Brandon sat in the cafeteria surrounded by people, all alone. His friends talked and laughed around him, but he felt so apart from them he couldn't join in. Ever since Halloween his life had taken a strange turn to worse from the inside of the greatest gift he could've ever imagined. The rose tinted irony kept him in a sort of humorous melancholy, locked between elation and total despair.
At first everything seemed perfect. After Agent Hamilton ("Call me Ham.") and his steely partner left that faithful night, he thought the world was made for him, and in a way it was. It just never occurred to Brandon what that really meant.
Everything came easy. He only had to focus for a second and he could have anything he wanted. And not just material things. Even the way people treated him seemed to be affected by his thoughts. Despite Ham's warnings that manipulating regular people was against Sage guidelines, he found it was nearly impossible not to. Most of the time, it wasn't even intentional. Just a stray thought that, "Hey, this person should be nicer to me," and poof, poor on the sugar.
Yea, at first it was great, but soon the artificial nature of his relationships started becoming more obvious. Or at the very least, more confusing. Was that girl looking at him because she liked him or because he wanted her to look? What about his friends? Did they hang on his every word because he was interesting or because his voice demanded attention, literally? His parents, too, suddenly seemed so much more agreeable. Isolation began to close in on him. He couldn't live like this much longer and he knew it.
He made the decision then, sitting in the lunch room watching a world he wasn't part of anymore, that he had to seek out others like him: 'adepts' as Agent Ham called them. He could feel them sometimes, a weight that occasionally pressed at the bubble of his world before disappearing, but other than the Sage representatives that wonderful night, Brandon hadn't seen another of his kind.
Agent Ham had tried to warn him that something like this would happen; that living with norms (again, his word) was problematic at best, but Brandon wasn't really listening, too caught up in the moment to care. But now he wished he had. He had no idea how to find others like him.
Still, he was determined, and as he walked home from school later that afternoon, he contemplated the problem. He became aware of that somewhat familiar feeling of something pressing against his bubble, but it subsided when he tried to focus on it. As his thoughts drifted back to the problem at hand he felt the sensation again, but again it vanished when he tried to grasp at it. Then a light bulb illuminated above his mind.
Instead of focusing on the feeling, he focused on the question. This was actually a lot different then what he had been doing; thinking through the problem for possible solutions, weighing the possibilities. No, this was much different. It wasn't even really thinking in a traditional sense. He simply focused on wanting to meet people like him, on being understood...on belonging. The feeling at the border of his world returned, but instead of pushing in on it, it tugged at him. He had the sensation of something trying to guide him, as if the force could and had taken him by the hand.
He let the feeling lead him for a while before stopping suddenly, a different feeling tugging at him as he passed his house. He stood at the edge of the walkway leading to his front door and was overcome with the feeling that he'd never see it again. At least not as the person he was when he left for school that morning. Or more to the truth, not the same person who's only desire, so short a time ago, was to pull off a wonderful haunted house. He watched the activity of normal life flicker against the blinds of the front room window and thought about going in to say goodbye. But those halls were hollow to him now, and with a heavy sigh, he decided against it. They wouldn't understand anyway, and by the grace of his new ability, they wouldn't even notice he was gone.
He walked for a while more, again following the tug of the sensation, and before long he realized he had traveled further than time and space would have seemed to allow. He didn’t dwell on it though, merely noting it, another peculiar part of being what he was. He had traveled all the way from the pseudo-posh community of Summerland to the far side of the Strip in less time than it used to take him to drive to school, a miraculous event that seemed mundane to him now. In the preceding week he'd all but abandoned his lonely orange VW Bug, finding that he arrived where he wanted to be with far less effort by following the whim of his wondering thoughts.
Now they brought him to the edge of a seemingly abandoned shopping center. Bordered up windows were the punctuation marks on the nearly desolate road he walked along. Passing a road sign he saw he was on Maryland Parkway...Maryland Parkway? He stopped abruptly, really looking at his surroundings for the first time. The abandoned shopping center next to him seemed normal enough, but everything else seemed all wrong.
Maryland Parkway was a major street, and based on his relative location to the Stratosphere he knew he should have been sharing the road with a full line of afternoon drivers, but there wasn't a car in sight. Across the street was another shopping center, and while not boarded up, it looked to be eerily abandoned, as if it had been evacuated or just hadn't opened yet, despite it being two in the afternoon.
He continued walking, trying to ignore the new feeling creeping up his spine, when he caught the glint of sun reflecting off a car. He could see it parked on the edge of what he assumed would be another abandoned lot, but as he approached he saw that the car wasn't alone. Groups of people meandered in front of a large building. The dull red letters of the unlit sign read: The Dead Zone. The tugging sensation flared and Brandon knew he had arrived at his destination.
As he stepped through the large double doors of the establishment he saw that the activity in the parking lot was misleading. The inside was nearly empty. Twenty of thirty people loitered in various places in the large open space that seemed to dominate the interior. There were tables and chairs strewn about in a chaotic pattern and most of the patrons were sitting around these; that or skulking about the video games and pool tables Brandon could see off to his left. The realization that nearly everyone he saw was an adept came rushing in as the doors swung closed.
All eyes turned on him and he felt the brush of their curiosity against his bubble. The sensation lasted only a moment though, before they turned back to their own worlds as if nothing had happened. Brandon sheepishly made his way to a table that he felt was secluded enough for him to feel comfortable, but not so much so that he seemed antisocial.
The sensation that guided him there had faded, but he didn’t give it much thought. He assumed this was the final destination and it was up to him to make a contact, though he still didn’t really know how. Approaching new people had never been his forte, and this prospect was at least twice as daunting besides.
As he scanned the small crowd, doing his best to seem open and approachable, he caught the eye of someone staring back at him with a strange grin. He was average sized, thin but toned, and was sporting what looked to be a freshly shaved head. The uneven grin and piercing eyes sat atop a plain white tee parenthesized between red suspenders that protruded from somewhere below the table line. It gave him the look of an extra from American History X or Romper Stomper. A chill crept up his spine as the man rose and walked casually toward him.
He came to the table, spun a chair to sit in it reversed, and said in a tone that somehow carried friendship and danger at the same time, “You must be new.” He didn’t say new to what, but Brandon had an idea what he meant. “Looks like you could use a friend.” The chill up his spine went arctic.
A voice floated in from behind Brandon, “He sure could, but not you Rand.” Brandon turned to see another man approaching, taking interest in the scene. He was shorter than the one he called Rand. Fatter too, but he carried the bulk well. He had short blonde hair and a full yet unkempt beard that made an attempt at giving him a rough look, but his face dispelled that instantly. Brandon couldn’t decide immediately what it was about the look of him that did it, but he seemed to exude friendship and charisma. His smile perched in between laughter and a genuine joy at encountering whoever it was he was looking at. He came to a stop just behind Brandon’s shoulder, like a body guard or close friend trying to show support. “I think you should go now Rand. This little one's not worth the effort.” Rand sneered at him, but he got up and walked away. A tension released from Brandon as his new companion stepped around to where Rand was, turned the chair back, and sat down. “I’m Jayme,” he said joyfully, extending his hand to shake.
Brandon took it gladly and replied, “Brandon. Thanks for getting rid of that guy. He gives me the wigs.”
Jayme chuckled, “Yea, he does that.” He studied Brandon a bit and then said in a caring tone, “You’re having a hard time with it huh?”
Surprise and confusion filled Brandon’s eyes, but he played dumb, not wanting to sound stupid, “What do you mean?”
Jayme smiled brightly making Brandon feel a little stupid for being embarrassed. “What’s it been? 2…3 weeks tops? Family life starting to strain? Friends don’t feel like friends anymore?”
Shocked, Brandon replied, “Yea. Yea, that’s it exactly. How did you know?”
Jayme just shrugged. “Seems to me like you have a choice to make then.”
“Yea? What’s that?”
“Well, you could either play along and choose a side. . .” Jayme said cryptically.
“What do you mean, choose a side?”
“Ya know: right or wrong, good or evil, light or dark…Shine or Shade.”
Brandon didn’t much like the sound of that. He wasn’t sure he even knew the difference between right and wrong these days. “Or?”
“Or…you could come with us. We’ll gladly take you. We take all shapes and sizes.” Another smile and Brandon felt that sensation tug at him again, but this time he knew with complete certainty that it came from Jayme.
“It was you,” Brandon said, only half trying to make it sound like an accusation. Jayme beamed. “But, who are you? Who’s us?”
“They call us freaks, outcasts, circus people…carnival kids seems to be the most popular these days, but that’s not really who we are.”
“Then what?” Brandon asked again.
A warmth seemed to stretch out from Jayme’s core. Brandon felt safe and accepted inside its influence. “Why, we’re family, of course. Come with me. I’ll show you.”
Brandon stood and followed him off into the club and for the first time since Halloween he felt normal again; like he belonged in the world. He didn’t know what was coming next, but he felt like he had finally found his place in the strange new world he was now a part of.
**This story is dedicated to the loving memory of Jayme Locascio. We still think of you, all the time.