Ariock paced the sky room. Ten strides and reverse.
His feet extended and receded over threadbare carpet, causing the floor to creak in predictable places, while the big screen TV provided its endless background noise. Voices, even scripted conversations, were a comfort. The rhythm of walking was a drug.
He studied the wintry world beyond the glass, paying no attention to his reflection in the panes. It was an overcast night, so he could hardly see the jagged outlines of the nearest trees, let alone the distant mountains. But he felt the weather, in a way.
He touched the glass. Ice seeped into his skin.
He reached the potted fern and reversed direction like clockwork. Back across the carpet, towards the opposite wall, marked by a framed print of a picturesque city skyline. Manhattan. His mother came from that fantastical place; an urban wonderland which Ariock would never, could never, visit.
He reached Manhattan and reversed.
If he looked in the right direction, he could see … yes, there were the lights of Liberty Hill, almost lost in the gloom of falling snow and miles of forested slopes. The little town twinkled magically.
The outside world was as untouchable as the people and places on TV. But it at least it was close. It was visible.
Ariock felt the weather. He felt tension, as if the sky was about to burst in a sudden squall.
The sun never shone a ray, and nights were black and starless. Tree branches hung so still, they might as well be painted onto the unchanging boulder of a sky. Crisp air gloved all it touched.
The stillness had lasted for such an unusually long time—weeks, it seemed—Ariock felt restless. Something had better happen soon. His own nightmares about storms kept jolting him awake.
His mother bought him movies and video-games and books, trying to alleviate his self-destructive boredom. It helped a little bit. Sound alleviated the gnawing, ticking, incessant silence of the mansion.
Ten steps and back.
Each stride approximated one full year—spring, summer, autumn, and winter—that Ariock had lived in this room.
Most people would have needed twenty or more strides to cross the same distance. For Ariock, it was ten. Sometimes he paced while the sky became streaked with red and gold from the setting sun, and then he would watch the sun rise again, and that was his only clue as to how long he’d been walking. He did not tire easily.
The cheerful voices of a TV conversation cut off abruptly.
Ariock turned, startled. He had missed the telltale footsteps of his mother’s approach.
“Honey?” She put aside the remote control. “We have visitors.”
Ariock automatically tried to hunch, to make himself smaller. He felt guilty whenever his mother caught him pacing. His size was an offense to anyone’s sense of normalcy.
Then he processed what she had said.
She looked deadpan, but she had to be joking. Ariock scrutinized her face, perplexed. Since when did his mother joke?
“There’s a kid,” his mother said. “He’s proven to me, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that he’s a mind reader. And he knows about you.” She gave Ariock a meaningful look.
The storm feeling seemed to break all around Ariock.
The night remained quiet and still, except for softly falling snow outside. Yet Ariock felt slammed by lightning and wind. This was a storm nightmare. This couldn’t be happening.
“I’m sorry.” His mother looked away, avoiding his gaze. “We knew this day would come. I didn’t expect it to happen like this, but…” She fidgeted. “Maybe it’s for the best. They seem like nice people.”
More than one?
Ariock imagined cell phone cameras and cruel grins. A horde of people were going to hunt him if he tried to hide. They’d point. He’d become a spectacle.
He remembered how it was, in sixth grade, before his mother had relented and pulled him out of public school. And that was before he’d crossed world record territory, before his main growth spurt. He had been merely tall at the time. Weirdly tall, but not quite freak show tall, yet.
Ariock glanced around, wishing he could hide. It sounded as if paparazzi had invaded his home. Maybe some random hiker had taken a photo of him through the sky room window, without his noticing. Was that how they’d learned about him?
He knew he should have chosen a room without any windows. The library would have been a good place to live.
“For what it’s worth,” his mother said, her tone sympathetic, “I don’t think they’ll tell anyone about you. They’re not reporters. The kid is disabled, in a wheelchair. He’s the one who can read minds. For real.”
Ariock had seen video clips, while flipping through local news, about a seriously smart boy in a wheelchair. Could this be the same one?
“And…” Ariock’s mother had an uncharacteristic grin. “The one in charge is quite tall. I think she’s your age.”
Ariock stared at his mother in disbelief. She did occasionally say clueless things, but this had to be a new all-time record. Had his mother forgotten what he looked like? He was terribly abnormal from the perspective of any normal-sized person.
“She’s very pretty,” his mother added, as if that helped.
A beautiful college senior would surely be repulsed.
Besides, Ariock had not talked to real-life people, other than his mom, since he was twelve years old. Online chats with gamers and nerds did not count. He was unequipped to handle an actual conversation with an actual girl.
He gave his mother a reproachful look. Couldn’t she figure out an excuse to send these intruders away?
“There’s no point in asking them to leave,” his mother said, seeing his look. “The boy knows you’re a giant. He said it.”
So there was no hope.
Even if the intruders left, curiosity would bring them back. They’d want to stare at the giant.
“I’ll go get them.” His mother turned to leave.
She hesitated in the doorway, patting the wall as if to give it reassurance. “Ariock? You couldn’t have remained hidden forever. You know that. Right?”
So she kept telling him.
To Ariock, the idea of being discovered was an abstract fear, but his mother made it sound like it lurked just around a corner. He wondered why she mentioned it so often, lately. Was she hinting that she wanted a vacation? She did take overly long shopping trips.
If she wanted to leave, Ariock couldn’t really blame her.
He was still growing as rapidly as a teenager, but he was technically an adult. And his mother had not signed up for isolation and tragedy when she had married the playboy William Dovanack. She couldn’t have guessed that their only child would be born with an untreatable growth disorder. She couldn’t have foreseen that her wealthy husband and his entire extended family would die prematurely, or that she would feel trapped in a house that was too big for her, hundreds of miles from any city.
“It will be all right,” his mother said. “These people are young, and I don’t see them bringing in a media circus. I think they’ll be respectful.”
With that, she left.
Ariock glanced around the embarrassment that was his living room.
He couldn’t hide the giant-sized homemade furniture. There was no way to disguise the fact that he used one of the enormous couches as a bed, with quilts that were sewn together, end to end, in order to cover him. Or the half-size keg which he’d converted into a drinking mug.
But he wasn’t going to offend their sense of reality by looming in front of the two-story-tall windows.
Ariock retreated to the shadows beneath the indoor balcony. He settled into his armchair, which he’d custom-built.
Maybe, if he stayed very still, he would blend in with the bookshelves and kitchenette.
If he hunched his shoulders and minimized his size, perhaps the unwelcome visitors wouldn’t be tempted to take photos or blab about this encounter to their friends. Maybe they’d go away. And somehow, maybe they would forget that they’d seen someone who was inexplicably weird.