Everything Gets Brighter as the Night Grows Darker

An interview with Author Daniel Sheen and an excerpt from his upcoming novel

ONCE UPON A TIME, there was a boy. Molten, dark, pale, silky soft, an accumulation of strange angles that never quite lined up properly. More like the sensation of falling than a human being. Nothing but a collection of feathers on a light-drenched rooftop. Translucent. Paper-thin. Fragile. Like you could hold him in your hand. 

IT’S MONDAY MORNING, and even though today marks the very first day of the rest of my life, it kicks off like any other day. I’ve just turned fifteen and it’s a tired, dull morning, filled with the same mix of late summer sun, boring school and lonely dirt roads as usual.  

First period Chemistry is my idea of a nightmare. Almost as thrilling as the beige smell of puberty. First off, none of the math makes sense. It’s like telling a fish about a bicycle. But that’s because my brain hates learning ‘bout anything for which I’ve no real use. Be it Chemistry or Trig, if I can’t apply it to some real-world problem, then my brain loses interest almost immediately. So instead, I find solace doodling in the margins, my pencil idly skimming the three empty columns of the spot test. 

Then I stare out the window. I unzip the air. I peel the blue off the sky and stuff it in my mouth, chewing on it for a while. It tastes like the cloud damp of melting frost. Fresh and clean and bright. It makes me want to cry.  

Dammit Daniel! Concentrate! 

At this rate you’ll never make it through this semester in one piece.  

But inside, I feel numb, like I’m sitting in the deep end of a swimming pool, covered in ten feet of water. I guess that’s one way of explaining it. How far away I always feel. How completely and utterly removed I feel from everyone else. And I don’t know how to fix it. Or even if it can be fixed. Or even if I want to. 

“One minute, Daniel.”  

The teacher’s warning jolts me back to the present. Cobwebbed windows in grimy morning sunshine. Anxiety raging. A storm across my thoughts. Narrative echoes. Last night’s dream painting itself onto the world. Because my mind is still prodding at that dream, still working it over like a piece of tough corn bread, for it was like I’d glimpsed something unreal, something that perhaps I weren’t meant to see. I don’t know, I guess it’s hard to put a finger on it. And just like that, I’m lost again, staring down at my notebook. Although the page is basically blank—white to match my face—and I wonder when that happened. When did I become a ghost? 

Screw it. Turn the paper over. Swallow the nasty taste at the back of my throat. I might as well fold, I couldn’t pull these answers out of my ass if my life depended on it. So when the bell rings, I take off, paying no mind to runnin’ in the halls. I guess the axe has to fall eventually, I’ll just have to pull some strings, delay that moment for as long as possible. 

It’s fine, I’ll make something up, I’m good at that.

I’m laughing out loud in the pale afterglow of my despair. My stupid teenage brain. The perfect combination of arrogance and narcissism. Running up the stairs to the roof. Feet dangling over the ledge. Wondering what it would be like—to fall—from all the way up here. No fear, palms raised to the sky, as if in prayer.  

Little did I know those prayers were going to be answered. 

COME SECOND PERIOD the boy arrives without warning. No heads up, no announcement, he’s simply there, when last period he wasn’t. And I remember the first time I saw him because he stared at me for the longest time—like a hawk eyein’ its prey—and somewhere within that far-reaching moment, the whole room was ripped apart. I actually felt a bit sick, like I was going to vomit, right there in the classroom, almost like my body remembered him, even as my mind drew a blank. As if a once stubborn hollowness swelled with unexpected feelings.      

But as you know by now, I have issues with other people. They are the ass-burn of my life. And that goes double for strangers. Which is why I always start out by watching. The watching always comes first. That’s how I see the real story, the one that runs beneath everythin’ else. And so I study him, relentlessly, suspiciously, squinting at him like he’s my chemistry homework. I watch him shift in his chair, his lips slack and pouted, his shoulders slumped like he just lost a battle. I watch him slouch down the hallway, scowling at the floor, his grubby bag slung across his bony shoulders like an afterthought. But it ain’t working. Every time I reach for him I come up empty, like that annoying ache in your chest when you’re plucked from a particularly beautiful dream, or when you have a real important thought slip through your fingers. He looks elusive, unpredictable, and the fact that I can’t read him only makes him all the more intriguing. Yet there’s more to it than that, because I also feel drawn to him, like a crow to a dead rabbit, and as I refocus—in a strange recurring echo of this morning’s déjà vu—it’s like the whole world’s been painted a darker colour. 

It’s not a bad sensation exactly, it’s just wildly unexpected. 

We hardly ever get new kids at school anymore, especially not ones as confusing as this one. So for days, I keep tabs on him in my own liminal way. Quick snapshot glances out the corner of my eye. Furtive and slippery. But this kid is somethin’ else. With his pale, grimy skin, his eyes glowing like a lonely coyote. I can tell that he’s hungry, and for somethin’ more than food too. And yet despite looking tougher than the back end of a shootin’ gallery, there’s a softness to his voice that seems at odds with the way he presents himself. Surly, caustic, insidious, all black clothes and dark hair falling into his eyes, his weirdly skinny frame appearing to reject both fat and muscle. And I say weird, because it’s an in-your-face skinny, a what’s-wrong-with-your-home-life skinny. Honestly, it’s like a pack of dogs have been keeping him under a porch somewhere.  

And besides, new kids usually talk all the time, often saying more than they know, especially if they’re nervous. But not this one. He don’t speak to anyone. He ain’t even tryin’, almost like he’s hidin’ something. And when he ain’t in class, his head is always in a book, eyes cast down, shrinking into himself. Even doing spot tests, he just stares at the wall—dreamy, unconcerned—tapping his pencil on his leg like a nervous twitch. 

And I try not to dwell on it, but earlier on I was wishin’ so hard for him to look at me, but also never to look at me, both things at the same time. And I reckon that’s when I first imagined our mouths locking together, skin on skin, little shallow gasps, like I’m as good as half-way in love with him already. But then I remember, it’s only 10am and I should not be staring like this so goddamn early in the morning. 

Thankfully, he doesn’t notice. In fact, he hardly seems to notice other people at all. 

I ought to say here that I’ve been wired to thrive on disfunction. Even as a little kid, I was always drawn to anything vulnerable, broken, out of place, different. And this boy is different, I can smell the rot inside him. Mothballs and alcohol. Switchblades and roadkill. It hurts my crotch just to look at him. So when his eyes meet mine for a second time, I feel such a vast sickening lurch happening all down the front of my insides that I panic and almost run out of the room.  

Okay, so I may have lied about him not noticing other people. 

I actually lie quite a lot. You’ll get used to it.

But I also recognise something in him too, which is unnerving, because some of those traits I don’t like seeing in another person. The gentle sagging of the shoulders. The anxious bowing of the head. The truth in the way his fingers flutter in his lap, gently brushing imaginary leaves off his shirt. It looks like he’s somewhere else, even though he’s in the same room as me. I find it very relatable. He never even makes a sound when that bitch Kirsty tells him that he smells, or that asshole Bryce snaps all his pencils, right in front of him, one by one. He just stares, steady as a rock, until Bryce shrugs and leaves him alone. It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve seen in years, and it triggers a hot spark of want inside me.  

But now I’m in a full blown daze, so to pass the time I absentmindedly trace the shape of him in one of my notebooks, holding my breath, staying as still as I can. The texture of the shadows under his desk. The worn-out tread of his skate shoes. The arc of pale skin at the nape of his neck. But as I draw, a vibration passes over me, a ripple of motion, almost like a sense of  vertigo, because suddenly, there it is—almost like my pencils have revealed it. His hurt, shining with a rare-jewel glimmer, shot through with unspeakable violence. The mark of something so dark that words can barely touch it. Christ. The little did I know. Sitting at my desk, trying not to freak out. Because now I’m looking through my pencils, I can see how he flinches at the sound of the bell, or when someone raises their voice, or moves a little too close, or too fast. I see the tremors in his hands and the exhaustion in his eyes, almost like he hasn’t slept in a safe place for years. I see an undoing of the natural order of things, like something’s been broken inside.

Words and Art by Daniel Sheen.

www.danielsheen.net / @disaffected.youth / danielsheenuk.tumblr.com