Julius Caesar (100 BC – 44 BC): Roman general and statesman. Began the transformation of the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire. A loyal, powerful man of influence, Caesar's downfall was his arrogance and inclination to manipulate others. It eventually led to his assassination on the Ides of March. His last words cannot be known with certainty.
"Men willingly believe what they wish."
Chapter 1: No Real Solution
I get like this from time to time, when my thoughts turn dark and my eyes wander the room searching for moral purchase. I feel awash in emotional agony for a few critical moments, then I close my eyes and I'm back, it's over. My thoughts rush through my head a thousand at a time and I lose myself in them. Then, all at once, I'm fine again.
My mind is a crowded place, often filled with aggressively chaotic debris. Most of it concerns me, I'll be honest, but plenty of it is critical analyses of life, of society. Flotsam and jetsam. It's not always pretty. Then again, neither is life. My thoughts are what cause me the most suffering in life. More than anything, if I could just control my mind, I feel like I could control everything else. But I can't. I can only watch idly as life ticks by, endlessly dull and futile.
I pushed my glasses up on my crooked nose and I was back, I was okay, it had passed. The library was, as usual, much too cold for my liking. Pale aquamarine walls and horrid upholstery. Fluorescent lights provided that signature 'asylum' feeling found in most government buildings.
Mikey was explaining some math concept to Bridget in a hushed tone. I reminded them with a tone of amusement that we were the only ones around and didn't have to whisper.
"It's still a library," Mikey shot back half-heartedly. "Have you done number twenty-seven?"
"Yeah," I replied, having finished the homework ages ago, before my moment of brief and concentrated misery.
Bridget, having little tolerance for the maths and sciences, groaned. "How'd you do it?"
More than happy to have something to do, I scribbled out the problem again on Bridget's paper (adorned with various poorly-drawn doodles of birds) slowly, so my math-impaired friends could follow.
"See, I told you," Mikey announced smugly. "No solution."
I shook my head. "No real solution. It's a negative under the square root sign, so the solution could be found using imaginary numbers –"
Mikey scoffed. "Imaginary numbers? I barely understand the real ones." He tugged absently on his ponytail and turned the page of the textbook. "Ok, what about thirty-one? It's also no solution, right?"
"Nope. It's 7 over 24." I showed him his error, but it only stood to frustrate him more.
I re-taught the entirety of that day's lesson to my friends in terms they could understand, pointing out their mistakes and making sure they got the material down well enough to pass the upcoming test. Both Mikey and Bridget were at risk of failing the course, which would mean they wouldn't graduate at the end of the year. While I did enjoy being the smartest of the group, I didn't want them to have to take summer school.
The library, already very small in area, seemed to shrink with every passing minute, boredom looming around my head with each simple problem Mikey and Bridget couldn't solve without me. Eventually we moved on to history homework, which was more their speeds.
After, Mikey talked briefly about chemistry and I corrected a few problems for him, though I wasn't taking the class. "Hey, you know who's in my lab for chemistry this week?" he said conversationally. "Gordie Duncan."
I could feel the hair on my neck stand up and shake in anger. It was infuriating, the effect that such a simple word, a simple name could have upon me, an otherwise detached, stoic being. My muscles contracted impulsively into a scowl, but I held them back. I forced a short nod of acknowledgement. "Are you doing the titration?"
Mikey nodded, less than enthusiastic. "It's so hard, you have to get it perfect or the numbers are completely wrong."
Bridget rested her head in her hands and played with her earphones absently, having nothing to contribute to our academic conversation. Math was her kryptonite and science her Achilles heel. English, however, was her natural element; able to quote obscure authors in a single bound, her literacy almost rivalled mine. I, on the other hand, refused to show off with random insertions of hearsay into my daily conversations.
"Anyway, he totally saved our asses. He's the only one that actually knew what to do, it was pathetic. Thank God we all shared the grade."
I breathed deeply and forced myself to calm down. So what Gordie knew how to do this one stupid lab? I'd done the same lab (perfectly, I might add,) last year – a year ahead of everyone else. I relaxed. Who cares about one asshole? I unballed my fists and uncurled my toes.
Finally, Bridget jumped in: "Yeah, he did that last week in band class, he's really talented."
Fuck I hate him. Always one-upping me at everything and he doesn't even know it. Calm down.
"C'mon, I gotta catch the three-thirty bus or Desmond will freak out," I announced, extinguishing the conversation. They knew what I really meant, so we packed up and headed for the bus stop. Mikey's car was, as usual, a pile of crap that wouldn't run, so we were on a streak of bussing to and from school lately.
Todsfall was classified as a "small city" or possibly a "large town". That being said, we still only had three bus lines: one going to Central, one to Rural and one to Industrial. Nearly everyone lived within a few blocks of Central – thus the name – and nearly everyone's parents worked up in Industrial – thus the name. Todsfall relied heavily on blatant naming because its residents were generally not very intelligent. As a matter of fact, our high school (Todsfall High, could you have guessed?) had the highest dropout rate in the entire state of New York.
I remembered somewhat morbidly the day I discovered the origin and meaning of the town's name. It was German, as most of the town's citizens were of Germanic descent. It was settled in the early seventeen-hundreds and was named for its plain, uninteresting look, or so I've been told.
It means "death". "Todsfall" is literally "death" in German. But our townsfolk were too proud to discuss the matter, so it was somewhat of a taboo amongst locals. I simply found it interesting.
I had lived here my whole life. I'd been out to New Amsterdam and a few other places, but nothing special. Despite having lived here and having never really left, it had never truly felt like home, and I didn't think it ever would.
The bus stop was empty, save us three. We must've looked like an odd bunch: me and my average height, Mikey's towering six-foot-two stance and Bridget at five-foot-four. Most students caught the three o'clock bus after school, but we sometimes stayed late to study. Even when Mikey and Bridget didn't, I usually did. Even when there was nothing much to study.
"Have you finished your applications yet?" Mikey asked, pulling on his signature lime green winter hat.
Bridget hadn't, I had. "Did you end up applying to East Athena?" I asked. Mikey nodded. "For the Accounting program?"
"No, just a general program. I'm not sure what to go into yet." I knew this Mikey-esque flip-flopping all too well, as did Bridget. She gave me a half-smile.
A gust of wind slapped me in the face and I shivered, willing the bus to come. "You cold?" Bridget asked.
"No, I'm having a complex-partial-seizure," I replied sarcastically.
Bridget scoffed. "Cool, I was gonna give you my spare gloves but now I don't have to!" I was about to retort when the bus finally pulled up against the curb and its hydraulic doors whooshed open, heat leaking from the inside against my face. We paid the fare and sat down at the back. For a "large town", Todsfall's buses seemed to be empty more often than not.
"What about Desmond, has he applied anywhere?" Mikey asked, heaving his backpack onto the seat opposite him.
I didn't much figure my brother to be the university type, having never really talked about wanting to go, but he was the type to surprise me, on occasion. "Not yet. I think he's going to, though. Anything to keep him from having to get a job, I figure."
Bridget let her long naturally-black-but-currently-half-dyed-purple hair out of the clip she'd had it in. She fluffed it around a bit. "Yeah, I can't see him in one of those 'fries with that?' jobs. He'd be too shy."
Mikey agreed. "Yeah, he'd be better at a desk job where he never has to talk to anyone." We laughed lightly at that which wasn't funny and I stared out the window. Endless snowdrifts distracted my eyes but not my mind. In the back of my brain I was screaming, "No, you don't know him like I know him!" but I let it pass.
Bridget got off at her stop and Mikey and I said goodbye. I rang the bell for our stop was a few minutes later and we trudged through the snow like helpless turtles on our backs, talking lightly about nothing in particular. Hockey team this, art assignment that, and can I believe how cold it is? Perhaps, I thought to myself, perhaps one day we'll evolve past small talk. No, actually, we've devolved. I'd known Mikey since I was four years old and only now had our conversations become so dull and unfulfilling.
We passed Mrs. Forrester's rosebushes, usually so bright and beautiful, now covered with a heavy thicket of snow.
We reached Mikey's driveway and said "see you later" with tire voice. There were eight months left for us in Todsfall, and it weighed heavily on our friendship. We both dreaded leaving one another, if only because of our fear of change – I'd known for a long time now that change wasn't good.
Mikey and I had missed the morning bus (Desmond had left early for band) and had been forced to walk to school. His car, of course, was still out of commission and would be until I could manage to drag myself over there to fix it for him. My feet ached for the duration of the half-hour walk. It had always perplexed me as to why they put the high school out near the edge of town in Rural when most Todsfallians lived in Central. Eventually I realized that money runs the entire world and likely had something to do with all the poor decisions made in this town, not to mention the fact that everyone with any power is dumber than a sack of hammers.
We arrived ten minutes late for art class and slunk guiltily into our seats. Borden, the "teacher" was, as cliché dictates, one of the most laidback people in the entire world. I've literally seen students get perfect marks on assignments they didn't do just by describing to him what it would have looked like. Unfortunately, the admins gave him hell for not marking kids late, and seeing as how today was the third day in a row that we'd walked in after the bell, he gave us an apologetic look as he scribbled our names down on the attendance sheet.
"Miss the bus again?" Bridget asked, pitying us. "Looks like half the class did." And it did seem so. A mere eleven people were present, thankfully excluding Gordie Duncan. Being a senior class, however, this wasn't terribly uncommon.
We took out our paintings. "How'd you make the water look so realistic?" Mikey asked me, jealousy dripping from his voice. I glanced at his project, a waterfall, and back to mine, a street in Venice.
"I dunno. Yours looks fine," I lied. Honestly, if I didn't know better, I never would've gotten a "waterfall" out of that image. "Just use more white."
I had to physically keep myself from groaning when Gordie waltzed into the room. His eyes were pale and cool, his hair in a perpetual state of needing a trim but still looking attractive. He gave Borden an apologetic smirk and I tried not to throttle his skinny throat when the teacher didn't mark him late. The six-foot-three asshole sat in his usual seat across from me and took out his painting.
"Wow," Bridget commented with wide eyes on his landscape. "I love the trees, they look so realistic!" I chose not to point out that the leaves were practically blue with his overuse of shading. I tried not to care.
"Thanks," he replied stoically with no smile and no eye contact. I hated Mikey as he gazed longingly at Gordie's work and then back to his own.
After a moment of internal conflict, Mikey said to him, "Hey, how'd you get your pond to look so good?" I could practically feel myself shaking in hatred. "I can't make my water look like actual water."
Gordie looked critically at Mikey's painting. "It's nothing you can't fix, just try adding a bit more blue up here, some shadows here, and tone it down with the white a bit."
I sighed calmly, reserving my rage for someone who deserved it. Gordie Duncan was nothing to me, and he would never top me at anything, no matter what the mark books said. His lanky arms moved in slow, cautious strokes on his canvas as he added clouds to the already-too-dark sky. His veins bulged out and they moved eerily across his forearm. I looked away.
I could feel relief roll off my shoulders as art class finished and I all but sprinted from the room. Art was my least-productive class; I could never concentrate with Gordie's toothpick arms and artistic talent staring me in the face.
"Julius!" Bridget called after me. I'd been so preoccupied that I'd forgotten our shared next class. "Ready for polynomial algebra?" she asked sarcastically, brushing a bit of hair out of her face. Her hair was in a ponytail, which looked a lot better than usual. She wasn't exceptionally gorgeous or anything, but she was pretty – the kind of pretty that some girls can achieve without trying.
"I already finished the rest of the homework for this week."
She stared at me incredulously as we headed to Richardson's math class. "When did you do that?"
"In class yesterday."
She sighed. "You're so fucking smart." I grinned and agreed, thoroughly enjoying the compliment, however obvious it was. "All I can do is read, read, read."
I sailed through math class, somehow managing to occupy myself for seventy-five minutes while Richardson attempted to teach my below-average classmates. I skipped lunch to study for the history test I had the following period, then passed it with flying colours. I'd already read the necessary scenes of King Lear for English and contemplated skipping with Jack and Riley from history, but I ultimately decided to go for Desmond's sake.
"Julius, incredible work on your comparative essay," Mr. Yates greeted me as I entered the room. I thanked him, took the essay he was handing me and sat down next to my brother. I waited another few seconds just to boost my adrenaline, and finally checked the grade. Shit, another ninety-six.
Desmond smiled modestly as I sat down. "Hey." I returned the greeting abruptly. "What did you get?"
I told him.
He stared at me. "Wow, that's awesome." I grumbled in discontent but didn't argue. "You're too hard on yourself, a ninety-six is good."
"Yeah. What did you get?" Desmond held up his paper – ninety-three. His feminine face was mildly proud. His too-thin hands (he's got these incredible pianist's fingers) pushed through his thick black hair and down the back of his neck. He took a deep breath as the class started to calm himself down. I noticed that his favourite shirt, a blue-and-green striped long-sleeve, was slowly becoming too big for him.
Yates jumped right into Shakespeare, finishing the remainder of Act Two though I'd finished up to Act Four the previous night. He assigned homework questions and dismissed the class ten minutes early, one of his signature qualities that made him a well-liked teacher.
"Are you staying late again?" Desmond asked without bothering to mask his disappointment.
I did my best to avoid his guilt trap. "Yeah, I have to work on my landscape, it's due tomorrow." At least I wasn't lying or inventing projects to work on or tests to study for like I did at times.
He made a face. "Oh. Okay." King of guilt.
"Oh, hey," I added before he left to catch the three o'clock, "want to eat at Mikey's tonight?"
Desmond's face lit up. At least, as much as his face was capable of lighting up. "Yeah, for sure."
"Alright, I'll see you in a bit." I gave him a soft clap on the back and a smile. "We'll play Trivial Pursuit tonight, okay? Cheer up a bit." Desmond grimaced and we parted ways.
Sometimes it sounded like I was the older brother, albeit Desmond only had one year on me.
The best thing about Desmond was his compliance – he never went against me, he took everything I said as gospel.
He was my best friend and I was his. I didn't easily open up to others and neither did he, we were both the spitting image of our mother and we both harboured deep truths about life that we would never so much as think about. We were both messed up and lonely.
But Desmond scared me sometimes. I tried to help him in every way I could, but he was stubbornly terrified of life and unwilling to see a way out of his own anxiety and misery.
I almost missed the four o'clock back to Central, but I did manage to finish my train wreck of a painting. My feet still hurt from the walk to school and the ten-minute walk from the bus stop didn't help in the slightest.
The streets were abandoned. I remembered the bright days of my very early childhood where kids from all over Todsfall littered the street at any and all hours of the day, cheerfully lying in grass, climbing trees, dancing in flowerbeds, running from angry neighbours when they discovered their flowerbeds had been danced on. In the winter we would bashfully fly down snowhills on sleds, trek across the neighbourhood through the snow. Now we were all grown. Not a young face in the bunch. It was sad, really. Todsfall had grown old and tiresome, a circus without patrons, abandoned and eerie.
I figured Des was likely already at Mikey's, so I just ducked inside to drop off my backpack.
"Julius?" I dropped my backpack on the kitchen counter.
"Yeah. We're going to Mikey's for dinner."
I heard him stir and knew this was going to be a problem. "Like hell y'are. Where's Desm'n?" Drunk again. I wondered if I could get away with just slipping out the door right at that second, but decided against it for my own future safety. Instead, I made my way into the living room cautiously and found my dad sitting in his armchair. Whiskey hit my nose, but beer took its place as I stepped further into the room. I noted the sad fact that I could, at seventeen, differentiate between types of alcohol by smell.
"C'mon, we've been eating microwave macaroni for three days," I argued. "It's just dinner."
My dad groaned as he sat up straight, his gut shifting. His face was unshaven and tired, his eyes dead and emotionless. "I don't like them Lincolns. Thinkin' they're better'n me."
I sighed and headed for the door. "Don't fuckin' come home t'night then!" I slammed the door as I left. I stood on the porch to collect myself for a moment before going to Mikey's. I knew my dad didn't care enough to follow me and he probably wouldn't even remember telling me off when I got back. I put my head in my hands and shivered. My coat was worn from three winters' wear and was growing smaller with every passing snowstorm. My feet hurt.
I dug deep into my pants pocket, taking out her peach compact mirror. It was ages old but in perfect condition. I stroked the lid with my thumb and flipped it open. My heart fluttered in contentment and my father's words ceased to echo in my ears. My eyes met my eyes' reflections through the short black hair that obstructed them slightly, and I calmed down before I'd even realized that I was tense.