Enjoy Episode 2 of The Hidden by audio or text below. If you missed Episode 1, you can still read it here.
Written by: Lee L. Krecklow, Voiced by: Mallon Khan
The day had already been long for Prentice. Though, really, most were. And now he stood, sweating in an unusual wave of late September heat, at soccer practice. The team was huddled around the coach, who was on one knee with a dry erase board diagramming the drill they were about to run. The hot mass of bodies pushed in closer, shuffling and leaning, working to see better and hear more. Prentice was being moved around inside the sweaty blob.
Earlier in the week, after he’d told Jason he needed time to think about joining the team, Prentice decided to first watch them play from a distance. He watched a few drills from behind the bleachers, watched their ball skills and their teamwork, looked at how their shoes all matched and their socks and jerseys were all the same. Prentice really did love the game. And his dad so badly wanted him to play. So he talked to the coach, who agreed to let him walk on for some practices to see how it worked out.
Now, here he was, pressed among his teammates, an anonymous body trying to fit into the mass. The scene was the same as it was days ago, with everyone dressed alike, but now he stood among them. Prentice, too, was wearing the same shoes, the same black shin guard socks, and was issued the same practice jersey. When he told his dad he was going to play, they went shopping together and took pains to find the right gear. Prentice remembered what it all looked like—he had an unmatched memory for details—and he wouldn’t stop until he was sure he wouldn’t stand out.
However, he was soon made to.
The coach set up what he called a pressure drill. And the pressure was put on Prentice. “You’re going to show me you belong on this team, kid. You’ve already missed a week of practice. Show me you can do this.” The rest of the team was asked to form a circle around Prentice and pass the ball among themselves. It was Prentice’s job to take the ball. “Shirts versus skins. Take off the jersey, kid. You can earn it back.”
So Prentice stood bare chested in the ring of aggression and shouts, words coming from the coaches and the players and those gathered on the sideline. “Get in there faster!” and “Take the ball!” and “Over here, over here!” and “If you want to be here, kid, you’re going to need to fight for it.” There was grunting and jeers and pushing. When Prentice ran at the ball, he was shoulder checked by the others, and got past those, he was pushed off with straight arms, his body hitting the ground so hard, sweat flying, air leaving his lungs.
Lying in the dry grass, Prentice thought he was done. He thought he’d walk off the field and never look back. He sat up and looked and the sidelines, but there, standing among the other onlookers, was his father. He looked back at the team and they were all waiting for him to stand. He looked back to his dad, who was also motioning for him to get up.
So Prentice stood, turned, and went after the ball again. He went faster and harder than before, harder than he knew he was capable of, harder than he wanted to, but he was doing it for his dad, doing it for the team, doing it to fit in. He pushed off blocks, dodged bodies, and when he came up on Jason, who was turning to pass it away again, Prentice lunged and delivered a slide tackle that missed the ball, and clipped Jason’s ankle instead.
Jason went down screaming.
“You looked really good out there! You could stand to be a little more aggressive but you looked good. Coach seems to like you, too.”
Prentice sat in the passenger seat and stared out the window, his thoughts twisted and stuck.
“You have this habit, and I can see it already, where you backpedal on defense for too long. You have opportunities to attack and you’re not taking them. You’re running alongside the offense instead of taking control. Try not to be so passive. Don’t be afraid to get in there harder. Be more intense.”
There was political talk radio on, and the voices of those people, ranting and raving, mixed up and polluted the voice of his father, making it impossible to focus. Always so much noise.
“You going to answer me? You’re not saying anything about it.”
“You want me to be more aggressive? Dad, I might have broken somebody’s ankle.”
“I know, Prent, and that’s awful. I know it is. But it happens. It’s part of the game sometimes. You know that.”
“I don’t want to talk about it anymore. I feel really done talking for the day, Dad.” How could a mind be so tired? Shouldn’t it be his body? The whole day was stuck in his brain on repeat.
“Well, can you give me something? Anything?”
Prentice turned the radio off, looked back out the window at the trees and the sky, at red-winged blackbirds moving from limb to limb. He took a deep breath and said, “I don’t know if I want to play again.” He didn’t want to say it. He didn’t want it to be true. But it was true, and the words fell out, one after the other. “I don’t think it’s for me. And it’s not because Jason got hurt. I know that happens. But I felt done playing even before that.”
His dad said nothing.
“I thought I’d like to play. But I’m not sure I do.”
Still, his dad said nothing. Prentice allowed the quiet, taking a great deal of comfort in it, in fact, until his dad missed a turn and Prentice knew they weren’t driving home anymore.
“Where are we going?”
“We’re going to go see Jason and his family and talk about this.”
“Dad, I really just want to be home. I’m so tired. I don’t want to talk to anyone else. No more people right now.”
“You can play, Prent. You’re good.”
“It’s not about being able to play. It’s about wanting to. And I don’t want to. And I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Well that’s not always going to work for you, Prentice. You can’t go home and avoid things all the time. The world demands that you be out in it. If you want to be successful in life, you can’t stay hidden.”
Prentice’s thoughts went to Marlow. Marlow who he hadn’t seen for days now. Marlow who played tricks with his mind. Marlow who saw inside him things he didn’t want seen. Marlow the phantom.
“Prent, are you hearing me? You need to be seen. You need to put yourself out there. People don’t succeed in this world by staying home or walking away from the team. I don’t like seeing that in you.”
“We’re not talking about soccer anymore, are we?”
“You know, when your sisters were your age they were in soccer in fall and basketball in winter and fast pitch in the spring … I couldn’t get them to stay home. And that was just sports. They were out every night with friends. Or friends came to our house. And you, I can’t get you out of the house.”
Prentice sank in his chair, slouched against the seat belt. All those things his dad cited as ‘qualities’ sounded miserable. What was wrong with him? He couldn’t be any more aware of what a freak he was, and here was his father pointing it all out for him.
Add those things to the list, too.
He felt emotion behind his eyes and in his throat. “I’m sorry to disappoint you, dad.”
“You don’t disappoint me, Prent. And I’m sorry if I’m hurting your feelings. But I’ve seen a lot of things in my life. And I know how it works. The boldest people are the ones who make it. It’s a world of personality. And you tend not to show yours. That worries me. You can have a room full of shy people with great ideas, and if you place one charismatic fool among them who won’t stop talking, everyone is going to listen to the fool. Good ideas inside of quiet people don’t do anyone any good. If you’re not going to put yourself out there faster and louder than everyone else, you’re going to fall behind.”
“So are my sisters the charismatic fools? That’s what you want me to be like?”
“I didn’t say that. Look, I just thought soccer was going to be a chance for you to finally meet people and put yourself out there. Learn how to work in a group. Maybe even be a leader. Take control. I don’t want to see you walk away from it.”
“Okay, dad. I’ll think about it.”
“Good. That’s all I ask.”
“Can we please just go home?”
Prentice felt his dad tense up again, saw his knuckles go white on the wheel. Prentice never felt more trapped.
Home. Alone. Finally.
Prentice closed his bedroom door and dropped to the floor. He’d been up for so many hours, felt the weight of so much, and he carried every minute of that inside his mind. It weighed him down, pressed him into the floor.
After a few minutes he pulled out his phone to check messages and catch up on news, find some comfort in the distraction Tweets and Snaps, but he was interrupted by a knock.
Not on his bedroom door, but on his second floor window.
Startled, he dropped his phone, looked up, and saw Marlow staring back at him through the glass.
“What the …”
She raised her finger to her lips. “Shh,” she said through the glass. But how did he hear her?
The night was behind her, and her hair looked even more black set against it. Her tank top, too, was black, and her skin seemed to radiate its own hazel light. He went to the window in a state of semi-shock, ‘What are you doing?’ and, ‘Are you out of your mind?’ on the tip of his tongue.’ But when he raised the glass that separated them, and when the warm, humid air poured inside, so did that smell: lavender and calm. And he suddenly felt content with the fact of her, as if she’d been a part of his life from birth. She was a kind of sister to him.
“You’re not well,” she said.
“Thank you for pointing that out to me.”
“You’re sad and I can feel it.” She was perched like a cat, balanced and confident. Patient.
“Is that why you’re here? Because you felt me being sad? Are you here on a rescue mission? Here to save me? Well I’m fine. I don’t need it. I just want to be alone.” Prentice stepped back from the window and laid on his floor again, eyes closed, curled and fetal. Marlow stayed where she was.
“I’m here because you didn’t come to the woods,” she said. “You didn’t come to meet us.”
“Yeah, well, my plans changed. And I’m not sure your little club is for me anyway.”
“I see. Come out here with me?”
“I already said I really don’t feel like talking, Marlow. I had a really awful day.”
“We don’t need to talk. We don’t need to do anything you don’t want to do. Those need to be your decisions. I’m just trying to show you that you have more options than you think.”
Suddenly, that sense of calm was gone that seemed to come with Marlow. Prentice looked up and saw that she was too.
He stood, went to the window and climbed outside. On the narrow roof ledge he went to his hands and knees, looking to his left, his right, seeing nothing. But then it hit him. The left side of his body suddenly went cool again, as if someone had turned a fan on him, cutting through the thick air. And with it came the smell of her. He turned and crawled along the roof, toward the sensations, and with every movement he grew more settled again.
He found her around the corner of the second story, sitting on the roof of the attached garage, looking up into the night. He sat beside her and stared up, too, into the depth of stars.
“How do you make me feel those things?”
“You make my mind less sad. I can feel your calm. It’s like I go into your thoughts. Or yours go into mine.”
“It’s just something I learned how to do. You have the same powers inside of you.”
“What powers do you keep talking about? I have nothing.”
“You and I have a connection, Prentice. You don’t know me that well yet, but we already have a deep friendship building. I think you trust me. I think you know I listen to you and understand you. You know I don’t judge you. And you know I’m going to give you the space you need when you need it. But you wouldn’t feel any of those things if you weren’t just as capable as me.”
“You see a lot.”
“What else do you see?”
“If you want me to tell you, I will. But you can stop me when you need to.”
“You feel stuck in a world in which you ‘feel’ you don’t belong. A world that’s too loud. Too fast. Too aggressive. And maybe even has too many people in it. But you push those feelings away and participate anyway. You thrust yourself into that world because you think it’s what you’re supposed to do. You act in ways uncomfortable to you. Because you don’t want to stand out as being different. And because you don’t want to disappoint anyone.”
“My dad thinks that I’m never going to amount to anything if I don’t stand in the middle of a room and scream for attention.”
“A lot of people think that. People think that volume is intelligence. People think that personality is power. People think that speed means certainty.”
“And what do you think?”
“I think those people are very wrong. And if you let me, I’ll help you learn how wrong they are.”
They sat in silence together, each looking up into the universe, each looking down to the street at passing cars, each looking at the other, but neither invading the others space or thoughts.
“Do you ever get lost looking up?” Prentice asked. “Start to feel how small we all are?”
“I do. It’s liberating to feel small sometimes, isn’t it? There’s less pressure in it. It’s easy to be hidden among the stars.”
“I don’t do this enough,” Prentice said. “Just sit here and look and think.”
“You’re right. You don’t do it enough.”
“I don’t want to be different, Marlow. I don’t want to stand out or be seen.”
“I understand that. Being different can be scary. But it shouldn’t be. Everyone is different. Different personalities. Different appearances. Different genes. People’s brains are different. Capable of different things. Yours, too.”
“You’re losing me now. How do you know my brain is different.”
“Turn and face me. I want to show you something.”
Prentice turned to face his friend.
“I’m going to put my hands on you now,” she said. “Is that okay?”
“Close your eyes.”
He did, and then he felt Marlow’s hands touch his face, her fingers push back through his hair, and her thumbs come to rest on his forehead.
“Right here,” she said softly. “I can feel it.”
“You can feel my brain?”
“I can feel its energy. I can feel the activity. Right here in front. The prefrontal cortex. You’re different, Prentice. Like me. Like the rest of the Hidden.”
“Shh,” she said. “There’s more I can show you.”
She took a deep breath held it, and blew it out slowly. And with that sound, the sound of her breath, there again was the calm, like a wave down his spine. But something else came too. Starting in his forehead, where she rest her thumbs, he began to tingle. His arms and legs tingled, too, his hair standing up on end and suddenly there were waves of emotion, and his body tensed.
He pushed her away.
“What is that?” he said.
“Do you trust me?”
Prentice paused for just a moment. The he said, to his surprise, “Completely.”
“Let your mind go with me. Breathe with me.”
Again she placed her hands on him, and when he closed his eyes, he was back at soccer, but outside of himself, watching from a distance. He saw the drills, and he saw himself in the middle of the circle chasing and chasing. There was the panic of that again, the feeling of eyes on him, but that wasn’t all. He felt pressure, not coming from his own emotions, but from the other players in the circle. He felt their worry, worry that they would fail. He felt their want to impress their coach. He felt their disappointment that their girlfriends had not come to see them practice. And he felt Jason’s pain, the physical pain inside his leg, when he slide tackled him.
“Ahhhh,” he cried out. “What are you doing to me? My leg!”
“Keep going?” Marlow asked.
He was in the car now, listening to his dad express his disappointment. Here too the emotion was something unexpected. Prentice felt a genuine love and concern like he’d never felt before. It was radiating from his father. And it was tangled inside of worry, worry that he was failing as a father, worry that he wasn’t doing his job properly, teaching his son the right lessons. Prentice again felt tears pressing on the backs of his own eyes.
“Stop,” he yelled again.
“There’s more … “
“What is it?”
“I don’t know for sure. It’s inside you. I’m just helping you find it.”
Prentice paused and thought. He looked up to the stars again, felt small again. He looked back to Marlow. “Do it.”
Again she placed her hands, and now Prentice was in his room. Draped across the floor and feeling ill. So much sadness. But then it was all gone, lifted, and he was outside, in this moment, but looking down on himself. Floating above and looking at himself sitting with Marlow in harmony and calm, seeing the day for what it was, understanding the rush of people and voices and activity, but then instead of holding on to it, he watched as it all left him, the exhaustion of the day disappearing with his breath.
Marlow removed her hands. “You did it,” she said. “You got there.”
“How did you do that?”
“You did most of it. I just helped you.”
“Can you show me how to do that on my own?”
“I can. But you need to trust me. Come with me. Meet the others.”
“Tomorrow. After school.”
She stood and went to the edge of the roof where the magnolia tree grew up and over the house. She took hold of a branch and looked back at Prentice.
“Will you come?”
“Good,” she said. “This is only the beginning. Oh, and by the way …”
“It’s important for you to spend time alone. Being quiet. Knowing yourself. But it’s also important to talk to people when you’re hurting. Don’t try to hold it all in. Don’t forget that.”
Then she disappeared down the tree.
Back in his room, Prentice got into bed and tried on his own to stay in the calm that Marlow helped him achieve, but it didn’t last. Quickly, his mind went back to soccer, to the emotions he felt there, to the emotions he now knew the others felt there, and to the pain in Jason’s leg, the pain Prentice knew he inflicted. Over and over he cycled through those memories, landing each time on the guilt of hurting another person.
Don’t try to hold it all in. Don’t forget that.
He looked at his phone. 11:30 P.M. Too late for him to call Jason. And he didn’t want to talk to anyone anyway. So he started a text.
He wrote an apology, a lengthy one. And he included in a thank you, sincere one, for bringing him onto the team. It felt good to say those things, to spell them out, to remove them from his mind and place them in writing. He clicked send, but didn’t stop there. He started another message, to his dad this time, explaining again how he felt about soccer, about how he was a good father to push him, about how he appreciated the support and encouragement, but that playing the game might not be the best fit for him. He finished by saying ‘I love you. Please try to understand me.’ And again he clicked send.
Then he plugged his phone into the charger, closed his eyes, and fell asleep faster than he had in months.