Without any adults watching, the other teens ignored her. They played video-games, laughing with each other.
She walked through their cluttered recreation room like a ghost. It didn’t matter that she had black hair or that her skin that was several shades darker than theirs. Silence was invisibility. She was silent.
These teens had said hello while the social worker was watching. But even then, they had not really seen her.
Cherise didn’t mind being excluded. That was the default. That was natural. She could not resent anyone for failing to see her, because who would want to speak to a girl who never spoke?
She touched the scissors hidden in her pocket.
These scissors were not blunted, like the infantile type of scissors used for construction paper projects in the mental ward. These blades were slim and razor sharp. It seemed this group home was less vigilant than the hospital, and the house mother had left her sewing kit open in her office. Oops.
A blocky teenage boy with a lot of acne flicked his tongue out. He waggled it back and forth at Cherise, and she tightened her grip on the hidden scissors. She would stab the big teen if she had to.
He shouldn’t have noticed her. Attention was always bad.
“Hey, is that your dad on screen?” another kid said, and the big teen got distracted, glancing towards the video game.
It was a prison scene. Macho gang members in orange jumpsuits hurled insults at each other.
“Oh, so funny, Thomas,” the big teen said in a mocking voice.
The object of his mockery was a severely disabled boy who looked a lot younger than everyone else in the room. Instead of holding a game controller, the young boy, Thomas, held a tablet computer, as well as a thin notebook on his lap. His powered wheelchair and withered limbs made it clear that he could not stand or walk.
How could a weak little kid feel safe, challenging such a big asshole?
Oh well. It was not her problem.
Cherise exited the recreation room before anyone else took notice of her.
The foster mother stood next to the kitchen stove, stirring a pot. It smelled like ramen noodles. Cheap food. Cherise knew the smell.
While the mother remained oblivious, Cherise sneaked towards the rickety door which she guessed led to a woodsy backyard. She needed to get outside. Someplace lonely. Someplace unseen.
If there was one thing she knew about children who came from abuse or neglect, it was that they could be unpredictably cruel. They absorbed painful lessons from their parents. She ought to know.
She wished that she had tried to shield her baby sister. Not that she could have protected Glitzy, the baby, but…
Well. She should have put up a fight.
That was what a good person would have done.
It was best to avoid victims of abuse and neglect, like herself. It was best to be ignored. Being alone meant being safe.
Cherise unlatched the rickety door and slipped outside. Its hinges creaked. She eased it slowly shut, so that it was quieter than the rain hissing upon leaves.
The back porch was soft with rot. The bench looked battered and eroded from weather. She sat.
Here, she might figure out how to break the shell that contained all of her pent-up screams.
She poked the blade of the scissors against her arm. She sliced.
Again. And again and again.
She searched for the vein in her wrist. Maybe now was the right time to cut herself out of the world. She’d give that rotund, redheaded foster mother one less broken teenager to include around the dinner table.
The flimsy door creaked.
Cherise froze as it opened, ready to hide the scissors or else stab an attacker. She waited to see who had dared to follow her into the night.
It was the ultra-disabled kid.
Thomas powered his wheelchair through the doorway, and the door clattered shut behind him. “Hi,” he said in a friendly voice. “I’m your suicide watch.”
Cherise raised the bloody scissors in an unspoken threat. No one sane would put a little pipsqueak in charge of a suicide watch. The kid must be lying. His body was sunken in the wrong places, his limbs looked as fragile as twigs, and his squeaky voice would never raise an alarm.
The fact that he used a wheelchair underscored the fact that he was a disadvantaged kid living in a group home. Had his mother or father beaten him until he couldn’t walk?
Only extraordinarily messed up kids ended up in foster care, she was sure. He must contain a volcano of rage.
Most likely, he would make fun of her baggy clothes. Or maybe he would quiz her on what ethnicity she was. Latina? Native American? Was she part Black? Thomas was just another generic white kid with hair the color of wet sand. He had probably not met a whole lot of people beyond the Appalachian mountain region of New Hampshire.
So he would zero in on how different she looked, and bludgeon her with it, trying to pressure the mute girl to talk. It would be a taunting game for him.
“You’re Cherise,” Thomas said.
Maybe he thought the name sounded incongruous. It hinted at the French Canadian quarter of her heritage.
Thomas painstakingly tore a sheet out of the notebook on his lap. “I don’t mind that you’re silent. I can hear you.”
He sounded sympathetic.
She didn’t believe it. This boy must be reeling her in with false pity. No doubt he was ready to slam her with a harsh joke the instant she let her guard down.
“My name is Thomas.” He folded the sheet of paper, this way and that. “Everyone misjudges me, so I know what that’s like. Anyway, I can tell that you’re not broken. Also, you’re not mute. You have a legit phobia of speech.”
It was as if he saw who she was, beneath her glasses and curtains of black hair.
“You’re afraid that if you start speaking, you’ll scream,” Thomas said. “And you won’t be able to stop.”
Her cut wrist throbbed, but she hardly noticed. No one had ever described her silence so accurately before.
“Your mother punished you every time you spoke.” Thomas fluffed the paper, sculpting it. “For your entire life, up until recently, you were unable to speak without suffering a punishment. That’s why your throat closes up whenever you try.”
Cherise smelled the dirty gag stuffed in her mouth, as if she’d just begged Ma for something to eat. Ma hated complaints.
Maybe her silence really was because of Ma, and not because she was born defective and pathetic.
The baby wouldn’t shut up. The baby kept wailing, all the time, drowning out the flies that buzzed around their trailer. Glitzy must have been very hungry. Ma kept punishing her … until that final time, when the baby went silent forever.
I hate her. I hate her. The pain in Cherise’s torn skin was inconsequential in comparison to her searing fury. She wanted to stab Ma in the gut. Stab her until she screamed, and then keep stabbing until she went silent. Stab her eyes out. Stab her throat.
Surely no one else seethed with feral, animalistic rage?
Of course not. If other people felt this way, they would never be able to laugh or smile. They would not have kind eyes, like this boy.
So she was a defective freak. Ma was right about her.
“Your Ma never knew you.” Thomas made more creases in the paper. “She never tried to get to know you. And your rage is something you’ve rightfully earned. It’s not a sign of weakness or defectiveness. It’s normal.”
The way he answered her exact thoughts … Cherise wanted to ask how he guessed what was inside her mind.
She opened her mouth, but her throat thickened until she could no longer smell the rain, or the forest around the house. She couldn’t make a sound.
“You associate speaking with pain.” Thomas studied her with unabashed interest.
His curiosity should have made him look childlike. Instead, he seemed to lack the innocence of childhood. Cherise stared at him, studying his strange eyes, wondering why he looked as if he had witnessed a thousand lifetimes.
“Your phobia is so ingrained,” Thomas went on, “knowing the cause won’t help you much. But time will. You don’t have to be mute forever.”
Cherise wanted to ask how Thomas could be so certain. Words stuck in her throat, aching. She would never speak.
“We’re having a conversation right now,” Thomas said.
He seemed to hear her thoughts as clearly as she heard the song of crickets. He seemed to see her. Not a victim. Not a target. Not a lonely girl, or a tragic news story, but her, Cherise Chavez, without embellishments or labels.
Do you hear my thoughts? she wondered.
“Yes.” He answered exactly as if she’d spoken aloud. “I’m a mind reader.”
The impossible statement was as stark and undeniable as the rainwater which dripped from the gutters, and the blood dripping from her wrist.
Cherise could not imagine why a uniquely powerful psychic wanted to talk to the likes of her. Why try to save an unwanted teenager whose mother was in prison for murder? She was a girl who lacked friends. She lacked a future.
Maybe Thomas simply felt compelled to reach out? Was he some sort of disabled superhero?
“I’m not a hero.” Thomas faced her with a pained expression. “Mostly, I work on staving off my own early death.” He gestured at his frail body. “Everyone has problems, especially in a place like this. I have plenty of my own. Time is precious to me. I don’t waste it. I came out here because you’re worth talking to.”
Cherise had never been so sincerely complimented. “Why?”
She paused at the sound of her own voice, quavering like an old lady’s. Her voice!
She felt no fear of speaking in front of Thomas. None at all. There was no danger of misunderstanding. He would know what she meant, no matter how she messed up the words, no matter whether or not she used her voice.
Why do you believe I’m worthwhile? She asked the question inside her mind, because that was more comfortable for her.
Thomas made more folds in the paper. “Cherise, I absorb memories.” He looked ashamed. “I’ve glimpsed the environment you survived, and I’m certain that it would have killed me, or sent me to a loony bin. Very few people could grow up in that household and still see beauty in the world. You’re one in a billion. You have a resilience that I want to … well … be around.”
Cherise had the impression that he meant every word.
His honesty made her smile a little. The expression felt brittle, as if her face was made of clay.
Thomas faced her squarely. “Let’s get something straight. I’m not trying to force a friendship. We’re both lonely—there’s no point in treading around that issue—but I came out here because I’d rather not see your particular mind vanish. I have some first aid stuff in the back pocket of my wheelchair.” He indicated her wounded wrist. “Can I help you bandage that up? I’ve absorbed several lifetimes worth of medical knowledge, so I can make sure it doesn’t get infected. No one has to know.”
He was offering to save her.
“If you refuse,” Thomas said, “then I’ll stop bothering you. I promise. I just figured I’d ask.”
The more Cherise studied him, the more she realized how ancient he looked, despite his childishness. His body was frail and prepubescent. But his gaze? That belonged on a grizzled war veteran.
“You see me.” Thomas sounded grateful. “Your perceptiveness is a lot like mind reading. You have insights into everyone else, but no one understands you.”
Cherise stood. She held her bleeding arm away from her clothing, and rummaged in the back pocket of his wheelchair, one-handed. She found a roll of bandages.
Thomas talked her through it. “Stick it on the back of your wrist, and wind it tightly around. You can cut it off there. Okay, and you’ve got the adhesive.”
When they were done, Thomas crisped the folds of the paper he had folded. “This is yours,” he said.
Cherise took the folded paper from her, marveling at it. Thomas had transformed a mundane sheet of notebook paper into a perfect origami lion.
“Squeeze his mane,” Thomas said, “and he’ll roar.”
Cherise tried it. The lion roared silently.
“There’s a lion inside you,” Thomas said. “When you rip your mother’s grip off your throat, everyone will listen.”