The Promise

As soon as you see the boy, you know. You know. you weren’t out looking for anything today. You were just on your way to work, but then you see him. Long, coltish limbs, headphones hanging around his neck, surly expression. It’s in the way the boy hunches his shoulders but juts out his chin – like he thinks his brain is bigger than everyone else’s, but is well aware his shoulders don’t quite match up yet. Oh, you remembers what it was like to be that age – when everyone was dumber than you. Sheeple. You loved to call them sheeple; loved how the word rolled off your tongue and implied banality, herd-mentality and dumb obedience all at once.

This boy looks like he calls the world sheeple.

The boy sits on the pleather train seat, throwing his body down with no care for how his joints hit the hard spots. Your own joints want to wince in sympathy. You dip and slide between the other commuters until you are able to get the seat across from him. You see his eyes flicker over you and dismiss you. That’s fine. Most people do. You know what you look like. You keep fit and healthy but you’re still middle aged and showing your miles. Pale office-worker skin. Fastidious clothing. You’re losing the hair at the sides of your temples and you’re tempted to buzz the rest of it off in the hopes that it won’t be as noticeable. You don’t want to end up like those bastards that try to hide their bald patches with a combover. As if the world can’t tell that there’s a shiny, glaring area of their skull showing underneath the four or five long, greased strands they’ve not-so-artfully placed over the round dome of their cranium.

But the boy doesn’t have to worry about any of that yet. It’s so far in the future for him that it feels impossible to him you bet.

He pulls out some homework – white sheets with equations scribbled on it. A deep frown shows on his forehead and this is it. Your chance.

“Physics, huh?”

The boy glances up, derision in his eyes. “Yeah.” He clearly thinks your an idiot and isn’t afraid to show it.

“Bet it’s a lot harder than when I went to school.” You look down at his paper, as though reading it and then back up at him. “You seem to be doing okay.” It’s a lie. The boy is not doing okay, if the messy patches where sections have been written on and erased over and over again are any indication.

His chin goes up and out again. “I do okay.” That’s a lie too. You can tell. You’re used to hiding your own thoughts so well that it makes you better at reading other people. Especially boys like him. You purse your lips together and make a low whistle noise.

“I’m sure glad I don’t have to go through all that anymore. Never was good at science or math.” Another lie. “What do they have you working on?”

A shrug. Lean, bony shoulder going up and down as his eyes glance down to the paper and back to you. They’re brown. Unremarkable. But that’s fine. You never cared for their eye color anyway. It is the expression you’re after. The last boy’s eyes had been blue like the color of washed out denim. Faded and pale, even before he was dead.

“Just… moving particles and shit. It’s not so bad.” He hesitates and your body tenses. This is it. The tipping point. The next thing he says will make or break it. “But you should see the calculators we have to buy for this crap.”

Something in your body loosens and feels like a lazy cat in the sun. “Yeah?”

“Yeah.” The boy eagerly digs into his backpack and pulls out an average looking machine. It looks no different from a smart phone or a tablet, but he holds it out as though you’ve never seen technology before. Jesus, he probably thinks you haven’t. Probably thinks you used an abacus, if he even knows what an abacus is.

“Guess how much this thing was?”

You shrug. “I’ve no idea.”

“Just guess,” he says, eyes challenging you.

“Three hundred?”

His face falls for a second. Shit. You guessed to high. He wanted to dazzle you but you outshot the price.

“Hundred fifty,” he says. “There’s some that go for three hundred, though. For sure.”

You make what you’re sure is an impressed face. “Wow. No shit?”

He smirks a bit at your curse. They always think they invented everything when they’re young. Curses, coolness, sex. Everything belongs to them.

“We weren’t even allowed to use calculators back in my day,” you lie.

“You gotta have ’em now,” he says, treating the calculator like a forgotten toy, tossing it back in his bag. As he does, you catch sight of one of his textbooks with the name of his school emblazoned across the pages in a worn stamp.

Now you know where you can find him again.

“You like science?”

“s’okay.”

“My dad told me I had to take it when I was in school. He said, ‘Someone’s gotta flip the burgers and you don’t want that to be you. You gotta get the science and the math or you’ll be the one flipping the burgers.’ Shit. Like he knew what the world was about.” You hope you’ve put just enough derision in the tone to appease the boy. Even though it’s all tipping in your favor, you still have to play the right cards.

The boy snorts and you relax a bit more. “Fuck, I know right? My dad’s the same. Thinks he knows all about the world and he’s always trying to gimme advice. Why? So I’ll end up like him?” The boy shakes his head. “Fuck that.” He fiddles with the worn strap of his backpack. You don’t know much about fashion but you know enough from what you see from the kids on the bus that this boy isn’t in with the ‘cool’ kids. His jeans are from the work depot that sells them cheap, his boots the same and his sweater doesn’t have a name brand.

“Yeah, my old man was always riding my ass about something or other,” you sympathize.

“Yeah. Sucks.”

The eloquence of youth. He’s so young. Thinks his life is stretched out before him in a long, unbreakable horizon. He doesn’t know real disappointment. He doesn’t know real tragedy, or real heartbreak. The soft, tender skin of his jaw is just barely starting to sprout fine whiskers. It looks like he’s trying to shave them, but they’re still downy soft – not even enough strength to stand up for the blade. His still got his puppy fat – rounding out his cheeks a bit, giving him a softness around the chin and his neck.

In that moment, with his head tilted down, body swaying with the motion of the train, he’s beautiful.

You always love this part. It’s not quite the honeymoon phase – too soon to be called that. It’s still the courtship. You’re learning about him. Watching his face, learning his expressions, learning how his body moves. Later on, when he’s unaware, you’ll watch him more. You’ll learn what he likes and what he doesn’t like. You’ll learn what he does during the day, where he goes, who he hangs out with. You’ll spend all your spare time studying him, the way he spends his time trying to learn physics. The difference is, this isn’t your first hard science, and you’re not still figuring out your own brain. You know what you want and you know how to get it.

And later on, when it’s time, when you’ve learned all you can about the boy, you’ll watch the expression in those unremarkable brown eyes as they go dark and in that moment, you’ll know everything there is to know about him. Everything.

The train jerks to a stop and his head pops up, like a prairie dog.

“Fuck, this is my stop. See ya,” he says, jerking his head at you in a dismissive manner.

“Yeah. See you.” It’s a promise.

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