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When I Wake

When I wake, my arms are speckled in goose-bumps and my face is slick with cold sweat. I let my fingers stretch out into the dark, reaching for Evelyn’s warmth, but my hands find only the freezing cot. She must have climbed in with someone else last night. Nightmares now play a constant role in my little sister’s mind, and when she can’t wake me, she scavenges for comfort in anyone she can find.
Of course Rowan is always there to take her in. She was probably already awake when Evelyn came crying. Rowan barely sleeps a quarter of the night anymore. Her eyes are too alert, her brain too occupied for sleep. And who could blame her for not even trying to rest? Sleep has never been an escape for any of us. Not even Calla – who, at the start, was considerably optimistic – turned bleak from the moment she woke screaming at midnight some weeks ago.

And none of us had even bothered to ask why she was upset. We all knew.

***

I can vividly recall the day I entered the House. I was in kindergarten, a skinny, unremarkable six-year-old. It was raining; just raining, like any other day... except it wasn’t any other day. It was the day I received my collection letter. My mother and father, with eyes red and lips trembling, closed their fists around the infuriating letter – a paper filled with words I could not yet read, but understood all the same – and held me in what was the tightest embrace I’d felt in my entire life. Even since then, I have never felt such love.
They petted my hair and spoke into my ear over and over again, “it’ll be okay, Lumen, it’ll be okay. You’ll be okay. You’ll be okay.” I remember their voices, still. The rasp in my father’s from crying, and the strength in my mother’s slowly cracking until she could only whisper.

“We love you darling, no matter what happens. We love you so, so much Lumen.”
I just remember swallowing uncomfortably, and continuously nodding my head at them. We had known something was coming, ever since the “first sign” – as they liked to call it. It was normal apparently, to be expected from a child with my capabilities. My first sign appeared when this really rude girl in my class called me ugly. Without a second thought, I shot a quick look at the chair she was seated in and then to the wall behind her. In an instant, she flew across the room, smashing into the bulletin boards decorated with colorful drawings of zoo animals. It had been a reflex reaction, like I was programmed to immediately think to move something without touching it. Telekinesis was the word I learned a few short months later. It was listed as one of the possible symptoms of a Gifted child in my collection letter.

On the day of collection, my parents did what every other parent of a Gifted child does. They left me on our porch, with my bags all packed and a kiss on my forehead, telling me to wait until the Collector came for me. I didn’t turn back as they left.

***

The room is still dark when I open my eyes and sit up. Evelyn, as I predicted, is curled up next to Rowan, shivering slightly, but sleeping at least. The rest of the Gifted are asleep as well, an occurrence so rare and fleeting, I take a moment to feel happy for them.

I then glance up at the sky light – the only source of natural light in our quarters – and try to determine what time it is.

It’s probably midnight, I think.

Actually, it’s nearer to three. The soft voice echoes around my brain. It takes a moment for me to realize the voice is Calla’s. Hearing each other’s thoughts is one of the many perks of what we are.

It’s a bit early for you, isn’t it? I think. Training my mental voice was difficult in the beginning, and getting used to it was even harder. I remember the first time I ever heard someone else’s voice in my head, it was Rowan’s, and I thought I was going mad. But it’s been over a decade since then, and now it just comes naturally.

Yeah, I guess, Calla replies but the thoughts aren’t exactly coherent. Her mind is tired as her voice pulls away. I can feel her thoughts slipping out of my head. They’re tangible, like a breeze passing across my brain. And just like that, she’s asleep.

***

On collection day, after my parents left, I can still remember how heavy I felt. Like I suddenly weighed five times more than my scrawny, six-year-old body could hold. But I bit my lip and kept my eyes wide, for fear of tears falling if I blinked. The Collectors eventually came to take me away. The only other thing I remember about that day was the physical pain I experienced: a shooting, aching pain that started at the crook of my elbow and crept through my body like wildfire. It was my first experience with the injection.

During my first week at the House, Rowan, who poses as somewhat of a leader to all of us, explained everything as best she could. In a hushed voice, so that the Collectors wouldn’t hear, she told me that the House is an underground government-run program, intended to house Gifted children. We Gifted have powers – like a sort of magic runs in our veins. We are born to normal, human parents. We live normal, human lives. At least until our “first sign”. These signs can range from anything like telekinesis to ecological empathy (also known as controlling natural elements) to extrasensory perception.

Immediately after our first sign, we are rushed a collection letter and brought to the House.

In the House, we are no longer normal humans. We are like diseases, tested in labs, our bone marrow and blood donated to a select number of delighted scientists in white coats. We are like animals, shut in the House, not allowed outside of our watchful Collectors’ eye. But it is not that we are treated like viruses and dehumanized that maddens us.

It is that we are treated like athletes. Professional athletes. The kinds that are paid bookoo bucks for stepping up to home plate, or running a ball passed the end zone; the kinds that can’t even think about losing. So much so, that they put into their bodies what will always help them win: steroids.

We, here at the House, have our own special kind of steroid. We are injected with it multiple times a day. The injection is called “life”, aptly named because of who it’s taken from. We aren’t to know this, but our lives come from the pile-ups in prisons across the country. There isn’t enough room to keep the lifers anymore? Donate their lives to a good cause.

It keeps us “strong and healthy”, is what the Collectors say. But Rowan has a theory of her own and it’s been proven thousands of times over by how much stronger each and every one of our powers has gotten since the injections. Ever since the question of using nuclear weapons was put at a stand-still, the government started looking for a more powerful, more expendable resource. Us.
Rowan believes that the Collectors are fattening us up like chickens, getting us ready for a tremendous feast.

***

It’s hard to remember a time when our lives were our own; a time when we could sleep without feeling someone’s constant gaze on our backs; a time when we could talk aloud freely, without fear of someone listening, without fear of punishment.

Amaranth just wasn’t careful enough. The voice intruding on my thoughts is Reeve’s, and I squint through the darkness at him sitting across the room. If he just hadn’t said--

But just as the words begin to rise in his head, I stare at the bricks in the wall behind him until one comes loose and throws itself at him. He ducks just in time and I stop the brick mid-air before it can hit anything.

Sometimes things slip out, Reeve, I think, shoving the brick backwards. It rejoins the wall and the concrete around it smoothes until no cracks are visible.

“You know I hate when you do that!” Reeve whispers aloud, breaking the silence.

“And I hate when I miss!” I retort, looking at a pillow until it slams into the back of his head.

“Well you got me that time!” he mutters, rubbing his head. “That one almost hurt. You’re getting stronger.”

“I know…” I reply. “They’re taking me regardless.” I don’t know why I said it. The words make my heart leap into my throat, make my skin scale over in goose-bumps.

“You don’t want to, do you?” Reeve asks. I bite my lip, and we sit for a long moment, not knowing what to say. When I finally speak, I immediately wish I hadn’t.

“They took Amaranth.” The words cause physical pain for Reeve. I can see it in his mind. I can see it on his face. Losing a best friend is hard to bear.

“It wasn’t his time, though, Lumen,” he states plainly, avoiding my eyes. “God, you say one damn thing in this place and--” He cuts himself off and shakes his head. “I just don’t want to see you go too.”

I sigh and walk across the room to his cot.

“I’m almost eighteen, Reeve,” I say quietly, putting my arm around his shoulder. “My birthday’s tomorrow. And even if I don’t say or do anything wrong, they take us out of here when we turn eighteen. You know that.”

His eyes glance up at me from under his lashes, and even in the dark, I can see tears there.

“I know,” he murmurs, his voice almost inaudible. “But where will you go? Where do they take you?”

I try to hide the immediate fear that his words create in me. No one knows what happens. When a Gifted turns eighteen, they’re what we call “taken”. In the week before a Gifted’s eighteenth birthday, they’re slowly weaned off from life injections. And on their big day, they’re told to pack what little belongings they have, say a quick and final goodbye to the others, and then leave with a designated Collector. They are not told where they are going. Nor do they ever come back.

I push the thoughts from my head and concentrate on what I could possibly say to Reeve. Forcing a smile, I muster up my most confident tone.

“We’ll know when we get there.”

***

Morning was inevitable. We all know when it’s coming. We all try to mentally prepare ourselves for the anticipated future. We even convince ourselves that we won’t be affected by the outcome, because fear is so much harder to bear than hope.

It started exactly one week ago, like it always did. At injection time, when Collectors flooded the House, each with a handful of needles and tiny glass jars, not one came for me. I gritted my teeth and kept my eyes wide.

The Gifted all watched me, waiting for my indifference to crack; waiting for me to show some sliver of vulnerability. But I wouldn’t. I couldn’t, for the sake of Reeve, and especially for the sake of my little sister. Evelyn kept her eyes trained on me. In those last seven days, she spent every one next to me. Combing and braiding my hair, not letting me lift a finger in my packing, curled up beside me in the cot at night. Honestly, it was probably the longest amount of time we’d spent without leaving one another’s side.

I had never been close with my sister, not even before we were collected. But I loved her, like any normal sibling would love another sibling. During that week, though, I began to realize how fleeting our time as family had been and how quickly it was coming to a close. When I left home, Evelyn was just a toddler, barely able to pronounce my name. But I still cared for her, and in the years that followed – the years before I knew she was going to be collected as well – I pictured her growing up, our parents by her side, pursuing the life that I would’ve wanted. But when she, of all people, showed up in the House with a capability of seeing the future, I went mad. I didn’t want to see her. I didn’t want to even acknowledge that she was there. I had been vicariously living through this little girl, reassured that she would be okay, even though I wasn’t. Because of this, I had always tried to avoid her.

Now I realized just how much I had always needed her, like a good luck charm, something that you would carry around, not because it really impacted your life in any way, but because it was always there, constant and reassuring. Evelyn was something that never changed in my life. Even in this mixed up chaos of an existence that all of us Gifted had, my sister was always there with me.

Now, I glance up at Evelyn across the room, her sleeping form just a darker outline against the pitch black of nighttime, and I feel my heart start to beat unevenly hard. I clench my hands into fists and turn my face in towards my pillow. I scream silently into the rough fabric, digging my nails into my palms, and feeling the worst pain I’ve felt since my parents left me alone on our front porch.

***

When I wake, Evelyn is back at my side. I attempt to take comfort in the fact that she’s here. Today is December 10th, and it is my birthday, and I’m trying not to dwell on that fact.

As each Gifted gradually wakes up, I watch closely, trying to distract myself. What I’m seeing are idiosyncrasies that I’ve never noticed before. How Rowan stretches her neck before she opens her eyes. How Reeve kicks off his sheets before sitting up. How Calla rubs her face and yawns. I stare at these people, no, each individual person, and take in the fact that I really don’t know any of them. And I’m realizing how much I wish I did. I wish I knew Rowan’s favorite color, or what music Reeve is always humming, or the plot of this book that Calla reads over and over again. I never even thought to ask. And now I can’t.

Everyone is awake. The sun is shining brightly through the skylight. The door to our quarters is clicking open. My name is being called. None of the Gifted speak as I reach down under my cot and pull out my one bag of belongings. None of them speak as I walk silently passed them, though I feel their gazes burning through my skin. None of them speak as I step in front of the door.

A Collector places his hand on my back, and guides me forward.

Lumen. It’s Evelyn’s voice, soft and comforting. I glance over my shoulder at my sister. She’s sitting on her cot, hands clasped in her lap. Her expression is indifferent, except for the smile pulling at the side of her mouth and the flicker of hope in her eye.



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