Edan is no stranger to fear.
He’d been a mere three years old when he’d made first contact with the earliest root of his distress. His mother had lifted him to sit at the picnic table, terracotta paint chipping with age and with the scorching sun that so often spans over country parks.
Would you like a marshmallow?
As children do when presented with sweets, he’d nodded with wonder-like enthusiasm. The pillowy cloud of sugar is springy between his near-full set of teeth, squishy and slightly sticky in his tiny fingers. The confectioner’s sugar dusts his grin a snowy white, much to his mother’s disdain.
Look at you! You’ve got it all over your face. Hold still, I’m going to wipe your mouth.
The rest of the treat is gone with several more bites, and as the grown-ups bustle around him to dispose of paper cups and barbecue nets into large black bags, he’s left to entertain himself with not much more than the knot in his shoelace.
When the fuzzy yellow creature lands on his knee, he stares. No larger than his fingertip, he becomes entranced with the microscopic movement of tiny feelers and the gentle flutter of translucent wings. An aunt had once remarked how he had beady eyes like that of a bumblebee, to which he’d giggled in delight.
As if it understands, its hairs stand on end, eyes shifting to meet his in greeting. He smiles, reaching with his forefinger to pet his new friend by its golden fur, as he often does with the neighbour’s labrador puppy.
The pain is sharp, and where there’d previously been syrupy sweetness, there now emits a wail so loud that it sends birds scattering from the nearby trees, alerting the grownups to his cry of alarm.
What’s wrong? What happened?!
Whatever coherency that may have otherwise been formed from his words are garbled and drowned in his cries, then soothed by his mother’s shushing as she carefully removes the shell of the needle that the perpetrator had left behind.
It’s okay, baby. You’re okay. Let me see.
On his skin, it appears as a tiny red pinprick like the target of a laser pointer, highlighted only by the mild swelling of the surrounding skin. How could something so small, one that creates the sweetness on his morning toast, cause such overwhelming pain?
The entire ride back to the city is endured with an icy soda can held to his knee, the wound swelling to match his earlier snack but the pain somewhat subsiding to a dull ache.
It’s on this day that Edan learns to be cautious.
On his tenth birthday, his classmates gather at the gates of an amusement park that he’d been to several times before, although he’d never been tall enough to attempt any rides beyond those for which his baby sister could reach the height requirements.
Without his family in tow and the egging on of his fellow fools, he stands in front of the gaping mouth of the swinging pendulum ride he’d only experienced from the sidelines and on the TV in commercials. A group of sprightly young adolescents with exhilarated grins whooshing past the screen come to mind, and Edan is utterly bewitched.
What a rush, it would seem, to have the wind whipping through his hair and to see the vast ocean and emerald hills from a view otherwise only witnessed by birds!
Whoever pukes is buying everyone ice cream!
He announces this with a loud bravado that he isn’t sure his friends are entirely convinced by, and makes quick strides towards the growing line.
As his feet dangle off the side of the seat and the bar pulls down over his head to secure him in place, his heartbeat accelerates beyond the resounding tuba bass line from the carousel some distance away. The ground disappears from beneath him and with the blink of an eye, his entire being is whipped in an entirely different direction,
only nausea and
sight and sound.
His screams fall deaf on his own ears and with his eyes screwed shut, it doesn’t even occur to him that the swinging has ceased until one of his friends shakes his shoulders, patting his wet face as the bar releases over him.
He falls forward, crouching and rolling onto his side to make home on the solid ground. When he eventually finds his footing and, his first instinct has him staggering directly towards a nearby trash can.
A concerned hand soothes over his back as he heaves repeatedly over the open receptacle.
Ten times, one for every year.
The following week, his teacher poses the class a question: If you were as free as a bird, where would you fly to?
Birds are not free, he writes. They are snatched to wherever the wind takes them.
At the budding age of fourteen, he falls again, this time head over heels for the girl his class teacher has indignantly assigned to be his deskmate that month.
She laughs at his jokes, so openly that her nose crinkles with unabashed glee. She teases him for his chicken scratch handwriting, and lends him her nice gel pens that she keeps in twenty-four colours. She makes mindless chatter with him with fingers tugging at the long straps of her pastel-pink backpack and flips her hair over her shoulder as she complains about the late bus. She grasps at his arm as she feign tripping over her feet in the corridor, then laughs at her own supposedly clumsiness. She pushes the sleeves of his sweater up her slender wrists to pour cola into a plastic cup, one of many scattered across the desks, shoved together for the Christmas party.
She’s beautiful, he thinks, and he’d like to pen her smile into his days.
And when the entire student body gathers in the hall for that year’s selection of festive performances, he clears his throat into the microphone at the piano, finding her eyes in the crowd before pressing into a melody he’d practised a hundred times over.
This is for you.
Their peers are lively with teasing hollers and cheers after his very public display, but Edan finds her expression vacant disconcerted as he steps down from the stage.
When the bell rings, he clutches at her sleeve at the school gate, for once quiet with hesitation.
He’d kept the festive card in his backpack all morning, eager to find the perfect time to pass on his sentiments. It wouldn’t be the first time he’d developed a fondness for the opposite sex, nor is he unfamiliar with boastfully changing his relationship status for others to gush over, but certainly the first time he decides he’ll act on his affections.
It’s a long minute that he spends waiting. Every scan of her eyes across his haphazard penmanship fills him with unprecedented restlessness, his heart lifting with the upward turn of her lips, then plummeting with every crease of her brow.
Her response comes in the form of the thick paper being pressed back into his own hands along with his loaned sweater.
You’re nice, she says with a smirk. But I think you’ve misunderstood.
And with that, he watches her back fade down the street and into what he presumes will be a carefree holiday season for her.
When he reaches home and drops his backpack wearily onto the living room floor, his phone buzzes urgently in his pocket.
Have you seen her post yet?!
wtf man pick up your phone
Are you coming home for dinner?
are u ok :(((
Not having spoken to anyone else since leaving the school, it takes a few moments to process before he finally opens his news feed, where her profile picture now mocks his confession.
Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and to remove all doubt. Seriously? Do you have no shame?
On the first day back, he begs his class teacher to move his seat, and doesn’t speak a single word to his new deskmate.
I’ve had a premonition, his father bursts into his room one evening. You’re not going to Korea this summer.
Pulling his headphones down onto his shoulders, he listens to his old man’s frankly absurd, foreboding tale of a supposed plane crash that awaits him if he dares go on the exchange trip he’d signed up for with his classmates.
Dad, that’s nonsense. I’m not going to die in a plane crash.
If you go, I’m not paying a cent for your living expenses.
There’s warning in his tone, and Edan’s penchant for mischief dies on his lips. In his years of poking the bear of his parents’ strict regimen for his academic pursuits, he’s found that it’s easier to comply than to bicker, and if there’s anything he despises more than going against his own desires, it’s disappointing those around him.
Okay. I won’t go.
Instead, he finds himself among ninety-nine other young men in a packed auditorium, the number 63 printed on a tag pinned to his sweater, familiar lyrics running amuck through his head and a practised dance twitching in his fingers.
Out of habit, he bounces his knee repeatedly in a fidget of nerves, accidentally bumping into the contestant next to him. He apologises, then smiles.
He’s seen him before.
The last time Edan had encountered him, the boy had been dressed a baggy white shirt and cream basketball shorts to match, hair bleached a brassy platinum and eyebrows tinged a bold, dark brown.
He’d recognise the handsome dancer anywhere, having been captivated into watching him for almost a full half hour through the slotted window of the practice room door upon visiting a friend’s hall to borrow lecture notes.
You’re from City, right? I’ve seen you dance before. You’re brilliant!
Even through the thickly applied layer of makeup, the boy can’t mask his blush that forms with the pleased grin on his face.
N-not anymore. But thanks.
He extends a hand out, which the other boy shakes with amusement.
I think you’ll smash your performance, Anson.
Not that Edan had ever had trouble making friends, but especially in recent years, he’s lingered on the side of vigilance in making the first move. And yet, with no apparent reason, he finds himself spilling over his precursory boundaries in a rush that’s fuelled by either the high tension of the room or a need to disperse his mind’s disquiet.
I hope to see you around, Edan.
They’re placed into opposing teams, although one would never know from the way they fall so easily into extensive conversation on lunch breaks and fall asleep on each other’s shoulders on the train after long days spent in rehearsals.
The summer blurs past with the scorching heat, and with every passing week, the once-full auditorium is trimmed down by the dozens. He almost feels like an imposter, having made it through every round by a crosshair. Until, that is, he finds himself in the elimination zone, heart in his throat as once again, he makes it through by whatever saving grace the heavens had blessed him with.
You had all of us on the edge of our seats just now, Jer tells him as they pack up for the evening. I saw him crying in the green room earlier.
Edan’s shirt sleeve has bore witness to many a tear shed from Anson, but never over himself. The knowledge creates a sickening twist in the pit of his stomach and a bitter taste in his mouth that will persist for weeks before he forgives him. He decides that he’d rather be stung by a thousand bees than make him cry again.
Don’t be silly, he says when he finds the boy later, eyes still puffy from the night’s events. You won’t be on this journey without me.
They’re in the taxi home from a full day of shooting, and Edan’s eyes are sore from wearing contacts all day, but still, he dims the brightness on his screen to reconnect with the day’s bygones.
The cold of January has them bundled up in cosy layers, although Anson isn’t dressed too differently than usual. And in their state of post-adrenaline, he’s fallen asleep against Edan’s chest, caring little about his hair being mussed under his cap at the end of the day and more concerned with making home in his favourite napping spot. He smells like a warm, syrupy glaze, a scent that over time, has brought comfort to Edan’s days.
He can certainly go without leaving a comment under the boy’s latest post, although out of habit and perhaps to leave a virtual memento, he still does, but not without scrolling through others first. After all, what use is making his mark if someone else has already beat him to the punch?
There’s nothing out of the ordinary in his findings; the usual strings of hearts and smiley faces, mixed in with the occasional frisky remark that seems to come with the territory of being attractive in the public eye.
Except one, and his freezing thumbs tense over the screen as he reads. How much bitterness does a person amass to dedicate time towards forming such absurd speculations about a complete stranger? How much could this faceless coward possibly even know?
Surely not more than Edan himself, and with news surfacing with misinformed variations of matters Anson would rather put to rest, Edan braves confrontation in the name of loyalty.
Just stop it man 😂 everyone can buy followers for him, wt u are doing now is meaningless
The not-so-funny thing about the Internet, though, is that everything is forever, and with the immediate thousands of likes from fans that build up in his favour, he suddenly recalls why he avoids conflict. He doesn’t dare move, lest he wake the boy on his shoulder from what might otherwise be peaceful rest.
Yes, you are right, everyone can buy followers and likes for him, why he don’t delete the fake followers after he knew? because nearly 1/4 of followers are fake? What he did is only blocked a few fans who found it and reminded him it will be discovered by others via dm, we are so disappointed what he did!
The response comes just as the taxi pulls up to their destination, and Edan shoves his phone into his jeans both to regulate his erratic, agitated breath and to gently tap his friend awake as he pays the driver with a crumpled bill from his coat pocket. Anson sniffs from the cold and rubs his eyes with the softness of a small child, then smirks at him briefly.
I could’ve easily slept for several more hours like that.
You’d get a stiff neck sleeping upright. Call me when you’re home, okay?
He doesn’t, but not out of forgetfulness. Rather, in the relative silence of his childhood bedroom, Edan’s phone becomes a loudspeaker for their manager’s crazed lecture about watching his words on social media and doesn’t he know that he’s a public figure and that people will take things out of context? Doesn’t he know that he’s not a child anymore and he has the power to make or break both their careers?
Of course he does.
But when a knock comes on his dressing room door the next day, followed by an unprompted embrace and thank you whispered into his shoulder, Edan finds that once in a while, fear is but a molehill.
It’s practically a game to them now.
Ha! Wanna see us kiss?
They do it anyway, mostly for their own amusement than whatever sorry excuse they give the raised eyebrows around them. Just a short peck with a resounding smack that’s followed by a fit of giggles that Edan isn’t sure is entirely genuine anymore.
I mean, we’ve practically made out before, and it really didn’t do anything for me, he fibs straight to the camera, although his gaze darts around the wall in front of him, plastered with a jumbled collage of polaroids, one of which bears a smile that has taken up residence in his mind without his notice.
The lie feels awkward in his mouth, and as they’re sat in a corner hunched over foam boxes and plastic spoons, Edan decides he doesn’t like lying.
Between the two of them, they share a fair number of apprehensions. There are soothing affirmations after unwanted kisses from a fish, bold defences made in the face of scathing accusations, and a wordless embrace after dark secrets are wept into a quiet room. In return, there’s a reassuring grip to his hand as he trembles under a balloon full of mealworms, a steadfast arm to clutch onto as they listen to a particularly chilling story, and subtle words of encouragement when the days stretch over fifty hours.
Edan is no stranger to his emotions.
He allows them to slide like water off a duck’s back, refusing to let them dwell beyond his threshold for panic response. But for the past three years, he’s developed an ineffable magnetism that both renders his senses haywire and simultaneously fills a gap that had escaped his notice.
Can we swap lunches? There’s spice in mine.
He nods smiles, happily trading over his plain but harmless option.
There’d been a time when he’d actively avoided the sources of his fear Heartbreak, horror, disappointment, vertigo, and paranoia have yet to dig him a grave thus far. Bravery, he’s learned, comes in doing the things you fear the most, and being comforted in the fact that he’s not alone.
Edan has one fear that he’s had yet to overcome, but as Anson fills his cheeks with plain rice and a quiet grin, he thinks today’s the day he’ll brave the consequences.
I need to tell you something.