River of Starlight
At age 27, living alone, friendless, and still dependent on his parents' financial support, Brian had already accepted that he was what most people would call a "loser". In slightly better social standing than some of the other losers in his age range, he had at least completed high school, gotten out of his parents' basement, and had some form of income other than his parents' bank account. Still, the meager earnings he got through various sites for trivial tasks and occasional art commissions were hardly paying the bills. His parents still paid more than half his monthly expenses. Looking for a "real job", as his parents put it, was an obstacle he hadn't managed to overcome. The prospect of going through the interview process still terrified him. Social interactions in general had long sent him fleeing for cover. It was bad when he was a teenager, but he had managed to maintain some friendships back then with other boys who had similar issues and interests. When he reached adulthood and found college too daunting, he hid even deeper inside himself. His current living situation was his parents' last-ditch effort to push him towards adulthood. They were still mostly supporting him, but he now had to budget the money he was getting on bills and take care of his own problems. It didn't go how they had hoped. He had arranged for most of what he needed to be delivered straight to his house, and bills were paid automatically. He rarely ventured outside of his apartment. Comfort came when they settled for less; at least he could manage that most on his own. All social interaction was on the computer. Since any money he made was through the internet, he had convinced his parents to buy him a high-end computer and tablet. Though he had ulterior motives when he had initially made that request--wanting to play games at higher settings. The weight of that decision sat between his guilt and self-loathing. Games and TV shows weren't giving him the same satisfaction anymore. Requests for commissions sat unanswered in his inbox next to discussion replies he hadn't looked at. Most of his time was spent sleeping, eating delivery pizza, and scrolling through discussions he had stopped participating in. Some time ago, he had noticed his words belonged to others when he did. The social pressure to perform that he sought out the internet to escape from had invaded him with every keystroke. There was no point in any interaction anymore, but he couldn't pull himself from the demanding need to be around people. This contradictory desire of wanting isolation and wanting people near was something he couldn't comprehend about himself. The underlying reason was always just out of his grasp. In his effort to conform to his escapist groups, he took their reasons as truth to put the inconsistency to rest. With them, he could be at ease, surely. With people who weren't "normal", those unwanted experiences wouldn't happen. Sitting alone in his apartment, he shut down his computer and went out to the balcony. With so much time lost, reality was creeping in. He willingly drank the same poison simply because the label was different. Now, he was paying the consequences for it. But where was he supposed to go? Locking himself away like this didn't make him any happier than anything else he had tried. Why couldn't he just be normal and content like all the people outside? In his youth, he had blamed that on the general population being less intelligent than himself, but now he wondered if he was left out of some special knowledge all this time. What was the missing ingredient? He stared up at the night sky. Jokingly, he spoke to the stars. "Do you know the answer? Of course not. This is just how I am." He turned to go back inside, but stopped in the door frame. He glanced back at the glittering lights above him. It was childish, he knew, but so was most of what he did. "Still, I wish I could be normal too." The sky lit up hot white. The light was so bright he had to shield his eyes. Panicked, he froze as the bright light came directly toward him. In a matter of seconds, the burning ball of light crash landed directly in front of him. His heart pounded in his ears as his arms hung awkwardly in the air. Before him, the burning light faded to reveal a dark blue pod. The material was strange, almost sparkling. Cautiously, he kneeled down to touch it. The texture felt like a stringy, hardened silk. It reminded him of a cocoon. He couldn't contain his curiosity at the bizarre structure before him. His fingers dug into the outer shell and cracked open a portion of the center. A dark blue liquid oozed out in a gloppy mess. Almost instantly, the dark blue liquid started to glow with specks of light blueish-white. He wiped the liquid off his hands, but it stained his skin blue. It reminded him of glitter glue he had played with in elementary school. It was so ridiculous it was more amusing to him than alarming. "I must be dreaming." He reasoned there was no other explanation for the weirdness of it all. Thinking nothing of it, he sank his hands deep into the center of the large pod. Something soft made contact with him. He took hold of it and pulled it out. When the liquid dripped off, he let go. A human arm now hung over the edge of the opening. He thought to himself, 'Great. I'm having a nightmare.' Taking a deep breath, he pulled apart the rest of the pod, expecting some sort of stereotypical movie alien attack to follow. Instead, a naked man curled up in a fetal position laid unconscious in the middle of the bits of strange silk and goo. The man did not move. He turned his attention to the rest of the mess before him. Several black orbs lay scattered about in the mess. He picked up one and pulled it apart. Unlike the pod, the inside was solid, more like a hardened rubber than slime. In the center of the orb, there was what looked like an ID. He pulled it out and flipped it over. A state issued ID that expired next month with a picture of a young man. He wiped away some of the blue liquid from the unconscious man's face. The man in the photo looked identical to the stranger before him. "What the hell?" The unconscious man coughed and writhed on the ground. The man was struggling to breathe. He coughed up some of the liquid, but laying on his side, the man couldn't spit it out completely. This wasn't a dream. Quickly, he rolled the man over to help him. The man kept coughing and gasping for a while. When he stopped, the man looked over. There was a desperate and sad look in his eyes, but he didn't utter a word. "Are you okay? I'm Brian. And you're..." Brian checked the ID. "Connor?" The man didn't respond to the name. He wrapped his arms around himself, shivering. "Oh, right. You're probably freezing. Here, let me get you inside." Brian helped the man into the apartment. "Uh, bathroom first. We need to get whatever this...stuff...is off." He led him into the shower and turned it on. "You know how to use this, right?" The man stared blankly at him. "Uh...I guess I'll have to help you. Stand right here, okay?" He pointed to inside the shower. The man did as instructed, confirming for Brian that he at least understood what he was saying. His shower had a detachable head. He turned on the water. "Stay still. I'll wash you off." Underneath all the blue, the man's skin wasn't different than his own. "You look human, at least." After the shower, the man looked drowsy. Brian let him sleep in his bed while he went to further investigate the mess on his balcony. He collected a sample of the pod, the opened orb, and the blue slime into bags. That left the remaining orbs to go through. Inside each one, there was some sort of personal belonging or information piece. A birth certificate, a social security card, school records, a set of clothes, a wallet, and a journal. Aside from the clothes, everything had the name "Connor" on it. He laughed to himself. "Someone sent you here with everything you'd need, huh? Surprised it doesn't say Clark. Though Connor's pretty amusing too." He carried the belongings inside and went to check on the stranger. The man was fast asleep. He looked over him again, searching for any abnormalities or clues about where he came from. Everything was ordinary, except in one location. Both of the man's wrists bore huge scar marks. Brian felt over the mark. The scar was deep and long. "Tried to kill yourself?" There was still the paperwork to go on, but he was already suspicious if any information on it was accurate. Turning his computer back on, he quickly went to work looking up all the information on the ID and records. To his surprise, he was able to find plenty on this "Connor" person, though every lead stopped exactly two years ago. "Connor" appeared to have graduated from college years ago and was studying Ecology in grad school when he quit for some reason about two years in. He could find his name attached to various jobs after that, mostly part-time positions. Records suggested he was born in the capital city, and attended college in the same general area. He even lived in this city during that time and the time following the point where the school records ended. Finding information on his parents and likely relatives was more difficult. He was getting practically nowhere with that. Brian pulled out the journal. It wasn't a typical journal of daily events. Entries were about what he presumed must have been what the man was researching in school. He didn't really understand the topic, so most of it was gibberish to him. By this point, it was late into the night and he was exhausted. He didn't want to sleep after all that had happened, but his body was stronger than his will power, and he fell asleep at his desk. In the morning, he woke up to someone rummaging through his kitchen. Dazed, it took him a moment to realize what was going on. Brian quickly got up from the couch and rushed over to the kitchen area. "What are you doing?" "What do you think I'm doing? I'm hungry." Connor, who had dressed himself, slammed the fridge door and went through the cabinets. "Do you have anything here that isn't junk food?" "Excuse me? Hold it right there." Brian grabbed Connor's wrist. "Who the hell are you?" "According to those papers, apparently my name is Connor. Given what you were researching on your computer, you already know that." Connor's expression was blank. "Don't say that like it's normal. Why are you here? How are you here?" Brian kept a firm hold on him. "That hurts, you know." Connor tried to get away. "I don't know any more than you do, so you can get rid of those conspiracy theory ideas you've got in your head." "What? Don't screw with me. You're telling me you have no idea how you got here or who you are?" "Not a clue. I don't remember anything. Just that it was dark before, and I was floating." Connor managed to get free. He went back to rummaging through the kitchen. "Seriously? You have like three boxes of ramen noodle cups?!" Brian shut the cabinets closed, embarrassed by the items inside. "For someone who can't remember anything, why do you know what that is?" "I don't know, but I know it's junk food. I can remember that. Just not memories about me." He sat down at the kitchen table and opened up the yellow pages book sitting by the phone. "Where's the nearest grocery store? Let's get some real food." Brian sat across from him, glaring. "Hold on. You can't just fall from the sky, start going through my crap, and then making demands without giving me any answers." "I can't give you what I don't have." He flipped through the book casually. "If you don't want to take me, just direct me to one. I know how to get food for free. I'll go by myself. Besides, I can't stand being inside." "Someone who didn't know their own name until they looked at it on a paper is going to go to a store and get free food?" He laughed. "Many grocery stores will give away food that's past its sell by date that's not expired yet if you ask for it. There's a few churches nearby, it seems. They'd give me free food too." Brian was growing more suspicious with every word. Connor looked up at Brian. "I know you don't want to help me. I'm grateful that you helped me last night, but I think you and I both know that you're not really capable of dealing with this...whatever it is. I'll take my things and leave. You don't need to worry about me burdening you any further. I just wanted to eat something before I set out." Brian had already accepted that he was a loser, but to hear this stranger who didn't even know who he was call him one pissed him off. Something in that matter-of-fact way Connor spoke made him want to prove him wrong. "You want to go to the store, huh? I can take you there. I'm not a child. You can keep your assumptions to yourself. Now, let's go." Connor closed the book and shrugged. "Very well." Before Brian knew it, he was outside amongst the busy city crowd. Connor stood directly behind him. Brian hesitated to go forward. Anxiety seeped into his mind and his heart drummed in his ears. Connor whispered. "Something wrong?" "No." It took everything in him to not retreat back to the safety of his apartment. Somehow, he managed to get to the grocery store. Every customer and employee seemed to be staring at him. He kept his eyes on the floor. "Get whatever you were going to get." Connor quietly picked out food. Brian paid little attention to what he was putting in the cart, focusing only on each footstep. Time slowed around him. He didn't remember going inside a store being so terrifying before. Was it because it'd been so long since he had gone out anywhere? He couldn't remember anymore. Outside was worthless. That's what he'd convinced himself. Memories of it were pushed as far away as possible. "You're paying, right?" Connor asked. Connor's words snapped him out of his circling mental anguish. "What? Oh...I guess." "Thanks." Connor laughed. "I probably should have asked you that before we got in line, but you didn't say anything when I did so I figured..." When it came their turn to check out, Brian fumbled through the interaction. He couldn't respond to the cashier's greetings or small talk. Connor effortlessly managed in spite of his condition. When the total was given, Brian handed the money over, his hands shaking. Connor responded to the cashier's words and escorted Brian out of the store. "Your social anxiety's really bad. Are you seeing a doctor?" Connor asked in a low voice. "Huh? Doctor? It's just the way I am. I'm not like those kind of people like you are." Brian responded coldly. "Even if that's how you are, it doesn't mean you have to stay like that. Cooping yourself up inside your apartment all day is definitely not going to help you any." Brian walked faster. "You sound just like my parents. None of you understand what it's like. I can't be that way." Connor caught up with him. "I didn't say you need to. Besides, you're doing fine interacting with me right now. Maybe it's not as innate as you think it is." Brian had no response for that. He simply kept quiet the rest of the way home. Connor wasted no time in preparing breakfast. Whoever he was, he was clearly very experienced with cooking. Brian watched him in envy. The best he could manage in the kitchen was cooking a frozen pizza and putting a sub sandwich together. 'He talks to people so easily and he can manage stuff like this like it's nothing...yep, he's definitely one of the normal people.' Connor handed Brian a plate. "Here. For helping me." Brian was dumbfounded. "You didn't need to do that." "Yes, I did. I'm indebted to you again. Besides, it felt right." Aside from his parents, no one had ever cooked food for him like this. It'd been years in general since he'd eaten anything that wasn't quickly made or delivered. 'He doesn't belong in my company.' Connor smiled. "How is it? I can't remember learning to cook, but the recipe and motions just came to me. How'd I do?" "It's delicious. You must have been good at this before." "You really think so?" Connor said. "I was thinking I need to explore the city a little more before looking for a job. I don't know much about this place or why I'm here, but I can't just expect you to do everything for me forever. In the meantime, it would be convenient if I could stay here. I'll clean the house and cook for you. Of course, if you want me to leave, I've already looked up the address of the nearest homeless shelter." "You don't need to do that. It's...fine. I kind of want to know more. I mean, it's not every day a person lands on your balcony." It was strange, but this new interruption in his life was taking his mind off things. He didn't know how long he would be able to deal with a normal person living in his apartment, but someone who drops in from the sky with no memories can't be completely normal either. He mused to himself, 'I could probably use more real food in my diet. And I do hate cleaning...' "Thank you. I can't promise I can ever give you those answers, but I want to know too. Sorry about being so pushy with you earlier. It really isn't my place to be so demanding, but waking up in this sort of living space...I don't like unorganized spaces. I'm not trying to be rude about that either. It is your house, but it's just something that really bothers me." Brian hadn't expected the apology. All he could manage was, "It's fine." Connor rubbed his chin, seemingly deep in thought. "I'm not sure what I should do now. I don't even know where to start. I have the strangest feeling that my memories will come back in time. It's like they're there in my mind, but they're just far away enough I can't reach them. Have you ever felt something like that? Something you can't catch hold of?" His mind went back to that old question of his. "Yeah, I have. I guess all you can do is wait and hope it comes back then." "For now, I think I'll try to live normally. Until I get a real job, consider me your live-in housekeeper." There was that word again. Normal. Brian thought of his wish. 'How is this supposed to make me normal? All I feel is even more inferior compared to him.' Living with Connor was easier than he thought it would be. Connor was on top of all the chores Brian had neglected for years, and Brian had begun to see eating as something to look forward to instead of a way to kill time. Connor spent a lot of time on the balcony, especially at night. He went out when he finished with chores often, but Brian didn't ask where. Brian assumed he must be out exploring the city. When he would return, he always looked re-energized. Brian figured being around people must have the exact opposite effect it had on him. With Connor around and the house clean, he felt obligated to get some work done himself. Commissions went quicker than he expected. Discussion replies were left untouched. Whenever he saw them in his inbox, he winced a little. He decided to continue to ignore those for the time being. The sudden spree of work completed meant that his bank account had more money coming in than usual, and cooking had decreased the food bill per person, but there was still now two people to feed. Utilities were also slightly higher. He was going to need more money if Connor stayed long term. The first thought that came into his head was to ask his parents for money. Sighing, he was annoyed with himself for thinking that. He already felt bad enough for taking the money they were already giving him, and he knew he would have to give them a reason why he suddenly needed more. There was no way he could say "Sorry, a person dropped from space and now they're living with me for free, can I have an extra couple hundred every month?" It was ridiculous enough to recall the event itself happening. The alternative was obvious. He needed to get another job. With his few skills, he had already exhausted the possible options online. 'A job outside...doing an interview...' 'I can't do that.' He wasn't a normal person. He repeated it to himself, but it wasn't coming off as a convincing excuse anymore. To distract himself, he looked at the samples he had collected that first night. Rain had long washed away what was left on his balcony, but he still had those bags as proof it really happened. Brian wanted to get the samples analyzed, but he had no idea where to begin with that process or how much it would cost him. The dark blue liquid had lost its pretty white-blue specks and started to harden much like the orbs. "Who am I kidding? I'm no Mulder." He put the samples away and sighed. That night, Connor came home with a job application. He filled it out while cooking. "Are you sure you're ready for that? Don't you think you need more time?" This would solve their financial issues, but Brian was nervous just looking at the paperwork. "It'll be fine. I've already spoken to the manager. They said I don't need any prior experience, and they'll do plenty of training before I start." Connor's face was lit up with excitement. He looked perfectly at ease. Three days later, Connor had an interview and got a job at a local cafe. Brian expected Connor to eventually ask him about what he did for a living and where his money was coming from, but Connor said nothing. His silence, Brian presumed, meant he must have already pieced together the general gist of it. Ashamed at his own cowardice, he sulked for a few hours. When Connor left the house for work, Brian worked on a resume. The information was pathetic to look at. A heavy amount of shame weighed on him at how little was there and how close he was to thirty. To send this to anyone was likely pointless. Fighting through his embarrassment, he did it anyway. Before the week was out, he too had a job interview. He said nothing about this to Connor, despite knowing he would likely help him out like he always did. He needed to do this alone. The first interview was a complete failure. He was so terrified he could barely speak. The second one was as bad, and the third. He said nothing of it. The fourth time around, he did better, and to his surprise and terror, he landed a job himself. Brian planned on announcing the news at dinner, but Connor had some news of his own. "I remembered something." He grinned. "You did?" Brian's eyes widened. "What was it?" "Well, it's not a huge memory or anything. But, I remembered I worked in a cafe before once. I think I worked there for a long time. When I was working the other day, it just sort of flashed in my head. I could remember the faces of the other employees and my boss...what the place looked like...smelled like...It was like I was really there again." Connor was practically glowing with excitement. "That's great! Maybe more memories will start coming back." Brian cleared his throat, his face red. "I also have news. I got a job stocking at that grocery store down the road." Connor looked completely shocked. "Really? Congratulations. When did you do that?" "I wanted to keep it a secret." Brian's face turned a deeper red. He kept his eyes on the table, his embarrassment half filled with shame and half another emotion he couldn't name. "I have to admit I am surprised, but that's great. You should get out more anyway." Connor put his hand on Brian's. "Speaking of work, there is something else I wanted to talk to you about. I've been staying here for free for a while now. I want to start paying for some of the expenses. I don't know how much they are, but I'll give you what I can." Brian started to sweat, dreading talking about where most of his money was still coming from. "I guess we should come up with a budget together then sometime." "Whenever you're ready." Connor looked lost in thought for a moment. "Oh, hey, do you want to go to the library or bookstore any time soon? I wanted to find some books to read. I already read all of your graphic novels and comic books...sorry, I didn't really ask, but I thought you wouldn't mind." "You read all of them?! When?" Brian had amassed a pretty large collection over time. Connor always seemed so busy doing things. Besides, normal people didn't read things like that. They only watched the movies. "Oh, here and there. I read really fast." Connor got up from the table to wash his plate. "Why don't we go out tonight? The city library is still open at this hour." Brian didn't know why he suggested it, but the whole day was already weird. He might as well just roll with it. Connor's face filled with excitement. "You really want to go? Alright, let's do it. I'll clean up when we get back." Somehow, Connor had managed to get him to go out even more places. He had to admit, all of it was nerve-racking every time, but he really wanted to please Connor right then. The anxiety would certainly come, but he didn't care that it would. Being like this reminded him of the times when he was in high school and still had friends. When they would go to cons, there was a mix of dread and excitement. That added element of excitement made the overall fear of the social situation tolerable enough for him to still mostly enjoy himself. He hadn't been inside the city library before, or any library outside of school ones. Their first few minutes were spent setting up library cards. The next half hour after that had little to do with finding books and more the two of them goofing off on each floor. Brian always bought whatever he wanted to read, and his interests were very limited. He didn't really know what to pick out for himself in a big place like this. Connor was already carrying several books in his hands. Watching him, Brian assumed Connor was the sort of person who would be satisfied with anything he could get his hands on so long as he had something to read. Brian laughed to himself. 'Are you some kind of book nerd? So you're really not completely normal.' On the top floor, Connor started to act strange. He immediately went over to a large window at the back of the building. The moon shone down through it directly onto one of the tables. Connor stood before the table, completely still, and then he fell backwards. Brian caught him from behind, but lost his balance in the process, and they both ended up on the floor. "What the hell? Are you okay?" Connor didn't respond. Brian shook him. "Hey, say something. Come on..." Suddenly, Connor sat up. His shoulders were shaking. Brian put his hands on Connor's shoulders. "Are you alright? What happened?" Connor took a deep breath. "I saw something again. I've been here before." "What did you see?" "I used to do some kind of work here. I would sit at that table because I...I got a good view of the stars and something else...can't remember what...I don't think those were bad memories. But it felt really...intense? I feel strange...even though what I saw wasn't anything bad, somehow, I still feel..." Connor was still slightly shaking. "Let's go ahead and check out these books. Then we can go home." Brian picked up the scattered books around them and helped Connor up. "Yeah...I'm sorry. I don't know what happened." Brian stayed close by Connor the rest of the time they were out. When they left the library, Connor's mood improved. Tonight was the first time the two of them had gone anywhere together aside from that first day. He hadn't noticed it on the way there, mostly because he was slightly freaked out himself, but Connor's gaze was always above them. Wherever there were lights, he smiled. 'So, it's not people that energize you. It's them.' Brian asked, "You like the city lights?" "Yeah, they're really beautiful. When you look at them from down here, it's like the city lights become one with the stars. Like rivers merging with the ocean. It reminds me of something, but I can't place it..." Connor blushed. "I'm rambling, aren't I? Why don't we do something you want when we get back? You have a lot of movies. Do you want to watch one together?" "Ah, sure...but I don't know what kind of movies you like." "Anything's fine with me." Back at the apartment, Brian ended up picking out what he deemed a "safe" movie that was popular among mainstream audiences. It wasn't a particular favorite of his, but he wasn't planning on focusing on the movie too much. About halfway through, Connor fell asleep beside him. He cut the movie off and let him sleep on the sofa. 'He must be tired from earlier.' Quietly, he cleaned the dishes and put away the leftovers. Since they were both working now, there was no reason for Connor to do all the chores. It was long past time for him to be doing chores properly anyway. 'What the hell was wrong with me all that time? I'm not a kid. What was I thinking?' Working wasn't as bad as he expected. His job didn't require very much public interaction, and the other people working alongside him mostly kept to themselves. This meant less time was available for doing commission work, but he didn't really mind. He was growing tired of doing that work anyway. He used to love it more when he was younger. Fanart was a fun way for him to express his love for a work, and commissions meant getting paid for doing something fun. Much like the conversation threads he was following, it had gotten boring to him, and he didn't like doing all the commissions. Some requests irked him, but he needed the money and did them anyway. At other times, he knew he was just going through the motions to get it done. He wanted to create something on his own terms, with his own ideas. He had plenty of scenarios in his head, but he had spent so much time in that kind of area, it only came out filtered through other people's works. That wasn't satisfying him anymore. 'There's nothing I can do about that.' He put the thoughts away. After getting his first paycheck, he closed his commissions page. The money he made from working at the grocery store was already much more than what he was getting through that, and with Connor's paycheck, all their bills were covered. He thought he would regret shutting it down, especially without any advanced warning, but he was relieved. It wasn't as if he left someone's paid request unfinished, and none of it was ever tied to his real name. He laughed at himself. 'Is this becoming normal? I'm still not satisfied.' After work, he would clean up around the house and waited for Connor to come home. He got online occasionally, but his inbox was still a danger zone. Online discussions didn't hold his attention anymore. He found himself more often at sites for media services to find something entertaining to do with Connor. When Connor got home, he would start cooking dinner and they would discuss their days at work together. It was simple, and overall, not very exciting, but somehow he wasn't as anxious. Connor eventually worked himself up to try going to the library again. This time, nothing strange happened, and visiting on the weekends became a common occurrence for them. Brian started to appreciate the night air and the stars above them. On their long walks back and forth from the library, when the two of them talked and stared up at the stars, it was as if all people around them ceased to exist. There was still a major issue weighing on his mind. He needed to talk to his parents about the money. He hadn't spent any of it since he got his new job, and planned on giving it back, but talking to them about it was difficult. He knew they would be happy he got a job. Explaining why that all happened, and worse, why someone was suddenly living with him...he didn't want to go down that awkward road. Like everything else he had gone through, it needed to be completed. He picked out a specific day to call them, one of his off days. When the day came, he spent most of it messing around on his computer and avoiding the issue. What he needed to do never left his mind no matter how he tried to bury it. Since his former internet hangouts were just as anxiety causing as what he was avoiding, he settled on managing his computer files to pretend he had something to do. Connor also had the day off, and ended up reading beside him on the sofa. Brian hadn't thought about keeping what he was doing on his laptop private, and didn't notice Connor occasionally sneaking peaks at what he was doing. When he got to his completed commissions folder, he paused. He wasn't sure how to handle it. He was still proud of how much artwork he had done and how his skills had improved over time, but he didn't like what he mentally associated most of his work with. Connor leaned up against him. "This is your work, right?" Brian scrolled down further to hide some of the more adult images mixed in. "Yeah. Those are some of the commissions I've done." "You really love art." "It's just a hobby." He shrugged. "But the shows and movies you own, they're mostly animated, aren't they? Your bookshelves are filled with comic books. It seems to me there's a very specific type of art you like. Why don't you become an animator? Or a comic book artist? You're really talented." Connor's words were kind, but mostly naive. "I'm not that good, besides, it takes a lot more than talent to get into that sort of thing and be successful. There's a lot of BS you have to put up with too." Brian had considered that idea when he was a very young teen, but the more he looked into both industries, the more he knew he couldn't make it. He wasn't social enough for that sort of thing. He was still barely able to hold long conversations with people at work. "I'm sure you could make it." "No way. You know I suck at social stuff. You really think someone like me could network and make connections with important people? I'd get stepped on and eaten alive." He sighed. "I don't think you're anywhere near your actual limit. You just haven't been pushed to find out where that is." "You're way too optimistic." He closed out the window. "That could be, but I still think you could do it if you really wanted it. You're not as bad at things as you tell yourself you are." Connor smiled and returned to reading his book. The physical distance between them wasn't there anymore. Brian had to admit he found this sort of arrangement comfortable. Later on, he finally worked up the courage to call his parents about the money. Nervously, he dialed his parents number. His mom answered the phone. He got straight to the point. "Hey Mom, we need to talk about something." She was clearly concerned. "Is everything alright?" "Yeah...I'm fine." His heartbeat pounded in his ears. "Are you sure? You don't need some help with something?" "No, actually, this is sort of about that. Recently, I got a job and I can afford my bills on my own now. You can stop sending me money every month." He hoped this would be all he needed to explain, but he knew she would definitely ask him for more details. "You what?!" Her reaction was almost comical. "I got a job." "Are you...it's not something shady, is it?" He winced at her words. 'God, she probably thinks I'm a drug dealer...' "No, not unless you consider stocking shady." "I can't believe this. Your father will be so surprised when I tell him. Oh, why don't we come visit you? It's been so long since the last time I saw you. And you never send me pictures like I asked." 'As if I could send you photos. What would they be of? My dirty, empty apartment?' He cringed. "Sorry about that. You know I don't really like taking photos. Uh, I'm free Wednesday. Is that date okay for you?" "Sure, sure. Oh, we'll definitely be there. I can't wait to see you!" "Alright, take care, Mom." "You too. Bye!" He let out a deep sigh. It was done, but somehow his mother had wormed her way into visiting. This was going to make matters more complicated. Now he had no choice but to think up an excuse for why Connor was there. Connor had gone out earlier and come back. He noticed Brian's agitation. "Something up?" Brian rested his head on his desk. "My parents are coming over Wednesday." "Oh, really? I'd love to meet them." "I'm sure they'd love to meet you too. I just hope they don't say any embarrassing stuff." He was sure his parents would make a point to show how much of a loser he was at every chance they got. "Speaking of family, you haven't tried contacting yours, have you? Don't you want to get in contact with your family?" "No. I don't want to see them." Connor's tone changed. "Why?" "I don't want to see them." Connor yelled. He paused after he spoke and looked away. He switched back to his earlier, chipper tone. "Is it alright if I cook them dinner too? Your parents, I mean. I'm not trying to be a show off, but...okay, I want to show off." Brian decided to let the issue go. He didn't like talking about his parents himself. "Heh, sure. I'm sure they'll love whatever you cook. I always do." "Thanks." Connor sat down beside him. "Do you want to watch that show again tonight?" "I'm not in the mood. Do you want to go to the library?" "Alright, let's go." After a trip to the library, they stopped by the store to pick up some snacks and rented a movie. Brian pointed out they could have rented one from the house, but Connor thought going to get it in person was more fun. They were already out, so there was no good reason not to indulge his wishes. The movie wasn't something he would normally pick out himself. Connor always wanted to explore new things. To his surprise, Brian liked more of a range of movies than he thought he did. Some of the choices were complete misses for both of them, but he wouldn't have tried even half of those titles by himself. When the movie ended, they spent a lot of time talking about trivial things. Connor fell asleep on the couch again. Before going to sleep, Brian got back on his computer. He glanced through the art and deleted most of it. Truly, there were only a few pieces he was really proud of, but he felt better about them now that the other pieces weren't crowded around them. After that, he went through his inbox. Rereading through some of the threads he participated in, he was alarmed at how rude and reactionary everything was. Threads devoted entirely to making fun of people being overly reactionary were, ironically, equally reactionary over things that really didn't matter to much of anyone outside those little social circles. He glanced through his own replies, and winced at how uptight he was about everything. Everything was black and white, good and bad, there was no in between. Some users in particular seemed to thrive off of just repeating other people and shouting. He rolled his eyes at himself for ever thinking so much of that nonsense mattered. He deleted the messages and closed out his accounts. Those weren't real conversations, he told himself. He had more interesting, and less attention-seeking ones, with the other employees at work. He could now admit to himself he was using that as a crutch to avoid learning to socialize properly. It was clique bullshit, like something out of a bad 80's high school movie. There were still some missing elements for him though. He didn't see himself as quite like many of the other people around him either, despite this shift he was experiencing. Most of the other people around him still carried ridiculous ideas about things, though they expressed those ideas in a much calmer way and were also clearly using certain hobbies and interests as covers for what they lacked. And then the answer dawned on him. The differences between the two groups he had classified as "normal" and "not normal" wasn't really there. Those were merely two different modes of avoidance, and two different means to covering up personal insecurities and failings. The difference in the chosen way to deal with it likely related to where that person was lacking. He wasn't sure where that left him. Out of habit, his mind wanted to start reclassifying things, but he stopped himself. There was no point to those labels. He didn't need to worry about what other people's personal hang-ups were. Wednesday, his parents were visiting. That was what he needed to focus on now. Wednesday came quickly. His parents hadn't visited in two years. They were both in shock at the apartment's appearance. Not once in Brian's entire life had he ever kept anything clean. That he had gotten a job on top of this out of the blue was unbelievable to them. His mother beamed. "Brian, it's beautiful. I can't believe this is the same place." He scratched his head, slightly embarrassed. "Well, it's not really my handiwork. My roommate really likes to keep things tidy...but I try not to make any big messes for him to clean up or anything like that." "Oh, you got a roommate?" His father asked. "When did you get a roommate?" "Uh, a while ago. I forgot to mention it, sorry." He was lying. He couldn't really tell them the truth. "I take it you two are getting along well." His father took a seat at the kitchen table. "Yeah, he's really easy to get along with. He's a really good cook too." "Oh? Do you two take turns cooking dinner?" His mother sat down beside his dad. "Well, he's usually the one who does it...but, he loves cooking." Brian quickly added. He didn't want to give off the impression that he was making Connor do all the work around the house. "You're not taking advantage of him, are you?" His mother shot him a suspicious glare. "No, of course not. He just likes doing stuff like that." Connor walked through the door shortly after that. "I'm back. Oh, are they already here?" Brian gave a sigh of relief. He got up from the table and introduced them. "Welcome back. Mom, Dad, this is my roommate Connor. Connor, these are my parents." "Nice to meet you." His mom shook Connor's hand. His father did next. "Nice to meet you too, Connor." "It's a pleasure to meet you." Connor smiled. He looked over at the kitchen. "Are you two staying for dinner? I usually cook, so I want to make sure there's enough for everybody." "If it wouldn't be too much trouble..." His mother said politely. Connor worked quickly, choosing to make something simple for dinner. The table hadn't been full like this before. Connor sat in between Brian and his mother. Brian's parents were examining everything they could about his appearance, calculating up something in their heads. He couldn't imagine what sorts of conclusions they were reaching. "How long have you known Brian?" Brian's father started off the expected interview. "Well, about as long as I've lived here." Connor wasn't fazed by it, but he was never bothered in any social interaction. "Oh, so you didn't know each other beforehand?" His mother asked next. "No, I suppose you could say us meeting was a weird string of fate." "My son hasn't been annoying you too much, has he?" His father leaned across the table and whispered. "No, not at all. Well, I mean, he was a little difficult to deal with at first, but that's pretty normal when living with someone new initially, isn't it?" Connor kindly kept the details sparse. "You seem pretty close. Do you two hang out a lot?" His mother continued. "Yeah, I guess so. We go out places a lot and watch TV shows together." And then his father again. "Where do you usually go?" "Different places. I like going to the library a lot. I go through books like crazy. I think Brian likes it more when we stay at home though." He wished Connor didn't mention those details, even if they were normal. "He's always been like that." His parents said in unison, much to Brian's annoyance. Brian threw up his hands in frustration. "You know, I'm right here. You guys can't just talk over me." "Sorry. We got a little carried away." His mother laughed. The laughter continued on through the meal. After dinner, Connor collected up the dishes and washed. He retired to bed early, mostly wanting to give Brian more time alone with his parents. The three of them moved to the living room to talk. "Your roommate is very nice. I like him." His mother said. "Yes, he seems like a nice man. How did you two meet exactly?" His father asked. "Uh, well...he really needed a place to stay and was asking around here. I figured since I have a lot of extra space, I could let him stay here and split the rent." Brian had rehearsed that made-up story in his head all day, but he barely managed to not stutter through it. "Looks like he's had quite the effect on you. I can't believe you went out and got a job. I'm so proud of you!" His mother hugged him. He was too embarrassed to hug back. "Shouldn't you be scolding me for that? I should have done that a long time ago..." "It's alright. We know you were working through some things. We wanted to give you plenty of space." She patted him on the back. "I know that, but sometimes...I think you were too easy on me. Maybe I would have shaped up quicker if you punished me more." Brian pulled away. "I'm grateful that you two have given me so much support over the years, as unwarranted as it was, but it's okay to stop now. I can do this on my own. So, please don't send me anymore money." "If that's really what you want...but if you ever need any help, you know we'll be right here." His father put his hand on Brian's shoulder. "I know, but I have to do this on my own." "We believe in you, son." He gave Brian a confident smile. "Isn't there one other thing you wanted to talk to us about too?" His mother grinned. "Hmm? What do you mean?" Brian tilted his head. "Honey, you know you can tell us anything. We'll always support you." She held his hand. 'What the hell?' He didn't know how to react. "Mom, what's this about?" "He's your boyfriend, isn't he?" She grinned. "What?!" He unintentionally shouted. "Son, it's written all over your face." His father smirked, whispering. "We're not dating, I swear!" He kept his voice low, remembering Connor was sleeping. "Really? Then you must like him. You should ask him out." His mother laughed. "I can't do that!" Brian raised his voice again without realizing it. "Why not? From the way he was looking at you, I thought you two were already an item." She nudged him. "I really doubt he likes me like that. He's so perfect." Brian sighed, comparing himself again. His parents both burst out laughing at him. His face burned. "Why are you both laughing at me?" His father was nearly in tears from laughing so hard. "Because you haven't realized you've admitted you like him." 'Why are they being like this even over something like that? They don't care that he's a guy either?! Brian chalked that up as yet another moment of his parents on-going inability to be anything other than completely gentle about everything. With this, he knew there was likely another factor influencing it. In all his twenty-seven years of living, not once had he ever even been on a date. They would probably have been happy with just about anyone so long as there was someone. "What? No, I...that can't be...because..." "Don't worry. I'm sure you'll sort things out in time." His father gave him a big smile and got up from the couch. "Invite him over sometime, okay?" His mother followed. "Well, it's getting late and we have a long trip back. I'm sure you have plenty of things to do tonight too." "Mom..." "Please do visit us soon. It's been forever since you last came by." She hugged him and gave him a kiss on the cheek. "I will. Have a safe trip back." He hugged back this time, albeit somewhat awkwardly. He bade his parents goodbye. In the last few years, that was the best interaction he'd had with them. There was still some awkwardness, but overall, it was pleasant and none of the usual guilt or embarrassment suffocated him. He actually wanted to go visit them. He wanted to bring Connor with him. The idea was a little too normal for him, having someone come with him to his parents' home as an adult. That was too much of a fantasy. When he was a teenager, the idea of that would have made him cringe and roll his eyes. Why did he think that isolation he and his high school buddies were wanting to cloak themselves in was so grand in the first place? 'Was I so afraid I convinced myself I'd hate it?' He went to his bedroom. Connor was asleep on the cot he'd set up after their first week of living together. Brian turned in for the night, but couldn't fall asleep. There was still a rush of excitement from the day. It was an unusual sensation. When this happened with Connor, he just presumed there was something different about interacting with Connor that made him react like that. After all, the circumstances under which they met in the first place were already so bizarre. Of course there would be something different between them and other people. Brian was still overwhelmed by that same rush after having spent so much time interacting with his parents. 'Maybe it's because Connor was still here...or is this...normal too?' He had so little proper social interaction, he was still unsure what was normal. He turned over and looked at Connor on the other side of the room. Watching him sleep, he couldn't help but think it was unnecessary for Connor to sleep over there when there was so much room right beside him. That thought lingered in his mind longer than he wanted to admit. He turned away, his cheeks burning. 'This is because my parents said all that stuff earlier. I'm letting it get to me. I can't possibly...' While he said that to himself, he let his mind wonder about what that might be like. They were already doing a lot of normal couple things as it was, but those activities were also things friends and roommates would likely do together too. To really be a couple, there was something more than that they were currently lacking in doing. His face burned hotter. 'I need to sleep.' As he was nearing sleep, Brian heard Connor moving around the room. He turned over. Connor opened the balcony door and went out. Brian got up himself. 'This again...' "Is something wrong?" He asked. "Huh? No. I had a weird dream and I couldn't get back to sleep." Connor looked over at him. The expression on his face was the same as the way he looked the first night. "Can I ask you something?" Brian felt a heavy weight in his chest. "Yes?" "Do you know anything about that bridge down there...the one by that big river right there?" He pointed to a large bridge in the distance around the outskirts of the city. "Hmm...only a little. From what I remember seeing on the news once, the reason that area is so empty over there is because you can't really build much on it. Something about a protected species, I think? It was a big deal way back when I was a kid. Even getting a road and bridge put in that area, it was all over the news. I remember people were still bringing it up when I was in high school, but that was a long time ago. I can't really remember all the details." That was never a place he had ever been, even as kid when his parents dragged him all over the place. Connor turned back towards the bridge. "I want to go there." "Do you think you'll remember something again?" There was a long silence before he replied. "I'm sure of it." "Then why haven't you gone already? I know you had to have seen the bridge out here before. I always see you coming out on the balcony at night." "This is going to sound kind of stupid, but I'm afraid of going there." He gripped tightly to the bars of the balcony. "I'm sorry to ask you this, but I can't go there alone. I can't get myself to even move close to that place." "If you're so afraid of it, it's not like you have to right now." Brian joined him on the balcony. "I know, but...I need to go there. I know what I'm missing will come to me there. I've always known. It's all I've dreamt of since coming here." "Every night?" Connor had never mentioned dreams before. "What happens in the dream?" "It's always night in my dreams. The stars are so bright and everything else is dark. I'm always floating, but I can't really see myself. I'm in darkness and there's blue, and so many tiny stars above me...And that bridge. I'm always floating away from that bridge." Floating and darkness. Brian recalled Connor mentioning something like that before. "I'll take you there." "Are you sure?" That helpless, sad look burned into him. He couldn't refuse Connor if he wanted to, the same as the day they first met on the balcony. "Let's go." Walking down to the bridge would be the longest walk the two of them had ever taken together. It was already really late, and many businesses had closed up for the night. The city itself was still relatively bright, but the further they went out, the darker everything got. In the back of his mind, Brian combated a lingering fear that had dwelt in him for a while. 'What happens when you remember everything? Will you leave me?' He couldn't let that thought control him. At the bridge, Connor ran ahead of him. He stared out from the right side of the bridge at the river. Brian watched him, and neither said anything. Like the incident in the library, Connor collapsed suddenly. Brian ran to catch him. Tears falling from Connor's face. Brian held him. "Connor! Connor, what's wrong?! What's happening?!" 'Are you going to leave me?' "I remembered it...all of it..." His entire body was shaking. "Tell me...what happened?" Brian held him closer to calm him down. Connor breathed heavily for a while, burying his face into Brian's chest. When he managed to get his breathing under control, he wiped away the tears. He held on to Brian as he recalled the past. "I used to be a student. At that point, I was calling myself a scientist. I was pretty confident in who I was then, and where I was going. I had everything figured out. When I was younger, my family was always weighing me down. My parents were idiots with money and idiots about having kids. They didn't think anything through. I was the oldest of seven kids, born to two parents deep in debt before they married each other. They spent most of their time dodging collectors, leaching off of family and friends, and spending more money. Being the oldest, naturally, I was given the least amount of things, and always expected to play the role of mom and dad. I resented my parents early on, and while I pitied my siblings at first, that phase quickly ended. They all turned into little versions of my parents and would use me the same way. I never had any money. When I'd have part-time jobs, my mom would find a way to get my money and string me along until she'd found ways to put me into debt. I'd have to struggle to get myself out of the hole she was digging around me. And my father would yell at me if I wasn't working at any point, because I needed to chip in and help feed the others. After all, they gave me a roof over my head and food on occasion, so I should be grateful. In my senior year of high school, I devised a plan to get out. I knew I'd have to go into debt at first to manage it, but I needed to get out from under them if I ever had a chance of being free. So, I kept my grades good, got accepted into a decent state college, took out some student loans and moved out. I got a job as quickly as I could and did my best to keep my grades up. I was really proud of myself when I managed to graduate, and got accepted into grad school to work towards getting a master's. For my master's, I was studying a local, unusual phytoplankton species. Studying a nocturnal species meant I spent a lot of time out in the night. This was one of the spots I would go. The species I was studying was bioluminescent. They would display the most beautiful light show at a certain time of the year. This sort of phenomena is usually more common in marine environments. I wanted to know more about why this was happening here. There was also an unusual side-effect of concern to the local environment. The aftermath of that event left a very strange, slime like waste in the area that gave off a dark blue dying effect upon contact. Very odd, though my research at that point suggested it wasn't harming the environment as previously suspected. Actually, some of the fish were using this to their advantage... Sorry, that probably sounds boring to you. But you had to see it. When it happened, looking out from here on this bridge at the river, it was like the water and the night sky became one...it was like I could almost touch the stars... I was happy then, even though all my time was filled. Classes, research outside, research in the library, work, eat, sleep. That's all there was every day, but I couldn't have been more satisfied with it. And then they found me again. My parents came to me in tears at my apartment door one morning. They gave me some spiel about how if I didn't help them out my brothers and sisters would be out starving in the street. I had to give them money, or I'd be a horrible person, a terrible family member. And I caved. Before I knew it, they had suckered me back into being their little pawn. To support them, I had to get another job, and another. Eventually, I had to quit school for 'hardships' as I had to list it. All my time became their time. Eventually, I quit the cafe job I was working in between class and my research time to get a higher paying one along with the other two I was working. Then my siblings started calling me. They needed money for this and that. It was reasonable at first. Food, school supplies...and then it became video games and movie tickets. Expensive cell phones. Designer shoes. When I wouldn't give it to them, in came the guilt trip. I was betraying them by not. They couldn't possibly help themselves. Eventually, I couldn't take anymore. I quit my jobs, tossed my phone, and wandered the streets aimlessly for a while. I ended up here one night. It was one of the nights the light show was happening. I stood right here and watched the lights for hours. I couldn't feel anything, happiness or sadness, rage...there was nothing. Only the lights on the river and in the sky. Something in me hit a point I can't really describe...like a final lock was undone. I picked up a piece of broken glass off the ground and..." Connor looked down at his wrists and sighed. "I slit my wrists. I remember looking up at the stars afterwards and wishing I could have been born with a normal life and lived like a normal person. After that, I remember falling, but it's vague. I think I fell from the bridge into the water. Everything around me was a mix of dark and light, like the sky. Then I...feel like I went to sleep. Everything after that is darkness and floating. I don't remember how long that lasted. I didn't have a sense of time. I didn't think about anything. I didn't dream. It was just vague emptiness. And then the lights came back, and you were there." Brian didn't know how to respond. He silently hugged Connor. Connor had started crying again. His tears soaked through Brian's shirt. "I died, then?" Brian held him tighter. "You seem alive to me." "What do I do now? I have nowhere to go back to. I've lost everything." Connor wiped away his tears. "You don't want to come home with me?" Brian tried to smile, but it was too painful. Connor looked up, his eyes lit up like the lights above them. He didn't say anything. "I may not be able to fill in what you're missing, but please let me help you reach whatever it is that will." Brian held back his tears. "I'm sorry, I'm so selfish. Please, stay. I don't want you to leave me." Connor rested his head against Brian's shoulder. "I hope you really mean what you said. There's a lot of time I have to catch up on, and a lot I have left to fix." "I can handle it." For the first time, Brian felt completely confident in what he said. He knew he still couldn't completely manage himself on his own and he had difficulties making connections with people, but that was alright for now. He would keep improving if he tried. For now, this shared arrangement suited his needs. Carrying burdens with someone else was completely normal. He didn't know how difficult things could get from here on out, or if anything else strange would happen one day, but he didn't care. "You know, we still don't know how I got there." Connor lingered where he was. Brian looked out at the stars. "It doesn't matter. Let's go home."