Prologue: The Lion Within

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In this home for unwanted children, no one cared who she was. They pretended to care. Like Ma, they were fakers. Other kids had said hello while the social worker was watching, but now they ignored her, playing video-games in a cluttered room with moldy corners. No one saw her creep past, her hair blacker than the rainy night outside. No one saw the scissors hidden in her baggy pocket.

In the kitchen, her new foster mother gave her a warm smile, like a TV character. Soon the foster mother went back to cooking, and she slipped outside through the flimsy door, quiet as a shadow.

Rain hissed on leaves. The wood of the back porch was soft with rot, sagging as if battered. It could not hide how broken it was, but that made her comfortable.

When she felt as peaceful as she ever had, she angled the scissors across her wrist and began to cut. Blood welled like India ink.

A rusty creak disrupted her privacy. The porch door cracked open, and she felt someone peering through the crack. One of the other kids must be spying on the new girl. They probably wanted to make fun of her baggy clothes, or her glasses, or the way she hunched and didn't meet anyone's eyes. Maybe they were curious as to why her skin was darker than theirs. Maybe they would scream at her, or hit her, and try to make her talk.

She got ready to stab someone in the face.

The door opened further, allowing a child-sized wheelchair to power through. The sandy-haired boy in the wheelchair looked sunken in the wrong places, his arms as fragile as twigs.

"Hi," he said in a friendly tone, as the door clattered shut behind him. "I'm your suicide watch."

Her social worker had mentioned that a disabled child lived in this group home, and that he was a genius. More like a smart-ass. She circled around his wheelchair, blocking the door, preventing him from getting back inside the house. His squeaky voice would never manage to raise an alarm. Even if he had a cell phone, he looked too weak to lift one. 

She sawed her wrist with a scissors blade. Let him watch her die.

"They say you can't talk." The boy maneuvered his wheelchair to face her. "But you can. You're just afraid of what you'll say. If you start speaking, you're afraid you'll scream."

He must be reeling her in with false sympathy, ready to slam her with a harsh joke the instant she let her guard down. She knew exactly what sort of messed up children ended up in foster care.

She raised the bloody scissors. This boy needed to go away.

A notebook lay on his lap. With weak hands, he painstakingly tore out a sheet. "My name is Thomas." He folded the sheet, this way and that. "The resident genius, as you've guessed. You're less blind than most people. There's nothing wrong with you at all, other than your speech phobia, which is no big deal. You'd be surprised at how many seemingly ordinary people suffer from phobias and deeply buried psychoses. A good ninety-five percent of the population. And you have far better reasons for yours than most people do."

Her cut wrist throbbed. Blood spattered the dirty porch floor, but she studied the Thomas kid. No one was ever genuinely sympathetic.

"Your mother punished you every time you spoke." Thomas fluffed the paper, sculpting it. "For your entire life, up until they dragged your Ma to prison, you couldn't speak without suffering a punishment. That's why your throat closes up whenever you try."

She smelled the dirty gag stuffed in her mouth, as if she was hungry, as if she'd just begged Ma for something to eat.

The comprehension made her gasp. Ma hated complaints. Maybe her silence really was because of Ma, and not because she was born defective and pathetic. Ma had always seemed to hate her. Not just her, but also Glitzy, the tiny baby, her sister. 

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