On bad days, William wore pink socks.
Now there wasn’t particularly anything wrong with that morning, except when he had opened his eyes the sky had been all kinds of red, clouds of spun sugar and salmon guts. If he could reach out and grab some he was certain it would become a sticky mass between his hands, clumpy, some mucilaginous substance. Half-dry molasses.
It wasn’t even that early either—7:30 on a frosty February morning. He didn’t usually sleep in this late and even still the sun was painting the sky psychedelic. The sky was not supposed to be that colour.
So, before breakfast, he put on pink socks.
He’d spent the two weeks in his room and he wasn’t sure if it was the pain in his head or that unfamiliar ache in his heart that was keeping him there. But he knew he couldn’t stand it any longer, sitting in bed, wasting away as he watched the light stream through the window with curtains opened that he should’ve closed a long time ago. It wasn’t like the concussion was particularly bad or anything. He could read. He could walk. He could watch the sun climb it’s burning path into the stupid sky. He could go to school, if he wanted to. The boy had experienced worse.
But his parents were leaving him be, treading carefully around him like he was a minefield. It was the only reason they hadn’t pulled him out of bed and pushed him into the car days ago, dragging him off to the real world on their way to work. He could tell by the way they looked at him, by the worry in their eyes when he came downstairs, that they thought he was volatile. One wrong step and he’d explode and take the world down with him. They were wrong about that. He was a boy of blown glass, delicate delicate delicate. He wouldn’t explode—he would shatter. Maybe that was it. Maybe they did understand that he was fragile. Maybe they weren’t concerned about the mess he’d make. They simply worried that one day soon they’d have to pick up pieces of him off of the ground and try and glue him back together. Which was silly because the doctor had said ‘It’s too dangerous for your head now. You cannot risk getting hit again.’ Will wasn’t going to have the chance to break. He would never have the chance again.
‘You have to stop,’ they had said.
So he had.
For two weeks, he’d done absolutely nothing (That was almost a lie because on the first Wednesday he had gotten up and put on his gear and started to walk out the room, but only almost because he hadn’t actually left.)
That was why Will had left the house in a hurry, to escape the sky and other looming things. He was wearing pajamas and wasn’t sure where he was going but he knew that he had to go anywhere but home. He’d never had this much time on his hands and dealing with it was proving unsanitary. Time coated him and it got everywhere and sometimes, when he touched his lips, it got in his mouth and left a bitter taste for hours, or days (he wasn’t sure exactly how long. He’d touched his mouth, once, covered in excess time and he hadn’t stopped tasting it).
He sat down on the bench marked by a bus stop and a stop sign a few blocks from his house and a wave of anger surged through him as he looked out into the street. It was a stupid thing, thinking that he could escape the strangeness of the sky by walking outside. He couldn’t escape anything. He was bound by the horizon.
A few minutes later, a girl sat down beside him. Will hadn’t seen her for awhile—but then again, he hadn’t seen much of anyone lately. She was in his history class and she didn’t often speak. He was thankful for that now.
The boy raised his hand in a perfunctory gesture, but there was something in her eyes that made him freeze and he wanted to go home. He wanted to go back to a few weeks ago when he was at school and playing sports and when gazes couldn’t be so arresting. Her lips began to move and a vile fear rose in his chest. She was going to ask where he had been, maybe. Or how was he, like everyone did.
But then she looked down at his feet.
“I like your socks.”
Will pressed his lips together. His beating heart fell still.
And it was weird, he thought, how someone could say a word and the earth would change in the wake of a single sound. The power that language had over the universe, to create, to destroy, to burn, to calm.
He made a decision then. A silent promise, despite it all. Despite the sky and his head and the sorrow that ate at his skin when he sat alone—The sky was wrong this morning, sure. But days weren’t all bad.
He looked down at his feet, lips twisting in a private smile.
This short story by Olivia McNeill is posted in submission for the ESA’s 2022 Short Story Competition.