It starts with a new kid named Max, my high school crush Roman, a sprained wrist, and a baby dragon. In that order, actually.
Well, no, it starts the day I was born when my mother, having recently lost her husband in a car accident some two weeks before, was startled out of her immense grief by a levitating baby. Her levitating baby, in fact, who was giggling in delight at his new perspective somewhere near the ceiling. You'll learn pretty quick that I don't do things by halves.
Eventually levitating babies turned into floating toys and bottles, reigniting birthday candles, and mood-based hair colors. Mum would always sigh at me and remind me that it was all meant to be a secret. She'd make this face every time I got close to slipping up – one that accused me of purposefully ignoring the One Rule.
I imagine for most teenagers the one rule is 'Don't stay out too late on a school night,' or 'If you don't finish your homework you can't have dessert' or 'No, you can't go to So-and-So's drug party, there will be drugs there and if you do those you will die.'
To be fair, mum never really had to worry about stuff like that. I'm not a huge fan of the dark, I'm pretty good about my homework, and in order to go to So-and-So's drug party someone has to want you there in the first place.
'Wow,' you're probably thinking, 'You must be a real winner if you can't even get invited to stoner parties.'
We're getting there, I promise.
I mean, I could just leave you with 'I'm weird' and let that be the end of it, but that's an easy out, and not nearly as exciting as the whole story. Yeah, I'm weird, but so is everyone else. That's just what people are. Everyone is this crazy mash-up of parents and friends and characters from media, so intricately intertwined that it's impossible to discern an individual personality. If the extent of my weirdness was enjoying comics, or method acting, or even an extra toe, then I could have probably gotten through high school relatively unnoticed. Hell, maybe even moderately liked.
Destiny spat on my face and gave me honest-to-god magic. You know, like an asshole would do.
'Wow,' you're probably saying, 'That sounds awesome! You could be a superhero!'
Oh, my sweet summer child. Have you ever seen real magic in this world? The kind that can't be explained away by science, or sleight of hand, or CGI? No, you haven't – because magic doesn't exist. Magic is a fairy tale, like mermaids or unicorns. I'd say like dragons but there's a particularly grumpy one living halfway up the mountain on the edge of town. I am an anomaly.
So, instead of mum berating me for throwing my life and liver away on rampant drug abuse, she has – for as long as I can remember – urged me to keep my magic a secret.
'That must be pretty difficult,' you're saying, in your golden world full of happy fantasies of schools where you can learn this shit and have grand death-defying adventures with kids your own age and end up saving the entire world from someone who also has magic but, like, the bad kind. I used to live there, in that golden world of modern fantasy literature.
Not to be dramatic (or, more dramatic than I already am) but this isn't 'pretty difficult'. It's nearly impossible. Sure, I had a solid couple of years where I'd stopped floating randomly, and my hair (having previously been explained away as 'discovering my mum's hair dye collection’) had mellowed to an even brown, but we all knew that wasn't going to last.
For most kids, puberty is hell. You grow hair in weird places, you sweat all the time and your skin is constantly greasy, pimples everywhere. Suddenly you just want to lock yourself up in your room, exploring the internet and regretting your choice of impromptu lubricant. Puberty is worse when you realize the reason you were never really interested in getting a girlfriend was because you were never really interested in girls, and you were sort of hoping puberty would fix that.
Add a dash of hormonal impulse that affects the magic you definitely aren't supposed to have and you've got the recipe for the worst decade of your life.
I have become a recluse. I think I used to have friends. I think there was a time when I didn't sit alone in a secluded area for lunch – when I sat at a table surrounded by my peers who were letting me participate in normal small human activities and conversation. That was probably years ago, and my memory has always been a bit fuzzy.
People give me a pretty wide berth these days. I'm not trying to be a mysterious loner. Odd things tend to happen around me, and my teachers and classmates have been tuned to notice.
It doesn't help that the last time I had a conversation with someone in my own age group that lasted more than thirty seconds I'd asked Sam Kingsley what he thought dragons might eat and he pushed me into the mud.
We were eight. Dragons are a fantastic topic for eight year olds, even to this day. I'll admit that, prior to my mud bath, I'd been rather adamant that you couldn't feed them cats as they had an important symbiotic relationship, and that eating one was the gravest of Dragon Taboos. I also implied that if he wasn't going to be helpful he should just leave, as I had a very large, hungry dragon on the side of the mountain to deal with.
I think Sam Kingsley thought I was calling him names.
Now, I'm sure you're thinking, 'Oh, but Julian, that's not enough to make you an outcast among your peers! Kids love dragons!'
You're super wrong though. Sam Kingsley doesn't like dragons. Besides, Sam Kingsley has a fat mouth and went around making sure that everyone knew I still believed in dragons in third grade. People started watching me more closely, hoping I would say or do more weird stuff. I went from 'That Rhydderch kid who thinks there's a dragon in town,' to 'That Rhydderch kid who's shoes flew thirty feet in the air when he tripped on his own shoelace.' and then, 'That Rhydderch kid who must eat butterflies, because every time he sneezes one appears.'
Suddenly everyone's attention was on me, and everything I did and said was picked apart and thoroughly examined for oddity.
It's important to note that, under any sort of scrutiny, there's not a single person on this planet who doesn't come off as a bit weird. Someone out there thinks your haircut doesn't suit you, or notices you always step onto the train with your left foot, or is judging you for LARPing. Someone out there heard you like Chad Kroeger's singing voice and are wondering what your parents did to hurt you.
Hell, your parents created you and they still don't know what went wrong.
Without the magic I probably would've been described as clumsy. I wouldn't have anything to hide. I wouldn't have to push people away. I wouldn't spend so much time with my nose buried in historical reference books hoping for some sort of explanation.
When I was in seventh grade I was picked as goalie in gym, not because I was any good at soccer, but because at that point everyone thought I was the weirdest kid in the whole world and thought it might be fun to kick soccer balls at me. I'm sure it was fun, until the soccer balls started kicking back.
In eighth the school bully punched me in the eye, giving me a huge bruise. Seconds later a duplicate bruise appeared on her eye. We both got suspended for fighting, even though I'd never punched back.
Then freshman year started and I had this ridiculous idea that things were going to be different. It was a different district, there were kids there that had never met me, I had a chance of being at least normal-adjacent. New school, new me.
I was almost confident that first morning, excited about the possibilities. Mum fretted over me. I think she was worried I was getting my hopes up. I would've felt touched by her concern if it was there for some other reason than because I was smiling too much.
As it turned out, the first day wasn't so bad. I'd made some connections, even got invited to sit at a lunch table despite my quiet nature. It shouldn't have been nearly as exciting as it was, but I'd spent a lot of time alone, and now this whole new world of, well, not popularity, but companionship was spread out before me, and I felt so secure about my place in the world for a solid week and a half.
Turns out, Destiny had some more spit for me. A big fat wad of it that somehow spelled out my name in perfect calligraphy.
A week and a half into the school year I got sick. It wasn't completely unheard of. My immune system is generally garbage and I have a habit of getting sick so often that all of the nurses and even some of the patients at my doctor's office know me on a first-name basis.
My doctor is the only other person in the entire world who knows my secret. He'd found out at my first check-up, when he'd asked my mother to loosen her grip on me and I'd started to float away. Thankfully, he swept it off and gave me my immunizations, a few instructions for my mum, and a pale-faced nod as she nervously ambled out the door. No government agents or scientists showed up at our door after that, so mum figured Dr. Emmett was trustworthy.
This particular instance was especially bad. I could barely walk and my fever was getting worse and worse all through the night. Finally mum had enough and forced me to go to the doctor's office. All I remember is that he said my fever was unbelievably high, and that he'd given me a few prescriptions to pick up. The rest of the week was a blur.
Somehow I'd made it back home. I'd woken up in my own bed, which had been a great source of relief for me as I'd been incredibly concerned, in my fevered state, about the logistics of navigating public transit without any legs. Mum told me I kept mumbling about holding onto the safety straps like a monkey, and asking if people would mind terribly that I was using two, as one was not enough to support my weight – legs or no.
Finally came the blessed day when I was free from the confines of the fever and was subsequently released back into the wilds of the dank hormonal teenage wasteland that is high school.
I should've stayed sick.
Apparently, while I was sick, someone had had the rather creative and insidious idea of defacing a large collection of books in the English department. Every edition of the Portrait of Dorian Gray and A Midsummer Night's Dream now bore, on nearly every page, the words 'Dewin yw Julian Rhydderch!' Despite my absence during the crime, the faculty focused on me. It was my name, after all, and no amount of doctor's notes could prove that I hadn't sneaked in after hours to destroy school property.
After that, old stories from elementary and middle school resurfaced and things went back to how they'd been the year before. I was ousted from my Actual Table With People seat, and relocated to a quiet unused room in the winter, and under the branches of a drooping pine tree near the soccer field in the warmer months.
Also, there was a week-long suspension, and detention every day after school for a week, with the reminder that I still had to get all my school-work done and that I should be thankful I didn't get expelled.
After that it was just easier to stay quiet. I stopped raising my hand in class, stopped acknowledging when people spoke to me. I'd always been quiet, but now I was silent. It didn't make the other kids stares any less painful. Even the kids I ate lunch with for almost two glorious weeks sent weird looks my way now. At least I'd grown used to it years before.
The only people who seemed to mind were teachers who had invested a little too much of their sanity in teenager's rumors. I didn't fight too hard against them, partially because they'd already made up their minds about me, and partially because, even if I'd had such a terrible fever while those books were being ruined, even if I couldn't stand, let alone write, or plan or do any higher motor function than groaning miserably into my pillow, I knew the moment I saw my name written in chicken scratch across the pages that I'd done it.
That was my handwriting. Those were two of the books assigned in English class that semester, both with at least a modicum of homo-eroticism wrapped into the story, and the words on each page in bright blue ink only spoke the truth.
'Julian Rhydderch is a Wizard.'
It was lucky no one at school could speak Welsh.
So, I stopped talking. I stopped trying to make friends. Mum still fretted. She wasn't used to all the silence, but I couldn't explain why it was necessary, even to myself. It just was.
Freshman year got bad. Somehow sophomore year was worse. That's when all the people who already thought I was weird decided to taunt me. I think they were trying to see if they could provoke me into doing more weird shit.
Hell started with jokes at my expense. Then there were pranks. By November it had progressed to me being the scapegoat for graffiti or theft. The faculty already thought I was a trouble-maker, so they were quick to believe others when they said I'd done something wrong. Then there were the fights. I'd gotten black eyes so many times mum must've thought I'd invested in a bad make-up company or joined some back-alley fight club.
I stayed out of the way as much as I could. My grades suffered, I hardly slept, my immune system gave in and it felt like I'd been sick for weeks. Being quiet seemed to help people forget that existed, but it was a lonely way to live.
I replaced conversation with daydreams. They often included things like using magic to disrupt teachers and putting the blame on one of my tormentors, or the school being under attack by zombies or dragons and I have to use my magic in front of everyone to save them. That one always ends with everyone calling me a hero and apologizing.
I know that's pretty childish. I barely have a grasp on magic, so saving anyone is pretty improbable.
Besides, the only dragon I know lives on the mountain and she says she's as likely to attack the town as I am to grow a pair of wings and perform a hand-fasting ritual between a squirrel and a frog. I commented that I didn't know the spell for growing wings, and that I'd only perform the hand-fasting if the squirrel and frog were truly in love, and she wouldn't speak to me for a month.
The other common daydream involves the striker for the varsity soccer team, and the vine lattice that would lead right to my window, should I ever convince mum we need more plants in the yard.
This particular daydream is reserved for evenings and cold showers, although it doesn't always stay confined to that schedule.