The Infinite Noise – Lauren Shippen

Oh god, it’s happening again. I squeeze my eyes shut to make the dizziness stop. It doesn’t work. I open them again and focus my eyes on my usual seat, like looking at the horizon when you get motion sick on a boat. I steady my feet the best I can and walk into class, navigating the rows of desks like they’re choppy waves. People take their seats around me and I’m caught in a whirlpool, getting dizzier and dizzier, my seat looking farther and farther away and I can’t believe I’m about to pass out in the middle of math. And here I was thinking math couldn’t get any worse. “Settle down, everyone, settle down,” Ms. Ramirez yells from the front of the class. “I know you’re all anxious to get your exams back and you will, but we’ve got to get through class first, so take a seat.” Anxious. Yeah. No kidding, Ms. Ramirez. I’d forgotten we were getting our midterms back until Ramirez dropped a stack of papers on her desk and the entire room tilted as we all remembered what day it is.

How does this never get easier? I make it through the whole period, somehow. I absorb, like, zero percent of the lesson—my stomach is sloshing and my feet are unsteady on the ground. I know I’m going to fall over the moment I stand up. Maybe it’s not that bad. Maybe the test went better than I remember. I tear my eyes away from the spot on the wall and take a quick glance around the room as Ms. Ramirez gathers the stack of paper and starts moving around the room. Yep, pretty much seasick faces as far as the eye can see. Not a great sign. “… and remember that your workbooks are due on my desk at the start of class on Friday, not the end.

I know some of you try to sneak in some work during class…” Ms. Ramirez is talking like half of her class isn’t frozen in fear, but I can barely hear her over the buzzing of dread in my ears. I really am going to pass out. I watch my hand grab the paper Ms. Ramirez is passing to me as she walks by my desk and feel my sweaty palms dampen the pages. The buzzing is joined by my heartbeat pounding loudly in my head as I turn over the paper. 57. I got a 57. The sinking, swirling feeling isn’t relieved by knowing. It squeezes around me.

Heaviness fills my body and I lose all feeling in my limbs. Don’t pass out, Caleb. Whatever you do, don’t pass out. This is the worst it’s ever been. This horrible, overwhelming feeling is crushing me and has been for weeks and weeks. It might actually finish the job this time and leave me totally squashed. Before it can, the buzzing starts to die down and the swaying of the room slows. I look up to see if someone opened a window—suddenly there’s fresh air and sunlight in here—and see Moses across the aisle grinning big at his exam. There’s a big 98 circled on his paper. My stomach should drop in jealousy but I find myself feeling weirdly happy for him.

Looking at him grinning like a maniac at his test is steadying me for some reason. “Aw, look, Mr. Popular got a fifty-seven,” someone says behind me, and it’s like the window being slammed shut. “Guess it’s true what they say about Football Brain.” Tyler snickers and it cuts into me like splinters. I find my spot on the wall again and stare at it like I’m Superman and could laser-eye a hole in the wall and escape. Don’t turn around, Caleb, it’ll just make it worse. You know the moment you look at his smug face, you’ll want to choke him with his hoodie. The bell rings and I instantly spring into action. I shrug my jacket back on, stuff my test in my backpack, and stand up, my eyes never leaving the spot on the wall.

I’ve moved through this classroom for the past two and a half years, I know exactly where the door is, so I start walking in that direction, don’t collect two hundred dollars as you pass Go. Simple. I can do this. I can use my stupid, strong Football Legs to walk the rest of my Football Body toward a doorway. Goddamn. A 57. Maybe I really do have Football Brain. “Tell me, Michaels, did your GPA go down each time you got tackled this season, or were you born dumb?” Tyler is right on my heels, which are moving thankyouverymuch, and I feel my whole body grow hot with anger. It itches at my skin but I just keep walking toward the door. “Shut up, Tyler,” I grind out.

“I’m honestly kinda amazed they even let you play,” he crows—loud enough to draw attention, like he wants—as he follows me into the hallway. “I mean, can you even read the numbers on the field?” There’s a fire in my chest, choking out all the oxygen in my lungs, and something else—something weighty and dark, making me taste metal. I do everything I can to focus on moving forward. “And, aw, look,” Tyler says, “little Moses got a ninety-eight!” I look around to see Tyler snatch Moses’s test from his hands and wave it around. Like always, Tyler is dressed like grunge never went out of style and has got that toothy sneer plastered over his face. It always makes me want to hit something. I should just keep walking, I know I should, but my whole body seizes up and I stop in my tracks without meaning to. Moses’s face is covered in flop sweat as he tries to get his test back from Tyler and my heart starts beating like it’s been injected with Red Bull. “C’mon, Tyler, give it back,” Moses pipes up, his soft voice barely getting to my ears. I can’t breathe.

Why can’t I breathe? Am I having an asthma attack? Do I have asthma? “What do you think, guys,” Tyler grandstands to absolutely no one. “Is it just impossible to be smart and athletic?” My heart is in my throat now and I feel like my head is in a vise. I want to walk away, get far away from Tyler, but there’s this heavy, dark-feeling pit in my stomach that’s weighing me down where I stand. My field of vision narrows until all that’s left is Tyler’s dumb crooked smile. “I mean, on the one hand we’ve got running back Michaels over here with a failing grade…” God, I want to wipe that smile off his face. “… and on the other hand we’ve got fatso Moses with—” “Mr. Michaels, that’s enough!” The voice cuts through the ringing in my ears and I come back to my body. There are strong hands gripping my arms, pulling me backward. My face feels hot, air ripping harshly down my throat. I’m breathing heavily, too much oxygen getting into my lungs, making me dizzy.

My hand hurts. I look down at it to find it curled into a tight fist. There’s blood on it. “My office, now. Both of you.” The voice speaks again, coming from behind me. Principal Stevens lets go of my arms and I fold forward like a marionette whose strings have been cut, panting as I push my hands into my knees to keep myself upright. I squeeze my eyes shut, try to slow my breathing. “Now, gentlemen!” Stevens yells, starting down the hall. Expecting us to follow.

Us. Tyler. I open my eyes and take in the scene around me, the last few minutes hazily coming back to me. Tyler is still on the floor, sitting back on his hands. Our eyes lock and he jumps up, wiping his bloody nose on his shirtsleeve. Oh. The blood on my fist is his. Fuck. What did I do? 2 ADAM I can’t believe it’s happening again. “Out of the way, loser!” Bryce yells from behind me and I clench my jaw, willing myself not to respond.

Talking back won’t win me anything. Neither will passivity, I guess, because seconds later my shoulder is slamming into the lockers as Bryce pushes past me, hard. I try not to flinch when he growls “freak” as he glares over his shoulder at me. This is a tactic animals use, right? Staying completely still so you don’t trigger a predator’s kill instinct? Fight, flight, or freeze. As Bryce turns his face the other way to talk to Justin, his scowl transforms into a laugh. Maybe he’s laughing at something Justin said, maybe he’s laughing at my expense. At this point, I don’t really care—he’s walking away and that’s all that matters. Freeze has its advantages. But so does flight. Which is exactly what I do next.

More than halfway through the semester and I’d thought maybe, just maybe, we weren’t going to do this this year. After all, junior year is when everyone else is finally supposed to start taking this whole education thing seriously, right? Focus on acing the SATs, get good grades, build that resume for college apps? Where do these guys find the time to be bullies? My feet have taken me automatically to the library—my own special defense mechanism. I don’t have the luxury of not caring about my future, so I go inside to get some work done, finding my way to a back corner table that’s almost completely surrounded by bookshelves. “Are you hiding?” I look up to see Moses Miller standing in the narrow space between two of the perpendicular bookcases that protect me from the world, shifting his weight from foot to foot—a habit he’s had since elementary school. It makes me feel like I’m on a boat. “No,” I lie, and he narrows his eyes. “Because if you’re not using this nook to hide, then I’d really like to,” he says in that small voice of his, made even smaller by the library-appropriate whisper. I’m probably the only person that Moses is ever this assertive with. A loser can make demands of another loser, I guess. “We can share,” I say, stretching my leg to kick out the chair opposite me.

“This nook is prime real estate.” “I know.” Moses nods enthusiastically as he sits. “One narrow entrance in the stacks, natural light from the window, view through the shelves of the main study area, and three chairs that aren’t broken. It’s a miracle nook.” I smile for the first time that day. “So who are you hiding from?” Moses asks. My smile disappears. “Just, you know…” I shrug like it’s no big deal. “… Bryce and his merry band of cronies.

You’d think the allure of making dumb jabs at someone’s social status would have worn off by now.” “Man, I’m sorry, that sucks.” Moses winces sympathetically. “Bryce is the worst.” “Like you’d know,” I bite. “Those guys never bug you.” “Yeah, because Justin’s my cousin. He’d get in massive trouble with his mom if he and his friends picked on me at school. But I’m the one that has to spend every holiday with the guy, so who’s really losing here?” “I think we’re both losing, Moses,” I deadpan. He nods like this is a known fact of the universe.

God, what a depressing thought. “You’re in here a lot, huh?” Moses asks. “Why do you say that?” I don’t like the idea of someone noticing my comings and goings. Two and a half years and I’ve got my system figured out—I know where and when to be out of the way to avoid Bryce and Justin and the rest of the football team. I don’t need Moses or anyone else mucking up my system. “We have similar routines.” He shrugs. “Go to class, avoid the jerks. You know, the Nerd Way of Life.” “Ha, right,” I snort.

“Not that I’m your level of nerd,” he continues, the tip of his nose getting sweaty and red. “I mean, I’m not in any AP classes like you, but I do okay. I got a ninety-eight on my math test.” He looks up at me expectantly like I’m supposed to throw him a parade or something. “That’s awesome, Moses,” I intone. “Yeah, it is,” he says, nodding. “It is awesome, and stupid Tyler—” Moses looks down at his hands, hiding his shiny face, and a few things start to click together. “So … who are you hiding from?” I ask reluctantly, wishing desperately that this nook had a door I could lock. It’s not that I don’t like Moses—it’s that Moses reminds me too much of myself, and that’s a real bummer to be around sometimes. “Principal Stevens.

” “Wait, what?” Moses lifts his head and leans forward. “I don’t think I’m going to get in trouble for it,” he whispers, “but Tyler was making fun of me and then he and Caleb got into this huge fight—” “Caleb Michaels?” I interrupt, my breath caught in my throat. “Yeah,” he breathes. “Tyler was being Tyler and Caleb just decked him. And, I mean, Stevens broke it up pretty quickly, but there was blood all over the floor. It was nuts.” “Oh my god,” I murmur, trying to imagine quiet, beautiful Caleb hitting someone. I guess that’s what football teaches you. “I know.” Moses nods.

“That’s the first time there’s been a fight that bad in years. I don’t even wanna think about what their punishment is gonna be.” 3 CALEB Sitting next to a bleeding, pissed-off Tyler outside of Principal Stevens’s office was bad enough, but sitting in this unfamiliar waiting room alone, waiting for the ax to fall, is torture. Things could have been way worse at school—all we got was a one-day suspension and we have to clean all the science labs for the rest of the semester (though not together, thank god)—but somehow, this entire messed-up situation has led to me sitting here, in a therapist’s waiting room. It’s eerily quiet, the muted walls and low light making me forget what time of day it is. I begged off when my dad asked me if I wanted him to come in with me, but now I’m wishing he was here. I need something to focus on other than the dread of what this is going to be like and how stiff this couch is. The office door groans open and a petite, perfectly dressed woman steps out. She looks a bit like the waiting room—simple and subdued. “Caleb Michaels?” she calls, her voice soft but strong.

“Uh, yeah.” I stand up, wiping my sweaty palms on my jeans. “That’s me.” “Come on in, Caleb.” She steps to the side, ushering me into the room. “Please, take a seat,” she says, gesturing to the couch, which thankfully has more pillows than the waiting room. It’s lighter in here—daylight streaming in from the window—and I move cautiously toward the couch, sitting awkwardly. Am I supposed to lie down? Is that something that people still do? “My name is Dr. Bright,” she says as she sits in the chair opposite me. “I’m very glad you’ve come to see me.

” “Yeah.” I shrug. “I mean, I didn’t exactly choose to be here.” “Do you know why your parents wanted you to come?” Ugh, she sounds so earnest. Why does she have to sound like that? My skin itches and I can’t figure out why. “Because I hurt someone,” I mutter when it’s obvious she’s just gonna stare at me until I say something. “What happened?” “This guy in my grade was being a jerk, so I hit him.” I shrug, not looking at her. There’s something in her face that puts me on edge—like she pities me. I hate that.

“What was he doing that made you want to hit him?” I’m thrown off by the question. No one else asked that. Not the principal or the school counselor or my parents. No one asked anything. They just assumed we got into a fight because that’s what teenage boys do. No one brought what I wanted into it. What I want has not factored into this situation at all. Last time I checked, getting into a fight at school didn’t mean you had to go to fucking therapy, but here I am, sitting across from some woman called “Dr. Bright” like she’s a Sesame Street character, pretending I don’t want to crawl out of my skin. “I don’t know.

I don’t know that I did want to hit him, I just…” I trail off, shrugging again. “Did you feel like you had to hit him?” I nod. “Why is that?” “Like I said, he was being really uncool.”


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