Thanks to everyone for the kind words and for pre-ordering my latest book, Good Looking. The wait is over, it's live now! Thanks also to all my awesome beta readers. I worked really hard on this one, and I hope you all enjoy it. If you like it, please leave a review, it helps a lot.
Here is the first chapter:
1993: Somewhere in the Midwest
My brother and I have always been the center of attention. When we were fourteen, all kinds of doctors and researchers spent over a year studying us, because Nate had gone blind and I could still see, even though we’re identical twins. I don't know what they were hoping to find, exactly. It's not like we have secret psychic powers, and I could transmit images to him. Most of the tests seemed boring and pointless, like having us try to solve a Rubik's cube and see who could do it faster, me with colors or Nate with Braille. Nate always won, but that's just him. I bet if we raced now he'd still win.
Sometimes the researchers would ask hesitantly how it affected us, like if Nate was jealous or resentful or anything, and they always seemed surprised when he said no. But this wasn't because Nate's such a great guy. I had already shown symptoms of the same condition. We had always had trouble seeing in the dark, and by the time we were ten or so we both had blind spots. It’s just that his were bigger than mine. The way he figured it, he was more advanced, and it was only a matter of time before I caught up.
Nate was right. By the time I was sixteen, I could hardly see anything at all except a few pinholes in big static-y gray patches, like a badly tuned TV set. The studies stopped.
I guess by then we were just two blind kids, identical twins or not. I never did find out if the studies came to anything. A few of the researchers sent us copies of their essays once they were published, but in print. How lame is that? They knew we’re both blind now, but they didn't even bother to send the results in an accessible format. Our dad offered to read one out loud to us but even listening to the title, “A Study in Differential Visual Acuity in Monozygotic Juveniles with Retinitis Pigmentosa Blah Blah Blah,” we could die of boredom.
Still, all that made our time at Knob Park High School kind of eventful for us, and we weren't sure what we wanted to do after so we ended up for two years at Onasca Community College still living at home. But by then life in our boring little Midwest town with hovering parents was unbearable. So that's why we transferred to Calstock State University in Allenville, living on our own for the first time as juniors, two guys squashed into one tiny dorm room.
We move into the dorm two weeks before classes start, long before the other students. Predictably, things pretty much suck at first, and it’s only the thought of Mom hanging around behind us saying “Are you suuuuuure you're okaaaaaaaay?” that keeps us from going back home.
Our first day on campus, someone from the Center for Students with Disabilities takes us on a tour so we can get oriented. We follow along behind three whirring electric wheelchairs as the student worker says the names of various campus buildings in a bored voice. I assume he’s gesturing at things we can’t see. Then we all crowd into the tiny CSD office at the edge of campus to register for the upcoming semester.
The admin lady who insists on meeting me and Nate together instead of one at a time pushes us to take all the same classes. I think it’s so the CSD would have half as much work with arranging for note taking, transcribing and textbook ordering. We tell her no way. Nate goes for psychology and I choose computer science.
The next day, everyone else moves into the dorm. We’re the only juniors in the dorm. Everyone else is younger. Calstock doesn’t have nearly enough dorm rooms for all the students, so most people only live on campus for freshman and sophomore years. After that, they take their chances with sketchy rental houses. It’s kind of a tradition for juniors and seniors to get together with five or six friends and rent a house, put a couch on the porch and party all the time.
The other students in the dorm think we’re creepy. That's the kind of thing that Mom would get mad about if she heard me say it.
“How do you knooooow?” she'd say.
Well, I know because I hear the asshole in the room across the hall say so. The day he moves in, he knocks on our door to introduce himself, and Nate answers while I’m hanging up our clothes in the closet. They talk for a minute or so before I go over to introduce myself.
“Hi, I'm Nick.”
“Woah, there's two of them!” the asshole says. “Are you both blind?”
“Yeah,” we say at the same time.
“Asshole.” Nate slams the door in his face.
A few days later, people on our hall find out we’re twenty-one, and suddenly we become the most popular guys in the dorm. That year of high school we had to repeat for O&M training doesn't seem so bad after all. That’s short for Orientation and Mobility, but basically it means blind skills like using a white cane and how to cross the street without being run over.
The asshole across the hall knocks on our door one afternoon.
“Hey man, got any beer? I'll pay you for it.”
“No,” says Nate, “but I could go get some.”
“Woah, no way!” says the asshole, whose name is Carson. “But dude, how do you have an ID? Aw man, don't tell me they gave you a driver's license?”
This is just one of the stupid questions we get all the time. People assume that because we can't drive, we don't have any ID at all. On the other hand, we hardly ever get carded, which was handy when we were younger.
“Of course I have an ID, dumbass,” says Nate. “It's issued by the state. It's just an ID, not a driver's license. If you're paying, come on, let's go.”
I hear Nate groping around in the closet for a jacket. We try not to wear the same clothes at the same time but we don't exactly have separate clothes either, just a bunch of interchangeable stuff we share. It's easier that way.
“Are you coming or what?” Nate asks me.
“Ok, fine.” It’s not like I have anything else to do.
We walk caravan-style, with Nate holding Carson's shoulder and me holding Nate's shoulder, both of us with our white canes, trying not to trip each other. I hate doing the caravan. I'm sure it’s quite the spectacle, but there’s no other way unless I’m willing to risk wandering off after the wrong set of footsteps. Which has happened more than once, but anyway.
We walk out the back of the dorm, left to the intersection, then right two more blocks to Village Mart. I'm trying to get better about remembering things like that. The student worker from CSD who gave us our tour had been very emphatic about showing us the way there, although at the time we weren't sure why.
“Are you sure Village Mart has beer?” Nate asks as we straggle across the intersection, tires squealing on all sides as Carson leads us straight into traffic.
“Dude, are you kidding me? That's like mainly all they have.”
Nate turns back to me. “You hear that, Nick? We've been cheated! These past few days, we've only been buying chips and candy. Shit! Why didn't that asshole from the CSD tell us?”
When we get to the door, Carson stops. “Uh, one of you has to buy it on your own. If they see me with you, they’ll try to card me too.”
“Gotcha. Whaddaya want?” Nate replies confidently.
Carson hesitates. Did he think this all the way through? “A case of Natty Light, I guess?”
“Ugh, gross,” I say.
“Hey, it’s his money,” Nate says. “Nick, go get a case of Natty Light.”
“What? Why me? No!”
“I’ll stay by the door with Carson and wait for you.”
“That’s a stupid plan. You think they won’t notice the guy who looks exactly like me hanging around with the underage dude? If we fuck this up, they’ll never let us buy beer here again.”
“Yeah, cuz Village Mart’s so close to the dorm, they’re super strict,” Carson adds.
“Whose side are you on?” Nate asks irritably. “Ok, fine, we’ll go in together. You wait outside, genius.”
“Ok, so where’s the beer?” I ask, already dreading this outing.
“In the refrigerators along the back wall, I think?” Carson’s answer does not inspire confidence. “And there’s always cases stacked up in the aisles in the middle. The second from the end. No, maybe the third?”
“Fine. Let’s get this over with.” I push the glass door open, not waiting to check if Nate is following me or not. He’s pretty good at getting around on his own though, better than I am, even though he can’t see at all and I still have a few blurry pinholes. Two, maybe three on a good day.
We walk in the door and those pinholes vanish. I mean, I assume the store has some lights on. The other customers are not stumbling around in the dark. But for me, it’s like walking into a pitch-black cave.
I listen for the impatient tapping of Nate’s cane as he pushes ahead of me. Instead of heading for the farthest aisle like we usually do, he turns suddenly into the unknown middle of the store. The tapping slows down as he runs the tip along the floor, poking at something.
“Think this is it?”
I reach down and feel the edge of an object that is definitely a cardboard box with metal cans of something inside.
“Sure, why not.”
We’re going to feel awfully stupid if we go through all this just to buy case of pop. Nate picks up the box and we both sort of shuffle together to the front of the store. It’s not hard to locate the cash register, chattering away, printing out receipts.
“Can I see some ID,” the cashier says tonelessly, not even making it a question. We both pull out our cards and hold them up. At least now we know we’re buying some kind of alcohol.
“That’ll be $6.99,” he says in the same bored voice.
I stand there, not really paying attention. I assume Nate will hand over the money, but I don’t hear anything.
“$6.99,” the cashier says again, now with a slight edge in his voice.
“C’mon, pay and let’s go,” Nate adds.
“Me? I didn’t bring my wallet.”
“What? Didn’t—” I can tell Nate is about to say, Didn’t that asshole give you money to buy beer for him? but he catches himself just in time, before the cashier can guess what’s actually going on.
“Didn’t you bring money?” I ask, feeling increasingly nervous. I like buying chips here in the afternoon. I don’t want to get banned for life.
“All I have is coins,” Nate says. He pulls off his backpack and I can hear him rummaging around, then the sound of an avalanche of coins being poured out onto the counter.
“Why are you carrying all that around?”
“Shut up. I was going to take it to that counting machine in the bank but we came here first. I’m not sure it’s enough. You don’t have anything in your pockets?”
I dig through my pockets. Behind me I can hear several people in line, sighing and shifting around impatiently. I know Nate can hear them too, because he turns to face me and as he does, he knocks some of the coins onto the floor. I hear the tink-tink-tink of pennies hitting linoleum.
“Oh, did I drop something?” Nate says, speaking a lot slower than usual, and I know he did it on purpose, just to mess with the people behind us. If they’re going to get impatient, he’s going to slow things down even more. He knows they won’t yell at a blind guy, even if they really want to.
“Nick? Are you there? Can you give me a hand?” He plays up the fake helplessness outrageously, but of course everyone takes him seriously.
I don’t move. There’s no way I’m touching that gross floor to search for a few pennies. I’m about to tell him to cut the crap but in the second I hesitate, some other dude pushes in front of me.
“Hey man, no problemo. I got it,” says a voice from near the floor. “Here ya go.” He has the slow, mellow tone of a pothead. “Lemme help you count it.” Now the voice is back at normal standing height.
So Nate, some random hesher, and the cashier meticulously count out $6.99 in coins, including two extra nickels from the floor, plus three dimes and a quarter from my pockets.
The chattering register spits out a receipt. Nate grabs the case and pushes the back of one hand against my elbow. We shuffle slowly out the door, ignoring all the other customers who are surely staring at us.
“Ugh, Michelob Lite! Blech!” It’s the first thing Carson says when we get outside.
“What are you talking about?” Nate says loftily, as if he knew what he bought and didn’t just grab a case at random. “This is my beer. You didn’t even give us any money for it, asshole. If you carry it back to the dorm, I might let you have one. Might. Unless you don’t want any.”
“Hey, hey, I didn’t say I wouldn’t drink it. Fine, I’ll carry it.”
So that’s how Nate and Carson become best friends.
My first week of classes is a disaster. That one tour with the CSD doesn't keep me from getting lost every five minutes.
Monday morning I get up extra early so I know I’ll be on time for my first class. But I don’t even make it to the dining hall for breakfast. I go down the stairs, but I can’t get across the lobby to the cafeteria entrance. There’s some kind of barrier that makes a metallic clang when I hit it with my cane. All I can see is a white blur. What the hell is this thing in the middle of the hallway? I’m sure it wasn’t here yesterday. I try to walk around it but I can’t find the end. I go back in the other direction, same thing.
“Um, excuse me?” I can hear a few people walking nearby. No one answers. “Excuse me?” I say even louder. “How do we get in the dining hall?”
A guy answers. “Dude, just go around to the other entrance.”
There’s another entrance? Shit! “Where is it?”
“It’s right over there,” a girl says, sounding annoyed. Right over where? But already their footsteps are getting further away. Now I really feel like an idiot.
I retreat back up to our room.
“That was fast.” Nate’s brushing his teeth at the tiny sink in the corner.
I tell him what happened.
“Oh yeah, Carson said there’s some kind of welcome event in the lobby tonight. They must have set up something for that.”
“What the hell, man!” I can’t believe I retreated so easily. We’ve both been excited to come to Calstock, to live on our own for the first time, but the reality is intimidating.
“Come on, let’s go get breakfast. I’m sure we can figure out the other entrance. Never give up, right?” Good ol’ Nate, at least it’s easier with him here. That’s how we got through high school. He was always there to push me on when I got discouraged.
We wander around the sprawling maze of the dorm and eventually the smell of bacon and burnt coffee leads us to the dining hall via the scenic route.
“You got this, man,” Nate says after I bolt down my breakfast. “No retreat. Show ’em what you can do.”
“Thanks. You too.”
I’d give him a fist bump or high five or something, but we’d probably fumble around or slap each other by accident, so I just say goodbye.
My first class is Numerical Analysis, which I’m already dreading because I’m not great at math. I walk across campus on the route I’ve already learned, but end up in the wrong classroom. Luckily before class starts I overhear students around me talking about booking time on the telescope and realize I’ve wandered into Astronomy 101 by accident. I check the room number and some guy tells me to go two doors down to the left.
At least the guy gives me decent directions. I try what I hope is the correct room.
“Ah, you must be Nick Bauer,” a deep voice at the front of the classroom booms as soon as I walk in. “I’m Professor Agarwal. Come, let us review the CSD requirements before I start the class.”
Prof Agarwal is on top of things. Apparently there was another blind student a few years ago majoring in computer science, so Prof Agarwal already has the assignments on floppy disks. I’ll get them from the CSD then use them on my computer with a screenreader. I can submit homework through the campus intranet.
After that first class, I start to think that I’ve got a handle on things. But the rest of my classes don’t go as smoothly.
The CSD was supposed to contact all my profs in advance and help them prepare accessible materials and other accommodations for me, but their service is, shall we say, spotty at best.
Aside from Prof Agarwal, my other profs sound shocked and annoyed when I tell them what I need: assignments on disks or submitted in advance to the CSD so I can access them with a screenreader, note takers, and a list of textbooks sent to the CSD to order on tape. But when I go to the CSD to pick up my required texts, the bored work study student at the front desk informs me that half the tapes they ordered are delayed for some reason.
The worst is my British literature course. I thought I finished my general education requirements at Onasca but apparently my one semester of world history wasn’t good enough for Calstock. I’m forced to pick a humanities class, and British literature seems promising. I like to read, although lately I’ve been listening to books on tape since reading print has gotten harder.
The first lecture, I sit there doing nothing because the CSD assigned note taker doesn’t show up, or if they did, they never identify themself to me. Who does that?
I grow increasingly anxious as Professor Roesman reads through the syllabus. How am I ever going to get through so much reading and writing?