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Hayden pulled his collar tighter around his neck, as the wind from Lake Michigan whipped his blond hair into his eyes. He shoved his key into the ignition and backed out of the driveway towards Lakeshore Drive. He parked a few blocks away from Michigan Avenue, jamming some coins into the meter. He grabbed a crate out of the trunk of his car and set it up next to a building, where he sat with his back to the wall. Earphones in. Press play.
His mom was out on a date with him again. Mr. CEO. The reason his family had packed up and moved to Chicago, trading the sun and the deliciously suffocating heat for the icy wind, the cold that you could never really shake. No more huge public school, with a starting varsity lacrosse spot and a close knit group of friends. Instead, he was at a preppy, private high school, thanks to tuition payments from the new boyfriend. Now instead of throwing on a t-shirt, he was conscious of his clothes. His classmates wore designer polo’s, hats tilted just so, and drove BMW’s and Audis. It wasn’t that they pushed him into the lockers or laughed and pointed at him. There was the occasional sideways glance; but mostly, they just looked right past him. He had never felt like the one on the outside. Now he knew he was looking in.
He had occasionally taken pictures back in Phoenix. But now, he sat up against the building, pointing his lens to the city. Some days he would head to the beach, others to the park. But today, he faced the streets, using his camera to read into people the pages of a book. He would guess their life story, their hobbies. Maybe the woman with the purple Mohawk had a vegetable garden. Maybe lawyer in the suit swam laps at the Rec-Center after he lost a case. And maybe the college student with the Starbucks dreamed of professional snowboarding.
His sister would be fine. He hoped. Grace had always been the more outgoing one, the more laid-back. Throw her into a group of girls her age and she would emerge with a new best friend linked on each arm. But he wondered sometimes how much she was faking it, how if with every hair flip and giggle and swipe of her mascara, she was not only applying her makeup, but a mask. True, she had been young when her father had left. But Hayden remembered.
With his lens, he followed a woman as she browsed a flower stall on the street. Her white hair was clipped on top of her head, and she had wrinkles around her eyes, as if she was constantly smiling. She walked slowly, as though she had all the time in the world. She fingered some sunflowers twice the size of her hands, an assortment of bright yellow and purple tulips, and a bouquet of red roses. Hayden zoomed in, framing her face in front of a background of colorful flowers. She leaned in, closed her eyes, and with a faint smile, inhaled. Click.
About two years ago, his mother and father’s relationship had become violent. Arguments quickly escalated to screaming, which one night escalated into violence. Hayden had been in his room, and went downstairs when he heard his father’s car pull into the garage. He could smell the alcohol on him. He doesn’t remember what started the argument, or how long it lasted. But he remembers the sound of his palm across her cheek, her face as she sank to the ground. Her eyes, defeated and weak. He remembers the spot just above his jawbone that his father first punched him, and that he was too scared to fight back. And he remembers the next two months, three weeks, and four days that it lasted, until his mother finally went to a judge, and got both a divorce and a restraining order. Hayden hadn’t seen his father since.
A toddler was skipping several paces behind his mom, steering his plastic airplane through the air. His mother was snapping at someone on the phone, her black pumps clicking on the sidewalk. The toddler suddenly tripped and landed on the pavement, his red and white striped plane skidding in front of him. When he reached to pick it up, he noticed the fresh blood on his palm and the scrape on his knee. He looked up, eyes wide, lips quivering. Click.
In Phoenix, Hayden would never have considered himself shy. He was always with friends, passing the lacrosse ball, playing video games, or throwing a football in someone’s pool. In Chicago, he couldn’t decide if it was the people around him, or if it was just him. He was pathetic. A turtle sinking back into his shell. With his mom out with Mr. CEO and Grace with friends, Hayden sat at home on Friday nights, becoming someone he didn’t recognize, but couldn’t figure out how to change.
As the sun began to set, and the wind from the Lake chilled his skin under every layer he wore, he began to pack up his camera. But as he stood, from across the street, he saw a girl, walking with her hands shoved in her pockets, head down, wind whipping her dark hair around her face. He lifted his camera. As she walked, someone called her name from behind, and she turned, an expectant smile dancing across her features. Click.
The only class Hayden felt comfortable in now was photography. When he walked in, everyone’s heads were already faced down, some were in the dark room developing pictures, and others were out of the classroom taking photos for the latest assignment. There were no students facing forward in rows, all eyes on him as he walked to the back of the room to his seat. Hayden tossed down his backpack and headed to the darkroom to finish developing his pictures. As he stood in the dark, looking down at the fuzzy picture slowly becoming clearer, her face began to appear. As the seconds passed, he studied her black hair, partially hiding her grey eyes. A faint smile curled the corners of her lips, white teeth barely showing. The bell rang.
Hayden shuffled out of class and dove into the sea of students packed in the halls. He normally kept his eyes down in the halls, walking quickly with a purpose, even if his next class was only a few doors away. But today, he happened to glance up.
And out of the corner of his eye, from across the crammed halls, he caught a glimpse of dark hair, and those grey eyes staring right at him. He stopped short, dropping his textbook. She smiled.
He smiled back.