It was well past his bedtime. He knew that, and so did his mother, but neither of them said anything. Tonight just wasn’t that sort of night. No, tonight was the sort of night for hushed silences, cupped hands, for whole conversations carried on inside a void of silence. Or, so his mother said while stroking his hair, without ever actually saying a word.
“He fell asleep on the couch. Should be out for a while,” she whispered, lips kept close to his ear.
A sleepy nod.
“And I promise, when we wake up tomorrow it’s gonna be like nothing ever happened. He doesn’t have a memory that lasts the night. Just… next time, try not to provoke him like you did this time, okay?”
“I know it’s hard, honey. I know you’re angry. And you have every right to be, but… you can’t let that consume you. Being mad is fine. But staying mad, that’s like holding your hands in front of your eyes. And when you have your hands in front of your eyes—”
“-you’ll miss all the magic that’s hiding right in front of you. I know,”
“There’s my little Sunnyboy. Now try and get some sleep, okay? Tomorrow’s another day. I love you.”
“Love you too.” It was bitter and muttered, but still—sincere.
His mother responded with a soft kiss and a hug. As she wrapped her arms around Sunnyboy’s bony, sharp frame, she noticed something that her eyes had missed in the dark. His body had turned stiff, tense-he was holding his breath.
He was trying not to cry.
Of course, Sunnyboy didn’t realize that his mother knew this, as children often don’t. He was too busy filling his mind with thoughts that he needed to be stronger, needed to be a man. All they did was make him want to cry even harder, for neither of those things were true at the present moment. His mother knew that too, but still said nothing. She simply hugged him tighter. Sometimes there is nothing else to say.
And with that, his mother was gone, leaving a trail of creaking footsteps in her wake. The door shut and left him in his own little world, one of impenetrable blackness broken only by a yellow right angle—but still, even the light underneath the door scarcely felt real deep in this world which was quickly engulfing him.
He waited, breath still baited: thirty seconds of waiting at the door, then one footstep on the floor, five on the carpet (it was quite the long carpet), three more on the floor and then slowly, down the stairs, creaking on the fourth step, getting quieter and quieter and quieter…
In total, one minute until she was really, truly gone.
Sunnyboy sprung from the bed, all tears forgotten. Wobbly footsteps and an ear up to the door, just in case, then, once he deemed the silence satisfactory, over to the old, boxy television that was pushed up against the wall.
The buttons were dirty, dusty, practically worn away, just like the floor, the room, and the boy, but Sunnyboy knew exactly where to guide his hands to get the screen to flood with white and static electricity to tickle his fingertips. Keeping his eyes on the light, he fumbled around to where he had been keeping the VHS case, and slid it into the television with trembling fingers.
The white fuzz bloomed into a rapid succession of images. Men and women with eyes wide and piercing, crooked, gaslamp-lined streets, phantoms and carnivals and slumbering villages.
He didn’t need to worry about keeping the volume low—the movie was silent.
Sunnyboy settled only a couple feet away from the screen and held his knees up to his chest. There were no longer any thoughts of being cold or angry or tired or lonely. In the light of the television, he just was. Nothing more, nothing less.
It was strange, though-the absence of sound from the television wasn’t quite absolute. There was something else. The warm tones of a city at night, sure, that was expected, but there was something else too. Something colder, older. A buzzing of sorts, lying just underneath the base of his skull.
It reverberated around him, poking and prodding in all corners of his mind, rendering him quite ticklish (though he would never admit it). He felt as if he had just missed a step on the stairs, but Sunnyboy wasn’t afraid of falling. The feeling grew sharper and faster and louder and he suddenly realized that the comforting noises from outside had stopped completely. He was alone with the buzzing.
The entire city had become nothing more than a ghost. He was in the realm of the watchers now, he thought, eyes wandering away from the screen and down to the street four stories below. Cars and lights echoed up to him, though they faded away long before they reached the window, as Sunnyboy was much further than usual tonight. Much further than five stories could ever dream of being. He was free to wander, to float, to observe everything without a care or investment in the world, like it all just a movie. Wouldn't that be nice, he mused, being free to watch people as much as you wanted without having to worry about other people watching you.
Sunnyboy shivered, feeling the lightest touch of eyes on the back of his neck. The buzzing grew louder, harder, sharper, until it was no longer just inside his head and the television with all it’s magic and wonder burst into a shower of fireworks—
A power surge.
Then everything was dark.
At least, a power surge was what he assumed it was. He knew that they were loud, and bright, and occur for only a fraction of a second, though this fraction of a second felt an awful lot longer than fractions of seconds were supposed to be.
An awful lot can happen in a fraction of a second. It sent his heart leaping, sent his hair on its end, sent every gallon of blood rushing to the surface of his skin, stroking and caressing him in an effort to comfort. It sent him scrambling backward, head snapping to the side - about ninety degrees, to the side of the room with the window.
Simultaneously, the television along with all of the lights on the street outside grew as hot and bright as the surface of the sun, illuminating everything in their path, if only for a moment.
And in that moment, in that fraction of a second, Sunnyboy saw something: there was a figure in the window.
Only a silhouette, but still. Then it was gone. He froze.
At his age, the strange little paranoias that children living in apartments often have, of creatures that would scale entire skyscrapers just to get the taste of a sleeping child had just begun to leave Sunnyboy alone. But now, unconsciously and undesired, all those thoughts were creeping right back to the forefront of his mind. But he couldn’t let them, no, Sunnyboy was too old for that sort of nonsense. Fear was suppressed with clenched teeth and a shaking jaw. As was routine.
Simple, stupid, silly little boy.
The voice wasn’t his own, but it was one he was familiar with.
You really shouldn’t let your imagination run wild like that. Because boys—boys like you like to hop along highway lane dividers and explore both parts of the forest, but someday, you idiot, you’ll get run over or get hopelessly lost and it’ll be your fault, because you wanted this, wanted to jump at shadows in the dark, but you couldn’t, not in a room with hardly any furniture. You’re going to have to try very hard to kill that delusional instinct inside of you. And spend your entire life trying, trying to be normal, trying to be realistic, trying to hide, trying to hide the fact that-you’ve been crying, haven’t you?
“I have not been crying!”
Nothing to see but a skinny little boy, with exposed, sensitive skin and shaggy hair. Nothing to hear but his deep, ragged gasps. He. Was not. Crying.
It would seem that the room had grown quite hot.
For the first time in months, he opened the window. The little boy’s muscles shook as he grasped the wood, which had grown sticky and stubborn through rain and disuse. Until suddenly—it released, snapping upwards with a bang. There was a chill in the air, alive and breathing.
Under the presence of the world, Sunnyboy felt awfully, terribly small.
Despite all that, there was nothing outside. Not that he should have expected there to be.
The chill in the air moved inside, moved through him, past him, and into the room. It stared at his back. Though he was shivering, he left the window open.
When he turned, moving back inside, the chill moved too. It was no longer where his back had been just moments ago. And then, he could’ve sworn he saw something sitting on his bed, but when he turned his head to look: there too, was nothing.
But-no, that wasn’t true.
There was… something, it just wasn’t something he could see. Something behind him, every time he turned his head. Just out of the corner of his eye. Sunnyboy was beginning to get dizzy.
“Hello?” The voice came from everywhere and nowhere.
It was unsteady, hoarse, like the speaker had not spoken in a very long time.
When he turned his head for the last time, the chill did not move with him. It just sat there, staring, and slowly, it coalesced into a more recognizable shape. It was the figure that he had seen before. It was really here. It was… Sunnyboy wasn’t entirely sure what it was.
It was simultaneously a presence of things and an absence of things all at once. The deep blackness of shadow and space mixed with the silvery-white of constellations into something which only possessed the vague outline of a human. Two white stars had positioned themselves in the approximate spot where eyes should be.
They both sat there, watching each other, until it felt like the fabric of time itself surely must have collapsed under the weight of this thing’s... “eyes”. Or maybe it already had, and Sunnyboy was just too stupid to notice.
He decided to move. Just a little bit and not for any particular reason, but when he moved, it did too. When he sat up, it did too. When he waved, it did too.
And as they moved, Sunnyboy noticed that the creature began to change. At first it was slow, almost unnoticeable. The white in its eyes moved and dispersed. The outline clarified itself.
But then he moved closer, and it did too.
Black ink slowly dripped away to reveal a face, paper-white and blank.
He moved his arm up, and it did too.
The arm was long, skinny, and pale, too—almost too long, too skinny, and too pale.
Slowly and deliberately, a perfect mirror of one another, they reached out and touched fingers. It was as if he had touched a live wire.
He was so quickly assaulted by everything—every memory, every emotion, every sensation, everything and nothing all at once at such a fever pitch and intensity that the poor boy could scarcely hope to understand what was going on. Then again, the thing that was sitting across from him didn’t understand it either. Only that it was sharp and it was cold and it tickled, just a little bit, right over the left side of the chest.
The boy’s neck jerked, the boy’s jaw clenched, the boy’s eyes opened, the boy’s legs stiffened, the boy’s chest spasmed, the boy’s legs relaxed, the boy’s eyes closed.
Human beings weren’t supposed to move like that. They were supposed to move naturally and gracefully, guests of honor in the world which had birthed them. But perhaps this word was not the one which had birthed this boy.
Regardless, it seemed that he was only graceful when he was asleep.
When Sunnyboy opened his eyes, the strange silhouette that he saw in the window was no longer there. In its place was a small child, the same age as him. Or, almost a child, anyway.
Sunnyboy almost believed it—after all, a small child was much easier to believe in that whatever he had seen before, but there were a couple things just slightly… off, that stopped it just short of looking like a real person:
It was completely colorless, for one. Everything was black, white, or a varying shade of grey. All the black had bled into the centers of its body, where it became a mass of dark, oversized clothing. Some of the black had moved up to the top of its head, where it had turned into a mop of wild, unruly hair. There were still some spots where it lingered, though-especially around the fingertips, like it had frostbite.
There was also a ring of the dark stuff around its eyes, almost like war paint. The eyes were still almost completely white, now (though at least they were the right shape) with just the tiniest black fleck in the middle, like ink in a well. The contrast between ink and paper made the thing’s eyes look shell-shocked, piercing.
Like one of the people from his silent movie.
It simply watched him with fascination—but Sunnyboy did the same.
“Can you talk?” His heart was still fluttering, but it was pleasant now, almost making him want to giggle. He was reminded of the time he went to the dentist to get a cavity removed.
“Can you… can I talk… yes,” it cocked its head, drawing out the last syllable. Dark lips twitched upwards into a malformed smile.
“I can talk…” In that moment, this ancient, ageless thing was scarcely but a toddler, basking in the wonder of the world and the pure, unreplicatable ecstasy that comes with doing something so fundamentally human for the very first time.
Then there was another noise-sharp, grating, breathy, and wild, running down a hill and not knowing how to stop as it gained momentum, ricocheting off every available surface. At first, it seemed like it was emanating from the walls themselves, but the creature’s mouth was moving—albeit stiffly, up and down and up and down…
After a moment, Sunnyboy realized that it was laughing.
It was a little frightening, sure (it was very frightening), but Sunnyboy had never heard a sound so pure, clear, and filled with joy. He couldn’t help it. Maybe it was empathy, maybe just nervous energy, maybe conformity, maybe sorcery-
But Sunnyboy started laughing too. And he just couldn’t seem to stop. Perhaps it was just his imagination (though really, he wasn't even sure if he cared anymore), but it felt as if he was slowly losing the need to breathe.
“Who are you?” he asked.
It cocked its head. “Nobody.”
“What do you mean? Everybody’s somebody.”
It did not appear to know how to answer. So Sunnyboy, as it was what was familiar with him, decided to fill the silence with more words. Not that they meant much to his ears anyway. Not any form of communication or intended message, just the verbalization of the thoughts and associations fluttering through his head that he paid no conscious attention to. A tuneless elevator music. He got it from his father.
“You can’t be nobody, you’re right here, I’m talking to you! Besides, even if you were nobody, nothing is still something, right? Like the number Zero. We learned about it in math. It’s nothing, but it’s also something, because it’s Zero!”
Pause. The thing stared at him, holding onto every word. It said nothing.
“Actually—I like that. It suits you. I’m gonna call you Zero,”
“...Zero? I… I like that too,” Zero smiled, more sure of itself this time.
Sunnyboy smiled back.
“Okay, so we’ve figured out that that you aren’t nobody. So if you’re not nobody, then who are you?” Though the boy’s voice was firmer this time, there was no frustration or accusation to be found. The question was one of genuine curiosity and concern.
“I… I don’t know…”
“How can you not know who you are?” He didn’t realize until after the words came out how sharply they moved through the air. He sounded like his father. He was his father. He was asking this question to his son. Sunnyboy felt bile begin to crawl up the back of his throat.
Zero seized up and scrambled backwards.
“Wait—no! I’m sorry. I’m not gonna hurt you, I promise.”
“I promise,” he repeated.
It reversed course—slowly, haltingly. This creature was not of the sort that was used to making consequential decisions.
Then again, neither was Sunnyboy. He lifted his hands up in a gesture of surrender - that was what you were supposed to do, right?
Was it? Zero responded by putting its own hands up. It didn’t have any nails.
“No, you don’t have to do that—I’m the one who did something bad.”
Down again. Sunnyboy followed suit, though the gesture was (hopefully) adequately replaced by a welcoming smile. Though admittedly—he had never been particularly good at finding his bearings or navigating his way around the confusing landscape that was his own face, so it was a bit of a leap of faith. He prayed that he hadn’t overshot it.
It seemed to drink in every little detail on his face with a practiced kind of fascination, attentive and studious. No, more than that, it really was drinking, Sunnyboy could practically feel the shift in the room, the way invisible hands seemed to wrap around his face, recalibrating the gravity to slowly ooze towards the being sitting opposite him. And with each new piece of information that flowed its way, Zero seemed to become incrementally more real, more human.
It almost felt like an honor to Sunnyboy, he’d never had anyone or anything look at him with such reverence and intensity before, as if he was special. He let Zero continue to do whatever he was doing.
The boy shivered.
“Where’d you come from?” He asked as the thing continued to inch its way towards him, leaving the thick layer of dust on the floor completely undisturbed. At this point, he didn’t really expect a proper answer, but there was no shame in trying.
“The waystation outside fourth and fifth. Surely you’ve been there, I… I know you have. I saw you there once.” It didn’t break its gaze, not even once, though eye contact wasn’t really the right way to describe it. This was something much more voyeuristic—a watcher.
“You mean the old highway underpass?” He didn’t know what a waystation was.
It moved closer.
“Sure. But if you go down there and get lost, over and around and through the bushes you’ll find there’s a void in there, big and dark and beautiful. That’s where I’m from,”
Closer still. Sunnyby started sliding along the floor too. They would meet in the middle.
(But someday, you idiot, you’ll get run over or get hopelessly lost and it’ll be your fault)—
—Sunnyboy ignored the warning.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen something like that down there.”
“You can’t find it if it’s something you’re looking for.”
“But I could take you there sometime… if you’d like.” The last part was tacked on hastily, as if Zero hadn’t considered the boy’s consent in the matter until that very moment.
It cocked its head, waiting, hesitant, wondering if it had overstepped a boundary.
Humans had so many of those.
But the boy just nodded eagerly. He was still, in spite of everything, overflowing with that insatiable, childish thirst for adventure. Zero was glad. Most children had lost it by that age.
There was a quiet (though not disagreeable) moment. Sunnyboy took that moment to look really look at this strange, incredible thing that had somehow managed to find its way into his room.
It stared back with something that could only be described as fondness.
He took a deep breath.
“Zero, can I be your friend?” The question came quickly, pushed out by an avalanche of building pressure that had built around his head.
There’s something about light nights when you’re young, something forbidden and entrancing, that allows the truth to slip uninhibited from tiny mouths.
“My friend? Why?”
“I don’t know, I just… thought that might be nice.”
“Don’t you already have friends?”
He gave Zero a conspiratorially-tinged smile.
“Yeah, but they aren’t… magic,” He whispered.
Zero didn’t seem like it completely understood what he meant by that—but it was fine, because it didn’t seem to care, either. It was lost in its own, odd thoughts. Thoughts that were completely foreign to the concept of friends as anything but an observable, third-person phenomenon, he realized.
“Friends take care of each other,” he hoped it didn’t sound too condescending, “They can… if you want to be, we can be together forever and ever, and we can help each other find out who we are.”
“Do you promise?” It was still cautious. Sunnyboy understood.
The promise wouldn’t keep, of course. Childhood promises never do. But how were either of them supposed to know that? Sunnyboy reached out and squeezed Zero’s hands, cold, and lanky as they were. It was something his mother used to do.
“Thank you,” it whispered, close and cold and scary and comforting.
“For being my friend, and for giving me my name,”
It had been a very long time since anyone had thanked Sunnyboy for anything, much less something so important as a name.
“But you never gave me yours,” it continued.
“I’m… uh…” He wanted to tell Zero his name, he really did. It was the least he could do, giving something in return.
But as he tried to take in a breath, the words simply wouldn’t come. He couldn’t. It wasn’t right. Nothing was right, not for this tiny little boy in a tiny little apartment and a tiny little world.
In Zero’s word of impossible things, of stars, ink, and statically-infused touches, a world where every whim that was true had the right to just... be, it felt wrong to go by a name that wasn’t. It was what people generally called him by, sure, it was what was on his birth certificate, but still, that barely felt like enough to call it his name. After all, names were important. Names were supposed to be the very essence of your identity, compacted into a few short wounds, something you could answer with when someone asked “Who are you?” His name was none of those things. Except—
This little boy had two very different names, given to him by two very different people. And here, in this upstairs bedroom filled with impossible things, it didn't matter what he had been given, but what he would take.
He took the name that shiny, golden frame in his mind where it was supposed to be hanging and crumpled it into the trash. He replaced it with a new name—childishly scrawled in crayon, sure, but it was truly, wholly his. Hardly the strangest thing which happened that night.