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Everything’s Fine MAG
Film Olen's nylon backpack strap slipped down his shoulder. Rather than pushing it back up, he lifted his arm to a higher angle because his hands were full. The strap dug into his skin, and the weight of the books in the bag made it cut a white band into his arm, damming up his blood. His steps were measured: slow and gentle yet purposeful even under the weight of his luggage. On either side of him, dorm doors hung open, and his classmates lay in general disarray inside their rooms, poring over trashy magazines or textbooks, occasionally tossing a baseball across the hall for a neighbor to catch and lazily heave back. It was 9:26 on a Sunday night, he noted. Little else could be expected of college students.
As Film walked by, kids looked up. They stared, but never quite made eye contact. Some faces pinched into sympathetic smiles while others glanced to friends for a social cue. The hallway grew too quiet, and Film fidgeted with his bag uncomfortably. At every door, he checked the brass number, searching desperately for his own.
Film didn't recognize any faces. He was starting sophomore year late, and his classmates already knew their way around the social scene (and the dorm building). Everything about it made him uncomfortable. He had never felt so lost. So isolated. A radio down the hall was playing, and the weak, staticky voice bounced off the walls. Somehow that mumbled solo voice made Film feel even worse.
An outgoing agricultural economics major with a cross around his neck grinned in his direction. He'd never spoken to Film before, but as he walked by, the boy called out, “Hey Olen! How are you?”
* * *
There were six minutes left in the block. Twelve-year-old Film was never going to make it. He tried to stare at the paper in front of him, but nothing could distract him from the building pressure. He struggled to hold it in, to stay quiet. He'd been suppressing the tic for 227 seconds, and there was no way he could hold out until the other eighth graders had passed in their tests. He bit his tongue in a final attempt to squelch the urge.
Film broke into a shuddering fit of coughing and blinking, splintering the tense silence. With ice in their eyes, several of his classmates glared at him for distracting their sprints through the last problems. Film flushed with shame. It was his fault that they couldn't focus. He bit back a frantic wave of emotion. It was all his fault.
He looked down again at his three-quarters-complete test. He needed to finish, and he had just four minutes. His teacher would give him extra time if he asked, but Film didn't want to be treated differently. He felt that after distracting everyone else, he didn't deserve to have a better score. It wouldn't help them like him any more. They'd always hate him. His mother argued that, because he spent so much time suppressing his tics, it was only fair that he get the extra time. If only he could finish on time, it would be a moot point. Film had scarcely begun scribbling out another equation when the tension began to build again.
* * *
– since his diagnosis of Tourette's syndrome at seven years old, Olen had accepted that he would live with this disorder for the rest of his life. As is typical in many Tourette's cases, his symptoms grew worse with the onset of adolescence, causing a serious hindrance to his social and physical functioning. Last year when his –
“Film? Dr. Blyer can see you now,” a receptionist said calmly across the muffled radio that constantly hung over the waiting room. She was middle-aged and slightly overweight, and gave Film a smile as he caught her eye. At the hospital and the doctor's office, no one ever judged him. He carefully folded the newspaper, slowly smoothing a purposeful crease across the color picture on the front page. All the while, he watched his hands. They were gentle, almost graceful. He rose slowly and looked her in the eye.
“Thanks, Caroline,” he said in a level tone, trying to look serious and mature. He'd been trying a lot of different things this past week.
“Good luck.” Caroline smiled as he started down the hall beside her.
He stopped and turned. “Thank you.” Film hoped the sincerity was apparent in his voice. He'd never really thought about what an unusual role she'd played in his story. She'd seen him walk in the first day, accompanied by his mother; she'd seen him struggle; she'd seen him every step of the way. And now she saw this. Whatever this was, he thought. “Blyer says we're out of the danger period. We're just waiting for bad side effects now.”
“You stay strong, dear.” Caroline was still smiling. She ducked back into the office.
Film continued down the hall. She used to walk with him, but it'd been months since he'd needed an escort to find the doctor's room. He tried not to scuff his feet on the nubby carpet on the way down the hall. One door to the left. Two to the right. Two to the left.
A fresh wave of butterflies assaulted Film's stomach and swirled in a menacing circle around his heart. The doorknob felt sterile and cold, and he nervously pondered the implications of his surgery again. He'd turned the knob almost halfway before it occurred to him that a serious and mature version of himself might have knocked first. He froze. Should he knock first? Would it be acceptable to slowly turn the handle back and start again? Is that what he would have done? Film bit his lip. He had no idea what he would do or what he would have done. Suddenly exhausted with his own alien thoughts, Film resolved to continue his original motion and swung the door open. He was greeted with the smiling face of a normally serious-looking man in his sixties.
“Hey,” Film said, lowering himself into his usual chair. He'd been coming here for almost a year, ever since his specialist sent him to Dr. Blyer in pursuit of a highly experimental procedure that could fix everything. It'd taken months of checkups and tests and minor operations to prepare him for this final surgery, and now that it was over, Film hardly knew what to do with himself. His Tourette's had always defined him.
“Hello! How're you feeling?” the doctor asked, his uncharacteristic exuberance pinning his wrinkles into unfamiliar shapes.
“Well, actually. Very well.” Film shifted in the glossy leather chair opposite the desk while the doctor bustled about. His success and consequent renown in his field (which quickly turned to fame in the media) made him extremely cheerful.
“No, ah … no symptoms, I presume?” he asked hesitantly, cautious that the reply might damage his mien. Film unintentionally flinched and shuddered at the cold metal of the stethoscope as it touched his back. The doctor drew back in instinctual horror. After an instant, they both relaxed.
“None,” Film assured him with relief. “Absolutely none.”
The doctor's blue eyes sparkled beneath his snowy brows. “Good. More than good. Excellent.” He took Film's blood pressure carefully, recording it with a few more digits than procedure required. As he worked, Film watched the gray ceiling as he usually did.
“They messed up my age,” he said offhandedly.
“Hm?” the doctor asked, fully engaged in a quarter ream of his notes.
“In the article. They said it started when I was seven.”
“Did they? Did you talk with – what's his name? The psychologist. Did you talk to him about it?”
“I only just saw it.”
“The article came out a week ago!”
“No, there was a new one in The Herald this morning.”
“Really?” The doctor momentarily abandoned his notes. “How many is that now? Six? Was it any good?”
“They messed up the age.”
“Aside from that.”
“I didn't get to finish it. There's a copy in the waiting room, though.”
The doctor seemed slightly distracted by this fact, but he continued the exam, his hands returning to their quick, sure work.
“I'll have to read it.” He paused. “Does this hurt?” The doctor pressed his fingers in small circles around the healing scar.
Film waited a moment before replying. “No, not really.”
That evening, Film watched a moth bounce in circles around his ceiling light from his bed. He marveled at how the little creature, usually white, appeared black against the glow. It was all perception. Everything was perception. Feeling a surge of empathy for the moth, Film rolled off his black duvet and found the light switch with his fingertips. He flicked it off and heaved open the paint-chipped window. The early fall breeze tumbled in warmly and washed over his feet. It still smelled like summer. He was already two weeks late for fall semester: one preceding the surgery and one after. Unless he could take summer courses, he'd have to graduate late.
The more he thought about it, the better that option seemed. Maybe school wouldn't be a prison once he could control himself more. In fact, it was his classes that made him anxious to get back. But, just maybe, now the people would interest him as well. Maybe they would look at him differently. Everything would change. Everything.
Film's mother knocked softly on his door while opening it, completely oblivious to the futility of doing both simultaneously. This used to bother Film, and he wondered if it still did. With the potential for so much change, he had no choice but to approach each scenario with newborn curiosity.
“How are you?” she asked, seeming slightly concerned that her son was standing completely still in the dark with no apparent motive. He looked at her, eyes huge.
“Fine. I'm fine.” A half smile caught his lips. He really was fine. He'd been saying it for a week, but it was only at that moment that he realized the truth in it. Everything was going to be okay now. He hoped. “Did you want something?”
“Just that we – the story's on the news. Soon.” She hesitated for a moment. “If you want to watch.”
“I already know what happens,” Film said distractedly. He was beginning to grow weary of the attention. The first time “Local Boy Is Cured of ‘Incurable' Disease, Doctors are Hopeful for Implications” was splashed across the headlines, it was exciting. Suddenly he wasn't the boy who was different from the other kids: he was a success story, a miracle, a hope for others. But the more Film thought about it, the more he didn't want to be the poster child for the cure. It was Dr. Blyer's success, not his. Moreover, how was he to explore this new life with so many people watching him?
“But it's fun to see yourself on TV!”
“It's fun to see myself in the mirror, too,” Film retorted, turning toward the large glass over his dresser and observing the still figure reflected in it.
“All right, fine, suit yourself.” She gave him a brief smile and left, preferring to watch without him than miss it trying to convince him.
“It is fine,” Film whispered, so quietly that he barely heard himself.
His mother called up the stairs, “We're taping it, if you change your mind!” but Film was already lost in thought again. It was almost scary to see a human figure stand so still so close to him. His eyes were close enough to see every mismatched stripe that crossed through the caramel circles. The boy staring back was as still as the motion in the stars: impossible to watch, but scientifically there under the façade of a stationary exterior. He watched the nearly imperceptible rise and fall of his own chest. Something about the motionlessness scared him. It felt unnatural, as if the boy on the other side of the glass was dead and just propped up to look like his reflection. After looking in the mirror every morning for the past eleven years and seeing himself in constant, inescapable motion, he was unnerved at his own immobility.
* * *
“Hey Olen! How are you?”
The question still hung in the air. After a moment, Film felt the tension in his shoulders melt. He looked at the boy.
“I'm well. Thank you.” A small, relieved smile accompanied the words. He was used to being the center of attention – the kid everyone was staring at – but never for the right reason. The first time he walked down a dorm hallway, he'd accidentally shouted at a dance major. Her boyfriend had shoved him into the wall and threatened to do something anatomically improbable with the textbook Film was carrying. It was moments like that that made Film shy. He was so scared that if he opened his mouth obscenities would pour out, or that his tics would manifest themselves as a symptom of social leprosy. It'd been difficult enough to get through high school with the lip-gloss-sticky lips sneering at him, but when it didn't end then, he was totally disheartened. He wanted to hate all the people who'd never given him a chance.
Suddenly he was a success story on the doorstep of a brand-new world, rather than the stranger. His footsteps continued down the hall, but his heart raced. That boy knew his name from the news. They all knew him. And it made him a little sick that not one of them had cared about him until he was “normal.” They'd whispered and they'd stared, but they'd never reached out. Every time, they'd –
“Need a hand?” A girl named Tess appeared. During his stay in the hospital, he'd been so wrapped up in all the things that would change, he'd nearly forgotten those who he never wanted to change. Like those who'd never shied away from him. Like Tess. He smiled genuinely and she pulled his duffel bag out of his hands.
“So, where've you been lately?” she joked. There was hardly a person in the state who hadn't heard of Film Olen and the Miracle Surgery, the one that would lead to the advance that would cure their grandparents of Alzheimer's, or cancer, or whatever.
“Oh, around.” He grinned. He'd never had an extremely close friend. Even Tess was more of an acquaintance than a friend. But she'd always been so sweet to him, and he liked her, even though he'd never given it much thought.
He'd almost stopped counting the little brass numbers and had suddenly when he reached his door.
“Welcome back,” she said.
Film changed his mind. He couldn't hate the people who hadn't been there for him, or else he'd have to hate everyone forever. He looked down at Tess, her eyes lit with a warm smile. No, he'd be the bigger man. This was his fresh start, after all.