The end of my first real year at high school was drawing closer and closer, and overall, I was having mixed feelings about the whole experience. In terms of positive developments, I made quite a few friends that I was able to stay in contact with, I got my first actual job, and in general I felt more in-tune with the outside world around me. On the more negative side, I had lost a good chunk of said friends as a result of my own negligence, and I had also lost that one and only job I had.
The latter did motivate me to start again from the ground up – namely in the form of drawing lesbian-themed erotica of Zootopia characters – and so far, that was actually going relatively well for me. I had starting making ‘friends’ with people in the online hentai-sphere, and I had a few groupies on Discord whom I would show my rough sketches to. They gave me their constructive criticism, and I followed it to the best of my ability while still trying to remain authentic. With the moderate experience I had of drawing in the first place prior, it took me all but around a month to feel confident enough to feel like I could be investing in actual drawing tablets and digital software.
A good slice of that confidence, though, also came from the fact that I was mere weeks away from turning sixteen. I couldn’t help but get a hunch that I was just taking way too much time with my life in general, and that was soon enough I was going to have to seriously start speeding things up.
I ending up explaining all of this – minus specifically the hentai aspect – to Vicki, when we were in drama class one day and were waiting for Mr. Benson to finish something on his computer. We had been sitting next to each other more or less by chance. There two chairs pushed up against a few desks on the north side of the room, and I plumped in one of them as I was listening to Death Grips on Spotify through my trusty Samsung. About a minute later, Vicki came and climbed up on the chair next to me, sitting on the desk and laying her feet on the actual chair. Normally she would be off in some other corner talking with friends (among whom included Taylor) but this time she seemed by herself, looking at something on her phone. She had a Samsung too, which I could definitely respect.
Normally I wouldn’t care to examine what someone was wearing any given day with a dedicated thoroughness, but I can still remember exactly what Vicki had on that Thursday morning. She had a pale green sweater was unzipped, exposing her white shirt underneath. The shirt had a black-and-white illustration of some bird in a dark forest, with the caption “SONG SPARROW” below it. Her sweater sleeves were rolled up to the elbows, and she had a few multi-coloured bracelets on her right wrist, including the pride wristband. She had her signature blue jeans on, rolled up under a pair Doc Martins boots. Her hair was still dyed the usual pink and green, but it was starting to fade and I could faintly see streaks of her natural colour, a light brown. Lately she had taken to wearing one of those neck collars as well, though it didn’t go particularly well with all the super light colours she was sporting.
This was not the first time Vicki and I had interacted. A couple months ago, in history class, Mr. Dawson had a highly informal debate set up in which we argued over the merits of capitalism, socialism and communism. Vicki, unsurprisingly, made the case for socialism being the most superior, and I ended up being her primary opponent. I was never the hardcore libertarian type, but I knew that free market capitalism was objectively more efficient than any other system. Vicki argued that socialism brought free healthcare and education, among other remedies; I argued that those things could still exist under capitalism. Then she suggested that racism and homophobia were enabled by capitalism; I argued that those attitudes are enabled by humans, and that, generally speaking, we as a society were not particularly bigoted anymore. That got a whole bunch of people in the room riled up, and to Mr. Dawson’s credit, he did tell them to be more respectful.
Nevertheless, I didn’t want to necessarily make enemies with her. Outside of politics, she actually seemed like a nice enough person the more I observed her. For one thing, she had a really good sense of humour, and the jokes she made about the people around her would sometimes actually make me laugh. A few times she would come into school wearing Odd Future shirts, and being a diehard OF fan myself this was music to my eyes. And as much as she dressed rather obnoxiously at times, she was definitely not an e-girl or anything like that. She actually seemed quite independent for the most part. She did have a decent group of friends that she had made over the months – much like myself – but that seemed to be it; also like myself.
By early May, though, I discovered probably the most important thing about Vicki; she was an amazing artist. I managed to get a hold of her Instagram account via Taylor’s follower list, and I had no idea what I was in for. The most recent post of hers was this ink drawing of a swan covered with black-and-white stripes and patterns; but the detail of the shading and perspective was unreal. The post right next to it, meanwhile, was this hyper-detailed illustration of an anthropomorphic giraffe girl standing in a black-and-white field, with even a fake lens flare to give the illusion of it being a photograph. I kept looking through her account, and with every art piece I was more amazed than the last. They were all black-and-white, but the attention to detail of the anatomy, perspective and shading was beyond what I had seen even in some of the most talented artists I saw who made hentai. She wasn’t a top dawg per se, but was she ever on her way to being one.
There were also some of the usual text-posts about anti-Islamophobia and LGBT awareness, but I didn’t mind at all. I had to get to know this girl more.
So, when she sat next to me in drama class that Thursday, I decided to finally break the ice myself. I told her I started following her on Instagram and that the art she was making was amazing. “I mean it’s like, seriously mind-blowing stuff,” I told her. “You really are amazing.”
She lay her phone in her lap and just sort of looked at me. “Thanks,” she replied rather flatly.
“Trying to be humble, huh?”
“Yeah, no, just...” she turned back to her phone. “...Didn’t expect you of all people to give a shit about what I did.”
“Well, I don’t think it matters if we disagree politically. We can still appreciate each other for different reasons, right?”
It was silent between us for a few moments, until I decided to keep the conversation going. “What software do you use?”
She looked at me. “What?”
“What software do you use for your art?”
She caught my drift. “Are you trying to pick up ideas from me or something?”
“Yeah. Maybe a little.”
From there, she told me about the multitude of programs she used for her art, and I did my best to take mental notes of all of them. Adobe Sketch, Sketchbook, Krita, Adobe Photoshop, GIMP, with a Wacom Medium drawing tablet. When she was finished, she asked me, “So does that all make sense to you?”
“I think it does, yeah.”
This time, she was the one to continue the flow. “So, what exactly are you trying to draw?”
I told her I was trying to learn to draw furries like her, but I didn’t specify it was hentai. But I told her about every other little specific of my story. I told her how I was feeling deprived of life goals, and how I felt I needed to do something now seeing as my birthday was on the last day of the month. I also mentioned fact that it was Noah and his rather stingy advice that, in a way, indirectly ignited the intense drive I had to improve.
“Noah sounds like he knows what he’s talking about,” she said, when I was done.
“Yeah, I guess he really did.”
She put her phone down and leaned back over the table, resting her shoulders on it and looking right at me. “You’ll find your way eventually, dude.” She didn’t actually say dude, she said my name. “Also, I can tell that you were just itching to tell me all of that.”
“I suppose I was.” I knew I had said too much. I always say too much when I open up.
“Maybe you need to find better people you can do that comfortably with.”
I tried to think of a response to what she said that went beyond mere agreement, but I was unable to. Instead, I replied in a tone even more pathetic than intended, “Yeah, maybe I should.” I hung my head a little as a natural reflex of embarrassment. I was damn lucky no one around me was really paying attention or even looking my way.
But Vicki didn’t make me feel bad for it. Instead, she gripped my shoulder and asked, “You okay dude?”
She actually did say ‘dude’ this time.
That was also the first time since arriving at high school that anyone in my life had asked me such a question.
I looked at Vicki, trying my best to play it cool. “Yeah. I’m alright. I think I am, anyway...”
That was right around the time Mr. Benson finished whatever he was doing, and called everyone into a circle.
That night, while on my phone past bedtime, I was checking out peoples’ Instagram stories. I saw that Vicki had crossposted this infographic; it was about men’s mental health and wellbeing. It had a bunch of different male figures drawn all in these vulnerable positions, and at the top there was a sentence reading, “It’s okay for men to be...” with a bunch of different words hanging over the figures like “sad”, “lonely”, “wanting”, etc.
I still don’t know whether this was a coincidence or not.
In the second week of May, the maple trees in the schoolyard finally began to bloom. It was literally overnight, too. I went home on Tuesday seeing the trees mostly bare, with maybe a few buds; and then on Wednesday morning, luscious shades of dark and orangey red coated the sky like a thin umbrella, and bristled with an almost sugary-like energy in the tender, late spring breeze. For the first time ever, I was seeing more kids come into school with only t-shirts on, or just clothing in general that exposed their forearms. I thought it was just a high school thing to never not wear long sleeves, but apparently, I was at least marginally misguided in this belief.
A majority still did wear sweatshirts or other highly covering clothing, but you wouldn’t have felt as out of place this time of year if you just waltzed in with nothing but a plain white tee on. I, however, stuck to only sporting my plain, uninspiring sweatshirts, as I had been doing for the whole year. I was never a very fashionable person, and honestly, I did not feel any desire to get caught up with that kind of crowd.
What was also blooming, though, was discussion of this upcoming ‘pride prom’ in early June. I had been seeing posters for it since early March, but by May, word of it was suddenly spreading around the school like wildfire. (Not that it was being met with hostility, obviously.) One time I had these two random guys in grade eleven walking past me, talking about it.
“You heard about the pride prom they’re gonna hold here?”
“Yeah. Crazy shit man.”
“We’ve come a long way, huh?”
“Yeah, I guess we have.”
One Friday, I was walking by this group of grade-twelve kids near my locker, and they looked exactly like the kind of trendy woke types who would attend a pride prom. One of them had a poster for it in their hands, so I decided to approach them.
I walked up to the girl with the poster and asked, “So are you like... one of the organisers of this whole pride prom thing?”
It took a minute for her to register that this random stranger was talking to her, let alone disseminate what he was asking her. “I’m sorry?” she said rather chipperly.
“Are you an organiser of this whole pride prom thing?” I asked again as I was opening my locker.
“Yeah, I am! I’m on the new pride prom committee.”
I stuffed my math textbook into my backpack. “Pride prom committee, huh?”
“Yep! First of its kind in all of Martha Lakes.” That was our school district.
I shut my locker door and stood in front of her. “That’s pretty cool, I guess. Are you just like, hanging up posters and stuff?”
“Well, not right now. I’m just taking this one home!”
One of the guys in group stood out and looked at me. He wore glasses, had thick blonde hair and was chubby; he looked like a bigger version of Patrick. “Are you part of the community yourself?”
I stupidly said, “I don’t think so.” Then I realised that probably wasn’t enough anyway, so I added, “I do think it’s really cool what you’re doing, though.” I didn’t mean it, but I knew it was the right thing to say.
“Thank you!” the girl replied. “And you know what, allies are always welcome to come along too! If you ever want to drop in, you’re more than welcome to-”
“Hey hold on.” Another dude in the group came out of the woodworks and approached me. He looked more normal than the others; some bushy hair with a baseball cap on top, looking like a pro-skater, with a very Metis face. I wasn’t sure what he wanted with me though, because I had never met him before. “You’re the guy that recorded everything at the Halloween party, right?”
That was a throwback. “Uh... yeah, that’s me.”
“Yeah man, everyone’s seen it!”
“Really? I don’t even remember sharing what I had I recorded with anyone.”
“Yeah. Someone even uploaded it all to YouTube. Check it.” He pulled up a 27-minute-long video of what was unmistakably my view of the party, and apparently it had been up for over six months without anyone telling me. I looked at it, and as much as I couldn’t deny it was my filming, it was hard to believe I had been so... articulate in what I recorded. Or at least, I had managed to come off like I was recording very carefully the events around me. I didn’t watch the rest of the video until later, but even just seeing the first minute or so made me realise how I little I had been paying attention to the happenings in my surroundings.
“You know what you should do, man?” the guy asked me. “You should come to the Pride Prom and do like, a little documentary or something on it!”
“That’d be really cool!” the girl added.
“Yeah like, just go around and like... ask people how they’re doing, what they think of a pride prom and all that... just do your thing and film people and shit... this could be really good for us! Help to get the word out and all that.”
I don’t know if stunned is the right word, but I was definitely taken aback by all of this. But I guess I did initiate the conversation in a rather uncompromising way to begin with, so perhaps this was my punishment. “Right, so... it’s going to be June 6th, right? What time?”
“Here, take this.” The girl took out a little brochure-style pamphlet for the pride prom and handed it over to me. “It has the location, dates, events, everything you need to know!”
I glanced over it. “Alright. Alright, sounds good.”
And with that, my new career as a documentarian unofficially began.
It was still early May, so I could let it sit for a bit.
What I could not let sit was the fact that my sixteenth birthday was on the last day of the month.
Technically I shouldn’t really have been giving so much time to all these thoughts, because my homework load was getting increasingly robust. I had a five-paragraph essay to write on Canada’s involvement in World War I; we were having weekly quizzes in math on everything we had been learning in the term; and in Spanish we had to learn to write and memorise a two-minute-long paragraph about anything in front of the class. In drama we were starting to work on our year-end stage performance, which involved us doing a series of shorter performances in groups. Neither Vicki nor Taylor was in my group, so I didn’t care too much about that either.
Really, I was feeling a rather inexplicit sense of alienation from school. I couldn’t pinpoint it. At first, I suspected it could be traced back to my unofficial breakoff from the Art Kids, but what was there even to go back to? Noah had said it himself; I was hardly even much of a friend to them. There wasn’t anything there for me, so I moved on with my life. I tried to, anyway. It wasn’t arduous per se, but it wasn’t outstandingly pleasant either. I wasn’t really talking to Terrance and the guys, or anyone else. Something inside was just preventing me from living a little.
The one thing I did care about was this self-imposed hentai hustle. By early May, I was doing sketches that I felt were actually really good. Not perfect at all, but quite good. But hentai wasn’t going to save me from school.
One day I just got sick of being in the building all day and headed out for a walk during lunch break. I walked up to the convenience store a few blocks east, and there I encountered some old faces standing outside: Reece, Jasper, and Toven. There was one other kid standing with them – some Eurasian-looking kid with messy brown hair and a grey sweatshirt that he always wore, but I didn’t know his name. I knew he often walked alongside Toven in the halls, but that was it. They were all standing by the corner of the building – conversing with each other, I would guess – and when they saw me, we awkwardly looked at each other for what felt like an eternity. It took me a second to even remember their identities.
Eventually it came to me to do something about it. “Hey...” I spoke.
“Hey,” Reece replied.
“What up,” Toven added.
“How are you guys doing?” I asked, like a complete imbecile.
“We’re doing good,” Toven replied.
I went up and stood right next to Toven. I didn’t know what else to do. I felt around in my pockets and realised I hadn’t even brought my wallet, so I couldn’t go in and buy anything. And it didn’t feel like a day for shoplifting.
I looked over at Toven. “So, you guys just standing here in silence or what?” I was trying my best to be fruitful but I was not exactly gifted at it.
“Pretty much, yeah.” At least it wasn’t too grand a misfire.
“Who’s the guy in the grey sweater?”
“Hmm? Oh, that’s Chase.”
I looked over at Chase. I hadn’t seen him do anything other than walk with Toven, but something about him still seemed... slightly off. He must have sensed my focus, because he turned to me and said, “What the fuck are you looking at?”
“Nothing... nothing at all, Chase.”
I slumped back against the wall. Toven then turned to Chase and said, “That guy’s my friend.” He told Chase my name too.
“Well, I’ve never seen him,” I heard Chase retort.
“You wouldn’t,” Toven replied. “He’s in grade ten like the rest of us.”
With that, Chase left his spot and marched up right in front of me. “Hey, wanna see something?”
“Sure,” I answered.
He reached into his jean pocket and pulled out a small cardboard box. At first it looked like a box of matches, but then he unveiled the opening and all I saw were small, thick little cylinders.
“Are those bullets?”
.“Hell yeah,” he confirmed. “Winchester bullets.”
“Nobody gives a shit about your fucking Winchester,” Jasper culled.
“Shut up! You fucking... Yung Lean-looking motherfucker.”
I was glad someone else picked up on that.
“Why are you such a dick?” Jasper asked, in a tone I assume was meant to be rhetorical.
But Chase wasn’t getting it. He threw his bullets on the ground and stormed over to Jas. “I did not fucking ask you to talk! Shut the fuck up!”
“Chase stop,” Toven growled, grabbing Chase’s arm and squeezing it, stopping him in his tracks.
“Say you’re sorry!” Chase yelled at Jasper.
“Fuck off,” Jasper scoffed.
“Say you’re sorry or I’ll fucking kill you!” I could certainly tell he was only in grade nine, at the absolute maximum.
“You’re too much of a fucking pussy to do anything,” Reece chimed in.
“Fuck you! Fuck you too!”
I started picking up Chase’s Winchester bullets to detach myself directly from the commotion. I figured I could stop his little outburst by showing him all the bullets he dropped, and that I had picked them up for him. I didn’t have to do even that though, because the cashier in the convenience soon stepped out. “What the hell is going on out here?” he snarled in a thick Syrian accent.
Chase stared at the cashier for about two seconds, before breaking the silence with, “Fuck off man! Get your fucking kebab ass out of my goddamn face!”
I turned away and walked off after that, tossing Chase’s bullets into the tall uncut grass as I went. I know the fight got at least a little physical, because I could hear some thuds and angry grunts as I moved further and further away from the scene. As I was just about back the school, I heard footsteps trampling up to me. I turned around and it was Reece.
“Hey, man...” he said, panting out his words.
“What do you want.”
“I’m sorry about...” another pant, “...about that guy. I swear I don’t, like... I don’t even like him.”
“Like, I only hang out with him because he’s friends with Toven. I dunno why Toven even hangs out with him, don’t ask me.”
“I know it’s been so long but... hey.”
Reece walked ahead of me back to the main entrance of the school. I followed about two dozen or so paces behind him. I looked back and couldn’t see Toven or Jasper anywhere.
They say hindsight is 20/20, but the reality is that it really isn’t. I don’t know if what happened would have changed if I told someone about what Chase did on that day. The rational part of me very much doubts it, since there’s no evidence that can link this day back to anything that had to with the massacre and so it probably wouldn’t have made much a difference if he was disciplined for it. Besides, I doubt he would’ve been locked up in juvie for a year for a non-life-threatening fight. But... there’s still the knowledge that I could have done something to at least make this specific incident right. And I know deep down that the only reason I feel this way is because he was one of the shooters. If he wasn’t, I would’ve been perfectly happy to never think about that afternoon again.
And for a whole year, I did exactly that. I did not.
As much as I knew I had to improve my grades, I was desperately trying to squeeze myself into the idea that this hentai hustle of mine would be the antidote to all of this. Not just to my academic shortcomings but to everything in my life that I felt that was otherwise doomed to a path of mediocrity; and really, there wasn’t anything in my life that I didn’t feel was going better than passable by May 2019. I wasn’t in any kind of physical or mental pain – at least I didn’t think so – but there something inside me that seemed to be severely starved. Starved of what, I had no idea. But drawing hentai all day was the only thing that seemed to stimulate its taste buds. Hentai became the only thing I was even lightly ambitious about.
But I was determined to make it work. It was the only thing that could work. That was what I told myself every time I came home from school and sat in my room, debating as to whether to study for yet another weekly math quiz or practice drawing a naked deer girl. (Deer very quickly became my favourite animal in the furry community, thanks to Black Kitten.) It was what I told myself when I was laying on the couch in the living room on Saturday afternoons, perilously trying to decipher how I had gotten to this point. Soon enough, though, I realised that every minute I spent pondering the universe and my own purpose here, the more time that was only wasted when I could be getting better at drawing breasts.
It was no question that the number one gift I wanted for my birthday was a Wacom Large, so I could draw out sketches on my A4 book and transfer them onto a program like Krita to finalise them. Then, by the grace of God, I could actually, finally, truly start my hentai career by showing the months of supposed practice to my online peers. And I had built up a modest enough legion of them already; when I wasn’t drawing, I was spending many hours late into the night networking with other frequenters of adult sites and forums, both for my own pleasure as well to get a sense of what people really wanted to see more of. To my pleasant surprise, it seemed many people I exchanged keyboard screeds with were delighted by my determination to bring more uncompromising yuri to their monitors.
With the incurable drive to improve my artwork accompanied by the support of my fellow online deviants, hentai was essentially the one thing that felt as if it were holding my life together.
I say felt, because, really, at that time, nothing was holding my life together. Certainly not some overly ambitious hobby that wasn’t anywhere near the realm of being able to take me anywhere career-wise. But perhaps it offered the illusion of security that I so desperately needed.
One time I sketched out a relatively tame piece – a deer girl in a tank top and underwear – and brought it into drama class to show Vicki. She scanned it with an expression I could not decipher for probably a full thirty seconds.
“That’s pretty good,” she finally said. “You have a good grasp on the anatomy and like, where to put the fur and stuff. The shading could use a bit of work, though.”
“Yeah, I’ve always struggling with shading.”
“My advice would be to learn about the different types of shadows. There’s the core shadow, the shadow side and the light side. If you learn how all those three behave, you should be good to go. Otherwise, it’s great!”
She handed the sketchbook back to me. That’s when I realised how lucky I was that she didn’t think to flip through it to see what else I had in there. I returned the book to my backpack and just sat there, in the random chair I had picked out, waiting for the bell to ring.
“How’ve you been feeling lately?” Vicki asked me.
I don’t know why, but I decided to be honest with her. “I don’t know, to be honest. It’s all been pretty weird as of late. What about you? I haven’t seen you with Taylor and Cole and the others lately.”
She snickered a bit. “Well, I mean, they’re not like, close close friends, we just like to hang out in class sometimes.”
“Oh, I see. I guess that’s the same with me pretty much. When school is out it’s just pretty much my time, you know?”
“Yeah, I get what you mean.” She was sitting on one of the tables just like before, and she leaned forward and put her cheek in her fist. “Sometimes you just need that time of day to just... not have to see the outside world.”
“I guess you could put it that way.”
The bell was still five minutes away. I decided to inquire on a certain detail I had been longing to inquire on for a while, but had never found the right time to do so. “So... what made you guys come to Canada? And not just Canada but like, Romaborough and all that. No offense but I’m sure you guys could’ve moved to like, Toronto, or just somewhere better than here.”
Vicki leaned back so far onto the table she almost lay on it. For whatever reason, the angle made me realise just how faded her hair dye had become; the pinkness on the left side of her head was essentially gone already, and all that remained was a deeply saturated green tint on her right side. It seemed that her natural brown colour was becoming more apparent by the minute.
“Well, first off, I have family here, so that’s why we came here. And my dad got a job with Sleep Country Canada, and he actually does commute to Toronto every day for it. But Toronto is expensive as hell, so, we’re living here!”
“That makes sense enough. Is your dad really into the mattress business?”
“I guess so. He worked with Mattress Firm back in Louisiana.”
That made us both chuckle a little bit. “That’s pretty funny,” I said, meaning it sincerely.
“Yeah, I guess it is.”
“So... are you coming from New Orleans or what?”
The expression that formed on Vicki’s face told me that she had sincerely hoped nobody would ask that question. But she still responded in earnest to it. “Well... not exactly.”
“What about Baton Rouge?” I had actually looked up Louisiana cities in preparation for this question.
“Nope. Keep trying.”
“That’s further than most people get, I’ll give you that.”
I felt honoured by that acknowledgement, but now I was just too curious to not know the truth. “Well, that’s about all I can remember right now. Where are you from then?”
“I’m from Central.”
“Central, comma, Louisiana?”
“Yep, that’s the one.”
“Sounds like it must be pretty small.”
“Oh yeah. It’s smaller than here.”
That expression of pronounced disappointment she had given me just a minute earlier was still there and beginning to simmer in at last, and I was contemplating whether to push this any further. Ultimately, I decided I was too forgone as it was, and I might as well finish this off with a homerun. “Is Central a nice place to live?”
She jerked her head away from me, her barely-dyed hair flicking sporadically across the air. She was now lying almost completely flat on the table, lifting her head up to look straight ahead at nothing in particular.
She let her head fall slightly downwards as she said, “Nah, not really.” She turned back to me with a smirk. Not a comedic smirk but a smirk that said, ‘This sure does suck, doesn’t it?’ She continued with that smirk, saying, “It’s pretty shitty, actually. I mean, all of America is shitty, but, Central is even worse than average, I’d say.”
“What’s so bad about it?”
Her smirk went away. “It’s just, really conservative, really isolated... very small-minded people... very white. All of that.”
“We’re pretty white over here too.”
“Yeah, but like... it’s not the same here, you know? You guys actually seem more tolerant of other people. And you have a lot of Middle Easterners coming in. So, like, it’s not that bad. It’s not the same at all.”
I still knew nothing about Central, so I had no arguments to make against her assertion. “You know, you are definitely not the type of person I expected to come from small town Louisiana of all places.”
That actually made her laugh. “Yeah, I figured you would say that. That’s kind of why I don’t like to talk about it. I don’t want to think of that shithole place anymore. I just want to move forward.”
Unbeknownst to Vicki, those were pretty much the exact same thoughts I had about Romanborough. I never spoke of it, but throughout my adolescent years I had come to truly hate the fact that I lived in – as Vicki would describe – a shithole. Romanborough was a small, working class, drug-infested city in the middle of nowhere, far out of the way from anything coming even marginally close to reaching its size. And with a population of 80,000, that meant it was essentially all small towns and villages until you reached either Toronto to the south, or Ottawa to the north; both cities were multiple hours away.
Poverty, unemployment and opioid addiction plagued Romanborough particularly cruelly. It was so bad when I was growing up, that it was on the same level as spme areas in Alberta and Vancouver. It wasn’t unusual at all to see people walking down the street – literally any street, urban or suburban – that were higher than the CN Tower. Many buildings in the downtown area were left unfurnished and decaying severely, and there wasn’t a whole lot to do in general in the place. You could go to Smiggy’s, the mall, or Galaxy Theatre, and that was it. Those were the options we had for when we sick of lazing around at home all day. Many shops in the mall had closed down anyway, so it certainly was not ‘bustling’ the way a mall should be.
Sure, some areas were better than others. The edge of town was actually not bad; that’s where all the good establishments were, like the Lincoln Mall (which had the EB Games shop I worked at) and a large local Chapters, as well as the jujitsu and fencing clubs which Parker attended. But I didn’t live on the edge of town, and most days I just couldn’t be bothered to catch a bus or make the hour-long walking journey just to get over there. So instead, I stayed at home, and continued grinding away at my hentai skills.
I began to realise that Vicki and I had a lot more in common than probably either of us originally believed. We hated our hometowns; we were passionate about art and improving our own; not only that but we both had a guilty pleasure for the furry community; and we were generally introverts who, while we did have friendships, they almost never went beyond the campus. Our politics still offered some contention, but it’s not like I ever considered myself right-wing or even conservative; I just wasn’t into the woke activist culture that she was a part of. But it seemed that at least, at this point, we found enough common ground to be able to put those aspects of our lives aside.
I felt ashamed that it happened before I knew it. I woke up one morning, headed downstairs, and saw a large, thin rectangle wrapped up in paper sitting on the kitchen counter. I had a distinct feeling that something was up, so I went over and unveiled the object myself. It was a Wacom Large Pro. That’s when I realised, I had turned sixteen years old.
I hadn’t told anyone at school when my birthday was, and it was 100 percent intentional. I’ve never been particularly sentimental about birthdays and I honestly hated the special attention people would force themselves to give to you. I just wanted a normal day, and that was what I got. For the most part.
In drama class, Vicki sat next to me again before the bell. “Happy birthday,” she said to me.
That caught me off guard. “Oh, thanks... I don’t remember telling you it was my birthday.”
“Yeah, you did. You said a few weeks ago that your birthday was the last day of the month.”
That’s right. I did.
“Oh. Well thank you.”
“No problem. Doing anything special today?”
“I’m going to have Wendy’s for dinner tonight. That’s about it. Oh, and I got a Wacom drawing tablet. A large one.”
“That’s awesome!” she exclaimed in what seemed like genuine excitement.
“Thank you. It is.”
That night, I had two cheeseburgers, a large-sized French fries cup, and a 500-millilitre coke. Then I had two slices of the chocolate cake mom got for me. Aside from that, everything else was normal.
I went up to my room with my Wacom and just kind of looked at it for a long time. Then my mom came in. She didn’t even knock. She just marched into my room and said, “We need to have a talk.”
For a minute, I was terrified that she had found some of my hentai sketches. “What do we need to talk about?”
She sat on my bed and told me to come over and sit next to her. I did as I was told, even as my heart sunk so low, I thought I was going to shit it out any second.
She put her hand on my shoulder and gripped it. “Honey, I need to know something. And I don’t want you to feel as if you have to lie to me. I want you to be completely honest.”
“What is it?” I said, trying my absolute damndest to play it cool.
“Please be honest.”
“Are you suicidal?”
Needless to say, I did not immediately register that. In fact, it took me until my mom was visibly tearing up and her lip quivering for me to do so. But what was I supposed to say? I should have known how to answer that. I should have been able to make a simple, firm, immediate ‘Of course not!’ but that was not what happened. Was I actually suicidal? I found that I couldn’t answer that even to myself.
But I had to do something to intercept my mom’s light but growing sobs, which I could hear mustering just behind her lips. “No, mom... I’m not suicidal.” There. That was it. That’s all I needed to say.
“I’m not sure if I believe you...” my mom retorted in an unexpected utterance of clarity. She had been essentially crying less than a second ago, but maybe she had prepared this line in advance. Maybe she was too convinced of herself to care what my initial answer was.
“What makes you think I’m suicidal?”
“You just...” she sniffed and wiped her nose with her wrist. “You seem so despondent... to everything. You won’t talk to me; you won’t talk to grandma or Jackie... I try to talk to you but you never talk about anything you’re going through. I don’t know how much studying you’re doing, doesn’t seem like you’re doing a lot... you just seem so sad and lonely and depressed, all the time. Even when you act like you’re happy, like today you really seemed to try to do that... you just seem like you’re hiding so much pain underneath.” She wrapped her arm around me. “Please, tell me... what happened? Did something happen? Did I do something?”
I had never been a novice or emotional expression – or any kind of personal divulgence for that matter – and surely my mother of all people would have the clearest sense of that. And most of the time she did; we generally kept our distance from each other in a mutually compatible fashion, not out of any animosity or strain but because we both knew that was best for the both of us. So, it was rather surreal to see her this upset over my supposed familial negligence.
“Nothing happened. I promise.”
“Then why are you acting like this?!” She guttered at me.
“I’m not trying to act like anything. I’ve just been... I’ve just been trying to figure everything out lately. I’ve had all these assignments and quizzes I’ve been needing to get done, but... they’re all finished now. I turned my history essay in, all the math quizzes are done, Spanish is mostly done... drama is going well... I’ve just been trying to hold myself together. But, today was a really good day. I really enjoyed today; I promise.”
My mom’s sorrowful expression didn’t go away. Or, it did go away, but it just turned into anger. She almost leaped from my bed onto her feet and said, “I really fucking hope you’re being honest with me. Because I did not raise you for sixteen goddamn years just for you to ignore the fact that I exist.” With that, she left my room and slammed the door behind her.
I plopped myself on my bed and stared up at my ceiling. It was still covered in a bunch of glow-in-the-dark stars that my mom had set up for me when I was about eight or nine; we never bothered to take them off when I got older. Dusk was falling outside my window and I hadn’t yet turned my lamp on, so I could already see their faint glows beginning to form.
I lay there for a while, not thinking about anything in particular. Then I felt my phone buzz in my pocket. I took it out and looked at it: it was a message from Vicki on Instagram. She had also started following me at the same time.
I opened up the message. She had sent me a single one reading, “Hey... just wanted to wish you happy b-day again. I hope it’s going well for you! 😊"
I typed back, “Thank you! It has been going very well indeed.”
A few minutes later, “That’s awesome!! 😀 I’m sure you’ll become a great artist too... you definitely have the skill there! Just remember what I told you about the shadows!!!!”
“Ofc ofc!! I remember”
If I was suicidal a minute ago, that last message would have definitely saved my life.