Rey gripped the stubby armrests of the patient chair in the ophthalmologist’s office, a sinking sensation filling her stomach. After a long morning of tests and several explanations that, no, she didn’t know the medical history of her family because she didn’t know who they were, Rey was faced with an eye doctor in an actual lab coat.
“Miss Jakken, you have what’s called Stargardt’s Disease. It’s a genetically inherited disorder that affects the retina. It is first noticed in young people around your age—fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, sometimes younger. You were right to come in here and have these tests.”
Rey had only been to a few doctors in her entire life. The tall, mechanical instruments that the eye doctor used during her examination made her feel like she was specimen in a petri dish.
“Can’t I just get some glasses to see the board better in class?” Rey asked.
“I’m afraid not,” the doctor explained.
She couldn’t remember if he had introduced himself when he came in. Her doctor was middle-aged and kindly, the type of man who probably had children of his own, a wife, a house with a yellow dog playing in the yard. The tone he used to explain her diagnosis was too considerate for him to not be that kind of person.
“Your vision won’t be correctable with glasses or contacts. Most people with this disorder develop a visual acuity that is in the 20/200 range.”
At her blank expression he went on to explain, “That means your eyesight will be around five times worse than someone with 20/20 vision. There is no surgery that can correct it, no glasses or medications.”
The sinking sensation in her gut intensified. Her skin began to feel clammy, like she’d spent the last hour sitting around in wet clothes. Rey realized her vision was a problem when she started failing her math tests. She missed exponents, she didn’t see negative symbols, she had a hard time following any of the problems that her teacher wrote on the board in faint Expo marker. She spent the whole semester assuming she needed a pair of glasses for class, too afraid of drawing attention to herself to ask Unkar for a trip to the doctor. Even with working after school in the junkyard she didn’t make enough money to buy her own car, and everything in Summerville was spread out, roaming, with more head of cattle and fields of tobacco than townspeople.
Eventually her math teacher had insisted that Rey get her eyes checked. Red-faced with embarrassment, Rey had explained that she had a Medicaid card that would pay for the visit, but she didn’t have a way to get to the appointment so it wouldn’t be possible for her to go.
Ms. Gerome volunteered to take her, making it sound like a ride to the doctor’s office was no big deal, like she drove students to medical appointments all the time. Maybe she did, Rey thought. Ms. Gerome was young and enthusiastic, despite the run-down facilities and absent textbooks at Summerville High. She wore Birkenstocks and long, willowy dresses. She’d made large print copies of assignments for Rey without her having to ask for them.
“Unfortunately, there is no treatment for your vision,” the doctor said. “I’ll refer you to Services for the Blind. They’ll get you a rehab counselor. Did your teacher petition for this examination?”
“That means you’ll be hearing from the school. Your guardian will get a letter in the mail about a meeting.”
Rey walked out of his office in a sort of daze, unsure of how to make sense of so much information. She’d been told that there was nothing that could be done to fix her vision, so why would the school be having a meeting? The doctor had mentioned Services for the Blind—who were they, and why would she need to talk to them if her vision wasn’t completely gone?
After the appointment with the eye doctor, Rey buckled herself into Ms. Gerome’s used Toyota Corolla, twisting her hands in her lap while she stared out the window at the passing homes that had been turned into offices, at the gas station that looked sunbaked under the bright light, at the sidewalks that were cracked down the middle from the shifting roots of oak trees.
“Are you hungry? I’m starving,” said Ms. Gerome.
It was only four-thirty in the afternoon, and the air felt as heavy as a raincloud. Rey’s stomach chose that moment to loudly make its presence known.
“Yeah, I am,” she admitted.
“Lets get some barbeque.”
Ms. Gerome pulled into a small parking lot that was directly off the main highway that cut through town. SHELLY’S BARBEQUE was painted on the brick storefront in bold, white lettering. Rey had eaten here once, several years ago when she had spent the night with a friend from school. During that sleepover Rey had been surprised to see that her friend’s home was so clean, that she had her own bedroom with a box full of Barbie dolls, that that there was no padlock on the refrigerator.
Her math teacher ordered her a sandwich, hush puppies, and an iced tea before Rey could object. For a moment she panicked because Rey did not have the money to pay for the food, and she could not get the words out fast enough to stop Ms. Gerome from handing over a rumpled twenty.
Her pride settled like a stone in her gut, but it wasn’t enough to stop Rey from eating.
After inhaling the first half of her barbeque and coleslaw sandwich, Rey took a breath and squeezed some lemon into her iced tea.
“The doctor told me I have something called Stargardt’s Disease, and that the school would have some kind of meeting about it with my guardian,” she volunteered.
“You’ll be there too, and all of your teachers,” Ms. Gerome explained.
She squeezed Rey’s hand on the table, and the younger girl smiled. It didn’t sound that bad when her teacher put it that way. It was going to be uncomfortable explaining this to Unkar, but Rey hoped he wouldn’t be interested enough to ask many questions, though he might take issue with being asked to come down to the school for an in-person meeting. That meant time off the clock, which meant less money.
Ms. Gerome dropped Rey off where the dirt road to the junkyard started. She’d walk the rest of the way home.
Once the school scheduled a meeting with Unkar, her teachers, and some people who introduced themselves as part of the “Exceptional Children’s Program” things in Rey’s life began to change rapidly.
She was assigned a teacher of the visually impaired who pulled her out of regular class for one hour a week to learn about assistive technology as well as an orientation and mobility instructor who took her on three to four hour lessons once a week after school to learn about navigation and safe travel. Rey’s teacher of the visually impaired ordered large print textbooks for her from the Printing House for the Blind and gave her a little, acrylic dome that fit in the palm of her hand that magnified anything it was placed on top of.
Ms. Gerome made her large print handouts on the copy machine with eleven inch by seventeen-inch paper. Rey felt ridiculous using worksheets that were so tall they didn’t even fit on the stubby desks in all of her classrooms, but reading regular print had become nearly impossible unless she held the paper a few inches from her face.
Despite all the differences she experienced at school, Unkar had been less than interested in Rey’s new-found illness. She wasn’t the first foster-child with a disability that he’d been the guardian of.
“More common’n you’d think,” he’d told her, sipping from his forty ounce can of beer.
The spring semester ended before any of Rey’s large print books could come in the mail. She studied for her exams with her hand-sized magnifier, painstakingly sliding it back and forth over her school books while she hunched over them, her face a few inches from the acrylic dome.
Rey spent that summer the same way she’d spent the previous summer: helping Unkar in the junkyard with her foster siblings. They swept up the garage, moved greasy parts, stacked discarded tires into towers and rows that formed a maze in the overgrown field. They drank sticky sweet tea in the shade, bored and practically flattened under the weight of the humidity. Rey’s vision (and her inability to drive cars around the scrubby lot) had become a constant source of frustration to Unkar, so she tried to stay out of his way as much as possible.
When Rey was first placed with the Pluts, Unkar had still been married to Mary Lynn, not separated like they were now, and Rey hadn’t been the only girl they were fostering. Georgia Tanner had still been living with them, all 105 lbs. of her. She’d given Rey several pairs of old jeans and offered to pierce Rey’s bellybutton for her.
Unlike the other foster kids, Georgia had a job at a local steakhouse, where she charmed her way into receiving decent money from tips. Rey still remembered seeing Georgia slump into their shared bedroom with a shiner on her left eye. She eased into bed like a wounded alley cat, her normally proud shoulders wrought low. When Georgia warned Rey to never get on Unkar’s bad side, Rey laid there wide awake, listening to the faint cursing that traveled through the thin walls.
A few months later Mary Lynn finally left, after much yelling and countless threats that she was serious this time, dammit. Georgia aged out of foster care and started living with her boyfriend, which left Rey, Unkar, and the two boys all to themselves. For some reason Rey assumed things would be quieter with fewer people around, but Unkar filled the Mary Lynn-sized hole in his life with cases of cheap beer, unsavory new friends, and bonfires that lasted between two or three days before everyone crashed, sometimes in the ripped backseats of the cars in the junkyard.
As Rey’s vision began to deteriorate she slept less and less, keeping her jeans belted and buttoned at night when she curled in on herself in her narrow bed. She didn’t know all of Unkar’s friends by name and didn’t want to. With Mary Lynn gone the world felt more unsteady, like one day Rey had woken up surrounded by a jagged new landscape of leering, angry men.
Rey took Georgia’s advice to heart and made herself useful by cooking, washing her siblings’ hand-me-down clothes, and answering the nicotine-stained phone on Unkar’s creaky desk. His group of scrappers, mechanics, and former felons mostly left her alone when her summer chores required her to be outside where the heat beat down like an oven, but now Rey was around the office more often. She was older, less sweaty from physical labor, her body less coltish by the day. Rey silently accepted the repulsive comments that Unkar’s friends would make about her. They acted like they were whispering while they spit chewing tobacco into empty water bottles; but they were so loud that they must have wanted Rey to hear that her legs were skinny, but she filled out her shorts real nice.
Friday nights were the worst times for unwanted, older male attention. Unkar’s group of friends would fire up the charcoal grill and pass around handles of Evan Williams sour mash whiskey while listening to the local country station. Rey didn’t mind the music, especially the older, melodic folksongs from the ‘50s, but classics were hard to come by on her local FM station. She made herself absent from the debauchery by rushing her foster brothers to bed, giving them both a bath, and making them each read a bedtime story to her, since Rey couldn’t easily see the small print in their books. The boys (Eric, age seven, and Hunter, age eleven) didn’t have many books of their own, so usually Rey would make them pick a story from the Bible. Her last foster family had been extremely religious, so Rey would know if Eric or Hunter were reading the story correctly.
Even with her altered vision, Rey’s summer was mostly the same as the previous one. The hazy months outside of school made her feel like she’d been dipped in amber, like her life was slowly crystalizing around Summerville and its narrow horizons. Late at night, Rey would lie awake and listen to the cicadas chirping outside her window, thinking of the friends at school that she missed. Rey wasn’t allowed to make calls unless they were strictly necessary because Unkar didn’t want her running up his phone bill. He gave her a little pocket money from working in the junkyard, but without any transportation or the prospect of a driver’s license, Rey felt completely stuck. Fossilized. A wriggling bug preserved through heat and time.
Sometimes, tears would fill her eyes, and Rey would turn her body to face the wall, breathing quietly until they disappeared. She swore to herself that one day she would get out of this place.
Getting out of Summerville took less effort than Rey originally thought.
Early one Sunday morning, while Unkar was still sleeping off last night’s liquor, Rey answered a knock on the screened door to see a neatly dressed black woman standing on the front steps with a canvas tote bag of file folders over her arm.
“Are you Rey Jakken? I’m Rene from social services.”
Rey opened the door, her mouth hanging open uncomprehendingly. She’d woken up thirty minutes ago to eat fruit loops with Eric and Hunter, and she’d never met this woman before.
“Go pack your things, sweetie. We’re moving you to a different placement.”
When Rey got dropped off at Luke Skywalker’s house, it took a while before she felt comfortable enough to approach Luke directly. Rene personally drove her an hour-and-a-half in her used Honda Accord—she even offered to buy Rey breakfast.
“No, no, I’m not hungry. I’m fine,” Rey assured her. She never got to eat her bowl of cereal at Unkar’s, but Rey had always fought with the urge to make herself easy to keep around, to be as little trouble as possible, so she wouldn’t be sent away to some place worse.
While Rene was driving, the dregs of panic boiled up the back of her throat. They passed row after row of leafy green tobacco plants as the sun climbed higher in the sky, making the tow-lane road in front of them appear hazy from the rising heat. Or maybe that was just her vision, Rey wasn’t sure anymore.
Once they had been on the road for an hour, Rey began to see more signs of development and more cars on the road. Within thirty minutes Rene was pulling into an elegant suburb with lush greenery. The stately oak trees arched over the road, and large homes framed with classic architectural columns could be glimpsed through their branches.
When Rey got out of the car, she wondered if this was just a stop on the way to the placement Rene had mentioned. Rey had never stayed in a foster home that was this nice, and she couldn’t help but preemptively try to lower her expectations.
A man with sandy blonde hair and sun-weathered features opened the door. He wasn’t much taller than Rey, and he didn’t hesitate to invite her inside before grasping her hand.
“I’m Luke, you must be Rey.”
Rey immediately felt foolish. Why wasn’t she nicer or more excited? Rey had learned long ago that plenty of people liked the idea of fostering until a child became too much to handle. People were happy to keep her around as long as she wasn’t too damaged, and if she was interested in making this placement work, she needed to remind herself of that.
Luke ushered them into the kitchen, where he poured them each a glass of iced tea while Rene fished Rey’s file out of the cotton tote bag. Rey had been through this process plenty of times before, but even though she knew what was coming it didn’t prepare her for the hollow, numb feeling she got each time she was unceremoniously dumped from one foster home to another.
Luke introduced himself as a first-time foster parent and a special education teacher. He explained that he’d had students with vision like hers, and that an old friend at social services had suggested this to him. Luke admitted to having no other children, just a nephew about her age that he’d always been involved with.
“But I should stop boring you with this. How about I show you around?” Luke volunteered.
He ushered Rey into a living room that was one step down from the kitchen and the hallway.
“I’m going to put a tactile marker on this step so you know exactly where it is,” he said.
“Oh, you don’t have to do that—”
Luke waved off her stammering.
“I do, and I should. Rene told me you were only recently diagnosed, and your vision might continue to change. It’s better to put in things like that now—you never know when you’ll need it.”
Rey didn’t respond, silently following him into a sunny room that felt like a den. There were many plants on the windowsills or strung from hanging pots, each of them full and healthy. There were several bookcases and two reading chairs that faced a window, with lots of natural light and the hint of wind chimes in the back yard.
Eventually Luke showed her to the spare bedroom that was now hers—only hers. It was the first time in Rey’s life that she had a bedroom all to herself with an actual bed. The realization made her stomach lurch in discomfort, like her body was preparing itself for the inevitable danger that she would uncover somewhere in this house.
“I’ll be down the hall reading if you need anything, or if you just want to talk,” he offered.
Once it was just Rey in the empty bedroom, she sank down on the pillowy mattress. There was a double bed with a cherry wood frame, a side table, a simple desk and straight-backed chair, as well as a chest of drawers and a closet. Rey had her own bathroom across the hall. All the furniture matched. The quilt on the double bed was an unblemished white, while the window by the desk was covered with gauzy white curtains.
With her one suitcase of clothes and one box of personal possessions, Rey had no idea how she would ever own enough to fill up this space.
She put her one pair of sneakers and her one pair of flip flops in the closet. Rey put her faded, hand-me-down jeans in the empty dresser drawer and stuffed her folded T-shirts in there beside them. She dumped her felt-tipped pens, magnifying dome, and large print books from the State Library for the Blind onto the desk and took in the mostly bare walls. Above the bed was a pressed flower in a frame, likely something that Luke had made himself, judging by his collection of plants.
The room was so quiet that Rey could feel her ears ringing in confusion. She was used to yelling, to hearing the front door burst open at one in the morning, to the blare of the country station through the radio at the junkyard. Rey wasn’t used to quiet. In that void of sound her emotions were thunderous, making her physically brace herself against the closed door before wrenching it open to go look for Luke.
Dr. Wingrove’s office was deserted at three-thirty in the afternoon. There was a stack of rumpled magazines on the table next to Ben, copies of The Economist, National Geographic, Time, titles with big headlines and articles about topics that felt a world away from him. The window across from Ben didn’t have a set of blinds, and the August sunlight had made the room feel cottony and hot like an overheated dryer.
Ben looked up and saw Dr. Wingrove framed in the doorway, his hands in his pockets.
Sweat dripped down the back of Ben’s neck, but he kept his shirtsleeves buttoned at the wrist. It was ninety degrees in North Carolina at the tail end of summer, but rolling up his cuffs would mean Dr. Wingrove would be able to see the raised pink scars on his arms, and Ben would rather talk about anything other than the reason he was sent here in the first place.
“How have you been?” Dr. Wingrove asked.
Being in this room always made his head spin, like oxygen was being fed to his brain drop by drop, like his therapist was sitting twenty feet away instead of five, like Ben was watching a version of life from some place over his shoulder, removed.
“Fine,” he drawled.
Dr. Wingrove didn’t reply. They played this game every time. Waiting. He never pushed, but somehow Ben always found himself explaining what was actually going on by the end of the session. Getting the words out usually helped, even if the process made him feel like a disjoined hunk of wreckage while it was happening.
“I’ve spent a lot of time wondering what will happen when I have to go back to school,” Ben admitted.
In his mind he heard the sound of lockers slamming, the pine scent of his shampoo after basketball practice, his coach asking if he wanted to go over his form one more time, if Ben maybe needed a ride home?
“What do you think will happen when the school year starts?” the doctor asked.
Each thought of the school, of what lay waiting for him at the end of August, made Ben feel transparent, like everything had been drained out of him but the sharp prickling he got in his limbs every time he had a panic attack. In his therapist’s office, Ben squeezed each of his hands into fists while Dr. Wingrove waited for him to answer.
“I’ll have to see him again. After…after what he did to me.”
Ben had never uttered the words out loud, not even when he was at Pine Hill and attending daily therapy. He had never described to anyone what had happened in the athletic storage room beside the folded wrestling mats and tangled volleyball nets.
The world didn’t deserve to know, and Ben wasn’t going to tell them.
Ben came home from his therapist’s office to find the kitchen occupied. His mother had an apron tied over her skirt and blouse while a dish roasted in the oven. There was a pitcher of iced tea with lemon on the counter and, after peaking around the doorframe, Ben saw that the dining room table had four place-lettings laid out.
“Who’s here?” he asked pouring himself a glass of tea.
“Hello to you, too,” Leia said. “Your uncle Luke is coming over for dinner. He’s bringing a guest.”
Ben drank most of his tea in one long pull, ice cubes clinking together.
“Did I tell you that your uncle applied to be a foster parent?”
“Well, he did, and she’s here, the foster-daughter, I mean. She’s a year younger than you.”
Ben remembered nothing about Luke wanting to be a foster-parent. Something in his chest contracted and stung, like he was being shoved in his solar-plexus. At one time, Ben had seen his uncle every day, had known all of his plans and been part of most of them.
Ben hadn’t really spoken to his uncle since he’d come home from the hospital. Luke had tried, several times, but it usually ended in Ben breaking something.
Watching his mother pop a tray of rolls into the oven made the blood vessels in his temples pound. Ben was a dense body colliding with re-enforced glass. He was the tightly coiled body, and Leia was the glass: transparent but shattered, broken but retaining its form.
“I’ll be upstairs.”
Ben set down his glass of tea harder than he’d intended, sending one of the ice cubes flying.
His mother calmly dried her clean hands on a designer dish towel, seeing his behavior for what it was.
“I’ll let you known when dinner is ready.”
Rey pulled at the hem of her T-shirt, whishing she had something less faded to wear to dinner. Luke’s sister and her teenaged son lived next door, and if Luke’s home was anything to go by, his sister’s house would surely be just as nice. Her jeans were newer, a recent hand-me-down from Georgia, but they wouldn’t stay the right size for very long if Luke kept trying to feed her at every opportunity.
Rey tugged her hair out of its functional ponytail before combing it with her fingers and swiping on some chap stick. Now she was ready.
Luke let them in through the back door without knocking—at least that was familiar to Rey. If they had wrung the front bell and stood there politely waiting, with her new foster-father in his pressed slacks holding a bottle of wine, Rey might have had an anxiety attack.
They turned a corner from the mud room and Rey was faced with a spacious, high-tech kitchen. A woman in well-tailored business clothes, sans shoes, introduced herself as Leia while firmly hugging Luke.
“You Rey? It’s nice to meet you. I’ve been so curious about you but I wanted you to have some time with Luke before overwhelming you with everyone else.”
“It’s fine,” Rey smiled. “We’ve just been hanging out at home until school starts on Monday.”
“Let me get you both something to drink,” Leia offered.
Luke brushed her off. “I’ll get it. Is Ben eating with us?”
Ben. The sixteen-year-old boy that Luke avoided mentioning whenever his sister came up in conversation.
“I’ll let him know the food is ready,” Leia said.
Luke showed Rey around the downstairs, pointing out the glossy, black baby grand piano that had belonged to his mother. There was a framed black and white photo of a young woman perched on the lid.
“I don’t know if you can tell, this picture is kind of small, but can you see the cane my mother is holding?” Luke asked.
Rey brought the photograph close to her face, squinting. There was Luke and Leia’s mother standing beside this very piano, with a white cane held in her right hand.
“She was blind, too. Her condition was called retinitis pigmentosa.”
Rey turned around with the photograph still in hand. A tall guy with dark hair and broad shoulders that tapered into a narrow waist was facing her.
“I’m Ben, it’s nice to meet you,” he said.
She moved to shake his hand before realizing that she was still holding the picture. Luke chuckled, but Ben didn’t laugh or move to shake her hand. Everything about him made Rey feel like she was intruding in a new world, with her used clothes and her white aluminum cane that made a light tapping sound every time she felt out a piece of furniture in her path. Even with her indistinct impression of his features, her eyesight limiting her view of him, Rey could feel tension in the silent way that Ben regarded her and Luke.
Leia called them all into the dining room for their meal. Ben didn’t hesitate to turn his back to them, leaving Rey to wonder what about her was so offensive to make this boy already hate her so much.
I am sincerely blown away by the response to this fic. I never thought that people would be so interested in my disability/highschool AU. It makes me smile and literally feel warm and happy inside to know that people are reading this. <3 Thank you so much for all of your comments, kudos, and reblogs. If you have questions about ETA for updates or want to chat about the fic you can find me at lunaplath on tumblr.
I had a question about this on the previous chapter and thought others might be interested in the answer: Stargardt's disease does not cause eye color to change, so Rey's eyes in this fic look just like Daisy's. There are visual conditions that can cause a person's eyes to change appearance, and if you see that in a film it is usually a reference to cataracts.
WARNING to all: please be aware of the past sexual abuse tag. That info is discussed non-explicitly throughout the fic and is relevant to character development. If that makes you uncomfortable please don't read this story.
Rey’s first day at Clevedale High School was vastly different from her year of classes at Summerville High. The school itself was much larger, for starters, and unlike her former school Rey didn’t know anyone at Clevedale.
The students she saw in the polished hallways wore Ralph Lauren and carried North Face backpacks. Almost every girl in Rey’s honors English class had flat-ironed hair and ugly metallic sandals.
For the first day of class they were meant to break up into groups based on the books they’d chosen off the summer reading list. Embarrassed, Rey asked Mrs. Forester what she should do since her old school did not have summer reading.
“Have you read any of the books on the list?”
Rey felt her entire face heat under her teacher’s scrutiny. “No.”
“I’m going to pair you with Finn and Rose. They need another person in their group.”
Trying to hold her white cane as unobtrusively as possible, Rey moved to the other side of the classroom to sit with the only black boy and the only Asian girl in this English period.
“Hi, I’m Rey.”
Rose immediately introduced herself. It was only 8:30 in the morning but somehow that didn’t dampen her energy or stop her exuberant smile.
“We’re doing 1984 for our project,” explained the boy, who introduced himself as Finn.
He had close-shaven hair and now that she was sitting next to him Rey saw that Finn was wearing an JROTC uniform.
“Is it a good book?”
Rey briefly explained her summer reading problem.
“Don’t worry, Mrs. Forester is supposed to be really cool, and the book is great but Orwell has been consistently misrepresented by capitalist scholars as being anti-communist,” Rose said.
Finn laughed, his whole face lighting up. “Rose is pretty political.”
The three of them spent the rest of the period dividing up the work for their project, joking with each other, and comparing stories about their summers.
Finn mentioned having geometry their next period, which was also on Rey’s schedule. He offered to show her where the classroom was and didn’t find it odd when Rey confessed to working at Unkar’s junkyard all summer.
“You know how to work on cars?” he asked, taking the seat beside Rey as their math class gradually filled up.
“Yeah, I just can’t drive them anymore.”
Finn laughed more fully than anyone else Rey had ever known, his grin infectious.
In some ways it was freeing to not recognize anyone at her new school. No one at Clevedale High School knew that Rey was in foster care, or that she had suddenly lost her vision. If people stared at her white cane, she didn’t notice. She couldn’t see the expressions of her classmates unless they were standing within arm’s length of her and without any prior knowledge of how her peers acted, Rey had nothing to compare their behavior to.
Whether these kids whispered about her cane or her magnifying glass or her large-print books, it didn’t matter. She didn’t know them and might not ever get to know them, judging by how large the school was.
At the end of the school day Rey found Luke’s classroom mostly empty except for a few students.
“I’ve got some work to do. Why don’t you hang out here until its finished?”
Rey nodded, worrying her lower lip between her teeth. The only real homework she had after her first day was for her English project, which was due next week. If Rey was going to contribute to this project she needed to find a way to read 1984 in the next two or three days. During lunch, she’d gone to the library to see if they had a copy of the book she could use, but Rey discovered that her school library didn’t have a single large-print book in its stacks.
Taking a deep breath, Rey dropped her backpack in an empty chair and took a few steps closer to Luke’s desk.
“I need help with something,” she confessed, feeling physically pained by the admission.
“There’s this book—for class—and we’re doing a project but I don’t know how I’ll be able to read it because there’s no large print copy and if I ordered it on-tape it would take a week to get here—”
Luke stood up from his desk and removed his reading glasses. “I know exactly what you need,” he said, holding out his right arm as a sighted guide for Rey to hold onto.
Her unused cane in her right hand, Rey’s left hand gripped Luke’s right arm while he led her down the empty hallways to the library, where he led her behind the check-out counter to the librarian’s office so Rey could check out an iPad.
Sitting down at one of the tables by the stacks, Luke showed her how to turn on the accessibility features on the iPad and how to use the text-to-speech software that came pre-installed when her eyes got tired. He helped her sign up for a Bookshare account—a free digital library for people who were blind, visually impaired, or dyslexic.
“It takes a couple days for these Bookshare applications to be approved, so we can download the Kindle app in the meantime and buy you a copy of the book.”
Rey’s entire frame felt like she’d been screwed together too tight, like her joints hadn’t been oiled in years. She was dreaming. She had to be. Luke handed her the iPad and there was the book open to page one 1984 by George Orwell, in large, clear, readable type.
Everything around her grew more distant until Rey was only an echo of a person. She smiled and thanked Luke for his help. He decided to go ahead and drive her home, that the rest of his work could wait until tomorrow, and he wanted to go ahead and get started on dinner anyway.
Rey could barely take in the flash of changing scenery outside the car window. Sculpted lawns. Luxury SUVs. People who looked healthy and unscarred by the world around them.
They listened to the local public radio station and, thankfully, Luke was silent the whole time.
Rey remembered eating free lunch at school and, once she got home, eating nothing at all. Rey remembered being sick and hiding it from her foster parents because she was afraid that she’d be punished for it.
The gleam of the new iPad in her lap made her feel unbalanced with disbelief. Luke had gotten her this. She’d asked for his help, and he had responded.
The school was mostly empty by the time that Ben was finished tutoring freshmen. He had his own math homework to do, but Ben had no intention of rushing home, not when his friends—Armitage Hux and Gwen Phasma—were just getting out of theater club.
Ben exited the academic building and took the long way to the auditorium, making a point to avoid the gym. It was a shock to see his skin under the unfiltered sunlight. Normally he was two or three shades darker from being outside all summer, but not this year, not when he’d spent most of his free time in his therapist’s office or at Hux’s house smoking joints and lifting weights.
His mom had been reminding him to get a haircut, so he wouldn’t look so “unkempt,” but Ben didn’t care. His arms and chest had gotten bigger and he’d grown about half a foot in the past year, but he was pasty, and his shirts were all too short in the cuffs, like he’d gone to sleep as a teenager and woken up as a giant.
A few girls said hi to him while he walked. He nodded in response. Ben saw the way they whispered to each other and looked at him—it could mean they liked him, or it could mean they’d heard the rumors about why he’d really quit the basketball team, and they thought he was gay.
Fuck them. Ben pushed open the doors to the auditorium and breathed in the cool air. Most of the kids in theater club had already left. Hux and Phasma both had their bags slung over their shoulders, similarly tall and fair-skinned. That’s where commonalities ended. Phasma had an ice-blonde pixie cut and dramatic eyeliner, while Hux had a smattering of freckles along his cheekbones and a Rolex that he displayed with faux-nonchalance.
“Done tutoring the needy?” Hux asked.
“Done playing dress up in an empty room?”
Phasma snorted and led the two of them through the side exit, out onto the sidewalk by the faculty parking. By four o’clock there were hardly any cars still there, like they were standing in the memory of a school instead of the real thing.
“Is that Mr. Skywalker?” Phasma asked.
Right, her sister had autism, Ben remembered. She’d know Luke.
“Didn’t know he had a daughter.”
Ben began walking more quickly, turning away from the image of Luke walking with Rey, his hand on her arm. From far away there was something similar about them. Rey could pass as Luke’s daughter if she wanted to, but Ben guessed she had practiced that her whole life, if she’d spent most of it in foster care.
“She’s a foster kid he’s looking after,” Ben said, fishing in his pocket for his car keys.
Intellectually, Ben had known that Rey would be attending Clevedale with him, but since they didn’t share any classes together he had not been reminded of that fact. Seeing her long dark hair across the parking lot reminded him of fishing trips with Luke, or summer matinees with just the two of them, his parents usually absent. Ben was filled with a sense of finality, as if it was Rey who had conjured up the demise of Ben’s relationship with Luke.
She looked a little bony, folding up her white cane and climbing into Luke’s car, but he couldn’t tear himself away from the way the afternoon sun shone on her dark hair.
Hux and Phasma had lost interest in discussing Rey. They were speaking, asking him something.
“Ben—are you coming?”
“Right, yeah,” he replied, as if he was seeing the world through a thick fog. “I’ll come too.”
Rose answered the knock on her door after only a few seconds, like she’d known that Rey was arriving from the moment Luke dropped her off.
“Hey! Come inside. You can leave your shoes right here. Are you hungry? My mom wanted me to ask if you’re staying for dinner. She made extra for you and Finn.”
“Sure,” Rey said, following Rose into her clean, decorated living room.
She had stayed up late the night before, but Rey had managed to finish 1984 for her project. Once she’d gotten an accessible copy it hadn’t been hard. Whenever her eyes felt tired, she could turn on a setting on the iPad and listen to the book instead.
Rose ducked into the kitchen and grabbed them both a soda. Rey squinted at the label—it said JONES on a glass bottle, and it tasted sweet and bubbly and perfect. As a foster child, Rey had been presented with a Mountain Dew or a candy bar as if it were a special gift. Even if her foster parents hadn’t been able to get her a bicycle or the latest brand-name sneakers, they’d tried to show kindness in other ways.
While they waited for Finn, Rose told her about her life: how her mom worked for a drug company and her dad wrote software for IBM, but her grandparents had immigrated from Vietnam. Rose’s sister Paige poked her head in the living room to say hello at one point, and then Rey heard her practicing music on a real, physical piano.
Apart from the piano at Ben’s house, Rey had only seen pianos in person at the different churches she had attended over the years. Some of the foster families she’d lived with had been extremely traditional, while others spent all their time at alternative non-denominational churches with thousands of members. Seeing an instrument in someone’s home solely for the purpose of music made Rey feel like she’d caught a sculpture blinking, like she’d been still and breathless long enough to capture a blossom opening.
“But what about you?” Rose asked. “You just moved to Clevedale, right?”
Rey forced herself to swallow her mouth of vanilla soda before she choked.
“Yeah, I used to live in Summerville, but I was placed with a different family a few weeks ago.”
“Was your school smaller? It must be hard to meet so many new people at once.”
A bubble of tension that had lodged itself in Rey’s stomach began to deflate. Rose seemed genuinely understanding about having to move to a new school, and she hadn’t reacted to the information that Rey didn’t live with her biological parents like everyone else at Clevedale.
“Yeah, it’s been kind of overwhelming, not knowing anyone. Actually, I do know someone at school. My neighbor Ben Solo. He’s a junior, I think. Do you know him?”
“It’s kind of hard not to know who he is,” Rose quipped. “He was the Clevedale basketball star for two years, but then he quit and no one knows why.” She shrugged, as if the gossip had reached Rose through the grapevine but she wasn’t invested in its veracity.
The doorbell rang, saving Rey the embarrassment of admitting that she hadn’t had any idea that Ben had been such a well-known athlete at school. Rey hadn’t seen him in between classes, and he hadn’t been over to visit Luke at all despite Luke’s claims that he and his nephew were close.
When she considered it, Rey honestly wasn’t sure what Luke had meant when he described himself as “close” with his nephew. After living with so many types of people, she had seen how truly inwardly-focused some families could be, but most days Luke would come home from work in the evening, then he would prepare a meal for the both of them before taking care of his many plants, checking in on Rey, or reading in the cheery sunroom.
As far as she could tell, Ben Solo was a black box that her foster father never deliberately opened.
North Carolina was still uncomfortably hot, even at the end of September. Ben kept his back to the afternoon sun while he left the academic building with the rest of his classmates, feeling pressed from all sides by people he’d known since elementary school. He gripped his pre-calculous book so firmly that his fingers left a dent in the cover, his blood rushing in his ears while he pretended not to see the two guys adjacent to him in the crowd of students descending the stairway.
Ben had heard people gossip about him before—most people at Clevedale High decided they hated him last year when he quit the basketball team after their conference win—but he wasn’t used to the gossip being remotely accurate.
Ben heard their voices in his head over and over like a skipped CD. “I saw how coach used to look at him. A grown man that wants to spend his Saturdays watching sweaty dudes—can you believe that? No wonder Solo’s too scared to talk to girls, now that he’s used to Mr. Snoke panting all over him—”
He threw his textbook at the back of Daniel Price’s head, only to see it violently collide with the cinder-block wall as Daniel ducked around a corner to talk to someone, oblivious. Ben wanted to scream. He felt his anger press up inside him like a chemical reaction, scorching his insides and blotting out the faces of everyone around him.
Ben picked up the now-shabby calculous book and stalked outside, his heart pounding. This was why he’d taken all those pills last year and cut himself with his father’s hunting knife. Because they all knew. Everyone in Ben’s world had to know what had happened to him, and each of them had stood by and let it happen. They had all seen how much attention Mr. Snoke paid him, and they’d seen how he had slowly insinuated himself into every part of Ben’s life.
Everyone had cheered and congratulated him when he helped Clevedale win the conference title, but no one had wondered just what Ben had been forced to do for his coach, the same one who was renowned for picking the best basketball teams in the state. Ben had given his coach everything because he’d wanted to win, he’d thought that maybe if he could become good at something his parents would finally notice that he was part of their family, too.
What Ben hadn’t realized was that certain things should never be given up. That no one who cared about him would have forced him to make certain sacrifices.
Mr. Snoke had waited, patiently nudging at Ben’s personal boundaries until his coach was taking Ben’s hand and holding it against the front of his pants, saying: “There’s something very important that I need you to do for me.” Like this was all part of the training routine, like jerking off his basketball coach was part of the bargain. You give me this, and you get to be special, you get to be loved by your teammates, you get to be known by everyone at your school. You do as I say, and you get to have meaning.
Eventually, Ben hadn’t been able to do it anymore.
Looking up, he realized that he had been aimlessly wandering around the campus. He was standing by the other student lot, where the busses waited. Apart from the cliques of freshmen and sophomores hanging around on the asphalt, Ben saw Rey using the edge of the pavement as a guide for her cane. She was headed to bus 433, his old bus number before he’d gotten a car.
Walking more quickly, he called after her.
“Hey, REY, it’s Ben.”
She stopped, turning toward the sound of his voice.
“It’s Ben Solo, Luke’s nephew.”
“Yeah, hi. I remember you.”
“Are you going home?”
“Do you want to ride with me instead?”
He held up his car keys to signal that he could drive her, before remembering that Rey might not be able to see what he was holding.
“I’ll drive,” he explained.
“Oh. Sure, I’d like that.”
Ben held out his right arm for her to take, waiting for Rey’s hand to slip around his bicep the same way his grandmother used to when he’d been her sighted guide.
“It’s faster if we cross the tennis court,” he blurted out, struck by the difference between having Rey hold onto his arm, her tan hand radiating warmth through his sleeve, and how it had felt to do this for his grandmother many years ago.
The walk over to his car only lasted a few minutes in time, but in Ben’s mind it stretched on and on, her narrow shoulders so close that he could see the freckles on her arms, her collar-bone.
“How was your day? What are your classes like?”
Rey huffed like she was suppressing a laugh. “Fine, I guess. Pretty much the same as yesterday.”
“What?” he bumped her shoulder with his own, unable to help himself. “What was that?”
“You!” she retorted. Ben opened the passenger door for her, and she got into his car without thanking him.
He watched her through the dusty windshield while he walked to the other side of what used to be his mom’s BMW.
“You barely spoke to me when Luke and I came over for dinner, and now you’re asking me about my classes and driving me home.”
The engine sprang to life with a soft rumble. There were still plenty of people talking and heedlessly walking in front of other drivers, so Ben drove slowly, only glancing at Rey out of the corner of his eye.
“We’re family now, right?” Ben said dryly. “That means I have to be nice to you.”
Ben cracked his window to let in the warm breeze. The sunlight made everything around them feel golden and full of promise.
“Do you have plans?” he asked.
Rey’s legs were crossed, her jeans tight against her figure and worn at the knee, like she spent time on the ground, rolling around in the grass or crossing her legs Indian style in her desk chair.
“Not really,” she said. “Luke keeps reminding me to do these braille homework assignments, and I keep meaning to, but they go so slowly.”
Ben was driving down the main road in town, the one that he would normally take to go home after school, but the thought of going back to his empty house, of saying goodbye to Rey, made him ache inside for some reason that he couldn’t name.
Pulling across three lanes of traffic, Ben took a right onto a deserted side road that curved and wound its way to the outskirts of their well-manicured suburb.
“You can practice braille later,” he said, rolling his window down fully. “We’re going for a walk instead.”
Rey laughed as the warm air whipped her hair into her eyes.
“Where are we going?” she asked, half-yelling over the noise from the open windows.
“Tuscaroura forest, we’re almost there.”
After a few more minutes of driving, Ben pulled over to a small gravel parking lot and killed the engine.
“First you say you want to give me a ride home from school, now you’re taking me to a deserted trail outside of town,” Rey said, deadpan, as if she was resigned to unexpected events taking over her life.
Ben couldn’t stop the huff of laughter that came out of him.
“We don’t have to go if you don’t want to, but I figured you might want to see some parts of Clevedale besides the school and our neighborhood. Plus, the path on this trail is really even, so there shouldn’t be a lot of roots or rocks for you to get hung up on.”
Rey grabbed her white folding cane and let it pop back into form once she climbed out of Ben’s car.
“After you,” she offered, her Chuck Taylors crunching in the gravel.
Underneath the shade of the swaying branches, the heat that had felt so oppressive when it was radiating off the school blacktop now felt pleasantly warm after spending all day locked up in school. Rey found that she didn’t need her cane so much for the trail Ben had chosen. The dirt path was beaten smooth, like it had been compacted underneath countless steps, cutting clearly into the dense undergrowth.
With their slow pace, Rey could hear the faint sounds of birds calling to each other and the rustle of leaves sliding against tree-bark.
The forest was a gently sighing creature, rippling and full of sounds.
Ben’s voice was quiet, but even his reserved baritone sounded loud enough to Rey’s ears to wake every nearby animal.
“I like to come here for walks sometimes. There aren’t any moms with strollers saying hi to you every two blocks.”
Rey laughed, her face pulled into an unreserved grin.
Casually, in the way she’d learned to talk to her more unstable foster parents, Rey asked, “Did you have a bad day?”
Ben kicked a pebble down the path. Rey heard it come to a stop far in front of them, like a road marker in a Bronte novel.
“Yeah, but that’s not unusual.”
She was barely using her cane at this point, but Rey felt steadier with it in her hand, like she had a tool that could tame the way before her.
“Does it have to do with your coach?”
Rey purposefully kept her gaze ahead of her, wanting to give Ben the space to express what he was feeling. She hated it when other people pushed too hard to hear about her emotions, like her inner life was a defective mine shaft that had to periodically be inspected and reinforced by a team of experts. She was determined to treat Ben like a person, not an emotional sink hole.
“How’d you know?”
He didn’t sound angry, Rey realized, just intense, like he had never learned to pretend to hide his instability from others.
“People talk. I honestly don’t know anything, only that you got mad at him and left the team.”
“That’s what happened,” he said tonelessly, as if the explanation exhausted him.
“You just need to do something so interesting that everyone forgets you played basketball in the first place.”
As much as Clevedale dressed itself up in perfectly groomed shrubbery and farm-to-table restaurants, it was still, essentially, a small town.
Ben snorted. “I’m working on it. What do you think of painting?”
Thirty minutes later, Ben and Rey were standing in the detached garage tucked behind his house, the two of them surrounded by boxes of paint supplies. Tubes of oil paints, jars of brushes, raw canvas, and spare wood for making frames took up most of the workspace, with a dated stereo system and a gigantic snake plant giving the garage more of a feeling of a basement. There were a few pieces of extra furniture that looked like they had once belonged in the main house, but had been relegated to Ben’s studio—namely an old church pew that was piled with mismatched cushions and a bright yellow armchair.
At the back of the room there was a worn counter-top with an industrial sink. Squinting her eyes, Rey looked through a stack of finished pieces that were propped up against the cabinets that ran along the back wall.
A black and white abstract with so much detail that it made Rey’s eyes ache just to look at it. A portrait of Ben’s aging German Shepherd, Chewie, cast in day glow colors. A minimalist domestic scene of a woman with her back to the viewer, the glint of her smile reflected in a vanity mirror.
“Did you paint all of these?”
“Yeah. Not all of them are good though.”
“They look good to me.”
“How would you know?” Ben asked, a teasing lilt to his voice. “You can’t even see them that well.”
Rey picked up a spare rag that Ben had left on the counter and pressed it into a stiff ball before throwing it at him.
“I used to draw all the time before my vision changed,” she retorted.
The stiff rag hit him squarely on the chest. Rey hoped it left a crusty paint-stain.
“I don’t know how good I’d be anymore,” she said, leaving the rest of the paintings where she found them.
Ben had started assembling supplies while she talked. He pulled out a couple of sheets of crisp sketch paper and a handful of pencils of different weights.
“Why don’t you try?” he offered, nodding to one of the empty stools at the oversized work table.
“No way. I’d be too nervous to have you or anybody else see it.”
“You just looked at my artwork,” he pointed out.
“That’s different. You can see.”
“I was just kidding earlier,” Ben said softly, like he was concerned that he had startled her. “I actually think that your art would be really interesting, even if it didn’t turn out exactly like your old drawings.”
Rey slowly approached the cluttered table, taking the offered pencil from between his fingers.
Ben turned on the stereo and they listened to something old with a low base that she felt in the tips of her fingers. Trying not to squint too obviously, she studied the way his hair curled at the ends, fully absorbed in the contrast between Ben’s almost-black hair and his fair skin. Did he grow up listening to music like this, Rey wondered.
For many years she had only been exposed to religious music, until her foster sister Georgia had moved out and left behind a personal CD player with burned copies of The Doors, Nico and the Velvet Underground, and Crystal Castles. Rey had listened to those three CDs on repeat for almost a year before Unkar and Mary Lynn bought her a radio alarm clock as a birthday present. It was made of bright yellow plastic and only had a couple of buttons and a dial for the volume, but that little radio had exposed her to more of the world than her foster families ever had. For the first time, she’d been able to listen to music that didn’t include hand bells or pipe organs or choir hymns.
Sitting in the garage with Ben felt like a sweet type of freedom. Luke would be home in a few hours, but until then Rey could draw what she wanted, she could listen to any music she wanted, and she could sneak glances at Ben’s broad shoulders and narrow waist all afternoon, if that’s what she wanted to do.
I usually send this to the beta before posting, but I wanted to update this so much that I decided to share it anyway. I AM LIVING for the comments you guys leave on this fic and all the great questions people have asked.
Mind the new "recreational drug use" and "rey is thirsty" tags.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
After a month at Clevedale high school, Rey heard an announcement about the first meeting for the school newspaper. Rose brought it up to her in their English class while the two of them and Finn worked on another group assignment.
“The first meeting for the school paper is this Thursday if you want to come.”
Rey had always worked at Plutt’s junkyard after school, leaving her no time for extra interests like sports teams or clubs.
“What do you do for the school paper, Rose?” she asked.
“I’m on the editorial board, so we write opinion pieces as a group, and sometimes I write for the arts section or the sports section depending on what’s going on at the school.”
“When’s the meeting?”
“It’s from three until four, or whenever things are finished, really.”
“I’ll try and be there,” Rey promised.
As Thursday approached, Rey waffled back and forth over whether she wanted to attend the meeting or not. She hadn’t exactly read a lot of newspaper articles in her lifetime, and with her vision she doubted she would be any good at taking photographs. Rose had seemed so eager to invite her but Rey couldn’t help the uncomfortable tightening in her chest when she thought of all she’d have to learn.
Apart from her concerns with the meeting itself, Rey had to figure out her transportation home if she planned on staying after school. Rose had field hockey practice immediately after the meeting, and Finn was leaving the meeting early to get to extra practice for ROTC. Normally, Rey took the school bus back to Luke’s house where she thoroughly enjoyed the luxury of being alone with a fridge full of food and a TV with over 1,000 channels, but her school bus departed right after class. Unless she wanted to stay in Luke’s classroom until he finished working, Rey didn’t have another option.
Unless—no. He’d only driven her home once, and that had been for reasons that Rey herself didn’t fully understand. She wasn’t even sure if Ben liked being around her. After her attempt at drawing in his garage, squinting her eyes at the sketch that definitely didn’t resemble him, she’d saved the picture in her math notebook. Sometimes, Rey would take peaks at it while she was waiting for her teacher to finish passing out their assignments. She would need more time observing him up close if she wanted to fill in the details.
As the week crept by, Rey found herself chancing more looks at her picture. By Wednesday afternoon she had almost given up on asking Ben for a ride. Rey didn’t have any classes with him, she had a difficult time making out individual people in the halls, and every time she thought of walking across Luke’s yard and knocking on the door of Ben’s garage her nerves got the better of her. The thought of asking him for help and being turned down—especially after he’d invited her over—left a leaden feeling in her stomach.
By fourth period biology, Rey had resolved to stay at school after her meeting and do her homework in Luke’s empty classroom until her foster father was done working.
Rey grabbed one of the anatomical models to use as a bathroom pass (Mr. Patel had them use plastic models of organs instead of a normal hall pass) and left her classroom as her teacher began explaining the different types of cell replication. Rey looked down at the oddly shaped model organ in her hand. The heart, with a clearly defined aorta and ventricles. The model organ was overly large in her hand.
While she was distracted by her examination, the door to the library swung open and Rey darted her white cane ahead of her in surprise. Several students passed her without acknowledgment, but then Ben Solo stepped into the hallway, a few paces behind his classmates.
“Hey, it’s Ben,” he said, stepping around her cane to approach her.
Rey pulled it closer to her body in embarrassment. “Sorry, I didn’t realize there was a class leaving the library.”
“What class are you in?”
“Biology,” she said, holding up the plastic model.
“Are you busy next weekend?”
Ben asked her the question so casually, like he hadn’t spent the better part of a day psyching himself out over where she wanted to hang out with him or not. For a moment, Rey wondered if he was speaking to her or someone else.
“Me? I’m not sure. Homework, probably.”
“What about Friday night? Do you do homework on Fridays, too?”
Even though she couldn’t make out his expression, there was something teasing in the lilt of Ben’s voice.
“Then come with me to this party. You’d get to meet more people. If you don’t like it then you don’t have to stay, I just thought you might want…”
“I do,” she replied, the words spilling out of her faster than she’d anticipated. “I’d like to go with you, I mean.”
Ben must be standing very close to her, Rey realized, because she felt the vibrant gaze of his eyes.
The last few people from his class were spilling out of the library and down the hallway. For a moment, she had forgotten that it was the tail end of the school day. It had felt like she and Ben were alone in time.
In the instant before Ben was about to turn away, Rey blurted out the question that had been in her head during their whole conversation.
“Would you mind giving me a ride home tomorrow?”
She hurriedly explained about the meeting for the paper, not wanting to wait for Luke, and understanding if he didn’t have time—but Ben cut her off with a lopsided smile.
“Yeah, I don’t mind. I do tutoring for an hour after school anyway, so I usually leave around that time. I’ll find you.”
He darted away to catch up with the rest of his classmates, leaving Rey alone in the freshly waxed hallway. She was enveloped by the sound of empty space, the model of the human heart still clutched between her fingers.
The day of her newspaper meeting Rey picked through her drawer of clothes in the early hours before school began, pulling on a hand-me-down shirt that Paige had given her with the tags still attached. From the looks of it, the shirt had never been worn. With no other sounds this early in the day, her breathing felt raucous, like she was bellowing into her empty bedroom.
She smoothed the fabric over her stomach and squinted at herself in the mirror above her dresser. On its dark wood surface sat a new addition: a makeup bag, full of items her friends had given her without Rey even asking. When she explained that she’d never worn makeup and didn’t know much about it, Rose and Jessika had brought her odds and ends they didn’t use. Foundation that was a shade too light for Rose that might look good on Rey, a few bottles of nail polish that Jess didn’t think she would ever wear, some sample mascara from Clinique. Rey dabbed concealed under her eyes with a magnifying mirror held a few inches from her face. With the 10x magnification, she could put on a coat of mascara and swipe on a little blush. If she got it wrong, hopefully one of her friends would help her in first period.
Her day swept by in a rush of classes, people, and noise. Rey spent most of her lunch period studying for a civics test instead of eating the sandwich Luke had made for her but she was too keyed up to think about food. She kept crossing and uncrossing her legs, feeling a low pressure in her belly that fluttered even more intensely when she thought about Ben driving her home after school. Rey remembered the smell of his car—the smell of him in a confined space filling up her senses.
She’d had a dream about his smell the night before. In Rey’s dream, she was a young woman living in Moscow. She was Kitty Shcherbatsky in Anna Karenina, something new and special only for its newness. In her dream, Luke and Leia were her parents, they were the ones escorting her to her first season of balls. Rey remembered Ben pulling her close by her hand and dancing with her for the whole night, his scent and his presence overwhelming her as they spun in a circle, his hand hot against her lower back while other couples twirled around them. She didn’t know, couldn’t remember, which suitor Ben was supposed to be. Was he Konstantin Lenin, or Vronsky? There was something in his physicality that reminded her of County Vronsky, the dashing cavalry officer, but his voice, and the hidden sadness there, reminded Rey of Konstantin. In her dream, there were no other suitors, only Ben in a dark jacket holding her close.
By the time for the newspaper meeting, Rey was a little jittery, her movements energized despite the time of day. She was one of fifteen other new people who show up interested in joining the paper, and she could tell it was a relief to the seniors, who feared having too few people. Rey signed up to write an article profiling the new German teacher even though she’s never met him and isn’t studying German, but the newness of it excited her.
The editors introduced themselves—a willowy boy named Snap Wexley and Patrice Stallworth. They both seemed impossibly cool and interesting. Patrice had natural hair and casually wore a turtle-neck even though it was eighty degrees outside and humid.
Another meeting was scheduled for next Thursday, and like that the hour is up. Rey is told to go to Poe Dameron if she has any questions about her first draft. Poe introduced himself to her and explained that he’s mainly a sports writer, but he’s happy to help while she’s learning the ropes. He scribbled down his email in handwriting that she can’t read, but Rey swallowed any complaints, unsure of how to explain her vision to someone so perfectly normal and well-adjusted to able-bodied society.
Some of the members of the newspaper hung around past the end of the meeting, talking and making plans and asking each other about their summers. Finn and Rose had already dashed off to their afternoon activities. Rey grabbed all the Xeroxed handouts she was given and stuffed them into her backpack. She’ll have to ask Luke to help her enlarge them on large print paper when he gets a chance.
Ben was waiting for her a few classrooms down, his tall form unmistakable against the beige lockers.
“Hey, sorry if I kept you waiting,” Rey said, holding her white cane close to her body. She has become extremely cautious with how far she sweeps the end of her aluminum cane across the hallway at school, aware of how often the end of her cane crosses into the path of other students.
Without asking, Ben offers her his right arm as a sighted guide. Rey gratefully takes it.
“It’s fine, I’m not in a hurry.”
She knew he tutored other students after school, but he doesn’t broach the subject. Something in the tense line of his jaw discourages her from asking about it. They exit the near-deserted school with her arm tucked in his. This close, Rey can make out the scent of Ben, something clean and musky that makes her almost lightheaded with recognition.
It’s the same scent from her dream.
There’s a light mist of rain outside the makes the air feel cooler than it is. She and Ben don’t speak, but Rey doesn’t feel pressured to fill the silence. She reminded herself to breathe, imagining the click of the second-hand on a mechanical clock. Slow and calm. Ben’s body was scorching next to hers, even surrounded by the damp.
Ben opened the door to his car for her and she got in, folding up her cane and stowing it in the floorboard. When the car flared to life she heard the hum of the local college radio station.
Once they pulled out of Clevedale High, Ben turned to her, then turned back to the road in front of him. He fiddled with one of the compartments in the dashboard and pulled something out of it.
“Do you smoke?” he asked, aiming for casual, but Rey could hear the tension in his voice.
“I haven’t tried it,” she replied truthfully.
They aren’t headed home, Rey realized. Ben had driven them off the busiest road in town, through some mainly undeveloped lanes and into a stretch of empty street in between planned housing developments.
He puts the joint between his lips and pulled a lighter from his pocket, lit it, and took several long inhales. With the car surrounded in dim, gloomy rain, the flaming end of the joint was like a hearth that they were both crowding around. Rey took it from him with trembling fingers.
“Breath in, but don’t exhale right away. Hold the smoke in your lungs for a couple seconds,” he said. Ben’s voice was low and gravely from inhaling the smoke. Hearing it made her stomach flutter and she coughed up a lungful of hot smoke. He rubbed her back in warm circles with the heel of his palm while her virgin lungs acclimated to the sting, handing her a bottle of water to drink from.
At some point Ben pulled over and turned off the car. They were parked on a suburban street in the gently raining afternoon and Ben’s hand was still on her shoulder, warming her like the spray of a hot shower on her uncovered skin.
She got it, the second time. Rey handed the joint back to him and lazily watched curls of smoke fill the car.
“I promise I won’t tell your friends about this.”
Because her head felt like it was full of wispy cotton-balls, Rey couldn’t stop herself from saying, “It’s ok, you’re my friend too.”
Somehow, Ben drove them home, and Rey was so riveted by the way his fair skin glowed against his black hair that she let him buy her an ice cream without panicking about how she would pay him back.
I promise this is going somewhere. if you are enjoying this fic come check out my tumblr at luna_plath