Preparation. Tedious, extensive, stressful preparation that drew out the worst in everyone. Attitudes eroded down to the glaring grump that resides in everybody, waiting to be awaken. But the worst had only just begun.

The light, cheery 'ding-dong!' grew monotone and tired. Familiar faces mingled with distant, am-I-supposed-to-remember-you relatives; guests poured in. Whip out the masks and fake smiles as people grow bored half to death. Overwhelmed by this sudden grogginess, they lulled on the sofa... Perhaps some old family photos to lift the mood?

His hiding place remained untouched.

Mild attention stirred the population. 'California looks like it was amazing.' turned in to, 'He should have looked at the camera more.' and then, 'Oh! Must have been the lighting.' Each photograph was yet another accident... Kindling for another destructive, internal flame to erase it all... Why did it have to be him?

"Why isn't the boy out here?"

"Ah... He hasn't been feeling too well lately," said a very well-known female voice.

Springs creaked from the furniture, but then the sounds faded into persistence from Iris. "Nope. Didn't wanna get anyone sick."

Then chimed Ferran, his wide, sky-blue eyes visible even from this distance. "I haven't seen him for days."

The uncertain chuckle of Aunt May was audible over the buzzing chatter that drifted through the open window. "Well," she started, her voice hardly more than a careful, subtly insulting whisper, "he always was an odd boy... Peculiar. I see he hasn't changed since--"

"I only said he hasn't been feeling his greatest, May," said the first, defensively.

"Well... Send him my well-wishes," the elder voice succumbed with reluctance.

Suddenly, the rustling of dying leaves filled the gray autumn air. Thump. Heads turned to the source. 'Peculiar.' She had been frighteningly accurate.

An uninvited stillness overcame the room as his gaze bore into the eyes, the minds, the souls of so many. With the stillness came an unbreakable tension--unbreakable even to him, for a moment. A moment that was plenty long enough.

In the album that now rested on his mother's lap, each photograph held a memory. California sun back-lit each scene in turn as they materialized and vanished before his eyes. A frustration that had long been bottled inside seemed to physically escape him. Slightly relieved and satisfied after silently taking out his worries, he turned away. A gust of wind blew the long, dark hair out of his eyes and, yards away, entered the kitchen without a sound.

As though acting on some unknown sixth sense, the "odd boy," as it had been so bluntly put, began to seek out a more secluded location. The dull predictability of the night was eventually penetrated by a muffled shriek. Without a thought and without a moment's hesitation, he dug his heel into the leaf-strewn dirt. His stride was not broken as he began to sprint. To where? That, he decided, was a question best left unanswered, for now.

Not long after, the undeniable moan of a siren came within hearing distance. Its distinguished warning cries grew louder, louder... His eyes fixed on the truck of a similar color as it passed. It swerved momentarily near the rough edge of the road opposite from him before regaining its original speed and disappearing without a trace. His heart raced as his feet carried him desperately into a shadowy forest. He immediately positioned himself around the large trunk of a tree and hosted his bodyweight skillfully into the perfect hiding place. Why did he hide? Because, somehow, he knew the firetruck's destination was his home. And something told him it was all his fault.

Blood-red eyes kept a close watch on the empty street. He was most comfortable here, where nobody could find him. Where he couldn't be punished. But the danger had not been overcome.

That gaze...

The End

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