NOAH

Chapter 1

After almost five years of running, lying, and stealing to survive in a society which willed me out of existence, it pains me to trace the beginning of my demise to pigeon shit.

It landed on my sunglasses halfway through my usual routine. The midday sun beat hard on Santa Monica Pier, which meant it hummed with the exhausted chatter of locals and tourists alike.

I convinced a small crowd of sticky-fingered children and sunburnt couples to watch me pull a bunny out of my ass. Then, I cloaked myself in sunlight and disappeared. An illusion of myself performed the trick where I stood. Thanks to the bright sun overhead and 5 years of practice, manipulating the light was effortless. I let my fantom perform the tick while I collected that week's salary.

A large man with wrinkles in the shape of a frown wore a young woman on his arm. She was decorated in shiny things, starting with her perfect hair and ending with her bedazzled bikini, which barely restrained her gravity-defying boobs. They both watched the obscene act between their fingers. When glitter bikini screeched, I grabbed the wallet out of sugar daddy's pocket. I spun toward my next victim while my light double successfully extracted the rabbit and held it out for the crowd. A few of them applauded despite their grimaces.

A gaggle of children stood in a tight circle to watch the vulgar street magic with wide eyes. Each held a different sweet. Ice cream dripped steadily onto one of their shoes. Another dropped several small candies to rattle on the pier. The tallest tried hopelessly to balance change on top of unfolded bills, his other hand preoccupied with a fistful of cotton candy. I snatched the three bills hanging loosely out of his back pocket.

My double smiled and made the bunny disappear in a mess of flames. The already thinning audience screamed. I aligned myself with the illusion before dropping the light and reappearing in its place.

When I laughed at their collective horror, the darn beach pigeon violated my glasses with a perfectly-aimed feces.

I froze. My sunglasses were the only thing between my audience and the truth. People didn't trust a blind boy who could see. They didn't understand that seeing was a task of the mind, not the eyes, and a boy who could feel everything the sun touched could see far more than someone with normal eyes could imagine.

Normal people rarely saw a deviant for what they could do. They only saw what made us different, and imperfect. It didn't matter that I could make them see things. It only mattered that I was born unable to see the world the way they did. My glassy eyes made Santa Monica beach-goers distrust me before I gave them a real reason. It only made sense to wear sunglasses and punish their bigotry.

Except now, warm goop dripped over the frames and onto my eyelashes. I ripped the glasses off my face and immediately regretted it. My crowd's laughs faded into horrified gasps. "He's a deviant," someone screamed. That was quite a rash conclusion. I could just have an eye condition. Not that I'd ever heard of a normal boy without irises.

Sugar daddy patted his pockets. "My wallet's gone!"

Shit. I wondered what I could've done differently.

"Let's skip to the finale, yeah?" I disappeared. The small crowd of children shrieked and gasped in a hideous symphony which failed to drown sugar daddy's call for the police. Unfortunately, two were already shooing a nearby homeless man. They abandoned the feeble effort and started toward the commotion.

I took two steps before slamming into a guy taking a photo of his girlfriend. We both crashed to the ground, and his confused cursing broke my disguise. "Sorry," I managed, before handing back the camera that had landed in my lap.

"There," the tall kid screamed. I fought to my feet and didn't bother re-concealing myself. It'd be easier to run through a crowd which knew to get out of my way.

I ran to the street. The cops followed. By the time we got to the bridge, our terrified onlookers cleared a path between us and the intersection. I ran so hard my legs went numb, but I couldn't get away. I would've run into the crowd to lose my officers if I weren't afraid of being attacked by the masses.

I clogged the path between me and the officers with fake people. First was the family of three, who I modeled off my old neighbors. I called them the Simpsons, because I never learned their real names. I did, however, hear the shows the couple played loudly every night to poorly conceal their love-making.

When the police shoved through the Simpsons, I sent them Adam. He was 13, the age he was the last time I saw him. Trauma had engraved his face into my brain so permanently, I could effortlessly replicate it as I ran. Beside him, I put Dr. Craig, who I always hesitated to model. Thinking about him tended to unbury memories I never managed to forget. Luckily for me, I didn't have time for my past to haunt me as I ran from a far more dire present.

Another crowd waited at the crosswalk. I pushed to stand in the center of it, and made my face identical to the man standing at my right. I got nearly across the street before my new twin noticed his face on mine. He yelled, which successfully redirected the blind search of the police behind me.

I jumped onto the sidewalk and changed all the traffic lights to match. Green for go, I'd heard from one of the books that had long faded into my past. I had no idea what "green" meant, but I'd studied the lights enough to feel the difference between the top and the bottom one, and recreate the change convincingly.

I dropped my disguise and ran while cars blocked anybody who knew to follow me. Commotion quickly followed, but I didn't care to understand it. I never liked making a mess. Knowing the details only made my guilt harder to ignore.

I turned the corner and disguised myself as Mr. Lambert to go home. He'd died in his townhouse years ago, I'd assumed of natural causes. The guy was a wrinkly mess without anything meaningful in his possession save a record collection of 60s music and a shelf of ceramic elephants.

I'd broken his back window after his unopened pile of mail led me to assume he was out for vacation. At the time, I was 13, starving, and sick of sleeping on concrete. I'd eaten all of his rotten fruit and stale crackers before finding him on the toilet. The stench told me he'd been gone for a while. Nobody had come to visit, and I didn't think anybody would anytime soon.

I'd been right. Turned out Mr. Lambert was just like me: no friends, no family, and almost no connection to the outside world. I'd buried him in the backyard under what I hoped was his favorite tree—after a day of consideration, I'd decided I wouldn't mind that permanent resting place, and figured he wouldn't either—and planned to stay for no more than a few weeks.

Four years later, the neighbors still had no idea, and so I came and left comfortably as the old man who died on the toilet. Everybody left me alone for the most part. Mr. Lambert must've been mean or crazy, because people never talked to me. Or at least until April's family moved into the Simpson's old place to ruin my perfect life.

After a month of living next to her, I dreaded walking home. But I had a different thing to dread, first. I grimaced and wiped my soiled sunglasses on my newly ripped shirt. I'd gone four years without getting caught. I couldn't decide if being foiled by a pigeon was mortifying or hysterical.

I let that thought distract me from all the days I'd ruined. Guilt wasn't something I felt anymore, up there with sympathy and shame. I liked to think my moral compass was broken from the beginning, when I killed my poor 15-year-old mother by existing. Not that it was uncommon for deviants to kill their normal mothers when we popped out. Those who hated us used that fact to prove we were creations of the devil, and those same people were more likely culprits for my shattered morality. But it was easier to blame the death of an insignificant girl for my consistent wrong-doings than a hateful society, or the deviant home I grew up in, or the miscreant life I adopted after I ran. Those were just subsequent happenings in a life which was rotten from the start. Fate made me incapable of being good, and unwilling to apologize for it. So, I walked home with a smile on my face, some strangers' bills in my pocket, and an unanswered question regarding the hysterics of bird poop.

As expected, April waited in our shared front lawn for my return. She wore a full-piece bathing suit, and laid with her arms and legs sprawled like a starfish. When she pulled her head up to watch me, a stupid grin spread across her face. "You can drop the act. We're alone."

I rolled my eyes. April knew I wasn't Mr. Lambert. She'd pressed her face up to my window to find me undisguised a few days after moving in. I hated her, mostly because I hated anything out of my control. "You're crazy, you know that?"

"Takes one to know one." She stood up to follow me.

I ditched Mr. Lambert's old-man walk to reach my front door, but she slid in front of me when I couldn't pull my keys out fast enough. I sighed. "Move."

"Please talk to me."

"The neighbors shouldn't see us together."

"Then invite me inside."

I hated the idea of her in my home almost as much as I hated her. "No."

"Invite me inside or I'll scream."

"April…"

She dropped her jaw, and released a bone-rattling screech into the air.

I cursed and reached behind her to shove my key into the door. I pulled her inside and slammed it behind us. Mr. Lambert's mask disappeared and she gasped. "I always forget how creepy those eyes are."

I ignored her. "Look. Even if I didn't hate you, I'd never like you like that, okay? This," I waved my finger wildly between us, "is not possible. For so many reasons."

"What are you, gay or something?"

I ignored the question. "You overestimate your irresistibility."

"What if I just want to be your friend?"

"I don't have friends. Now please walk out so I can lock the door behind you."

"I'll just unlock it."

I threw my sunglasses onto the floor to rub my race. "A freak like you would pick a lock."

"I don't need to. The family before us had a spare key. They left it so we could check up on the old guy."

I yelled into the air to try and calm down. My fists only clenched harder. "That's worse than picking it!"

"I feel like it's about the same."

"Please. Please I'm begging you just get out of my house. And don't let yourself back in. I'll make sure you regret that."

"Ooh. A threat." She giggled. "You don't scare me."

"I should."

"Why? Because you're a deviant? That's a stupid reason."

"Take the stupid reason before I give you a real one, yeah?"

She took a step toward the kitchen. My heart pounded, and I resisted the urge to shove her into the wall. My world wasn't a place for other people. It was a place where loneliness ensured permanence. I wasn't ready to run again. I hadn't even been ready the first time…

April grinned. "Your place is a mess."

"April, I swear!"

"Fine. I'll go. After one thing."

"What? What could you possibly want from me?"
"Your name."

I already didn't like knowing hers. "No."

"Tell me and I'll leave."

"How about you just do the second part?"

She stepped to the left. "What's upstairs?"

I wanted to cry, but I couldn't in front of her. "Noah. I'm Noah. Now go."

Her grin widened. "Nice to meet you, Noah."

"I said go!"

She nodded and let herself out the door. It clicked slowly behind her. I ran to lock it, discomforted by how useless of an effort that apparently was. I walked to the nearby record player and put on a random record from the pile on the couch. I'd misplaced most of the sleeves. They all had an identical gloss that made distinguishing one from the other impossible, anyway.

I pulled off my shirt, which was soiled, dirtied and ripped after the Santa Monica mishap. The chase still rattled my nerves. With shaky fingers, I pulled on a light hoody from the floor.

Bob Dylan sang from the player. His was the only voice I could distinguish from the collection of 60s bands. I let him lecture me as I strolled into the kitchen.

I emptied my pockets and felt through what I got. The three bills hanging out of tall kid's pockets were all fives. Sugar daddy's wallet had one twenty and four singles. I threw away the rest and slid my cash into one of two kitchen drawers I used. I pulled a spoon from the other one and started for the pantry. A cold can of Campbell's soup came with me and my sunglasses toward the front door.

I shoved travel bottles of soap and shampoo into my hoody pocket and disappeared so April wouldn't see me strolling past her. She was still sprawled on the grass like a star, taking in the sun with a wide grin on her face.

It seemed we did have one thing in common.

The beach was still crowded. I slid on my sunglasses and found a bare spot of sand. A dog played with its owner, splashing wildly in the waves. I sat to watch their game of fetch and eat cold Campbell's soup as the sun dipped toward the horizon.

"Beautiful, right? All those colors?" an older woman asked next to me.

"Yeah," I lied. "It's really pretty." I just pulled the rays around my torso like a warm hug. I hoped sunsets looked as wonderful as they felt, so the woman could enjoy the same magnificence I did.

When the sun fell below the horizon, I took my glasses off. Most beach-goers left as the cold settled in. I let the tide rise and lap my toes. My fingers raked patterns into the cool sand. I could barely see, though the full moon and pier lights illuminated enough for me to barely feel the night-walkers behind me, and the waves out in front.

I fell back to lay in the sand and take a deep breath. This was all I needed. The beach. The solidarity. Salt in my lungs and sand in my hair. It was the good kind of messy, that I could clean up and make again. I didn't have to worry about abandonment or disappointing people. My life belonged to me, which made it perfect no matter how imperfect it tried to be.

The ocean kicked up enough cool mist to make me shiver, so I started for the showers.

By the time I got home, the neighborhood was quiet. I followed street lights to my front door. April was long gone, and I basked briefly in the silence before letting myself in.

The house was dark. I had to feel around to get to the stairs, and climb to my bed. I didn't feel like changing, so I fell on top of the covers and let sleep take me.

When I woke up, somebody was in my house. My kitchen floorboards moaned under the trespasser's weight. I got out of bed carefully, and grabbed my flashlight from the nightstand. I knew April was creepy, but I didn't actually count on her coming into my house while I slept. My skin itched at the thought.

I slowly walked to the stairs and stopped at the top of them. "I swear April, don't make me chase you out."

"Noah," not-April said. I froze. "Come talk with me like a civil person." It was a woman. I tried to recognize her voice, but couldn't.

My lungs collapsed so I could barely breathe. "Who are you?"

"Come down," she said cooly.

"How inviting." I slowly started down the stairs, unsure what else I could do. I couldn't disappear. She already knew I was there. Uncertainty kept me from sprinting to the front door. I didn't know what waited for me outside if I managed to twist the lock with my shaky fingers. I could only click my flashlight on and hold it in front of me.

When I reached the base of the stairs, I pointed my beam at her. She grimaced and shielded her eyes with her fingers. "That's unnecessary."

"Who are you?" I studied the way the light bounced off her face. She had high cheekbones and an upturned nose. Her hair fell in perfect, tight ringlets to her shoulders. She was older than me, but I couldn't tell by how much. I didn't recognize her, though it had been so long since I ran I didn't know if I could recognize anybody from Mercy, even Adam. For all I knew, this person knew me, which twisted my gut more than the possibility of a stranger in my home. "I asked who are you!"

"Relax," she said, though the calmness of her tone only panicked me more. She wasn't afraid of me. "I'm Rebecca."

I tried to slow my breaths. She didn't have any weapons or cameras. I ran the light over her whole body to be sure of it. "Okay, Rebecca. Why are you here?"

"I'm another deviant. I learned about you from your records in Mercy."

I wanted her out of my house so badly. My throat tightened so my voice came out hoarse. "How do you know where I live?" Surely she didn't get that from Mercy, too. Or did they know more about me than I thought? Was I one slip-up from being dragged back this whole time? I felt like puking.

"You haven't exactly been careful."

My hands shook, causing the flashlight beam to quiver. "I mean here! My house. How do you know this is my house?"

"I wandered a bit. Asked if anybody knew you, which the girl outside was happy to answer."

Just one more thing to hate about the life-ruiner named April… "What do you want?"

"To talk."

"No you don't." I knew that much. If she wanted to talk, she would've rung the doorbell. Not that I ever answered that.

"Would you please put the flashlight down?"

"No."

"Let's be civil."

"You're the one who broke into my house."

"This isn't your home." She stepped to the light switch and flicked it. Nothing happened.

I frowned. "Don't bother. There isn't electricity."

"Water?"

"No."

Rebecca sighed. "This isn't a life, Noah."

"It's my life. I don't need you to help fix it."

"I'm not here to lecture. I'm telling you to come with me."

My heart pounded, and tears built up behind my eyes to feed my headache. "To go where?" I asked, though there was no point. I knew exactly where she wanted me.

"A home for deviants."

The tears fell. I took several steps away from her. "There are thousands of kids out there who want you to knock on their door. Go find them."

"They don't need me."

"I don't need you!"

"You draw attention."

"So the others are what? Too weak to make a fuss?"

"Others are closer to normal. They don't need protection—"

"I don't need protection!"

"You're too strong."

"No thanks to a home." I wiped my tears on my sleeve and wrapped the flashlight beam around myself to vanish.

I ran for the door but barely touched the handle before I was back in the kitchen, facing Rebecca with the flashlight held out, exactly how I stood seconds before. The shock caused all my muscles to cramp, and I lost control. I collapsed onto the ground and dropped my disguise so my hands could catch me. My flashlight slid across the ground and into Rebecca's feet. She picked it up and turned it off. "Let's not play games."

I smiled. So she could turn something back a few seconds. That wasn't so bad. "I like games."

I fought to stand and grabbed onto the light from the windows behind Rebecca. The dim morning sun was harder to control through the dirty glass. Still, I managed to make five more of myself around the house. We scattered. I ran toward the back door, but the room shifted and I reappeared in front of Rebecca, this time mid-fall toward the ground. When the wood floor caught my face, the illusions of me vanished. I yelled, the frustration unbearable. "I'm not going back to Mercy!"

"I'm not taking you to Mercy."

"It doesn't matter. They're all the same."

"You don't know that."

"I know enough."

Mercy Home for Deviants was massive, but knowing the endlessness of each hallway and abundance of locked doors couldn't keep the house from collapsing in with each step. In the evenings, the halls were dark. Invisible. The morning light that spilled through the south-facing windows faded so, by afternoon, I had to walk with my fingers brushing the walls to keep straight.

I walked a lot. Back and forth past the same eight windows, 12 doors and three creaky floor boards. Ignored the constant noises of kids tossing and scratching and whispering for freedom. Some asked for death, though it was hard to distinguish between the two pleas. I, too, had almost let myself believe freedom and death were the same. The house threatened to contort even the strongest minds.

Every once in a while, the threat of death would silence the mumbling walls. Usually from the west side, where Dr. Craig met with his victims. Sometimes, our house head, Helena, would call Charles to help heal the suffering child before it was too late. Then, she'd take the mangled child to their room and soothe them to sleep. I'd hear her pray for them to live through the next appointment, though God (if there was one) never answered. Vexes which failed always succeeded the second time.

Occasionally, a kid would jump from the west-side windows, where the ground was farthest. My heart would play a sort of tug-of-war after those. I didn't know whether to be horrified or relieved. I never envied the jumpers, but I understood enough of their pain to celebrate their escape.

I didn't know any of Mercy's victims enough to grieve. I never let myself get that close. I didn't want the loss. Maybe, more importantly, I didn't want a reason to jump.

Some years, the house lost more kids than it collected. Between jumpers and uncontrolled vexes, death at Mercy became as normal as quesadilla night. I stopped trying to memorize the curves and shadows of new faces until they all became the same to me. Why bother? I knew one in five of them wouldn't survive the year, and everybody, like the house, was invisible by evening, anyway.

The few I bothered to recognize were Helena, Charles, Dr. Craig, and my tormentors. The ones that turned the lights off when I walked into the dining hall or shined flashlights in my eyes when I rounded a hallway corner. I retained little hatred for even the worst of them, Adam, because he, too, wasn't worth fretting over. He and his friends were like me. The deviant community called kids like us infirmary mail, or infies, since they shipped us to homes straight out of the hospital. We didn't know a life apart from Mercy, and everything we did inside it was a lame attempt to make it feel like our place. Their cruelty was as justified as my numbness, and the jumpers' torment.

The house did that. It stripped children of their light, leaving fear and hopelessness behind. Helena justified it as a means of control. Restraining our feelings meant restraining our abilities, though torment only fed our vexes. In Mercy, I let Helena convince me my vex and my ability were separate. That to smother my ability before it could hurt the world, I had to let my vex, my blindness, smother me.

So, I spent my days walking, completely blind, back and forth through the halls. Helena didn't let me outside ever since I learned how to hide. When the sun was high enough, I could pull the sunlight over myself and bend it until I disappeared. I could become invisible.

Helena thought I'd use my ability to run, as if my untrained fingers could pick the gate lock even if I had the tools to do it. She even made me wear a tracker band for a month following my found invisibility, though I broke through three of those government-supplied pieces of junk before she stopped slapping them on my wrist. She always assumed the worst in us. I supposed that wasn't her fault. Not when she spent a few days every year destroying more yard space for a child-sized grave.

A part of me knew Helena didn't enjoy our misery. But, unlike most house heads, she was normal. A non-deviant. Any hatred she didn't already deserve for keeping us locked in was earned by her inability to understand. She didn't know how to control an ability, or suppress a vex, and so she taught us to suppress the ability and live with the vex. To her, it was the same. To us, it was hell, even without Dr. Craig's monthly tests.

In her attempt to alleviate that hell, she gifted me a cassette player for my eighth birthday. The music that came with it was fine, but I mostly listened to books. Each month she'd get me a new one, and I'd walk through the halls with my earbuds in, cassette in one hand while the other traced the wall. I'd take careful steps to be sure Adam wasn't ready to attack, or his usual accomplice, Emily, wasn't about to drop from the ceiling. I was always careful.

Except for when I'd felt Dr. Craig's familiar silhouette through my bedroom window, and ran with the third Harry Potter in my ears to hide in the dining room. It never worked. Dr. Craig always found me, but I didn't let dread keep me from trying, still clinging to the thing most Mercy kids lost a long time ago: hope.

In my haste, I tripped over a wood plank Adam must've left in my path. My palms caught me on my way down, though the base of my left thumb also caught a nail protruding from the end of the plank they probably ripped off the west-side windows. My cassette skipped across the floor, tearing my earbuds with it so my own cry could piece my ears.

My pain quickly followed, and erased any previous anger I had about my fall interrupting Hagrid. Blood pumped through my ears so I could barely hear the laughs from around the corner. Emily, managed "watch your step" between giggles before Helena's horror silenced them.

"Downstairs! All of you!" Her feet shook the floor with resounding clicks until they stopped in front of me. I squeezed my eyes closed a second after feeling dim light bounce off the shiny parts around her toes.

She propped me against the wall. The wooden board followed my hand into my lap, nail tugging against my pinched flesh. I cried out again, unaware my mouth was open at all. Warm blood pooled between my palm and the plank. My nails scratched the wood, which only made the pain worse. "Take it out."

"I will. Keep it still."

A few feet away, my audiobook mumbled out of my exposed earbuds. I mourned the wasted words as they faded into the empty air. My throbbing thumb couldn't keep me from wishing Hagrid were there with me.

Helena called down the empty hallway. "Charles!"

My gut dropped. I didn't want his help. Helena thought his age justified making him fix our injuries, though I knew time couldn't lessen a vex. My wound was nothing like those of jumpers he was used to healing, but guilt still attacked me. Or maybe it was because Charles was the only person who could make me feel weaker than I already did. For whatever reason, I squirmed against the wall behind my shoulders. "I don't need him."

Not that my opinion mattered, since Charles's quiet steps already echoed through the hallway. I imagined a scowl on his face, but, when he got closer, I couldn't find any creases. Light glistened off his smile. I never understood his constant joy, but then again I never understood Charles. He'd joined Mercy by choice, after normal people abused his ability. Every time he healed a deviant, I wondered if he regretted leaving their world. I bet he did, but his unending smile made me doubt. Maybe it was different suffering for deviants, and the illusion of purpose kept him inside Mercy's walls. "They get you again, Noah?"

"Shut up." My heart pounded harder, causing my hand to pulse with pain. I slammed my head against the wall behind me and sealed my eyes closed. "Just take it out."

"What did you do, anyway? You never fall for those anymore." Charles meant it kindly, but his shock dug into my pride.

"I was running," I muttered.

"From Adam?" asked Helena.

"Dr. Craig. I saw him outside."

"You're being foolish," Helena said through a smile. "You know your appointment is in two more days. He's only here to talk to me."

"About what?" Before she could answer me, Helena's fingers engulfed my wrist. I swallowed to avoid wailing and clenched my teeth tighter. She took a shaky breath. "Deep breaths. On three. One…"

"Three." Charles yanked the board from my hand. I released the wail trapped in my throat as the rough metal dragged through me. My tears streamed effortlessly. More warm blood coated my hand with each pump of my rabid heart.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban continued to hum beside us when my yell stopped echoing against the walls. I turned to face it until my ear grazed the wall against my back.

For a second, the pain stopped pulsing. My anguish lost way to curiosity.

The textured plaster hummed with music. The classical kind with long notes and unsteady rhythms. I held my breath so my heartbeat couldn't fool me. The violin quickened. "You hear that?"

"Hear what?" asked Charles.

I pressed my ear harder against the wall. It continued to hum. "Music." The symphony of violins sounded like screams when muffled like that, as if another torture victim was hiding in there. It was a foolish thought. I was the only torture victim at Mercy.

Charles chuckled. "Nobody listens to music on this side." His rough fingers grazed and clung to mine. "Ready?"

I yanked my hand away, which reminded me how much it really hurt. "I'll heal fine."

"So will Charles," said Helena. "And faster."

"I don't care." I put my ear back against the wall. "You don't hear that?"

"It's probably just your tape." Helena reached for my cassette and plunged my earbud back in my exposed ear. Senseless words flooded my thoughts.

I ignored the soothing English woman to argue. "It's not." I couldn't hear the music past the sudden narration in my other ear, but its hum still tickled my cheek.

"Whatever." Charles grabbed for my hand again, and sighed when I pulled it back. "Come on, kid."

"Don't call me kid." I used my good hand to get my feet beneath me before grabbing my cassette and standing. Helena and Charles cornered me against the wall before I could walk away. I paused the tape, and the narrator woman gave way to silence. Or rather, the closest to silence Mercy could get beyond the constant murmurs and moaning.

"He's helping you," said Helena.

"I don't need help."

"How heroic," complained Charles before yanking my bloody hand away from my chest. I cried out despite how much I didn't want to. He pinched my fingers so I couldn't pull away before mending my torn flesh. Just like that. Gone. Or rather, at the base of his own thumb. He winced and pulled away, but not before his blood could drip into the puddle of it in my palm. "Jesus. Worse than it looks." He choked a bit on his words.

I tried not to show my relief. That would validate them treating me like a child. Why now? After years of not being allowed to be a kid, and play outside, and feel sunshine that isn't filtered through glass. Sunshine I could control…

"Charles, go clean yourself up."

"He's not stronger than me," I protested as he wordlessly left. Drops of blood clicked against the wood floor to interrupt his steps.

"He's older."

"Age doesn't matter here," I spat back. "I'm not a kid!"

"You're 12. Charles is 17. It's simple math."

"Our pain isn't a math problem."

"Speaking of… you have a workbook due tonight."

"You know I can't see them."

"Get someone to help you."

"You're not listening to me!"

"My job isn't to listen. Clean this up before dinner." She scraped the wooden plank off the floor before walking away, heels clicking.

I screamed so my voice followed her around the corner, though the weak attempt to make my nerves uncoil failed. After almost a minute of collecting my breath, I wrapped my earbuds around the cassette and pressed my ear to the wall.

There was undeniable music flowing through the paint and plaster. Quiet, but clear. I rested my clean hand on it, as if that would lead me to its source. It didn't, so I sauntered to the supply closet, determined to clean the blood threatening to expose my temporary weakness.

I listened for the music every afternoon after that, during my usual walk. It was always there, nuzzled in the house boards and plaster like a lullaby the house sang for its prisoners. By the third day, I found it in the west side, next to the window with one less plank nailed across it.

By then, the music was my friend. For two mornings, I'd woken up excited to hear it again. It had started a game with me. Catch me if you can, it seemed to say. Nobody had ever called on me to play before, except Adam, though his games usually ended sour for me. I liked having a game of my own almost as much as I liked having something to exclude the others from.

I pressed my finger against the humming plaster. There it was again, just beside the supply closet door. Good thing, too, because one of Mercy's three creaky boards alerted me of a fellow wanderer five seconds from rounding the corner and spoiling my fun.

I felt wildly for the handle, waving my hand up and down until my wrist slammed into the rickety metal knob. I ripped the door open and sealed it behind me, just quiet enough to remain ordinary. Small slams and thumps were as normal as whines and cries at Mercy.

The closet engulfed me in darkness, though the complete blindness to follow wasn't foreign. Powerlessness couldn't keep excitement from quickening my heart as I felt behind broomsticks and an ironing board for my friend.

I found it again, after crouching down to feel behind the round edge of a mop bucket. It pulsed like a heartbeat in the wall, and quickened when I pressed my palm into it.

Getting warmer.

I traced it up slowly, like any sudden movement would scare it away.

The hum deepened as I rose, but my short arms could only tap the belly of the lowest shelf. I sighed and held my breath as footsteps thudded outside the closed door. Being found would me more than disheartening. It would be disrespectful to my new friend, and our game. Like breaking the number one rule: don't get caught.

Slowly, the steps faded, and I reached down for the bucket until the backs of my fingers found the brim. I flipped it over and climbed on. It moaned beneath my weight, and threatened to crack when I rose onto my toes. Still, the plastic's small warning pops couldn't discourage my curiosity. My fingers slithered up the wall, until a violin melody flowed through them into my arm.

Warmer.

If I could just go higher…

Warmer…

I willed my arm to grow as I reached, and my fingers barely grazed the speckled ceiling.

Hot, hot, hot!

The bucket collapsed. I crashed to the ground, and the wood floor knocked all the air from my lungs. Mops and brooms drummed against my gut to make breathing impossible.

The footsteps returned until two feet disrupted the thin line of light beneath the door.

My lungs finally opened again. I gasped for air as the handle twisted. Helena knelt down to block any light from reaching my eyes. I sealed them shut once it was clear they were useless.

Helena started lifting the massive drumsticks from my chest. "What's the reason?"

"I was hiding." Liar. You choked. You failed your friend.

"From what, Noah?"
"What do you think?" I rolled onto my hands and knees and shoved myself onto my feet. "Leave me be, yeah?"

She grabbed my arm. "If I see you here again—"

"What's hiding in there?"

"Nothing's hiding in there."

"Then why can't I?"
"You're overstepping."

"You're lying to me."

"Go to your room."

"You're hiding something!"

"Noah," she hissed, before her fingers tightened around me and she started pulling. "You're supposed to be one of the easy ones."

I didn't know what that meant. Easy. Was I supposed to give into the misery? Stop finding ways to be a kid, even if just barely? What did easy mean in a life that was so hard? Did it just mean normal? I, like all other infies, had no idea what normal was.

I squirmed and screamed as Helena dragged me down the hall, unsure if I was angrier at her or myself for getting caught. The warmth of the music evaded me as she marched, and I almost convinced myself I'd imagined it. But I couldn't have. Not when Helena cared so much that I didn't follow it. Which made me want to find it so much more.

I dug my heels into the ground behind her. "Let go!"
She yanked me to a stop and dropped my arm, but only to shove me into an open door. I tripped over my radio and landed butt-first on the smooth tile to conclude that it was, in fact, my bedroom.

"Two days," she said.

I clawed my way to the door, too shaky to stand. "No!"

"I'll make it three."

Last time I fought, three became seven. That was the day I taught myself how to disappear. I sat and sandwiched my head between my knees to keep myself from moving. "I don't know what I did wrong."

"Let's keep it that way." She slammed the door closed and locked it from the outside. I screamed after her, and the noise that left me was the hideous kind that came before tears.

The tears didn't fall, though. I never let them.

Now, I cried whenever I wanted, which was more than I liked to admit. But at least I didn't have a reason to bury myself anymore. "I don't need a home," I told Rebecca. I pushed myself onto my feet.

"You're 17."

"Age has nothing to do with it. I can take care of myself."

"You're a criminal."

"I'm a criminal out here whether I steal things or not."

"That's why deviants belong to communities."

"No, that's why being a deviant sucks. I'm just trying to make it suck a little less."

Rebecca sighed and reached into her pocket. I'd seen that move before, and it made the air in my lungs vanish. "I don't want to fight you," she said.

"By the looks of it, this isn't a fair fight."

"Noah, just come with me."

"No," I managed despite my tight throat. I stumbled backward toward the front door. "No, this isn't fair."

She stepped toward me. "Noah—"

"I'm not leaving with you!"

"I'm not asking."

The gap between us vanished. She grabbed my arm and plunged a sedative into my shoulder. The needle pinched my skin, but I barely felt it past the suffocating tightness in my chest. I wailed as consciousness fled me, unable to control the river of tears flowing down my face. By the time I thought of all the terrible things I wanted to scream at Rebecca, I couldn't keep my eyes open.


A/N: Thanks for reading chapter 1! If you want to see more soon, consider leaving a review. Nothing motivates like knowing you have an excited audience. :) See y'all soon with chapter 2!