1.1 Wielding Secrets, pt 2

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The van hit a bump, and Thomas strained to readjust his laptop computer. The wheelchair straps made it difficult. He needed the straps, though, because just sitting upright was hard work for his atrophied muscles.

Strapped into place. That summed up his whole life.

He considered arguing his reasons for avoiding the high school, but Margo would never take him seriously. No one ever did, except for Cherise. Most people saw his withered limbs, his concave chest and sagging spine, and assumed he was pathetic.

They pulled into the crowded high school parking lot. A couple of teenage boys walked near the minivan, close enough for Thomas to pick up mental echoes of their recent basketball practice. He sensed aches from a workout that he would never be capable of. He overheard everything that went through their minds.

"Do you ever miss going to school?" Margo asked.

"No." Thomas had spent most of his life convincing adults that he didn't need school. Other kids made him feel like an anthropologist amidst alien life forms. Their moods shifted so fast, they seemed iridescent, like butterflies.

Cherise waited at the bus curb. She hid behind thick bangs and glasses, as if trying to blend in with the crowd of white kids. As soon as she spotted the red minivan, with its handicap plate, she hurried towards them.

A gangly, smug-looking guy followed her. Thomas recognized Roy immediately. Part of him had lived Cherise's life, so he knew how it felt to eat alone in the cafeteria, with Roy throwing half-eaten sandwiches at her. Sometimes Roy slammed Cherise's sketchbook shut without warning.

Cherise wasted no time getting into the van. She tossed her backpack in first, then leaped up, and tried to slam the door, but Roy held it open.

"Hey." He licked his lips in a suggestive manner. "This your handicap van? Sweet."

Cherise's mind bristled with dread. She knew—and therefore Thomas knew—that Roy acted friendly, but he was unpredictable, like her Ma.

Thomas made fists, wishing he was strong enough to throw a punch.

"Let go," Margo said in a warning tone. "Before you get hurt." The minivan began to roll.

Roy backed off, showing his empty hands. "See ya tomorrow, hottie," he said to Cherise. "Maybe you'll say hi to me next time."

Thomas sensed her humiliation, along with the reason for it. Roy had followed her down an empty hallway between classes today. When she'd refused to talk to him, he'd lurched like an attack dog, screaming, "Show me your tits!" Then he'd seized Cherise and shoved his tongue down her throat until she gagged. Roy had learned that she would never report him.

"Stop the van." Thomas strained to roll down his window. It was just a button toggle, but even that was hard for him.

Margo had no intention of stopping, but a group of teenagers crossed her path, forcing her to stop anyway.

Icy wind made Thomas's eyes water. "Hey, Roy," he called.

Roy ambled closer. "Aw. I saw you on the news." His mood was self-assured, but minds were as complex as planets. They had ecosystems and terrains, layers of emotion tied to memories. Thomas found an eddy of unease and chased it down through branching fissures, towards the deepest and darkest chasm of buried humiliation. Here were the worst memories of Roy's life.

Baby Einstein, right?" Roy smirked. "Hey, Latina," he called to Cherise. "Your handicapped boyfriend is adorbs."

"Hmm." Thomas tasted a memory. "I wonder if your mom would pour her vomit bucket over you again, if she saw how you treat Cherise."

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