You want to be someone else? You want to be strong? I can give that to you.
Derek bolted awake from his dream. He had seen nothing but a dark shadow surrounding everything. He had heard voices around him, and he thought he saw dark shapes of something moving around him. Then, the scratchy indeterminable voice spoke to him. A voice that reminded him of Envy from Fullmetal Alchemist, promising him strength and anonymity. But he couldn't ask the voice what it meant, because he woke up.
Back in his room, he glanced at the clock, finding that it was still two hours before the alarm went off. Yet he was fully awake. He pushed the covers away. Clad only in his boxers, he headed for the bathroom. He didn't have to go, and he just stood in front of the mirror, splashing sink water in his face. He looked at his reflection.
His body was of a decent build; not scrawny, but not beefy either. He didn't have noticeable muscles, as he wasn't the type to work out. He had considered joining the baseball team to change that, though. His blond hair and blue eyes initially earned him some nicknames about the ideal Nazi, but those thankfully ended early on. Didn't stop him from getting picked on, though, but for entirely different reasons.
He dried his face and headed back to his bed, lying down and waiting for the alarm, thinking about his current status in life. And his conclusions weren't positive, but he managed to fish out a silver lining to it.
After two hours of boredom and deep thought, the alarm went off, and he slowly pulled himself upright. He was tired now, which he thought was odd as he literally did nothing in two hours and was more tired than his full alertness when he woke up. He slipped on a green T-shirt that had an AC/DC graphic on it. He didn't particularly like the band, but there was nothing he outright disliked about it either, so he felt that going with the crowd in this particular instance was acceptable. Denim shorts and white tennis shoes completed his outfit.
Downstairs, his father had already left for work, and his mother was finishing the second small batch of pancakes. She heard Derek's footsteps echo from the wooden stairs to the tiled kitchen and said, before he even entered the room, "Good morning, honey." Derek's mother looked more like a sister to him; not only did he inherit her hair and eye color, but they were about the same height--he had recently grown to match her five-foot-five height--and their noses were shaped about the same: kinda small and narrow. Plus he was a bit pale like her, instead of naturally tanned like his father. Didn't help that her face made it look like she stopped growing at age sixteen, though her ample bust said otherwise.
"Gumornin," he slurred, rubbing his eyes. A bit more clearly, he said, "What's for breakfast?"
"Pancakes," she said, "with my homemade syrup."
At the sound of this, Derek woke up and grimaced a bit. He liked his mother's cooking, but her syrup was one of those things that should not exist ever. Mostly because they had no access to maple tree sap, the key ingredient of syrup. Well, other than contained in pre-made syrup, which she never bought.
Nevertheless, his mother was adamant and creative, and she often went into childish tantrums when her cooking was insulted, so he withheld his disgust and ate the pancakes with the homemade barf...er, syrup. He didn't drink any of the orange juice he poured until after he was done with the pancakes. He needed all the juice to wash the taste away, so he could drown the taste of puke syrup with that of tangy citrus.
"Thanks, Mom," he said, hiding his disgust.
"You're welcome," she said. "Now, I'm going off to work now, so don't miss the bus. Okay?"
He smiled a bit. She always waited until he was done eating before leaving for work. Derek had time to watch a few minutes of TV before heading off to the bus.
Derek waited alone at the bus stop, standing still for five minutes until the bus finally arrived. He took his usual place--fifth row, behind the driver--and slumped against the window. Two stops later, and his seat-mate boarded and sat next to him. The guy was lost in conversation with the person across the aisle, ignoring Derek as he ignored him back. The bus ride was boring, save for an ambulance speeding in the opposite direction.
After forty-five minutes, the bus finally pulled up to the school. Derek fell in line behind everyone else, leaving the bus in favor of the crowd of students. He sought the safety of his first class, dreaded Math.
Of course, that safety would have to wait. Derek had a more urgent matter to attend to. In the form of a beefy hand pulling him to the wall of lockers.
"Hello there, Dorik," said the buff football player. Top-heavy and muscular, he was an intimidating sight on and off the field. Currently he wore a school polo shirt with his team number on it. 13, because his presence on the field was bad luck for anyone in his way. He also had shorts that showed his bulging calves, and short dirty-blond hair that kinda spiked out a little. And an almost devilish grin.
"It's Derek, Lucas," said Derek.
"Tch. Whatever. You got my homework, dweeb?"
Derek slid his backpack off his shoulders and opened it, then took out a file folder. "It's all yours," he said, almost giving it to Lucas. But just as Lucas was about to take it, Derek pulled it back. "Ah ah ah. Payment first."
"What?" growled Lucas.
Derek knew it wouldn't end well, but he felt like pushing his luck today. "You know the drill. I do your homework, you pay me two dollars for my services."
"Yeah, nice try." Lucas took the folder violently and stepped on Derek's foot, causing him to wince in pain. "You're just lucky I'm in a good mood," said Lucas, starting to walk away. Derek took the chance to flee himself, limping a little.
Lucas opened the folder to inspect Derek's handiwork. Not that he would know whether it was correct or not. But the first page was something completely unexpected. It was a drawing--a very anatomically accurate drawing at that--of Lucas parachuting with a cartoon anvil in place of the parachute. Lucas fumed, turning around to find Derek already gone, hidden in the hallways and crowds.
Derek sat down in his seat--middle of the leftmost row--and got out his notebook and pencils. To pass the time until the teacher, Hendrick Barnes, arrived, Derek sketched in the margins. By the time Mr. Barnes arrived, he was working on the face. He stared at it and frowned, erasing the detail and trying again. There had been an image in his mind for the past few days, but he could never get it on paper. All he could discern for certain was that the figure was bald and had a small nose.
He continued to try and sketch the figure until he felt a tap on his arm. "Huh?" he said.
"Mr. Parker," said Mr. Barnes in his usual monotone, "if you're going to tune the world out again, at least wait until after I've taken attendance."
"Yes sir," said Derek.
Attendance continued, followed by the lesson. Derek tried to focus on the lesson, since he really needed to learn this to pass, but his thoughts kept drifting off. Even if he was successful in ignoring the image, he still ended up doodling. Soon he had an image of the Fact Core, Nina Tucker, and a hyper-realistic velociraptor. His next sketch of Toph Bei Fong was interrupted by the sharp pitch of the school bell.
Derek's next class was one of his strongest points. History. And all things considered, it wasn't that far. Trouble is, every day this year, he'd bumped into Lucas along the way. And if not Lucas, then-
"Heya, squirt." Of course. The skinny body and higher voice didn't change the fact that they belonged to the school's all-star runningback, and one of Lucas's cohorts.
"Ben," said Derek, trying to keep his responses short and simple. He tried to simply walk on by; sometimes Ben wasn't interested in bothering him.
Not today, though. "Where you off to in such a hurry?"
"Class." Derek didn't like Ben not only for his being Lucas's partner in crime, but also for the constant pestering of annoying questions when Lucas wasn't around.
You already know that, idiot, thought Derek. "History."
"Ah. Yeah, I like the part where Ben Franklin won the Revolution by turning all the Yanks into sissies with his lightning ray."
And he wonders why he fails. "Me too." Derek had to keep on Ben's good side, or this just wouldn't stop.
There wasn't any new Ben question, which meant he hadn't started walking alongside Derek. Which meant the questions were over. Derek didn't even look back as he hurried up the stairs and ducked around a hall to his class.
"Sup?" said a gruff voice as Derek entered the room. Just his luck, Mike got here first. Lucas's other cohort. More annoying than Ben but less than Lucas. Derek ignored Mike as he took his seat. Right in front of the guy. How unfortunate for them to share a last name and have seats assigned alphabetically.
The history teacher, Mr. Tannen, came in and took attendance, which was very redundant due to the assigned seating. Tannen went into the lessons. Now, with most students in the class, the lesson was seen as boring and pointless. Not with Derek. While he was drawing instead of taking notes, the drawings were more like reenacted scenes of the events. The tales of heroism and drama and conflict served as inspirations for Derek, making him want to capture those moments. His history notebook was more like a sketchbook.
He took the events of the lessons and pictured a scene in his head, then turned to his book and drew them down. He drew a jagged line over one image as Mike's foot pushed his seat. His eyes narrowed in annoyance, but he continued on with sketching the image. Soldiers in a crumbling city, bodies piling up all around them. The Battle of Gettysburg. Not the best moment in history, but he wanted to draw it all.
A sharp poke in his back drew his attention away. Mike had turned to another favored tactic of his. He poked Derek again with the pencil, using the sharp end and the eraser end equally. Mike was getting more and more frustrated with each poke. A wad of paper hit the back of his head, but Derek tried to shrug it off and keep going with his artistic notes.
Another kick in the chair finally got Derek to respond. He slammed his hands down and turned to face Mike, saying, "Will you stop that?"
Mr. Tannen said, "Mr. Parker, please hold all conversation until the end of class."
Derek turned back to face Mr. Tannen, who was still focusing on the board, and said, "Can I switch seats with s-"
"No." And with that, Mr. Tannen went right back to the lessons. He didn't once actually look at the class.
Grumbling, Derek returned to his notes. And dealing with Mike's annoyances, but he tried to shrug past those. By the end of the Gettysburg lesson, Derek had a fairly decent sketch of the battle, with notes about time, place, and statistics on the side.
Finally the bell rang. Derek moved to the front and spoke to Mr. Tannen while Mike slipped out. "Excuse me Mr. Tannen, but how come you won't let me switch seats with anybody?"
Mr. Tannen was busy erasing the board. He didn't turn to look at Derek once as he said, "Because that would defeat the purpose of assigned seats."
"Mike won't stop bothering me. He keeps kicking me and stabbing me with his pencil."
"I haven't seen any of this, so there's no pro-"
"That's 'cause you always have your back turned! You never see what's actually going on back there! Even right now, you're not even looking at the person you're talking to!"
"Mr. Parker, I would appreciate it if you didn't raise your voice to me."
Derek glared hard at the teacher. Not that Tannen would ever notice. Turning away from the man, Derek stormed out of the room. It was routine at this point for him to leave his best class ready to go Hulk. Thanks to Mike.
Fortunately for him, Gym class was next, letting him blow off as much steam as he could. And today's event was dodgeball. Coach Nelson wanted to make a point about feminism and such, so she divided the teams into boys against girls. Derek vented by hitting six in a row early on, then got out and took some time to cool off, followed by fifteen more minutes of dodging and throwing and getting hit. Until now it was down to just him and a brunette girl with a two-toned shirt.
Major, as her nickname went, lobbed a dodgeball at Derek, who ducked to the side and chucked another one back at Major, who missed the chance to catch it. Derek backed up and took the ball Major had thrown, then lobbed it at her. She sidestepped the attack, and after a couple minutes, it was clear these two were evenly matched. Not good enough with aiming to hit their targets, not good enough catchers to catch the attacks. They were tiring each other out, though. Finally, Major picked up a ball and threw it, and while Derek tried to dodge, it clipped his ankle. The whistle blew, and the game was decided.
Both panting from the effort, Major said to him, "Good game."
"Same to you," said Derek. They shook hands and went to separate water fountains before the next game started up.
The class was over just an hour after it had started, but there was still needed time for cleaning and changing. Ten minutes before the bell, and after only a ten minute dodgeball game, Derek and everyone else went into the showers. The girls' locker room was right next to the boys', the former being the closer one. Derek always wondered why that was. He slipped into the room, took a very fast shower and put on his regular clothes, same as everyone else.
And with that, he headed off to lunch. The cafeteria was two stories tall, with four square columns jutting up to the distant ceiling. One wall had stairs leading up to the second floor balcony. Most classes were in that direction. Left of that was the snack bar lines and auditorium, and right was the trophy wall and the gyms beyond it. The last wall had the lunch lines proper and the band halls.
Derek took a quick lunch of pizza, mashed potatoes, corn, and chocolate milk and headed for his usual seat. They were two people from his art class, and their friends. Derek didn't really hang with them outside of school, or much outside of class at all, but Derek didn't have anyone better to sit with. His only friend from the year before, Jason, didn't have any classes with him this semester, and every time they would've seen each other in the halls, Lucas or one of his buddies was there, which usually drove one or both of them to take a different path. Derek only got to hang with Jason on the weekends.
For now, though, Derek listened in on the talkative members of the little group drone on about whatever. Derek wasn't the only one in the group who sat back, listened, and offered only a few short sentences here and there.
A half hour of lunch, and everyone headed to their homeroom class, trading with those coming from homeroom. There were four lunch periods, each shuffling class, homeroom, and lunch. And this particular class shuffling was unfortunate enough to put him and Lucas heading down the same hallway. Derek spotted Lucas and started to turn down a different hallway to go around, but a hand grabbed his shoulder and spun him around.
"Alright, what the hell is your problem?" said Lucas, fuming.
"What?" said Derek defensively.
Lucas pushed the homework folder from earlier into Derek's hands. "This. Care to explain your little drawing to me?"
Derek opened the folder and saw the drawing he'd put in there. "It... It looks like you in freefall with an anvil tied to your back."
There was pain in Derek's leg as Lucas kicked his shin. "Yeah. Why did you do this? Because you filled this folder with rude art, I couldn't turn it in! You cost me my grades!"
"Why couldn't you turn it in again?" said Derek. This got him another kick to the shin.
"Don't joke with me. I can't turn in a bunch of papers that are all drawings. Now, you're going to redo my homework so I can turn it in and pass."
Derek didn't speak back. Instead he turned the folder around so Lucas could see the drawing. Before Lucas could say anything, Derek took the drawing off the top of the page, revealing that the next page was entirely serious mathematics homework with no jokes on it. The rest of the folder was the same way, as Derek was quick to show by flipping the pages.
"You know, you probably shouldn't judge a book by its cover," said Derek.
Lucas took the folder back and punched Derek in the stomach. "Screw you. This ain't a book."
"Duly noted," said Derek. "Only apply that statement to literature. Got it."
At the word 'literature', Lucas cringed. "What did you call me?"
"I said 'literature'," said Derek. "It means 'books'."
Derek got his foot stepped on again. "Don't talk to me like I'm stupid."
With that, Lucas headed off to lunch again while Derek tried to keep from losing his. "Ow," he said, holding his stomach as he wandered back to class.
Sitting in homeroom, he did some touching up on the sketches from history class. He was good at a more realistic style, but for the purposes of sketching he resorted to line art and a bit closer to an anime style. The glaring line in the middle of his Gettysburg sketch was annoying, traces of its existence lingering even after he erased it, but the sketch was good enough anyway.
Finished with that one, his mind returned to the small-nosed bald figure at the back of his mind. He knew there were more details than that, but they were blurred. He was about to try to draw it again, but the bell rang, sending him off to his next class.
Science was largely uneventful, but it wasn't as boring as math. He drew a cell and the organelles inside it, then labeled the parts. After that was English. He always liked a good story, but his mood dampened at the telling of "The Cask of Amontillado". It was Poe Week, he guessed. Following that was Art class, his ultimate skill. Which was covering sculpting at the moment. He molded a small lump of clay into a human shape. A male one at first, then partly as a joke, he reshaped it into a more feminine shape, before mashing it and making something else. It had only taken a couple minutes of his time to play around before he got to serious work. And following that was his foreign language class. He wasn't particularly a fan of Spanish, thinking that people should learn English in a country dominated by the English language for the last 200 years, but it was required for his school credit. He was doing better in Spanish than in Math, but it was still a weak point for him.
Finally, the final bell rang. Derek had only one more thing left to do. After a quick bathroom break, he went towards the bus ramp. And with a sigh, he saw exactly who he thought would be there. Lucas, Ben, and Mike, all at once.
"Hey shrimp," said Ben. Derek didn't know why, but Ben and Mike were always considerably worse when in Lucas's presence. His guess was Lucas intimidated them into acting tougher.
"Can we just skip this part today?" Derek said hopefully.
"Nope," said Mike, stepping closer along with Ben. Lucas stood back.
Derek looked around to see if any teachers were nearby. And it figured that there weren't. Derek stepped backwards, causing Ben to pick up speed. It was the guy's ultimate strength. Derek had thought Ben could even catch The Flash after hearing about his sprinting skill.
"What's the assignment?" said Derek, trying to skip ahead.
"Not yet," said Lucas in an oddly taunting tone. The same tone Derek had used earlier when trying to trick Lucas into giving him money.
Derek took that as his cue and turned to make a break for it. He headed into a crowd of students, knowing that would slow Ben down. He rounded a corner and headed for the lockers, hoping some other sports players would help.
He was caught effortlessly. Ben grabbed the back of his shirt before he could get past the first door to the gym. Mike and Lucas weren't too far behind. Ben held Derek up against the wall on one side, Mike taking the other.
"Alright. So since I haven't had the time to do it properly, then-" Lucas then kicked Derek right where it hurt. Derek's legs reflexively curled up, and he started to fall down, but he was pulled back into standing upright. "That's for your little drawing. And this-" He slugged Derek in the forearm, slamming it against the stone wall behind him. "-is for makin' me fail my homework."
Lucas took out the folder from earlier, this time filled with a different set of papers. "Alright. Here's my next homework for the day. Finish it, and bring it right here first thing in the morning. No funny pictures this time. Got it?"
Derek nodded weakly but noticeably. Taking this as confirmation, Lucas dropped the folder in front of Derek. "Come on, guys. Let's go," said Lucas. Mike and Ben let go of Derek, who slumped against the wall as the trio left. Derek took his time to wait for the pain to subside, until he was able to stand. With shaky fingers and legs, Derek picked up the folder and walked towards the buses.
He had taken too long to recover. The buses were pulling away.
And so Derek began the long walk home.
It would've only taken him a half an hour to get home if he'd caught the bus. As it stood, he was about an hour on foot away, and that's only if he stuck to the main roads. Three minutes of walking, and he noticed the bruise on his arm had gotten very noticeable. "Why me?" he said. "Why me? There's plenty of other students way better at math than I am. Why does he go to me for his math? He's failing that class because I stink at it, but he keeps on-" Derek sighed. "It's not fair. I try to be reasonable, but he just... I wish there was some way I could get through to him.
"But that's not going to work. He thinks with his muscles. His brain's too small, so he lets his muscles do all the talking. And he gets away with it too. He's the toughest guy in school, and nobody dares to think otherwise. I haven't seen anyone refuse him without getting hit or something." Derek looked to the sky at jet trail left behind from a passing plane. "If only someone could just stand up to him. If only somebody had the strength to stand up to that guy."
A few words promising strength and anonymity echoed in his memory. "Heh. Yeah. If only. ...Be someone else. If only I could. He wouldn't get to me if he couldn't recognize me. Nah, that won't work. Mike's in my class. Even if I go in disguise, as soon as I sit down, I'm dead. ...Still, it'd be nice to walk around the school without having to worry about them bothering me."
Derek walked in silence for several more minutes. His mind turned to several topics. The sketchy bald figure he couldn't draw right. Lucas. The dream he had. The horrible pancake syrup. The dog barking next to him. The car beeping. The car beeping again. A voice calling his name.
"Hey! Derek!" Derek snapped out of his musing and noticed the car beside him. He wasn't too big on cars, so usually he wouldn't be able to identify it. But he knew this specific one. A Ford Pontiac G6 in a metallic blue color. His mom's car.
Derek turned to face the driver. "Hi Mom," he said. His mom pulled over, and Derek got in the passenger's seat. "How come you're around here?" he said as he shut the door.
"I'm off work now," she said. "Usually you beat me home. I just caught you on my way home."
"Ah." There was silence for a minute or two.
Someone almost sideswiped the front of the car while changing lanes. Prompting Derek's mom to honk loudly and exclaim, "Hey! Ever think about looking where you're driving? Idiot!"
"Mom, he can't hear you."
Mrs. Parker sighed. "I know. You think they'd know how to drive."
Not like it made a difference, since the light was red anyway. The Parkers' car pulled up right behind the one that almost hit them. Mrs. Parker inched as close as possible in short, lurching movements. The light was taking a long time, though.
And with that, Mrs. Parker turned to face Derek in conversation. She noticed something, though, and said, "Honey, what happened to your arm?"
"Huh?" said Derek. But the boy turned his arm and saw the big bruise. "Oh. Yeah. I fell." Derek knew the score. If he told his family like he did the last time, they would tell the principal, who would punish Lucas, who would hurt him more for telling on him.
"I'm not buying it," said Mrs. Parker. "Was it that Lucas boy?"
"Mom, it's fine. I just fell into a wall at the wrong angle."
"We'll get some ice on it when we get home, then we'll call the school."
"No! It's not a big deal, Mom."
"It is too." The light turned green, so she pressed on the gas pedal as soon as the other car moved forward enough. "This Lucas has been picking on you, and I won't have that happen. I don't get why your teachers don't do anything about it."
"Boy, don't you know it," mumbled Derek, thinking of Mr. Tanner.
They were home in short order. Derek got an ice pack for his bruise, then went upstairs to finish his homework. And Lucas's. He sighed at the math. It was the same math he was taking, but that didn't change the fact that Derek just didn't get half of it. He heavily looked over the book multiple times for each problem, which ended up taking twice as long because Lucas's problems were different than Derek's, despite being over the same material. Derek filled out his answers and Lucas's--deciding to sneak a small line saying "Completed by Derek Parker" in a small handwriting on Lucas's page somewhere--and then turning to his other homeworks. Those didn't take nearly as long.
"I'm home!" proclaimed the man of the house from downstairs. Always right at dinner time, too. Derek put the papers aside and headed downstairs to greet his father. The man had an average build; neither muscular nor scrawny. There was a short beard on his face, kept trim and neat to match his carefully combed black hair. He had a gray business suit on.
"Hey Dad," said Derek, approaching just after his parents' typical 'I missed you and I'm glad you're home' kiss. "So how was paper land?"
"Boring as usual," was the same response. Derek's father was an office worker at a real estate agency. It was his job to file paperwork. He would rather have gotten a job somewhere more active, something out of the office, but that was all he could get. He was good at it, though.
"So, anything interesting happen today?" said the man.
"Oh, yes," said Mrs. Parker. "It seems Derek still has issues at school."
"It's nothing, Dad," said Derek.
"That bruise says otherwise," said Mrs. Parker.
"Bruise?" said Mr. Parker. He then noticed the ice pack.
"Yeah, I fell wrong," said Derek.
"Honey, we both know that's not true," said Mrs. Parker.
Derek sighed and removed the ice pack. His father looked at the bruise for a few seconds. "Son, didn't I tell you last time about defending yourself?"
"From what? A wall?"
The father sighed and said, "Alright, it's clear you're intimidated into not wanting to squeal. But still, you shouldn't be afraid of this. You need to stand up for yourself. If you show that you're not afraid, he'll respect your courage and back down."
"Have you seen this guy?" said Derek. "He's like a meat grinder with arms."
"I doubt that."
"He's Lucas Graver, the quarterback. He's like the Hulk."
"Hmm... Have you ever heard the story of David and Goliath?"
"Yeah, the giant is terrorizing some biblical group, and a little kid takes him out with a slingshot or something."
"Th- ...close enough. The point is, you shouldn't let anything get to you. You should stand up and face any obstacles in your way."
"The moral of the day is..." said Derek.
"Son, this is serious. You need to stand up for yourself. If you don't, you'll just be pushed around by everyone and you won't amount to anything."
Derek sighed. There wasn't much point in trying to convince his dad just how mean Lucas really was. No matter what Derek would try, it would end in bruises. So Derek ended the conversation with, "So what's for dinner?"
"Roast beef," said Derek's mother proudly.
Dinner went by without much incident. Derek's father talked about a particularly irate househunter. His mother spoke of some rather interesting orders at her restaurant job, one of which she decided to make at home some day. Lamb cobbler, which actually sounded good the way she described it.
After dinner, Derek went up to his room. He sat down and tried to draw the face again, but he kept feeling the details were wrong and started over. After an hour of this, he had a small stack of failed sketches.
Turning away from this, he started to watch some TV. He turned to the anime channel, but the current show was some magical girl show, Yumeko something. He wasn't interested in magical girl shows, so he switched to the history channel. He frowned at a rerun of the special on the mafia of the 20's he'd already seen. Flipping channels again, he dismissed Cartoon Network's pointless new cartoons. He brightened up a bit when he came to a rerun of Avatar: The Last Airbender, but when he saw it was "The Great Divide" episode, he turned the TV off in annoyance and picked up a copy of The Hunger Games to read.
After getting through a few chapters, he went downstairs for a quick snack, then returned upstairs and took a shower. He let the cool water flow over his bruise for a minute before using the soap. As he usually did, he sat down in the shower and just soaked for a few minutes, the water relaxing his nerves for bed. Rinsed off, he turned off the shower and dried off, then slid on new boxers and tucked himself in for bed. Sleep always came easy for him right after a shower, and within a half an hour, he was asleep.
"Sorry I'm late!" said Derek, bursting into the classroom.
"Oh that's fine," said the teacher. "Come on in. Take a seat."
Derek walked to the left of the door and took his seat. Second row, second column. To his left was a wall with windows crossing it. To his right was the wall with doors in both corners. It was like something out of an anime. Derek always thought that was an amusing fact.
Today's course was mostly a presentation day. There didn't seem to be any overall theme to the presentations, but every student had an outfit somewhat befitting their presentation. There was a girl in a pilot's jacket and cap doing a presentation on the mechanics of bird flight. A girl with a treble clef on her shirt did one on the decibel scale. A young-looking girl with eerie makeup and a gothic dress did an oddly cheerfully-delivered report on creatures that live without sunlight. A girl with cat ears did one about the senses. The swimsuit girl presented the uses of water. And soon, all twenty-two girls in the class finished their reports on a wide variety of topics.
Derek was the last one up. The teacher approached him and said, "So, what did you think of everyone else's reports?"
"They were all pretty interesting, actually," he said to her.
"Good. Good," she said back. He always wondered why he was the only boy in the class, but it didn't matter in the end. The teacher kept talking. "So, what about your presentation?"
"M... My? Presentation?" Derek was a bit surprised at this. He had completely forgotten about his project. It was still in his room. "I, uh... I left it at home."
"Well, that's okay. Everyone makes mistakes. You can present yours the next class session."
"Thank you, miss." Derek almost made to take his seat, but then the bell rang.
"Oh well, class. That's it for today. I guess Derek would have to present tomorrow anyway."
"Phew," said Derek. All the students filed out, but Derek waited for some reason. He asked the teacher, "So, just curious, how come you didn't ask me to present sooner? I mean I'm glad you didn't, but it just seems odd."
"Oh? That's the detail you pick up on? One of your peers is in a bikini and bathrobe, and the only thing you find odd is that I picked you last?" The teacher started laughing to herself.
"Uh, well yeah. It's not like there's anything wrong here."
"The students you saw consisted of a pilot, a girl in a nightgown, a girl with cat ears, and many more than that. Not to mention you're the only boy here. And you don't find any of that odd at all."
"Not really. No."
The teacher laughed even more. "Wow. You really let dream logic overtake you, don't you?"
"Dream? This isn't a dream."
"Of course it is. Can you see the italics?"
"Ha ha ha ha. Never mind about that. It's not important. What is important is that I have a proposition for you."
Derek blinked in confusion. "A proposition?"
"Of course." Derek started to notice that the room was getting darker. The windows showed a cloudy blackness outside, and the lights were dimming. "I've noticed something about you. A desire. A wish for defense. Self-preservation. Isn't this true?"
The teacher started sounding familiar, but Derek couldn't place it. Beyond that, though, her edges seemed to blur a little bit, like the focus of a camera was a bit off. "Um... Yes?"
"Good. You're admitting it. That's the first step to recovery." The teacher's voice seemed to be getting scratchier a little.
"What are you offering?" said Derek, trying to keep focus.
"Simple. Very simple. You have expressed desires to end your troubles. You have a want for a way to hide who you are so the troubles will not find you, or for the power to overcome your obstacles and make a stand.
"I will give those to you."
Derek froze and took a step back. He recognized that voice. It had spoken to him in his dream the night before.
"Who are you?" said Derek.
"Simple. I'm the one who will grant your wish. It'll be fun to see what you do with it." The teacher's features had faded away, the true owner of the voice obscured in shadow just like the rest of the room. A shadowed hand extended forward and placed its palm on Derek's chest.
Immediately, the spot of contact began burning. "Ahhh! What did you do?"
"It won't hurt any other time, I guarantee." The voice started to go distant as the sting spread outward in all directions. Up Derek's head and arms, down to his feet, and deep into his core.
"Agh!" he shouted. "Wha- What's happening?" He felt like he was being lifted off the ground somehow.
"Goodbye, Derek," said the voice, leaving his name to echo in his ears. "Derek." "Derek." "Derek."
Derek's eyes shot open. It was his father's voice that time. He took a moment to breathe and collect his senses. Okay, he finally thought. Okay. It was just a dream. That's all it was. Phew.
"Derek, are you alright?" said his mother.
"I'm fine, Mom," he said. But he then noticed his voice was off. "Jeez, do I have laryngitis or something?"
"Or something," agreed his father. "Derek, come down here."
"Down?" Derek said in his odd voice. It was only then that he noticed that his bed was a lot further away than it should've been. His blanket was hanging off his foot, only barely reaching the bed. "W- What the? How'd I..."
"Derek, calm down and let's try and figure out how to get you down," said his mother.
The moment of surprised was pushed away as Derek said, "Um, yeah. Down would be good."
"Here, son. Give me your hand," said the father.
Derek looked over to his parents, who were staring up at him in his unusual perch in the air. His father held out a hand, which Derek reached over to grab. As the two hands connected, Derek noticed the unusual feature on his arm.
"A... A sleeve? Since when was I wearing a coat?" Derek had gone to sleep shirtless, so this was quite the surprise for him. He looked down at his torso and indeed saw a brown coat lined with white fleece. He put his free hand to it and felt the texture of soft leather.
But he felt another unusual feeling where he'd pressed. It was his chest. There was a slight feeling of sensitivity. And the fabric under the coat didn't feel like fleece. "What, layers?" he said.
"Derek, focus. We need to get you down."
Putting aside his state of attire, Derek pulled on his father's arm. His father frowned at something, but pulled back nonetheless. Derek was lowered to the ground, and both parents helped tilt him so he was in a standing position.
But as he moved his legs towards the floor, something felt off to him. "Huh?" he said. When his legs came into view, he became aware that he was wearing blue jeans and brown winter boots that also looked like they were lined with fleece. He felt socks underneath. But that wasn't the unusual part.
Derek's feet settled to the ground at last. "Okay," said Derek's father. "Now, now that you're not floating, we have to figure out just how the hell we're going to fix this."
"Fix what, my clothes?" Derek said. He felt a little hot in his new coat and reached to his neck to find the zipper.
"Don't," said his father firmly.
Derek stopped anyway and noticed his hand. It was slimmer than he remembered. Smaller. And smoother looking. He thought it almost looked feminine even.
But then his eyes widened. His hand was feminine. His voice was higher. And the odd feeling while moving his legs... His hand started shaking. "W- Wait a minute," he said. "My hand, my voice... Am... Am I...?"
Ignoring what his father said, he reached up to his neck and pulled the zipper down. He had to undo a few button clasps to get it done, but soon his coat was open.
Underneath it, he was wearing a white tanktop. And beneath that, there were a couple of lumps on his chest.
"WH... B- Are those...? B- Br-"
Derek's mother pulled the jacket closed and said, "Honey, just calm down. Please, just calm down, and-"
"H- How am I a... I'm a... a..."
"Yes, honey, it very well looks that way," said the mother.
"B- But how-"
"Son, listen to me," said the father. "Calm down. Stop panicking, alright? Panic never gets you anywhere. You need to calm down so we can figure this out sooner rather than later."
Derek was still shocked and upset and, yes, panicky over his suddenly female body. But his father was right. He wanted to worry more, but thinking things through calmly was a better option. Trying to put aside his irrational worries, Derek said, "O- Okay. Okay," and took a deep breath to relax himself.
"Alright," said Derek's mother. "Now let's think about this. We know you can float, and we know you're a girl. This-"
"Mom?" whined Derek. He didn't want to be called a girl. But what surprised him was how girlish he sounded just then.
"I'm just thinking. The floating part definitely fits the 'getting power' comment, and being a girl definitely fits 'hiding from problems'-"
"Wait, how did you know that?"
"What do you mean, how?" said Derek's father. "We could hear you in the other room."
"But- But that was a dream. How could you hear it if it was just in a dream?"
"Apparently it wasn't a dream."
"Unless," suggested Derek's mother, "you're still dreaming. Try... Try pinching yourself."
Derek held his girly hand to his arm but hesitated. The coat was too thick. He settled for pinching his other hand. After a few seconds of pinching continuously, Derek was dismayed to find himself still awake. And girly. "Nope. Either it's a really realistic dream, or this is really happening."
There was an uncomfortable silence for a moment. Then, Derek's father said, "So this... voice... thought it could help your problem by turning you into Amelia Earhart? How does that work?"
"Wait, what? Earhart?" said Derek. "The famous pilot?"
Derek's mother looked closer at Derek and said, "Huh. Yeah, I guess I can see that." Her eyes widened a little. "Actually, that makes sense. You can float or fly something, so looking like a pilot makes sense."
"Pilot..." Something was churning in Derek's mind, thoughts pushing around. But he couldn't figure out what he was trying to think of. Still, he said, "Hang on. I gotta see this for myself."
"Wait, shouldn't we be trying to figure this out?" said Derek's father. "You know, trying to get him back to normal?"
"In a second," said Derek, pushing past his father to the bathroom across the hall. He flicked on the light and stared at his reflection.
The girl staring back with her brown eyes looked to be in her high school years. She wore the same brown fleece-lined jacket as Derek, which was opened to reveal the white tanktop. Her breasts were small but cradled by a bra regardless. The shape of her pants definitively confirmed she was female. And Derek finally noticed she was wearing a hat. Also made of soft brown leather, it covered her ears and hairline. On top of it was a set of wide rounded flight goggles. He moved the hat away slightly, revealing short red hair. She had a small nose, thin lips, and freckles to complete the whole thing.
"Yeah, you're right," said Derek. "It's not a perfect match, but I can definitely see that."
"Alright, son," said Derek's father. "Now, let's see what we can do about all this."
Derek was still awestruck at his new body. "Y- Yeah. Let's... Wait, hold the phone. I've seen this girl before."
"What? Where?" was the shared response by the parents.
"I- In my dream," said Derek. "Or whatever it was. There was a classroom. And there were all these girls giving reports." Derek pointed at the mirror. "She was one of them."
The parents were silent for a moment. Then, Derek's mother said, "Show me."
"Huh?" said Derek.
"Wait, honey," said Derek's father. "I think we should first focus on trying to fix this."
"But what if it's not fixable? We should try-"
"We should try to see if this is fixable. We need to see if Derek can get back to normal before we try anything else."
"Dear, we just learned this dream showed him what he is now. The rest of the details might be important. Wh- What if there's more to it than just this?"
"What?" said Derek.
"You said there were several girls in that dream class. And you're one of them right now, so... who's to say you can't be any of the others too?"
"You're suggesting he can turn into multiple, different girls? I think he has enough on his plate right now. We need to get him back to normal first. I think he's had enough of being female for now. We don't need an identity crisis on his hands."
"I'm still here, you know," said Derek.
"You're still a girl, you know," retorted Derek's father. "Just... Just try and see if you can change back or something."
"Okay, um... How would I do that?" said Derek.
"I don't know. Think about who you're supposed to be. Will yourself to change. I don't know, something."
Derek stood still and said, "Alright. I'll see what works here."
"Shouldn't we be trying to get the details of this dream down?" said Derek's mother. "So we know what to expect?"
"Priorities," said Derek's father. "It's not like any of this knowledge is going anywhere."
Derek was busy trying to get himself to change. He tried thinking about his old body. He pictured himself in his mind. He thought about himself for a minute, eyes closed, before saying, "Did it work no it didn't." His voice was all he needed to hear. Still girlish. And a bit brash, now that he thought about it.
He turned his attention back to his mental image. He thought about himself. He thought, Come on. Come on. Change back. Come on, work. He concentrated on the idea of becoming his old self.
He then felt some unusual feeling. It was like the fabric was sliding around him. He felt a sort of airy feeling over his chest as space appeared between his bra and his body. There was a slight amount of restriction as his body seemed to swell against the fabric. And an odd feeling of fabric rubbing against his groin proved to him that he was definitively female before, but not anymore. At the same time, though, the feeling of clothes started to disappear. The slight weight of his cap disappeared, followed by the increasing feeling of air on his skin as his coat seemed to fade away from the top down. Derek opened his eyes and saw a blue line trace down his body, seemingly scanning away his clothes. Though the breasts were first to go, he still saw his torso swelling from a lingering feminine shape into more masculine proportions. When the line reached his waist, the clothing stopped disappearing, instead being replaced by his boxers, as if they were being scanned onto him like in a computer scanner. The remaining clothes continued to vanish in the same way, until his feet dropped down half an inch to the floor, the shoes gone entirely now. He was back to his old male self in what only took a few seconds.
Derek's father sighed in relief. "Oh, thank goodness that's over." He stepped forward and hugged Derek. "Phew. I was worried that would be permanent for a second."
"Yeah, that would be bad," said Derek. They let go of each other, and Derek looked down at his hand. "Still, what happened? It was that voice, yeah, but how is that even possible?"
"I don't know," said Derek's mother. "But I'm glad you're back to normal."
"Really? It sounded more like you wouldn't have minded to have Derek as a daughter," said the father.
"He's still the same on the inside, so it wouldn't have made a difference."
"Are you so sure about that? It would've made plenty of difference."
"Hey, does it matter?" said Derek. "I'm back to normal now, so do we really need to wonder about that?"
"Quite likely," said Derek's mother. "If some strange... voice, entity, whatever can just come and transform people and give them powers, then it might be worth at least planning for."
"Oh come on, you can't honestly think this seriously," said Derek's father.
"This is serious! You saw what happened! We can't just ignore it and pretend it didn't happen."
At this point, Derek was actively getting dressed while his parents were discussing the issue right there in his room. He put on a green T-shirt, blue jeans, and socks, then returned to the bathroom to clean up. The clock had said it was a quarter to five, but he was awake anyway so he may as well get dressed. The whole time, Derek was thinking about this by himself. So, what? I can... I can turn into a girl and back now? Or, what? What is it? What's the point of that? I wake up on the ceiling and just float there? Is that what kind of power I'm supposed to have? How does that help me against Lucas? I mean, I'd be out of reach, pretty much, but it doesn't really help. And besides, do I have to be a girl to use that power? Or can I fly without it? Derek paused for a moment, then tried to dismiss it. "No," he mumbled. "That wouldn't help. It'd just be running away either way."
A realization struck him. "Did... Did that voice do this solely for my benefit? Or for its own entertainment?"
Derek poured himself a breakfast of cereal for himself and finished preparing for school. His father turned to head for work early, while his mother went to prepare her breakfast. Derek had gone back to his room when they were done discussing things, and tried to read his book. He managed to get to the destruction of the pile of supplies when he heard a knock on the door.
"Derek?" said his mother, opening the door. "I'm about to leave."
Derek put his book down and said, "Alright. Have a good day."
She hesitated. "Derek, I know this morning was...unusual, and you'd probably want to just forget all about it. But, if you ever want to talk about it with me, then just say so, okay?"
Derek sighed. She was right on all parts. "Sure," he said.
"Okay. Have a good day at school. Oh, and watch out for that Lucas person."
"You too, Mom. See ya."
With that, Derek's mother left. And several minutes later, Derek locked the door behind him and waited for the bus. Just as before, he was left out of a conversation he wasn't listening to anyway.
When the bus pulled up, Derek opened his backpack and took out the folder. Walking through the halls, he spotted Lucas right away. Without stopping or saying a word, Derek handed the folder to Lucas and tried to keep on going.
"Hey, where do you think you're going, wimp?" said Lucas, grabbing his backpack.
"Class," said Derek.
"Uh uh. Show me the homework first."
Derek stared up at Lucas's eyes and said, "It's in your hand. Take it."
"Nope. Prove to me right now that there's nothing funny going on with it."
Derek sighed. "Look, I'm really not in the mood for this. I have something on my mind right now, and I'm not in the mood to deal with you. So could you just get off my case for one day already?"
Lucas was a bit taken aback at Derek raising his voice. It was enough distraction for Derek to just walk off, leaving a trail of whispers behind him.
Derek sat down in class, ready to once again fail to get the lesson. He turned open his notes, the last week of them barely taking up one page in his notebook. His mind was swarming with thoughts of the events of the morning and his dream. Nothing leading to anything; just recaps mainly. His eyes wandered around the room, picking up right away on how vastly different the dream classroom was from any classroom he'd ever seen in person. His attention went down to the notebook, and the half-finished Toph sketch caught his eye. He tried to push the recaps out of his mind by finishing the drawing.
But then he spotted the unfinished sketch of the bald figure. He went to try once more to add detail to it. As he drew the shapes of the eyes, he mumbled to himself, "No, that's not it. Maybe this?" He erased and tried again, but frowned. "No, still off." He stared at the image for a short time.
Something seemed to click. He looked at the sketch and said, "No, that's not it at all. The eyes are like this." And he sketched the contours of the eyes. "Which means the eyebrows..." And some thin lines for the eyebrows. "And there was a scar where the hairline would've been..."
He came to a full realization. "No. Not a hairline. A seam. Not bald; it's a hat." He drew the line over the forehead, then one from the center around towards the back of the head. Then a lumpy shape on top which quickly formed itself into a pair of goggles. He glared at it, then ripped out a blank page and started the sketch over, making it the same as how he'd already done, but bigger. The small nose, the eyes, the line for the cap and goggles. No ears this time, since they were hidden under the edge of the cap. Some tufts of short hair sticking out the back. A thin mouth. A slim neck. Freckles.
And finally, it was done. For the first time, the sketch was complete. Staring back at him, head facing partly to the side but eyes peering directly out the front of the page, was the head of the pilot girl he had been earlier.
"Amelia Earhart?" said a student next to him, peering over at what Derek had put so much effort into scribbling.
Derek looked over at the boy, startled. He'd forgotten where he was for a second. Then he looked back down at the page. "Yeah," he said. "I guess."
"Cool." The student turned away.
Derek stared at the sketch of the girl. He'd been thinking about completing this image for days. How long had the voice been planning this, been planting the idea? But now that it was done, he felt a sense of deep satisfaction.
But still, something seemed a bit off. He looked at the picture, then erased the mouth and drew it again. This time curling it up into a slight smile. He signed the corner with his name and the date, then wrote the word Amelia at the bottom of the picture.