The Boy I Knew

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Near Misses

Aiden had played baseball in high school. Honestly, his whole life had revolved around the sport. He started when he was five, played in the neighborhood for a few years, went on to play for his middle school, and finally made it to the varsity team in high school. By the time he made it to his junior year, he had a good chance of getting onto a college team.

That’s how he ended up practicing after school almost every day. Aiden had worked for years for this, years. He didn’t have a natural talent or anything; he’d gotten here by jogging in the mornings even when it was freezing out and practicing his pitch until his arm hurt. He couldn’t relax now that his goal was finally entering his sight.

Aiden let out a breath in the warm spring heat as he took his place opposite the pitching machine. The coach had left it out for him to use as long as he put it away when he was done and cleaned up the baseballs too.

It was hot. He could feel the sweat soaking through his tee shirt and running down his neck. Aiden had been out here for almost an hour now. Just one more set of swings and he would be done.

The helmet protecting his head made the heat feel even more prominent as Aiden took his position. He felt calm. There were no nerves running through him as he stood comfortably with the cool aluminum bat in his hands. It was a familiar weight as he took a swing, breathing out.

Aiden listened to the familiar hollow ding of the ball hitting the bat every time he connected. Some balls were fouls, but he felt his heart swell with pride at how much power he was putting into every swing. Aiden had to resist the urge to celebrate when he got a homerun, finishing the rest of his swings before he laughed happily to himself.

Finally, he was starting to feel like he had a real chance at his dreams. It was almost too good to be true as Aiden lazily swung the bat around his fingers, turning around to begin collecting balls.

Aiden hadn’t known that anyone was nearby. He’d been too focused, which is why he almost screeched in surprise when he heard someone yell, “Hey!” Then Aiden felt someone grab him and pull him down and away from home plate.

A second later, the pitching machine shot out one last ball right where he had been standing.

Aiden blinked, his heart beating fast in surprise. It wasn’t exactly strange to be hit with a ball and have odd bruises that his doctors asked him about, but was strange that he didn’t see it coming. The machine must have gotten a ball stuck.

But… wait. It had missed him. Aiden was on the ground now. He was staring right at another boy who he vaguely recognized from his English class, although he couldn’t remember the guy’s name for the life of him. The guy was thin, with brown hair and brown eyes. Good-looking with his sharp features and lazy smile, but otherwise average. His piercing gaze was the only thing that made him stand out.

Those were Aiden’s first thoughts. Then he realized that he was draped over top the guy who was still holding onto his sweaty tee shirt. He must have been walking by or something and jumped in.

However fast he jumped in though, it was nothing compared to how quickly Aiden jumped off. “I-I’m so sorry!” Aiden apologized, his face red.

Just when Aiden was starting to accept the fact that he really might not like girls, he falls on top of a guy with eyes that could make his heart do a flip. Of course. That fit in with the general sense of his life.

He expected the guy to get mad or something, or just to shrug and walk away, but the brunette only laughed out loud, a loud infectious laugh. “I pulled you down and you’re apologizing to me? And here I was hoping I hadn’t hurt you anywhere.”

His voice was warm. That was Aiden’s first impression. Warm, like filled with laughter and life. That was the only way Aiden’s brain could describe it in that moment. He cleared his throat. “No, I’m fine. Uh, probably better than I would be if I got hit by that. Thanks.”

The guy waved him off as if he did this type of thing every day. Sitting up, the guy completely ignored the dirt all over his clothing and scooted over to Aiden to check up on him. “No problem. But seriously, you’re not fine.”

Aiden didn’t realize what the other boy meant until the guy grabbed his hands to examine them. They were red from gripping the bat. They hurt slightly from holding on for so long, and were dirty. Aiden flushed at the feeling of the guy’s hands on his own, feeling even more embarrassed as the guy smacked one of his hands lightly and Aiden yelped.

“Dude, I know you’re a baseball star here, but you’re going to kill yourself at this rate. If your hands are hurting, stop swinging,” he said like it was obvious. The brunette’s eyes bore into Aiden’s deeply. “I don’t dance when I hurt my legs. You’ll just make it worse that way.”

“But…” Aiden started, unsure of what he’d been about to say. He didn’t even know why he felt the need to say anything to this guy that he barely knew.

“But you want to be the best you can be,” the guy said in this lilting voice, waving his hand in the “and so on” motion. “Sometimes being the best means knowing when it’s okay to take a break.”

With those wise words, the guy stood up, brushing his jeans off as much as he could. Aiden was left sitting on the ground staring up at him. It seemed so obvious when this guy said it, but whenever Aiden thought about taking a break, he always wondered if he could be doing more. It had been like that for so long that he usually didn’t think it was odd.

The guy held out a hand with a lazy smile on his face. Aiden noticed the smudge of dirt on the guy’s neck as he took it. With a slight grunt, the guy pulled him up, his thin frame apparently belying some muscle. Aiden cleared his throat. All he could think to say was, “You’re in my English class.”

There was a short nod accompanied by the guy patting down his white shirt. “You’re Aiden. I don’t think we’ve talked before. I’m Kellen.”

Aiden thanked every god up there that the guy, Kellen, had said his name. Truthfully, Aiden felt like an asshole for not remembering it. He winced. “Nice to meet you, Kellen. Er, well, I guess we’ve probably talked in English at some point though.”

Kellen shrugged like it was inconsequential. “Maybe. We sit on opposite sides of the room. We don’t pair together during projects.” That lazy smile was still on his face. If he was bothered by the fact that the two of them never talked, he certainly didn’t show it. Tilting his head, Kellen said, “But I was watching you for a little while. You’re here like every day after school.”

“Should I be concerned that you’ve been watching me?” Aiden joked with a half-smile.

There was that bark of laughter again, but quieter this time. “I walk this way after school. Sometimes when I don’t feel like going home yet, I sit around here and do homework.” Kellen raised an eyebrow. “But perhaps I’ve underestimated you and your question-avoiding skills,” he said in a playful voice, smirking.

Aiden chuckled to himself, relaxing slightly. Kellen’s casual attitude made it easy to release some of the tension in his muscles. “I’ve got to get better. Which means practice,” responding to Kellen’s previous inquiries.

Kellen gave him this look like he understood the sentiment, but he didn’t try to convince Aiden otherwise. He only said, “I’ll help you clean up today.”

“Oh no, I couldn’t ask you to do that—” Aiden started.

“I volunteered,” Kellen responded simply. He didn’t volunteer any more information about why he decided to help Aiden, but did smirk and say sarcastically, “Prepare to witness my excellent ball tossing skills.”

It was even funnier when the first baseball Kellen tried to toss into the bin hit the rim and fell out. Aiden didn’t mean to laugh so much, but then Kellen did that loud barking laughter again and Aiden couldn’t help it.

By the time he split with Kellen, Aiden’s stomach hurt more than his hands, not because he was nervous, but because he was laughing too much.

^^^

Moving to the city was tiring. Aiden felt like he hadn’t slept in months as he huffed and lowered himself on top of the couch he’d just had delivered. His whole body was tired. How was that even possible? All he’d been doing was unpacking boxes and adjusting furniture and he felt like he’d been hit by a truck.

But now he was officially done. Couches laid out, boxes unpacked, bed set up, and food in the fridge. And it only took a week.

Ugh, a whole week. The days home with his family had been fun, but everyone had work and life to get back to until Christmas. That meant that Aiden had no choice but to tackle the mess that was his apartment. After tripping over more than one box and slipping on a few towels that had been thrown on the hardwood floor, Aiden was glad that he hadn’t managed to kill himself. Now that he was done though, he wanted nothing more than to close his eyes and rest.

Aiden yawned widely, forcing himself to move before he fell asleep. The couch was calling to him, but he could only imagine Nikki’s face when she finished her dance class and there was no one there to pick her up.

No matter how tired he was, there was no way he could say no to Nikki. Or really to Letta this time. His sister-in-law had called him in a panic, begging him to grab Nikki since Ian had gotten stuck in traffic due to the snow and she was still at work helping one of her patients with his physical therapy.

Aiden cut her off with a laugh, trying to reassure her. Poor Letta was the anxious type, kind of like Aiden actually. She always started chattering quickly when she had too many things on her mind, but when it came to anything medical, she was cool-headed and calm. Aiden liked her a lot actually. She was a good fit for his straightforward, blunt brother, keeping him in check just like he did with her. They supported one another; it was nice to see.

It was nice to support them too when they needed it. Yawning, Aiden started walking to the dance studio Letta had told him about, bundled up with a scarf, hat, and gloves against the cold. He pulled his collar up to ward off the wind that made his eyes water, suddenly feeling much more awake.

Nikki must have really loved this dance studio to go so consistently every Tuesday and Saturday, especially in weather like this. Ballet was Tuesday after school and Saturday was hip-hop in the afternoons. She’d told Aiden that she was thinking of adding classical dance too, bouncing excitedly on the tips of her toes the whole time. Ian and Letta had just given each other a look; Aiden was pretty sure they were mentally calculating what Nikki’s social calendar would look like with another activity added in and how they’d drive her to everything.

His boots sloshed on the sidewalk as he made his way to the address, looking up at the storefront. Kick Up Your Heels Dance Studio. It was a small-looking place with some delicious-looking restaurants placed on either side. Get some Chinese food, feel guilty for eating that extra eggroll, and sign up for dance classes to work off the calories. Made sense. Good business.

Aiden could see only a glimpse of the office inside through the glass windows before he pulled the door open and a blast of warm air assaulted him.

That warmth immediately surrounded him. Aiden breathed in relief as it crawled into his bones, sending a pleasant shiver up his spine when he stamped his boots on the welcome mat to get the snow off.

Standing there at the entrance, Aiden felt the warmth from more than the heat. There were deep dark woods stretching out all across the floor and a sweet caramel coloring on the walls. Paper snowflakes were hung on the windows, swaying with each blast of heat. There was a cork board with schedules and sheets to the right, Aiden guessed for different classes. A coat rack was laden down near the front, right next to a large cubby area for shoes and backpacks. In the back left was a wooden desk with an eccentric-looking woman standing behind it.

She’d looked up when Aiden entered and gave him a smile. The light blue streaks in her black hair seemed to reflect the light, although the tiny diamonds on the sides of her glasses actually did reflect the light for a moment. Either way, the dark glasses and hair seemed to make her look even paler than she already was. “Hello, is there anything I can help you with?” Her voice was soft, like she hadn’t use it in a little while.

“Oh, just picking up my niece?” Aiden hadn’t meant to phrase it as a question but it happened anyway.

The woman nodded, that smile still on her face. “For the hip-hop class? They’re in one of the rooms behind me there, but they’ll be done in a few. Feel free to relax a bit. Or not. Your call.”

Aiden glanced in that direction, although he couldn’t see anything past the doorway. He only nodded and she went back to trying to figure something out on the computer she was messing with. From the look on her face, she was having a rough time.

His heart went out to her, but Aiden just took a spot leaning near the cubby area as he waited. Even standing, Aiden had to blink himself awake more than once in those few minutes as the warmth started lulling him to sleep.

It was a good thing that Nikki came out when she did. “Uncle Aiden!” she called with her usual excitement, bounding up to him in her dance clothes.

He picked her up and swung her around before setting her down again. “Have fun at hip-hop today?”

Her eyes practically lit up. “It’s the best, Uncle Aiden! I’m getting pretty good.” She did some kind of pop with her legs, a sharp movement that looked like it had taken a lot of work.

Aiden raised his eyebrows. “Will I ever get to see more than that?”

“Of course! I’m dancing with my school for the Winter Concert, and oh, oh!” She hit his arm lightly a few times, a gesture she’d learned from her mother. “The studio here is doing a dance thing for the community too and our dance class will be there!” She squealed excitedly, bouncing up and down in place. “I’m so excited!”

Aiden chuckled at her enthusiasm. “Lucky me that I get to see it all,” he said sincerely, looking up when he heard the woman at the desk huff in frustration. More people had come out since Nikki, and were either still putting on their coats or already left. The woman at the desk didn’t seem to be paying attention though as she scowled at her computer.

Nikki turned around to look at her with a sympathetic frown. “No luck, Olivia?”

The woman with the light blue highlights sighed. “None at all. I’m not even sure what I’m doing wrong, but the system isn’t letting me mess with the appointments.” Olivia huffed and pouted, leaning her chin on her palm. “But I can’t dance all that well, so I’ve got to figure this out if I’m going to be valuable here,” she said with new enthusiasm, like she was trying to psyche herself up. “My job depends on it.”

There was a pause before some guy yelled out from the hallway past her desk, “No it doesn’t!”

Aiden didn’t see who that was, but he narrowed his eyebrows. Familiar. That was familiar. That voice, the lilting tone. Something about it was incredibly familiar. Aiden was hit with a wave of déjà vu, but he had no idea why.

“I’ll outlive my usefulness if I can’t fix the computer!” she called back with a chuckle in her voice.

“I’m sure we could find something for you to do around here,” that voice joked, but whoever was speaking still didn’t make an appearance.

Aiden frowned. He felt a strange feeling beneath his skin, something in between uncertainty and anticipation. It was almost like his calibration was off: like some part of him realized something was wrong but the rest of his brain hadn’t caught up.

Nikki patted his leg. “Don’t worry, that’s just Mr. K. He’s the hip-hop teacher. And he does classical stuff like the waltz.” She looked around. “Um B does ballet, but I don’t think she’s here today.”

“B?” Aiden couldn’t help but to ask.

Nikki shrugged like it was obvious. “Her actual name is Beatrice Battle.”

“She hates her name,” Olivia the computer girl said with a fond shake of her head, all without looking up. “You wouldn’t peg her as the ballet type either. Come in on a Tuesday to get Nikki one of these days and you can say hello. Or you could always sign up for a class yourself.” She was smiling sneakily.

Aiden only saw a flash of the guy, Mr. K, in the back as he walked past the doorway saying, “Marketing! We’ll keep you around for that even if you break the computer.”

“Hey, I didn’t break it!” Olivia complained with laughter in her voice. Mr. K was laughing too, his footsteps reverberating atop the wooden flooring when he walked. Aiden was struck with that sense of familiarity again, itching under his skin. He didn’t have any time to figure it out before Olivia sighed fondly. She looked up at Aiden and Nikki. “Be safe going home, Nikki. You too, sir,” she addressed to Aiden.

“Do you have to stay here?” Nikki asked the woman with a little frown, her eyes slipping to see the snow falling like a blizzard outside.

“Just for a little while. Neither of us have cars, so we’re trying to see if it slows down before our fingers freeze,” Olivia responded with a wry smile. She waved. “See you Tuesday, Nikki.”

“Bye, Olivia!” Nikki said as cheerfully as always, letting Aiden adjust the collar of her coat before they stepped out to brave the cold together.

Aiden kept Nikki close the entire time they were walking, asking her every few minutes if her hands were too cold. He couldn’t help but to feel unsettled though. That feeling like he’d missed something hadn’t left him. Only Nikki’s presence and the blasts of cold wind slamming into him kept him from mulling over it.

By the time he’d taken Nikki back to his apartment for the afternoon, he’d completely forgotten what had bothered him so much in the first place.

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