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Author's note: My music is my refuge, and my headphones are my protection from hearing things that I don't want to hear. But there is a difference between escaping for a time, and locking yourself inside your own head.
The silver, heavily padded headphones are snug over Asher’s ears, filling his head with a song from One Street Over’s second album. The bass swells and overlaps with the guitar as the percussion traipses along doggedly in the background. The lyrics are textured by the vocalist’s rugged voice.
The classroom door opens and their history teacher walks in, immediately sending Asher a pointed look. Asher refrains from rolling his eyes and pulls off his headphones. The teacher is satisfied, and begins the lecture.
History class bleeds into mathematics and soon everyone is assigned ten practice problems to complete. There is a boy in Asher’s peripheral vision who is cursing under his breath as he rummages in his backpack for his graphing calculator. It’s annoying. Asher tosses his own into the boy’s lap. He’s already done the problems before, they’re in the textbook. He spends the time instead on the history homework they received earlier.
The bell rings. The day is over, and Asher is allowed to replace his headphones. The next track that comes up is by Oceanhead. Shallower computerized beats skitter into his ears, as if on a steady rapid fire. His pace quickens ever so slightly as he exits the classroom, trying to match the rhythm.
He’s nearly halfway down the hall to the school entrance when someone grabs hold of his shoulder, spinning him around. Asher comes face to face with a chestnut-haired boy that he doesn’t know. The boy yanks off Asher’s headphones, fixing a glare on him.
“For the twentieth time,” the boy snaps. “You forgot this.” He shoves something into Asher’s face, nearly hitting his nose with it. Asher plucks it from of the boy’s hand with a grimace. He looks at it; it’s his calculator. “You forgot to take it back,” the boy continues. Asher just stares at him.
“Who are you?”
The boy looks at him in utter disbelief.
“David Farrell, the guy who sits next to you in math? You lent me your calculator.” Asher has to think about it for a moment.
“Oh. Yeah sure, whatever.” He reaches over and snatches his headphones back. “You’re welcome.” He’s in the process of sliding them back on when David interrupts.
“Do you have any idea how annoying that is?” he demands. The boy isn’t a teacher, so Asher deems it acceptable to roll his eyes.
“Yeah, I do.”
With that, he pulls the headphones on completely, pocketing his calculator. He turns up the volume as he walks away. NorthEast starts playing in all of its electronically produced glory just in time to block out any more words of indignation the boy might have for him. He snaps his fingers to it absentmindedly.
He proceeds at a leisurely pace to his home. The buses are cramped, and he doesn’t live so far from the school that it’s implausible to walk.
The moment he walks through the door of his house, he steps on broken ceramic. He stares down at it, identifying it as one of the new plates his mother has just bought. Mixed in with it are the remnants of one of his father’s coffee cups. He looks up and sees his mother sitting on the kitchen floor beside the open dishwasher. She has the phone in her lap, and tears are streaming down her face. Her auburn hair is disheveled; her eyes are puffy.
She’s been talking to his father, then.
Asher steps around the ceramic shards. She’s as listless as a marionette, her eyes glassy and unseeing. His chest tightens, but he knows better than to try comforting her. He sidles his way towards the stairs, moving as quietly as he can.
His mother catches sight of him anyway. Asher freezes and stares at her, feeling very much like he has been caught doing something horrible. He feels like everything in his world stops, even his music. For a split second Asher can swear that she looks happy to see him; that her green eyes soften, and her lips curve upwards.
But soon she’s on her feet, the phone tumbles to the floor. She’s screaming at him and her tear stained face twists into a mask of loathing. As he watches her, he can only think that he is happy he can’t hear what she’s saying. He doesn’t waste any time fleeing to his room upstairs.
He slams the door and locks it behind him. His backpack slides off his shoulder as he sinks to the floor. He stays that way for a little while, but then he’s sitting at his desk, doing his homework. Soon it’s late enough for him to chance going downstairs to get something to eat.
He finds some deli meat and eats quickly, and then gets ready for bed, acutely aware of every single sound that he makes. Everything seems alright though, so he climbs into bed and pulls off his headphones. It’s around 1:30 am.
He’s jolted awake at 4:15 am by a loud banging on his door. The wood creaks under the pressure, and for a second he thinks she’s going to crack it.
“He says that he’ll be staying at that woman’s house tonight,” his mother shouts. She is turning the door knob repeatedly, shaking the door on its hinges to no avail, but it makes plenty of noise. “It’s all your fault; if I didn’t have to take care of such an ungrateful-.”
Asher is already lunging for his nightstand, blindly grabbing for his headphones. He always leaves them there, just in case. He finds them, and jams them on. He clamps his hands over the headphones, crushing them to his ears. He doesn’t remember the name of the song that bursts through them, scraping almost painfully, and he doesn’t care. The pounding noise and screaming, incomprehensible vocals drown everything out. He cranks up the volume and tries to breathe.
He doesn’t sleep at all and soon sunlight is infiltrating his room through the cracks in his window shades. It’s 6:30 in the morning and he has to go to school. He goes to the bathroom and tries to wash the sleepiness out of his face with cold water. He stands there leaning over his sink for a moment, staring at the mirror. His reflected face is sharp and angular. Unlike his mother’s olive colored eyes, his are a pale gray. While his mother’s hair is wavy and auburn, his hair is straight, thick and choppy. He gives his reflection one more glare, before he leaves.
It’s a wonder that he manages to stay awake at all during morning classes. He barely understands anything the teachers say, but he doesn’t worry too much. He can read the textbooks to catch up later. The moment it’s time for lunch break, he goes straight outside to the gazebo. He throws his bag down, and uses it as a pillow. His headphones hang freely at his neck.
It feels like he’s only just closed his eyes when he is shaken awake again.
“Hey, wake up, you’re missing class.”
Asher recognizes that voice. He opens his eyes and sees the boy from yesterday, David. He groans, and throws an arm over his face.
“The teacher wanted someone to go get you,” David says.
“You’ve got some crappy luck then,” Asher mutters.
“He didn’t pick me, I volunteered,” David corrects him.
“Okay, fine, you’ve got some defective brain cells, then.”
David pauses. Even though Asher can’t see him, he’s pretty sure that he’s bristling.
“You’re like this all the time then?” David asks finally; incredulity in his voice. Asher gives him a halfhearted shrug. David responds with a frustrated noise.
Asher is almost certain that he’s finally won, that David is going to leave him alone. He is proven wrong when he feels the bench he is laying on creak as David sits down right beside his head. Asher sits up and turns to face the relentless boy.
“Would you just go back to class?”
“No,” David shoots back. “I’m going to stick with you and bother you until you go back. You can’t just skip out in the middle of the day because you-,” he trails off. Suddenly he is looking at Asher with an odd expression.
“You look terrible,” David says. “Are you not feeling well?” Asher gazes at him blandly.
“Yeah, I’m tired.” To make his point, he flops back down on the bench, burying his head into his makeshift pillow again.
“Well, you look dead on your feet,” David informs him. Asher snorts.
“I’m lying down, idiot.”
“It’s a figure of speech.”
“Well it’s a figure of speech that only works when the person is standing up.”
“You seem to have more energy now,” David observes. “How about going back to class?” Asher scowls, and pulls his headphones on. “Ah, there he goes again,” David says to the cloud scattered sky. “Just because he’s losing the argument, he runs away.”
“I am not losing the argument, and I am not running away,” Asher interjects. “I’m sitting right here, ignoring you, because you’re annoying.”
“You can still hear me?” David asks, shocked. Asher sighs. He holds up his MP3 player, which hasn’t been switched on yet.
“Not anymore,” he says, as he presses the ‘on’ button. Blue Apples’ second single, December Moon starts play. He exhales as poetic words drift into his mind on the streams of piano and acoustic guitar. He doesn’t even look up at David; he just pulls out his English notebook and starts planning out their next assignment. He’s gotten through about half of it when he sees a hand, holding a pen, creep onto the page opposite the one he’s writing on.
That song is awesome.
It’s written with scribbled letters, and a smiley face is tagged on at the end. Asher gives it a long look. He pulls his headphones down; looking up into David’s amused eyes.
“You can hear it?” Asher asks him.
“Yeah, I can actually make out the lyrics. You’re going to go deaf one day,” David tells him. Asher doesn’t say anything to that. He takes the headphones off and places them right in front of David.
“You know this group too then?” he asks, as he turns up the volume and plays another one. It’s his favorite symphonic epic metal band, Phantasmagoria. David’s face lights up.
“I love these guys,” he exclaims.
They keep talking, tossing band names back and forth. Asher is surprised to learn that David’s musical taste is just as eclectic as his own. He thinks that he’ll have to lose his breath eventually; he’s been talking so much. Before long, Asher pauses, cocking his head to one side.
The bell is ringing.
“Oh damn, I completely forgot,” David says. Asher shrugs. He gets up packs his things into his bag.
“It’s no big deal, the chapter we were covering today isn’t that complicated,” he says. He hoists his backpack onto his shoulder.
“So, I’ll talk to you again tomorrow?” David asks.
“Maybe if you don’t skip Math again, we could actually partner up during class,” he suggests. “Since we’ve been sitting next to each other since the school year started.” Asher almost feels embarrassed.
“Sure,” he says.
Asher’s journey home takes longer than usual; he keeps getting distracted thinking about the first person he’s talked with for more than five minutes in over a month. Still, he manages to elude his mother’s sight as he creeps up the stairs to his bedroom. He falls asleep the instant he gets into bed. If his mother has another episode in the middle of the night, he sleeps through it.
Morning classes have never taken so long, and when lunch break arrives, he can’t help but look around the cafeteria.
He surprises himself when he actually finds David, who is sitting at a crowded table, immersed in an animated conversation. Asher watches them for a little while.
Then David looks up, and somehow manages to meet Asher’s eyes from all the way across the room. He waves cheerily, and Asher can’t help but offer a wave of his own, albeit less energetic. Then, David gathers up his things, and his tray, and makes his way across the cafeteria floor. Asher just watches him with a flabbergasted expression.
“Hey,” David greets him.
“What are you doing here?” Asher hisses.
“We agreed that we’d talk again yesterday,” David says as if it’s the most obvious thing in the world.
“But what about your friends?” Asher asks.
“Oh, they’ll be fine without me,” David assures him, waving it off. Asher mentally begs to differ. He looks over to the table David has just left, and sees David’s friends throwing him strange looks and talking amongst themselves.
David sits down, oblivious, and proceeds to munch on his slice of pizza.
“More importantly, have you done today’s math homework?” he asks. Asher nods slowly, still having trouble adjusting to the sight of someone else eating at his table. David swallows his mouthful of food. “Great, could I copy it?” Asher is about to just nod again, when he realizes what David’s just asked.
“Why?” he asks.
“I didn’t do it. You lied to me, you said the chapter we were covering was easy,” David accuses.
“But it is,” Asher replies. David shakes his head.
“No it’s not. Please just let me copy yours?” he pleads. “I’ll let you come over to my house if you do.”
“Wait, what?” It shouldn’t be possible for so many different things to happen at once. David is looking at him with an expression that practically repels refusal. “Fine, you can copy it,” Asher sighs. “But just this once.”
He winds up whispering advice to David all throughout their math class. The moment the bell rings, David stands up and smiles at him.
“You want to call your mom or something?” he asks. Asher gives him a tired look.
“Why would I want to do that?”
“Because you’re coming over to my house,” David repeats.
“You were serious about that?”
“Yeah, why wouldn’t I be?”
“I…don’t know.” Every routine aspect of his school life is being altered; he supposes there is no point in being surprised anymore. David ushers him towards the bus, but Asher can’t help but dig his feet into the ground a little when he hears David say,
“I can’t wait till my mom meets you.”
“Why?” Asher asks. David laughs a little, poking him in the ribs.
“She’s going to stuff you like a turkey, seeing how thin you are. Now come on, the bus’s leaving soon.”
It’s a very short trip; only two stops. David herds Asher off the bus, and has to practically drag him to his house. He only has to knock once on the door before it’s opened.
“Welcome home David. Oh, you didn’t tell me you were bringing a friend.”
“Sorry Mom, this is Asher,” David says, patting him on the shoulder.
Asher tenses as David’s mother looks him over. He feels his stomach drop an inch or two when she frowns.
“You look like you need some cookies,” she declares.
“See? What’d I tell you?” David tells him triumphantly. Then he grabs Asher’s hand and pulls him towards the stairs. “Call us down when they’re ready,” he yells over his shoulder.
“She’s actually going to make cookies?” Asher questions dubiously.
“Yeah, she is,” David says, grinning. “And here’s my room.” It’s messy, like Asher expected. He almost trips, one foot tangling in a discarded sweat jacket. The floor is covered completely by a layer of odd things. “You can sit on the bed if you’d like,” David offers. “The floor’s a bit of a danger zone.”
Asher decides the description fits remarkably well as he almost steps on a plastic figurine, and then sits down. David has opened his closet door and is shoving things into it in an effort to clear out some floor space. Asher takes the opportunity to survey the natural habitat of his very unique new friend.
There are posters of music bands everywhere. The desk is a mess of notebooks and binders. What really catches his eyes however, are the electric and acoustic guitars beside it.
“You play?” he can’t help but ask. David looks up from his impromptu cleaning.
“Oh, yeah,” he says, dropping the armful of junk he had been attempting to cram into the already stuffed closet. He walks over to the instruments, scrubbing his hands off on his pants before picking up the electric guitar carefully. “It took me ages of begging and kowtowing to my mom though. These things are expensive.” He lifts the strap over his head and turns it on. He plays out a chord, then another. Then he flashes a cheeky grin at Asher and starts playing.
It’s a One Street Over song, a rock ballad. After a little while,
Asher starts humming along, and then he begins to sing. David looks up at him in surprise, but doesn’t stop playing. It turns out they both have the entire song memorized. When they finish, David is grinning like a maniac.
“That was great; your voice isn’t bad at all,” he says excitedly. Asher shrugs. “Neither is your smile,” David adds, and Asher gives a start, before he turns away self consciously. “Aw, don’t hide it, it looks good on you,” David laughs. “Let’s play another one, what others do you know?”
“David!” David’s mother calls from downstairs. Asher winces, feeling guilty. They were being pretty loud.
“Yes mom?” David calls back.
“Turn up the volume; I can’t hear you that well.”
Rather than walking home, he rides the bus with David. Rather than sneaking food from the refrigerator late at night, he eats at a table with David and his mother. It seems so natural, and Asher doesn’t wear his headphones at all.
It’s a Sunday when Asher’s cell phone rings. He’s in David’s room, sitting at his desk checking David’s homework. He gazes at it for a while, making no move to answer it. David glances between him and the small device, unsure of what to do. Finally, Asher gets up and goes to answer it. Every movement he makes is reluctantly slow.
“Where are you?” his mother asks from the other end.
“I’m at a friend’s house,” Asher replies. He keeps his voice as neutral as he possibly can; sometimes the slightest of alterations in tone can set her off.
“Oh I see,” his mother says. “Is she pretty?” Asher is silent for a little while, trying to understand what on earth his mother means.
“I’m asking you if the b**** you’re abandoning me for is pretty, you filthy bastard!” his mother shrieks. Asher winces and holds the phone a little further away from his ear.
“Listen, I’m not abandoning you,” he tries to explain.
“Of course not, Asher,” his mother cuts him off. She continues, speaking in a softer voice. The lack of volume doesn’t change the level of contempt however. “You’re not abandoning me at all, silly me. You’re just staying out late, night after night with a girl that you’ve been keeping secret from me for weeks.”
“I’ve been staying over at David’s place,” Asher interrupts. “I don’t have a girlfriend.”
“And then you lie about it!” his mother shouts. “What’s wrong with you? How could I have raised such a worthless, ungrateful child? You’re both the same. You’re leaving me all alone and neither of you care.” As soon as she finishes her last sentence, she collapses into sobs. He listens to her cry, hating himself.
“Mom, I love you,” Asher says quietly. The crying immediately stops.
“Don’t you dare call me that again, you’re not my son.”
Asher stands there, unmoving for a little while. Finally, he shuts his cell phone and turns around. Then he freezes.
David is staring at him with a look of shock and horror.
“You heard all that.”
David nods, and seems at a loss for words, until finally he manages to ask.
“That was your mom?”
“I think I should go now,” Asher whispers in a hollow voice. He turns to the door, but David’s quicker. He grabs Asher’s shoulder.
“Hey, there is no way I’m letting you go back there,” he insists. “How long has this been going on?” Asher shrugs.
“A while meaning how long?” David demands.
“My mother was diagnosed with bipolar disorder a few years ago,” Asher says. It’s odd that the story is tumbling from his lips with such ease. “We tried to make it work at first, but my father just didn’t want to deal with it anymore. He’s been seeing another woman for a while now. Her name is Pamela, and she’s a lawyer.” A bitter smile twists Asher’s lips. “My mother found out about it and she’s been begging him to stop ever since, but he doesn’t listen.”
David’s grip on his shoulder tightens painfully, but he doesn’t really mind it.
“I look just like my father,” Asher continues. “So she’s been projecting everything onto me.” He shrugs his shoulders. “It’s not her fault, but I really have to go back home. She might be angry now, but she’ll swing back into depression if she’s left alone for too long.”
“Are you sure you’ll be okay?” David asks. Seriousness doesn’t suit his voice very well, Asher thinks. It makes him uncomfortable.
“Yeah, I’ll be fine,” he says. David seems conflicted, looking very much like he might not let Asher leave, but then he lets go.
“Okay,” he says, reluctantly. Asher nods, gripping the door knob. “But just remember,” David tells him. “I’m right here, if you need someone.”
The warm feeling that gives Asher is amazing.
“I’ll remember,” he replies.
He turns down David’s mother’s offer to drive him to his house. He walks quickly, pulling out his headphones again and sliding them over his ears.
He has just arrived at the front door of his house when he pulls out his MP3 player to turn it on. He stops. His bag slides off of his shoulder, but he is incapable of paying it any mind.
He stares at the blank display screen on his MP3 player. The battery has died completely; he hasn’t charged it in weeks. He stands outside of his house for a long while. Finally, he pulls his headphones down, and opens the door.
He is abruptly wrenched back into the reality that reminds him every week, why he hates coming home from school.
“You’re married to me. I’m your wife!”
“Like I’d leave her for you,” his father retorts. “I’ve been patient; I’ve wasted years of my life taking care of you. It’s a thankless job, and I’m sick of it. Pam takes care of me.”
“I’ve given you twenty three years of my life,” his mother shrieks, beginning to dissolve into sobs. “I did everything for you.”
“I’ve dealt with this long enough, I’m through with you,” his father says coldly.
His mother collapses to her knees, lurching forward as she latches onto his father’s hand.
“Please don’t leave me,” she croaks. “I can take care of you too; just tell me what I’m doing wrong.”
“You’re better off locked up in some psych ward. Leave me the hell alone,” his father snaps, wrenching his hand out of her grasp.
Asher has seen this countless times before, but the words slice his ears now with painful and stunning clarity. His legs lock into place. He can’t even think of running.
“What’s wrong with you two?” he hears himself asking. He closes his mouth, horrified, but it’s too late. Both of his parents are looking at him now.
“What did you just say to me?” his father demands. Asher swallows.
“You’re having an affair,” he begins.
“Oh, for Christ’s sake,” his father says, exasperated.
“Ever since it became ‘too difficult’ for you, you’ve been avoiding mom,” Asher continues in a louder voice. “It was your responsibility to take care of her, and it still is. You loved her once, but now that she’s ‘sick’, you abandoned her and ran off with a prettier face.”
“I’m not going to listen to this.”
“Yeah, because you’re a jackass!” Asher shouts back
“Shut up,” his father roars, and before Asher can even think about reacting, a fist connects with the side of Asher’s face. His head snaps around, his headphones are thrown off of his neck, clattering to the floor. He’s disoriented for a moment, not realizing what’s just happened. Then the pain begins to set in. Asher looks up at his father, and then at his mother. They both just stare back at him, blank, guiltless faces.
Asher takes a step back, and then another. A few more steps backwards have him flush against the wall. As his mind fills with static, he realizes that it isn’t fair at all, but he isn’t capable of hating his parents enough to not care.
Before he realizes it, his legs are carrying him out the door and into the street. Some more profanity filled shouts from his father chase after him.
He sees the world lurch and teeter through blurry eyes, and tries to focus on keeping himself upright. When he finally loses balance and collapses to the ground he has no idea where he is.
The pitch black sky is smothered with clouds, weighing down everything. The warm spring air is stagnant all around him, so thick that it’s clogging his throat. He shoves his hand into his pocket, extracting his cell phone with trembling fingers. He barely manages to speed dial.
It rings three times, and then he gets an answer.
It takes Asher a few tries to get his throat to work properly, but he manages it.
“David,” he croaks. The response is instantaneous.
“Where are you?”
“I don’t know, a park, I think.”
“Don’t move, I’ll find you.”
And then David’s hung up. Asher stares blankly at the screen on his cell phone. He isn’t sure how much times passes, he doesn’t even know if he cares.
“Asher,” David calls. Asher looks up at him, and the moment he does, David’s eyes narrow. He runs over and kneels beside him. “What happened?” he asks softly, touching the side of Asher’s face.
“My dad,” Asher says simply. “I got angry, so I told him what I thought, and he hit me.”
“What’d you say?” David sits down beside him.
“I called him a jackass.”
“Well, good for you.” It’s not really that funny, but Asher laughs anyway, softly, and he feels calmer now. He isn’t alone, and that seems like it’s enough.
He leans back, and closes his eyes. The faint sigh of a breeze tickles his ears, and he can hear a bird warbling in the distance. Most importantly though, he can hear the sound of David’s breathing beside him, the sound of his sneakers scuffing the ground, the noises of his presence.
“What is it Asher?” David asks.
“Listening,” Asher replies simply. “There’s music.”