Community Stories. Get Inspired, Get Underlined

Orange Carnations

By @garden_bella

The colors of the leaves were already turning golden when he stepped foot on the campus of Deere High School, and yet he could not appreciate their beauty because anxiety took over every thought in his brain until it felt rotten. He felt rusty in his social life, and it showed in his actions. He walked up to people with trembling hands and a quivering soul, feebly saying hi before turning away and cursing at himself for being so awkward. 

“Hi, what’s up, my name is August,” he said in the fakest voice he’s ever used, and the people could see right through him. They smiled politely and nodded their heads but quickly returned to their conversations. August was merely a weak gust of wind that distracted people for a second before dissipating from people’s imaginations. 

His lips smiled, but his eyes did not. He stapled that smile for the entire day, trying to appear friendly, and then painfully took it off when he got off the bus and ran home. He greeted his mother, tripped up the stairs, and darted into his room, shutting the door and flopping onto his bed. He pressed his eyes into the palms of his hands, his vision exploding into flashes of white and yellow and strangely, pink. He opened his eyes and saw stars as he stared at his bedroom wall, trying hard to smile at the constellations before him but struggling to do so. He sighed and opened his laptop, trying to focus on anything other than his deteriorating happiness. 

The next day in physics, the teacher spoke the most frightening phrase he had imagined: “Pair up.” 

Everybody looked to each other, but as August glanced around the room, no eyes fell on him. He was the odd one out, and as everybody got up and headed to the lab tables in the back, he stayed at his desk, staring at the black surface and trying to make out the graphite graffiti scribbled in the bottom right corner in order to not make eye contact with the teacher. Nevertheless, the teacher walked over and knocked on the desk lightly to get August’s attention, and he hesitantly looked up. 

“August,” she said softly, giving him a look of what he interpreted to be pity, “do you not have a partner?” 

He barely shook his head in order not to attract attention from his classmates. “No, Dr. Willard.” 

Dr. Willard smiled and put a hand on his shoulder. “Come with me.” She walked August over to a table with two stereotypical nerds focusing hard on a circuit, fiddling with colored wires that connected to a lightbulb. Each time they tried to connect a wire, they would look simultaneously at the bulb, to no avail. 

“Will, Dean,” she said, “this is August. Can he join your group?”

August rolled his eyes internally. Nothing will get me friends like having the teacher talk for you like a mom, his thoughts dripping in cynicism.

“Sure,” they said in unison, shrugging together but not breaking focus on the circuit. Dr. Willard nodded to August and patted him on the shoulder before leaving him to fend for himself. 

He tapped the table for a few minutes before working up the courage to ask, “Do you guys need any help?” He pursed his lips expectantly, but the boys stayed silent for what felt like half an hour. 

Finally, Dean spoke up with a monotone voice. “No, we’re good.” 

Great, August thought. What do I do now? 

August paced back and forth for a moment, trying to figure out how to break the silence before he set his eyes on the circuit for the first time and really took in the formation of the circuit, the transistors and resistors, and the noodles of wires winding around each other. Dean and Will were taking consistent and precise notes each time they matched a wire from the circuit to a wire coming from the lightbulb and groaned in unison when the bulb stayed dim. August narrowed the mess of wires down to a green wire and traced its path to the lightbulb, seeing immediately that it matched the lightbulb. He began to pace again, biting his lip and pondering whether he should say something to the boys or not. He bit his fingernails and opened his mouth but quickly closed it, shaking his head and sitting on a stool for the rest of the class. 

They have it under control. 

The bell rang, and everybody filed out of class like a school of fish, but August lingered behind, putting his binder away in his backpack. He dreaded going to lunch because he knew he would sit alone at the lunch table with people sitting a few feet away from him, whispering about the poor guy sitting alone but not doing anything about it. 

After organizing the circuits in the back, Dr. Willard walked over to August and smiled. “I have some advice for you, August.”

August’s eyelids lowered in shame. How embarrassing. 

She reached for a piece of paper and scribbled something down in her slightly cursive handwriting before pushing it across the table toward him. “It’s a penpal website. You can connect with another teen from anywhere in the world. I think it’ll help you.”

She then proceeded to gush about her own penpals and how they helped her, but August had already tuned out. He was just staring at the site name: GlobalPenFriends.com. How elementary. He had already pushed the idea out of his mind and was simply listening to Dr. Willard out of politeness. After she had finished, he smiled, took the note, and stuffed it in his backpack before running to football practice.

The boys at practice barely paid any mind to August before launching into their usual practice routines, tossing the ball to each other and tackling a dummy and laughing at each other’s jokes. August had been benched by the quarterback, Luke, but he had been polite about it, at least. 

“Hey, little dude,” Luke said, which was demeaning in and of itself, clapping August on the shoulder, “we’re gonna have to bench you for today, okay? Nothing personal. It’s just that you’re a freshman and haven’t really played football yet, so we gotta practice with the other guys first before deciding what you can do, okay?” 

August nodded solemnly before Luke clapped him on the shoulder again and smiled his boyish smile and went back to joking around with his friends. August sat on the bench for another two hours, then subsequently ran home without rounding up with the boys to say goodbye. He felt suffocated, even in the open-air, seemingly endless football field. 

Dr. Willard’s note fluttered into the trashcan moments after August arrived in his bedroom, forgotten for the rest of the day. 

Physics dragged on as always, but when August saw that Dean was about to reach for the green wire, he mentally cheered him on until Dean hesitated and went for the red wire instead. August clicked his tongue, much louder than anticipated, and Dean turned around reflexively and raised a brow. 

“What?” he asked. “Did you say something?”

August stared at the green wire for a second before moving his eyes to match Dean’s critical gaze, to which he quickly responded by fervently shaking his head and staring down at the floor. Dean shrugged and went back to his work, and August went back to being silent and being trapped inside his own mind. 

During football practice, Luke attempted to show August how to throw the football, but August’s insecurity got the best of him, and his throw was several yards short of the player across the field. Luke stayed quiet for a moment before patting August softly on the back—as if August couldn’t handle a real manly slap—and guiding him over to the bench as if he was blind. 

“I’d love to put you in, but I gotta focus on these guys’ positions before putting you in here, okay? Hopefully you understand, dude.” 

August nodded, and he understood Luke perfectly. 

August slammed open his bedroom door and shot his arm down the trashcan in his room, fishing out the note Dr. Willard gave him the other day. 

Let’s see if this really works. 

He stared at it before sighing and sitting down at his desk, opening his laptop and typing in the site name. A page that looked like it came from the ‘90s—which it most likely did—popped up, and he clicked ‘sign up’ despite his intrusive thoughts telling him to close the site and burn his computer for even thinking about this idea. He thought about his username for a while: augustsea15. He smiled slightly while filling out his profile, unaware of his own amusement. He made sure to put the minimum number of details: no gender, a location that was an hour away from his actual location, and no profile picture. Instead, he uploaded a picture of an orange chrysanthemum. He had always admired the flower, but he would never admit it. He then began to write his biography:

Hello! I’m August. I’m a student, and I like playing football, camping, and cloud-watching

August stopped and was about to delete ‘cloud-watching’ because it sounded too girly, but he realized that he was anonymous. August is a slightly unisex name, so he could technically be a girl. After wrestling between putting ‘manly’ hobbies and hobbies he actually did, he finally put down the hobbies he actually enjoyed. Who would know it’s me?

Hello! I’m August. I’m a fifteen-year-old student from Connecticut, USA, and I like playing football, reading, drawing, and cloud-watching. I like looking at flowers and drawing them, and I’m into Netflix like any other kid. I love nature and going outdoors and traveling…basically, I just really like to move. I love music of any kind, so share with me some playlists! Feel free to send me a message, I’d love to talk to you!

August reread his biography four times before deciding it was satisfactory and published it. His profile was now live. He let out a long breath, not expecting much, so he drifted to his bed to take a nap. However, within five minutes, his phone chimed with an email from the website. He raced back to his desk and threw open the screen, checking his inbox, and lo and behold, there was a message. His face flushed at the idea of somebody actually taking an interest in him after all the rejections from school, and with his heart jumping out of his chest, he opened the message. It was from a user named hummingbird305 who had no picture and no gender, which made August nervous. However, when he began to read the message, his worries melted away.

Hey, August! I’m Roma from Pesaro, Italy. I thought your bio was really nice and that you sound really interesting. I’d love to get to know you better. Do you want to become penpals?

He read Roma’s biography, which stated that they loved reading, writing poems, taking pictures, and nature. He fired back with his own message, typing furiously until the keys were left burning. 

Hi, Roma. It’s nice to meet you. I’d love to be your penpal, but let’s get to know each other before becoming penpals if that’s alright with you

August began to drift back to his bed again before his phone chimed again with an email, and he shot back to his desk like a slingshot.

That sounds great to me. Sorry if I sounded too pushy. English is my first language, so sometimes I say weird things ???? so do you play American football or regular football like the rest of the world? 

American football, the best and only football

So you’re a boy then

Girls can play American football too. It isn’t as common but it happens

So you’re a girl?

Sshh. If you’re so interested, what is your gender?

Not telling ???? So I see you’re also interested in reading. What do you read?

The pair chatted for four hours until the sun disappeared behind the mountains in the horizon and left August in the dark with only the brightness of his laptop to illuminate the room. It was addicting talking to Roma; he couldn’t stop. Once Roma was too tired to type because of the time difference, they bid their goodbyes and logged off. August smiled until he wiped it off himself and forced himself to do homework. 

You’re being stupid, August. 

The smile returned subconsciously when he began to think about Roma’s humor and how they described how nature made them feel. 

Running water, crunchy leaves, a gust of wind…beautiful, aren’t they? They’re the main things that make me happy. They make me. What makes you?

August said goodnight after that. 

The school day was lackluster as usual, but after school was no longer made up of naps and doing homework and watching T.V. while fantasizing about having a group of friends like the teenagers in the shows. Now, happiness increased exponentially after school each time August received a message from Roma. Roma would write August poems, and August would tell them about a cloud he saw that reminded him of them.

Yesterday I saw a cloud that looked like a leaf. A maple leaf I think

I love maple trees! We have a tree here called the Acer opalus, the Italian maple. What trees do you have in Connecticut?

I don’t really know about trees. I just take photos of them

Well judging by your climate, I’d say you have sugar maples, beech, sycamore, black cherry, and a few others. Sorry I’m talking about weird things

Please don’t stop. It’s interesting

Okay then. So you have

August read every tree Roma listed and looked up every single tree, sketching them in the sketchbook he hadn’t used for several years. He carved out every point, curve, and dot on the leaves, thinking about how Roma would be so proud of him. 

Even when his father called him down for dinner three times, he couldn’t stop drawing and reading Roma passionately talking about botany. He was delighted to be talking to somebody, but he was over the moon that that somebody was Roma. 

“August!” his father exclaimed as he threw open August’s bedroom door. 

“Dad!” August yelled back, instinctively slamming down his laptop screen. “Can you knock first?”

“I’ve been calling you down for dinner for the past twenty minutes.” His father paused for a moment, his eyes drifting to his son’s computer. “What were you looking at? Now, I know you’re experiencing changes

“Please stop, Dad,” August interjected, covering his ears with his hands. “I made a new friend.”

His father wavered by the door hesitantly, not sure how to reply to what August said. “…on the Internet?”

“Yeah.” August opened his laptop again and showed the beginning messages between him and Roma to his father, who raised his eyebrow and rubbed his chin. 

“August, be careful. You don’t know who this person is.”

“Not everybody on the Internet is a pedophile anymore, Dad.” August rolled his eyes and groaned. He sighed and let a smile slip onto his lips. “I feel like I’m connected to this person, Dad. I really think they’re my friend. We’ve been talking for a few days. Their name is Roma.”

“‘Their?’” his dad asked, and August winced at his critical tone. 

“And? What about it?” he retorted. His father looked at his son for what felt like hours before pursing his lips and looking back at the computer. His father’s critical expression softened into one of realization. He smiled and nodded. 

“As long as you’re being safe, and you feel like you really know this person, I think it’s great that you finally have a friend.” At the mention of ‘finally,’ August’s grin dropped as he remembered that he was essentially nonexistent at school with no possibility of friends in the near future, and his father noticed and quickly changed the subject. “Now come downstairs, the pasta’s getting cold.” 

August smiled a polite smile and ran downstairs, already anticipating what his next message to Roma would be. 

The following day gave August déjà vu. He sat by Will and Dean working on the circuit, watching and struggling with himself to say something, but the insecure demon inside of him swallowed his words and shut his throat. He watched Will and Dean argue with each other as they made fruitless calculations that were all wrong and tried to call Dr. Willard for help, but she never came close and never opened her mouth. August watched the clock tick until the bell rang and left before Dr. Willard could call him over. 

Football practice wasn’t much different, either. Luke apologized profusely while August sat down on the bench and stared down at the grass, trying not to let the tears slip out. That would have gotten him kicked off the team for sure. Luke jogged away from the bench and jumped onto his friend’s back before continuing practice, leaving August in the dust to battle against his emotions. 

August practically tore his bedroom door from its hinges when he threw it open, running to his laptop for some social interaction, albeit the person was 4,000 miles away from him. He tossed his backpack onto his bed, the mattress creaking under the sudden weight, and he opened his laptop to see more messages from Roma. He smiled at Roma’s poems and sarcastic form of humor, laughing when Roma would complain about somebody in one of their classes or tell him a corny attempt at a joke. 

Finally, August typed a proposition:

I think we should start sending letters because I’m more comfortable now and think it’s more personal and I really want to see how you write

He pulled out his math homework, planning to do it while waiting for Roma’s response. He got through about five problems before he heard his phone chirp with an email, and he immediately opened his laptop again. 

That’s great! I’d love to see your handwriting, too! Would you like to send the first letter or should I? Here’s my address:

I’ll send the first letter! I can’t wait for your response ????

August slid everything off his desk and grabbed a piece of binder paper and his most beautiful pens to begin his letter. He was about to write something, but the pen stopped a mere millimeter away from the page. 

What do I write?

He thought about how to start the letter more than he has ever thought about something at school, staring at the blank canvas before him, imagining all the drawings and beautiful fonts he could do. He decided to start simple. 

Dear Roma, 

Too formal. 

He began to write another letter, getting to about the middle of the page before feeling nervous about what he was writing about and crumpled up the paper, balling it into his fist before throwing it in the trash can and missing. Eventually, papers began to pile up in and around the trashcan until August slammed his hands on the desk in an act of self-intervention. He stared at the blank piece of paper and scratched the paper slightly with his pen, afraid of what he was going to write. However, without permission from his brain, his hand began to write by itself, curving and forming words without input from the brain. His heart was extending through his arm, and August allowed it to happen. 

Roma, 

It’s kinda weird to write to you on paper. I’m not really sure what to write about. I was thinking about letters like what Ralph Waldo Emerson sent to his aunt. You know the wise and thought provoking type of stuff. So what’s our purpose in life? 

August continued to write until the sun disappeared beyond the horizon again, melting into a sea of purples, blues, and pinks. August put the finishing touches on his letter, drawing footballs when he would mention his frustrations with his team, putting stickers wherever he could fit them, and drew a beautiful chrysanthemum at the end with his name. 

How girly. 

He was about to erase it but stopped, his brain processing what he should do. 

Roma likes me the way that I am. She wouldn’t stop talking to me because I sound girly. She doesn’t even know that I’m a guy. 

August placed the eraser back in its place and smoothed out the paper, looking at his handiwork before folding it in thirds and slipping it into a white envelope. His heart swelled two sizes bigger when he wrote down Roma’s name in the middle, following the path of the black ink with his eyes, putting care into every swirl and curve. He carefully placed the envelope in his backpack, high on excitement to finally slide the envelope into the mailbox. 

A week passed by quickly because day in and day out, it was the same routine. Will and Dean would struggle over the circuit while August idly sat by, and the bench would become August’s new home on the football field. Every day, Luke would apologize, but nothing would come of it. The only hope and happiness he would have during the week was when he would check the mailbox when he got home, and he would either be disappointed by there being nothing inside or be given false hope by a stack of ads that could have been hiding a letter from Roma. But it never did. 

August almost did not check the mailbox on Monday out of fear of being disappointed again, but he dragged himself over to the dusty mailbox tattooed with his fingerprints all over and opened the door. He nearly screamed when he saw a yellow envelope with handwriting on it instead of typed letters, and when he snatched it from inside and brought it into the light, the shiny metallic ink clearly wrote out Roma’s name in the top left corner and August’s name in the middle. He rushed to his bedroom and opened the letter, carefully unfolding it to reveal his name at the top of the page in beautifully carved cursive letters with dramatically long lines. 

Roma is always super dramatic, August thought with a smile. 

August, 

It is weird talking like this. I’ve never sent letters to somebody before so hopefully this goes okay. Again, pardon my English since it isn’t my first language but I hope you understand me okay. Who is this Ralph Waldo guy? And why was he sending letters to his aunt? A little weird if you ask me. 

I don’t think you were asking that question in expectation of a serious answer. So here’s a goofy one. A lot of people think our purpose in life is simple: to eat, shit, sleep, and reproduce. Pretty fulfilling, right? Well, here’s what I think. I think our purpose in life is to be happy. To do things that make us happy and to be around people that make us happy. We are animals, yes, but we’re different too. I think the main difference between us and the rest of the animal kingdom is that we think about our purpose in life. Animals just do it. We have the ability to be happy and seek out and invent things just to fulfill that happiness. You make me happy, August. So I think I’ll continue writing to you, if that’s okay with you. 

August’s throat began to hurt because of how hard he was holding back tears. After a while of reading, he reached the end of the letter but came across a P.S., which made him even more happy. 

P.S.

You have to tell Will and Dean that you know how to do the circuit. You’re incredibly intelligent. So intelligent that you saw the answer to the circuit on the first day while it’s taken them and the rest of your class a week. Also show your abilities in football! You need to show people that you exist and that your existence means something. Otherwise they’ll just pass over you. You are so much more than you believe, August!

August wrote his response until the sun went down yet again, and when his father opened his door without knocking yet again, August did not say anything. He was too focused on his letter and making sure every detail was perfect to mail to Roma. He reluctantly left the letter to eat dinner, where he only took a few bites before running back upstairs to continue writing. 

Once August sat down in his usual place to watch Will and Dean stress over the circuit, Roma’s handwriting flashed before his eyes, reminding him to speak up. He cleared his throat to get the boys’ attention, but they either ignored him or didn’t hear him over their own thoughts. August opened his mouth to talk, but what came out was a small squeak, so he quickly shut it again. He shook his head. Not the time.

When will it be?

He opened his mouth again, but all that came out was, “This sucks.”

The boys looked back at him with perplexed expressions. 

“What?” Will asked, which made August want to die. 

“Oh, it’s just that we’ve been doing this project for three weeks, and nobody’s figured it out.” 

“It’s Dr. Willard’s way of breaking us down before going into actual lessons to keep us under her control,” Dean replied sardonically, and they all chuckled softly so as not to catch Dr. Willard’s attention. 

August looked between Will and Dean, their eyebrows furrowed in concentration, and smiled. He had made successful smalltalk that didn’t garner him a judgmental look or awkward silence. He felt proud of himself for accomplishing such a simple task, and yet he could only think of Roma. He didn’t quite do what Roma told him to do, but he still was happy, and Roma said that that was above all else. So, Roma stayed happy. 

Rudy, a football player on August’s team, was walking over to the bench when he slipped on a patch of wet grass and fell square on his back. August shot up and ran over to Rudy, coaxing him into breathing slowly and helping him regain his breath. After Rudy sat up, August gave him a water bottle, and Rudy thanked him profusely before finishing off the entire water bottle. 

“Thank you so much, dude,” Rudy said with a small smile. “I felt like I was suffocating.”

“It happens to all of us, man, don’t worry about it,” August said, returning the smile before helping Rudy get up. 

“You’re cool, Auggie,” Rudy declared happily before going off to tell the other teammates what August had done. They all came over to slap August on the back and give him high-fives and fist bumps, and he couldn’t have been happier. All thanks to Roma. 

On the last week Dr. Willard was allowing them to work on the project, August felt pressure from both Roma and Dr. Willard to point out the green wire. He repeated last week, where he opened his mouth to say something but quickly shut it, his insecurity taking over his confidence. However, Roma’s message relayed in his mind again, defended by his newfound confidence, so he opened his mouth and finally said something. 

“I think I can help you guys,” he mumbled loud enough to break the boys’ concentration. 

They both look at him with a surprised expression.

“What?” Dean asked, raising his eyebrows. 

“I think I can help,” August repeated louder, getting up from his stool and making his way over to the circuit, grabbing the green wire and showing it to them. “I think this will work.”

“We already tried that, dude,” Will said, shrugging. “But go ahead.”

August smiled and grabbed a resistor, integrating it into the circuit. “But you didn’t try this.” August then proceeded to connect the wire, causing the entire group to lean forward in anticipation. The hair on the back of August’s neck was on point, and when he connected the wire, the bulb came alive, albeit being dull. But it was illuminated.

Will and Dean shouted in excitement, hugging each other and then punching me on the shoulders. The entire class turned their heads to watch the scene before them: August disconnecting and connecting the wire, causing the bulb to turn off and on, laughing the entire time while Will and Dean dance around in joy. 

“You’re the man, August!” Will exclaimed. 

“Yeah, dude, how did you do it?” Dean asked, and he was about to say something else, but the bell interrupted him. They began to pack up their handouts when Dean cleared his throat and made eye contact with August for the first time ever. “Wanna tell us while we eat? You’re a genius, man.” 

August began to nod rapidly but slowed it down to a cool nod, lifting his chin up and giving his head a small jerk like all the guys on the football team did. Will and Dean smiled at him and walked with him to the cafeteria, asking him all the questions they could fit into their forty-five minutes for lunch. Soon, the rest of their friends joined the table and asked questions about what they were talking about. 

“August is the smartest kid in our school,” Will said, motioning to August across the table. Their friends, mainly nerds and some rebels, joined the table quickly when they learned about how August managed to complete the circuit in order to absorb some of the wisdom August was quietly spouting. He mumbled for the most part, making the group lean in in order to hear him better, which made August feel that much more important and heard. 

People actually know I exist now. 

Dean hit him on the shoulder when August got to the end of his explanation, running a hand through his hair because of the shock. August glanced at the hand on his shoulder and smiled.

I’m not invisible. 

Football practice was a lot more difficult for August to show off his abilities, mostly because while Will and Dean could have just brushed him off, his football team could easily beat him up and make him more of a social outcast than he already was. The sun beat down on him directly while sitting on the bench, but Roma’s message repeated in his head was what truly made him stand up and walk over to Luke. 

“Hey, dude, what’s up?” Luke asked with his boyish smile. August pointed to the football Luke was holding firmly in his gigantic hand and smiled politely. Luke looked between August’s pointed finger and the football for a moment before putting it together and hesitantly handing the football over to him with a quizzical look on his face. 

August nodded to him and waved at the other player, Alex, who was across the field, waiting for Luke to throw him the football. But August took Luke’s place, wound his arm back, aligned his fingers with the laces in the cracked leather, and threw it. He watched as it rotated a million miles per hour and sailed in Alex’s arms, where he caught it perfectly before immediately freezing up and staring at August. Everybody followed in Alex’s steps: freezing up and staring at August. 

Luke was the first one to break the silence by clearing his throat and raising his eyebrows in surprise. “Wow…good job, August. Really great job. I didn’t know you could do…that.”

August shrugged and smiled. “I was rusty the last time you tried to teach me.”

Luke looked between his team and nodded confidently. “We’ll have to start paying more attention to this guy now. If he creeped up on us like that, he could definitely creep up on the other team.” Luke turned back to August and placed his hand on his shoulder and squeezed reassuringly. He looked at the hand on his shoulder and smiled. 

I’m not invisible. 

August had begun to sketch Roma in his notebook, trying to figure out how they looked based on everything he’s gathered from them. He sent Roma a sketch of a girl with brown hair, brown eyes, and big lips. Roma wrote back, “The brown hair and brown eyes are right. Smaller lips, though. Getting close :)”

Then, against his better judgment, August drew a boy with brown hair and brown eyes, spending most of his time on the eyes. 

What do Roma’s eyes look like? Deep-set? Almond? Downturned? 

August continued to sketch until, on accident, he created eyes that looked exactly how he imagined Roma’s to appear. He stared at them for a while, and he swore that he saw a soul behind them. 

Roma had started sending August poems written solely for and about him. 

Black eyes

Unlike me

Black hair

Unlike me

Our bodies are opposite; they seem to cause an affray

And yet, even though we’re 4,000 miles away

I know within my heart

That we are more alike than we apart.

I know that was cheesy…

August smiled and bit his bottom lip. God, it was cheesy, but he loved it so much that he taped it to his wall. Every time he got home and sat at his desk, he looked at the poem, and whatever type of day he had earlier, his day would become a million times better. 

August had auditioned for the musical, not knowing or caring about what it was about or what part he got, which was ensemble. He merely wanted to make friends, and he succeeded. The first day, while he stumbled on his words and made strange comments at times, he still had the confidence to keep going. He exuded confidence; he had an aura of it surrounding him, and his newfound friends noticed it and took to him quickly. Soon enough, August had formed his own drama posse, laughing until they cried and getting yelled at for talking backstage. After the performances, people from all grades came up to tell him how he played the servant role so well, and those short compliments turned into short conversations which turned into long text conversations which turned into friendships. August finally found his crowd. He hadn’t smiled that much in a very long time. 

“Like this,” Luke murmured, adjusting August’s arms in order to maximize his throwing strength, but August was less focused on his throwing trajectory and more on the way Luke’s hands radiated heat on his shoulder and onto the small of his back, causing a blush to creep up his neck and blotch his cheeks. He couldn’t help but imagine Roma, however they looked like, in Luke’s position, but he literally shook the idea out of his head and took a step away from Luke. 

“You okay, Auggie?” Luke asked sincerely, reaching out for August’s shoulder, but August instinctively flinched away. 

“U-uh, yeah,” August squeaked out, cursing his voice crack appearing at his most vulnerable moment. He stared at his hands gripped the football, his hand half the size of Luke’s. His fingers were growing yellow at the tips, and his fingernails seemed as though they were about to break as they dug into the leather. He looked around the field and was relieved to see nobody in the perimeter and stared down at the turf. It still had dew from the morning as the months dragged on, winter taking over autumn which took over summer, leaving pleasant surprises in the form of droplets of water on cars and pathways and blades of grass. August appreciated the cold breeze on his skin after months of relentless heat, especially now, hoping the cold wind would calm his heated cheeks. 

“You don’t look okay, dude.” Luke’s voice burst August’s thoughts, and August turned to face Luke. “What’s going on?”

“Oh, nothing,” August stalled, throwing the football on the ground in order to buy time for an excuse. “Just…girl problems.”

Luke laughed and shook his head. “A girl is enough to make you mess up your throw? Damn, and I thought a 250-pound man would rattle you.” He led August over to the bench and sat him down. “Listen, girls are amazing. But you shouldn’t depend on them or let them distract you from things you really care about. What’s your deal with this one?” 

August bit the inside of his cheek and knocked his fists together anxiously. “I don’t know how I feel about her.” 

Why can’t I be happy all the time? That would be so much easier.

“Do you think about her all the time?” Luke asked. 

“Yeah.”

“Can you stop thinking about her?”

“Not really.”

“Do you want to?”

“…No.”

Luke leaned back on the bench and stared out across the field into the forest of lush deciduous trees, some barren and others showered in orange and yellow leaves. Most had already started to fall and be blown by the winter breeze onto the field and under Luke’s foot, and he picked up the leaf and twiddled it between his pointer finger and thumb. “You’re in love, dude.”

August scoffed, nearly offended by Luke’s comment. “You’re kidding.” 

“No,” Luke said, handing August the leaf, a perfect maple shape. “You’re kidding yourself if you don’t think you are. If she’s enough to be messing up your mind, you have a hardcore crush on her. Or love. Whatever you want to call it.” 

Luke stood up and walked over to where the pair was before and motioned for August to follow. August took a deep breath and tucked the leaf into his backpack and followed Luke. He tossed the football to August playfully and shrugged. “I don’t know much about love. I’ve only had two serious girlfriends, but I’ve watched The Notebook enough times with them to have a good grasp on what love is. You have a connection with that person. You pass by a window with something that reminds you of them because they’re always in your mind. You can’t wait to see them again, even though you’re a little nervous, and when they leave, you feel depressed. You experience the same feelings as them, and you can’t stop talking about them. Sorry for this whole ass speech, but it’s true. I hope this pep talk helped. Go get her, dude.” 

After a moment of comfortable silence, August nodded and resumed their practice from the beginning, yet he didn’t botch his throws like he did before. He smiled through his first throw, nodding to himself. 

Love. 

Roma, 

Happy holidays! It’s getting pretty close to Christmas and Hanukkah (I think). What do you celebrate? I hope you’re doing okay. I hope you’re doing great. I found this perfect maple leaf since it’s already winter and most of the leaves are going to be gone soon. You can have it, but it’ll probably be decayed or dust by the time it gets to you. Do you have maple trees in Italy? Ugh, I’m stalling hardcore. I have something really important to tell you. 

I know we’re teenagers. I know we’ve only known each other for four months. And I definitely know that I don’t even know your gender. But people are telling me to be honest with my feelings, so here goes. 

I love you. 

He gently laid the leaf inside the envelope, realizing how dumb it was to have a leaf inside the letter.

It’s the thought that counts.

After the leaf, he did little else. August stared at the letter for two months, wondering what he should do with it. Meanwhile, he got a Christmas present from Roma: a small leather journal with a key hung by a string from the spine. He was planning to write in it soon, but it was also simply neat to look at and hold, and August did just that for a good half-hour after he opened the present. He sent Roma a metal bracelet with the phrase ‘you’re my person’ engraved on the inside. He hoped that Roma liked it and that it didn’t get lost in the mail. He mostly hoped that Roma liked it, because if they didn’t, then their friendship would get very awkward. 

It’d be even more awkward if August sent his letter and Roma didn’t feel the same way, which is why he didn’t send it until Latin class in late January.

“Okay, guys, I have an announcement,” his Latin teacher, Mr. Ferris, declared at the start of class. He pulled up an email on the SmartBoard from a travel agency titled “Italy Trip.” August’s heart dropped and soared at the same time, and it almost choked on air from the sudden contradicting heart movement. 

“If you want, there will be an option to travel to Italy in April for a week. It’s a little short notice, but the travel agency only just emailed me and for the first time, the school board actually took fewer than three weeks to answer a request. Permission slips are by the door, so if you’re interested, take one as you’re heading out.” Mr. Ferris pointed to the stack of papers on the table by the door, but August’s entire body was frozen. “We’ll tell you more as time goes on.” 

The rest of the classroom was abuzz with excitement, but August stayed silent. His tablemates asked him if he was excited, and he nodded, but it could not have been further from the truth. He was completely conflicted—his emotions were at war with each other, and everyone was losing. He hesitated before leaving the classroom, staring at the permission slips for what seemed like too long before succumbing to his heart and grabbing the paper and stuffing it in his backpack. 

Physics was even worse. Dr. Willard asked August how his penpalling was going, and August replied with a curt ‘fine’ before getting back to his wave experiment. 

When he got home that day, he resolved to send the letter, putting it in the mailbox and lifting the little red handle. He pushed the permission slip in front of his parents pleadingly, and they smiled at each other before signing it. August had unresolved emotions, but he let his hands do what they wanted without being interrupted by his indecision, leading to him signing the behavior agreement on the permission slip and turning it into the teacher the next day.

The second the airplane landed on the tarmac, while everybody shot up and fought for their bags, August whipped out his phone and sent Roma a message that he was in Italy, and he hoped with his entire heart that they would read soon. 

He trailed behind his class as they walked through the airport to the shuttle, refreshing his phone every two seconds to see if he had gotten a message, and his frown only deepened each time. He checked to see if he was connected to the airport’s WiFi, which did nothing to appease his anxiety when he saw that the WiFi was working perfectly. 

“Hey, kiddo, what’s up?” Mr. Ferris asked, stopping to allow August to catch up. 

“Oh, nothing,” August replied. “Will we get close to Pesaro?”

“Pesaro? Hm,” Mr. Ferris hummed, opening up his map to check. After a moment of looking, he replied, “Somewhat. Why?”

“I want to visit a friend.” 

Mr. Ferris dove back into his map, drawing lines between cities and conferring with our tour guide. After a whispered discussion, Mr. Ferris turned back to August with a smile. “I’m sure we can pass by there. This trip is about seeing the real Italy, not going to tourist places.”

August looked back at Mr. Ferris with his mouth agape and his eyes wide, and his open mouth upturned into an enthusiastic smile, thanking his teacher profusely before catching up with his friends.

The first two days went by quickly, mostly because August was having fun, but also because he was waiting for Roma to say something, anything. Finally, on the third day, in the middle of the night, August’s phone pinged from across the room, and yet he still heard it. He scrambled across his bed, waking up his sleep-deprived friends in the process, and immediately opened the site, seeing a message from Roma. He accidentally let out a squeal, and Tyler threw a pillow at his head and yelled ‘shut up’ before falling back into bed. August returned to the message, reading it all in less than five seconds. 

Hi! Wow, how exciting! When will you pass by? How about we meet at Villa’N’Roll? It’s a lake, and it’s not too far away from your original route

August immediately agreed, locked his phone, and passed out from exhaustion. 

Mr. Ferris had agreed to Villa’N’Roll, and August was over the moon. Once he saw the first sign of water, he sprung up on the bus and leaned against the window, trying to spot Roma from the few people that were there, enjoying their afternoon. Finally, the bus stopped, and the class gradually made their way off the bus, but August pushed his way out and almost got hit by a car from running wildly into the street, darting toward the lake. He searched for the picnic tables Roma mentioned in their message, and when he spotted them, he also spotted a figure sitting on them, chewing on their fingernails. They had a mop of curly brown hair sitting atop their head and was wearing a loose tank top, jorts, and sandals. European, for sure. 

August slowly approached, the gravel crunching under his shoes, causing the figure to turn around, their curls bouncing with the sudden movement. 

Dark almond eyes framed with long, dark eyelashes, beautifully bow-shaped lips, thick eyebrows that framed the face perfectly, and a strong Grecian nose that looked as though it was carved by God Himself faced August, and he sucked in a sharp breath.

“August?” Roma asked, standing up cautiously with a grin growing on his face. His teeth were pearls lined up in perfect lines, the light from the sun bouncing off them, giving him a movie star introduction. 

“Roma,” August breathed slowly, taking in Roma’s appearance as fully as possible. Roma was everything he imagined. A beautiful person with an equally beautiful personality, and it showed through Roma’s soft stare.  

“I’m so happy to meet you, August,” Roma mumbled, his adorably accented voice rising from nervousness as he picked at his hangnails, looking between the gravel and August. Finally, his gaze settled on August, and he stepped closer slowly, seemingly testing the waters between them. He reached into his backpack and brought out an orange chrysanthemum, all of its petals in the right places, its color so vibrant that it hurt August’s eyes. “For you.” 

August stepped closer, taking the flower gently, the surprised look on his face replaced by pure fondness. “Me, too, Roma. You have no idea how happy I am. Thank you.”

A comfortable silence settled between them, both of the boys taking in each other’s presence. August stepped closer again and after gingerly placing the chrysanthemum on the picnic table, slowly but surely enveloped Roma in a tender hug, pressing his fingertips into Roma’s waist protectively. Roma did not hesitate and hugged August back, wrapping his arms around August’s neck and burying his face in the crook. 

Their faces fell away from each other’s shoulders and, with only a few inches between their noses, August whispered, “Can I kiss you?”

Without an answer, Roma leaned in and brushed his lips against August’s like the scared teen he was before deepening the kiss, keeping it sweet and soft. August felt drunk on love for Roma, and he couldn’t get enough of the taste of cherries coming from Roma’s mouth. They fell into an embrace once again, savoring the touch and warmth emanating from each other’s skin. August stroked Roma’s bare arm, trying to remember every hair, bump, and groove on the tan skin. 

After some time of trying to muster the courage to separate, they unattached each other from their shared embrace. He brought Roma over to his friends, who all received Roma with smiles and jokes about his jorts, which Roma laughed off while August reprimanded his friends. They swam in the lake for hours, pleading with Mr. Ferris for just thirty more minutes until thirty more minutes turned into sunset. 

August swam up to Roma on the sand, leaning back on his elbows and lifting his chin to the sky, savoring the last few remnants of the sun. He noticed the song that was playing from Roma’s phone on the picnic table, and he accidentally splashed Roma, regretfully taking him out of his peaceful pose. 

“I love this song,” August said, motioning toward the phone. 

Roma nodded and closed his eyes again. He then began to sing in his Italian accent, not stumbling over any words and saying each one perfectly. 

Somewhere beyond the sea

Somewhere waiting for me

My lover stands on golden sands

And watches the ships that go sailing…

I know beyond a doubt

My heart will lead me there soon

And we’ll meet, I know we’ll meet beyond the shore

We’ll kiss just as before

Happy we’ll be beyond the sea

And never again I’ll go sailing

No more sailing…

“I don’t want to sail anymore,” August sighed after Roma stopped singing for a few minutes. Roma chuckled and shook his head. 

“You have to, August,” he replied, placing his hand on August’s shoulder. “You’ll sail to me soon. Just not right now. Maybe you won’t even sail to me. And it’s all okay. It’s all okay.” 

“I will have met you,” August took Roma’s hand into his, “and that’s more than anything I can ever ask for.” 

The sun set beyond the flat Italian countryside, fading into a masterpiece of colors and brushstrokes before everything fell dark. With heavy hands and a heavy heart, August bid goodbye to Roma. August waved goodbye to Roma from the bus, clutching the orange chrysanthemum in hand. 

I know beyond a doubt

My heart will lead me here soon.

After greeting his parents at the airport and driving home, August ran to his bed and flopped onto it from fatigue from the thirteen-hour connecting flight. Before he could slip off into a well-deserved nap, he felt a piece of cardstock on his face. He opened his eyes, his vision blocked by a postcard on his face. 

His father smiled and said, “This came in yesterday.” He turned around and left, closing the bedroom door, leaving August and the postcard alone.

August looked at the picture of Pesaro and grinned to himself, all the memories of Roma flooding back to him. He flipped it over, and four words shone so bright it almost blinded him. 

I love you, too.

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