Okay, you can panic if you like.
Yep, I changed the theme. Mostly to celebrate the fact that after all these years I’ve finally caved in and published an ebook (the decision wasn’t unrelated to my recent purchase of a Kindle).
It’s contemporary fantasy (that means it’s set in the modern day, apparently) set in Canberra. You can buy it here for the lofty sum of $2.99. It comes in a bunch of formats, so you can read it on your computer if you don’t have a reader (you DO have a computer, I assume).
And you know what? Here’s the beginning:
by Louise Curtis
I felt cold, and knew someone in the room was afraid. Dad leant over me to see through the window of our flat. Before I knew whether the fear was his or Mum’s, my own hands shook and the rainbow I was drawing turned to yucky scribbles.
“They’re here,” he said.
Mum dropped our best salad bowl and it smashed on the kitchen tiles. “No! It’s not her birthday until tomorrow.”
I began to cry.
Mum ran to me and gripped both my shoulders. Her hands were small, as small as mine, but her touch forced me to See into her mind. I stared at her cold terror and stopped crying. “Good girl,” she whispered. “Do you remember what to do?”
“After my party?” I said.
“Before the party. Now. Go, quickly.”
“But you said –”
I scowled at her but turned obediently to the sliding glass balcony door, which was shaded with gauze curtains. The law said I had to be raised by my fellow empaths once I was five years old, even though both my parents were Normal. I’d seen from Dad’s mind what it was like when empaths were still allowed in Normal schools. Another boy, an empath, had waited until Dad liked a girl, and then manipulated him so that he had kissed her sister instead. Dad remembered that boy whenever he was angry at me, which was often.
“Don’t go out yet,” said Mum, clutching her brown hands together to stop them fluttering like frightened sparrows. “They’re still in the carpark, looking up. We don’t want them to see you.”
“Can they See?” I asked, fascinated despite myself.
“They see like you do,” said Dad, combing his thick fingers through his blond moustache. “Too much. They see thoughts and feelings that aren’t meant to be seen. They see inside you, and your bad thoughts.”
I stepped back, realising the other empaths were in the carpark. They could be speaking to the cars, or the trees, or even the old brown bricks of the walls. All of the nearby objects knew who I was. As an empath, I was the only person around who talked to them.
Worst of all, the other empaths would be able to See me by my feelings, straight through the simpler feelings of the glass and gauze. Didn’t Mum and Dad know they could already See us?
“When I say, ‘Go’, you go, and quickly,” said Mum.
“I know, sweetheart. It’ll be okay.”
“But you’re scared too.” Fear came off her like smoke – a clear sign to the empaths below that my Normal parents didn’t want to let me go. “You’re more scared than me.”
Mum didn’t answer, but peered out at the watchers through the gauze curtains. I looked at the carpet. Dad said I shouldn’t look straight at people. He said showing my eyes was rude. His eyes were green and Mum’s were brown. Mine were black, like all empaths, so I looked down.
I liked the carpet, so I tried desperately to think about our carpet instead of the empaths. The parts that weren’t too worn were the same blue as the sky. It was a quiet carpet, and I knew it didn’t mind me. A lot of carpets don’t like kids.
“There’s still three of them there.” Mum’s horror stabbed into me and I shivered again, like a dog. “They’re looking right at this window.”
“We can’t escape them, you know,” said Dad.Dad was big, much bigger than Mum, and his long blond hair tangled like string on his head, and grew wild on his chest. Next to him, Mum looked like a shadow. I stopped shivering.
He wasn’t afraid of them – not in the same way as me or Mum. I crept closer to his feet for confidence, even though there was an edge of darkness that made me feel sick near him. He was thinking of that boy again, the empath boy who played with his mind.
Mum’s breath turned ragged. “I’ll shield her!” she said. “My feelings are loud enough to cover hers. Will it work, Amy? What do you think?”
I nodded yes, pulling down the stretchy edges of my white dress as if it could hide me. As if anything could hide me from empathic Sight.
“Where are they now?” Mum asked.
“The big lady’s on the stairs,” I said, Seeing her through the cheap inner wall. To me she walked like a sea creature swimming closer, dripping slime along the way. “She’s wrinkling her nose at the smell of dog wee.”
Mum nodded quickly. For a second I Saw her change into someone tall, as tall as Dad, and her brown skin made a wall strong enough to keep me safe. “Outside, Amy. Go. Now. Hide your feelings behind me, okay? Like you did when there was an empath in the park with us, remember?”
She opened the glass door too fast and it squeaked. I felt the watchers in the carpark jerk up their heads. Mum walked outside. Her panic blazed like fire. I was scared to follow, but I didn’t want to stay with Dad.
There was something joining his thoughts to the big lady. To my Sight it looked like a dirty string, and that’s what was making me ill. It frightened me more than the empaths, because I knew it came from Dad and not from them. He hit me sometimes, and Mum too, but this was different. This was on purpose.
So I crept out, holding onto Mum’s fire in my mind so I was one flame with her, hidden behind both her body and her mind. I didn’t like making myself so frightened.
The balcony creaked and tipped sideways. Mum wasn’t meant to go outside. That wasn’t what we practised. The balcony was too old to hold anyone except me. But she stood at the broken iron railing with her feet far apart like she was starting a fight.
I pulled at the concrete lid we’d made in the balcony floor, but it was too heavy now my hands were shaking. Mum crouched to help, shielding me from the empaths with her body. Concrete is good for hiding behind. It’s too thick for thoughts to pass through.
Inside, the doorbell rang – three times. The big lady knew I was trying to get away – how could she not? Mum’s fire was too big. Any empath would see it from kilometres away. They didn’t need to See me directly any more.
The lid came up and I crawled inside our hollowed-out air conditioner, long since broken but still bolted onto the underside of the tired balcony so it didn’t fall down. It was spiky with metal and twisted wires. I’d talked to it often, making sure it would hide me as well as it could.
Mum stood on the lid on top of me, pushing the concrete down onto the arch of my back. I didn’t complain, even though it pressed into my bones.
Dad opened the front door. Mum didn’t see him turn and silently point to me, because she only saw with her eyes, and her eyes were looking down at the carpark. But I Saw everything. He wanted me to go away. Dad didn’t want me Looking at him ever again. That was why he’d made the string between him and the big lady. So I wouldn’t be his any more. I wanted to cry, but my tears were used up.
Physically, the big lady was shorter than Dad, and slender, but her mind reached out all around her like questing tentacles, black and dripping with power. Her mind made her big; bigger than anyone I’d ever seen. I wished yet again that I couldn’t see the secret shapes and colours and words of other people’s minds and hearts. She felt me right away, even trapped as I was in the heart of Mum’s flame-fear. The flames hurt me more than the concrete.
“Hello Mrs Preston,” she said. “It’s time for your little girl to come to school.”
“I don’t want to talk to you,” Mum said. “Amy’s gone now. We sent her away.”
“Come inside,” said the big lady, patting at the perfect bun of her black hair, “or my associates will make you come in. You know we’re capable.”
Dad’s mind flashed back to that boy, and to me, and for a second he didn’t look big to me at all.
I Saw one of the big lady’s tentacles playing with Mum’s fear. It wasn’t hurt by the flames at all. Not like me.
She could control Mum if she wanted to, like a doll. A tiny whisper told me I could control Mum too, if I wanted to. I imagined the surprise in her wide brown eyes if she ever realised the truth.
Dad already knew. He’d known for years.
“No,” I whispered out loud. “Not the bad thoughts.”
Mum took a deep breath. Her fear turned sharp and cold. She charged through the open balcony door and threw her small dark body at the big lady. Both of them fell to the kitchen floor, and I gasped in pain as the broken glass dug into their skin.
“Get off!” Dad yelled. But he wasn’t yelling at the big lady. I Saw his mind clearly for the first time. He pulled Mum off the big lady, and he didn’t even care that she was bleeding.
The balcony tried to warn me to get out of the air conditioning box. It told me it was too old, too tired, and it was going to fall. The balcony was smarter than most of my friends. It knew I’d be killed, and that dying would make me stop being friends with it. But I couldn’t open the lid anyway.
So we fell – balcony, concrete, air conditioning box and little empath girl.
The box tried to get less sharp for me, but it was just a box. I pushed and pushed at the concrete lid, but I was falling too fast to get out.
Suddenly I wasn’t falling too fast. The balcony pressed against the air, and made it softer. We all drifted like a leaf and settled gently on the dirty asphalt of the shared carpark.
“Thank you,” I whispered.
I felt the balcony smiling back at me. But then I opened my eyes.
Three empaths looked down on me with empty black irises. “Hello, Amy,” they said together. “We’ve come to take you home.”
Mum barrelled out of the ground floor stairs clutching a piece of salad-bowl glass in her hand. Her feet were bloody, and her knees, and the hand holding the glass was dripping blood down her wrist. “Leave my daughter alone! She’s mine!”
Dad ran down the stairs after her. He grabbed her bloody wrist in one big hand and squeezed until she dropped the glass, hurting my hand as the glass cut her. “Enough! Don’t you know when to give up?”
Mum stared at him, and I Saw her hope shrivel up.
The big lady appeared out of empty space, standing over me like Dad loved to do. Her head was covered in black bobby pins. I felt them digging into her scalp, keeping her hair in order. “Now, Amy,” she said. “You want to be with your own kind, don’t you?”
“How did you just appear like that?” I asked, reaching up to touch the stiff stocking of her leg, and check she was really there. The hairs beneath the fabric made the stocking bumpy. “Why didn’t I See you?”
“I learnt to shield my emotions a long time ago. Wouldn’t you like to learn to do the same thing?”
“Amy?” she whispered. “Are you okay, sweetheart?”
Dad didn’t let go of her wrist.
“They know I’m here, Mum.”
Mum collapsed onto the asphalt, leaving her bloody arm awkwardly held up by Dad’s grip. “I love you Amy – remember that. Remember! No matter what they make you feel. Remember me! I’ll see you again!”
The big lady smiled hard. She had very thin lips, matching the thin tentacles already coming out of her head and arching down to touch my face. “Shh, Amy. Stay still. I’m going to make you feel better now. Try not to resist, or it might hurt.”
That’s when I saw something else, just inside her mind where I wasn’t meant to Look. I Saw how to shield myself from the Sight. All I had to do was think like whatever I was next to, and I’d vanish from her Sight like she’d vanished from mine. Physical sight meant so little to us.
I became asphalt. Everything in my head turned to rockish thoughts, crunched and trampled and mixed with tar. Slow, thick thoughts about hot weather and stiff white paint.
The empaths gasped – even the big lady. I knew I’d done it – vanished right in front of her.
“Grab her!” she shrieked.
I dived away from their arms, burning my knees on myself. On the asphalt. No! On myself. And I didn’t have knees.
Then I made my mind stay slow and thick and stiff while my body walked away, fleeing carefully across the asphalt where the empaths could search all day while I moved between their outstretched hands, invisible as air.
Dad was right: we Saw too much. We Saw so much we could learn to become invisible to one another – for a moment. I felt myself become almost visible as he came into my mind, so I quickly stopped thinking of him, and his fist-hands, and his fear that I was secretly bigger and stronger than him. Asphalt doesn’t have a Dad.
“Oh, good girl!” Mum called. She was looking right at me, and quickly looked away, up at the sky, so no-one could see me through her Normal thoughts.
Dad finally let go of her arm. He combed his moustache with his fingers before he realised there was blood on his hands. He hacked and spat at the ground. Since I was asphalt, I didn’t mind. Asphalt gets a lot of things on it.
The big lady lifted her head and sniffed the air. “I can still see you, Amy. I know exactly where you are.”
She was lying, and we both knew it. But then a bright glow of joy filled her aura. I cringed by accident, then quickly thought of tar and paint and a childhood as a mountain.
“Mr Preston!” she said. “Find your daughter. Bring her to me.”
“Can’t you see her?” Dad asked. “She’s right in front of you.”
The big lady’s tentacles quested out in front of her, while her physical body remained dignified. She Saw nothing.
I was gravel, and stone, and recycled concrete. But Dad walked right over to me and took my arm.
When I shook my head at him, he just tightened his grip. The empaths closed in.
“No,” whispered Mum. “She’s ours.” But she didn’t move from her place.
The old air conditioning box wanted me to crawl back inside. It didn’t understand.
I understood perfectly. Dad was giving me away. He must have called the big lady and told her everything. I bet he told her to come early, so I didn’t get a birthday party, either. So none of us were ready.
Clever Dad, to hide it even from me. I should have known sooner. Of course he was afraid of me – everyone was, even Mum – but I thought he loved me, too. Sometimes I even made him laugh. He liked the pictures I drew, where he was so big and everyone else was so small. It was how he always looked to me, because I Saw the truth of things.
But he pulled me to my feet and when I refused to walk he lifted me up by the armpits and held me out in front of him like a wet bedsheet. Even then, he kept my back to him, so he didn’t see my eyes.
The big lady’s tentacles outlined my body. I wasn’t asphalt any more. “Did you really think you could hide from me? The instant you opened those blank black eyes, you belonged to me by law.” She reached out her hands to take me.
Dad smelled of sweat, the sour kind that isn’t because of the sun. He was either angry or afraid now. I couldn’t tell which.
But I knew what I was: angry. Angry enough that nothing anyone else felt could hurt me. Not any more.
I pushed back on Dad’s chest and kicked out with my legs. My foot hit the big lady’s hands with a satisfying smack. Dad’s grip loosened as he lost his balance. Taking my chance, I wriggled to the ground and fled.
I wasn’t asphalt – I was a scared girl, and I wanted to get far away from all Mum’s blood and Dad’s sweat and the empaths’ black-coloured eyes. So I fled.
Mum struggled to her feet, gasping in pain as shards of glass dug deeper into her. She grabbed at Dad as he ran after me. He flung her aside and she slid on the ground, scraping open the skin on her arms and knees.
I jumped into the Lantana bushes and wriggled through. Dad tried to follow but his foot caught and he tripped. He jumped back up and pounded after me, ripping out the flowers by their roots.
“Mr Preston!” called the big lady. “Mr Preston, wait!”
He didn’t listen to her. “I’ll get you, Amy. Don’t you dare run from me.”
I ran down the cracked concrete toward the shops. Dad’s footsteps pounded after me. He was catching up.
My breath caught in my throat, hurting me. I heard the big lady yelling again, but I couldn’t hear what she said. The brown bricks of our flats were in the way. Bricks are quiet, and they’re good to hide behind. But I couldn’t hide from Dad. Dad had Normal eyes.
He caught me, wrenching my shoulder so I faced him. “Enough!”
“Stop it, you’re hurting me. Daddy!”
He shook me until I stopped pleading. I looked at my feet, like he taught me. His feelings made me ill. I shook with rage – a mix of his and mine.
“You disobeyed me,” he said. “I should beat you ragged before I feed you to them. No-one can see us here, you know. So much for seeing through walls, you cheat.”
I pushed at him and writhed in his grip, but he was ready for me.
“You’re a bad girl. Remember that when the empaths lock you in a concrete cave where you belong. You’re a bad girl. Say it!”
“I’m. . . a bad girl.”
“That’s right. Say it again.”
“I hate you!”
He shook me. My head flopped around. It hurt my neck. “Now say it right.”
“I’m a bad girl.”
“I’m a bad girl.”
“That’s right. That’s what you’ll always be, because you’re an empath, not a Normal. Time you realised what you are. Now walk back with me or I’ll give you something to cry about.”
I remembered Mum sliding across the asphalt, bleeding from her face and hands and feet. Dad had hated me all along, and I’d been too stupid to admit what I’d Seen every day.
Already I could see the big lady’s tentacles questing around the corner of the house. But she couldn’t See me, and she couldn’t See Dad’s sudden explosion of hate – not yet.
But did I have tentacles too? I squeezed shut my eyes and hated Dad with all my heart. He said I was a freak. He said I was a bad girl. He knew how to hurt me, and I’d learnt plenty from Seeing inside his head every day of my life. Normals feared me for a reason.
He screamed and let go of my arm. “What are you doing to me?”
I kept my eyes shut, so I could See him more clearly. He thought he was in pain. His body didn’t think so, but his mind was mine. I concentrated harder, clenching the empty air in my fists as I imagined his heart in my fingers. Dad fell to the ground. He tried to speak, but he couldn’t.
I stared at him, getting frightened. No-one had taught me how to make it stop. Something new was happening, and I couldn’t control it. It was happening in his body – really happening this time.
Dad clutched at his chest. “No,” he wheezed. The fear made him shrink to a tiny boy before my eyes. A tiny boy with messy blond hair and a big, crying mouth. “You little murderer.”
My own chest hurt like someone was squeezing me too tightly. I couldn’t breathe. My legs gave way and I lay on the ground at Dad’s side. Suddenly I saw the whole world through his eyes: saw my dark-skinned daughter and her black curly hair and shiny black irises staring back at me. I screamed in agony, and then suddenly it didn’t hurt any more. My vision was my own again, and Dad lay facing me with frozen eyes.
I stared at him; stared and stared and stared but I couldn’t See him any more. He was gone, leaving just the shape of him on the ground – exactly like the shape of wooden furniture, because it used to be a living thing and now it’s not. I touched his body, still warm and sticky with sweat. He wasn’t inside. I shook him, carefully, not wanting him to grab me again. “Dad?”
“Enough,” said the big lady. “He’s dead.”
One of the others walked along the path. She knelt down and touched his neck and mouth. “He’s cooling,” she said, and her voice shook. She reached out a hand for me, and I knew she wanted me to cry, so she could comfort me. The shape of her was soft, and her eyes were crinkled in concern. She wore a long skirt with daisies wound all around it, and I wondered if maybe not every empath was bad like me.
“It’s over,” interrupted the big lady, and the other lady guiltily snapped back her hand. “Call someone to fetch him. That Indonesian woman, perhaps.”
“Mum,” I whispered. “She’s my Mum.”
One of them picked me up. I didn’t fight as she carried me back the way I’d come. Mum lay on the asphalt, surrounded by dirt and dead leaves. She wrapped her bloody arms around her bloody knees and cried. Her pain sapped my strength, and I was too weak to call out to her.
One of the empaths said to me, “You’re one of us. You always have been, and you always will be.”
They put me in a black BMW. One sat on either side of me, and the big lady drove. I twisted around in the too-tight seatbelt, but Mum didn’t get up.
As we turned the corner I tried to glimpse Dad’s empty body on the broken path. But I couldn’t see him anymore.
TWENTY YEARS LATER
I lined my students up against our practice wall – a stone slab. Jenny pinched Eric and Eric pulled her hair. They both giggled.
I pretended not to notice, but turned my back and carefully kept my Sight ahead of me, where our courtyard of bright grass filled in the gap between the girls’ dorms on one side and the boys’ dorms on the other – all built of stone so we couldn’t See through the walls. “All right kids – whenever you’re ready. Remember, disguising yourself by feel only works on empaths. Normals rely on their physical sight, since they can’t See like we can.”
I counted to five in my head, knowing all of them could hear me. The physical world was quiet except for the low sound of other classes happening in their rooms behind the twin rows of dorms. Beyond the dorms and classrooms, birds trilled to one another in our acres of bushland.
When I reached the count of five I turned around and opened my mind. I saw the practice wall. Nothing else. Then a twitch on the right hand side. A shimmer of ponytail. “Jenny!”
“You can’t!” she said. Her voice seemed to come from the wall – but the wall grew freckles as she spoke. Then a nose.
I pointed directly at her. She laughed and appeared. Eric appeared only one step closer to me than her, with his finger stuck up his nose and his hair hanging in his black-irised eyes. He was grinning – Eric was always grinning, giving the impression his teeth were simply too big to fit inside his mouth.
“Very funny, Eric. Okay, everyone else has done very well. I can’t see you at all. Come out, come out, wherever you are.”
Half the class was less than a metre from my face, grabbing blindly onto one another’s shirts and stepping on each other’s shoes. As they stopped thinking like a wall they tumbled to the ground together.
“Did you see me?”
“How about me?”
“Udita almost touched your shirt!”
“I didn’t see you at all.” I was genuinely impressed, and let them see it in my mind. “If you keep improving at this rate we’ll have a try at the brick wall next week.”
“Brick, no!” said Jenny. “It’s got so many different bits!”
I raised my hand for quiet but Eric plunged ahead. “Jenny’s just mad because it doesn’t like her.”
“Is that true, Jenny?”
Jenny twisted her shoe in the dirt until we all felt the dirt asking her to stop. “I ran into it by accident once.”
“Really?” Clumsiness was unusual in empaths – we learned from infancy to be respectful to inanimate objects. Even my Normal early upbringing hadn’t taught me otherwise. If anything, I was even more respectful. Back then, I’d had no-one else to talk to. “Was it really an accident?”
“I didn’t See it,” said Jenny.
For a moment I was worried. Some empaths weren’t very good at Seeing. I’d once met a man who said he couldn’t hear pavement at all.
Eric flipped a cartwheel. “It was sleeping.”
I sagged with relief. That particular wall slept especially quietly. It was a reasonable mistake for a young child to make, relying on her Sight instead of her physical vision. We all did. “That’s enough now. Be off with you.”
They turned to go.
“Except you, Eric. I saw you pulling Jenny’s hair before, and you know it. If you’re not careful, I’ll tell your aunty you’ve been misbehaving.”
To my empathic eyes he shrank at once, turning into a mop of hair the size of a toy dog. But as soon as he saw my sympathy he knew it wasn’t a real threat. Hidden deep in our minds – hopefully better hidden in my case – we both called her the big lady. Out loud, Eric called her Aunty Beth and I called her Miss Nowan. To me she looked like an octopus, inky black and forever reaching tentacles into other people’s hearts. To Eric she was a spider weaving webs for the unwary. I was constantly tempted to admit I agreed with his sentiments. But then I’d remember she was my boss. She could still limit Mum’s access to the empath compound if she wanted. Most Normals weren’t allowed in at all. Not that they wanted to come.
At that instant Eric’s grown-up brother rounded the wall. I could tell by Danny’s grin he’d heard every word and felt every feeling of our conversation. Especially mine. He glowed with contentment, and as always I felt drawn to him like a moth to flame. Every move he made was made with such certainty. When he spoke, he simply assumed people were listening – and they always were. When he smiled, it was as sunny and open as a summer day, and I basked in it. Without that certainty, he was merely pretty, with smooth skin and high cheekbones. With it, he took my breath away.
“Eric, you naughty thing,” he said. “What have you been doing to the boarding school’s best teacher today?”
Eric ran straight at his big brother and veered off at the last moment to run for the oval. Danny swatted his backside as he passed, then came and clasped my hand. The warmth of him was welcome even on such a hot day, and he knew it. He kissed my cheek and we walked hand in hand back to the dorms. I rested my head on his arm, since he was too tall for me to lean on his shoulder.
Most empaths transmitted a self-image gained from other people’s view of them, tweaking it to make themselves a little taller or better looking. I’d touched every centimetre of Danny’s face and he fit his self-image exactly. He even knew his nose was a tiny bit crooked, and let that stay in his image of himself for anyone to See. I loved Seeing it, knowing it was real.
“Why are you still scared of Aunty Beth?” he asked.
I didn’t bother lying. There was no point. But I could avoid the truth, boxing it away in the back of my mind as she’d taught me. “That’s just the way I am with her.”
“And why is she scared of you?”
I shut my mind hard, and he took the hint.
At that moment I saw a mind-tentacle snaking around the wall. “Danny – she’s here.”
He took one look at Miss Nowan’s psychic call and pulled me into a run toward her. “It’s something to do with the police – and it looks like something’s wrong. We might need you.”
He didn’t let go. I yanked my hand out of his grip, and he apologised without slowing down. He knew exactly why no-one ever pulled me around. Not since the day I met Miss Nowan.
After a moment of watching his thoughts, I decided to follow. Not for his aunt – for him. But a part of me liked the idea of being crucial on a police call-out. The big lady would have to respect me after that.
So I ran, and kept the most altruistic of my thoughts highest in my mind.
“Amy,” said Miss Nowan, already getting into her latest black car – a four-wheel drive this time. “Good. Get in.”
“Sick. Someone’s got hostages at a school. You’ll have to do.”
She lifted her arm to shove me into the SUV, but I moved fast enough to avoid her touch. Miss Nowan always had cold hands. Danny slid into the driver’s seat. He switched on the SUV and revved as Miss Nowan sat in the passenger seat and I threw myself in the back. Yolanda was an obvious first choice. These days she taught the combined Kindergarten and Year One class, but she’d originally studied forensics, and worked with a lot of other police consultants.
I’d seen Danny drive above the speed limit before –it was expected when he was assisting the police. But I’d never been in the car at the time. The seatbelt sliced into my neck as he raced around corners, and my shoulder jammed against the door. Miss Nowan kept in radio contact with the police and told Danny when to switch off our siren and slow down.
We all listened to the radio in grim silence, trying to prepare for what we’d soon face. There was a man with a gun – no, not a man, a kid. It was his school. We all heard Danny suck in his breath. “Pain,” he said. “Normals always call us when someone’s in pain.”
“Keep your feelings in check,” warned Miss Nowan. “Your mother thinks we need to stay friendly with them, and I don’t like it either – but she’s right.”
“Why don’t you just marry one then,” he muttered. “She did.”
One of her mental tentacles snapped out and slapped him across the face. I caught the usual glimpse of Danny’s father in his mind – a sucking blackness, and radiating hate – and turned my Sight away.
As Danny parked in the school carpark, Miss Nowan pulled her hair over her earpiece and pretended to check her makeup in the mirror like a Person. We empaths didn’t believe in outer disguises. Not physical ones, anyway.
As soon as the car was still she pulled three pairs of sunglasses out of the glovebox and passed a pair each to Danny and I.
“These probably won’t fit you, Amy. They belong to Yolanda.”
I murmured something back.
We stepped out of the car and Danny quickly took my hand. “Don’t talk,” he whispered. “The Normals recognise us because we don’t use as much vocal expression as they do.”
“Yes, nodding is good. They think we can’t see properly, since that’s easier than admitting they’re the blind ones.” He squeezed my hand. “Kissing is good, too. It makes them look away.”
I smiled, but only on my face. He didn’t push it.
The school itself was built of budget-brown weatherboard two storeys high, with a tall sign at the entrance saying enrollments were open. There was a row of brightly-coloured schoolbags hung on hooks next to the first classroom door. I hoped their owners had run away. One of the bags had fallen down, and was leaking orange cordial.
We strolled into a crowd of angry parents. Their distress washed over me, and I caught my breath. I focused on Danny’s island of peace, and found time to be impressed at how calm he was.
A plainclothes police officer spotted us and took Miss Nowan’s elbow to steer us into the cordoned-off parking area. “We have line of sight – more or less.” He stopped and looked at me for the first time. “You’re not Yolanda. She’s Caucasian, and not so thin.”
“Yolanda’s sick,” said Miss Nowan. “Amy’s another teacher at the empath centre. She knows kids.”
We all heard him thinking, “Empath kids, maybe,” but chose not to correct him. In his self-image, he had a scar across his cheek. His real cheek was clean-shaven and unmarked. Odd for someone to make themselves look more flawed than they were. But he was a Normal, and didn’t know he was doing it.
“I’m Senior Constable Rothchild. Our target’s in the second classroom, holding twenty-two kids aged thirteen to fifteen. We’ll patch your radio into negotiations. If this goes badly, you weren’t here.”
“As usual,” said Danny.
The officer flashed him a cynical smile and left us.
Danny and I watched Miss Nowan, and as soon as she was linked in it was obvious negotiations were deteriorating before they could begin. I held Danny’s hand more tightly, until my fingers hurt. Even just looking at Miss Nowan as she eavesdropped made me feel the despair of a teenager willing to kill his own classmates.
The same three words came into my head over and over again: “I’ll show them. I’ll show them. I’ll show them.”
“He’s easily embarrassed,” Danny whispered. “We can use that to control him without actually manipulating him. Why aren’t there any cameras here yet?”
“They’re behind the police van,” I said, catching a hint of a camera skulking behind the tinted windows. “I’ll tell them to film, so we can have Trevor’s embarrassment on our side.”
Miss Nowan nodded, and touched the tight black bun on her head with one hand.
I walked over to the huddle of disgruntled cameramen and the even more disgruntled policeman keeping them switched off in order to prevent a gory Youtube leak. His eyes widened as he saw my black-irised eyes through the sunglasses.
“We need the cameras on,” I said.
He scowled, but ruined the effect by trying very hard not to think about what I’d look like with my top off. I kept my face steady as he blushed. The reporter next to him was reciting a well-worn diatribe about freedom of speech.
“Right,” said the cop to the reporter. “You’re perfectly right. Go ahead and film.”
The reporter almost swallowed his tongue. “We can film? Here? At a school? Where there are kids and a gun?”
“That is what you wanted, yes.”
He paused halfway through motioning to his cameramen. I walked faster. “You!” he called out. “Black-haired girl with the beanpole legs. What are you?”
I didn’t know what to say, but Miss Nowan did. Her voice in my head told me what to say. “A consultant.”
“Yeah?” said the reporter, and pointed at me to help his cameraman get just the right angle. “Take off your sunnies then.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.” I turned on my heel and tried to look offended, but it was too late.
“Empath!” someone shrieked.
Suddenly the crowd had a focus to their anger. They screamed and pushed at one another, and in seconds they poured over the cordon into the police area.
Rothchild grabbed a loudspeaker and the shriek of it cut through the crowd, making them look at him. “Your children are in there. Let us do our job – by the best available means!”
The crowd hushed, standing on the knife-edge between hope and fury. It could go either way.
But I saw a pale face at the window, and I recognised him. The one with the gun, who wore death in every cell of him. He looked straight at me, and he knew what I was. He’d hoped we would come.
“Hello,” he said, right into my mind. I heard him perfectly. For a Normal, he was very focused. He knew exactly what he wanted – pain. For everyone.
Miss Nowan and Danny appeared next to me. They’d meant to take my arm and run from the rumbling hate of the crowd, but with one look they knew I wasn’t leaving.
The gunman spoke again, mouthing the words because he was trying so hard to concentrate his thoughts on us. “You shouldn’t have come.”
“We understand you!” Miss Nowan shouted in his mind. “No-one else but us. We know!”
“Now everyone will understand,” he said, and reached down. He pulled a teenage girl to stand beside him. She was too frightened to cry. My throat blocked up as I felt it.
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