The trembling of a branch, low and shaken by the wind, shed leaves that were yellowed and crimson—rolling as they fell, cloaking the barren land in a shade so warm, he could not feel the bite of the breeze.
They cracked under his weight, the leaves did. Brown and dried, falling apart into flakes and crisps that resembled the texture of a pastry his mother used to bake. He couldn’t seem to remember the name and while the boy was a head above his peers in language, there remained limits to his four years of life and a description of something intangible, merely tasted in something akin to a dream, was not yet within his capability.
He could, however, describe the distant shouts of mirth and joy coming from the window, directly above where he was seated, legs-crossed with a book in his lap. They were squeals of excitement and surprise, pitched high enough to belong to children and those with a heart younger than his own.
Had any of the teachers at his elementary school seen a four-year-old with his head buried in ‘The Collected Works of Oscar Wilde’, they would have assumed he was flipping the pages for pictures. Miss Julie was the only one who’d done otherwise, asking the boy what the book was about and receiving the most delightful, intelligent response she’d ever heard a child utter.
It was then that she’d asked where he’d gotten the book from, and there, she’d met his uncle.
There were things that the boy did not quite understand at his age, and one of those things was the way in which one stranger can come to love another. For there to be a string despite the absence of ties—familial, blood—was, to him, incredulous. It was absurd.
From where he was seated, he could hear the squeak of the teeterboard in the playground. He quite liked the sound. It meant that there were people playing. One seated on the left end and another on the right. Only then, there would be a sound.
He closed his book and peered up at the open window where the whisper of the breeze came through. Along with it, a strange disharmony of voices and shouts from the school’s backyard, where the playground was and where the children played but he—was he a child?
The concept of play; the very thought of there existing a form of sating a heart that was young felt to him oddly distant. He stood on his toes, eyes barely making it past the windowsill even with an elevated viewpoint, taking in the land covered in leaves and the sound of them being crushed under moving feet.
For the boy, each and every component of the playground had its own purpose to serve. While the sandbox was reserved for imagination and creativity, the metal slide had the ability to sweep one off their feet in a fleeting moment of speed; the swing, a way to grow a pair of momentary wings and the monkey bars a test of courage but the seesaw.
The seesaw was special. He could, just by observing, tell that it was the most popular pick and to attribute a reason for this took him a week of consistent observation and another to confirm his conclusion.
“Do you want to join them?”
The boy turned, startled by the abrupt interruption of his thoughts as though he’d forgotten that he wasn’t the only one existing in this world. He stared up at the teacher who had called out to him, lowering his toes that were tipped.
“I’m okay with just watching, Miss.” He smiled and returned to his book that was on the floor, lowering himself into a cross-legged position and flipping open to the page that he’d left it at.
His school teacher took one look at the book that was almost three times the length of the boy’s palm and words that she could not make out from where she was standing. They were far too small for human eyes.
“Is that why you’re wearing glasses at such a young age, Vanilla?” She laughed. “A child should enjoy playing as much as they can before they grow up you know.
“You won’t get to play as much when you’re older. Why don’t you go out and play with the others?”
It was something he’d never had the courage to do. Going out to play felt, to the boy, something exclusively reserved for a select few who’d passed some sort of unseen test and gained themselves an invitation to enter the realm of childhood. Yet, it seemed to him that everyone else deemed age as the sole invitation or ticket to being a child and that at some point, they no longer were and anything before that, they would have that title pinned to their breasts without any way of removing it.
“Is there anything you want to play?” His teacher prompted again, crouching to level their eyes and gently pull the book out of his hands. The boy bit his lip, staring at the book.
“Not really. But I also don’t have anyone to play with.” He thought about the seesaw.
The boy had studied how they’d work; read a book about those teeterboards just to be sure he’d know what to do when there was, should there be, someone who would play with him. They worked on a specific mechanism—a long, narrow board supported by a single pivot point and that was the key to making it work. Not one but at least two were needed for the seesaw to serve its purpose.
It was the hardest to play.
“I’m sure you do, darling. Come on, let’s go join the rest of your class,” said the teacher as she took him by the arm and pulled him up, leaving ‘The Collected Works of Oscar Wilde’ on the floor by the window where he could, still, hear the creak of the seesaw.
“But I want to read my book,” he’d protested then, only to have muttered the words under his breath and remain unheard.
He was brought out to the open and past the fence into the backyard, where the loud, joyous noises were coming from. It seemed to startle him.
“Miss,” he had tugged the edge of his teacher’s dress but she’d propelled him towards the playground just in time for her to miss his call for attention.
“Go on! See, they’re waving you over,” she pointed in the general direction of the swings and the boy had turned to look. He couldn’t see anyone waving. “Go and play with them.”
Uneasy, he swallowed every streak of doubt and tottered over to the sandbox, where several of his classmates were building a sandcastle. It was unstable and starting to look like the leaning tower of Pisa that he’d read about in a book and he knew just about why. All he had to do now was tell them—so that their precious sandcastle wouldn’t crumble and sink into nothing after hours of hard work.
“Do you know that buildings need wide foundations because they exert tremendous pressure on the ground?” The children turned to the speaking boy, blinking with their shovels held mid-air. “To avoid sinking, their foundations are made wide so that pressure on the ground decreases while ensuring that they are easily balanced. It’s the simplest form of architecture, which I think maybe your sandcastle is lacking at present.”
He smiled upon finishing, fidgeting with his suspenders. One of the girls turned back to their sandcastle and stared. “What’s foundation?”
“Oh! That’s this part of the—” The boy had stepped forward in eagerness, delighted to answer a question but the moment he did, the leaning tower of Pisa had, so coincidentally, taken its inevitable fall and met its fate.
Another girl had began to cry.
It was despite his failed and terribly mistaken attempt that the boy continued the believe that he could fit in with the rest of his classmates and do exactly what children were meant to do, at least according to the world he lived in. His second attempt was two days later, when he’d re-studied and prepared himself beforehand questions about seesaw mechanics and ran through conversation simulations in his mind for possible cases of things going wrong. There were none.
And so the boy decided that this was it. His debut in the playground and thereafter; his many days of being a child with friends, playing in the open fields without being enclosed in the world of his mind—the beginning of the period others liked to call childhood.
The first thing he’d spotted, however, was a mistake. There were seven people on the teeterboard; two on the right end on five on the left; seven in total. Seven. That was not how it worked.
The boy could tell that the spring attached to the bottom of the left side of the board was under severe strain. It was twisted sideways and oddly out of shape, far from resembling the springs that he’d seen in books. Quickly, he set out to warn them of the dangers.
“Excuse me, I, um. I don’t think the seesaw is meant for so many, you see,” he pointed at the ground where the spring had been drilled into and several children moved aside to follow his finger. “It’s kind of old and the coat of paint around the metal looks like it’s peeling off so it’s most probably rusting inside and if you put too much pressure on it, it’ll most definitely break.”
“But it’s been that way for months. You don’t know that because you’re new,” said a boy who was always surrounded by students and teachers alike. He was easily identified as ‘the one who had many friends.’
“R-really?” The anxious boy fixed the pair of glasses slipping down his nose. “But, so. All the more you shouldn’t have so many people on it at one time. It’s dangerous. Especially if the spring snaps because then half of you might slip down backwards and then the other spring might break as well because it’s a pivot, you see... only a single point. If one side goes all the way down and the other spring cannot compensate for the distance travelled and snaps under the tension, not only would those sitting up there slip downwards at a terrifying angle, but they might come crashing backwards soon after!”
“That’s stupid,” snapped the same boy in return, after seeing the look of concern that the rest of his playmates were beginning to wear. After all, the detailed scientific explanation filled with jargon put out by the boy in glasses was all the more convincing when they did not understand it.
Still, there remained those afraid of admitting to their own incompetence, afraid of hearing that which they did not know especially from someone of the same age. “You just want to spoil the fun! Stop acting like a teacher because you’re not.”
“Yeah! You’re not a teacher so you can’t tell us what to do,” said the girl from the sandbox the other day, seated on the left side of the board, among the five others. “Go somewhere else.”
The boy stared.
It was not enough to make him cry, the words were. They weren’t enough and yet, he could feel this odd twist in his chest as though his heart had made itself into a pretzel and he didn’t even like pretzels. What was it doing inside?
He turned away once they seemed to get back in the mood for play, kicking off from the ground of leaves to push themselves up before the tip of the board would slam, hard, down on the other side and lift the others up. The pivot screeched, wailing under the weight and further demonstrating the need to be oiled and for the friction between its joints to be reduced. It made the boy even more concerned.
Yet, he could not find it in himself to say another word. How frightful the feeling was to him—that he could be doing something to help but was not because those he needed to help did not want him at all. How awfully hard it was to walk away and how awfully hard it was to know that well intentions could be turned down despite its nature.
He began to play alone.
What then, was the difference between reading and playing when neither seemed to involve the company of others and both were heavily reliant on the sole
The boy would approach a busy sandbox and find it empty within three footsteps of his presence, abandoned, shovels and all in disarray. A similar phenomenon could be observed with the slides and the swings and seesaw and that was practically everything else. He had to play alone.
For him who had no siblings and recalled no face of his father and a mother who’d left the world some time ago, this was no crying issue. There was nothing wrong with being by himself or having to care for his own seeds of thought. It gave him freedom in knowledge and in process, making for a mind that was oddly beyond its years.
“Ah,” he yelped, startled when the end of the deserted teeterboard sunk low under his weight. It was his first experience and he hadn’t expected it to sink all the way down; nearly brushing the layers of fallen leaves underneath.
Holding on to the handle between his legs, he had his legs propelling him upwards—feeling the momentary lift of the spring before he came dropping down at the screech of the pivot without a necessary balance at the other end of the board.
That, he repeated for quite a while until he was sore from the impact and couldn’t do no more, standing and dusting himself a little while standing with his legs awkwardly apart, the teeterboard between.
The moment was rudely interrupted by someone else who’d occupied the seat on the other end without asking for permission, causing the pivot to screech and the board to tilt towards the other side.
The boy looked up. “Oh. Hello,” he began, startled. “I didn’t see you there.”
His companion seemed to laugh, or snort, or... or did something that he couldn’t quite identify. Half of his face was covered by the collar of his windbreaker turned up; hands stuffed in his pockets.
“U-um. Do you want to...?” The boy in suspenders was confused. Slowly, he lowered himself back onto the seat on the other end of the seesaw. The pivot creaked gently, seemingly sated by the balance of two. Neither seemed to speak for some time until the other boy tilted his weight backwards—causing the board to favour his weight. It bowed to his side.
“Oh. Is this how you start? Are we starting now?” He, too, kicked off the ground and rocked backwards at the timing he felt could use the momentum of his weight to give the other a higher, longer lift in the air.
His companion appeared not to like speaking very much, but that was all very good for the boy. He didn’t particularly mind.
“What’s your name?” He asked, following each other’s gaze as the mechanism brought them in opposite directions at the same speed; at only one point were they ever equal and that was the middle.
“You have a very cool name,” said the boy enviously, quietly hesitant to say his own after hearing his companion’s. “Mine isn’t very cool. It’s a type of food.”
“Braised chicken?” Leroy had said the first thing that had come to mind and it was not exactly the one glasses boy had been expecting.
“B-braised? Um,” he was both stunned and indignant—indignant because he honestly thought anyone would be insane naming their child ‘Braised Chicken’—but more so the former than the latter. “You know what that is? I haven’t heard of anyone else who knows that. I actually read it in a book, you see but wait. That’s not the point because my name isn’t braised chicken so you’re wrong.” He had, unfortunately, mistakenly placed his emphasis on the wrong word.
His companion frowned. “Sautéed chicken? Pan-friend? Grilled chicken? Fried chicken?” He went on, not forgetting his duty to participate in seesawing regardless.
The boy stopped moving all at once, stunned into laughter. “What! Wha—how could you—my name does not have chicken in it!”
Watching the seesaw come to a stop and hearing the creaking cease was slightly off-putting, nevertheless. He hadn’t expected himself to have gotten used to sound so quickly.
“Oh,” was all the other boy said, looking down at his shoelaces that had come undone. “Then?”
“It has something to do with dessert. Guess again,” piped the boy when prompted, swinging his legs when they weren’t touching the ground. It was the first time he was having a conversation—or so one that he could qualify as, per se—with someone about his age, and he couldn’t believe that something so enjoyable had been missing from a huge part of his life.
Unfortunately, Leroy was no expert. “I don’t know desserts. Only napoleons.”
The bookworm could not believe his ears. This boy skipped ice-cream flavours and went straight to napoleons? He’d never heard of someone like that.
“I’ll help you then,” he offered, continuing their rhythmic ups and down after the other boy was done with his shoelaces. “It’s an ice-cream flavour. You know what ice-cream is, right?”
“Like rum and raisin,” the dark-haired boy nodded and the autumn light that fell in an angle on the top of his head made it look a little red. Almost fierce. “And wasabi.”
“Everyone else would have guessed chocolate or, or strawberry—that sort of thing. The common guesses, you could say. And I’ve only ever heard ‘Mint’ as a guess this once, but no one,” he could feel a smile, a huge, curious grin tugging at the edge of his lips coming along and it was hard to stop. “No one’s ever said my favourite flavour. Which is rum and raisin, um, by the way.”
He couldn’t stop talking. He couldn’t—it was too fun. He was enjoying it a little too much and he could feel the heart within warming to a swell; almost like dough in an oven. Baking. Rising.
“So am I supposed to call you rum or raisin?” Leroy was a frowner and he was frowning still, an eyebrow raised despite his ability to shamelessly believe that someone would name their child ‘Rum and Raisin’.
“I—that’s not what I—” His companion’s laughter was amidst the gentle creaking of the seesaw, melding together the start of something unique and oddly beautiful. His side of the board trembled the same way his shoulders did, shaking with mirth. “Just because it’s my favourite flavour doesn’t automatically mean it’s my name.”
The teeterboard stopped altogether, coming to rest in the middle where they were equal.
“What is it then?”
“It’s—um. I’m,” he’d never said it aloud or done the deed with his very own voice. It was the reason he’d often asked others to guess in the first place; leading the way with questions and guiding them till they arrived at the answer. This was the furthest he’d ever been through the questionnaire since ice-cream flavours usually did the trick. “One last try, alright? It’s really not that hard. The simplest flavour you can think of. The basic few, you know? The kind that every ice-cream parlour’s got to have.”
Leroy paused to think, hard and long—taking his time with the guess that seemed for him a level beyond ordinary.
He’d made a face then, as though he thought strawberry to be the worst flavour ever invented.
“No no,” the boy in suspenders corrected, glad that the other was, at the very least, drawing closer to the correct answer. “Close, but not yet. Even more basic than strawberry? The plainest kind of flavour you’ve ever come across?”
Leroy snapped his fingers then, appearing to have narrowed down and nailed the guess that had to be it. “Cotton candy.”
Even Uncle Alfred would have cursed right then. He could hear his uncle at the back of his mind with a snippy ‘goodness gracious’.
“No! It’s Vanilla,” said the boy with finality, so oddly awestruck that the initial embarrassment he’d felt over voicing his name had vanished completely, replaced by something else. “I can’t believe you tried for ‘cotton candy’!”
“You said plain, so.”
“B-but, I don’t know, doesn’t everyone think Vanilla when they think about plain ice-cream flavours? I mean, I cannot disagree that cotton candy is just terrifying in terms of its flavour profile but but would anyone really name their child ‘cotton candy’? And, well, I don’t know, really. I’d thought all children liked the flavour of cotton candy.”
Leroy shrugged, kicking at the fallen leaves on the ground. The teeterboard creaked at his movement and they were quiet for a minute.
“I don’t think Vanilla is plain.”
The boy looked up, startled. “You... you don’t?”
“You do?” Leroy seemed to take the conversation in his stride, not particularly saying anything because he had to, but saying things that he wanted to say. “It’s easy to impress with new flavours, but to make someone like a flavour they can find everywhere else. That’s when you know you’re good.”
He didn’t seem to be asking for an opinion or any form of approval of his own ideas; merely stating what he thought and leaving it there as an objective statement without intention or purpose.
The boy in suspenders rocked in his seat, fulfilling his side of the board; responsibilities shared. For one to have made him so speechless, they must have had a mind alike his own— that, or one that was on the extreme end of the spectrum, providing a perspective never before seen.
His first time on a seesaw had turned out worlds apart from how he’d expected it to be. A mechanism that would only work with not one but two; each having a duty of their own and bearing its responsibility for a magic of their own.
He found the creak of the teeterboard louder when he was near, soothing with its constant rhythm otherwise created by themselves. He quite liked the sound.
The sound of company.
A/N: Hello everyone! ^0^/ this is my second BL series, a spin-off from the Baked series featuring Vanilla when he grows up to a high school student and studies in a culinary school under his Uncle’s influence. Hope you enjoy it!