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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. Under an overcast sky inconsistently spitting rain, 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. They patted my hair and spoke into my ear over and over again, “it’ll be okay, Lumen. 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.
I swallowed uncomfortably, continuously nodding my head at them. We had known something was coming. When I was angry at my mother for taking a bright red lollipop from me, and it somehow slipped from her grasp and floated back into my open hands. When a quick glance at a bookcase in the library sent an entire shelf of paperbacks to the floor. 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 front porch, with my bags packed and a kiss on my forehead, telling me to wait until the collectors came.
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 peer 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 thought 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.
Then it’s a bit early for you, isn’t it? I retort. Training my mental voice was difficult in the beginning, and getting used to it, even harder. The first time I ever heard someone else’s voice in my head, Rowan’s, I thought I was going mad. But it’s been over a decade since then, and now it comes easily, everyone’s thoughts presenting a constant hum in the back of my mind.
Okay, I get it. You want to be alone, Calla hums, but the thought isn't exactly coherent. I can feel her slipping out of my head. It’s tangible, like a breeze passing across my brain. And just like that, she’s asleep.
On collection day, after my parents left, I felt heavy. Like I suddenly weighed five times more than my scrawny 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. 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 a governmental program intended to “protect” 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 symptoms appear: telekinesis, extrasensory perception, influencing the elements. Immediately after that, we’re rushed a collection letter and brought to the house. We’re kept safely away from the world, held in these confining grey walls, probed and stuck with needles. We’re experiments with only each other to keep us sane. 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.
I sense Evelyn’s mind coming to, her voice shuddering in my head. I sigh and walk across the room to her. My little sister’s eyes are shut tightly, wrinkles pooling at their edges. I reach out and lay a gentle hand on her shoulder, and she jumps back, startled. She grips the comforter against her chest, attempting to breathe slower and collect herself.
Happy birthday, she thinks meekly, wetness glistening in her gaze.
I’m so thrilled, I answer dryly, and she laughs a little, sniffling. She hums out a sigh and we sit in comfortable silence, watching each other in the darkness.
“I’m scared,” she whispers timidly, wiping her nose on her sleeve. “What’ll happen to you?”
I try to hide the immediate fear that her words create in me. No one knows what happens. When a gifted turns eighteen, they’re taken from the house. They’re told to pack what little belongings they have, say a quick and final goodbye to the others, and 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 Evelyn. I muster up my confidence, thinking the words I cannot say aloud without my voice breaking.
We’ll know when we get there. I give her a reassuring smile, and for a moment, we listen to the dull hum of unconscious gifted thoughts before I return to my cot.
It started exactly one week ago, like it always does. Proceeding eighteenth birthdays, experimentation stops. At testing time, when collectors flooded the house, hauling machines that spat a mess of wires around the room, not one came for me. I gritted my teeth and kept my eyes wide. The gifted watched me, waiting for my indifference to crack, for me to show some sliver of vulnerability. But I wouldn’t. I couldn’t for the sake of my 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 ever spent in each other’s company.
I was never close with my sister, not even before we were collected. When I left home, Evelyn was just a toddler, barely able to pronounce my name. But I cared for her, like siblings do, and in the years that followed – before I knew she would be collected as well – I pictured her growing up, our parents by her side, pursuing the life that I would’ve wanted. 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 she was there. I had been vicariously living through this little girl, reassured that she would be okay, even though I wasn’t. During that week, though, I began to see how fleeting our time as a family had been and how quickly it was coming to a close. I saw just how much I had always needed her. In this unpredictable chaos of an existence, my sister had been a permanent fixture by my side.
I peer up at Evelyn across the room, her sleeping form just a darker outline against the pitch black of night time, and feel my heart start to beat unevenly hard. The hum of thoughts whirs listlessly in my head, and I clench my hands into fists, turning 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. I fall asleep somewhere in the midst of everything.
Morning is inevitable. When I wake, Evelyn is back at my side, a touch of finality in the way she brushes my hair behind my ear. I attempt to take comfort in her still being here with me. Today is December 10th, and it is my birthday
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 burn through my skin. None of them speak as I step in front of the door. It’s so quiet. My breath catches as realization sets in. There’s no sigh or whisper or… hum. Where subconscious thoughts have whirred constantly for the last twelve years, my head is now silent as a stone.
Evelyn! The thought bounces around my brain, pushing uselessly to find an exit, before fading into silence. Rowan! It dissipates even quicker than before. My lips crack open, words formed on my tongue, when a collector places his hand on my back, and guides me through the door.