Solon High School
Instructor: Nanci Bush
1. Helper or defender of mankind.
I think the first time I noticed it was when we met at the local coffee shop - a tidy, tactful little place.
It was a nice setting, with floors that didn't appear overly polished but told you that they were pristine. Everything was clearly aesthetically and meticulously chosen; pastel brown walls were covered with warmth-filled photos, unfurled ivy, and ornamental lights; counters and furniture were painted dark green. Lost in the plethora of both the arrangements and my own thoughts, I was interrupted when the shopkeeper's bell let out its euphonious chime, momentarily interrupting the catchy pop tunes that were playing quietly on speaker. Jayce briskly walked in, and whilst he greeted me with a bright, flashy smile, his eyes anxiously darted around the shop. I had chosen a window table, where a good portion of sunlight lingered on the succulents lined up on the sill. Surprisingly, he pointed to a dimly lit corner booth, and asked, "Could we move over there?"
I was slightly confused, nonetheless, I politely assented. There was no harm in doing so anyways. After we ordered our drinks, he quickly seated himself with his back to the corner wall, avoiding my eyes as he got his study materials out. From there on out, it was normal study talk, both of us helping each other out on our Communications projects.
Abruptly, he stood up, causing his chair to let out an agonized shriek. I winced. With his hands splayed on the table, he bore his dark, brooding eyes at mine. "I need to go to the bathroom. I'll be right back." He sucked in a sharp breath before peering over his shoulder - at the wall? - and picked up his drink, leaving with such a fervor that I would've thought I was watching him compete in the community speed-walking contest.
I blinked at the vacant seat in front of me. Huh, that's weird. Why'd he take his drink with him? In his absence, I continued to ponder the thought while staring at the lone plant on our new windowsill. It was slightly brown, wilting to the side as though it was fighting to stay awake. It stared right back at me, with both nothing and everything in its fictitious eyes.
He was slumped against his signature corner chair. His eyes, once again, told a completely different story than his face. Yet, unlike when I remembered them in the fall, they were full of distress.
He looked up.
I cleared my throat. "You good?" I questioned.
"You just seem off these days. You can tell me stuff, you know," I reassured him.
His eyes narrowed, and I swear I could see the former distress form into contempt. I could hear my heart pounding with fear in the deafening silence between us. Then, scoffing, he remarked, "There's nothing wrong with me. I'm perfectly fine," he snapped.
I threw my hands up. "Alright, alright. Just asking man," I surrendered, while still giving him a look with furrowed eyebrows.
I wrote down the date with my barely legible handwriting that docked points off from my last assignment. I accidentally smudged some of the black ink of the 11, causing me to frown.
Jayce's head shot up. "Did you just say my name?"
Bewildered, I answered no.
"Oh," he responded, before going back to silence.
Today, he looked horrible. His lifeless eyes were complemented by clear, dark eyebags. It was as if he was clinging on to his last ounce of running gasoline.
I gave him a knowing glance as he flopped down. "Jayce."
He let out a strained sigh, and put his head in his hands. "I know." He replied muffedly. He stayed like that for a while, before heaving out another sigh and facing me. "Alex, I'd like to tell you something."
I nodded, surprised he finally hinted at opening up. "Hit me up."
He gave a sad, small smile at that; even so, I did a little fist pump in my head, reciprocating a grin of my own. But my internal victory became cut short when Jayce said, "My mom has been trying to poison me."
Dumbfounded, I stayed silent. I had met Ms. Simmons a couple times, and she seemed like one of the more genuine lot of people I've met. The first time I was over she had offered me homemade macadamia cookies, which honestly would score a jackpot with me regardless of the person. Suddenly, he exploded, releasing a tsunami of unexpected emotions. He seethed, "She's bugged my room, and she's installed a tracker on my phone. Ever since dad left, she's been acting suspicious, and yet she keeps denying it!" He slammed his fists on the table, with his knuckles clenched white, the noise reverberating throughout the shop. My glass of lemonade rattled and shivered in fear, and I awkwardly scanned the heads he'd raised.
"Uh- so for four years?" I stuttered, not exactly knowing what to say. I was stunned by this news.
"Actually, one thousand, two hundred and eighty-five days," Jayce responded. My eyes widened. As he continued to fill me in on examples, explaining why he was so stressed lately and that his grades were dropping, I listened attentively. It was like the picture of the former, ardent mother-figure I had become quite fond of was slowly X-ed out in red ink and replaced by the Wicked Queen from Snow White. Even the sun had begun to cower away at the news, with gray, tempestuous clouds now slowly creeping over it outside the window.
Ever since Jayce opened up to me, our relationship seemed closer. He'd continue to spill smaller details here and there, and my sympathy for him started piling up. But my guilt was growing as I became a listener, and not a helper.
When we were at the shop again, on another Saturday, I asked him, "Do you want me to talk with your mother? Or alert the police?"
He bolted up from his slouched meanor. "No!" He threw his hand out in front of him, reaching for invisible air. "Don't tell anyone. That's just going to make the situation worse." He exhaled a deep breath, before continuing. "Last time I tried to confront my mom about it - " his voice cracked, "we got into a huge fight. She kept lying straight to my face, and threatened to commit me to the hospital." His voice was shaking now, his eyes full of fear.
"Oh crap. Does she think you're crazy?"
He ran his hands through his hair. "Yep. Talk about hypocrisy."
Like the horrible friend I was, I did not keep up my side of the deal. That evening, after I finished my exquisite instant ramen noodles, I rang up my mother, a clinical nurse, hoping she'd give her insight. Stressed out, I explained the situation to her with hand gestures she couldn't see, pacing back and forth so much I thought I'd burrowed straight through my carpeted floor.
"I've been thinking I should alert the authorities. This seems like a serious situation, and he could get badly hurt, but he insists on keeping quiet," I told her. "Both emotionally and physically."
Ma hummed. "Interesting. Have you noticed any strange behavior from him other than what he told you?" She asked through the phone.
I pondered a bit, before answering, "Define strange."
"Maybe... acting anxious and paranoid?"
"Oh yeah. Sometimes he looks around a lot when we're in public, and always seems tense. But that makes sense because of what he's going through."
There was silence for a while at the other end of the line. "Ma?"
"I think he could have a mental disorder. Maybe psychosis, schizophrenia, or delusional disorder..."
With confirmation from both Google and my mother's office, we decided that mental illness was a possible factor. And with some social media shenanigans, I contacted Jayce's mom to meet up with us. However, my mother was taking a lot of night shifts this week, so I had to break the news to Ms. Simmons myself. And that's how I found myself on Ms. Simmons' leather couch, waiting for her to come back from the kitchen.
Ms. Simmons was an astounding woman. Not because of her looks, but her attitude. She was always exuding positive energy, albeit she was still prim and cordial. According to Jayce, her attitude didn't waver a bit throughout her hard divorce with Mr. Park, a courteous, Korean, middle-aged man. Currently, her auburn, wavy hair framed her pale, and tired eyes. She leaned forwards with her hands clasped on her knees, and met me dead in the eyes with anxiety. "So, you said you wanted to meet me to talk about Jayce. I'm assuming this is about his recent behavior, correct?"
"Yeah. Jayce has been feeding details for a while, and has painted you to be this villain. I honestly found it strange and looked for help from my mother - she's a nurse by the way- and she thinks it's possible your son has a mental disorder."
She let out what sounded like a relieved sigh. "That's what I've been trying to tell him, but he goes crazy on me every time I bring it up! I know I'm not the best mother, but I would not turn against him and do all that poison magic he's been yelling at me about. I just can't convince him to get checked out, and I can't do anything about it because he's an adult now."
My heart sank. I had forgotten about that. Our only chance to get Jayce better was to get him checked out first, but that part was probably already near impossible. "Well… maybe if we both try to convince him he'll listen."
If you told my past self that he would react this badly, I would definitely not have suggested that.
Fumes were practically bursting out of his head as he slammed the table with his fist. It was like a reenactment of what happened at the coffee shop, but his fury was fully unleashed, as we were hit with intense waves of emotion. His chin lifted up, and he shakedly sneered in a low voice, "Alex, you betrayed me. You promised not to ask her about it."
I held my hand out. "Look. It was for your own good-"
"How would you know what's for my own good? I'm clearly the victim here! I don't understand why you're siding with her." He jerked his thumb out towards his mother, who gazed at her son sadly.
"Jayce, honey, you know I love you with all my heart. You are just fighting a battle with demons in your head. It's not your fault or mine. It might be something else."
"I told you mom," he swiveled his head towards me, "and you too. That I'm fine! You're the problem - you're too cowardly to own up to your own malicious deeds ever since dad moved out!"
I spoke up. "Jayce, have you ever noticed any long term side effects of her apparent poisoning efforts?"
"No, but that's the point-"
"Have you seen any physical evidence of her apparent poisoning efforts?"
"No, but she's just good at-"
"Have you seen her act threatening towards you other than maybe during your fights?"
Ms. Simmons watched Jayce's silent demeanor with hope. "Jayce, all I ask for is one mental health checkup. If they tell us nothing, then we'll sort it out later. But just in case. Please," she pleaded.
After an uncomfortably loud silence, he finally croaked, "I'll think about it."
I parked my car in front of the coffee shop. After I turned my engine off, I stayed unmoved in my seat. I was here alone this afternoon, since it was the big day - Jayce was seeing a psychiatrist. I was concerned for him, not sure whether I wanted the results to confirm an illness or not. Abrupting my thoughts, my phone dinged. It was from my mother, and I opened the short message. It read, "He's been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. Hopefully this will make things easier for him, and not the opposite."
I think the past me would've been freaked out, but now I only felt relief, letting my grin spread out as I leaned my head back against the headrest and closed my eyes in solace. When I opened them again after a while, the swirly, cursive white font that hung tilted above the door peered back at me: Brewed Awakening.
I turn my head as the bell chimes, to see the man himself walk in, nodding at me when we lock eyes, before he quickly glances away and finds an unforeseen interest with the floor.
He didn't say anything until he fully sat down. After he situated himself, he lifted his head and gave me an awkward smile. "Hey Alex."
His recent, temperamental manner was nowhere to be seen today. Although he did seem a bit troubled, the earlier, impending tsunami had settled down to a placid lake.
However, his uneasiness still worried me. I stuttered,"So… uh, how do you feel?"
The brightness on his face faltered a bit. "I just, I can't believe it. I feel horrible being wrong. But the meds are helping. The voices are dying down, my suspicions are dwindling, and my attitude is better around the people I know…" He paused, before continuing. "Do you know what the name Alex means?"
"I don't know, good-looking?" I snickered, cracking up at my own joke.
He laughed, and I instinctively found myself cackling even harder, slamming the table. Heads turned to us again, and I reminisced in the feeling of déjà vu - the good version.
After we finally settled down, he said, "Jokes aside, your name means protector. Of man."
My eyebrows shot up. "Well, I'm flattered," I chuckled, before taking a sip of my latte.
As we slowly fell into our traditional studying, something in my peripheral vision caught my eye. The original, dying succulent was replaced by a small cactus plant, with one yellow flower on its top basking proudly in its few rays of sunlight. I don't know why, but I found myself automatically opening another tab on my laptop, typing "cactus symbol" in the search bar. My mouth slowly dropped as I read the second page that popped up: "The cactus flower is a symbol of a mother's unconditional love because it can endure and thrive in harsh conditions*."
I looked at the yellow flower, then back Jayce, who was diligently scribbling away in a composition notebook, oblivious to the mind-boggling discovery I had just made.
¹Parodia: a genus of flowering cacti.
* Taken from "Cactus Symbol." Symbols.com. STANDS4 LLC, 2021. Web. 4 Dec. 2021.
TW: profanity, derogatory language
*Note: The following short story is based on historical events. However, some instances as written may not be fully accurate.
Thursday, June 5th, 1969
Hey fella, writing to you in the evening. Just visited Stonewall Inn, had a gas₁! A guy Chris told me about it last month, told me he was stealing to get in. And hear me out - it's on 53 Christopher street. Funny, eh? You should check it out with me. It makes me feel alive for once. And you don't need much scratch₂ to get in either. It's only three.
Friday, June 13th, 1969
Hey Will, how've you been? Haven't heard from you in a bit. I think I've found my new hangout. Can't get enough of Stone. Every time I go there it just gets better. But I do get more and more blitzed₃, especially since you can bring your own booze. Might be a bad thing.
I've met some new guys! Pete's a vagabond who got kicked out of his dad's. He's a great storyteller, but his tales pack sorrows. Then there's Tammy, the drag queen (a sassy bloke), and Russell, the runaway kid. He's only 17, but always on somethin. Those three are always there when I come around, it's a blast. Stonewall's basically our new pad₄. You should try and visit if you can. I know you're not really into that, but you'd be pleasantly surprised. But if you do, pick a lucky day to come... thing is, the place is run by the Genovese₅, and apparently cops raid monthly as part of a deal. Thought raids died down recently, but I guess it's happening again.
Hope to hear from you again,
Friday, June 20th, 1969
Been a while. I hope you're reading these, but I also hope you aren't. Because then you'd be ignoring me. Maybe they're getting lost. How are you and ya girl Diane doing? How's the carpenting going with Ma and Pa? I wish they'd still write to me.
I've just been hanging at the bar again. I've discovered I'm one of the few that actually have a daily job. Some are hustlers, some live in the streets and panhandle. I feel bad for them.
Also I overheard something heavy₆ today - when I was looking for my buds, I saw a worker talking to a well-dressed gent. It's a loud place, but I still caught a few words. I heard em say 'pay' and somethin like 'or we'll tell your family.' Man, I love this place but it's been intimidating lately…
Monday, June 30th, 1969
Eddie!! Have you heard?
On Saturday early morning the cops crashed us. We were enraged! They arrested at least ten of us, which is normal, according to Pete. There's sometimes more. A crowd of us followed them to find a pig₇ forcefully pushing a skirt₈ into his patrol car. She was screaming at us for just standing there, thrashing against him, while we awkwardly watched her with pity… that was the first time I've ever felt guilty at the place. But after they left, something different in the air changed. I could feel it. Everyone could.
It was murmurs at first, whispers of fury. We were afraid to speak too loudly, probably scared of another cop overhearing. But the mutual feelings were there.
Ed, you won't believe it. Last time I had the guts was when I was still with you guys. That evening I rushed there as quickly as possible, and there were already mobs of people with signs, chanting. A fellow shoved one end of a sign into my hands so eagerly that I almost fell over. 'GAY LIBERATION' was written on it with big black ink, and I could feel my pride growing just seeing it. He shouted at me, 'We're going to Christopher Park! C'mon!' Marching with him, I screamed with adrenaline (my voice is hoarse now), and Ed, it just felt amazing. It felt refreshing - extraordinary! - to be alive and proud, with my people. I protested yesterday evening and this evening too (I just got back from Greenwich₉). I just can't describe it to you on this stupid paper. I need to see you aga-
The paper was ripped from my hands before I could finish. "What is this?" My mother peered at me, with a scowl on her face. "Sincerely, Your brother Ed," she read aloud.
"It's-" I started.
Abruptly, she ripped the letter down the middle, before crumpling it up and throwing it on the carpet.
I gaped at her. "What is wrong with you?" I shouted, irritated. I could feel my chest boil with anger.
My father spoke up. "Why do you still talk to that cocksucker?" He sneered with repugnance.
I swiveled my head towards his voice, not knowing he was home. He was standing in the doorway of the kitchen, with a cross face and crossed arms. "Pa, you can't throw words around like that! Eddie's your first son! He doesn't deserve -"
Exasperated, my mother snatched the three remaining letters from the table. "We don't speak of his name anymore," she fumed, with tremors in her voice. Shaking her head, she gave me a sarcastic smile. "I don't understand why you even support him." Her eyebrows shot up with realization. "Oh, I know," she looked at me maliciously, with her lips curled, "Are you - sick - too?" she asked, whispering 'sick' in a hushed tone as if it was a sin to say. "I'm telling Diane about this."
"MOTHER." I screamed at her, feeling hot tears form in my eyes. "Why are you acting like this? He's still our family!" I pleaded, throwing out my hand to an empty spot on the counter where his picture used to sit.
Mr. Sanchez glared at me, stepping forward. He jeered, "He's not our son if he makes us fight like this every time," with curled fists.
I sighed with annoyance. "You're the ones-"
My mother interrupted me yet again. "Honey, did you hear what's been happening with those people the past few days?" She questioned, facing my father with a disgusted look.
"Oh of course. Everyone's complaining. Do you want to hear what Mrs. Diaz told me this morning when she came into our shop? She told me that on her husband's new television, she saw him - HIM, holding a sign like a deranged monkey with his pack of savages. And apparently, they're not just protesting, they're being violent," he told her, spitting out the last word. "The town must think we're crazy for raising him. I felt like an absolute fool when she told me."
I slammed the table. "STOP INTERRUPTING ME AND LIS-"
My father stared at me with an expression of stone. "Kid. If you say one more word," he bellowed, pointing his finger at me. "I will never let you under this roof again."
I wished I spoke up. I really did.
But I couldn't.
That night, I stood with remorse in front of the fireplace, watching the four letters shrivel in bright, blazing flames, burning in the deafening silence of our home. A sinister smile spread slowly across the fire's face, until it was full-fledged cackling at my tears.
¹ Fun, fun time
⁴ Home, bedroom, living place
⁵ Organized crime family that operated in NYC and NJ under the mafia. Founded in 1890s.
⁷ Police officer
⁹ Greenwich Village, a neighborhood in NYC, NY.