Cherise ghosted through the cluttered recreation room.
She might as well be a ghost, dark and shadowy. The teens in this room had said hello to her earlier, when the social worker was paying attention. Now that the adults were gone? She was no one. She was a stir of air beneath the war zone sounds of their video-game.
She could not resent people who ignored her, of course. Who would want to speak to a girl who never spoke?
The scissors hidden in her pocket were slim and razor sharp. The “mother” of this place, Mrs. Hollander, had foolishly left her sewing kit unguarded. Oops. This group home seemed a lot less vigilant than the mental institution.
A blocky teenager looked away from the TV and suddenly noticed Cherise. He waggled his tongue at her, as if to imply that she might be enticed by disgusting sights.
Cherise tightened her grip on the hidden scissors.
“Hey Kris,” a small kid said. “That guy looks just like your dad.”
On the TV screen, macho gangs slammed fists into faces. The blocky teen glanced at the violence on-screen, and then glared at the small kid. “Oh so funny, Thomas.”
The object of his sourness was severely disabled. Not only was Thomas small and prepubescent; he sat in a powered wheelchair. Judging by his stunted, withered limbs, he could not walk at all. He held a lightweight laptop balanced across his bony knees.
How could such a frail kid feel safe enough to challenge that big asshole?
Oh well. It was not her problem.
Cherise exited the recreation room before anyone else took notice of her.
Mrs. Hollander stood next to the kitchen stove, stirring a pot. It smelled like ramen noodles. Cherise sneaked past her new foster mother, just a background shadow. She reached for the rickety door which she guessed must lead to the backyard of this decrepit house.
It was always a good idea to avoid fellow victims.
Children absorbed cruel lessons from their parents, Cherise knew. For instance, she herself had learned all kinds of selfish cruelty from her Ma.
Not that she could have protected her baby sister. Nobody could have. Even so, she should have put up a fight. That was what a good person would have done.
Cherise unlatched the rickety door. Hinges creaked as she slipped into the fetid night. She eased the door slowly shut, quieter than the rain hissing upon leaves.
The back porch was soft with rot. The bench looked battered from use and eroded from weather.
She pushed up her sleeve and poked the blade of the scissors against her bronze-toned skin.
She dragged the blade, wishing it would scratch out her hatred, wishing she could release her years of pent-up screams. She sliced again. And again. And again.
Maybe she ought to cut herself out of the world?
Mrs. Hollander seemed pleasant and normal. No doubt she would appreciate having one less broken teenager to include around the dinner table.
The flimsy door creaked open.
Cherise froze, ready to hide her scissors or else stab someone. 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 limbs looked as fragile as twigs, and his squeaky voice would never raise an alarm.
Only extraordinarily messed up kids ended up in foster care, Cherise felt sure. Had Thomas’s father or mother beaten him until he couldn’t walk? He must contain a volcano of rage.
He would probably make fun of her baggy clothes. Or maybe he would quiz her on what ethnicity she was. Latina? Native American? Why did she have a French name?
“You’re Cherise.” Thomas fumbled for the notebook tucked by his side, and painstakingly tore out a sheet. “I don’t mind that you’re silent. I can hear your thoughts.”
What crap was this?
Cherise narrowed her eyes at the disabled kid. Thomas had probably never met anyone outside the borders of New Hampshire. He was white, his hair the color of wet sand, like many people in Appalachia. No doubt he would zero in on how different she looked and bludgeon her with it.
Or maybe he would attempt to reel her in with false pity, ready to slam her with a harsh joke the instant she let her guard down?
Everyone wanted to trick the mute girl into saying something. It was a taunting game.
“I know you’re not physically mute,” Thomas said. “You have a legit phobia of speech. That doesn’t mean you’re broken.” He folded the sheet of paper, this way and that. “Everyone misjudges me, also. I know what that’s like.”
He actually sounded sympathetic.
“You’re afraid that if you start speaking, you’ll scream,” Thomas said. “And you won’t be able to stop.”
Cherise ignored the throbbing of her cut arm. No one had ever described her silence so accurately before. It was as if Thomas saw who she truly was, beneath her glasses and thick hair.
But that was impossible.
“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 for something to eat. Ma hated complaints.
Maybe her silence really was because of Ma? Was that possible?
Cherise had always assumed that she was born defective and pathetic, just like Ma said. But hadn’t Ma said the same things about the baby?
The baby who wouldn’t shut up.
Glitzy kept wailing, drowning out the flies that buzzed around their trailer. She must have been very hungry. Ma kept punishing her, until that final time, when Glitzy went silent forever.
I hate Ma. I hate her. The pain in Cherise’s torn skin was nothing next 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?
If other people felt this way, they would never be able to laugh or smile. They would not have kind eyes, like this boy.
That was how Cherise knew that her Ma was right, after all. She was a defective freak.
“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 defectiveness. It’s completely normal, given your situation.”
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. 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 studied his strange eyes. Somehow, Thomas looked as if he had witnessed a thousand lifetimes, like he was a grizzled old man stuffed inside the skin of a disabled child.
“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 be able to speak.
“You’re speaking right now,” Thomas said. “We’re having a conversation.”
So it seemed.
Thomas seemed to hear her thoughts as clearly as she heard the song of crickets. He saw her. Not a victim. Not a target. Not a lonely girl, or a tragic news story, but the actuality of her, Cherise Chavez, without embellishments or labels.
Do you hear my thoughts? Cherise wondered.
“Yes.” Thomas 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 arm.
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 only came out here because I judged that 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 sincerity 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 forearm. “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.” He seemed hesitant. “I just figured I’d ask.”
The more Cherise studied Thomas, the more she realized how ancient he looked, despite his childishness. His body was frail and prepubescent. But his gaze? That belonged on a war veteran.
“You see me.” Thomas sounded grateful. “Your perceptiveness is a lot like mind reading. You have insights into everyone, but no one understands you.”
Cherise held her bleeding arm away from her clothing. She rummaged in the back pocket of Thomas’s wheelchair, one-handed, until she found the adhesive bandage roll.
Once she was done bandaging her cuts, Thomas handed her the folded paper.
“For you,” he said.
Cherise marveled at the crisp folds. 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.”