“Shut up!” Florian shouted.
Gunther shoved Florian to the ground, slamming his head against a low concrete wall in the parking lot.
When Florian opened his eyes, he could see the kids running off. He listened to the pattering of shoes striking cold pavement and their backpacks clanking behind them as they disappeared. Florian rubbed the back of his sore head, cursing to himself. The boys who lived with him at the Foster home often made snide remarks, sneering and deriding him until he’d put on his earphones and hoodie and slink off to his room. Gunther was the leader of the group, and his beatings were getting worse. Florian tried to keep to himself at Gymnasium, because he didn’t want the smart kids finding out he lived in a Foster home. There was nothing to do in his room but read and do homework, which made him smarter, perpetuating a horrible cycle of torment and isolation. But he didn’t care. Education was his way out. Then, he wouldn’t have to care about what anyone said.
The other boys went home to visit their parents. Most of the kids in the home were in a special program to reunite them with their families, but Florian had no family to reunite with. So, he stayed alone with the social workers, helping them with the groceries and household chores. After Florian cleaned out the leaves from the storm gutters, he took his scooter for a long ride. He took it far away from the village where the country roads begin to wind and the hills become wild with trees and rolling fields. Then, he found a good place to stand on the side of the road and watch the horses graze as they flicked off flies with their long coarse tails.
Staring out at the lonely landscape made him feel at home. The German countryside mirrored how he felt about himself. Alive, but unnoticed, and quietly disregarded. Could he ever be happy with that? Could he be as carefree as those damn horses?
The sun began its descent behind the horizon. Florian zipped up his sweater as the chill of dusk gripped his bones like the thin cold fingers of an eerie phantom. He could hear the buzzing of the flies provoking the dusty horses. One of the brown ones gave a fly a smack with his tail and the fly went tumbling off.
“Good one,” Florian cheered.
The faint smell of dry manure wafted up at him. He kind of liked it. The manure mixed with the smell of grass and the fresh spring air and signified the end of a long winter. Signified the end of sleepy days covered in snow and the end of grey foggy skies. He took one last look at the hills before turning back and pushed off, but as he started rolling down the street, something flashed behind him. He looked back, stumbling off his scooter in horror.
His body trembled, but he caught himself, clenching the handlebars tightly as a large spiraling light radiated in front of him. Florian squinted at it and shook his head, trying to believe what he was seeing. Then the light vanished.
“Did you see that?” he asked the horses.
But the horses hadn’t stopped grazing.
As Florian scooted back home, he thought about what he had seen. He couldn’t decide if he had finally gone mad or not, but he definitely wouldn’t tell anyone. All the while, he couldn’t get the image of the spiraling light out of his mind.
He wanted to go back the first chance he got, but the next day was a Monday. So, he went to school as usual and then came home by the public bus. All the kids were talking and laughing with each other, and some of the Foster kids were standing at the very front of the bus cussing in English just for fun. Florian sat alone, mulling over his depression as usual. He was about to put his earphones in when a classmate climbed on. It was Karen, a brunette beauty in his senior class. He quickly put his head down so she wouldn’t see he had been staring, but she had already caught his gaze and pushed herself towards his seat.
“Hi,” she said, gazing down at him with large brown eyes.
Nervously, he fumbled with his earphones. Tried not to notice her glossy lip balm and thought about just putting in his earphones and ignoring her.
“Can I sit here?”
He nodded a quick yes, and she sat down, dropping her backpack into the small space in front of her shoes.
They found themselves uncomfortably close. She looked around the bus anxiously and he decidedly shoved his earphones in his ears. Then, they both fidgeted with their hands, looking anywhere but at one another. The bus came to a loud stop and Florian jumped up.
“Uh… My stop,” he stammered.
“Oh, sure,” she smiled and stood to let him pass. “Tschuess!”
Florian rushed home and did his homework as fast as he could. Then, asked for permission to go out.
“Sechs uhr,” the social worker warned, telling him to be back before six o’clock.
Florian shook his head and rushed out the door.
When he arrived at the field, it was already late. Florian sat on the side of the road and gazed out at the horizon.
Six o’clock came and he had to go back. One of the social workers, Helga, scolded him as he came rushing through the door.
“Sorry, I fell off my scooter!”
Helga was a short woman, but a hefty one hundred kilograms. She was quite friendly, but could be as sharp as a whip with the teenagers. She had always felt a little sorry for Florian and thought he was a pretty good kid. As he traveled across the room, she saw he hadn’t any holes in his clothes and sensed a lie. He sat at the dinner table and they shared a tender, knowing smile.
“Where’d you go?” asked a ten-year-old named Sebastian.
“Maybe he had a date with Karen,” Gunther, joked.
“Who’s Karen?” asked Helga.
Florian gave Gunther an angry look, his face turning red, and balled up his fists under the table. Gunther just whispered to one of the other boys and then looked back at him long and hard. Not so hard that Helga noticed, but hard enough to be threatening.
“Tell me now,” Helga laughed.
“She’s no one,” Florian mumbled.
“Just a girl he likes.”
“Frau Marx, he doesn’t want to tell you he likes her, but everyone knows!”
“Is that right?”
Helga laughed it off. She knew not to keep pushing from years of experience handling teenage boys.
“Well, eat your dinner. You’ve got chores to do.”
Florian brooded at the table for a long while. They would be happy when he was gone, he thought. If that light was a portal, he’d escape from this place.
Florian didn’t have a chance to go back at all that week, but he spent all his free time sketching the spiraling light in his notebooks. He wondered what it was; an alien, a portal, a government experiment? He started devising a plan to spend the whole weekend camped out in the field, telling Helga he was going to stay over at a new friend’s house. He called himself from a public phone and stored the number on his cell under the name Marcus. Then showed her the number to prove he was real. On Saturday morning, he woke up extra early and waited for the staff to go on the balcony for a smoke before stuffing his backpack full of food and soda.
At ten, he scooted back to the same place he had seen the light. Once he got there, he wished he had brought more to read. He got bored only after a few hours, but still he waited. Waited until the sun went down and he had to pull a blanket over his shoulders to ward off the cold. It was hard not to dose off, but that’s what he brought the soda for. He cracked open a Coke. It sizzled as it opened and he took a long sip.
Suddenly, he saw the light flash. He dropped the soda can in the grass and jumped up, watching the light swirl into a small point. He walked slowly towards it. He thought it might disappear as he came closer, like a rainbow, but the light only grew brighter in front of him. So, he reached out his hand to the light, but hesitated to touch it. Would it burn him? Would he disappear? He stood looking at it. This was his chance. The light seemed to be calling him, mesmerizing him even as fear gripped his heart. As he came closer, he could feel the warmth on his face. And then it vanished.
Florian turned around.
“Where’d you go last night?” Gunther said as he approached him with three of his friends.
Gunther shoved him in the chest.
“Did you see your pretty girl?”
He shoved him again.
“Come on, man,” Florian said, stepping back from the group.
“You’re a fucking weirdo!”
Gunther punched him in the face and the other boys kicked him. Florian fell to the ground, writhing in pain as they kicked until he couldn’t move and then ran off high five-ing. After a few minutes, Florian picked himself up and wiped away the blood and tears from his face.
“Fucking losers,” he muttered. “Next time I’m going in that light. I’ll show you losers.”
He stopped at the Markt to use the restroom and clean himself up. Then, bought a soda and some candy and began walking home. He was sure Helga would notice his face. He had cleaned the blood off well, but his eye was cut and bruised and his clothes were stained with mud.
All he could think about on the walk home was how much he wanted to disappear. The thought recurred obsessively in his mind. He tried to stamp it out with his shoes as he stepped. He stuffed his hands in his sweater pockets angrily and furled his brow. Still, the unquenchable desire to end his life remained. If he hadn’t seen the light then maybe he would have hung himself on the tree in the pasture. But, this was even better. He could go somewhere else. He could travel heroically to another world. He could show them.
When he came inside, Helga rushed towards him.
“Oh my! What happened, Florian?”
She sat him down on the couch.
Helga got an icepack out of the freezer and gave it to him for his eye.
“Florian,” she looked at him and sighed. “I know the kids make fun of you. Tell me who it was.”
“I’d rather not get beat up again if that’s okay with you.”
Helga put her hand on his shoulder and he flinched a little from the pain.
“Poor thing! Those monsters!”
One of the boys walked through the kitchen and then went off to his room when he saw Florian. When they were alone again, Helga leaned in closer.
“I’ll tell you something, Florian. I’ve been working here for thirteen years and seen a lot of boys come and go. You are smart and kind. Don’t let your situation make your destiny. You make your own destiny.”
If anyone was like a mother to him, it was Helga. She gave him a hug and then left him to his ice.
The following Saturday, Florian went off to his fake friend’s house again. She wouldn’t let him spend the night, but let him stay out till eleven. Florian thought that would be okay and took off for the hills.
When the light came, Florian was ready. He ran up to it and stood as close as he could, trying to catch his breath. This time he was going to step in. He didn’t care. If he was lucky maybe it would suck him out of this world into another dimension or some other place. Even though he liked Karen, he figured it was a long shot anyway. He didn’t think anything here was worth staying for.
He readied himself with a deep breath and expelled all the fear from his lungs. He kept his hands at his sides and closed his eyes, lifting his foot up off the dry grass as the light spun in front of him. He could feel the warmth on his cheeks and on his chest. It felt like summer, drawing him in.
As he stepped into the portal, he felt his will to survive stirring in his soul, swelling up in him like a giant wave. The light was blinding. Hot. He felt himself dying and was surprised when he fought against it.
Florian opened his eyes.
Helga clasped her hand to her mouth. Tears were streaming down her cheeks.
Florian could hear the slow pulse of the heart monitor as it beeped. He found himself lying in a hospital bed.
“Did you see the portal?” he asked, sleepily.
Helga took his hand, careful not to touch the Iv.
“The light! You grabbed me out from it, didn’t you?”
Helga wiped tears from her face.
“Gunther and you were in a fight, dear. You hit your head on the pavement. You’ve been in a coma for two weeks. We’re so glad you’re okay. You must not worry. Gunther has been removed from the home. He’ll never hurt you again.”
Florian laid back in the bed and inhaled a slow deliberate breath. His mouth was dry and his lips were cracked. He tried to form the question, but it took some time to wet his throat.
“Then what was the portal?”
In one dimension Florian died. And in one, he lived. As the portal spun, so spun the endless possibilities for his life. The great pinwheel whirled as his spirit breathed on it a cool soft breath. And Florian fell from blade to blade.
“Florian?” Helga hollered in the biting chill of night.
She flashed her flashlight on the tired melancholy horses. The grass bent softly in the wind and the old tree bowed over the earth heavy and silent.