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They were following her again. Eyla could hear the pairs of feet stepping in time, moving faster as they tried to get closer to her. She had left her apartment early that morning, tip-toeing her way around the shoe-box sized rooms to not wake up her parents, just so she could avoid one of these confrontations on her way to school. It had been almost 10 years since Eyla learned she didn’t have the ability, and there had been people on-and-off over those years who would make snarky comments or insult her, but it had never been this bad before. This was the third time this week. It was only Wednesday.
She’d only made it as far as Garfield Street before they showed up. The Telepaths usually didn’t come this far West of downtown, but they had been getting braver, it seemed, every day. Eyla stared straight ahead as she walked, looking for something to focus her eyes on. A squirrel bounded across the sidewalk a few feet in front of her, acorn in mouth, and scurried up one of the trees lining the street. The little guy was getting ready for winter, but outside certainly didn’t feel like it. She’d thrown a jacket on this morning, thinking it was October and she’d need it, but sweat was pooling under her arms—the weather was at least mostly to blame.
She trudged along, forcing herself to not look behind her. Eyla had found that it was easier to just pretend they didn’t exist. Vibing was passive, easy. They’d pass insults back and forth this way, exaggerating their body movements for attention. It burned Eyla up inside to know they were talking about her and she couldn’t hear them. But she’d learned that, if she ignored them long enough, they would usually just give up.
Speaking was hard for most of the telepaths. The words came out clumsy and unrehearsed like they knew all of the words separately, but couldn’t quite figure out how they worked together. They only spoke when they had to. More than usual lately seemed to decide that hurting Eyla was important enough to break their silence.
Eyla gripped the straps of her backpack and curled herself inward, wondering if she pushed just a little harder if she could make herself disappear. She caught a glimpse of them out the corner of her left eye and she felt the panic rising in her chest. There were three of them: one boy and two girls. The boy looked vaguely familiar to Eyla, probably a repeat offender. Although, it could just be the way he was smirking at the girl closest to him that felt so familiar. Eyla cut her glance back to the ground when the boy looked up.
She was two blocks away from the split point, where she would go right towards the Medina School for the Telepathically Impaired, and they would go left to the public high school. She was almost in the clear. She checked for traffic, looking to her left as fast as she could. The boy who had looked familiar to Eyla was walking straight toward her with a glare like bullets. A frantic glance to the right showed one of the girls closing in on her, a glare mirroring her friend’s.
She picked up the pace, walking a notch just short of running. She was holding out hope that they didn’t want anything to do with her, that it was just her paranoia getting the best of her. It wouldn’t be the first time.
The cracking sound of the girl’s voice shattered any hope she had left.
“Hey mute, where ya running?” she said. Eyla looked up at her for the first time. Her blonde hair cascaded around her face in soft curls–no stray hairs, no fly-a-ways. It looked nothing like Eyla’s frizzy, unkempt mess of curls she’d piled on top of her head that morning. The girl was beautiful, but she still looked like all the others. Same cold eyes, same turned up nose like being a Mute somehow meant Eyla stunk or something.
When Eyla was younger, her parents told her stories about those who were born without telepathy. She was warned that Mutes weren’t to be associated with, like they had a disease that everyone was afraid of catching. That was before she had reached the cutoff year. By eight years old, you should start to hear the voices. Sometimes they’re quiet, sometimes the ability is weak, but it always shows up by eight.
At eight, all Eyla heard were her own thoughts. She didn’t understand what she was supposed to be hearing. Her parents wouldn’t give up though. They’d sit in front of her for hours, doing what, to Eyla, looked like nothing but staring awkwardly at her, trying to will her to hear them. They tried to tell her the voices were just too quiet for her to hear yet, but Eyla knew the silence was permanent. She wasn’t a telepath.
“She asked you a question,” the boy said.
“I’m just trying to get to school,” Eyla choked out.
“I don’t get why they even put your kind in school. What do you learn? How to clean the floors? How to say ‘do you want fries with that?’” the other girl chimed in. She pushed forward, giving Eyla a shove. Eyla stopped herself from falling backward and gave the girl a death stare. She didn’t want to fight anyone; her dad always said fighting never lead anywhere good. It would certainly feel good though, she’d think to herself all the time.
“At least I can speak,” Eyla said under her breath before she could stop herself. The blonde’s anger was written all over her face and a strange silence passed between them. Their first instinct was to scream internally, Eyla knew. In their heads, Eyla was sure they were blasting profanities and threats, but they hadn’t realized yet that she couldn’t hear any of it.
Eyla took advantage of the silence and broke into a run, maneuvering around the three and racing across the street and to the right, toward the library. She could cut through the two adjoining buildings, and come out just a block to the right of the school.
She could hear their grunts and heavy breaths as they tried to catch up to her, but she made it to the library entrance, ripping the door open and rushing inside without looking back. The library was the biggest building in Medina, consisting of two separate buildings connected by a skywalk. She spent a lot of time in here, hiding herself among the aisles of books. Reading was a universal medium, she always thought, a way to level the playing field. With a book, everyone was hearing the same voices in their heads.
She stopped in the lobby, sliding herself down the wall and onto the ground. She dropped her head into her hands, trying to catch her breath and to fight back the tears that she just didn’t want to cry today.
“Are you okay, honey?” a small voice asked. Eyla looked up to see an older woman looking down over the top of her brown-rimmed glasses. The woman’s brown hair was cut into a bob and her roots were starting to gray.
“Oh, uh,” Eyla struggled to get up and wiped away the few rogue tears that had fallen, “I’m fine, I’m fine. Sorry about that.”
“You come in here often,” the woman said. Not a question, but a statement of fact.
“Yeah, I do…”
“I see you all the time. Sometimes you come and just wait here. Othertimes you disappear into the stacks of books, but you always look like you’re crying. What is it?” the woman asked.
“It’s nothing, really. I’m just on my way to school, so I cut through the library,” Eyla said.
“You come in here even when it’s not school time, dear. You’re running. What are they doing to you? I know the telepaths can be cruel.”
“They’re just stupid kids.”
“Well, take it from someone who knows. Those stupid kids turn into worse adults, and it’s no fault of yours,” she said, and turned to leave, but stopped. “What’s your name, dear?”
“Well Eyla, I’m Ms. Linda. You come back to the library any time.”
Eyla smiled for the first time that morning when she saw Patrick walking towards her locker. She had been late this morning, and missed him at their usual morning ritual of meeting at his locker. He was practically bouncing as he made his way to her. His wavy black hair hung around his face, threatening to fall in his eyes. He needed a haircut, but he refused to listen. He’d do it when he was good and ready to, he would say. Apparently, he was never ready.
“You really have to do something about that hair, you know,” Eyla said.
“My hair is a statement, thank you very much. It’s wild, unkempt, doesn’t take **** from nobody. It’s really stickin’ it to the proverbial man, right?” Patrick said without a hint of amusement on his face, making Eyla giggle even more. Patrick and his proverbial man were a tragic love story. They hated each other, it seemed, but they were destined to be together.
“The only thing your hair is ‘stickin’ to is your forehead. Take a bath once in a while, please.”
“You just don’t get me, Eyla Jean,” Patrick said, causing Eyla to shove his shoulder, but still laugh. “Hey, why were you so late this morning?”
Eyla turned to open her locker, avoiding Patrick’s eyes. She didn’t want to talk about that morning with anyone, but especially not with him, not yet. The telepaths irritated Eyla, sure, but they made Patrick angry.
“It happened again,” Patrick said after Eyla’s silence, spitting it through his teeth. Eyla knew that he hated the telepaths with as much ferocity as he felt they hated him, and she avoided any conversation with him. “Who was it? What did they do to you?”
“It wasn’t a big deal, Pat. It was just a few people, but I didn’t know who they were. Just some stupid kids.” Eyla said.
“It’s always a big deal, Eyles. I can see what it does to you. You need to stop letting them push you around like that. They’re nothing and they deserve whatever they get,” Patrick said, his anger growing. Eyla knew that if he had it his way, she would have fought the group from that morning until they couldn’t hear their own thoughts, much less other peoples. “I swear if I ever catch one of those ******* mutants–”
“Patrick, stop,” Eyla said, glancing around at the groups of students walking through the hallway. Some of them had stopped to look at Patrick, but were moving again with a little nudge from the heavy glare Eyla was throwing at them. “I’m fine, okay? Just let it go.” She turned and focused on getting her books out of her locker, knowing full-well that he would never just let it go.
Eyla had known Patrick since she was ten. They had both just started at their new school and were recovering from the realization that they would never get their abilities. It hit Pat a little harder than it hit Eyla. His parents both worked for the Department of Telepathic Aptitude, the group that created the standards needed to graduate and the aptitude tests needed to take up roles in government positions.
They were incredibly pleased to find out that Maya, Patrick’s older sister, had been blessed with wonderful control and strength. She passed all of the exams with flying colors, even as a small child. Most people don’t start showing signs of telepathy until around eight years old–Maya showed at four. Patrick, however, never showed at all.
“You’re always trying to make excuses for them and I don’t get it. You have to understand the way they see things. It’s us and it’s them. It’s always us and them” Patrick said.
“It’s not that simple and you know it.”
“No, Eyla, I don’t.”
Eyla sighed, knowing this argument was pointless and would end the same way that every other one did. She closed her locker and turned to face Patrick, seeing the remaining flares of anger still floating around his face. “We’re going to be late for class. Let’s just go, okay?”
Patrick just stared at her for a moment, but his face finally softened into, not a smile, but a look of pity. He looked at Eyla this way too often anymore and it tugged at her heart.
“Fine, let’s go,” he said with a heavy sigh.
Eyla gently pushed on the door of the apartment building her family lived in. The latch had grown rusty before they ever moved in and no one bothered trying to close it anymore. She could usually just push her way through without a key. From there, it was three flights of stairs up to their actual apartment, a small two bedroom tucked away in the back of the building, just big enough for the three of them—but only barely.
The front door opened up into their kitchen, which was really only big enough for one person. She walked past the refrigerator and tossed her backpack on the carpet that marked the entry-way into the “dining room,” a small section of room that curved around the corner before expanding into the actual living space. In there, they kept a small circular table pressed up against the wall and a set of three chairs. “We eat as a family in this house,” her mother had said when they first moved in, a leftover adage of their old house—the two story home on the east side with the yellow mailbox Eyla used to love because she thought it made the mailman happy. She missed the old house sometimes. Eating as a family lasted about a month before her mom realized it was too hard trying to eat in about as much space as one of those outdoor toilets.
“Mom! Dad!” Eyla yelled. Usually at least one of them was home when she got out of school, but there was an empty space where her dad put his shoes every day after work, and her mom’s purse wasn’t hanging on the back of the chair.
She walked into the living room and jumped, startled to see her parents. They were facing each other on the couch, oblivious to Eyla’s presence. Her mom’s eyebrows were furrowed and she was gripping the knee of Eyla’s dad hard enough to turn her finger tips white. Her shoulder-length curls, the same ones Eyla had hidden in her bun, were frizzy and undefined, like she hadn’t even bothered with them today. Her worry was mirrored on Eyla’s dad. His forehead was creased with tension, and his thick mustache was drooping at the ends, being pulled down by his stern expression. Eyla stood in the entryway, leaning against the wall, waiting of her parents to notice her, but after a full minute, she gave up hope.
“Hey guys,” Eyla said, walking toward them. “I’m home.” Still, they took no notice, so Eyla walked into her mom’s line of vision and waved her hand.
“Oh honey, hi. We didn’t see you there,” her mom said, taking her hand off her husband’s knee and using it to push her hair behind her ear. “Your father and I were just–just vibing about his job. We didn’t hear you come in.” She still had her purse on her shoulder, and the circles under her eyes were a darker shade of gray than usual.
“I yelled for you…” Eyla said quietly.
“You did?” her dad asked, squinting and drawing attention to the crow’s feet that stretched out from his eyes. “Sorry, Eyles. You know how we get sometimes. It’s hard to focus on the vibes and pay attention to what’s going on around us at the same time.”
This definitely wasn’t the first time her parents had been so deep in their own telepathic conversations that they hadn’t noticed she was talking. She spent a lot of time feeling like background noise, even if they’d tried to adjust for her over the years. They’d cut off their words in the middle of sentences sometimes, blending their words and their vibes together in a seamless line only they could understand.
“Don’t worry about it. Dad, is everything okay? You guys seem worried,” Eyla said, but worried might have been an understatement. She could take the look on her mom’s face and pass it off as just her anxious personality, but it was the look on her dad’s face that made her second guess. She’d only seen him look that way once that she could remember–when he found out that she was disabled.
“We just got some news and–” he stopped suddenly, an awkward silence falling on the conversation. They stared at her blankly until her mom shot a stern glance at her father. This was Eyla’s favorite thing, always being left out of conversations. It was so easy for the telepaths to have secrets.
“What news? What’s going on?” Eyla asked, growing impatient with their silence. She could feel her heartbeat throbbing in her ears. If she had the ability, her parents wouldn’t be able to hide things from her, not like this. Her mom stood up from the couch and walked towards her, putting a comforting arm around her shoulders.
“It’s nothing big. The news station is making a lot of changes right now, and he’s worried that they might not need him anymore,” her mom said.
“Are you losing your job?” Eyla asked.
“They’re making changes, but my boss loves me! I’m sure there will be a spot for me on the team, no matter what. Someone’s got to write the news, right?” Her dad offered a small smile and winked at Eyla.
“We’ll figure everything out, hun, don’t worry,” her mom said, but the look that came after, directed toward her dad, didn’t ease the worry. She’d seen them vibing enough times to know what their looks meant. This one wasn’t a good one.
Eyla brushed her mom’s arm off her shoulder and stared at her, looking for some kind of answer in the worry on her face. There was more to this story, but Eyla couldn’t find it. “Mom, are you sure that’s all it is?”
“Just your dad’s work. But we’ll handle it; we always do,” her mom said, squeezing Eyla’s shoulder with her hand. “I’m gonna go get dinner started,” she added and then walked into the kitchen.
Eyla walked to the couch and sat next to her dad, who had just turned on the TV. There was a limit to the distance that the telepaths could vibe with each other, so everything was acted out with actual speech. At least the TV was something they could both appreciate. Her dad lifted his arm and draped it over Eyla’s shoulders.
“Come on, Hobbie. What’s going on?” her dad said. He still called her hobbie even though she broke her ankle when she was nine and hadn’t had to hobble around the house for years. He laughed at himself every time he used the nickname, so amused at his own jokes. Eyla used to hate the nickname, but it had become such a part of their relationship that she smiled whenever he used it. Eyla slid herself closer to him, fitting more comfortably under his arm.
“Something just doesn’t feel right. I don’t know what’s going on,” Eyla confessed. If there was one person who would be able to make sense of her feelings, it would be her dad. After she’d found out that she was a mute, she was devastated. She was only eight and suddenly people that she’d known her whole life were treating her like she was a stranger. Worse than that, like she was dangerous.
The next door neighbor, Patty, who had been notorious for always having candy for the kids, suddenly stopped answering the door. She remembered tons of phone calls. She’d listen in from behind the door as her parents dialed number after number, changing everything. New dentist, new doctor, and—eventually—a new house. No one wanted the little girl with all the silence in her head, she remembered thinking. She cried for hours in her room and wouldn’t come out for anyone. It was her dad who finally got her to come eat.
He’d told her that they didn’t hate her, they were just scared. Everyone saw this beautiful little girl with all these wonderful, imaginative thoughts and they couldn’t hear them. Telepaths, he said, were used to getting what they wanted, but Eyla broke the mold, the pattern. Eyla was just different and that made some people nervous, he said. But she wasn’t crying for herself; she was crying because she thought her parents hated her for all the things they were losing. I will always, always love you, her dad had said, and, with the help of his hand, she left her bedroom.
“What do you mean?” he asked, giving Eyla an encouraging smile.
“There were these kids this morning…” she started.
“Are people harassing you again?” He ripped his arm back, sitting up quickly, at attention.
“I’m fine, Dad…” Eyla said, looking at him with wide eyes. He was frantic. Suddenly he couldn’t sit still, looking back and forth from the kitchen where her mom was back to Eyla with something approaching panic on his face. Eyla continued, “they didn’t really do anything. But they’re not the first. There have been three. This week.”
“This week?! Eyla, why didn’t you say something before? Have they hurt you? What did they say?” He asked and glanced in the direction of the kitchen again where, on cue, her mom appeared, echoing his panic.
“They haven’t really done anything, honestly. Mostly they just insult me or call me stupid. One of them earlier kind of shoved me and a group last week followed me on my way home. They never said anything, just sort of walked close behind me,” Eyla said and, after looking back and forth at the looks on her parents’ faces, added, “I’m handling it, Dad. Calm down.”
“Eyla, I need you to answer a question for me. Answer it honestly because it’s very important. How long has this harassment been happening?” her dad asked, scaring her with the sternness in his voice.
“There’s been harassment my whole life, you know that,” Eyla said. She’d been dealing with the telepaths from the second she found out. Why should this be any different?
“I mean this kind of harassment. With this frequency. How long, Eyla?”
“I-I dunno.” She struggled to rack her brain.
“Answer the question, Eyla,” he snapped, making Eyla jump. Remorse filled his face, but it didn’t take away Eyla’s fear. Her heart was threatening to beat out of her chest.
“About a month, I would say,” she answered.
Her dad stood up, knocking the TV remote off his lap and a few feet in front of him. He was staring intensely at her mom, and Eyla knew they were engaged in a heated conversation. If Eyla were to try and speak up at that moment, anything she said would be met with deaf ears. They were too far gone. Eyla watched as her mom nodded her head, then turned and grabbed her coat out of the hall closet.
“Where are you going? What’s happening?” Eyla asked, her voice cracking with anxiety. She didn’t understand what any of her problems had to do with her parents.
“We have to go out for a bit, but we’ll be back soon. There’s food in the fridge if you get hungry,” her mom said distantly, still locked in vibes with Eyla’s dad. She slid her coat on while Eyla’s dad put his shoes on and they both rushed to the door. Eyla stood up to race after them.
“But where are you going? Wait–” Eyla yelled after them, but was cut off by the slam of the door. They were already gone.
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