by Jennifer Mason-Black
Once, in a magazine, he’d seen pictures of birds retrieved from an oil slick, held aloft by anonymous hands as their eyes shone vacantly from a cesspool of blackened feathers. Until that morning, as he tagged along behind his brother on the beach, he hadn’t realized a person could look the same.
It should have been the girl’s beauty that drew his eye. It didn’t take much these days. Somewhere in the space between fifteen and sixteen he’d become painfully permeable, the curves of girl’s bodies and the sounds of their voices soaking through his skin, igniting embarrassment and desire in equal measure. “Elgin, you’re a Stuart.” Jacob would say, “Just take your pick.” But eighteen wasn’t the same as sixteen, and he wasn’t the same as his brother, and the girls at home who watched Jacob with unabashed interest paid no attention to Elgin at all.
This wasn’t home though. At home unhappy girls might well look as she did. She wore her dark hair loose, and it blew over her stooped shoulders as her lean body curled in on itself. The difference between them lay in the thick black slick that ran out of her pores onto the sand. The slick lapped at the toes of the man and woman sitting to either side of her. It was ten o’clock, and as the crowds threw blankets and posted umbrellas in the sand, her darkness grew.
“Jake,” he said.
Jacob slowed ahead of him and glanced back, his eyes hidden beneath mirrored sunglasses. He followed Elgin’s gaze and shook his head.
“She’s fucked,” he said. His body sharpened as he watched her, like a hunting dog pointed at a bird. “Ten to one she’s a Sport. Wait here. You’ll see.”
He adjusted his prowl to take him in front of her. Elgin hung back, left to stand alone in the sand. The Estate sheltered plenty of Sports, but he’d never seen one left undiscovered in the cold of the world, not past the age when to be Aware and completely ignorant of its meaning spelled destruction.
As Jacob neared she looked up. In the space of a blink the dark tar around her changed, shifted like the light of a prism. Curiosity, wonder, want—now they illuminated everything her despair had shadowed. Jacob glanced back at him with a grin, and for a moment Elgin hated his brother completely.
“Told you,” Jacob said when he’d circled back around. “If those are her parents, neither has a taste.”
“How do you know?” Elgin asked, digging at the sand with his toes. The excavated sand, cool and damp, began to dry immediately in the fierce sun, its layers crumbling as they paled.
“Use your head. Did you see any reaction from them?”
Elgin didn’t respond. There were moments, too many these days, when his brother seemed like just another instructor, and Elgin his clumsy pupil.
Jacob grinned again. “Didn’t think so. UnAware as they come.”
Three summers ago Jacob would have joined him, if not in digging in the sand, then at least in wrestling in the waves. Two years ago he would have at least humored him, his attention equal parts infuriating and intoxicating. Last year they’d avoided one another with sullen determination.
And this year…Jacob watched the girl with a practiced eye. “You wait. She’ll find some excuse to come up before too long.”
He was right, of course. The girl waded out later as they paused in the icy surf. She stood there in her black swimsuit, circles of dry skin peeling from her burnt shoulders. The blackness around her clouded the water like streaks of squid ink, and Elgin stepped away from its reach.
“Hi,” she said, wrinkling her nose against the sun.
“Hey,” Jacob responded. There was something obscene, Elgin thought, in the way she waited, in the way Jacob watched, in the nakedness of her mind and the reserve of his.
Determination drove her though. He could see it in the blush that swept over her cheeks as she toyed with a silver ring around one finger, even before the same flush tinted the shadow around her. “You here for the summer?” she asked at last.
“We have a house.” Jacob gestured out toward the point. “You?”
“A rental. Six weeks. It was six weeks. Only four left.” Her offhand tone was as forced as the straps of her suit were faded. Embarrassment snaked around her like ivy. Summers anywhere were clearly an unaccustomed pleasure.
“Nice,” Jacob nodded, as if it were.
“I’m Beth.” Her face held a doggedness Elgin admired. “Beth Lessey.”
“I’m Jacob Stuart. My brother, Elgin.” He waved further out, toward where Burke, chest-deep, was headed to shore. “My foster brother, Burke Judahson.”
“Nice to meet you,” she said, her words polite and formal as a curtsey. “Do you come here every year?”
Burke brought the chill of deeper water with him as he passed. “Time to be heading back.” He pointed to his wrist, to watch-strap tanning lines. “We have that thing.”
“Right,” Jacob said. “Sorry, can’t stay. We have a class after lunch.”
“A class? What kind of school do you go to?”
“Very small, very private. Old families. You wouldn’t know it.”
Her cheeks turned red but her chin went up, not down. “At least I get summers off.” She walked away.
“Didn’t think she’d do that.” Jacob grinned. “Guess she’s not as desperate as she looks.” That familiar grin, deep as blood, full of eloquence derived from games of tag and whispered stories traded long before the fault lines of adolescence emerged. It said brother, it said I know you, but for the first time Elgin wondered if it also said other things, things he’d chosen not to hear.
“Let’s go before Judah comes looking for us,” Jacob said, and Elgin fell in line behind him.
That night Elgin passed on the evening swim. He claimed the old red leather chair in the corner of the sitting room and played solitaire on the card table. His father sat at the other end of the room, next to the dark-beamed bookcase, and read.
The cards held little appeal for him. He kept thinking of the girl, of what he would have said, should have said, had he not assumed Jacob should take the lead. Had he spoken, things would have ended differently.
“You may either explain your agitation or take it elsewhere.” His father’s voice dropped leaden into the silence. Elgin focused on the homeless four of diamonds in his hand and not the black of his father’s eyes.
He would have preferred denial, had it been an option. Instead he chose the simplest truth available. “There was a Sport on the beach today.”
“Ah.” He could feel his father’s interest slip from him, just as it always did.
“Isn’t there anything…” He trailed off into futility.
“Resources, Elgin. True Aware come from bloodlines nurtured over centuries. Sports have their uses, but only when chosen with care.”
“But what about just helping because we should?” The card crumpled in his hand. He heard the outside door open and close, the pad of wet feet, but still he did not look up. “What about that?” he whispered.
“Decency should be considered, of course. But we cannot tend every stray that crosses our path. This girl…I assume it is a girl, is it not?” Elgin nodded wretchedly. “This girl you saw is more unAware than Aware. They are not like us. They are limited, lesser in every way. When found young and raised on the Estate they can lead fulfilling existences.”
Elgin heard the rustle of pages being turned.
“But those like her, older, exposed to years of emotional debris, they are irredeemable. The greater mercy would be to simply end her suffering. Would it not, Burke?”
Elgin finally raised his head. Burke stood by the door. His wet hair, slicked back from his head, sent trickles of water down his neck as he worried with the tip of one finger at the thick scar bisecting his upper lip. “Yes sir.” He kept his eyes on Elgin as he spoke.
“Sports like your girl are sea glass, Elgin. Whatever form and function she once had has been tumbled away into uselessness. That splash of color remaining in the sand is simply a trinket, an echo of what once was there.”
Elgin stared at his father. The eyes that met his held nothing. Not concern, not curiosity, not even anger.
“You going to come out with us?” Burke asked.
“I guess.” Elgin ironed the wrinkles from the four of diamonds with the flat of his hand and stood.
“She’s inconsequential, Elgin. Do not involve yourself with her.” With that his father returned to his book.
His private vow to stay away from the public beach lasted only until mid-morning the following day. Thoughts of the girl plagued him, and as the patchwork of blankets and umbrellas grew in the sand, he explored the shoreline and pretended not to be looking for her.
Instead he watched the children that ran along the edge of the water, their joy trailing behind them like kite streamers caught in the wind. Easier to watch them than to look past to the older boys who jostled one another in the waves, the air around them smudged with desire as they cast sidelong glances at the girls in pastel swimsuits who complained at the spray tossed by the racing children. Those girls would have noticed Jacob, the ones who paid him no mind. They would have whispered behind tilted hands, and Jacob would have ignored them in a way that made the bolder ones shove each other and talk more loudly, until they realized he truly wasn’t interested.
But she noticed him. When Elgin looked up she was there, tugging a strand of black hair from between her lips.
“Thought you’d be too busy with your special school to be here,” she said.
“That’s not me. It’s Jake.”
“You don’t go to the same school?” She stood with her back to the sun, the light and her anger wrapped in a halo around her head.
“No, we do. I’m just not in the… not the same kind of classes.” Jacob would have known what to say, how to make a conversation follow the channels he wanted and not simply to stammer through it.
“So you’re here and he’s not.” She looked back up the beach. Her mother sat on a blanket, surrounded by her own halo, made of unclaimed space. Even the unAware could sense the cold touch of the girl’s unhappiness, their primitive senses driving them from her family like amoebas fleeing heat.
“Come with me,” she said. “I have a place to show you.”
His turn to look away, back toward the point, to the empty house he hadn’t meant to leave. No settled on the tip of his tongue until he returned to her face, to the hope that trembled like tears on her skin.
“I guess. Is it far?”
“Nope. Just down the beach.”
He followed her to where rocks broke the gentle curve of the beach, a few pointed teeth giving way to the heavy arc of sooty cliffs. She led him up, along the spine of granite until they reached a small break, just enough opening to climb down one at a time. The tide was receding, the rock and sand moist and heavy with the scent of brine. Tucked into the wall, invisible from above, was a cave.
“Come in,” she said, as if it were a house. Barnacles studded the floor and walls. A tidal pool filled the center and she pointed into it, her eyes bright. Amidst the green brilliance of seaweed waved tiny colorful fingers, a host of anemones nestled there. “Isn’t it beautiful? I found it when I was…well, looking. I like how it feels here.”
“Quiet, right? Safe?” He felt poised on the edge of something he didn’t understand, didn’t know how to avoid.
She took a step toward him. “Right. How do you know?”
“It’s the rock. Stone absorbs. Water reflects. Protects you from all the people.”
She took another step closer. “How do you know that? You’re different, you and your brother. Why can’t I feel you, see things around you like I do with everyone else?” She trembled, her eyes intent, her fear and need thick in the air between them.
“You can’t feel me or Jacob because we use guards. It keeps everything private, everything we feel and think.” Within him something gave. Now that he had started he would not be able to stop. Now that she knew she would not let him.
“It’s not me then?” Her voice crept into a whisper, the last note barely audible.
“Those people with you on the beach? They’re your real parents? You weren’t adopted or anything?”
She shook her head.
“You’re a fluke, a Sport. Genetic thing, like…” His mind blanked, all thought of mutations lost in the light of her face. “Jake and me, our family’s Aware. All of us, we’re all like you, only more.”
Hope wasn’t a thing with feathers; it was the glow of her skin lighting the darkness of the cave. “There are more like me?” Her hand traced her collarbone. “All this time I’ve been alone. Everyone thinks I’m…”
His mouth soured with the taste of her pain. “There are lots of us. Not as many was there used to be, but lots. My father runs a place for kids like us to be trained. Kids from pure families mostly, but kids like you too.”
“I could be there?”
And he knew absolutely why he shouldn’t have begun. “No. Sports can’t join after a certain age.”
A lie. A lie would be better than the truth. To tell the truth would be to tell her that she was already lost, that the ceaseless pressure of the minds around her had already warped hers into something else, something unsalvageable. That even as she stood in the cave among the anemones she was disappearing.
But the truth lived within her and she must have seen it reflected in his eyes, for she drew a shuddering breath. He moved closer, touched her shoulder, and suddenly she pressed herself against him, her fists wrapped in his shirt, her tears hot on his chest.
It lasted only moments but after, she didn’t move away. She spoke into the damp fabric of his shirt. “You know how bad it’s been? They’ve been telling me,” she paused, her voice gone ragged. “They’ve been telling my parents I’m really sick. That I’m crazy. That’s why we’re here. They keep hoping that something will change, that if they give me this I’ll be fine. That I just need a break.”
She stepped back and met his gaze with bloodshot eyes. “I won’t get better. I feel things from people all the time. Real things, or at least they feel real. It’s gotten so I can’t tell anymore, when it’s real and when it’s not. Please, please just tell me.”
The casual way she held herself to him moments earlier had made his body hum; the rage and fear and hurt she shed disoriented him further. His father, home, Jacob—they all faded before the desperation in her face and the feel of her bare skin under his hand.
“Um, there’s kind of a lot to say. Can we find somewhere to sit?”
She took his hand and led him to a rock shelf in the back where they sat, legs touching, as he began. The words came out in a torrent, not always clear, even to him. He told her about history and genetics and how different humans could be, how the talents of the Aware had once made them powerful but now made them as endangered as pandas, how an overcrowded world favored the insensate, not those who felt it all. He told her of the Estate, of the pact the remaining families had made, their children promised to the cause of survival. Of a future built of bloodline charts and committees, where value rested in the ability to reproduce, in the strength of one’s traits.
And he meant to stop there, but did not. He told her about Jacob’s predatory skills, how he could track individual minds like a bloodhound tracked scent, how his talent exceeded their father’s, exceeded any of the others; how Elgin’s lowlier talents made him a disappointment to their father; how Burke, found on the streets by Jacob one day, was more his father’s son than he was. He told her all of these things without thought, and she listened in a way that drew it forth from him.
“Why,” she asked at one point. “Why don’t you leave if you’re so unhappy there?”
He shrugged. “Where would I go?”
The tide had begun its return by the time his voice ran dry. They stepped from the cave into lengthening shadows and rivulets of water. She held his hand, and they stood together, spent as the children now leaving the ocean for the safety of towels and home.
“Can you show me what you can do?” Her voice told him that she understood what he’d given her. It held no insistence, and it dismantled everything in him. Rules made no sense in the face of her hunger and her listening and her long dark hair. He was conscious again of how close she stood, of her shape and his awkwardness, how her darkness had fled before his words. It washed about in his head, and none of it was clear but it all felt right.
So he took her other hand, her fingers long and slim, and entered her mind. He was glad she had no experience, couldn’t sense the way he faltered and stumbled, his heart racing as he searched for landmarks. Finally, like a diver turning upward toward the light, he righted himself and found the way.
Eventually the feel of water around his ankles startled him free again. From there it didn’t take long to notice the shadow falling across them. Jacob stood above them, shook his head, gently, disappointedly.
“Little brother,” he said. “What have you done?”
He came down to them and Beth faced him. “He explained it all to me,” she said, her body drawn taut as an arrow. “It’s the best thing anyone has ever done for me.”
Elgin’s body became a torch, lit by her words and a heat that came from Beth herself. Jacob took off his sunglasses, and Beth’s breath hissed through her teeth at the darkness of his eyes, a hair’s width of blue surrounding his swollen pupils.
“I should have known better,” Jacob said. “I shouldn’t have left you alone. I should have assumed…” He stopped, stood silent for a moment, then motioned them to follow him back up through the rocks.
Once back in the sand they halted in front of him as he put his glasses on. He no longer looked at Elgin, only Beth.
“You just feel things, right? And see colors? Anything else?”
“Like what,” she said. “I’m good at pinball.”
“You pried what you wanted out of my brother. Now it’s time to answer my questions. Do you have any actual talent?”
“Like what?” she asked again, this time without sarcasm.
“Are you able to recognize individual minds? Can you control people with your voice—not what you say or whether you say it in an angry tone, but by knowing how to tailor your voice perfectly to each person?”
“No.” Her glow ebbed in the sun, fingers of darkness creeping around her. “But I can pick up everything from the people around me.”
“Yeah, well, that means nothing to me. There’s nothing unusual about you.”
Nothing, with the exception of everything, Elgin thought. Nothing but her mind and her beauty and the fact that she would not survive without them.
Jacob put one hand on Elgin’s shoulder, squeezed it. “You understand, right?”
Elgin nodded his head, miserable.
“What are you talking about?” Beth’s voice intruded between them.
Jacob turned on her, close enough that his shadow engulfed her. “He needs to understand that he can’t do anything for you. You’re too old. By years. There are a few talents that rules might be bent for, but you don’t have them. Everything he’s told you—it changes nothing.”
He continued, impassive and unstoppable. “I’m reminding him before he goes home and Judah reminds him more forcefully. Elgin can change nothing.”
“You talk about it like I’m doomed. Everything he’s told me—it changes everything. I’m not what people said I am. That makes all the difference.”
“You tell your parents about this and it’s just one more flavor of crazy. And what you know? It doesn’t make the crowds vanish. Doesn’t keep the noise out. Only the strongest of untrained Aware minds can survive out here.”
“And that’s what I have, right?” Her chin jutted out as she spoke.
Jacob caught her hands in his and flipped her palms up. Thick silver rivers ran along the insides of her wrists, traveling the blue lines of veins.
“No. You don’t.”
Tears bled down her cheeks. She made no move to stem them. “There must be somewhere I can go.”
“No,” Elgin said, if only to save her from Jacob’s callous tone.
“You can teach me. I’m a fast learner.”
“Not fast enough,” Jacob said.
She glared at him and walked off without a glance at Elgin. The only easy emotion from the tangle within him was anger, and it became easier as he watched Jacob watch the sway of her hips as she left them behind, a thin silver chain glimmering on her right ankle.
“You’re a bastard, Jake,” he said, and stalked off alone.
That evening Burke took pity on him and invited him to play chess. Jacob had never been much of an opponent. He was too interested in direct moves and shortcuts, lacking the analytical approach that made games interesting. Burke pondered, rubbing his scarred lip as he calculated the moves to an entire game in his head. He rarely would play Elgin, his preference to join Jacob in pursuits known only to them.
But after dinner he sat at the card table, the chess set laid out before him, and asked Elgin to join him as Jacob came and went, vanishing out the door into the long twilight of summer. Elgin played without notice, his moves rote as his thoughts followed a ceaseless path through the events of the day. Too unfocused, too restless, he let Burke beat him soundly twice and refused a third match. Instead, he went out into the night as well.
He wandered the shore for a long time, first away from the beach, along the line of the outgoing tide, then, once the dark moved in, back toward where he had walked that morning. He swung wide around the club frequented by the summer crowds. Laughter carried out toward the ocean, and music, the deck full of diners, their faces lit by strands of white lights hung along the rails. Emotions drifted like mist across the sand, and Elgin skipped over them, lost for a minute in their luminescence, pretending he was a child again.
The moon rose high, its light filling the soft swells of dunes with shadow. The noise of the club faded under the receding rush of water against land, and his thoughts faded as well. The sand twisted beneath his feet and he dug his toes in as he walked.
He changed direction and moved inward among the dunes and out of the breeze. Here the boundaries of dark and light were weaker. A dragon would arise, only to be exposed as driftwood when the clouds and moonlight reconfigured. He recognized nothing at first glance, not even his brother’s long body moving rhythmically in the sand. It wasn’t until he saw the dark hair fanned out beneath Jacob, the flash of a thin silver chain round an ankle, that he understood.
He ran. He ran the length of the beach, back to the house on the point, his feet stinging, his lungs burning by the time he reached the steps. Burke sat on the porch swing, looking as if he were about to speak, but Elgin continued past him, inside and up to his room. He closed the door and the window, pulled the shade down, growled and cried and clenched his fists.
After a time he tried to settle himself, aware of the pain he released through the house, of the minds attuned to his. He lay in bed and thought of anything, of home and the hemlock forest along the boundaries and the wetness of the grass in the morning, of how the ocean felt like a friend there, not like the unknowable expanse it was here.
Eventually he heard a tap on his door. At first he didn’t move, then went to the door and held the knob still.
“You weren’t supposed to come out,” Jacob said.
“Does that make a difference? It’s not like it didn’t happen if I didn’t see it. Did you make her?” He spoke calmly, though he wanted to demand, beg a kinder answer.
“Of course not. She wanted to. Listen, you need to—”
“It’s because of me, isn’t it? It’s because she paid attention to me.”
There was a long silence. “Right, Elgin, that’s it. Why the hell not.”
Jacob’s footsteps traveled away, the bathroom door clicking as it latched, the water rattling in the pipes when the shower started. At the same time, pattering through a reluctant memory, came the sound of two boys running down the hall, sliding on sandy feet, the younger squealing as the older caught him at the top of the stairs, saving him from the long drop down. It lasted only a minute though, and then Elgin returned to his bed to wait for sleep that would not come.
He stayed on their beach for the next few weeks. He swam alone and ate at odd intervals, anything to avoid Jacob while still keeping tabs on his comings and goings. It wasn’t difficult. Jacob left every night as the light died and came back late. Elgin hated him with a fierceness that was unfamiliar and unbearable. He treasured the handful of days Judah took the older boys out for training and left him alone at the house.
It was on one of those days that she came to him. She banged on the screen door, the sound carrying to where he was walking from the water. He considered rushing back out, swimming until he couldn’t see the shore, but she turned and walked toward him. She wore a long skirt and she stumbled slightly as the wind wrapped it around her legs.
“Elgin.” His name came as a plea. “I know you’re mad.”
He couldn’t imagine speaking. Nothing felt safe or honest or even translatable.
She pulled at the fabric of her skirt and twisted it between her fingers. “Won’t you at least talk to me?”
He believed he heard tears in the catch in her voice. Still he said nothing.
“I thought you were my friend,” she said, gone cold and quiet. “Now I don’t think it was friendship you wanted from me.”
“Why are you here?” He sounded strange, like a recording of someone else.
“I have a question for you.”
“Can’t Jacob answer it?”
A slow burn spread over her cheeks. “No. I need to know if I can trust what he says.”
“You’re asking me?” He stifled a laugh. “Kind of late, isn’t it? What makes you think Aware guys are any different than unAware when it comes to getting what they want.”
The pain he sought from her came instantly, but it gave him no satisfaction. She looked out into the ocean, gone cold as the water there.
“Beth,” he said.
“Have you ever…” Her voice rose slightly. She swallowed before continuing. “Have you ever been trapped? Ever? Have you ever had to make a choice because it was the only way you could see to save yourself?”
Everything he might have said caught in his throat, stoppered there by the look on her face, the pit in his stomach.
“I didn’t think so.” And she was gone, tripping across the sand, her hands in fists at her sides.
The knock at the door came two days later, in the lazy hours between dinner and sleep. Judah answered it, his voice a low wall against another man’s anger. Burke grabbed Elgin by the shoulder and dragged him into the study.
“Stay quiet,” he said, shoving him into a chair.
Outside the stranger’s voice had risen. “Your boys are sick and cruel. If I could I’d have them arrested. I’d shoot them if I could.” Pain seeped from him, brittle and jagged-edged as ice. “I want you to do something about them. Get them away from here.”
“Would you care to elaborate on what you believe they’ve done.” His father’s own anger came cloaked in formality.
“No, I don’t care to. I will though. My girl, my daughter, Beth, she’s been in trouble for years. We’ve tried everything.”
“Psychological trouble.” Judah cut through the other man’s words.
“Yes. She…she thinks she sees things, feels things, from other people. Crazy stuff. She’s our only kid. Our only one and we can’t do a fucking thing for her. We brought her here. Spent money we don’t have to give her another chance.”
He was hoarse, desperate, his roar diminished as he choked on tears. “She’s seemed different. Better. Until today. She spent the whole day crying, just sobbing in her room. My wife’s been trying to get her to talk. Know what she finally says? Know it?” His belligerence was like a fist. “Beth’s upset that she’s not pregnant. How the hell could she be pregnant? She’s my little girl. She’s not better, she’s worse. Thanks to your boys.”
There was a pause, a harsh cough. “They’ve been filling her head with the idea that she’s right, that the things she feels are real. That would be bad enough, but one of them…” He was lost to incoherence for a moment.
“One of them told her they had a special place for people like her but she could only go there if he got her pregnant. That’s where she’s been every night, with him, letting him…. Monsters, that’s what they are. How could you raise monsters like that?”
“Your daughter is not pregnant, I take it.”
“No. What she is is at the hospital, doped to the gills, waiting to be transferred someplace she can stay. You have any idea what it’s like? Seeing your little girl like that, telling her that you’re sending her away, sitting with her while she drools, while she can’t even talk. She’s never hurt anyone. Never. And your boys get to go on, do whatever they want. They probably won’t even remember her.”
Another pause, a long drawn sob. “I hope your boys rot in hell. I wish I were the man who got to put them there.”
The door slammed. Elgin had doubled up, his hand over his mouth. Burke crouched down next to him, his hand on Elgin’s back.
“Is it true?” Elgin said. He curled more tightly, his back and arms a shell to protect himself from the world.
“You know it had to be him. If it were Jake’s, your father would have brought her in. It would have bought her a year, maybe longer. Once she was on the Estate, who knows. It had to be Jake though. You know your father would only have done it for him.”
Elgin was silent, the inside of his chest sharp and shredded. He could smell the damp of the cave, feel her hand in his. “Do you believe him? That it was that way, not like what her father said?”
Burke stared back at him, his copper eyes unreadable. “He’s your brother. What do you believe?”
Elgin stood and walked into the other room, where his father waited in the gloom.
They left the next day. Burke drove, Jacob beside him, Elgin and Judah in the back. Elgin watched as the sand turned to grasses, to lawns, to stands of maples along the highway, with only the flight of a seagull as a promise of the sea. Inside he dreamed of the things he did not say, things they would never listen to, for they hadn’t listened to him in years. No, they never had.
But, he would say, as his father watched with unhidden displeasure, and he would speak of all the things they could not know, the things they did not feel even as they prided themselves on recognizing and labeling every emotion. He would tell of how in her mind he found memories as perfect as the hush of fog traveling in from the ocean; of birds that soared in great flocks past her window; of moons that hung perfect and round and heavy in night skies; of a few small red hairs caught in the snow where a fox had bedded down; of the thrill of skating, rushing like wind over the ice, alone and free from everything; of joy, for even in the terrible mire of sorrow, even as her mind bowed beneath the weight of the world, it had held sprigs of joy spread like daisies through an open field. He would insist that she had been far more than brokenness. A person, imperfect and damaged, yes, but also real, her life surely worth as much as his, as theirs.
Instead, as the summer faded around him, he dreamed of a mosaic of sea glass, a ribbon of light traveling away from everything he knew. It remained in his mind when they stopped at a truck stop, while he walked alone from the restroom door. Through a glass wall he could see into the diner there, where Jacob and Burke waited at the counter. His father would be back in the car already, eyes showing only disdain as he looked out at the people coming and going.
He looked out at the line of parked trucks, at the truckers traveling out with cups of coffee in their hands. Men, women, dripping color that they couldn’t see. The only difference between us, he thought, is that I can see.
Dropping his guard made his skin prickle, just slightly, like the sense of being watched in a wide empty space. He looked down at the thick black ink that surrounded him.
Have you ever had to make a choice because it was the only way you could see to save yourself? He looked again at the waiting trucks, diesel engines rumbling. One more glance back at the diner. Burke was at the window, watching him, and for a moment his resolve shuddered and shrank. Burke just watched though, then turned away.
An older guy, short and stocky in a baseball cap with a blue jay feather stuck in the side on his head, hurried past.
“Hey,” Elgin said.
The guy slowed, stopped, waited.
“You going west?”
The man nodded.
“Can I catch a ride with you?”
A long pause, Elgin’s heart speeding as he waited for his father’s hand on his shoulder, Jacob at his heels.
“S’pose so, kid. You’re not in any trouble, are you?”
“No. Just looking to get home.”
Across the sky the clouds had built towers up into the blue. The air was changing, growing humid and sticky as thunder rumbled in the distance. Elgin took one last look back at the diner, then stuck his hands in his pockets and hurried across the parking lot. Inside the truck cab the air was cold. A silver chain hung from the rear view mirror, a single piece of green sea glass dangling from it. Elgin touched a finger to it as raindrops spread across the window and as the truck pulled out, his body suddenly filled with light.
Jennifer Mason-Black lives in the woods of Massachusetts, surrounded by her human family and a menagerie of elderly animals. Her work has appeared in Strange Horizons and Daily Science Fiction. Additional information about her writing can be found at cosmicdriftwood.wordpress.com, and she can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.