“Jack sat hunched miserably against the morning wind, which threatened to blow his cap off. He pulled his cap lower, hiding his dark orange eyes. ‘Who can compete in a basketball competition at seven in the morning?’ he grumbled unhappily.”
Jack sat hunched miserably against the morning wind, which threatened to blow his cap off. He pulled his cap lower, hiding his dark orange eyes. “Who can compete in a basketball competition at seven in the morning?” he grumbled unhappily.
“I can, Jackson Dopus.” Benjamin Todds, from the opposing team — Black Panthers — stalked up to Jack and sneered. “Why can’t you? Oh, I just forgot! You guys are weaklings and absolute losers!” Smirking, Benjamin leaned his burly form closer and stared Jack in the eye, saying softly, “Want to know why? Because of you, Dopus.”
Jack glared at him with a molten gaze, feeling his ever-changing eyes turn from orange to deep angry violet, and seethed, “My name is Jackson Opus. And maybe this time around the Thunders will win. We train hard, at least, unlike the Black Panthers, who only rely on size for advantage. I would love to see your face when your team loses!”
Until then, Jack had not realised that Benjamin’s beady eyes had clouded over and a melancholy look had settled on his face. Jack, squirming uncomfortably, pulled his cap down again and growled, “Go away.” Surprisingly, Benjamin did just that. Jack mused over this strange exchange. Why didn’t he continue to taunt Jack as he had always done before every basketball competition? And why did people have that faraway look in their eyes whenever Jack had a conversation with them?
“Opus! Warm up!” His pondering was rudely interrupted by Coach Sean’s impatient bark. Everyone from the Thunders had arrived and Coach Sean, as usual, started bossing them around, yelling orders and regarding them with a disapproving gaze. Perhaps Coach wished he had a better, tougher team to handle, Jack thought. And who could blame him? The entire population of Greenhill Middle School (and probably other schools too) knew that the Thunders had not won a single competition in two years. Not since the Black Panthers came, anyway.
Jack jogged over to join his teammates. However, coach Sean, arms akimbo, stood blocking his way. “Hey kiddo, what do you think you’re doing with that damn cap on? Take. It. Off,” he said commandingly when Jack was about to put up a protest. Jack sighed and took his cap off, making sure to keep his eyes averted to the ground. It was embarrassing being so different. Why couldn’t his eyes keep the same colour like everyone else? Then he wouldn’t need to wear a cap all the time just so others wouldn’t see his eyes. He could try to reason with his teachers, but arguing with the ill-tempered basketball coach? No thank you. Not at all.
After the warm-up, the two teams went up to the court. The spectators cheered a little. Jack looked over at the spectator stand and spotted his parents. Both of them had smiley-frowny hybrid smiles on their faces. Jack grimaced. The Thunders must have looked puny compared to the burly forms on the other team. It should be the Puny Prey against the Black Panthers. They could probably squash the Thunders with their little pinkie fingers.
In two shakes of a lamb’s tail, it was game on. As always, the Black Panthers managed to score first. The cheering in the stands got louder. The coaches got louder. The thumping of Jack’s heart got louder. His desperation grew too. The score was currently 6-0, in favour of the Black Panthers. Was there even a point in competing?
The ball bounced from one of the opposing team’s hands and into Benjamin’s. Benjamin, usually the most aggressive player on the court, took the ball in his hands and turned slowly around to shoot it into the hoop. But his movements were almost toddler-like, as if this was the first time he was trying out basketball and was unsure if he would be able to score successfully. Confusion swept like a wave among the spectators, who had noticed him as well. The moment the ball left Benjamin’s hands, Jack knew it was never going to make it. The ball flew in a graceful arc then suddenly dropped onto the ground, missing the net by more than a foot. The Black Panthers’ coach started yelling colourful language at Benjamin, face turning red and purple from the effort. But the match must go on.
During the most intense part of the game, Jack noticed that Benjamin seemed to be avoiding the ball. He was certainly not like his normal self. And where was his aggressiveness? He was playing like a newborn kitten compared to the rest of his Black Panther’s teammates. Recalling the strange exchange before the match, Jack wondered queasily if it was anything to do with him. Or perhaps Benjamin was feeling nervous? Unlikely. The game continued and was nearly reaching the end. Only less than a minute left.
The score was 23-24, in favour of the Thunders.
A loud “ahh” was heard when the Thunders received two penalties. Two, Jack thought bitterly. We were almost winning. Almost! We really need a sharper referee. The opposing team would never miss a free throw. Unless by some chance, the thrower was…? In a twist of fate, the coach did choose Benjamin. Protests were made but the coach stood his ground, reasoning that “my big boy was a little nervous during this match, ain’t got no nothing to worry about.” Jack felt the corner of his lips turning upwards.
Benjamin lumbered onto the court and held the ball stiffly to his chest. He threw the ball, but it was almost as if the ball threw him. He landed on his face and the ball landed a few feet away from him. The crowd booed. The coach grew purple again. The Thunders all did a little victory dance. Benjamin did it in a similar fashion on the second throw. The Black Panthers spewed expletives at everyone and anyone. However, the numbers on the scoreboard didn’t change and would never lie.
26-23. The Thunders had triumphed.
When the spectators and players were filing out, Benjamin walked up to Jack and scowled fiercely, then said monotonously, “This is how my face would look like when my team loses.” He turned and walked away. Jack stared, utterly confused and perplexed, not to mention pretty freaked out as well.
At the feast Coach Sean had prepared, everyone was having a great time. Except for Jack. He sat in the corner of Coach Sean’s yard, munching on a slice of pizza that tasted like sand. This wasn’t a fair game. Something’s up with Benjamin, and I think I may be the cause. It was not an honourable victory. Something had been nudging at the back of his mind since the match. Jack couldn’t quite put his finger on it, but it was something important. Just out of reach yet very close. A memory? Then an avalanche of scenes bombarded his head. A split-second decision which he had made, running onto the road while a bus was driving towards him. The immense relief he had felt when the bus didn’t run over him. A tingling sensation when Jack made eye contact with the bus driver to tell him to drive faster in order for him and his best friend, Tommy, to reach school on time. And the mad charge-through-the-red-lights and don’t-stop-at-any-other-stop drive the driver had given that allowed him and Tommy to reach school on time. Was there something wrong with Jack? Why did things go haywire in his presence, yet allow him to achieve a miracle that was seemingly impossible?
Just at this moment, his shoulder was encased in an iron grip. A narrow man’s face loomed into view: a sharp, long nose, a tuft of jet-black hair, black suit, black shoes, a pale complexion, and finally, piercing frosty blue eyes that bored into his. Jack was so startled that he dropped his slice of pizza onto the grass. Who is he? Why is he here? What does he want with me? Why… Before he could think much further, he felt a familiar tingling sensation from the back of his eyes. The strange man’s eyes were focused on his own. Jack suddenly felt a surge of anger. What right did a stranger have to come in the middle of a celebration to mess with him? He glared right back at the man, feeling his eyes turn from calm green (his usual eye colour) to nervous dark orange, then to stormy grey, and finally, to angry deep violet. He was about to give this weirdo a piece of his mind when the man said in a calm and reassuring voice, “You are very calm and relaxed.” I am not calm or relaxed! How can I be… But the man’s voice was so convincing, so strong and powerful. Jack’s mind numbed. Of course, I’m calm and relaxed. Of course. Wait, why? I still don’t know who this stranger is…
“I am your friend, and you feel happy with me.”
Jack frowned. No! He is not my friend! A stranger only… Right?
“You are feeling very content.”
Hmm, I am content. Why am I trying to fight with him? He is my friend, isn’t he? Or is he?
Suddenly, the strange man closed his eyes. Jack lurched out of his trance-like state, gasping and panting for air like a drowning man. The man opened one eye and introduced himself to a very disoriented Jack. “I’m Dr. Mako, founder of the Institute of Hypnotism. I have devoted my whole life to building the Institute. Today, I came here especially to tell you that these skills are those that you possess.” Dr. Mako smiled very slightly and pointed a sharp finger at Jack’s face. “Yes. You. In fact, you come from one of the greatest Bender bloodlines. The Opuses. There weren’t any Benders in this family line for a few centuries due to some unexplainable medical or otherwise natural complications. You are more powerful than you realise. It is a great honour for me to have a match with you just now. And, of course, you would be welcomed into the Institute. There, instructors — or me, to be exact — would hone your skills in hypnotism. Then, once you are powerful enough, we will put that skill to good use. How does that sound?” Totally bewildered by the information overload, Jack stared blankly at the psycho in front of him. Seriously? Hypnotism? What was this self-proclaimed “Doctor” talking about? Did he know that Hypnotism doesn’t exist? He probably just escaped from a mental hospital. Jack chuckled at his own joke. And this “Doctor” even went as far as saying that he, Jackson Opus, came from a great line of Benders (whatever that was)! Jack didn’t want to sound rude, of course, but he had to say something.
“Umm, Dr. Mako, I think you found the wrong person. That man over there,” Jack gestured in the direction of a random stranger walking his dog, “is probably the person you are looking for. I am certain…” Before he could finish, Jack already realised that he himself was indeed the very person “Dr. Mako” was looking for. Because, why else would “Dr. Mako” know his name? And surname.
Dr. Mako, who seemed to have read his mind, said smoothly, “No worries, Jackson, I know this may sound wild and made-up to you, but it is true. My fellow employees and I myself have searched high and low for decades for a single Bender in the Opus family. You would receive the utmost respect from us, the Benders at the Institute, without a doubt. And I would personally make sure you do not undergo any stress during your training sessions.”
Jack bit his lip. Maybe Dr. Mako was really mentally ill. He might have just heard someone call him his full name just now. No way was there an “Institute of Hypnotism.” No way was there a search for an Opus. No way. Nuh-uh. Nada.
But, Dr. Mako, having seen Jack’s expression, heaved a sigh and said, almost exasperated, “Well, how do you explain what happened just now? When I tried Bending you, you almost gave in. In other words, you were almost hypnotised by me. I understand this must be very hard for you to accept, so what about going home and asking your father about your ancestry? Jackson, I am sure there are some hidden facts you do not know yet. I’ve kept an eye open and, just like you, witnessed the strange happenings. They were simply a result of Bending some people unintentionally. So, yes. When you have found out more about your family line, come to 5th Avenue 110th Street, and there, you will not miss my magnificent Institute. I would issue someone to see to that.”
Dr. Mako, who had a habit of communicating in large chunks of authoritative speech, regarded Jack expectantly. Jack, once again flustered by information overload, said, “What?”
Dr. Mako exhaled deeply and walked away, handing Jack a business card at the last minute, and said, “We also need to work on your hearing skills, I’m afraid.”
Jack surveyed the business card. Fancy Chopin Script font was printed all over the small 3.5 inches by 2 inches piece of paper. Surprisingly, the name was simply Dr. Mako, without a first name nor a middle name. The description read “Dr. Mako has devoted his whole life to the making of the unparalleled Institute. This world-class academy has educated many generations of young people and taught them the moral ways to handle their special skills.” How old is he? Many generations of young people? That must have been decades. Does that mean that by the time the Institute was established, Dr. Mako was already after me? He said his employees and he himself searched for decades. Was the Institute founded for the sake of trying to find this very member of the Opus family? It was a creepy notion for sure, sending chills down Jack’s spine. This whole business sounded more like an unhealthy obsession. Jack didn’t want anything to do with hawk-like Dr. Mako. But he was intrigued by his ancestry. He could actually hypnotise people? This thought was so outlandish that it was impossible to believe, but what if it was true? That must be why Benjamin and that bus driver had acted so weirdly. There was only one way to find out. He walked purposefully toward home, in the meantime forgetting to inform the partying basketball team that he was leaving.
“Well, Son, I’m not sure why you ask, but,” Jack’s father cleared his throat and pursed his lips, “you see, my parents were, uh, very… persuasive people. Extremely eloquent and convincing. They could make you think white was black if they wanted to.” Jack narrowed his eyes. It did sound like his father knew something but wasn’t comfortable talking about it. And I wonder why. Jack took a deep breath and recounted what happened, from the strange incidents to the run-in with the mysterious Dr. Mako. Jack’s father listened, eyes growing wide, lips twitching intermittently. Jack handed him the business card as well.
After Jack had finished, his father said threadily, “I don’t have it, and I thought you would be spared the hokey-pokey too.”
Just at this moment, Jack’s mother entered the living room and announced sternly, “Jack, it’s past your bedtime. Although your team won, it’s no excuse to break the household rules. To bed. Now.” Jack stood up slowly and made his way to his room, but not before narrowing his eyes at his father, a warning to not tell his mother.
The next morning, as Jack plodded down the stairs, overly-cheerful voices echoed down the hallway. Curious, he hid behind the wall that separated the dining room and hall and peered into the dining room from behind the wall. A horrifyingly ghastly sight met his sleep-blurred eyes. The black suit, the black hair, the black shoes, the sharp, long nose, the pale, vampire-like complexion, and finally, the very same piercing blue eyes that had once stared ominously into his.
What is he doing here?! It is creepy how he knows so much about me. My name and surname. The strange happenings that he would never know of unless he was there himself. The place I would be after the basketball match. And now, intruding into my home? Jack looked on in dismay as his mother said, unusually friendly and with a magazine-cover smile, “It’s really nice to meet you Dr. Mako. I’m so glad you were able to make it today. Yesterday, Jack came home with your business card and told his father a little about you and your Institute. I think it’s a good idea if he can attend classes there since, you know, these special skills would really come in handy if he, uh, knows how to use them! We live close to 5th avenue, so I’m sure Jack can make it on time after school!” So, Jack’s father told his mother. And Dr. Mako was not intruding.
“My parents actually invited him. Why? Why? Why? Mom and Dad, don’t you realise how much Dr. Mako is like a stalker? And I don’t want to have anything to do with hypnotism or his dreadful Institute on 5th street or whatnot,” Jack moaned miserably as he tiptoed back to his room, hands covering his ears. He hated it when his parents made decisions for him without notifying him first. But nothing, absolutely nothing, was stopping them when they had made up their minds. Well, since a stubborn streak did run in the Opus family, maybe Jack also had a trick or two up his sleeve.
Soon enough, Jack’s mother climbed up the stairs to Jack’s room, only to see him sleeping peacefully. Or so she thought. She “woke” him up and nagged at him to hurry up. Jack pretended to be groggy and washed and changed, then cautiously proceeded down to the dining room for breakfast. Was Dr. Mako still there? Fortunately, he had already left. While Jack was eating his breakfast, consisting of stale commercial orange juice and over-cooked bacon, his parents sat themselves down at the table. Jack noted with annoyance that they looked almost… relieved. Then, a fake smile that his mother always used when she wanted to tell him something that she believed was good news but knew he would not like was plastered onto her face. Jack called that particular smile “Falsehood in Childhood of poor Jack” (FCJ). That being said, his mother had many different smiles that she used on different occasions, some of them more deceiving than the others. However, this time around, Jack knew what was coming up. And he was not the most eager about it.
“Well, honey, we have a little surprise for you this morning! Guess what?”
Jack looked at his mother vacantly while he counted to three silently in his head and continued stuffing dry bacon into his mouth, mumbling, “I don’t want to know.”
The FCJ smile on Jack’s mother’s face wavered a little. However, if she was feeling sorry for Jack, she did not show it. “So, last night, your dad told me about Dr. Mako and how you had hypnotism skills! It is really amazing! I’m sure you would find useful purposes for it! So that’s why we decided to sign you up for The Institute’s classes with Dr. Mako!” She then flashed a thumbs up and grinned, showcasing her two rows of perfect white teeth. Jack cringed inwardly at his mother’s forced cheeriness. She knew he hated it. Jack thought, Step one, Plan A.
He took his time eating one of the two pieces of bacon left on his plate, put down his fork and knife, wiped his mouth on a napkin, and said pitifully, “Maybe you signed me up ’cause both of you think I’m just a burden in the house.” Jack’s mom’s smile disappeared and was replaced by an exasperated frown.
“Jack, you are old enough to know that that’s not the reason. I know you hate enrichment classes of any sort, but maybe it’s time for you to grow up and face the world. It’s good to acquire skills, and you cannot always shy away from what you do not like.” Jack’s mother glared at her husband, who sat leaning weakly against the table, not taking any sides in the argument.
“Or maybe it’s because you all think I’m too dumb and don’t have any skills.” Jack said mournfully, standing up and pushing the plate with a single piece of untouched bacon as far as he could toward the other end of the table. Jack’s father gulped and looked ready to run away. His mother, on the other hand, glared at Jack and bit her lip, as if trying to figure out another way to torture him as a punishment for disagreeing. She said firmly in a tone that did not allow for protests, “We invited Dr. Mako over this morning and have already arranged your lessons at the Institute for you. You should be grateful. Dr. Mako devoted his whole life to the making of the unparalleled Institute. This world-class Institute has educated many generations of young people and taught them the moral ways to handle their special skills. Be a little more appreciative, Jackson. We signed you up for your own good. Go to your room. You still have homework to do.” Jack pondered what his mother said. Did she just recite word for word what the business card read?
He pretended to walk towards the stairs, defeated and utterly flattened by his mother’s perfectly “logical” argument. When he was sure his mother was not looking at him but was still within earshot, he said, “Well, what does Mom know? I signed up for my school’s Photography Club to pick up some skills like she advised me to. But all I received was a tongue lashing and another program at the Institute. I suppose it is useless trying to please her, or Dad, for that matter. All I ever will be to them is a skill-less and useless son.” Jack was sure his mother heard him loud and clear. He really hoped Plan A worked, or he would have to turn to Plan B, which might not work and should only be tried as a last resort. Then, he purposely stormed up the stairs to his room and slammed the door shut. For even better effects, he switched on his computer and found a video on YouTube: a 15-minute long audio track of someone sobbing. Jack made sure that the audio on the computer was turned all the way up and clicked play. Jack’s mother would now know that Jack was very upset indeed!
At the other end of the house, Jack’s father lay slumped on the couch, listening to Jack’s “cries.” His son really was upset. But it was for his own good! Couldn’t he see? Dr. Mako’s Institute of Hypnotism was definitely the most elite one in the whole country! And sending him there wasn’t even cheap. The Bentley dealership Jack’s father worked at was not faring very well recently, and that resulted in a pay cut. However, sending Jack there certainly was not a mistake. Dr. Mako must be a great instructor!
After the 15 minutes long audio track, Jack was surprised that neither of his parents came to comfort him or at least reason with him. His mother might be out of the question since she was always stubborn as a mule, but what about his father? He was always a bit softer than Mom! What’s wrong with him today? He would usually give in to whatever my choice is after seeing that I’m upset. He was about as soft as mom was strict.