Double-Blind: A Modern LITRPG - Chapter 183
The roar of traffic beneath the overpass overtook everything else. I blinked several times, the ferocity of the summer sun oddly intense. Beside me, the super-heated asphalt of the recently repaved road let off the slightly sour stench of tar. The straps of my always-too-heavy backpack dug into my shoulders.
What was I… doing?
Right. I was walking home from the school library. I’d stayed behind for a few hours to get some studying in after class and given up after I’d read the same paragraph five times until I finally realized my retention was failing and I needed a break.
Up ahead, a boy with a scruffy blonde mop of hair, wearing headphones was sitting on the overpass, flicking pebbles at the cars passing below, smirking at the audible impacts. I didn’t know his name, but I recognized him.
For a while, I’d suspected my brother was being bullied. Ellison refused to talk about it. Told me he was fine, that he’d “handle,” it. But I saw the way his grades were slipping. The occasional “F — Did Not Complete,” on assignments I knew he’d finished.
And when I showed up early, rather than the usual pickup time, I’d watched from a distance as the boy on the overpass tripped Ellison, pushed his face in the dirt and SnapBack a selfie with my brother as an unwilling participant before he cackled and moved on.
I knew that interceding then and there would do more harm than good. But it hurt to watch.
I drew closer, some part of me waiting for the boy to notice me. He didn’t. Beside the line of pebbles at his side, I noticed the rectangular surface of a phone. The chrome around its rounded edges reflected brightly in the sun—the pro version of whatever Apple put out this year.
Maybe I couldn’t directly intercede when Ellison was at school. But that didn’t mean I couldn’t do anything.
The boy was so fixated on tossing the pebbles, and with the headphones on he was oblivious to the world around him. If someone were to take the phone and toss it onto the road behind him, he probably wouldn’t notice until the audio cut out, and by then, a dozen tires would have pulverized it.
Was it petty and childish?
Was I seriously considering it?
Without a doubt.
I drew near him, the fantasy becoming closer to reality with every step.
Seconds away from carrying out the half-assed plan, I hesitated as the boy suddenly grimaced. He reached up to rub his shoulder and pulled up his shirt sleeve, revealing the dark red line of a recently scabbed over cut. Both above and below it were distended white lines of flesh of similar length. Other cuts that had scarred over.
My half-baked intentions faded from my mind as I passed him, mired in a mix of sadness and concern.
Self-harm was common in kids. Sometimes it was just an outlet, an unhealthy way to vent when a person had no one to talk to. But it was also often indicative of deeper troubles and traumas. I rarely involved myself in other people’s business, but this sort of thing could escalate quickly. It would probably be best to get the kid’s name from Ellison and report it to the school councillor—
A feeling of déjà vu washed over me so strongly I stopped in my tracks, followed by a wave of wrongness that started in my chest and spread throughout my body.
I glanced up from my emails on the chunky laptop screen to where Iris sat cross-legged next to the oscillating fan. She pursed her mouth in mild disgust, as if she’d just swallowed a bug, and her forehead glistened as she glared down at the printout. The sweating was probably more because of the typical July heatwave than effort alone, but she’d been at it for hours.
Probably too long.
Idly, I returned to my emails, and waved widely to get Iris’s attention.
“This one keeps tripping me up.” She complained aloud.
“Well, yeah. The B’s have always been a pain point. Take a break.” I drew out the consonants automatically for her benefit.
“I can keep going.”
That was true. She had the tenacity and perseverance uncommon in a person twice her age. But there was a difference between productive and unproductive work, and after hours of running into a metaphorical wall, she was sliding towards the latter.
I raised an eyebrow, and she raised one right back, though her lips turned up and betrayed the stoic expression.
The fan rotated towards her, blowing her hair back for a moment. I squinted, then pointed to the corner of the room. “Try saying it into the fan.”
“What?” Iris stared at me blankly.
“Speak into the fan like it’s a microphone.”
My sister peered at me suspiciously, and I sighed. “It’s a trick that helped me control my stutter. You’ll be too distracted by the interference to overthink. Plus, the fighting the air makes your mouth and jaw rely on muscle memory.”
Iris approached the fan, still shooting uncertain glances my way. It wasn’t adjustable and the fixed height was too tall for her to speak into directly, so she grabbed it by the bar and leaned it back, like the world’s most unenthusiastic rockstar.
“Betty Botter bought some butter. But she said the butter’s bitter if I put it in my batter, it will make my batter bitter. But a bit of better butter will make my batter better.”
I closed the laptop screen slowly. Even though the sound was distorted through the fan, it was clear as day.
Her eyes were wide. “Did I…”
“You did it!” I punched the air.
My sister did a celebratory dance and capped it off by tackling me with a hug, nearly crushing the laptop. “That tip was magic! Why didn’t you mention it sooner!”
I flicked her nose. “Because it was bull.”
Iris pulled away. “Huh?”
“The fan thing isn’t a thing. Or at least, not one I knew about. You were in a rut, getting frustrated. All I did was distract you from it. The rest was all you, kiddo.”
“That was mean.”
“Makes sense, I’m a mean person.”
Iris leaned her head against my chest. “The worst.”
In what felt like seconds, she was asleep. I brushed a bang out of her face. She’d worked so hard for this. I’d told her countless times that her speaking voice was fine, but it didn’t matter. Once my sister put her mind to something, she always followed through. A sense of pride welled up in my chest, followed by happiness.
It was more than happiness.
Unlike the first memory, this was more or less exactly how it happened. And when Iris achieved her victory, I’d been happy for her. But this was different. It was like a feeling of warmth and excitement and elevation, so strong and raw and real it felt as if I might burst. It was jarring, because I was certain I’d never felt it before.
Stained glass. Black and white attire. A cheap suit that fit me like a burlap sack. More cops in attendance than a fire sale at Cabella’s.
My father’s funeral.
Mom wept unconsolably at the far end of a pew a few rows back, which meant it was my job to stand next to the casket, shell-shocked, listening to the never ending platitudes of person, after person, after person, as I shook their hand.
A woman older than god who’s name I didn’t know or care to learn towered over me, her stretch-marked bosom on display to a degree that felt mildly inappropriate. Her wide brimmed black hat threatened to poke me in the forehead.
“It’s okay to cry, dear. He was your father.”
“Leave the boy alone, Beth.” Her husband, a man with a bad comb-over, rolled his eyes and stepped away.
It was a strain to smile, as if I’d forgotten how. “All cried out, I guess.”
Beth pressed her lips together, pity radiating off her like an aura. She reached out towards me, hand stalling when I instinctively moved away. “I know you must feel all this pressure to be strong. You’re the man of the house now. But you can be strong tomorrow. No one here will judge you if you cry.”
I formed a fist slowly. Beth was rude, but they were all thinking it. Watching my stoic expression. Whispering. Judging. It took every ounce of self-control I had not to scream. To not tell this woman she had no idea what the fuck she was talking about. That I’d spent most of the funeral trying to cry. Hating myself because all I could feel was anger. Angry at my father for taking the call. Angry at the asshole who killed him.
Angry at myself, for being broken.
Can you move on, please? You’re holding up the line.
The words died in my throat, as hot tears streaked down my face. I would never see him again. We’d never talk long into the evening about his day. He wouldn’t be at my high school graduation, or give me long-winded career advice.
That world was gone.
My chest clenched, as unadulterated sorrow unrooted me to my very core. It felt like being plunged into a pit, a place so dark and cold and painful that it was hard to focus on anything other than the ache.
I bowed my head.
Finally, Beth seemed satisfied and moved on, a final “Sorry for your loss,” her parting shot.
A pair of brown loafers stepped into sight, obscuring my view of the carpet. I slowly looked up. The newcomer wore black, pinstripe pants and a dark purple vest. His hands rested casually in his pockets. His hair was white, and his long well-kempt beard and short-cut hair combined with the rest of the ensemble called to mind a post-hippie aesthetic.
When he spoke his voice was low, charming. “Quite the turnout. Your father was clearly loved.”
“Was there a reason we had to start with this mindfuck?” Those words were all I could manage. Because the pain had given way to anger once more. “Hastur.”
Hastur grinned. “It’s a pleasure to finally make your acquaintance, Ordinator.”
I was fucked.