Prologue: The Lion Within

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All the disabled kids said hello while the social worker was watching.

Now that no adults were paying attention, the other kids ignored her. They played video-games in the cluttered recreation room, laughing with each other. She didn't blame them for not inviting her. Why speak to a girl who never spoke? They already had friends.

One kid looked lonely. But he was very little, maybe ten years old, not close to her fourteen years of age. His powered wheelchair and withered limbs made it clear why he couldn't play with everyone else. He sat at a computer, but he paused while she snuck past. He gave her a knowing look, as if he saw who she was, beneath her glasses and curtains of black hair. As if he knew about the scissors hidden in her pocket.

Every child in this group home came from abuse and neglect. She wondered if the sandy-haired kid's birth parents had beaten him until he couldn't walk. That had to be worse than what her mother had done to her.

But did it matter? She was a worse person. She should have grabbed her baby sister and ran. The locked door would have stopped her, but she should have put up a fight. That was what a good person would have done.

She didn't belong among people.

In order to get outside, she had to sneak through the kitchen, where the foster mother was stirring a pot on the stove. When the mother smiled at her, she went still. Maybe all mothers were fake-nice. Maybe they all hid a seething, feral, animalistic rage.

This mother seemed to forget she existed. Good. When adults ignored her, it meant she was safe.

She slipped through the back door, into darkness where rain hissed on leaves.

The wood of the back porch was soft with rot, battered by rain. A lonely place. Here, she might figure out how to break the silent shell that contained all of her pent-up screams. She poked the blade of the scissors into her wrist, in search of a vein to slice.

The flimsy door creaked open.

She began to flee, certain that someone had told an adult that she was breaking some sort of house rules, and the adult would unleash an ungodly wrath upon her.

But it was just the ultra-disabled boy. He powered his wheelchair through the doorway, and the door clattered shut behind him.

"Hi," he said in a friendly tone. "I'm your suicide watch."

She raised the bloody scissors in an unspoken threat. The kid must be lying. No one sane would put someone like him in charge of a suicide watch. His body was sunken in wrong places, his limbs looked as fragile as twigs, and his squeaky voice would never raise an alarm. He was probably here to make fun of her clothes, or to ask what ethnicity she was. It would be a game to him, to try to make the mute girl talk.

"You're Cherise," he said. "Silent, but I hear every word inside your mind." A notebook lay on his lap, and he painstakingly tore out a sheet. "You're not broken, Cherise. Not in the ways you think you are."

Only bad kids ended up in group homes, she figured. This boy looked innocent, but he was surely reeling her in with false sympathy, ready to slam her with a harsh joke the instant she let her guard down. She got ready to stab him.

"My name is Thomas." The kid folded the sheet of paper, this way and that. "Everyone misjudges me, so I know what that's like. I can tell that you're not disabled. You're not mute at all. You have a phobia of speech. You're afraid that if you start speaking, you'll scream, and you won't be able to stop."

Her cut wrist throbbed, but she hardly noticed. No one had ever described her problem so accurately before.

"Your mother punished you every time you spoke." Thomas fluffed the paper, sculpting it. "For your entire life, up until recently, you were unable to speak without suffering a punishment. That's why your throat closes up whenever you try."

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