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The ceiling, barely visible in the dark room, greeted Leland. He didn’t know how long he’d slept, but that didn’t matter much. It was summer. A thump resounded in the atmosphere, and it mixed with the squawking of birds and the chirping of grasshoppers. Leland rose from the sweat-soaked sheets of his bed and went to the window overlooking their small house garden. The sky was a mixture of red, orange, and yellow on one side, where the egg-yolk sun rose, and black on the other. In between the two, various degrees of blue adorned the horizon. It’s dawn.
Be it summer, spring, winter, or autumn, all dawns in Temblewood City were cold. Leland put on his red hoodie, the one he got last year on his sixteenth birthday from Jennifer, his best friend, and stomped down the wooden abode’s creaky stairs. Leland’s heavy-lidded brown eyes skimmed the familiar dilapidated furniture of the living room, but he didn’t dare complain. It was his grandfather’s house, and he had lived here with his mother and two little siblings for ten years now since his father had died.
Today, he didn’t want to drink coffee. Drinking coffee meant staying awake and alert for a long period, and he didn’t want any of that. He wished he could sleep for the rest of this summer. Instead of coffee, Leland headed to Jaime’s Café, a place more popular than Starbucks in Temblewood City, and bought a cup of hot chocolate. The cup was so hot he had to wrap it with two layers of napkins.
This summer was different from the last. Last year, he’d seen Jennifer and Dylan almost every day. He’d gone hiking and horse riding and fishing, and he’d camped on Mount Lamen, which wasn’t a good idea—they had ended up lost for two days with cops searching for them. But now he was running from everyone and everything. Jennifer and Dylan were calling every day, and he’d been creating excuses to be alone. But he missed them. A lot. The most awful thing in life is changing into someone worse but not realizing it.
Leland sat on a wooden bench not so far from Jaime’s Café and gazed at the road, which was gradually getting more crowded with cars and people. A young man wearing a black suit and a red tie sat beside him. The man, who genuinely smelled good, scrolled down his phone’s screen, checking his Twitter timeline. Yeah. That’s what normal people do. They work and they socialize and they live. Leland missed that. Fear can paralyze one’s mind and create thousands of fake barriers.
A raindrop fell on Leland’s cup. He stared at the gray clouds in the sky, and an army of a million other drops flooded the ground. That’s why he hated Temblewood. It would rain any time of year, and Leland despised rain. He knew it was going to be a bad day. All rainy days are bad. The day his father died had been a day of heavy rain and dark memories he wished he could forget. But that was impossible because it was impossible not to have rain throughout the year. And every time it rained, a powerful resurrection of that day occurred.
Leland realized the suited man beside him had left at some point during his deep and useless thinking session. It seemed Leland was the only one on the street now. He put the hoodie cap on and walked underneath shop awnings on his way back home. Now that he thought about it, Leland hadn’t learned much from his absent father.
But there was one sentence that kept ringing in his head. Leland wasn’t even sure how or when or why his father had told it to him: “The more you feed your fear, the more you become imprisoned by it.”
Karla and Fred giggled and ran in the corridor. They’ve grown up really fast. I can’t believe they’re starting to write and read already. Karla opened the door wide and nestled between Leland’s arms. She curled and made herself comfortable in his hands.
“You can’t touch me now!” she told Fred, sticking her tongue out.
“You’re cheating!” Fred replied, his palm on his waist.
“Hey, you two,” Leland said. “You’re supposed to be in your beds now, aren’t you?”
“We’re waiting for Aunt Abbey!” Karla said. “Mom said we can stay up late tonight.”
Leland had totally forgotten that. His aunt, Abbey, was coming back to Temblewood from Todland, a city five hours away by plane. She worked as a nurse there. The last time he’d seen her was a year ago when she came for New Year’s Eve. She’d brought them two bags of Made-In-Todland-Only candies. Leland hoped she’d bring them again this time.
Leland’s room was the smallest in the house. In one corner was his bed and in the other was a desk and a bookshelf with many Xbox games and a few novels. The only good thing about the room was the window that overlooked the street.
Fred toured Leland’s room. He flipped the pages of a book he could barely carry and then dropped it when the doorbell rang. It was more of a noisy croak rather than a musical sound.
Abbey had arrived.
Leland’s grandma, glued to her usual spot on the worn rocking chair she’d bought right after Leland’s birth, glimpsed him for a moment and then rolled her eyes back to the TV.
“Where have you been all day?” she complained, switching channels. “Your aunt is here, for God’s sake.”
On the table in the living room sat a cake with ‘Welcome Home’ written on it. The living room was lit by an old, handcrafted chandelier, but it did its job quite well. Leland hugged his aunt. She hadn’t changed much.
“How’s everything?” Leland asked.
“Perfect!” She replied, taking a bite of her cake. “Everything is too perfect!”
“Great. I’m glad.” He took a seat beside her. Fred and Karla were on the ground playing rock, paper, scissors. His grandfather, Richard, was listening to the news, his ears touching the radio’s speaker.
“What about you?” Abbey asked.
“I’m fine,” Leland replied, faking a smile.
“No, he’s not,” Leland’s mother said, cutting cake for Fred and Karla, pretending not to care much about the issue. “Something’s wrong with him. He hardly leaves his room.”
Leland’s face flushed. He felt stupid for not realizing his mother must have felt something was wrong with him. This meant Dylan and Jennifer, his friends, likely also noticed.
“No, it’s just—” Leland said, attempting to fake an excuse.
“Is he always alone?” Abbey asked.
“Almost,” Maria, Leland’s mother, replied.
“And he’s not eating a lot?”
Leland’s heart raced. There’s no way Abbey would know what he’d been through lately. She’d been away, and he made sure no one knew.
“And he doesn’t talk much?” Abbey asked.
“Yeah. Only a little,” Maria answered.
Abbey clapped her hands and cried, “He’s in love!”
All eyes turned toward Leland. But he was relieved. She knew nothing after all. Leland pretended her assumptions were correct. He gazed down and said nothing in reply.
“There’s nothing to be ashamed of, Leland. We’ve all been through this before,” Aunt Abbey said, and then her voice dropped to a whisper. “And don’t chicken out. Women hate that.”
Leland didn’t know how to reply, so, rather awkwardly and loudly enough that everyone stared at him again, he said, “I like her.”
Okay. That’s enough for today. Leland had paid his social dues and now he had to leave. Embarrassed, Leland said, “I gotta go.”
And he went back to his room.
Leland collapsed into his bed with Les Miserables in his hand. He’d bought it a month ago from Harry’s Bookstore, a local shop at the end of the street. Leland read a book or two per year, but he wished he could dedicate more time to reading. He read some pages then put the book on the bedside table. With the lights on and the window opened, Leland dozed off without realizing it. Deep in his sleep, Leland woke up, sweating and trembling in fear. His breath quickened and his heart hammered against his chest. It had happened for the fifth time this week.
Voices—hundreds of thousands of throats—whispered in Leland’s ears and mumbled words he couldn’t understand. And it seemed he was the only one hearing them.
For God’s sake, what the hell is going on?