All the kids said hello while the social worker was watching.
Now that no adults were paying attention, the other kids ignored her. They played video-games in the cluttered recreation room, laughing with each other. She didn’t blame them for not inviting her. Why speak to a girl who never spoke? They already had friends.
One kid looked lonely. But he was very little, maybe ten years old, not close to her fourteen years of age. His powered wheelchair and withered limbs made it clear why he couldn’t play with everyone else. He sat at a computer, but he paused while she snuck past. He gave her a knowing look, as if he saw who she was, beneath her glasses and curtains of black hair. As if he knew about the scissors hidden in her pocket.
Every child in this group home came from abuse and neglect. She wondered if the sandy-haired kid’s birth parents had beaten him until he couldn’t walk. That had to be worse than what her mother had done to her.
But did it matter? She was a worse person. She should have grabbed her baby sister and ran. The locked door would have stopped her, but she should have put up a fight. That was what a good person would have done.
She didn’t belong among people.
In order to get outside, she had to sneak through the kitchen, where the foster mother was stirring a pot on the stove. When the mother smiled at her, she went still. Maybe all mothers were fake-nice. Maybe they all hid a seething, feral, animalistic rage.
This mother seemed to forget she existed. Good. When adults ignored her, it meant she was safe.
She slipped through the back door, into darkness where rain hissed on leaves.
The wood of the back porch was soft with rot, battered by rain. A lonely place. Here, she might figure out how to break the silent shell that contained all of her pent-up screams. She poked the blade of the scissors into her wrist, in search of a vein to slice.
The flimsy door creaked open.
She began to flee, certain that someone had told an adult that she was breaking some sort of house rules, and the adult would unleash an ungodly wrath upon her.
But it was just the ultra-disabled boy. He powered his wheelchair through the doorway, and the door clattered shut behind him.
“Hi,” he said in a friendly tone. “I’m your suicide watch.”
She raised the bloody scissors in an unspoken threat. The kid must be lying. No one sane would put someone like him in charge of a suicide watch. His body was sunken in wrong places, his limbs looked as fragile as twigs, and his squeaky voice would never raise an alarm. He was probably here to make fun of her clothes, or to ask what ethnicity she was. It would be a game to him, to try to make the mute girl talk.
“You’re Cherise,” he said. “Silent, but I hear every word inside your mind.” A notebook lay on his lap, and he painstakingly tore out a sheet. “You’re not broken, Cherise. Not in the ways you think you are.”
Only bad kids ended up in group homes, she figured. This boy looked innocent, but he was surely reeling her in with false sympathy, ready to slam her with a harsh joke the instant she let her guard down. She got ready to stab him.
“My name is Thomas.” The kid folded the sheet of paper, this way and that. “Everyone misjudges me, so I know what that’s like. I can tell that you’re not disabled. You’re not mute at all. You have a phobia of speech. You’re afraid that if you start speaking, you’ll scream, and you won’t be able to stop.”
Her cut wrist throbbed, but she hardly noticed. No one had ever described her problem 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.”
She smelled the dirty gag stuffed in her mouth, as if she’d just begged Ma for something to eat.
The comprehension made her gasp. 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. She must have been very hungry. And Ma kept punishing her … until that final time, when the baby went silent forever.
I hate her. I hate her. The pain of her torn wrist was nothing compared 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 rage like this. 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. “And you’re not defective. You’ve earned your rage.”
The way he phrased things … Cherise wanted to ask how he guessed her exact thoughts. She opened her mouth, heart thudding, 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. He looked child-like, yet his gaze was anything but innocent. His eyes looked as if he had watched a thousand people die. “It’s so ingrained,” he went on, “even knowing the cause won’t help you much. But time will. You don’t have to be mute forever.”
Cherise tried to ask how he could be so certain. Words stuck in her throat, aching. She would never speak.
“We’re having a conversation right now.”
Thomas seemed to hear her thoughts as clearly as the song of crickets. He seemed to see her, Cherise Chavez, without embellishments or labels. Not a victim. Not a target. Not a lonely girl, or a tragic news story, but only the truth.
Do you hear my thoughts? she wondered.
“Yes.” He answered exactly as if she’d spoken aloud. “I’m a mind reader.”
Rainwater dripped down from the gutters, like the blood dripping from her wrist, a stark and despairing sound. Maybe Thomas felt compelled to help suicidal teenagers, like a disabled super-hero. Cherise couldn’t think of any other reason why a powerful psychic would want to spend time with her. Why waste time on a fourteen-year-old girl who lacked friends or a future? She was obviously incapable of rehabilitation.
“I never waste time.” Thomas faced her with a pained expression. “Time is precious to me. 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. So I don’t help people, but I made an exception for you, because you’re worth it.”
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.
How can I be worth it? she asked in her mind.
Thomas made more folds in the paper. “Cherise, I absorb memories.” He looked ashamed. “I’ve glimpsed the environment you survived in, 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.
He faced her squarely. “Let’s get something straight. I’m not trying to force a friendship. I mean, 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.” He indicated her wounded wrist. “No one else has to know about that. I brought a bandage—” he patted the pocket of his wheelchair—“and I’d ensure that it doesn’t get infected. I’ve absorbed plenty of medical knowledge.” He held her gaze. “If you refuse, then I’ll stop bothering you. I promise. I just figured I’d ask.”
The more Cherise studied Thomas, the more she realized how ancient he looked, despite his childish face and body. A gaze like 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.” He crisped the folds in his paper, then offered it to her—transformed into a perfect origami lion. “This is yours. Squeeze his mane, here and here, 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.”