Organized chaos was still order in its own way, wasn’t it? So long as the clutter was easy to navigate for whoever lived in it, there wasn’t really a problem. That was the least guilt-inducing way to think of the piles of papers, half-used pens, books, and cups on and around the desks in the dorm room. They were all barely illuminated by the dull glow of a laptop screen, every black word reaching through pages to gain the attention of the young man hunched over one of his many notebooks.
His eyes darted between the screen and the page under his hand, shaking as it filled faded blue lines. His wrist and fingers ached as he turned the page. His vision blurred for a moment and his hand stilled. He stared blankly at the vague blobs on his screen. His heart pounded slowly in his chest as he took a deep breath.
His heavy eyes and shaking hand saw the break of dawn together. The sky turned gray and the barest hint of light crept through the drawn shades of the window.
A xylophone melody burst through the silence and was severed by a tap mid-note. Sheets rustled as the other boy in the room turned over in his bed and sat up.
He scratched his head and stretched his legs out, two audible pops echoing in the quiet. “Morning, Joshie,” he said, his voice hoarse.
“Morning, Vic,” Joshua said. He finished off his page and shut the notebook, rubbing his wrist. It was starting to ache all the time, even going numb when he used it too much. He would need to see the nurse about that if he remembered.
The taller boy stood and stretched, more pops making Joshua painfully aware of the stiffness in his own back. “Did you hear those?” he said with a smile. “I think I slept wrong again.” He crossed the room and put his hands on Joshua’s shoulders. He looked at the screen. “What’ve you been up to? Did you get up early?”
“You know the answer to that.” Joshua picked up the mug next to his laptop and tipped it back. The coffee was cold and far too sweet, perfect for a day that began before the sun was fully awake.
Vicente straightened to his full height, over six feet, and twined one of Joshua’s dark brown curls around his finger. “You gotta stop doing this to yourself, dude. You need sleep. Coffee won’t keep you running forever.”
Joshua shrugged and turned his laptop off. “Maybe not, but that’s not gonna stop me from brewing some more.”
Vicente sighed and rubbed his roommate’s back. “Fine. Leave me a cup, I’ve got a test first thing.”
While the coffee maker was brewing the pot, Joshua packed his bag for the day and read his schedule. His vision kept blurring as he put on his binder, then his uniform and combed through his hair with his fingers. He knew the coffee would fix that problem for a couple of hours. After all, he only needed to get through today and he would have an entire week of rest. He poured two cups and added plenty of sugar and milk from the small fridge in the room before glancing at the bathroom door. Vicente had been in there a while.
Joshua opened the door and found him bent over the toilet, gagging and retching into the bowl. Tears dripped from his cheeks as he coughed and puked again. He was panting when he finally glanced up.
His lovely brown eyes were tinged red now.
“Vic,” Joshua said, trailing off. As much as he wanted to admonish him and tell him to take a day off, he knew that it wouldn’t work. He knelt down and rubbed Vicente’s back, holding back the boy’s swatch of thick teal hair as he continued to throw up bile. A few sobs shook him, and Joshua blinked back a different kind of blurriness in his eyes.
They drank their coffee in silence. Joshua wished Vicente luck on his test. Vicente bent down and hugged him, leaning on the top of his roommate’s head. He pecked his cheek and they left the room, walking in opposite directions.
“Thank you for coming early like I asked, Joshua,” Ms.C said when the student in question walked into the lab theater. “Can you lead warm ups today? I forgot some worksheets in my office.” She was pretty in a familiar way that reminded Joshua of his own aunts. When he first took her class as a normal high school freshman, he had bonded with her over similar heritage. Their friendship had kept him coming back as many times as the school would allow.
He smiled and dropped his bag off against the wall. “Sure. Are we making characters? We always do around this point in the year.”
She leafed through the binder in her hands, a smile playing on her lips at his question. “Your memory is impeccable. Yes, we are.” She shut the binder as her freshman began to file in. “I will be back in a few minutes.”
As the pile of backpacks against the wall grew and the thin quiet that had hung in the room a moment ago was torn up by chatter, Joshua took his place in the center of the room. A few students greeted him with smiles, waves, and a couple of handshakes he had come up with earlier in the year. Their buzzing energy managed to clip through the murkiness in his head and brighten him enough for his smile to become genuine. It felt nice to have these kids look up to him. Well, metaphorically as he was either the same height as or shorter than the majority of them.
He led them in their routine tongue twisters, stretches, shake-downs, and asked everyone to voice their stress about the day. The murky, gray feeling that he fought off every day curled up in his stomach as they complained about tests and essays and homework. The creature laughed at them, and he maintained a strict control over his face, pinching it in the appropriate grimaces and sorrowful looks they had come to expect from him. He hadn’t taken six years of acting classes here for nothing. He swallowed back the bitter laughter that threatened to slice them up for daring to complain about workload as freshman and consoled them until Ms.C returned.
“Hey JP!” Someone across the room said in the middle of the lesson. “Can you help us with some of these questions?”
Joshua lifted his head from the student he had been talking to, Casey was her name, a bit too late. He had forgotten his name for this cycle. It got confusing after a while to cover up how many times he had been registered as a freshman, taken the same finals and standardized tests, and graduated. Each new cycle wore him down a little bit more.
“John Paul, are you okay?” Casey asked.
He nodded his head and crossed the room before she could ask more. His smile was back, only this time it felt like it was cracking his face. “Sure thing, Ethan.”
The rest of the day, just like every single one before it, is a blur. Joshua tunes into the music on his phone between classes as he walks back and forth between wings of the massive school building. He supposed that if he didn’t eat out of stress so much, the amount of walking and running he did to make it on time would take a couple of inches off of his too-wide waist. He only ever concerned himself with being fit enough to perform choreography and sing without getting too winded. That had yet to change even though Vicente insisted on inviting him to run track or play basketball.
He sees younger students in their first, hopefully only, cycle watching him and his peers pass into a wing of the school with security guards and a check-in desk with mixtures of curiosity and amazement. He ignores them and presses his red ID to the scanner by the door so he can pass through.
His classes in that wing are always small, consisting of maybe ten students each. He greets his classmates with tight-lipped smiles and even a hug or two. They sit at tables together, not desks, and talk about their kids between notes and classwork.
He had a presentation in his Advanced Music Production class that day. The flood of compliments he received at the end of his piece, a beautiful conglomeration of classical and modern techniques in his opinion, did little to lift his spirits. He assured the younger students that they only needed to practice in order to get on his level one day. He did not tell them that he had taken this class four times already.
Vicente met up with him in time for lunch and the two of them entered their wing again. They keep walking when a regular sophomore tries to sneak in behind them and gets stopped by a security guard.
Their lunchroom was smaller than the cafeteria on the other side of the school and far nicer. They had carpet, couches, cushioned chairs at their tables, and food served buffet style. A round of applause spread around the room when they entered, and Joshua looked down at the plain beige carpet.
“Hey dude, don’t be like that. Let them celebrate you,” Vicente said, putting an arm around him. “You earned it.”
He wanted to say he was sick of earning anything. That he was sick of working and classes. Instead, he raised his head and smiled with a hint of coyness. “Aw, you all shouldn’t have,” he said and joined the laughter that ensued. He took his seat with a group of friends that had been with him since his first couple of cycles. “How are you guys?”
A couple of them made gestures at their heads, pretending to blow their own brains out or hang themselves. He laughed with them and slit his own throat with an invisible blade.
“I know you probably don’t want to hear it, but I gotta congratulate you,” Ashley said,” Being top of the class for two years straight isn’t easy.”
“Or healthy!” Cassandra added, slapping Joshua on the back hard enough to make him jerk forward. “Your family must be getting some serious bonuses. You work your ass off. I don’t know how you do it and still manage to look like a shampoo ad everyday.”
Joshua laughed. “We all have our secrets,” he said, flipping his long curly hair over one shoulder. “Bustelo does wonders when you haven’t slept in days.”
Vicente rolled his eyes. “You can’t always substitute it for sleep, Joshie. I’ve seen you crash before.”
“Speaking of crashing,” Ashley said,”thank God break starts today. I am so ready to just sleep for a whole week.”
“Sleep? I’m gonna see if I can just slip into a coma,” Vicente said. He took his glasses off and cleaned them with a cloth. “I think I’ve had enough living, you know?”
“Did someone say coma?! Sign me the fuck up!” A student from another table said.
Vicente turned around. “Alright, who else wants in? Who wants a Coma Club?” Every hand in the room went up, and they all had a laugh.
The few teachers monitoring them should have looked worried. Instead, they continued to talk amongst themselves.
Joshua rubbed his hands over his face and put his head down on the table. He felt a hand rub his back and a couple more pet the ends of his hair and back of his head.
“You’re really feeling it, aren’t you,” Ashley said. “I’m sorry, is there anything we can do?”
“Yeah, maybe we have some classes in common. I could lend you some stuff,” Cassandra said.
Joshua sighed and raised his head. He smiled at their concerned faces. “It’s fine, I just need to rest over break.”
Vicente pursed his lips and raised a brow. “Bullshit. You’re collapsing just like the rest of us.” He put an arm around Joshua. “Listen, dude, you need to ease up. You don’t have to be on top all the time.”
Joshua leaned on him and saw the taller boy hunched over the toilet in his mind’s eye. Collapsing indeed. They always were. Damn Vicente’s perceptiveness. They had been friends for too long for him to hide anything. “Maybe not. I just wish I could quit. I wish I could get out of here.”
“Sorry, Joshua! Wait, what’s your name this cycle? John Paul? The only way out of this hellhole is in a straight jacket, you know that!” a voice at the end of their long table called out.
As terrible as it was, it was true. And that brought absurd laughter bubbling out of Joshua’s throat. He laughed and laughed until he was bent forward, his eyes leaking and his stomach aching. Maybe he would get out that day. Maybe his friends would join him, as it appeared that his bout of madness was contagious. It felt like the entire room was laughing. And they knew they couldn’t stop.
They laughed only because they had no more tears left.
By the end of the day, Vicente’s prediction had come true. Joshua had downed a few more cups of coffee from the lunch room and teacher’s lounge in their wing, but those brands were weaker and just barely got him through the rest of the day.
He had his bag packed by the time Vicente got back to their room and was brewing another pot of coffee to make sure he didn’t get into an accident on his way home.
Vicente hugged him from behind when he swayed a bit on his feet. “Hey, can I borrow your stuff from APUSH? I wanna get ahead on a project we have due a week after break. You don’t have to get it, just tell me where it is.”
Joshua shook his head and his vision swam for a moment before he gritted his teeth and straightened. “It’s okay, I’ll get it.” He walked to the floor-to-ceiling bookshelf against a wall in the corner and scanned the spines of the binders there. They were all arranged in chronological order from his first cycle to his most recent one. He bent down and plucked a three-inch green binder from one of the bottom shelves. “Here. It’s got all my notes and worksheets and essays and stuff.” He handed it to Vicente and went to pour his coffee. If he was lucky, it should last long enough for him to have dinner with Annika and his parents before he crashed again.
“Thank, Joshie,” Vicente said, flashing him a smile before his voice became more serious. “Take care of yourself this week, okay? Please promise me you’ll rest. Running on fumes like this isn’t good for you.”
Joshua stirred sugar and milk into his cup. “I know, Vic.” He paused and took a long sip while Vicente stared a hole in the back of his head. He sighed and set his cup down again so he could pick his bag up. “I promise.” He took his cup and headed for the door.
Vicente stopped him with a hand on his shoulder. “Hey, maybe you can get them to give you a break and put you back in with the normal kids.”
Joshua looked back to him. “How?” He already knew it wouldn’t work; he had taught a bunch of regular students already. They would recognize him somehow and everything would fall apart.
Vicente poked his cheek. “If you shave the beard you’ll look a lot younger. I know it’s important to you because it helps you pass, but if you need a break it might work for a while.”
Joshua shrugged. “I’ll think about it over break.” He turned around and hugged Vicente. He barely reached his roommate’s chest. “Damn you for being so tall,” he said and heard Vicente chuckle. “Have a good break, okay?”
“Only if you do.” Vicente let him go.
Once he was in his car, he didn’t look back. He turned up his radio and gripped the wheel, staring forward at the road. He passed the sign at the end of the campus that read Greenfield High School and exhaled. The tension in his shoulders melted out and he tuned into the music pumping through his speakers and the familiar roads ahead.
Lush green trees that towered over the houses on the outskirts of town reached their mighty branches out to each other. Carefully tended gardens filled with colorful blooms shone in the bright sun. The golf course with its sprawling grassy hills and smooth asphalt paths stood out in the middle of the town like a green utopia.
Yes, the town was beautiful, he had to give it that. He hoped that the kids he saw walking home from the elementary and middle schools were happy. Happy and average. Painfully, perfectly average.
Lately, the number of families with children in the town had been growing. It made logical sense, as the schools were the best in the state, but it killed him to know that these parents had no idea what mechanism was running behind the numbers. Greenfield High School kept a close eye on the best students in the public elementary and middle schools so they could invite them to try private school. The best of those students were then given a seemingly incredible opportunity to represent their town and take university courses at a lower cost. They made being recycled sound so good. All they had to really repeat from school were the standardized tests that would be seen by the state. So long as their numbers stayed up, they could keep a steady flow of bonuses going out to recycled students’ families.
By the time they realized what they had gotten into, it was too late. And after nine years in Greenfield, Joshua knew it was too late for him.
He took a turn into his neighborhood and felt his stomach tighten. He explained it away as the amount of coffee he’d drank that day and drove past the numerous cul de sacs of the main street. He glanced out the window when he passed a small blue house.
He had moved in there from Brooklyn when he was seven and his sister was three. He smiled at the memories of dancing around an empty living room and sleeping in a loft bed above his little sister. Every Tuesday during Elementary school they had walked home together and laid in the grass of their tiny yard, reading and talking. He had been friends with every kid in their little concrete circle for years before they moved on.
At the end of the street was the turn that took him home. The three-floor house was large for his family of four. Well, five including their small dog. It was a lovely gray color with dark shingles and a sprawling yard in the front and back. The grass was so green it almost looked unreal. The two-car garage seemed to mock him with its size, looming over him along with its larger sibling.
He parked behind the two other cars in the driveway and walked up the path to the french doors protected by the front porch. Inhaling to soothe his roiling stomach, he shifted his bag and rang the doorbell. Home sweet home, right?
“Welcome home, mi amor,” his Dad says, smiling at him with his arms open wide.
Joshua hugged him tight and rubs their cheeks together. For a moment his smile was genuine. His mother came to the door just in time to see his glow fade. He held the smile and sees hers shrink.
“Mijo, you have bags under your eyes.” She cupped his cheeks with both hands and peered into his face. When his smile fell, she spoke again. “Have you been eating?”
He forced a smile and a tense chuckle that makes his Dad frown. “Yeah, that’s all I do besides work. I’m not starving myself, Mami, I promise.”
She kissed his forehead and squeezed his cheeks. “Well, I cooked for you anyway. Papa con huevos. I felt like you might be craving it.” She walked him inside while his Dad pulled his bag off his shoulders.
The sound of frantic scrapes and skittering approached and announced their dog Vader, a black Pomeranian, darting into the room to greet his human. He leaped into Joshua’s arms and attacked his face with licks.
“Thank you, Papi. I’m sorry I haven’t visited more. I’ve been busy,” he said. He sat at the marble island in the chrome kitchen past the mud room and did his best to maintain a nonchalant expression. Vader squirmed in his lap, getting fur all over his uniform. When his Mom set a plate with smooth mashed potatoes and two fried eggs in front of him, he said,”How is the studio, Mami? And your security project, Papi?”
The two of them took turns catching him up. His Mom had a show planned in a couple of weeks that she hoped he would be able to attend, and his Dad had a few renters for a supercomputer he had built that he was negotiating with. He congratulated them and offered small quips between bites of food until his plate was scraped clean.
“Alright young man, go to your room,” his Mom said. “Go. You haven’t been sleeping, go.” She pointed back toward the hall.
He moved to pick up his plate and his Dad took it and put it in the sink. “Don’t even think about arguing. Your sister’s bus isn’t arriving for another couple of hours. Go ahead, we’ll wake you when dinner is ready.”
He picked Vader up again and stood. “Okay. Thank you.”
He walked through the hall and up the stairs with Vader in his arms. He looked at the art on the walls, many signed by his own Mom and her friends, his handiwork. The light still streaming through the windows in the rooms he passed and the silence felt unreal, like any second he would blink and be walking through school halls again on his way to class. Once he reached his room, he put Vader down and let the black ball of fur sprint around the room.
He looked at the prints on the walls, bookshelf filled with decorative items and books instead of binders, perfectly clean desk, and made bed for a long moment. He turned and sat on his bed, picking Vader up when he scratched at Joshua’s leg. In the corner of the room were two stands, one with a guitar and one with an electronic keyboard. Both were covered with a thin layer of dust.
He could practically hear how out of tune the guitar was without so much as touching it, and he stroked Vader’s fur to have something else to focus on. The dust hanging in the air from him and Vader disturbing the room felt suffocating. He stood and opened the window beside the keyboard with one hand. He wanted to touch it, to play, but his eyes were already growing blurry again.
He settled, like he always did, to play later and lied down. Vader kept him company after everything went dark.
Yelling yanked Joshua from the embrace of sleep and he shot out of bed. His heart raced and his head pounded from the sudden movement as he tried to blink sleep from his eyes. At the door, Vader yapped and tried to scratch through the wood. He stood and had to brace himself against the wall to open the door and let the Pomeranian out.
Annika was home.
The stairs tipped as he descended them and tried to shake him off, but he managed to make it to the mud room without an injury. He grinned at his sister, who looked like she was positively glowing, and let her crush the air out of him in a hug. “I take it you’ve been having a good time at FIT?” he wheezed, coughing when she let him go.
“Bro, you have no idea! I’ve never been this happy! I got on the dean’s list last semester, I won a contest to go shopping in the Fashion District for nicer fabrics last month, I love my classes and professors, and I have so many new friends!” She hopped up and down. “I brought you all presents, too!” She ran out to her car.
He watched her and felt his parents’ eyes boring into him, searching for a reaction. All he did was smile. He truly was happy for her, even if he felt like he had just gotten ten times sicker.
She demanded that they try on what she had brought them immediately. Joshua got an old-fashioned pink silk shirt that he just adored. Their Dad got a new blazer that she had sewn by hand. And their Mom got a long skirt with a gorgeous pattern Annika designed herself.
Joshua did his best to hang onto every word of her stories from the past couple of months. She was attacked by a pigeon one day while getting breakfast at a bakery she liked, she had gone to block parties with her friends on school nights, and she had her eye on a guy from her art history class that she was fairly certain liked her back. His throat burned more and more with every word, but he maintained his smile.
Here was his motivation in the flesh, back home right on time to motivate her again. She told them that she used her allowance to pay for her friends who didn’t have enough money, and he decided that he would take those extra notes during the week to get ahead. She told them what a relief it was to not see debt in her future, and he could already taste the coffee he would be drinking to write a couple of extra credit essays once he was back.
By the time dinner rolled around, he had a full schedule in his mind and an unbearable flame in his throat that would not let him speak more than a word or two. She was dazzling, their house was beautiful, his parents were stress-free. Their lives were perfect because of him, and when she hugged him again, he swallowed back tears. He was the perfect son and brother. That was all he needed.
Annika consumed dinnertime with more stories. Her energy was contagious, and by the time Joshua was finished with dinner he had gotten enough control over himself to speak freely.
The two of them were clearing the table when there was a knock at the door. Vader started yapping right away and ran with their Dad to see who had arrived.
“Eliza! Welcome!” their Dad said, opening the door for their neighbor.
The older woman smiled and walked in with a covered plate. “I heard Annika would be back in town, so I brought a cake to celebrate. It’s a big deal going all the way to New York, I’m so proud of you.”
Annika all but flounced to her, kissing her cheek with a wide smile. “Thank you so much, Eliza! I’ll set the table for dessert!” She took the cake and left for the kitchen with it.
Joshua hugged her and heard his Dad say from behind him,”How is Marty doing?”
Eliza’s smile fell, and she let Joshua go. “He’s still with us. We’re lucky he’s lasted so long.” She shook her head, removing her large glasses to wipe them. “Sometimes I wonder if it was all worth it. It had been for him back then, but we can’t even ask what he thinks now.”
Joshua felt like the acid in his stomach electrified the flame in his throat when he felt their eyes on him. He refused to crack and kept his smile, albeit not as enthusiastically. “I’m glad he hasn’t passed yet. That’s something, right?”
Eliza’s sad smile almost broke his own. “Always the optimist. You two did a good job,” she said. She clapped her hands. “Now, how about that cake?”
“So Joshua, how’s school been for you? How’s that guy you were telling us about,” Annika snapped a couple of times,”Vic, right?”
Joshua nodded and swallowed the cake in his mouth. He didn’t like the sweetness of it anymore. It made his stomach churn more. “He’s doing alright. He dyed his hair again. It’s teal now, not navy blue.”
“And what about classes?” she pressed, probably hoping to get some good stories out of him. He felt bad to let her down.
“They’re fine. I’m top of my class still, which is nice.” A gross understatement or straight up lie, it was hard to tell at that point.
She tilted her head and poked his arm. “That’s it? Come on, there’s gotta be more. Are you doing okay? You seem off.”
He shook his head. “I’m alright, just a little tired.”
“You sure? Those bags look pretty intense. You’re not gonna end up like,” she trailed off and looked around the table. Their parents and Eliza all had their eyes locked onto her. She closed her mouth and looked down again. “You know, you don’t have to keep doing all this. We could stand on our own two feet without being held up by that school.”
That school. There it was. She had never set foot in that school. She had never known a student besides him that went to that school. She had no idea how it felt to spend every waking moment in the prison that was that school. And she never would. Good on her that she never would. Good on her that she was average in every core class. Good on her that she couldn’t read a book to save her life growing up. Good on her that she couldn’t multiply properly until middle school. Good on her that she would never end up in that school.
“I do it because I want to,” he said and saw Eliza glance away out of the corner of his eye. “I love seeing you guys happy. Look at this house and the cars in the driveway. Mami has a studio and Papi can build whatever he wants. You get to be in New York, and I can take classes that are just as hard without costing them anything.” He smiled, and it felt horrible. “I love you guys. I would do anything to keep you happy.”
Eliza looked at him again and reached for him. She stood up when he drew his hand back. “Oh, Joshua. You sound just like he did,” she said, her wrinkled face warped with sorrow. “Don’t you understand that it isn’t worth it?”
He stood up and backed away from the table. “It is! I get to provide for my family with no consequences for them! I’m fine! I have friends at school, my teachers love me! They’re proud of me!”
“Mi amor, you’re our son. You don’t need to provide. We didn’t think we would ever end up here,” his Mom looked to Eliza and added,”No one ever does, but we’re worried about you.”
“You think there aren’t consequences for us, but there are,” his Dad said,”We’re always thinking about you locked up in that place. You’re wasting away.” He moved to get out of his chair and Joshua backed up toward the door.
“No! I’m okay! I’m okay with this! I choose to keep going! I work hard because I want to!” His voice wavered and shattered. “Don’t try to talk me out of it! I belong there, it’s all I know now!” Their forms blurred through the flood of tears that burst from his eyes and he turned around. He ran down the hall and down a flight of stairs before they could follow him.
He ran through the basement in the dark, navigating the carpeted hall and rooms with muscle memory from four years of visiting the house. He ducked into the room furthest from the staircase and locked the door behind him. He wiped his eyes and turned on the light.
The grain of the door caught his eye before he steeled himself. He needed a stronger reminder. More solid proof.
He turned and looked at the rest of the small room.
From the floor to the ceiling were his trophies. Paper, metal, and plastic. Stacked on shelves and framed on the walls. They hid the pale grey color behind them and glittered in the fluorescent light above them. They offered a timeline of his achievements from elementary school to now. Competitions of every kind from singing to acting to writing, math, and trivia. Speeches and concerts and semesters on the honor roll all stood together. They dwarfed him.
And in the center of the wall before him, his crowning achievements; three diplomas surrounded by crystalline glass. The first was made out to Maria, who graduated a year early. The second was made out to Joshua, who did the same. The third was for Emmanuel, who concluded his ninth year in that school. The spring before this one.
On his knees before them, he could already picture the fourth made out to John Paul. He could imagine the glory of spending an entire cycle at the top of his class. He could imagine the speeches and admiration and awards for such an impossible feat. He could imagine having his name engraved somewhere in gold, the immortality of their praise.
He looked ahead at what this would make of him. He could taste blood and coffee and bile in his mouth. He could hear his heart racing in the middle of the night. He could see Annika growing up faster and moving farther away. He could feel his hair falling out in clumps. He could smell the sterile hospital room coming for him.
The banging on the door echoed in the background for him as he stared through the glass. He could make it. One more cycle and he would quit. Just one more paper for the wall.
Written by Teresa Coste