Oliver had always been known by his mother as a man of routine. He went to bed at 11:00, he woke up 7:00 and was out of the house by 7:30, and any deviation from this routine caused him crippling anxiety. Today, Oliver woke up at 7:20. Why? Because his mother, sweet as she is, decided that since homework had kept him up past his self-imposed and generally unenforced bedtime, it might do him well to sleep in a little bit since leaving for school at 7:30 was ludicrous anyway as they lived not five minutes away. It did not do him well. Oliver woke up to find that the sun had moved from the usual spot, the right of his pillow. This made him insurmountably nervous. On the night stand, just above where the sunlight was supposed to be, his clock read 7:20. Oliver let out a very silent scream.
The next ten or so minutes revolved around Oliver trying to frantically get dressed. For someone as meticulous as himself, Oliver’s room was generally a mess and that was generally how Oliver liked it. He knew where everything was. Oliver was in charge of his own anarchy. This made it much easier on days like today as Oliver could readily find which clothes were where as soon as he needed them. Wednesday meant blue shirt, which was in the closet but not on a hanger because they were out when it came from the laundry. The weather app said 60 degrees, so jeans. Grabbing them sent a pile of sweatpants they were under into a frenzy across Oliver’s room. Oliver counted six pairs askew, so he was going to be very unhappy to find less than that when he got home. Underwear was in the underwear drawer because he was not an animal and the orange sweatshirt was next to the green one just in case Oliver had to stay late at school that day seeing as it was Wednesday and anything could happen. In his panic, Oliver spotted a small afro pick on his dresser. He decided he probably didn’t have time for his hair. One of the upsides of being black in a mostly white school was that people tended not to notice if your hair wasn’t combed as long as it wasn’t totally flat on one side or something like that. Only Oliver’s mother ever noticed, but she noticed every time. Oliver dreaded going downstairs for that reason. It was a rocky start to a day, but not as rocky as what was about to happen.
Math was always Oliver’s least favorite class, mostly because he was terrible at it. Oliver’s math class was one of those classes where the teacher had long given up on order and had since abandoned assigned seating for the anarchy of teenagers “figuring it out for themselves,” and in a confusingly unusual turn of events, most of the class didn’t sit in the same seat every day. There was no real reason why and nobody in the class was one of those monsters who liked to “shake things up.” It was just the rarest possible occasion, in which everyone happened to be friends with everyone else and as a result the students just sat next to whoever got there before them because in Mr. Wood’s math class, everyone’s weekend was interesting.
Oliver, being the person that he is, was always very uncomfortable with this, not because he wasn’t friends with anyone in the class. He was, in fact, friendly with mostly everyone in the class. It just happened that Oliver liked to keep a certain homeostasis about his life and high school is not famously conducive to that. That said, is it unreasonable that Oliver might want everyone to sit in the same seat every day? Probably. But it kept him sane and the only thing Oliver wanted was to be sane. Except that was not what was troubling him.
What was troubling Oliver was that the class was full when he entered it and upon doing so, he came to find that the first seat left of the middle was free. This was his usual seat and by usual, that meant any time he was on time to class, which was most of the time. But every once in a while teachers like to think that they are beyond the bell and keep students later than necessary with the express purpose of causing Oliver anxiety. Or so he liked to think. He was a teenager, so every attack was personal until stated otherwise. The important point is that he was late. But not just late. He was “the-bell-rang-ten-minutes-ago late.” And yet, his seat was uncharacteristically open.
You may be wondering why someone who seems as tightly wound as Oliver might be unhappy about getting exactly what he wants. Well, that’s what tightly wound people do. They’re unhappy, even when they get what they want, and in Oliver’s case, getting what he wanted also meant getting something he desperately feared. Oliver’s classmates had become aware of him.
Oliver’s penchant for keeping things routine had always been more than a little concerning for his parents and as someone who hates confrontation, Oliver decided a long time ago, if it was at all possible, he would try to keep the parts of him that were so painfully obvious away from his classmates as they might judge, or worse, feel sorry for him. But, after a recent incident that involved changing seats for group work, Oliver now realized that it had become apparent to the class that there was in fact something strange about Oliver and in the most uncharacteristic thing to happen in a high school, they’d talked about it, and decided to accommodate him. Oliver now had his seat whenever he wanted, but the class now knew that there might be something wrong with him and if there’s anything a teenager hates, it’s when everyone knows there’s something wrong with them.
Getting to the chair, Oliver sat down, avoiding eye contact with everyone who he now thought had an opinion of him that extended farther than “I hope he gets help.” It’s not so bad, he thought. At least now, I’ll always have the desk that I like. But, will I like it now? Would it be better to switch desks one day, just to throw them off? I have switched desks before. It’s not impossible. But I don’t not like this one. I don’t not like being put in this position. I mean, I don’t like being put in this position. This is dumb. Now they know and I hate when people know.
“Oliver?” came a voice from the right.
“THE DESK IS FINE!” Oliver turned to see Mr. Wood. He also saw that class was empty. How could he have missed an entire lesson? Those thoughts were like eight sentences max. “Yes, Mr. Wood?”
“I want you to meet a new student. This is Natalie.”
When Oliver saw Natalie for the first time, he said one sentence and one sentence only.
“What’s wrong with your teeth?”
Mr. Wood’s face was less than ideal. Oliver realized what he had said, but his brain often moved faster than his mouth. But what was wrong her teeth? You know how sometimes people with particularly sharp canines will joke that they look like a vampire, and it’s never funny because nobody actually looked a vampire? Natalie looked like a vampire. Except for the fact that she wasn’t at all pale and her eyes weren’t particularly hypnotic. She just had alarmingly sharp teeth. They were possibly the biggest largest and sharpest canines that Oliver had ever seen.
“Sorry,” said Oliver, “that came out wrong.”
“I don’t think it came out wrong,” Natalie laughed.
“Can I pretend it came out wrong?”
“You’re not the first person who’s ever freaked out at my teeth. Yeah, they’re a bit weird. You can imagine my gums when my adult teeth set in.”
“I don’t…that sounds like an unpleasant…hi, I’m Oliver.”
“Oliver,” interrupted Mr. Wood. “Natalie just transferred here and as it happens, you two have a lot of the same classes, so I was hoping you might show her around.” Good Old Mr. Wood. He always interrupted Oliver when he was about to say something stupid, which happened a lot in math class.
“So, do you want to show her around?” asked Mr. Wood.
“Sure,” said Oliver.
Oliver extended a hand towards Natalie. “I’m Oliver.”
Natalie shook his hand. “You already told me.”
“Sorry, I’m having a really stressful day.”
“It’s cool. I think I’m gonna call you Ollie.”
“But that’s not my name.”
“It’s a nickname. I like it. You’re Ollie. C’mon, show me where chem is.”
Natalie walked out of the math room.
“You coming?” she asked.
Oliver turned to Mr. Wood. “I already don’t like this.”
“This will be good for you,” he replied.
Oliver realized very quickly that this was definitely not going to be good for him. Not only did Natalie call him Ollie all day, but she never wanted to take his designated routes to class. She kept saying things like “Wouldn’t it be faster?” or “Why not just go this way?” And maybe she was right, those routes were objectively faster but they weren’t the routine. Usually this wouldn’t bother Oliver, but it became readily apparent that she had no intention of learning the routine. So you might be asking, “Why not just not hang out with her, then?” Well as it turned out, because Natalie transferred that day, she also had no friends. So the rest of Oliver’s day consisted of hanging out with someone who didn’t respect the schedule.
Natalie’s blatant disregard for Oliver’s system eventually led them the wrong way around to English class, a class Oliver would be generally indifferent to if it weren’t for one particular classmate. His name was Max. He was one of those small kids with eyes that were just a little too big and for that reason he was always a little off to look at. Plus, he had a very peculiar hobby. He was really into magic. Anxiety-wise, Oliver generally had a problem with two things: sensory overload and secondhand embarrassment, and there was no place easier to get both of those things than from a teenager trying to convince other teenagers that magic is cool. Nevertheless, it didn’t stop him from appearing in front of the class in a cloud of smoke, arms held high in triumph.
“What is happening right now?” asked Natalie.
“You’re going to have to get used to this,” said Oliver.
Max remained in front of the class, waiting for applause that wouldn’t come.
“Come on guys, I worked forever on that one,” he said.
“Probably not more than five minutes,” said Oliver.
“Don’t do it. Not today,” said Max.
“What’s happening?” asked Natalie.
Oliver took a deep breath. He just really wanted Max to sit down.
“You were in the ceiling. You left a smoke bomb under the floor tile,” Oliver blurted out.
“Every time!” yelled Max.
“Sorry. It’s really more for me than you.”
Max began to retreat to his desk. Walking past Oliver, he snapped his fingers and passive- aggressively shot a tiny fireball at Oliver.
“Your watch isn’t actually a watch, it’s a tiny gas emitter that releases a spark when the sound sensor picks up the sound of a finger snapping.”
“I hate you so much.”
“What did I just watch?” asked Natalie.
“It’s not important. What’s important now is that we find you some friends. Hewitt!”
Oliver tapped a much taller boy on the shoulder.
“This is Natalie. Check out her teeth. Aren’t they wild?”
And Hewitt was interested in her teeth. And soon the rest of the class was too, which drew a crowd. Oliver was immediately regretting his decisions.
Later rather than sooner, Friday rolled around which for Oliver meant two things: The first was that he got to decompress from the noise that was a general school week, and the second was ice cream. So, Oliver got in his bed and turned on his TV, wondering why anyone would want to be outside on a Friday when all of his favorite reruns were on. He thought a bit about Natalie. He liked her, but it had become pretty clear that her friendship would only result in sensory overload. But she was personable. It probably wouldn’t take long for to make friends, especially considering that people will always have questions. So, she’d probably be fine, Oliver thought. I probably won’t even see her much after this week.
“Oliver,” said his mother as she barged into his room.
“Don’t you knock?”
“Are you in a cult?”
“Not recently, why?
“There’s a girl here for you and she kind of looks like a vampire.”
But my reruns, thought Oliver as he got out of bed. Walking down stairs he saw Natalie in the threshold. She was dressed nicely but everything she was wearing was black. Natalie had just checked every box in the “scaring the superstitious” category.
“What’s up?” asked Oliver.
“Are you busy tonight?”
“He’s never busy!” yelled Oliver’s mom from another room.
“So, Sarah’s having that party tonight.”
“I was told,” Oliver interrupted.
“Well, I kind of wanted to go meet people and stuff, but I didn’t want to not know anyone there.”
“I don’t know…”
“If you don’t go, I’m hiding all of your day planners,” yelled Oliver’s mom.
“It’ll be good for you.”
“Everyone keeps saying that.”
“So, you’ll go?” asked Natalie, looking hopeful.
Oliver grabbed a jacket and walked out the door. Natalie jumped with excitement and followed Oliver as he began down the street.
“You have more than one day planner?” asked Natalie.
“My mom is a follow-through kind of woman.”
Parties were not Oliver’s thing. Mostly because they were loud and this one was very loud. It was being hosted by this girl Sarah who was known for having a lot of money and “cool” parents. That meant there was always a lot of alcohol. Sarah was also not a very graceful drunk, so as the night went on, she had her best friend periodically turn up the music so that nobody would hear things break when she bumped into them. Oliver had a habit of not going to these things, mostly because whenever he did, he could always see someone whispering to someone else while looking at him and people talking about him made him more uncomfortable than people talking to him. So, Oliver usually took to sitting on a couch and looking out a window so people would think he was busy or at the very least, mysterious.
“Hey,” came a familiar voice.
Oliver turned around. It was Natalie.
“You’re not talking to anyone,” she said.
“Parties aren’t my thing.”
“They didn’t used to be mine either, you know, because of the teeth. But, new school. I’m trying to be more social.”
That’s stupid, Oliver thought. “That’s good.”
“I thought so.”
“So, what is up with your teeth exactly?”
“It’s really not that interesting,” said Natalie. “It’s just a weird birth thing.
“It used to be annoying before the Twilight movies came out. Then it became really annoying. But, things seem different here. The fact that the response is ‘that’s underwhelming’ is kind of awesome for me. It means people thought it was gonna be cool and were disappointed to find out it wasn’t.”
Oliver liked Natalie’s attitude. He began to wish he could take things in stride as well as she could. Thinking that, he realized the music had gotten louder. Parties like this were also hard for Oliver because he had a hard time distinguishing whether his headaches were coming from loud music, or his general sensory overload.
“So what was the deal with you and Max earlier?” asked Natalie.
“I’m really good at figuring out his magic tricks and he doesn’t like it.”
“I was wondering about that too. How do you do that so quickly?
“Well, I think you’ve probably noticed I’m a little tightly wound.”
“No, I wasn’t getting that at all,” said Natalie, sarcastically.
“You’re funny. When I’m having anxiety, focusing on things helps me through it. It just happens that Max is always trying to be the uncomfortable center of attention. And when you do that you start to notice things. I think it’s kind of a habit at this point. It’s how I deal with being me every day.”
“Sounds like you need to cut loose.”
“That’s what they tell me.”
Suddenly the music dropped and the lights went dark. As they came on again and the music resumed about a third of the people in the room had turned around and were staring at Oliver and Natalie.
“Oliver, what’s happening?”
“I don’t know.”
The kids were dead still. Their stares were vacant and the people who weren’t staring at Oliver and Natalie were staring at them. Oliver started to breathe heavily. It was just like with the chair at school except completely the opposite. Now everyone’s attention was on them and he didn’t know why. Suddenly, everyone who had stopped began to walk very slowly towards Oliver and Natalie. Oliver looked at Natalie. She was wide eyed and clearly a bit petrified.
Oliver slowly got up from the couch. Natalie followed suit, but the crowd turned towards their direction as they moved across the room. They were like zombies, walking very slowly, but just fast enough that they could catch up to you if you weren’t running and Oliver and Natalie weren’t running. They tried to exit to a different room, but when they opened the door another vacant-staring teen popped out. It didn’t take long before they were backed into a corner and when they were, they found out one thing. They were after Natalie. Once they were close enough, those kids were grabbing at her as if to pull her into the crowd. They were ignoring Oliver entirely.
At this point, Natalie was screaming, but the music was too loud for anyone to hear. Oliver grabbed her by the arm and pulled her towards the back door. As they opened it, hands from the outside attempted to grab at Natalie. Whatever was happening, it wasn’t just the inside of the house. Everyone who was watching was horrified, but none more than Oliver and Natalie, who found themselves once again backed into a corner. And as quickly as it began, it ended. Very abruptly, the zombie students stopped in their place, with hands inches away from Natalie. They began to retreat with many of the children starting to snap out of it, leaving only Natalie who was hyperventilating.
“We should go,” said Oliver.
Walking down the street, Natalie looked intensely uncomfortable. Oliver was too, but he was better at hiding it.
“Go to the party, she said. It will be good for you, she said. Thanks mom,” said Oliver.
“Easy for you to say. What the hell was that?”
“I don’t know.”
“They were like zombies.”
“I was there.”
“You don’t think that’s going to be a problem, do you?”
“I don’t know.”
Oliver didn’t see Natalie on Monday. Oliver didn’t even notice until around lunch time when he realized he’d gone through the whole day without feeling uncomfortable. He’d take all his usual routes to class, which he hadn’t done in at least a week. Suddenly, he felt too normal, which meant something was wrong. Instead of taking lunch period, Oliver decided to look for Natalie. Strangely, enough breaking from routine wasn’t as hard if it was his own choice. That said, it often wasn’t. But, he couldn’t find her anywhere, which was strange. She didn’t really have other friends, she wasn’t in any clubs and she couldn’t possibly be making up any tests since Oliver’s high school was barely using real letters anymore.
Oliver eventually found Natalie when he heard the quiet sound of crying coming from an empty classroom. Walking inside the classroom, Oliver didn’t see Natalie at first, until he looked to his left to see that she was sitting right beside the door. Oliver sat down next to her.
“What happened?” he asked.
“Everyone happened. That thing at the party. Everyone thinks I did it.”
“That makes zero sense. You were clearly the target of whatever that was.”
“They’re saying I hypnotized them as a show of power because I’m a vampire.”
Natalie got up and picked up a nearby chair, throwing it across the room.
“I hate this. People were throwing garlic at me earlier today. Nobody wants to talk to me now because they think I’m going to lure them away and suck their blood, I guess? I don’t know.”
Natalie sat back down beside Oliver.
“I just wanted to be normal for once,” said Natalie.
“High school might not have been the best place for that,” said Oliver
“If it makes you feel better, this has happened to me before. Not the people thinking I’m a vampire part. The ‘everyone being afraid of me’ part.”
“Aw, and just when I wasn’t feeling so alone,” said Natalie, sarcastically.
“When I was in first grade,” Oliver continued. “I was bullied pretty intensely by this one kid, Jeff. He beat me up daily, constantly picked on me, and one time filled my desk with frogs, which I was more impressed by than anything else. Anyway, one day he caught me on a really bad day and so I yelled at him in front of the whole class. But, I ended it by saying ‘I hope you die.’ And then he did.”
Natalie put her hands over her mouth in shock.
“Not right that second, obviously,” said Oliver, “but it was storming that day, and he was struck by lightning on the way home.”
“I’m crying for a different reason now,” said Natalie.`
“Well as you can guess, being a bunch of first graders, they all thought I did it. Hell, I even thought I did it. So I spent years scared of these powers I obviously didn’t have. And obviously I know that now, but the anxiety never really went away.”
Natalie gave Oliver a hug.
“The point is, it will pass. Sooner or later, Max will sell his soul to Satan for real magical powers, and they’ll burn him as a witch and forget all about you.”
“Yeah, you’re right,” said Natalie. “It’ll pass.”
It didn’t pass. A lot of things happened over the next month. At one point Natalie opened her locker and entire cloves of garlic fell out, which Natalie later found would give her a rash when it’s in quantities of hundreds of cloves at a time. This did not help her case. So, Oliver suggested she make new friends by joining stage crew, which against his better feelings, agreed to join with her. It seemed to work until one day, a student dumped glitter on her and shined the stage lights right on her to make her sparkle. Natalie really hated Twilight. She even let Max do magic for her. He was hypnotizing people that week, but he said she wasn’t a very good subject. Beyond that it was general stares from students and people avoiding her, but it didn’t help her self-esteem at all. And then one day, it all went off the rails.
Oliver sat in math class alone, growing more and more suspicious of Natalie’s absence. The past month had made his paranoia more confusing than usual. He didn’t know if he was anxious because she wasn’t there and that was part of his routine, or if he was scared for her, but the likely answer was probably some combination of the two. However, he didn’t need to wait long because of a blood-curdling scream that would permeate the hallway that would then cause the entire class to run out into the hallway, which would then cause Oliver to need several deep breaths before running out himself, and what he found only caused more stress.
On the floor lay two bodies, one of them Sarah and the other Natalie. Both of them were covered in blood, but the blood was all on Natalie’s mouth. Oliver needed several more deep breaths.
Natalie became conscious again. Seeing Sarah and then seeing the crowd, she was horrified.
“I know what you’re thinking,” she said.
Suddenly, all of the students began to take out small wooden crosses and hold them out to Natalie.
“You can’t be serious. I was unconscious too. I don’t even know how I got here.”
As she said this, she grabbed the nearest cross, which happened to be held by Max, in an attempt to show that it didn’t burn. Except it did. She dropped it and the class went crazy except for Oliver who continued to take deep breaths. Eventually Mr. Wood helped Sarah and Natalie up and escorted them to the nurse. Once the crowd had gone, Oliver went back to the scene. He found the cross that had burned Natalie and picked it up. It was still hot. Oliver understood now.
Once class let out, Oliver went to check on Natalie. The nurse’s office only had one bed which Sarah had taken so Natalie was lying down on the waiting bench. Her eyes were swollen from tears.
“Are you okay?” asked Oliver.
“What do you think?” said Natalie.
“Probably not. But you will be.”
“Why? This is really bad. Sarah had puncture wounds. This one’s probably going to involve the police.”
“I know, I know. But.”
Oliver took out the cross Natalie had dropped earlier and threw it at her. Natalie panicked a little when catching it, only to find that it didn’t burn. She looked up at Oliver confused. Oliver sat down next to her and took the cross. He took it apart only to find a small circuit board and a battery.
“I don’t understand,” said Natalie.
“It’s rigged to overload the battery when you hit the little switch on the bottom, which is what made it heat up.”
“What are you saying?”
“I’m saying you’ve been framed.
“By Max?” asked Natalie, surprised.
“Well, I’m going to have word with him. A violent word.”
Natalie got up only for Oliver to get in her way.
“No. If you do that, he’ll say you attacked him and it will only make things worse. We need him to confess.”
“How are we going to do that?”
“I think I can do it,” said Oliver confidently.
Oliver took a deep breath.
“I’m going to cut loose.”
The next day Oliver waited for Max to arrive and Oliver knew he would. It was Tuesday and Tuesday was new magic trick day. So when Max walked in with a small box, Oliver took a really deep breath and walked up to him.
“You’re coming with me,” said Oliver.
“But my trick,” said Max.
“It’s a bunch of small objects that you’re going to levitate but you actually have super fine string that lets you do it. I saw you stocking your desk with it yesterday.”
Max wasn’t very strong. In fact he was probably the only kid in school who was weaker than Oliver, which helped Oliver yank him up the stairs.
I can’t believe I’m doing this, thought Oliver. His heart was racing. He was never more anxious than right now and not in an exciting “this is going to succeed” way, but more in a “if I screw up it will ruin everything” way. You can do this, Oliver thought. Gotta be intimidating. Gotta relax.
“What do you want?” asked Max.
“I know you’ve been trying to scare the school into thinking Natalie’s a vampire.”
Oliver threw the cross at Max’s feet.
“That could mean anything, everyone had one.”
“True,” said Oliver “but you know, when I need to calm down I focus on things. Music, breathing, learning your magic tricks. And when you do that enough, you start to get good at noticing little details. Like, for instance, that you’re actually quite good at magic.”
“Thanks, I think?” said Max.
“But, you know what you’re really good at?” asked Oliver. “Hypnotism. And as a very tightly wound individual myself, I recognize a trigger word when I hear one. That’s why your zombie trick at the party only lasted for one song. And then you got sloppy. The teeth holes on Sarah’s neck are too close together. And I’m guessing you hypnotized them both before committing way too hard to the bit. Like, Sarah could’ve bled out. Not to mention the sanitary hazards of blood. And then there’s your little gizmo over there.”
Oliver pointed at the cross.
“Burning cross. I should be offended. So, why? Is it because nobody thinks your magic is cool, and then suddenly this new girl shows up and everyone’s interested in her because of her teeth? Am I close?”
“What are you going to do about it?” asked Max “I’ve got everyone convinced. They’ll never stop as long as I’ve got mob hysteria on my side.”
“That’s why you’re going to tell them.”
Suddenly the sky went dark and it began to rain.
“Because if you don’t, then I’ll have to stop you.”
Suddenly, the sky lit up and thunder crashed. Max’s eyes grew wide as he realized what was happening.
“How?” asked Max.
“Don’t know. Didn’t know in first grade, don’t know now. But you better be very careful about what you say next.”
It took almost a week for the hysteria to die down, but eventually Max told the school it was all him. He was eventually expelled for administering puncture wounds to a classmate’s neck. Natalie never asked how Oliver got him to confess and she also didn’t really care. She was just happy to be mostly normal again. As for Oliver, he felt good cutting loose, but eventually went back to routines and anxiety with the hope that he wouldn’t lose control of the weather. Although, he thought, letting a little out was cathartic, and maybe, just maybe, if he embraced it, he might find some measure of control.
But that was for another day.
About the Author:
Aaron Campbell is a recent graduate of Rider University, where he majored in English with a concentration in writing and minored in Film and Media Studies. While at Rider, he wrote many works, some of which went recognized, including two papers that he presented at the annual film symposium and a screenplay which won honorable mention. He is currently revising that screenplay, tentatively titled Senior Trip, while he comes up with new ideas for short stories and seeks employment.