The little girl's whisper is breathy, urgent. As she rocks the lump in the bed back and forth, she looks toward the bedroom door, then out of the window on the northern wall, then the window on the east wall.
She shakes harder.
“Sammy, wake up. It's true, Sammy.”
The boy moans and rolls over to see what is disturbing him. His eyes squint through the darkness. Before he can ask who is there or what is going on, a small hand clamps over his mouth.
“It's true,” she says again. Her eyes are inches from his, unblinking and wild.
This morning, Evie Jackson woke up at the usual time, 7:00am. She woke up from her usual dream, wandering through an old carnival fun house surrounded by animatronic friends and family members smiling their robot smiles and singing their robot songs to her. She woke up quietly. She used to wake up screaming and crying. Not anymore. This morning, she sat up in her blue bed and wiped a single tear from each eye.
“Good morning, Evie,” her mother said. “Did you sleep well?”
Evie never liked this exchange. It seemed pointless. Whenever she'd answer truthfully, her mother would brush past Evie's issues or concerns and offer the same advice, that dreams are just dreams and there's no sense worrying about dreams. She'd been saying that for as long as Evie could remember having the dreams.
“Mmhmm,” Evie lied. It was easier that way.
“So no bad dreams then?”
Evie shook her head. She'd been getting better at lying recently. She noticed a difference, something about tapping into what she wished she could say, what she wished were true, made her delivery more authentic and believable. She really wished she'd slept well. She really wished the dreams were gone. So responding as if those things were real made her story seem convincing. Her mother bought it. Evie wasn't sure for a moment. Her mother stopped straightening the yellow dress hanging from the closet door and looked at Evie. She stared. After a few seconds, she seemed satisfied by the answer.
“Well, that's great to hear, sweetie. What do you think?” she asked, drawing attention back to the yellow dress. “For today?”
“It's nice,” Evie said. She didn't lie as well on that one. She didn't think it was nice. She didn't want to wear it to school. She could hear her own voice leaving her mouth and she regretted it. Maybe mother wouldn't notice the lie. Maybe she would hear Evie's tone and chalk it up to being tired, to having just woken up.
“Well... wash up, breakfast will be ready in ...”
Twenty minutes. Evie knew before she heard it. She always knew because it was always the same. Twenty minutes, enough time to shower and get dressed and get to the dining room table. Just enough, just barely.
She showered. She dried her hair slightly. She got dressed, collected her school work from the night before and packed it into her back pack. She fed Poofy, her fish, and told him to have a good day.
The clock on her bedside table told her what she already knew. It had taken her nineteen minutes to get ready. By the time she got downstairs and actually sat down at the table, it would be twenty.
She considered sitting on her bed and letting a few minutes just... slip by. She thought about it.
Less than a minute later, she sat at the dining room table and scooted herself all the way up to the table's edge.
Her mother swished the spatula through the scrambling eggs one final time and then let the pan sit. She wiped her hands on her apron and knelt beside Evie. This would be another opportunity for Evie to practice lying. Each morning, before serving breakfast, Evie's mother would kneel next to her and stare into her eyes. She would hold Evie's face in both hands. The stare might last for two seconds, or it might stretch out to as many as twelve. That was the highest she'd counted since she started counting, twelve straight seconds of eye contact and face holding. She used to like it. She used to feel a care and affection in her mother's eyes when they would stare at each other. The hands on her face felt safe. The silent exchanges were warm, reassuring.
But now, the warmth was gone. Now, the forced eye contact felt medical. It was the feeling she got at Doctor Strothers' office when she got her shots. It was the feeling she got at Doctor Hong's office, her dentist. Probing, analyzing, scientific staring free of all love and affection. It felt clinical.
This morning's face to face time took seven seconds. Evie tried to keep her normal thoughts rotating through her conscious mind. She spoke them in her head, imagined herself yelling them in the middle of a town square to large numbers of uninterested peasants.
I am so happy!
The hot stare was hard to ignore. She'd worried that her mother was reading her mind before, and the feeling got stronger each day, each interaction.
I love my mother, she is the best mother.
Her mother's stare tended to be static. Once she had Evie's face secured and they were looking into each others' eyes, her face would freeze for the full two to twelve seconds. No blinking, no smiling, nothing. Usually.
Today was different.
“Evie... look at me.”
I love my mother I love my mother.
“Look into mommy's eyes.”
I love my mother she is the best mother.
“Are you sure you didn't have any bad dreams?”
I am so happy I love my mother and I'm so glad I never have bad dreams.
Her mother's eyes twitched. Evie noticed the soft touch of hands on her cheeks wasn't as soft as usual. The hands were pressing inward and the fingers were curling. The finger tips were pressing ever-expanding depressions into Evie's cheeks, until the force made her aware of the shape of her own skull. She watched her mother's pupils expand until nearly all of the green in the irises was eclipsed by deep black pupil.
I am so happy I am so happy I am so happy.
“No nightmares. I'm sure,” Evie said.
The grip loosened. The twitching in the eyes stopped and the pupils returned to normal. Mother smiled and brushed her hand across Evie's head three times.
“Do you want jelly on your toast?” mother asked.
Don't do anything weird. Do what you normally do.
“Yes, please,” Evie said. Mother returned to the eggs. She turned off the stove top and shook the eggs loose from the pan one final time. She picked up a salt shaker from the counter top and tilted it toward the pan. Before she shook any salt onto the eggs, she stopped. She had one hand on the pan and the other holding the salt shaker over the eggs. She stared downward into the pan. She didn't seem to be moving. Evie watched her, watched her face. She wasn't blinking.
As soon as she thought it, she replaced the thought with thoughts praising the food.
Those eggs smell delicious. I love eggs so much, mother makes the best eggs.
Mother's head snapped sideways. Her eyes twitched from staring into the pan to staring into Evie's eyes in less than a second, like a deer hearing a rustling in the forest. Her eyes were almost entirely black again.
Evie poured the harmless thoughts in. She said them loudly, yelled them, in her head again and again. She fought the urge to think about what she really felt. She fought the urge to have thoughts like, don't think about your fear.
Don't think about fear.
Don't think about...
Running away, running away from home.
She had her normal bowl of fruit on the table. Her eyes dove into it, studied the detailed lines in the cantaloupe, and she grabbed two of the red grapes and popped them into her mouth.
I love fruit and I can't wait for some eggs and I love my mother and father and I love school and I'm so glad I didn't have any bad dreams last night.
Her mother's stare slowly softened. Evie had been, for weeks now, thinking that her mother was reading her mind. When she first noticed her mother reacting too well to the thoughts she had, Evie had been terrified. She'd entertained thoughts she was certain would never be known by anyone else. She'd thought about how much she hated when her mother overcooked the eggs (always), and about the ugly dresses her mother chose (all but the black and red one), and the realization that her mother might have heard all of those thoughts and all of the others, too, rippled through her. She thought about the mean thoughts, the selfish thoughts, the stupid thoughts. Her terror was replaced with anger. She was mad that someone might be able to hear what were supposed to be her secret thoughts, hers and hers alone. She was sure that most people's thoughts, maybe everyone's thoughts, would seem terrible if you didn't know the whole story. If you only heard one thought, you might think someone was a terrible person. It wasn't fair to judge someone by listening to some of their thoughts.
Evie knew she might be imagining the mind reading. It could be coincidence.
I wish I'd never been born.
She let the thought come and go. No filter, no extra thoughts before or after to distract or camouflage. Just a simple thought as she slowly crushed a grape between her teeth.
I wish I were dead.
She didn't look up but she was still watching. Her mother shifted at the counter. Evie could tell mother was looking at her, staring at her.
“Evie?” she asked, looking back at the eggs. “Are you...?”
Evie looked up, smiling. She could know now, almost certainly. She knew mother would have to address thoughts like that. She knew that if she could read minds, mother would have to ask some kind of leading question about feeling okay, or being sad, or looking forward to the day. If mother asked her outright why she would think such a thing, Evie would know.
That would be too easy, too obvious. Mother wouldn't do that.
If mother asked her if she was feeling alright, or if Evie had anything she wanted to talk about, Evie would know. Evie had already noticed the immediate reaction to the original thoughts. Now she just needed a little proof.
Mother brought over the plate with scrambled eggs and toast.
Plain toast, no jelly.
“Nothing, sweetie,” mother said, “never mind.”
Fruit, scrambled eggs, toast. Just like always.
Evie realized mother had forgotten the jelly. She'd never forgotten the jelly. Never before. Never. There had been times when Evie hadn't wanted it, but it had never been asked for and then forgotten. This was her chance, sitting at the table eating her overcooked eggs and wearing her stupid yellow dress in her stupid white leggings with her red shoes – she actually loved her shining red shoes, but the rest of the outfit, ugh – and looking at her stupid plain wheat toast, she had one more chance.
The thought rolled in.
You forgot the jelly, stupid!
“Oh, you know what? I forgot the jelly. Silly me.”
Mother walked to the refrigerator. Evie listened to her drag the jar across the top shelf before picking it up, then listened to the muted suction of the refrigerator closing. She listened to the pop of the jar lid coming off and the sound of silverware being jostled around when mother was picking out the right butter knife.
Once at the table, mother took each quarter piece of toast individually. She scraped the jelly on slowly. When she set the first piece down, Evie could see that she'd applied the jelly evenly, to every edge of the bread, and in perfect evenness from one end to the other. The second piece came back the same.
And the third.
There was a crunch. The fourth piece came back with a large chunk missing. Mother had taken a bite. She giggled as she chewed the piece on her way to dropping the knife in the sink.
She was suddenly at Evie's ear, whispering.
“Your mother can be so... stupid, sometimes. Can't she?”
Mother dropped Evie at the bus stop and waved to her as the bus pulled away.
The way she always did.
Evie did not sit on the bus the way she always did. She liked to sit in the front, normally, next to Sammy, her best friend. He would listen to her. He would hear her wild stories and crazy theories and either offer advice or offer some way to help. When Evie thought Stephanie Sanderson was stealing her pencils, Sammy looked through Stephanie's bag at lunch while Evie kept her distracted. He brought back four of Evie's pencils, and Evie got to yell at Stephanie, in front of the whole class, to stop stealing people's stuff.
They both got in trouble, Stephanie for stealing, and Evie for yelling about it in the middle of class. When the Principal asked how Evie found out Stephanie was stealing the pencils, she kept Sammy out of it and told him she went through Stephanie's back pack and found them herself.
But this morning, Sammy wasn't on the bus. Evie skipped their normal front seat position and made her way to the very back. She sat in silence, not listening to the songs and silly conversations of the kids around her. She willed the bus to go faster and planned her search for Sammy.
“Hey, have you seen Sammy?”
Evie asked a few of her classmates once she got to school. Then she asked a few older kids, the fifth graders. Then she asked kids she didn't know. She asked Mrs. Lincoln, the second grade teacher. She asked Jeff, the custodian. She even, as she approached the door to her classroom, considered asking one of the men in white. No one ever asked anything of the men in white. When she stopped a few feet from one of them and he didn't acknowledge her presence in the least, she rebuked herself for the desperation and quietly made her way into her classroom and to her seat.
“Good morning, children!” Mrs. Ellers announced.
“Good morning, Mrs. Ellers!” came twenty-one responses, in unison. Counting Evie and Sammy, it was a class of twenty-three. Sammy wasn't there, and Evie did not respond.
“How is everyone this morning?”
The room hummed with twenty-one different tones of “good.” Some of the children stretched their “good” out to four or five seconds, crescendoing just before enunciating the hard “D” at the end. A few children gave a short, loud “good.” Evie held one of the pencils Sammy had rescued from Stephanie Sanderson. She slid it in between the fingers of her left hand.
“How are you, William?”
Evie didn't care about the individual greetings. William gave his normal response, that he was happy and ready to learn. James gave the same response. Cynthia said she was excited about the new book the class was going to be reading, but as she continued talking, Evie disengaged. This day, this one day where she finally knew that her parents, or at least her mom, were reading her mind, this one most important day, Sammy was gone. She wondered if he was sick, or if he was late because he missed the bus.
Does mother know that I know? Is Sammy not here because she knew I would tell him the secret?
Evie felt cold. She didn't want to be in the classroom. She didn't want to listen to anymore students talk about how they were feeling. She needed to know that Sammy was safe. She considered running back out the door. No, the men in white would catch her.
She considered the windows.
Could I get them open and jump out before someone stopped me?
That would be risky. Even if she made it out the window, she knew she would still need to make it across the grass field and over the fence before the men in white could get her. They were fast, too fast, and she'd never tried climbing the fence before. She wasn't sure if she could do it.
Before she could fully consider climbing a nine-foot fence while being chased by the men in white, she heard her name. The droning of Mrs. Ellers' voice came rushing back.
“Evie? Evie, are you okay?”
“Yes... yes, sorry. Yes, I'm okay.”
“Well? How are you feeling?”
Evie wanted to answer. She wanted to be honest. For days and months and years, all the things she and the other children ever said to answer the question were meaningless. She wanted to say she is feeling tired. That she is scared. That she doesn't believe what adults tell her.She wanted to say, or maybe to scream, that the world doesn't feel the way people tell her it is supposed to feel, that she feels like everyone is watching her all the time and that she is never alone and never asleep and never safe and always acting acting acting. She'd wanted to say these things for a long time.
Do you already know that? Are you reading my mind, too, Mrs. Ellers?
The seat next to Evie squeaked as someone sat down. It was Sammy.
“We're glad you could join us, Samuel. Evie was just telling us how she is feeling.”
Mrs. Ellers looked back to Evie. With Sammy here, it wasn't time to be honest. Not quite yet. She would need to talk to him first, get his thoughts on mind-reading parents and teachers.
“I'm...” Evie started. She looked at Sammy, who was smiling back. “I'm... I'm feeling fine. I'm happy and ready to learn, and I'm happy that Sammy could join us today, too.”
Mrs. Ellers smiled. When she posed the question to Sammy, he smiled and said he was happy and ready to learn, and that he was thankful for the people who fix cars when they break down.
Mrs. Ellers moved on to the back row of students.
“Did your car break down?” Evie whispered.
Sammy kept his eyes forward. He was watching Mrs. Ellers. It was hard to tell if she was looking at him, or over his shoulder at Crystal Evans behind him. He wasn't going to risk it. He kept his eyes on Mrs. Ellers while he pulled a piece of paper across his desk. He kept his eyes on her while he slowly scribbled something.
Evie looked down. Sammy had scribbled “no.”
“Keep your eyes forward,” he whispered, trying to move his mouth as little as possible.
Evie looked at Mrs. Ellers. She also slid a piece of paper out from under one of her notebooks.
“Why weren't you on the bus?” she whispered back.
He slowly scribbled again without looking down. The letters were messy, but Evie got it. “Later.”
“I have to tell you something,” she breathed through clenched teeth.
Mrs. Ellers was on the final student, Macy. Macy didn't answer the question the way the other children did.
“Evie won't stop talking,” she said.
Everyone turned toward Evie. Sammy stayed calm, gently laying his pencil down and covering it with his hands. Evie was not as subtle. She slapped her pencil down quickly, loudly, in her panic. She crinkled the paper she'd prepared to scribble notes on.
“Evie, do you have something more to add?” Mrs. Ellers asked.
“No, Mrs. Ellers,” Evie said.
“Are you writing notes to Sammy?” Stephanie Sanderson asked, nearly yelling. “Mrs. Ellers, Evie is writing secret notes in class!”
A few kids gasped and accusatory oos rose up. Evie covered her piece of paper instinctively and Mrs. Ellers saw it. She walked down the aisle and stood over Evie.
“Evie, are you writing secret notes to Sammy?” she asked.
“No, Mrs. Ellers,” Evie replied, her head still down.
“Evie, it is very important to tell the truth. No one likes a liar.”
“It's true, Mrs. Ellers, I'm not.”
“Lift up your hands.”
Evie finally looked up. Mrs. Eller's tone changed, but she was still smiling her scary smile.
“Lift up your hands, please.”
A desk near the front of the class shook and banged into the desk next to it. The chair at the desk squeaked and then clattered on the floor. It was Billy Harmon's desk. Billy was having an episode.
“Mrs. Ellers!” a child cried out, and before she could cry out anything else, Mrs. Ellers responded:
“Yes, thank you, Cynthia. Sammy, would you help Billy, please?”
Sammy was the designated service student. He was the member of class who would talk to the men in white, when necessary. He was the member of class who would notify the office in cases of emergency, and accompany students on their way to the office or the infirmary. Usually, he enjoyed the responsibility. It was a proud position, one most of the students wanted. But he didn't want to leave Evie.
“Samuel?” Mrs. Ellers said.
Sammy sighed and looked at Evie.
“Yes, Mrs. Ellers,” he replied.
For Billy, it would be a trip to the infirmary, accompanied by the men in white. As Billy shook on the floor, trembling and unable to speak, Sammy knelt down next to him and supported his head by cradling his neck with one hand and placing his other hand on Billy's forehead. He leaned in and whispered something into Billy's ear that seemed to make the trembling calm down, if only slightly.
The classroom door opened. The men in white came and laid Billy on their stretcher, covered him in their milky, plastic sheet, and disappeared with Sammy out into the hallway.
Sammy was still gone at lunch. Along with the feeling that she was being watched, being judged, and that some integral part of her life was, just... wrong, Evie thought about Billy and his episode. Billy's wasn't the only episode that week, the children in her class seem to be having more and more episodes lately. Two days ago, Cynthia laid down in the hall outside the classroom and wouldn't move, wouldn't speak. Yesterday, Evie heard one of the fifth graders dropped to the floor in the middle of PE and wouldn't stop saying “basketball” over and over again. At least one episode every day for the past – she thought about it – week? Maybe two weeks?
“We're not ninjas, Jacob, we're chameleons!” Charlotte yelled.
Evie and Charlotte were climbing the jungle gym. After Billy's episode, Mrs. Ellers put on a nature movie. They usually watched nature movies after an episode, to help everyone calm down, Evie thought. They'd watched a movie about Madagascar and were now pretending to be chameleons. Normally they would have climbed the jungle gym by holding one line of bars with their left hands and another line of bars with their right hands, but in honor of the amazing chameleon, they were climbing hand over hand and foot over foot on the same bar, like tight rope walkers or gymnasts on a balance beam. Or, as Jacob offered, like ninjas.
“We're not ninjas, Jacob, we're chameleons,” Charlotte said.
“Well I'm going to be a ninja,” Jacob replied as he took his grips. “I'm going to climb to the top so I can spy on all my enemies.”
“Well we're going to climb to the top and blend in to our surroundings,” Charlotte said, chin up.
“Ninjas blend into their surroundings better,” Jacob declared.
“No, chameleons do,” came the retort.
“No they don't.”
“Yes they do!”
Evie climbed past the two as they argued. Once at the top, she looked out at the playground. First, she was looking for Sammy. She didn't see him in the many different games going on in the different regions: he wasn't playing kickball on the baseball field; he wasn't playing tag on the grass near the big maple tree; he wasn't playing basketball on the asphalt courts; and he wasn't playing hide and seek. He never played basketball so it wasn't a surprise that he wasn't there. But he did play kickball, and hide and seek, and tag sometimes. He played those games whenever Evie played those games.
She'd never thought of that before. Sammy played all the games she played. Or was it her playing the games he played?
As she looked out over the field she realized something else. These were the same stations and the same games kids played yesterday. The same stations and games they played last Friday, and Thursday, and Wednesday. She second guessed her theory and tried to think of any exceptions. But rather than exceptions, she simply remembered more instances that supported her theory.
On Monday, Evie asked Lauren, one of the girls in her class, if she'd like to play hide and seek with the hide and seek group.
“It's girls only,” Evie had offered.
“No, thanks, I'm playing kickball.”
As Evie looked out at the kickball game, Lauren was in her usual place on the field between second and third base. The way she was on Friday. The way she was on Thursday. The way Charlotte and Jacob are always on the jungle gym.
They climbed up next to her and sat down just as she was thinking of them. She tried to clear her mind, in case they could read thoughts, too.
They didn't seem to notice Evie's thoughts. They were still arguing.
“Chameleons are too stupid to be ninjas. They would be killed immediately.”
“Yeah right, if you could find them,” Charlotte said.
Evie broke from her worried thoughts to help stop the ridiculous argument.
“Actually, when you think about it, Chameleons are a lot like ninjas,” Evie said. The two looked at her, confused, as if she'd just said something in another language, something crazy like “Boys and girls aren't really all that different.”
“Think about it,” she continued, “chameleons blend into their environment, and ninjas blend into their environment. Chameleons hide and wait for bugs to come along and then they strike! Ninjas do, too... except not to bugs.”
Charlotte's face softened first. She had to agree with what she was hearing, but she didn't want to accept equal ground with Jacob. Unless he also was okay with equal ground. She glanced at him, reading his reaction.
Jacob remained confused. He hadn't thought of Chameleons as dangerous assassins, as sneaky killing machines. But thinking about it, Evie was right. They kind of were.
Charlotte watched his face remain unchanged and was ready to continue the argument. But then Jacob started to smile.
“You're right! They kind of are the same. They use their heightened senses to stay alert and watch out for danger. Wow, I'd never thought about that. That's it then, we're a new super creature. We are ninja Chameleons!”
Charlotte seemed okay with this compromise, and the two continued climbing across the jungle gym in peace. Evie stayed at the top, watching the basketball game going on. The same eight kids as last week were playing each other again. They were even on the same teams. She hadn't seen them yet, but she expected to find the Carson twins, as well as Peter Doria and Annie Pitt, playing hide and seek together. A common hiding place was the base of one of the slides near the jungle gym. It provided good coverage and multiple escape routes if the hider was discovered.
No one was hiding there today.
Another common spot was behind the big maple tree out near the tag players. The tree provided concealment, as well as the confusion of all of the different tag players running around the same area. It was hard to pick out a hide and seek player amid all the tag players.
Evie couldn't see anyone hiding there, either.
Yes, behind the big square maintenance box near the fence. Evie could see a ponytail popping out from behind the gray metal. Without seeing the face, she knew the ponytail belonged to Annie Pitt. She'd chosen a good, but more rare hiding spot. It was more rarely used because most of the kids were scared of the box. They were afraid they might get electrocuted if they touched it. A few of the kids had episodes after being near it so a myth was created.
The box can make you a zombie. The box can turn you into a monster.
Or even, the box could kill you.
Usually, if someone is hiding behind something, they can't help but peak around its edges to see if anyone suspects them. They have to look for their pursuers. Evie watched Annie for a few seconds. Annie didn't look over or around the box once. But she was moving, her ponytail was bobbing back and forth, away from the box, then toward the box. Away, then toward, again, and again, and again. Evie noticed a perfect rhythm to the bobbing. A steady beat, no deviation at all. Away, then toward, away, then toward.
“No one can see us because we're camouflaged,” Jacob yelled. Evie nodded to him but slid down the bars to the ground, still looking toward the maintenance box. From ground level, she couldn't see the ponytail anymore, so she walked toward the fence for a better angle. Once Annie's hair was in view, Evie could see it was still moving in the same motion at the same speed, back and forth and back and forth.
Evie looked back to the jungle gym. Charlotte and Jacob were frozen, trying to out Chameleon each other. They didn't even notice she'd gone.
Within twenty feet of Annie, a sound emerged. Under the excited recess screams of the other children, under the sounds of balls bouncing and wind blowing and the electrical box humming, another sound. A beat.
Evie walked closer. Now she could see Annie's hair and the top of her head. The hair would pull back and then swoosh forward and stop with a jolt.
Back again, forward again and another jolt.
Evie kept walking. Once past the edge of the metal box she could see that Annie was kneeling. Her brown hair, always pulled back into a tight ponytail, usually stopped at the top of her long and narrow forehead. Her skin was pale so the contrast between dark brown hair and pale skin was sharp. Not here. There were more colors. The curving lines of her hair lead to dark red-brown smears over pale skin, and something else. Evie's first thought was tomato soup, but then she knew it wasn't soup.
It was blood.
Annie was banging her head into the hard metal of the electrical control box. Her eyes were open and unblinking as her head slammed into the metal.
Her mouth hung open slightly. She was making a sound, but it didn't sound like a voice. It was a hum, low and scratchy. Evie remembered thinking it sounded like dad's old radio when it wasn't tuned to the right station.
Before Evie could scream, multiple screams erupted from the playground behind her. Children were running toward the jungle gym. Jacob was there, standing very still, over Charlotte's body. She was shaking wildly on the ground.
“She's having an episode!” came a yell from the crowd of children. Others called for help and the men in white ran from their positions at the school entry doors to help her.
Evie knew she should go get their attention, and that she should go see if Charlotte was okay. She knew Annie needed help, too. But this wasn't a normal episode. Normally, when someone had an episode, they would lie on the ground and close their eyes. They would then either be very still, or they would start twitching and shaking. No sound, no blood, just twisting and shaking or pure stillness and silence. Evie knew Annie needed help. Evie knew she should cry out for the men in white.
But she didn't cry out. She looked back at Annie.
Annie had stopped slamming her head into the metal box and was staring back at Evie. Her face was covered in blood. Her scalp had torn partially away from her skull at the hairline. Evie had never seen an actual skull before so she knew she might be wrong, but it didn't seem like the skulls she'd seen in books. Annie's skull wasn't white, or even lightly colored. It was dark, a dark blue or purple, and smooth. Blueish purple and smooth and covered in blood and almost... metal? Plastic?
Evie bent down to look into Annie's eyes. Annie's mouth opened and the gritty, static noise intensified. It was grainy and the pitch tightened, higher and higher, like a computer speaker surging and ready to explode.
The men in white rushed in to cover Annie up and carry Evie away, screaming.
“It's true. It's true and I'm leaving,” Evie whispers, “I'm leaving tonight, right now.”
Sammy's eyes are open now, more alert. He sits up in his bed.
“It's true, Sammy. It's true. Annie Pitt is a robot. I saw it myself. She is a robot and I think my mom might be a robot.”
“How... how did you get in here?”
He is louder than Evie wants him to be and she covers his mouth again, shushing him silently, her index finger over her mouth. His eyes widen. Now he is fully awake. He nods his understanding and she takes her hand off of his mouth.
Evie doesn't answer his question. She got in by using the house code she forgot to tell him she stole from his school file folder. She stole it one of the times she had to talk to the school Principal. It wasn't hard to get. When the secretary goes to the bathroom and the file cabinets are all organized alphabetically, it's easy to slip behind the front desk, find the file, and memorize whatever information you can.
Once she keyed in the code for his house, she took off her shoes and crept to his room like a ninja. Or like a chameleon. Easy.
“I'm here, don't worry about it,” she says.
“You're going to get in trouble,” Sammy whines.
“I don't care.”
Evie's voice is so confident, so assured, that Sammy can't respond at first. It doesn't make sense, how could someone not care about getting in trouble? What kind of maniac would want to get in trouble?
“There are too many weird things. I can't take it anymore, all the weirdness. I don't know where I am going to go, I don't know what I am going to do, but I just know that I have to leave this place. I have to leave for awhile.”
“And... and you don't care if you get in... trouble?”
“No, I don't. Why should I? What is going to happen to me if I get in trouble, huh? What is going to be so bad about getting in trouble?”
Sammy is dumbfounded by the question, but Evie can see his exasperated fear and anger get overtaken by something else. He can't believe what he is hearing, but then he can't believe that he doesn't have a good answer to her insane question. What will happen to us if we sneak out and get caught? He's never thought about it before.
“Well, your parents could... well they might, I don't know, not let you watch TV? They might not let you go to your friends' houses ever again, did you ever think about that?”
“I don't care,” Evie says again. She is doubling down on her decision. There is nothing anyone can do to scare her out of her decision. Sammy sees that.
“What if they kick you out of school?”
“They would never do that. They might make me do more school.”
“What if they don't let you hang out with your friends?”
“Impossible. I'll find a way.”
“What if...” Sammy stops. He is sitting up but the question in his mind makes him grab his pillow and slump over onto it. “What if... they don't let you hang out with me?”
He buries his face as the last word comes out. His body shivers and he starts to cry. He is trying to cry as quietly as he can.
Evie puts her hand on his back.
“Hey, look at me,” she says. She can feel his ribs as he sucks in air and then cries it out. She can feel his vertebrae move and shift under the pressure of his crying. He doesn't look up from his pillow. He can't, he doesn't want her to see his face like this.
“Sammy. Sammy, look at me.”
Slowly his teary eyes emerge from the dark pillow. He puts his hands over his mouth to try and mute his crying. It takes a few seconds but he does stay quiet and he does look at her.
“I would never let them keep me away from you,” Evie says. She pulls the back pack from her back and places it on the bed. She pulls out a red water bottle, the one she always brings to school, the one she's used for three years. She puts it on the bed and reaches back into the bag.
“This one is mine,” she says, nodding toward her red bottle, “and this one... is for you.”
She pulls out another bottle. It is the same brand as hers, the same shape and style, but in blue. Sammy loves blue. He sniffs hard and wipes his nose with his blankets before picking it up. It is blue and shiny and perfect.
“It's full,” Evie says.
On the way out of the house, Sammy punches the numbers into the house alarm key code box.
“We have to hurry, my parents will know,” he says as they run to the sidewalk and head north. He asks again where they are going and again Evie shushes him and they run on in silence.
Evie knows that by now, her parents have discovered her missing. They were probably notified when she keyed in their alarm code and left. Or maybe she and Sammy will get lucky and no one will know they are gone until they've made their way out of the city. She feels eyes on her in the city, everywhere, so they will head to the forest. They will follow Hayden's Creek until it takes them to somewhere else. Evie doesn't know where it will take them. She doesn't know where she is going, or where she would want to go, or what she will do if they do actually escape.
She is confident she will figure that part out when she needs to.
“I made sandwiches and brought fruit,” she says as they run.
“That's good,” Sammy says.
“And maybe cookies.”
Sammy laughs. “Well maybe this isn't such a bad idea after all.”
They pass Cornerstone Church. All the lights are off and there aren't any cars in the parking lot. From there, they can cross the lot, jump the small fence into the neighbor's field, and then hop one more fence before they make it to the tree line. It's only a few hundred more feet to the creek from there.
“This way.” she says, breaking right. Sammy stops to turn and follow her but catches his feet together. He hits the asphalt hard and his new blue water bottle clanks loudly along the ground.
Evie freezes. She wants to ask if he's okay, but she is listening. If someone heard that...
Her heart stops. Then it pounds angrily in her chest, faster and faster. The town sirens are going off. First, the one at the school. Then, the police station. Then the one at the mall, and then the one at the south end of town near the Hepner farm. Along with the wailing siren call filling the night air, lights begin to shine in the sky.
She runs to Sammy and yanks him to his feet. They can hear the screeching of tires as the police, and the men in white, begin their chase.
“Run!” she screams.
They streak across the church parking lot and over the fence. The field is wet and muddy and they each slip again and again. By the time they reach to opposite fence and can see the protective cover of the forest clearly, they are covered in mud and soaking wet.
“Come on, come on, come on,” Evie keeps screaming, “hurry, Sammy, hurry!”
The road near the church is glowing with car headlights. Their tires screech as they skid into the parking lot and slam on their brakes. Evie can hear them yelling to each other. She can hear their boots hitting the pavement as they look for a trail. Even thought it is a dark night, she can tell the four men leading the search are men in white.
Their flashlights scan the field. Evie and Sammy are over the far fence and near the forest's edge and only slightly out of flashlight range. When Evie gets to the trees she stops and turns. The flashlights have found the trail. It is not a hard trail to find and follow in the mud.
Sammy catches up and hugs the tree where Evie is watching. He is out of breath.
“I don't know... how much longer I can... do this.”
Evie doesn't respond. The men in white are over the fence and making their way across the field.
“There's no time, let's go,” she says. She doesn't wait for Sammy, she is off into the woods.
Her heart is pounding again, in her chest and in her ears and in her eyes. She can see her breath but she doesn't feel the cold. She is burning up. She is a fire that can't be stopped. Every fifty feet or so she glances back. The flashlights are bouncing their beams across the marred, boggy ground in the field, but they are nearly to the trees. Sammy is falling behind, but he is still moving forward.
Another fifty feet. The trees are bigger here, and many of them fell over in the last big storm. They are getting harder to crawl under and over, and the thick tangles of broken branches are beginning to scrape shallow wounds across Evie's arms.
Just keep moving. Just keep moving.
A distant yell, the first clear thing she has heard from their pursuers. They are close enough for her to hear them now, and they have her trail.
Just keep moving.
Sammy is close behind. He has made up ground and doesn't seem so terrified and out of breath now.
“They're gaining on us,” he says. Evie ignores him and turns back toward the dark center of the forest. She doesn't need to think about the pursuers, or about Sammy's fear. She needs to hear the creek.
Over another fallen tree. Under another one. While she presses her way through a tangled grove of young saplings, she doesn't see the jagged end of a branch at eye level until it is digging into her scalp. The force twists her head to the side and she loses her balance on the muddy soil. When she hits the ground, the air rushes out of her lungs and she can't breathe. She clenches and moans and fights for air. She feels the warm trickle of blood run down her face from the gash in her scalp. She can't breathe, she can't see, but she growls her way to her hands and knees and continues, crawling.
She waits for Sammy to rush in beside her. She waits for him to pull her back to her feet and help her along the path. She turns to see if he is there, but the mud and blood and pain are making it hard to see clearly. The trees are a dark blur. The flashlights scanning back and forth, shining brightly and then dimly at odd intervals, makes it hard to judge distance and details. She thinks she sees a figure moving toward her but she can't be sure. She turns and continues crawling until her diaphragm finally relaxes and she can take in full breaths again.
The rain starts back up. The canopy above her shakes with the fury of it, a steady hiss and hum of water and wind. Branches are creaking under the pressure. The blood on her face and the pain in her head and chest make Evie think one of those branches might break free from its tree and come crashing down on top of her. Right now, it feels like the forces of the town do not want her to leave.
But there, in the rushing chaos, another sound. Softer, lower, but clear.
It is the creek. When Evie falls to her knees and crawls to it, when she feels the water on her hands and when she splashes it on her face, she knows it is real. She knows it is real and she knows it will lead her somewhere new, somewhere special. She knows it will lead her somewhere she's never been before.
This is where I'm supposed to go.
The rain intensifies. The flashlights are still flickering in the trees behind her, and even in the torrent of wind and water she can hear the men's voices calling to each other. They're still gaining on her. In the distance, beyond the flickering flashlights, another light source.
The low rumble of thunder a few seconds later confirms her thoughts: lightning.
The creek is shallow enough to walk in. The water soaks into Evie's shoes. It is snow run off, cold, but she doesn't feel it. She lifts her feet in and out of the water and grabs for any branches and reeds that can help her in her mad march up the creek.
The voices grow louder, chasing her. Another flash of lightning illuminates a little more of the sky. The thunder claps sooner, louder now, and the wind and rain continues to shake the canopy and soak the forest below. Despite the noise, she can hear the voices clearly now, and can hear one of the things they are yelling.
The voices speed her climb. The fear drives her forward, through burning lungs and her throbbing head and blood-soaked hair and cheek. The smell of her own blood makes her more desperate to escape. Desperate enough not to notice how the branches and rocks are carving gashes into her hands and arms and scratching at her face. She doesn't care, she pushes forward. She is desperate enough to push forward without noticing her own violent shivering from the bitterly cold water that has soaked through all of her clothes.
She pushes forward.
The rush of the creek spurs her on, calling to her, rooting for her. She knows it is the path to her freedom.
But as her hand grips the edge of a rock, her body fails her. The blood on her hands has made them slick, and the cold has made them weak. When she commits her weight to the grip and goes to climb up, her fingers give out and she falls. She isn't ready for the fall and tumbles backward over the rock below. It bounces her sideways, toward the creek, and she lands on her back in one of the shallow pools.
Her head rings. She opens her eyes but can't see. She can feel the rain on her face and she coughs out the rain that went into her mouth. Her arms stretch out to her sides to find something to hold onto, something to stabilize her. They splash in the wide pool and find nothing. Evie rolls over and pushes herself up to a kneeling position, coughing up more water. She lets it run, with the blood, down her face and out of her eyes. The voices are gone, the sound of the rain is gone, the pounding of her heart is gone. All she can hear is the ringing in her ears, and as she goes to stand up, a hand comes out of the darkness. It grabs her shoulder, and before she can scream a hand is on her mouth, smashing her lips against her teeth, crushing her face with an impossible strength.
She struggles for a moment, but the power of the hands is so much greater than her own that she knows she will only hurt herself if she resists. She is broken, in an instant, and she lets her body go limp.
It's over. It's over.
“Ssshhhh, they're close.”
Sammy. Evie opens her eyes and Sammy is there, holding her. He takes a hand away from her mouth to use his pointer finger to shush her. It's his turn now.
Evie nods. Life and terror surge back into her legs and she is ready to go again.
“Let's go,” she says. She turns and scrambles back up the rock that sent her sprawling into the creek. When she glances back, Sammy isn't behind her. He is still standing in the pool below.
He hasn't moved.
“Sammy, come on,” she hisses, waving him up. “Let's go!”
“This is crazy, Evie, what are we doing?” he asks.
Evie starts walking back to him but stops. It's Sammy, but it isn't. It looks like Sammy but he is moving... differently. The weird spasms and twitchy head tilts remind Evie of someone. Even the voice is different. It's cold, forced.
He looks like... mother.
He looks the way she looked when she was in the kitchen staring at the eggs, her head and neck almost vibrating. Evie's first thought now is the same as it was then. He looks like he is downloading information. And his voice, it does kind of sound like the voice of a machine.
Like a robot.
“We shouldn't be out here, Evie.”
And his strength. Evie thought maybe he felt strong because she was so afraid, because she was so weak. But no, it was more than that.
“We're going to get in trouble.”
The words sound normal until he says trouble. Trouble gets garbled. His voice catches and the last syllable is repeated three or four times very quickly. And his voice is changing. It is getting higher pitched, more grainy.
Like Annie Pitt.
“You're wet, and coldold... it's dangerous out here, Eeeeevie.”
Evie shakes her head slowly from side to side.
“You're hurt, Evie. You're bleeding.”
No. It's not possible. It's not possible.
“Please, Evie. Please... letlet me help yooou.”
Evie cries and shakes her head. It can't be true, she tells herself that it can't be true. Not Sammy. Please not Sammy. He takes a step toward her and Evie scoots back. She turns and claws her way up the rock and up the next one. Before she can climb the third in line, another siren. It is loud enough that she has to cover her ears. She covers her ears and tucks into the fetal position and screams. The siren is so loud she thinks for a second that it might be inside her head. Then it stops.
The rain stops. No more flashes of lightning or claps of thunder. The trees grow still, the flashlights disappear. All that is left is the sound of her heart beating in her ears.
And the creek.
Evie turns and climbs again, up over the final tall rock and then into the creek. She steps and climbs and crawls toward a small waterfall formed by fallen logs and just before she reaches it, she stops. The water splashing up from her footsteps doesn't fly and fall in a normal arc. The water hits an invisible barrier and then drips down, slowly, like the rain on a car windshield. It drips down in mid air, as if there is an invisible glass wall in the middle of the creek.
She splashes again.
Again, the water flies through the air and then sticks to and slides down... nothing.
She steps closer, her hands out ready to feel something. They do. Her hands press into a surface like glass. She reaches out to the side and again, glass. The surface runs down into the water and up as high as Evie can reach, as if the invisible surface never ends. When she side steps her way along the glass out of the creek, the barrier continues. She can see trees and rocks and night sky on the other side, but she can't get to them. Ten more feet, still solid glass. She makes a fist and knocks on the glass. It doesn't make a sound.
“I was hoping to keep you away from here.”
Evie screams as she turns toward the voice. It is Sammy again, she didn't hear his approach. She notices she can't really hear much of anything.
“I was hoping you'd never find out,” he says.
“What is happening, Sammy?”she cries, throwing her hands out to him.
“I'm sorry, Evie.” His voice glitches again. It is Sammy's skinny little body, but none of who Sammy was. The small figure is a shell. It'; a costume. The voice talking is old, ageless.
“I'm sorry,” he says again. Before Evie can respond, the front of his face presses forward, detaching from his skull. Blue light glows from beneath fake skin, fake hair, fake bones. His face splits and opens sideways, revealing a mechanical patchwork of sensors, lights, vents. Parts. Sammy doesn't have muscles and bones, he doesn't have flesh. He has parts. When the machine splits its face, Evie falls to her knees. She has had enough. She doesn't understand, doesn't want to understand. She'd been feeling a sense of evil dread, but was always hoping to be wrong.
She hadn't anticipated this.
She wasn't ready.
As the machine opens up, the blue light fades and a red light emerges. Faint at first, then brighter, brighter, larger, until it is too bright for Evie to look at. As she closes her eyes, the siren is back, flooding into her ears, her eyes, vibrating her bones, tearing her head apart. The noise is everywhere all at once. She knows she is covering her ears and screaming but she can't feel her hands and she can't hear her screams. She can't see, she can feel only pain, and in the end the force is too much and she collapses to the forest floor.