What the Heart Sees by Ileana Lallain

Chapter 1:

ZACHARY LEWISskidded around the corner of the hallway in the humanities building. He checked his watch, only to grimace at the minute hand moving farther and farther away from his class’s starting time. On the first day of the semester no less.

“Damn alarm clock,” he cursed under his breath.

His shoes squeaked on the linoleum—the left one untied and the right one missing a sock. The gold chain of his crucifix dug into his neck as the little cross dangled against his back, where he’d forgotten to retrieve it after falling asleep with the necklace still on. Running a hand through his hair reminded him he had forgotten to gel it before sprinting out of his apartment with a half-open backpack in his hand and car keys between his teeth.

He dodged two girls chatting about makeup and a guy yelling on his cell phone, then threw himself through the open doors of his assigned lecture hall. The professor, a tall man with graying hair circling his head, was already lecturing about King Lear. His monotone voice had put several students to sleep at the front of the class.

Zach scanned the room, looking for a familiar face in the crowd. He saw a few classmates from previous semesters—all of them as desperate as he was to graduate—struggling to keep their eyes open and take notes, but there was only one face he wanted to see.

He found it three rows down on the right side of the room. Zach apologized his way over several people’s feet and belongings to meet the one person he’d missed throughout his semester abroad.

“Ethan!” he whispered, greeting his longtime friend. Despite his soft voice, he got shushed by the people around them, but he didn’t care, sliding into an empty chair with a smile on his face.

Zach’s chest tightened when Ethan turned to him. Looks like the operation was a success, Zach thought with a sense of relief, noting the lack of Ethan’s usual thick-framed glasses. The absence of the overwhelmingly scratched lenses gave Zach a clear view of Ethan’s soft brown eyes, framed by his dark hair. He’s let his hair grow out too.

“Mornin’, Zach. Forgot your alarm again?” Ethan Morrow said. Though his words were teasing, his voice lacked any enthusiasm. The slight roughness of a cold wrapped around his throat like a scarf.

Zach smiled sheepishly and said, “And you got sick again this year. New Year’s?”

“Always.”

“What did I miss?”

As Ethan handed him the class syllabus, Zach noted every detail of his friend’s face. He’d gained a few freckles, but his complexion hadn’t changed visibly over the last seven months. His clothes—the plaid shirt and frayed blue jeans he often wore—hung a little looser off him. His collarbone protruded from the open collar of his shirt, and his elbows also seemed to jut out more than they had last summer.

“How are things at home with your mom and aunt?” Zach asked. He looked down at Ethan’s legs. “Have you been eating properly?”

Ethan cleared his throat before saying, “We’re fine.”

“Did you get fired? I thought you were helping with your part-time job?” Zach hadn’t heard a word the professor had said since he’d arrived, but he guessed from the rumbling snores around him that he wasn’t the only one.

“I am.” Ethan looked down but didn’t focus on anything. His pencil hovered over a blank notebook.

Zach turned to his backpack, withdrew a crumpled sheet of paper crammed into the biggest pocket, inspected it for previous writings, then shoved it back in before saying, “I don’t have work until six. Lemme treat you to lunch today, anywhere you want.”

“You know I hate charity.”

“Then don’t consider it charity—I have something important to tell you anyways. And there’s a massive bag of souvenirs for you and your aunt waiting in the trunk of my car.” He paused long enough to let a grin spread across his face, then added, “Plus I want to hear all about how great it feels to see clearly now, huh? Come on, we could finally visit that VR arcade you messaged me about while I was pestering the royal guards in London.” He half expected Ethan to call him out on his bullshit, his having been nowhere near the palace in any of his social-media posts.

Ethan did not meet his gaze. Instead, he turned toward his notebook, tapping his pencil on the desk beside it. “Can it wait till another day? I can’t today.”

Zach hid his disappointment behind a friendly smile and said, “Sure.” Sensing Ethan wanted to be left alone, he yanked out a composition book stained by various foods and pretended he meant to take notes.

He spent the rest of the class trying to ignore his burning cheeks, racing heart, and the hand that yearned to reach for Ethan’s.

THE LECTUREended early, with half the class woken up by the professor dropping his anthology from the podium. Some looked sheepish and apologetic; others yawned loudly and stretched, refreshed from their naps.

Ethan didn’t move from his seat. He inched his hand toward the cover of his notebook, still as blank as it had been at the beginning of class, closed it, and slowly pushed his pencil into the spiral binding. He awkwardly traced the outline of the topmost ring.

Ignoring Ethan’s odd behavior, Zach stuffed his scribbled notes back into the perpetually open pocket of his backpack and jammed his pencil into a side pouch intended for water bottles.

“Ready to go?” he asked, flinging the backpack over his shoulder and twirling his car keys around his finger. “I’ll drive you home. We can even take the scenic route,” he added in a singsong voice, trying to tempt Ethan to talk about his new sight. The guilt of being absent at the time of Ethan’s operation prevented Zach from asking directly.

“That sounds nice, but I can’t today,” Ethan said, sounding strained. “I have something to do.”

Zach raised an eyebrow at Ethan’s unusual evasiveness. He refused to look at Zach, staring down at his notebook instead.

“Then give me the address and I’ll drive you there,” Zach said.

“I have to stay after class to speak with the professor.”

“It’s the first day.”

“I’ll see you tomorrow, Zach.”

“I don’t have anywhere to be right now. I’ll wait.” His cheeks hurt from the smile he forced.

“I said I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Zach stood beside him for a moment longer, but Ethan didn’t budge—didn’t even look up. With a heavy heart, he said goodbye and slinked out of the classroom, blending into the hallway full of students migrating from one class to another.

Ethan resented him, of that much Zach was certain. He needed to figure out how to make up for not being there five months ago.

The more he’d missed Ethan during his semester abroad, the less Zach had messaged him. He couldn’t—and didn’t want to—put his developing feelings into something as impersonal as an email, so he became incapable of saying anything at all. He’d hesitated too long to ask about Ethan’s operation, and even now, he couldn’t get Ethan to say anything about it, let alone give Zach a chance to lift the weight off his own chest.

After sixteen years of friendship, Zach knew it took a lot to pull Ethan out of his shell once he retreated. With one last glance toward the classroom’s closed doors, Zach vowed to do whatever it would take to fix his mistake.

THE NEXTclass day, Zach arrived early and walked in, feeling confident that he had gotten there first. Then he focused on Ethan, sitting in the same spot with the same notebook, the same pencil, and the same poorly fitting clothes. It was like he had never moved.

Zach plastered a cheerful expression on his face and sauntered over. “Mornin’, Eth,” he said.

Ethan sat up straighter but kept his eyes focused on something ahead of him. His hand tightened around the pencil. “Hey, Zach.”

Did his voice shake? “You went home the other day, right? After talking to the professor.” Zach settled into his chair, leaning his elbow on the table and resting his chin in his hand, facing Ethan. As he awaited the right moment to reveal the video game behind his back, he watched for signs of his best friend lying.

Ethan didn’t acknowledge his proximity. “Of course, where else would I go?”

“So you don’t work Mondays anymore?”

“N-no.” He clenched the fabric of his pants with his other hand. Ethan glanced down, then turned his head away.

“Do you still work the rest of the week? How about Wednesdays? Need a ride there today? We can put your bike in my trunk if you rode it here today.” Zach’s car keys were burning a hole through the pocket of his jeans with their desperate need to be used.

“My coworker’s picking me up.”

“Come on, it’s on my way home anyways. Tell him you’ve got a ride already.” Zach smiled, confident.

“That’s what I’m telling you.”

His smile melted. “Stop avoiding me.” The present he hid grew heavier in his hand.

“I’m not.”

“The fact that you haven’t looked at me once since I sat here begs to differ.”

“You’re pissing me off.”

“Not the first time.”

“No, but it’ll be the last. Leave me the hell alone, Zach.”

Zach’s blood ran cold. Everything he yearned to say rushed to the forefront of his mind, but he held it back, swallowing the words with a paper tongue.

His hand shook as he reached for Ethan’s shoulder and said, “Come on, Eth. I know I’m a pain in the ass, but you’ve put up with me for years.” He touched the rough fabric of Ethan’s jacket.

Ethan jumped. “Don’t touch me!” he said, loud enough for the incoming students to hear. Two of them looked over with concern, but the other pair continued on, oblivious.

“Sorry,” Zach said, wide-eyed. He pulled his hand back as if it had been burned.

Ethan settled back into his seat. “Get away from me.”

“L-look, I’m sorry I wasn’t there for your surgery. And I’m sorry I didn’t message you more. Whatever you want, I’ll do anything for you to forgive me, I swear.” I don’t want to lose you. I love you. “Look, I brought you a present.” His hand trembled as he placed the game on Ethan’s desk. Ethan glanced down at it but didn’t speak. “I know this doesn’t make up for anything, but I got my father to pull some strings and get this a week before its release.” He pushed it closer with a shaky smile. “Come on, it’s your favorite series. You’ve been dying to play this since last year.” He searched for any hint of a smile on Ethan’s face.

Ethan pushed the game away with an odd expression. “Go,” he said, a little softer than before. “Find another seat, as far away from me as possible.” Ethan turned toward the wall, fiddling with his pencil. The tag on the back of his jacket stuck out, but he didn’t seem to care.

“Eth—”

Go.”

“I-I’ll see you after class, then,” Zach said, picking up his backpack with a numb hand. He stumbled away from the chair, not bothering to push it in. The rejected game disappeared into his bag, dumped haphazardly.

As he moved away, he thought he heard a sorrowfully whispered, “Goodbye, Zach.”

FOR THEfirst two weeks, no matter what Zach did, Ethan refused to speak to him. He would sit beside Ethan every time in the same corner of their English class but never got anything out of him besides the strong desire to be left alone.

By the third week, the effects of Ethan’s disdain toward Zach had manifested visibly. Zach walked in with the weight of sleepless nights pulling at his eyes. His backpack tugged at his shoulder from its awkward positioning, and his scalp itched from the three-day-old gel he hadn’t washed out, but he couldn’t care less about any of it.

He didn’t sit next to Ethan but still watched him from across the room. Even seeing him from so far away, Zach’s heart fluttered.

I have to tell him. He wouldn’t be pushed away today, no matter what. He would confess to Ethan, if only to get it off his chest. Even unrequited love was better than this.

The lecture on Othello went right over his head. As soon as class ended, he was out of his seat and at the other end of his row, backpack forgotten by his chair.

“I need to talk to you,” he said, slamming his hands on Ethan’s desk.

Ethan jumped and looked wide-eyed around him but didn’t respond.

“Ethan, listen—”

“Zach, I told you to leave me alone.”

“Say that all you want, but I still have something to tell you. Ethan, I—”

“Is he harassing you?” A male voice spoke behind Zach and a hand clamped down on his shoulder.

Zach turned around to see the professor, who had never before taken an interest in what his class did—or if half of it even showed up—giving him a stern warning gaze.

“No, I’m—”

“Yes, he is, Professor Marx.” Ethan looked between Zach and the professor as he spoke. His words were cold but his hands shook.

“Come on, then.” The professor pulled Zach backward. For a thin man with graying hair, he used surprising force.

“But I…!”

“I won’t have you harassing Morrow in my classroom,” he said harshly. “One more word and I’ll drop you with a note to any future professors.” As he walked Zach out of the row, he added, “You should be ashamed of yourself.”

“But I was just talking to him!” Zach’s hands clenched into fists. He bit his lip to keep silent but couldn’t help looking to Ethan.

What he saw shocked him.

Ethan’s face had contorted into a grimace, and his shaking hands clenched on top of the desk. He looked like he was about to cry.

Even so, he’s gone too far. He’s acting too weird, even for him.

With a mixture of anger and pain boiling in his veins, Zach snatched his backpack from beside his seat and stormed out of the room. He walked through one hallway after another, planning all the names he would call Ethan as soon as he had a moment alone with him.

In previous semesters, Ethan always rode his bike home from the same school exit. Zach headed for it, fuming inwardly. The people he passed gave him looks of concern mixed with curiosity, but he ignored them all, trying his hardest not to glare at innocent passersby.

The early February chill should have cooled him down, but its efforts were futile. His hands became sweaty with the heat of his rage. He was ready to use every single curse word and insult he knew.

Zach leaned against the entryway to the building, gazing at the nearest bike rack. He didn’t see Ethan’s bike, but there were a dozen racks, and Ethan had never been consistent when it came to choosing one. He could only assume Ethan would still be exiting this way.

The longer Zach waited, the more he fumed. He recalled his excitement on that first day, after having been separated from Ethan for seven months following his semester abroad in London and the ski trip with his family over winter break, the warmth in his chest from sitting beside Ethan in class, and how all of that had been stripped away in an instant. The loss of those feelings almost overshadowed his anger toward how he’d been treated.

Ten minutes passed with no sign of Ethan. Zach was about to leave, all the more angered by his lack of appearance, when he looked through the glass double doors of the humanities building and saw his closest friend sliding a cane back and forth across the ground while wearing sunglasses and the most miserable expression he had ever seen.

His anger dissolved instantly. A chill ran up his arms, leaving goose bumps in its wake. The sun hitting the side of his face suddenly seemed too bright.

The doors opened, and Zach’s breath hitched in his throat, stolen by the sudden desire to remain unknown. He opened his mouth, but no words came out. He stared blankly as Ethan passed him, touching Zach’s foot with the tip of his cane and muttering an apology.

Zach watched until Ethan had turned the corner to walk toward his apartment complex. He finally forced himself to relax, though his heart raced like he’d seen something forbidden.

So that’s what he was hiding….