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 I got back to my residence in a daze.  I dumped my bag and coat in my room and marched down to Dan’s room.  I found his door open, so I leaned against the doorframe.

            “Ethan!”  He exclaimed.

            “Let’s get drunk.”  I said.

***

 

It was a party.  Dan rounded up as many of our friends as he could, as a last holiday bash before classes started in the new semester.  A crew of us headed down to the school pub, and Dan taught me about alcohol.

            “This is vodka.”  He said, handing me a shooter glass filled with clear liquid.  I sucked it back, trying to ignore the flavour.

            “This is tequila.”  He said after a few vodka shots.  It was amber, and tasted nasty by comparison.  I drank a few of those.

            “This is gin.”  He said, handing me a glass.  It was like drinking liquid pinesap, and I coughed afterwards.  I preferred the tequila.

            I let some of the girls pull me to the dance floor in between drinks.  I cavorted.  I celebrated.  I rollicked.  It was fun to be around people, at least while I was drunk.  I talked to everyone, laughing and smiling.  This was a lot better than sitting around depressed.

            I would retreat to the bathroom.  I had myself convinced that frequent urination would keep my somewhat sober, so I drank water.  I would stare into the mirror, trying to focus.  To help, I’d perform math problems or think about things from science class.  Lately, I’d been fascinated by relativity with Einstein, quantum mechanics and the Big Bang theory.

            Sometime in the proceedings Jon and some of the other guys from the dorm joined us, having heard from Dan about the party.  Jon offered some sage drinking advice.

            “You need to eat sometimes, so your stomach isn’t empty.  Take it slow, especially your first time.  Pace yourself.  And don’t follow liquor with beer, it’s a bad scene.”  He said.

            I don’t think he realized I’d been drinking for an hour already, and Dan had made sure I’d had a lot.  I was profuse with thanks, however.

            “You’re the best, Jonny!  That is great advice.  I mean, really great!  You are a great friend!”

            Considering that I didn’t really like Jon all that much, this was an odd speech.  I tried to clear my blurry mind.  I remember finishing a beer someone bought for me and putting it down on the table.  As the bottom of the glass bottle clunked on the wood tabletop, everything went blank.

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 My vacation was miserable after that.  I had to sleep sitting up, keeping my nose elevated.  It was swathed in a bandage fitted to its shape.  Daily I had to take it off, clean myself up of dried blood and mucous, and then apply a new bandage.  I took Tylenol with codeine for the pain, which made me feel groggy.  All I could eat was soup and crackers.

            Because I had to sleep sitting up, it meant I hardly slept.  I watched movies and tried to keep my mind active.  Unfortunately, being up late at night, isolated from my family, gave me too much time to think.  My thoughts turned toward my solitude and to missing Faith.  I tortured myself with memories, and wishes.  I missed church and most of the family Christmas festivities because I was too ill.

            I wandered the house at night in the silence, feeling isolated.  I would watch the snow fall through the windows, painting the world in white.  Nights seemed almost mystical, the world washed over in blue and black silence.  The worst part of being so alone was that I could not feel the need to care.  I felt no anticipation for Christmas, none of the wonder at the holidays that had been taken for granted in years past.

            I thought about how I hated school, and didn’t want to talk to my friends, about missing Faith, and basically just wallowed in misery and self-pity.  I even took to writing more depressing poetry.

The Snowflake

 

A snowflake

Falls to earth

Unlike any of the others, yet exactly the same

Distinct, and individual descending to join the masses

Where it becomes impossible to distinguish one flake from another

There’s just a blurry white blob of snow on the ground

Not a group of separate snowflakes

And when the weather warms they melt together

Forming a rushing current that flows far and fast

The idea of “one snowflake” suddenly has no meaning

There is simply the flow of water running downhill

For water always runs downhill

Rushing until it hits rock bottom where it gathers and grows

Drowning the snowflakes and their individuality

Turning them into a pool of stagnant water

Part of a whole with no direction

And the pool keeps growing

Swallowing the snowflakes

Just to feed its growth.

 

            Which meant that I was severely depressed by the time I had to return to school, an individual being swallowed by the institution. 

I no longer had to wear bandages, but I had been told to avoid physical exertion for at least a month, or risk tearing the healing tissue open.  I packed a duffel bag of clean clothes and my father drove me to the bus.  I sagged against my seat and looked outside.

            The world was covered in snow.  Tree branches were laced with dangling icicles.  I loved winter, the simple beauty of white blanketing the world, like a blank page before you draw or write.  Like God erased the world and then in springtime brought everything back, a fresh start.

            On the subway, I half dozed.  These windows mostly showed just concrete walls and the occasional light.  I felt closed in.  Halfway through the ride I glanced over and saw a girl trying not to watch me.  I realize that sounds odd, but that’s what she was doing.  Trying not to get caught for having watched me when my attention was elsewhere.

            I glanced at her out of the corner of my eye and tried not to be as obvious.  She had long black hair and deep, dark eyes.  There was a sparkle of mischief there.  She had a white winter hat and thick white coat, and a red scarf.  I had to struggle not to stare.  She was beautiful.

            I was hunkered into my seat wearing a navy Toronto Maple Leafs toque and a thick black coat that hung almost to my feet.  I had a thick growth of beard, having shaven only for my surgery three weeks before.  I felt like I must look like a vagrant.  She looked like she just fell out of heaven.

            Nevertheless, she stood in front of me as the doors opened for the next stop.

            “You have the most beautiful eyes I’ve ever seen.”  She said, and then stepped off the train.  The doors closed.

            I sat there flabbergasted.

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 When I was twelve I got hit in the face by a baseball.  It hit dead centre of my nose.  I had a tremendous headache but still managed to play the whole game.  What no one realized, probably because I acted like I was healthy enough to play, was that it actually broke.  I guess it must have been a pretty clean break, since I never developed black eyes or any of the usual signs.  I hardly noticed a problem until I started developing massive sinus headaches.  It turned out that I had deviated my septum, effectively blocking a nasal passage and preventing it from draining properly.  And, just like when I was twelve and ignored pain to play baseball, I ignored the headaches for years.

            By the time I was in university I had wised up a little, and seen a nose specialist about the headaches.  He recommended surgery, and since it would take a few weeks to recover, I decided to wait until December when I was off school.  So, the day after coming home, I went to the hospital.

            I dressed in a gown, and followed a nurse to the operating room.  There I lay down on a table while someone attached an IV to my hand.  My doctor showed up sometime during these proceedings, wearing a mask and surgical gown.

            “All right Ethan, we’re all set.”  He said.  “I need you to count backwards from one hundred for me.”

            “Okay.  One hundred, ninety-nine, ninety-eight…”  I drifted off as the anaesthesia in the IV took effect.   Everything just slipped into darkness.

            I floated in a black oblivion for a long time.  I felt like I was swimming at the bottom of the ocean, and started pushing up for the surface.  I struggled, kicking upwards, sensing the light.  I swam on, faster now, eager.  For some reason, I was sure that I would see Faith on the other side.  I could feel her somehow.  I burst through the surface.

            Opening my eyes, I smiled.  Sunlight streamed in the nearby window.  I was in a hospital bed, alone in recovery.  I remembered going in for surgery.  I shook my head.  It was almost as if my mind had woken up before my body, and I had to swim back to consciousness.  It bothered me that, cut off from the world, my only thought was of Faith.

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 Exams approached at the end of the semester before the holiday break.  Everyone was studying and working hard.  Except me, it all seemed to come easily to me.  That was more a frustration than a load off my shoulders.  I wanted a challenge.  Going to the gym with Daniel was the closest thing, as I had never really tried to be physically fit before.

            My exams passed by with little fanfare.  Each one was similar to the others:  I’d sit in a different room from our usual classroom, find a desk near the back, finish before anyone else and then wait for someone else to turn theirs in so I could give the teacher mine and leave.  I waited to be second just so I wouldn’t appear too keen.  But honestly, I was just bored. 

            Once my final exam was finished I jumped on a bus and headed for the subway.  I didn’t say goodbye to anyone, and didn’t want to.  I just wanted to get off campus.  I took the Greyhound back home, sleeping on the way.  I couldn’t shake my ongoing feeling of fatigue; it felt like it was in my bones.  Whenever I woke up I would glance outside, and see only the world gone to grey:  December was bleak without snow.

            When I exited the bus terminal there was a definite chill in the air, promising winter’s approach.  I put my hood up and shoved my hands in my jacket pockets, waiting for my ride.  A moment later my uncle’s truck pulled up and I hopped inside.

            “How was school?  Learn anything?”

            I shrugged.  “That parents are shelling out five thousand dollars for their kids to get drunk and flunk out.  Everything else I could learn myself with time and a well stocked library, save myself some money.”

            He laughed, and we drove off.

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 Dan did his best to prove me wrong.  Over the next few days he became attentive and considerate with Teri, where before he would ignore her while talking to other people even if she was sitting beside him.  He bought her flowers, took her out on dates, and seemed to be as head over heels for her as she was for him.

            When not with Teri, he sought me out.  We went to the gym daily, and in residence played video games on his Nintendo 64 or rented movies.  We watched the World Wrestling Federation every Monday and Thursday; one of Dan’s favourites, and it was becoming fun for me.  He avoided his seedier friends, and I took it as a compliment that he wanted to be around my “good influence.”

            After a few weeks the strike ended amicably, and we went back to class.  Dan came to me for help with some of his classes, displaying a work ethic he had lacked all semester.  This new leaf was certainly lasting a long time.  I wondered if he had really changed.

            Dan and I continued our gym routine even while studying for exams.  One day we were coming back from the field house.  It was at the bottom of a wooded hill, with the school buildings up top.  A long stone staircase led from one to the other.  Just walking up it could make you out of breath.  Dan frequently pushed us to run up it.  But today he was more ambitious.

            “We’ve got to get really buff you know.”  He said.

            “I think you’re already there.” I said, noting our size differential.  He had at least forty pounds on me.

            “No, I mean we have to get jacked up.  How else are we going to be wrestlers?”

            “Yeah, right.”

            “No, I’m serious.  We’re the world’s best tag team, and one day we’ll dominate, just like Stone Cold!”

            I laughed.  Stone Cold Steve Austin was Dan’s favourite wrestler, a bald bad-ass.  He outweighed me by about a hundred pounds.

            “Come on, Ethan.”  Dan grinned.  His enthusiasm was infectious, I had to give him that.  “We’re running up the hill.  Only the weak take the stairs.”

            “What?” I asked with a laugh.  He turned off the path and started trying to run up the steep hill through the trees.  Unbelievable.  I laughed again and chased after him. 

            Our legs pumped us up the slope, and we had to use tree branches as handholds on some of the steeper places, but eventually we reached the top, breathing hard and laughing.

            “That was awesome!  We do that every day, from now on!”  He grinned.

            “Deal!”  I chuckled.

            It was crazy, but it was fun.  And that was something I had lacked lately.

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 I slept badly.  A knock on my door startled me once I did fall asleep.  I rolled over and saw that my clock said noon.  I rolled out of bed and pulled on some track pants before opening the door.

            “Hey, Ethan.”  Dan said, standing in the doorway.

            “What’s up?”  I asked, bleary and dishevelled.

            “I didn’t wake you, did I?”

            “Uh, not really.  Just having a lazy day.  It’s no problem.”

            “Okay.  Well, I don’t know how to say this, but, uh, I wanted to say thank you.”

            “For what?” I raised a quizzical eyebrow.
            “For kicking my ass all semester, telling me to treat Teri better.  I was lying in bed yesterday, and I had like, an epiphany.  I realized you were right, and she deserved better from me.  I should be grateful for what I have, instead of being stupid.  So I wanted to tell you.  I’m going to turn over a new leaf.”

            “Um, you’re welcome?  I guess.”  I didn’t know what to say.  It was nice to hear that some of what I said got through to Dan.

            “Well, I owe you one.  You’re a great friend, Ethan.  Nobody else would have the balls to keep disagreeing with me, and be right.”  He grinned.  “Want to head to the gym later?”

            “Sure, give me a couple hours.”

            “Catch you later.”

            I closed my door and thought for a moment.  Dan was being his usual charming self, and he was saying all the right things.  But underlying that, I knew he hadn’t been alone last night.  I hoped, I prayed, something last night had given him a change of heart and he realized screwing around behind Teri’s back wasn’t worthwhile.  This wasn’t some magic epiphany, this was guilt.

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 I rode back to school wallowing in my gloom.  I lurched along, a zombie looking for a brain, the ability to think clearly.  But I was stuck in dark broodings.  I sat at the very back of the city bus that led to the school, slumping against my seat.  I felt lost.  I sat, staring at my navy blue sneakers, noticing that the right one’s toe was wearing through. 

            And then God spoke to me on the bus.

            This girl in a red coat came towards me from a seat further up the bus.  A ray of sunlight came from behind my seat through the western window, and its radiance lit up her face.

            “It suddenly came upon my heart that I should tell you, Jesus loves you.  I’ll be praying for you tonight.”  The girl smiled softly, and then got off the bus at the next stop.

            I would never see her again, but her words somehow awakened me.  I felt lighter, and when I got back to campus I found a tree to sit under while the sun went down and night approached.

Nightlight

 

Children fear the night.

The coming of darkness brings them visions of monsters.

Only when a nightlight watches over them can they sleep.

They do not trust the gloom and this is a mistake.

The night is trustworthy.

How many stolen kisses have the stars seen?

How many lovers walked under a benevolent moon?

The night will never tell.

The night hides the secrets the day reveals.

Only by the light of day can you tell the difference between rich and poor.

There is only one colour in the dark.

In the dark we all look the same.

The day separates everything and everyone.

It makes things distinct, contrasting light and dark.

The sun demands to be seen the moment it is in the sky.

It expects to be noticed, and in its light everything else is noticed too.

Nothing is safe in the light.

Everything is exposed, every strength and every flaw.

But the dark wraps us in a blanket, comforts and conceals.

It demands nothing, expects nothing, for it is nothing.

Darkness is not a thing, so it cannot be a thing to fear.

Darkness is the absence of light, and night is the absence of day.

Yet, what wonders revealed during absence?

The stars, the secrets, the loves that can only be seen at night!

I need no nightlight for protection,

The intrusion of brightness would chase away the wonder.

I sleep easier knowing that the darkness is there.

The twilight gloom protects all I love.

The night is trustworthy.

It guards my dreams and I tell it my secrets.

All the things hidden during the day,

The night knows and it will never tell.

I lay in the cool grass looking up at the stars, feeling the wind as it raced across the field, flicking over me.  Off in the distance were the school buildings and the two dormitories, and trees on the edges of the field.  But lying here, looking up at the sparkling black velvet night sky, it was easy to believe I was alone in the world.  Out here I could breathe.

            Everything that moves is vibrating, and vibration causes sound.  Even stars have their own radio signals.  Sometimes, alone in the night, I could believe I heard them singing.  With the peace that came in solitude, sometimes I could find my own heart-song.  The whole universe would have harmony, broken into discord only when other people arrived.

            Sooner or later, however, I would have to go back inside.  Once I had breathed in enough cool, soothing night air, once I had listened to my silent song long enough, I would return to the chaos of student life.  I sat up in the grass, sliding my green hood off my head.  I brushed grass off my jeans and stood, heading back towards my residence. 

            When I reached the glass doors leading into the lobby, I could see a few cars pulling up on the other side.  The lobby had doors to either side of the building, the field on one and a road through campus on the other.  From inside the lobby I could see Teri grabbing her bag from one of the cars.  Apparently she had returned to school.

            “Hey, Ethan!”  She said cheerfully as she came into the building.

            “Hi, Teri.  Dan will be glad to have you back.”

            “Have you seen him?”

            “I think so, earlier.  I could go tell him you’re back, if you want to drop your stuff in your room.”

            “Thanks!”  She smiled, and we headed upstairs.  I went into the second floor house towards my room, and Dan’s, while Teri went up to her house on the third.

            As I turned the corner of the hallway I saw Dan in the distance, talking to a girl in the corridor outside his room.  I walked closer, as his room was at the far end.  I couldn’t really see who she was.  My room was in the middle of the hall, two doors down from the shared bathroom.  By the time I reached my own door I knew that the girl he was with was Melody.  They went into his room together and closed the door.

            I walked down the hall slowly.  I reached Dan’s door, and could see from the bottom that the lights were off inside.  I knocked on Evan’s door instead.

            “Hey, Ethan.”  Evan said, opening the door.  “What’s up?”

            “Have you seen Dan lately?  Teri just got back and asked me to see if he was around, but his door is closed and his lights are off.”

            “He was here a little while ago.”  Evan shrugged.  “We were talking, and then I had a phone call.  I guess he left during that.  Maybe he went down to the common room?”

            “I don’t think so.  I passed it on my way down.  He probably took the side stairs to see someone, or maybe he went outside.”

            Teri was coming down the hallway.  I felt my stomach lurch in my stomach.

            “Hi, Evan!”

            “Welcome back, Teri.”  He smiled.

            “Is Dan around?”

            “We were just wondering that.”  I said.  “His door is closed, and lights are out.  We thought maybe he stepped out.”

            I didn’t know what else to say.  Daniel was supposed to be my friend, and you’re supposed to show loyalty to friends.  But I strongly suspected he was doing more with Melody than just talking, and that meant he wasn’t really worth sticking up for.  But then, church taught that you’re supposed to forgive people and help them do the right thing.  I couldn’t figure out my responsibility.

            “Ethan, you okay?”  Evan asked.

            “Hmm?  What’s that?”

            “You seemed lost in the clouds for a second.” Teri giggled.

            “Sorry.” I felt sheepish.

            “I’m just going to check his room.” Teri said.

            I felt my guts churn as she turned the handle on his door.  It opened, and she peeked inside.  Then she closed the door.

            “I guess he’s still in the building.  His door’s unlocked.”  She grinned.  “Maybe I can still surprise him.  I’ll check with Jon.  If he shows up here, let me know so I can drop in, okay?”

            “No problem.” Evan agreed.

            I nodded, trying to breathe again.  Teri headed off down the hallway.

            I wondered why I was trying to protect someone who was willing to hurt an innocent girl that only wanted to care about him.  I wondered why I was a friend to such a jerk.

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