think Alex is hurting you!” Jack shouted, not caring who heard him. Several students looked up.

Jonie walked back over to Jack. “What?”

“There’s a strand of light flowing off you. Remember how we thought he might not attack you because I could retaliate? I think the opposite’s true. He’s attacked me twice now. He’s being really aggressive and I think part of that has made him go after you, too.”

“Crap! It’s true. I haven’t been myself for a while. All I can think about is what happens if I don’t get into my schools. It’s like my whole life will be over. I’m so stressed that my grades are going down and I’ve been doing worse at swim meets. I think I’ve already lost any chance at getting a scholarship. What do I do? I need your help.”

“What do you want me to do? I’ve told you Alex is hurting you. Now you need to switch classes. It’s the only way to get away from him.”

“What? You just wanted to tell me Alex is causing me problems and then do nothing. Yeah, thanks Jack. I forgot about you. You’re good at seeing problems and then doing nothing or making them worse.”

“I don’t want him to hurt you.”

“So do something! It’s almost Thanksgiving. They won’t let me classes now and you know that!”

“I want to help but what can I do? Do you want me to burst down the door when you’re in calculus and fight him? All that will happen is I will get suspended and he will keep hurting you.”

They are silent for a moment. “Well thanks for nothing then. Now I know I should never have been your friend because it cost me my whole future. I’ve got to get to practice.”

“Wait! Jonie, this is serious. You can’t just walk away from it. Also, you’ve got to think through this. You’re in a bad place emotionally. Can we meet tomorrow night and come up with a plan?”

“Yes. Sorry, Jack. I’m really angry at you.” Tears started forming in Jonie’s eyes. She wiped them away quickly hoping Jack wouldn’t notice.

“And just so you know, I’ve stopped balancing people. You were right. In fact, I try not to move light at all anymore except small amounts from random strangers so nothing is permanent. I should never have been messing with people.”

“Good. Thank you,” said Jonie. Her voice broke while trying to hold back more tears.

“Okay, well see you tomorrow. We’ll come up with a plan and fix this. No matter how much Alex has done emotionally, you still have all your intelligence. Let’s figure this out.”

“Thank you.”

***

The next day, Jack asked Aiden to meet at a coffee shop near the school. Aiden didn’t like to get out much on school nights and didn’t drink coffee but Jack insisted he meet until Aiden relented.

It was a typical coffee shop. Baked goods on display, a short line at the counter to place an order and a short wait for names to be called. When Jack arrived Jonie was already at a table. She was reading a book and hardly acknowledged him by giving a nod.

Jack wanted to ease the tension. “Kind of like old times, isn’t it?” he asked, though it didn’t feel like old times. It felt like Jonie was obligated to hang out with him because of the trouble he brought.

Jonie put down her book. “Sort of. Life used to be so much easier. So, do you plan?”

“Yes, but hold on, I’ve invited someone else. I want to wait for him to come before I say my plan.”

“Who?”

“Aiden Roberts.”

“So you’ve told him about the light?”

“Not yet.”

“What? So you’re going to have to explain the light to him. Is he part of the plan?”

“Yes. Just wait.”

Jack ordered a coffee. When he returned they sipped in silence. Jonie was upset but Jack couldn’t tell if she was mad to be with him or if it was because her light was being sapped by Alex. Aiden was about fifteen minutes late and showed up in an unfittingly positive mood.

“Hey guys! I didn’t know you were going to be here Jonie. Let me grab a tea.”

“You’re already fifteen minutes late,” Jonie snapped.

Aiden realized the table was in a damp mood. “Whoa! What’s the big deal? I thought we were just hanging out?” The question sounded insincere but he stood at the table with an expression that led Jonie to respond.

“I’m sorry. We can wait.”

Jack felt even more uncomfortable as Aiden was grabbing his tea. It seemed Jonie was snapping at everyone. Aiden’s friends had been so welcoming and he wished Jonie would have treated Aiden the same way. He wasn’t sure why he thought she would. They weren’t friends anymore and her light was being sucked away. Of course she was in a foul mood.

“Okay, I don’t know you guys that well but you’re acting kind of strange,” Aiden said as he got back to the table. “What’s going on?”

Jack assumed Aiden was referring to the tension between Jonie and himself. He was about to tell Aiden about how they were no longer close but he felt uncomfortable broaching the topic. Before he could formulate the words, Jonie vollied the conversation to him.

“Jack has something he needs to tell you or the rest of this isn’t going to make any sense. Go ahead Jack.”

Aiden’s curiosity was piqued. He leaned over the table with his arms folded but looked as though he was ready to laugh at whatever Jack was about to say.

“Well,’ said Jack, “I can actually see people’s emotions. I can’t see specifically whether someone is happy or excited or relieved but I can see that they are experiencing positive emotions. Similarly, I can’t see if someone is feeling angry or jealous or sad but I can see if they are experiencing negative emotions. Everyone has this light. The brighter they are, the better they are feeling.”

Jack paused to see how Aiden would respond. “Okay, this is pretty weird. So, how’s the barista feeling right now?”

Jonie stepped in. “There’s more to it. The light moves from person to person. Jack still calls it light but I call it emotional energy. There’s only so much of it and it moves around based on people’s circumstances and natural dispositions, we think. We tried to study it but it’s hard.

“Jack figured out he can move the light. So he doesn’t need to prove it to you by telling you how the barista feels, which you can’t even verify anyway. He can make you feel better or worse right now.”

“Cool, then do it,” challenged Aiden.

“Okay, I’m going to move some energy to you and then away,” said Jack.

Jack had a large amount of light with him. He passed some to Aiden for about ten seconds then he took it back.

“Wow, I actually felt that! That’s crazy! Can you do it again?”

“So you believe me now?” Jack said while holding back a laugh. He was on a high from impressing his new friend.

“Sure. It’s nice. So you can just make yourself feel good any time?”

“Well, there’s a problem,” said Jack.

Jonie chimed in again. “You know Alex Brenner?” Aiden nodded. “He can also move the light, which is just further proof that it’s real. And he can make people feel worse by taking light away.”

“Oh, is that why you’re having a problem with him?”

Jonie sat up at this. Jack hadn’t told her about their confrontations. “Yes,” said Jack. “And that’s why you can’t help me. He can hurt you in ways you can’t see or defend against. Just by flexing a muscle he can put you through emotional hell. Now he’s attacking me because he sees me as his only threat at school, which is true, I guess.”

“What’s he doing to you?” asked Jonie.

Jack deflected the question. “Well, it gets worse. If you move enough light enough times between two people you can form a path for the light to flow naturally. It seems Alex is doing this to Jonie. So, basically, Jonie’s good emotions are flowing to Alex and she isn’t able to be in a good mood.”

“That’s crazy,” Aiden whispered as he seemed to mentally slip away into his own world.

“Does it make sense?” asked Jonie.

“I get what you’re saying but I’ve never imagined anything like this in my life.”

“So,” Jack continued, “not only is Alex attacking me but he’s attacking Jonie. At least I can defend myself but Jonie can’t. Actually, now that I’m thinking about it, since we’ve started hanging out you may be a target too.”

Aiden’s good humor seemed to return. “Well, this is nice to know.”

“We need to stop Alex somehow. Jack has a plan,” said Jonie. She and Aiden turned to Jack and stared. Jack realized it was his cue.

“Well, I have a plan but it’s not a great one. I’m going to ditch fourth period and wait outside for your calculus class to end. Jonie, you will distract Alex somehow. Maybe ask him about something that happened in class. Aiden and I will jump him in the hall and beat him up and I’ll push the light away from him. I can’t beat him up on my own, I already know.”

Jonie looked very skeptical.

“You’re right, it’s not a good plan,” said Aiden. “We’ll probably just get suspended and I don’t see how that helps Jonie.”

“Maybe. But Alex is destroying Jonie’s life. This is bigger than high school. I can’t let him do that to my friend.”

“Have you thought about finding him outside of school?” Aiden asked.

“Well, there’s a couple of problems with that. First of all, I don’t know where to find him. And second, even if I do find him, he might be with other Hedonists.”

“Hedonists?” Aiden seemed to be amused by all the information he was receiving. Admittedly, it must be a very interesting evening.

“Okay. There’s a group of people who can move the light but they use it for selfish reasons. They are the ones teaching Alex to dig the paths that take light from people. There’s also another group called Balancers that are trying to dig two way paths because they believe the best world is the one where everyone is emotionally balanced and equal. I’ll have to tell you more about them later. But that’s the problem with trying to ambush Alex.”

Aiden scoffed as if he couldn’t believe everything he had just heard. He looked at Jonie to see whether she was also in disbelief.

“Jack’s plan isn’t great,” said Jonie, “but at least it’s something. Alex is being so aggressive because he thinks it will stop Jack from doing anything. Maybe we need to push back.”

“I wouldn’t ask you to get involved but I’ve already lost two fights,” said Jack. “Honestly, He’s stronger than me. Even if I try to ambush him it’s possible I’ll get beat again.”

“And what happens after the fight?” asked Aiden. “What if he starts coming after me?”

“I can’t promise anything. I’m just hoping that if we stand up to him he’ll back down or make a truce.”

Aiden began to turn a little red. His leg was bouncing quickly under his chair. “I don’t think I can help. I’m sorry, Jonie.”

“It’s okay,” said Jonie. “Really, I understand. I can’t ask you to get suspended for me.”

“Oh, this may not work,” said Jack. “What about helping us come up with another plan?”

“I can try, but I don’t know as much about all this emotional stuff as you guys do.”

Jack turned to Jonie. “Any ideas?” She shook her head.

“This is a lot to take in,” said Aiden. “Can you tell me more about the groups? The Hedonists and whoever else?”

“It won’t help with the plan,” said Jonie curtly.

Jack sighed. Jonie wasn’t the Jonie he had always known. Or maybe she was but she had always had more light. Either way, this wasn’t the first impression Jack wanted Aiden to have of her.

“Okay,” said Jack, “so the Balancers are the other group. They believe they can make the world a better place by creating two way paths between everyone. That way everyone has an equal emotional energy. Nobody will be especially happy but no one will be especially sad or angry either. Everything will be balanced and everyone will be content all the time.”

“That seems interesting,” said Aiden. “Maybe we could do something like that. What if we start balancing Alex with Jonie so his light starts flowing back to her.”

“Unfortunately, it’s not that easy,” said Jack. “I’m not sure how I could do it without Alex noticing.”

“That’s not all,” said Jonie. “Jack had joined them for a while.”

“Oh really? What was that like?” asked Aiden.

Somehow Jack didn’t realize what he was saying. “Well, I was going to help them by linking people in school. My goal was to find students I could link, oh–”

Jack fell silent. Aiden was staring back inquisitively.

“Go ahead, tell him,” said Jonie. “And remember what I told you, too.”

There was no backing out. “Well, I didn’t know you then and I started building a two-way path with you in it.” Aiden nearly jumped out of his chair. “It’s a very light path. I wasn’t sure if it was the right thing to do or not so I made sure not to make the bond too strong.”