Virtual black and red colored playing cards danced around Noah's computer screen, seemingly on their own. Ostensibly Noah was controlling this game of solitaire, but he was a million miles away from it, adrift in thoughts he wasn't even aware of having. He felt like he'd been bathing in the glow of the computer screen for days, his dark brown eyes staring vacantly at the computer playing cards. Around six o'clock, he dutifully walked back to his room so that his parents could pretend that their son had a normal sleep schedule (and thus no problems), and he could give his mother the pleasure of thinking she'd woken up her son for his first day of the new school year.
So when Alberta Shattuck opened the door to Noah's room, she found her son in his bed with the lights off, just as she'd left him when she'd said goodnight the previous evening and told him to get a good night's rest for a 'busy day tomorrow.' Noah, playing his part, said good morning to his mother just as he'd said goodnight the night before, though in all honesty neither felt 'good' to him.
Nothing felt any particular way to Noah at all anymore. A fog had descended upon him so that he couldn't remember what it felt like to be mad at his mom for waking him up early, or excited to see all his friends again at school. He couldn't remember what it felt like to feel feelings long gone, nor imagine his future in any meaningful way. The fog obscured the past and the future, it confused everything in Noah's like so that he felt indifferent and empty, not seeing or feeling anything, really. A psychiatrist had called this fog 'depression' and gave him pills to make it go away, but it only seemed to get worse, grow thicker.
Alberta and Richard had scarcely noticed the effect the anti-depressants had had on their son, and in fact seemed to regard him as 'cured.' To this end, they turned a blind eye to Noah's ever present symptoms, consciously or subconsciously not hearing the quiet hum of the computer in the study next to their room at all hours of the night. They seemed to be of the mind that any problem diagnosed and medicated was no longer a problem, and so they had helped their son, and he must be better.
So when Noah came out of his room, his long Dickie clad legs carrying him down the soft hallway carpet of the hall and onto the cold linoleum floor of the kitchen, he found that laid out next to his breakfast like a silent shameful offering, was a small pill laid out very deliberately next to a glass of orange juice. Noah sighed passively and sat down obediently at the table, taking the pill in his fingers and rolling it between his index finger and thumb so that the word 'Zoloft' disappeared and reappeared repeatedly. He was aware that Alberta was behind the counter, lurking among the soft warm colors of the cooking area, preparing breakfast. In a moment of realization, he recognized that his mom was waiting for him to swallow his pill, not wanting to ruin the pleasantness of her morning by acknowledging once again that Noah was struggling. To ease his mom's stress and get the day moving, he stopped playing with it, and stuffed the pill between thin lips, swallowing it with a small sip of the juice.
On cue, Alberta placed a burnt piece of toast with peanut butter on the table, asking Noah if he was excited about going to class.
"Sure, it's been a long summer, and I'm glad I'll get to see Kyle and Mark." The line came out, automatically.
It wasn't that Noah was particularly un-excited to go back to school, and he honestly did want to see his friends again, who'd been gone on vacation with their families these last few weeks of summer. But it he didn't have strong feelings about it either. Mark and Kyle just helped him pass the time and get from one day to the next. In any case, Alberta seemed satisfied with his answer, and busied herself cleaning the kitchen counters, neurotically wiping them down with all kinds of cleaning product just to rid it of a few burnt crumbs of toast. Just as for his friends, Noah did feel a faint fondness for his mom, and let himself acknowledge that he liked her quirky cleanliness, and the smell of her favorite kitchen counter cleaner elicited vague remnants of feelings deep within him. As he always did when such feelings momentarily surfaced, he mentally grasped wildly at them, trying to hold on to them and truly experience them again. Yet they always seemed to float away, lost in the fog. He remembered that he had felt strongly about his mom before, and indeed about his friends as well, but he couldn't fully get a handle on exactly how those emotions had felt, and longed to feel them again.
Failure reinforcing the fog and pushing Noah back into a feeling of helplessness, he finished off his toast and walked back to his room submissively. Mechanically trading his overlarge black shirt he'd slept in for a grey Johnny Cash T-shirt, he readied himself for school, and met his father at the front door. His father, even taller than Noah but with a decent sized beer gut instead of Noah's skinny frame, gave a stiff nod and a false smile as he jingled his keys, indicating to his son that it was he who was going to drive Noah to his first day of his senior year at Pierce High School. Though he and his dad had used to have a fairly amiable relationship, Richard now seemed stiff and quiet, as if not sure who Noah was or how to interact with him now that he was in a 'fragile' state. Richard had stopped buying tickets to NBA games and eventually had started to go to bars or other people's houses to watch the games on television, which Noah had interpreted to be because Richard wanted to avoid the awkwardness of interacting with him.
After getting in the car, Noah looked out the windows at the leaves on the trees, just beginning to turn orange, beginning to pass faster and faster as his dad began accelerating towards school. Alberta had volunteered her husband to drive Noah for his special first day back rather than making Noah bike to school as would normally do. Richard was clearly not pleased about being volunteered, as Noah had heard them whisper-fighting about it as he was pretending to sleep after going back to his room in the early morning.
To both Noah and Richard's relief, they arrived in front of the bleak brick building that was Pierce High School. Noah's relief intensified when he left the crushing silence of the car, slung his backpack over his shoulder from its resting place on the floor of the passenger seat, and immersed himself in the herd of high school teenagers shuffling through the early morning fall fog towards the big blue doors.
Everyone was talking and catching up with friends in the large entry center hall of the high school, and Noah found the ambient noise of dozens of conversations more than welcome compared to the empty silence he had experienced at home since his diagnosis at the end of the last school year.
"Hey, buddy!" Noah heard Kyle's deep voice behind him.
He closed his eyes for a fraction of a second like an actor might just before the director yells 'action!' He was certainly excited to see his friends, but those emotions were shallow and felt murky and unreal. And of course, there were those remnant traces of almost-deeper feelings that bubbled to the surface for a second at the sound of his friend's voice. Failing to grasp at those feelings once again, Noah turned with a smile on his face, only half false.
Jasper woke to the sound of his alarm, and reached over to whack it aimlessly until it stopped beeping and changed to the sound of loud mediocre alternative music. Jasper dreaded opening his eyes, so he lay there for close to half an hour, eyes closed, listening to the radio. It was a good thing he set it to a bad station with annoying morning DJ's because otherwise Jasper could have lain there a lot longer.
He could hear his parents were up and moving around, and knew they were likely wondering about whether or not their son would be late for school. He also knew that they would leave it up to him. Jasper felt a great surge of affection for his parents, who almost always left his decisions and choices in his hands, rather than telling him what to do. They let him make his own mistakes, and learn things his own way.
Having finally decided enough was enough and giving his alarm clock a final whack to turn off the music, he grudgingly opened his eyes. The feeling of happiness he'd experienced thinking about his parents was swiftly replaced by despair at what he saw.
He looked where he remembered he had a poster he'd gotten from the Death Cab for Cutie concert last summer. He knew it was black and that it was posted on his white wall, yet he could scarcely tell that there were multiple colors to be seen. Everything was a swirling mass of dull colors and the more he tried to focus on anything, the more unclear it became.
It had all started only a few months ago- he had woken up while camping on a rock climbing trip to find that the vision in one of his eyes was a little off. Wherever he looked and tried to focus, the blurrier that spot was.
A week after he had experienced that, he found his vision in that eye was only getting worse, and Jasper's usual carefree demeanor began to experience panic. He went to a myriad of optometrists who failed to figure out what was wrong with him as his vision loss began to spread to his other eye and get progressively worse. Finally he met with a genetic eye disease specialist who diagnosed him with "Leber Hereditary Optic Neuropathy." Apparently this genetic gift from his long gone birth mother was irreversible, and would only continue to get worse.
So this morning, as Jasper lay in bed opening his eyes, he dreaded the same thing he dreaded every morning these days: that his vision would be worse than it was the day before. And it was. It always was. It was getting to the point where none of the information his eyes gathered were of any use to his brain at all. About the only thing Jasper could do these days is tell when things were moving really close to his face, and when it was day or night. It was like walking into a thick cold fog, and he found himself scared for the first time in his life.
Further, he'd had to change his whole life in a matter of a few months. Many of the sports he'd enjoyed like climbing and biking, he couldn't do anymore. This also meant that the ways he related to his friends and things he did with them was changing. Though they would come over to hang out with him and see him, he found that his relationships were falling apart due to increasing differences. His life had completely shifted and changed gears, and he was on a different wavelength from his old friends.
He'd had to make lots of logistical changes to his life too. He'd had to start using a cane, learning brail, and figuring out new ways to interpret information tactilely. It was a ton of stuff to learn, and it was all happening so fast. It was like learning to be a whole new person with a whole new life, and for the first time in his life the carefree Jasper was having a hard time being an optimist.
Jasper had been told by the therapist he had been sent to after the diagnosis that he would need to transfer to a different high school that would be more accommodating to the blind. As outgoing and good at making friends as Jasper was, he found the idea of making yet another change deplorable, and that was the second reason Jasper was finding it hard to get out of bed this morning – today was to be his first day at his new school.
With great force of will, he traced his hand along the edge of his nightstand to its left side, where there rested his cane. Gripping the increasingly familiar handle, he picked it up as he sat up and swung his legs out of the warmth of his bed and into the cooler air inside his room. The feel of the his floor's carpeting on his feet was ward and welcome. As he put the full weight of his feet on it, the individual pieces of fabric wedged themselves between his toes, and he finally felt a smile on his face.
The optimist in him had found the positive side. Over the last few months, he had found himself reveling in the senses he'd neglected for so many years in favor of sight. It wasn't that his other senses had 'grown stronger,' he knew that was an urban myth. But he appreciated tastes and smells and feelings and sounds so much more than he ever had before, and found himself getting information from them that he'd previously just relied on his eyes for.
For instance, this morning as he sat there on the side of his bed waking up and preparing to stand up, he was collecting all kinds of facts. The sound of crackling and the warm smell of bacon informed Jasper that his mom was going all out on making him breakfast (probably to entice him out of bed of his own volition, he mused). He knew it was his mom because his dad was impatient and always did bacon in the microwave. From the cool breeze and smell coming from the direction of his window, he could guess that despite the nice evening the night before, it had gotten cooler rained at some time in the night, but it wasn't raining anymore because Jasper didn't hear its sound.
As he padded out of his room and into his hallway, he could feel the difference between the two carpets, as well as tell by the softness that the hallway one had been vacuumed much more recently.
He carried the cane proudly at his side as he entered the kitchen, having gotten much more familiar with the layout of the house from a non-sighted perspective. First he'd memorized the number of steps between each room, but after the first couple of weeks, he found he didn't need to count anymore. He'd developed an intuitive feel for the whole house, and felt satisfied and happy for that.
Gloria, his mother, turned from the sizzling bacon pan to behold her son's triumphant grin and felt suddenly full of pride for her son. She smiled back and, sadly realizing she couldn't see that anymore, said,
"Good morning, sweetie."
"Hi mooooom!" He dragged out the 'o' in mom, intending it as a verbal roll of the eyes to her term of endearment she'd just used.
" Well, fine. If that's how you feel about it, I'll just eat all this bacon and eggs myself then…" She jokingly threatened.
"Alright, alright, you win" Jasper conceded. "Hi, dad!"
George laughed at his family's wit and at Jasper's ability to recognize when he was in the room without him saying anything.
"Do I smell or something?!" he asked, wanting to know how Jasper knew.
"Well, you do smell like that nasty anti-dandruff shampoo, but you also like to rock that stool on and off all four legs, so I actually heard you this time."
George marveled at how well and easily his son had been coping with his vision loss. Of course he had noticed that Jasper was struggling with certain things. He had seemed very frustrated and irritable about certain things, and was sad that he couldn't do the same kinds of things and that he was growing apart from his friends. But considering how fast things had progressed and how many changes Jasper was having to cope with, it seemed unbelievable how well he had taken it all in stride.
"So what do you think, kiddo, you sure you're ready for this?" he asked somewhere between playfully and seriously.
Jasper picked up on the serious tone, and answered it accordingly.
"It's okay, dad. I don't think it's going to get any easier with time. I just have to do it. It'll go how it goes, and I'll deal with it."
"We're very proud of you, son." Gloria chimed in, not able to keep from verbalizing her feelings.
Jasper nodded and smiled, appreciated but embarrassed, and ready to be done with all this emotional honesty. He did love the great and unguarded relationship he had with his parents, but he also sometimes wished for a more normal authoritative/rebellious kind of a thing sometimes.
"Where's my breakfast, woman?" He joked, lightening the tone.
He heard Gloria's heavy frame shuffle towards the little island in the center of the kitchen where George already sat on his stool, and heard the clatter of dishes being set out. Taking this as his cue, Jasper walked over to his stool, rested his cane against the far edge of the island, and sat down. He put his feet up on the crossbar near the floor, placed his forearms on the table, and leaned over his plate, smelling the warm grease smell of the bacon as well as the faint odor of the fried eggs.
After thoroughly enjoying the smell for a few seconds, he laid his hands on it to feel it. He could immediately tell that the bacon was very thin and crispy, the way he liked it best. Additionally, it felt like his mother had filled the plate like she was serving somebody with a build more like hers and less like Jasper's skinny self. Having felt the bacon, Jasper's hands slowly moved to the other side of the plate, where he knew the eggs had to be. Reaching the edge of one with his fingertips, he felt it had already been salted and/or peppered, and felt for the bulging middle part where the yolk was encased. He poked it vigorously, feeling slick warm wet liquid trickle over his finger.
"Okay, we've crossed the line between curious blind kid and obnoxious teenager playing with his food." George laughed.
Jasper smiled, licked his finger, and took that as his cue to pick up his fork and start eating. He found the taste of the food every bit as exhilarating as the feel of it, and despite his earlier thought about his portion being more appropriate for his mom than for him, he found that before he knew it his plate was empty.
Thanking his parents, Jasper placed his fork back down on his plate, and moved to get up. Without the aid of his cane, he grabbed the dishes he used, and maneuvered around the island to the other side where the sink was, and deposited them there. His parents had learned the hard way not to ask Jasper if he wanted any help with it or to offer to do it themselves. As amiable as Jasper was towards his parents, he also had been increasingly irritable and easily frustrated with his new disability, and it was often provoked when other people made him feel like he was helpless.
This of course had so far resulted in several broken dishes as well as bruises for Jasper, but George and Gloria figured it was best to let Jasper learn on his own, as they had with all other aspects of his learning.
After finishing breakfast and putting the dishes in the dishwasher, Jasper embarked to his room to undertake the newly difficult task of getting dressed. Though he'd never cared too much about fashion, he cared enough to make sure his clothes more or less matched each other, and to make sure that if he was wearing a t-shirt with text on it that it was appropriate to whatever setting he was going to be in.
In light of this preference, he'd had to learn ways to tell by feel which t-shirts were which and what color his pants were. He had sat down with his mom one day and had her describe each article of clothing to him while handing them over. Then he'd had to feel the tags and any other features to figure out ways to identify them by feel. For t-shirts that had identical feeling tags, he'd had to cut notches in the tags themselves and remember which ones belonged to which. In short, he'd had to memorize his entire wardrobe by feel. After a just a month or so of this, he still occasionally had some trouble figuring out which tag belonged to which wardrobe item, and his mom had had to learn to just go ahead and tell Jasper when he'd misidentified something and looked like crap. He usually reacted in a frustrated way but almost always apologized for it later.
However, Jasper did seem to be getting better, and this time he got it right, pulling on a plain green short sleeved t-shirt and some blue jeans, with a fairly nice black jacket on top. Though he couldn't see himself, he knew he'd look good in these clothes, and make the right impression on both teachers and on potential new friends. He found it interesting how what you wore could really determine who would approach you and what kind of attitude they'd have toward you. This outfit, he knew, would probably repel the more sporty jock types and the super alternative kids, but attract smart self-aware people like himself. People that didn't so much care about which group they belonged to or whether or not it's nerdy to be smart without pretending not to be.
Having picked this outfit, Jasper began to mentally prepare himself for the day ahead. he and his parents had arranged in advance to arrive early and have a school representative show him to his first class. He hadn't particularly wanted this arrangement because he knew it would make him stand out. In fact, he'd even had a representative meet him last week inside the school to show him around in hopes that he could learn where everything was and be able to find his own way to his classes. But this school was much bigger than his old one, and after that visit he had conceded to having somebody show him to his first class. The school had also arranged a series of students that would help him in the passing periods between classes. He'd had to resist his urge to be frustrated at people viewing him as helpless in this regard, but didn't see any way out of it. Plus, he decided, it would give him an opportunity to meet some new people and potentially make some friends.
So Jasper, Gloria, and George all got into the car a full hour before the school bell was to ring for the first class, though he knew it would only take about twenty minutes to get there. He'd be very early, but at least he wouldn't be overwhelmed. Nobody talked much about anything on the drive there, save the few superficial words said about things like the weather or how much they enjoyed breakfast.
When the three arrived at the front doors to the building, the vice school principal was already waiting, looking bored. When he saw Jasper and his parents drive up in their small green Subaru Forester station wagon, he smiled at the family. Upon realizing that Jasper couldn't actually see him and feeling embarrassed, he self-consciously rubbed the back of his neck with his left hand, and shifted his smile to the parents. Truth was, Jasper was to be the first visually impaired student to attend Pierce High School. After receiving a poor rating in terms of access for the disabled, the school board had invested loads of money in making Pierce not only accessible to the physically disabled, but also the only public high school in the district that had full accommodations for the blind. But despite having all the infrastructure needed, the faculty wasn't very prepared, having never really interacted with the blind. Jasper would be a test for this school, so Mr. Steinberger was every bit as nervous and apprehensive as Jasper was.
The car finally pulled over and Jasper got out, leaning over to the window to say goodbye to his parents. After a moment, Mr. Steinberger watched the skinny brown-haired teen turn around and head towards him. To his great surprise, Jasper's parents had just driven off, without either getting out to greet him or just to stay and be supportive until Jasper went inside. Jasper, however, was not surprised. As usual, they trusted Jasper to ask them if he needed anything, and to leave him to manage his own life otherwise.
"Hello, Jasper!" Mr. Steinberger said, enthusiastically. "Welcome back to Pierce. We're very glad that you decided to come early before the crowds arrive."
Thanks to Mr. Steinberger's hearty welcome, Jasper had was able to determine the man's general location, and, using his stick to make sure he didn't collide with anything along the way, made his way over.
"Hello, Mr. Steinberger. It's nice to meet you. I enjoyed meeting the other vice principal as well. Thank you so much for going to all this effort for me." Jasper said formally, but somehow not awkwardly as you'd expect from a teenage boy addressing a older person of authority.
"Well, it's certainly nice to meet a young man with such great manners!"
Jasper had judged correctly that this was a man that very much appreciated formality and good manners. He smiled in response to Mr Steinberger's excited reaction to his chosen way of addressing him.
"As I'm sure you know, your first class will be biology. I'm so sorry it's taking us so long to special order a brail copy of the textbook. Mr. O'Bryan said he'd make some arrangement so that you'd get by alright, so don't worry about that."
Jasper could tell that the vice principal was nervous, or at least that he was unsure of how to conduct himself around somebody without sight.
"Can you guide me to the class?" Jasper asked, to ease the man's struggle with what he should do.
"Go straight ahead, follow me."
Jasper followed the instruction, walking forward and following the loud clacking of what he could tell must be dress shoes rather than casual sneakers of Mr. Steinberger walking ahead of him. Every once and a while, he would get another instruction, "turn left. Turn right. Through this door here, careful."
When they finally reached the classroom, both were secretly grateful. It had been an awkward walk, and Jasper was increasingly aware that his guide was an uptight man who liked to be in control, and that Mr. Steinberger was unhappily out of his element trying to guide him.
"You must be Jasper." Said an new, older sounding voice.
"I am. You must be Mr. O'Bryan" Jasper echoed the man's gruff greeting, judging that the same manners that worked on Mr. Steinberger would be lost on this man.
"Well, I have some other school business to attend to. Again, it was a pleasure to meet you, Jasper." Mr. Steinberger said, unconvincingly.
"Thank you for showing me to class, Mr. Steinberger. It was nice to meet you too."
The sound of the clicking shoes resumed, this time heading away from Jasper rather than in step with him.
You can sit in one of the front seats there, just to your right." The brusque voice said again, sounding far away.
Apparently this man was determined not to make Jasper feel special at all, like the Vice Principals had.
Jasper obediently turned to his right, feeling with his stick until it collided with some metal with a soft 'clink.' Following up with his hand, he felt a flat piece of splintered wood, and found that Mr. O'Bryan's room was full of old style wooden desks. It was a lot different than the newer style, more group oriented type furniture he'd found in the other class rooms when he'd gotten a tour of the building. Still, Jasper actually kind of liked it.
"Class won't start for another twenty-five minutes, and I still have some prep to do, so you'll have to entertain yourself." The voice in the corner said, unapologetically.
Sitting down at the wood desk closest to the door, Jasper laid his head on the table, closed his useless eyes, and prepared himself for the long silent wait until class was to start.
Author's Note: Okay, so that was an epically long prologue with almost no dialogue- but I had to introduce the characters somehow. Noah and Jasper will meet next chapter and there's much less exposition and much more action. So stick with me! I have seven chapters already written beyond this prologue, so updates shouldn't take forever. Please review as I'm getting my wisdom teeth out tomorrow and could use something to cheer me up.