The moment I saw Ryland’s silhouette in the window of our old tree house, I knew something was wrong.
Ry was – as he liked to put it – the world’s best hider. This was due mostly to the fact that he was a skinny kid and could fold himself down to practically nothing. A talent he exploited when it came time to do chores, or when anything green appeared on Mom’s dinner menu. The tree house had at one time been his favorite place to hide, but he never went up there anymore, or at least not since a family of raccoons had gotten in two summers ago. Mom had chased them out, but he still refused to go in, citing the possibility that they might come back and could jump out and get him at any moment. He had a dozen or so hiding places that were safely located inside the house, so I knew that whatever it was that had chased him up into the tree, it had to be bad. Bad enough – in the mind of a ten year-old anyway – to risk a possible raccoon attack.
I made my way across the yard, glad that I’d decided to cut through the cemetery on my walk home that day. If I had stuck to the sidewalk, I would have ended up at the front of the house, and never would have seen him. “Ry?”
I heard shuffling on the wood floor of the tree house followed by a sniffle and a squeaky, “Becca?”
“What’s wrong, Ry?” I asked, starting the precarious climb up the thin wooden planks. Reaching the top, I poked my head through the square opening in the floor and found Ry sitting in the corner hugging his knees to his chest, his eyes as red as his hair.
“Where is your coat? It’s cold out here,” I said, as I hoisted myself up into the cramped space. The long Pittsburgh winters hadn’t exactly been kind to the little shack, and I found myself hoping for both our sakes that the rotted structure and rusty nails could support my extra one hundred and twenty pounds.
“I’m not cold,” he said, sniffling. “I thought you were at work.”
“Just got home. I saw you hiding up here when I walked by.” I slid my jacket off and wrapped it around his shoulders, ignoring the nip of the early October air. “What’s the matter, buddy?” I asked, as I reached over to rub his back and he shrank into my side, hiding his face.
“They’re going to take me away,” he mumbled into my shirt.
I grabbed his shoulders, holding him away from me so I could see his face. “Who is?”
“The men in the house. They’re talking to Mom. They’re going to take me away.”
“We’re not going to let that happen, you know that,” I assured him, though I could already feel my neck getting hot as I prepared for battle.
Who was it this time? Representatives from another institution? Another doctor with his magical prescription pad? Or was it that nosey bitch Ms Paust, the elementary school’s guidance counselor, back for another round of “In my professional opinion…”
“Mom says I’m gonna go this time,” he choked. “She says it’s OK.”
His bottom lip shook as a new batch of tears spilled over onto his already shiny cheeks.
“OK, listen to me.” I held his chin, forcing him to look me in the eye. “You stay in here until I get back, do you hear me? You don’t come out for anyone but me, understand?” He nodded. “I’m not going to let anyone take you, OK? Just stay up here and try not to worry.”
I climbed down the tree as quickly as I could without breaking my neck and ran toward the house. Who could it possibly be? Ever since I’d convinced Ryland to stop telling people about the voices things had been OK. No trips to the counselor, no calls from teachers or concerned parents. Sure, they all still watched him out of the corner of their eyes like he might spontaneously burst into flame, and his classmates still avoided him, but no one had actually approached Mom or come to the house in weeks. I thought we had finally gotten past all this.
“Mom!” I was yelling before I had made it all the way inside the door, “Mom, where are you?”
I found her in the kitchen taking a full pot of coffee out of the machine. As soon as she turned toward me and I saw her face, I could see that something was different. Something that made my throat close and my nails dig deeper into my palms.
Ryland was right: they had gotten to her.
Damn it, I knew I shouldn’t have taken that stupid waitressing job! If I’d been home, these people – whoever the hell they were – wouldn’t have made it past the front door! How long had they been here? What could they possibly have said to get her on their side?
In these situations, Mom and I had always been a team. In the beginning, we had tried to reason with the people who came to “discuss Ryland’s condition”, but they were never the sort of people you could talk to. They made it clear that they would do the talking and our job was to listen and agree. Finally, during the third “house call” with a therapist from some children’s hospital, I got so mad at the woman’s snotty tone and total disregard for anything Mom or I had to say that I lost it. I started screaming and shouting, and threw her out. Since then, that was the system Mom and I adopted.
OK, the system I adopted, and Mom tolerated. She didn’t want to see Ryland locked up any more than I did, but she was far too soft-spoken and even-tempered to do what needed to be done. But that was fine, as I was more than happy to do the dirty work. This time would be no different. I took a deep breath and braced myself, ready to do whatever I had to. And if I was going to be on my own this time, so be it.
“Who are they?” I asked. “What are they doing here?”
“Becca, please.” Mom forgot the coffee and was in front of me almost instantly, her hands firmly on my shoulders. “It’s not what you think – no, honey, listen to me – it’s not the same this time. They just want to help.”
“Help? You can’t be serious, Mom!”
“There is a school that–”
“A school, of course, that’s what they all say. ‘Nut house’ isn’t PC anymore, remember?”
“Becca, please, I think these people may be able to…”
I was out of the room before she could finish her thought. Help him? Help him? Why on earth was she buying this crap all of a sudden? Oh well, it didn’t matter; I would take care of it myself. They’d obviously gotten to her somehow, but they weren’t going to get to me.
Following the sound of male voices, I headed to the front room, ready to evict our uninvited guests. “Get out,” I clipped, finger pointed at the front door.
The two men slowly stood – though from courtesy or shock, I couldn’t tell. The man on the right took a cautious step forward. “You must be Miss Ingle–”
“I said out. Now. Both of you.”
“Becca!” Mom snapped, rushing past me with the tray of coffee and mugs. “Gentlemen, this is my daughter Becca, please excuse her. Becca,” she turned to me, “calm down.”
“They’re not taking him.” My comment was directed less at my mother, and more at the two men I was glaring at over her shoulder.
I took a second to actually look at them, and was a bit taken aback by what I saw. The first guy looked to be in his late forties with a long crooked nose, and dark flashing eyes that were surrounded by deep-set wrinkles – more than likely the result of a life spent scowling. The way this guy looked alone would have been enough to make Ryland run and hide.
The other man, sitting next to him – the one who had tried to speak earlier – was almost a shock to my system after studying his partner. He was young, twenty maybe, with fair hair and light eyes. His jeans and button down shirt were neat, and his hair was cut short and styled. Sitting next to each other, they looked like some sort of “before and after” anti-drug poster you’d see in a high school nurse’s office. I might have been amused, if they weren’t currently here to lock up my brother.
“Listen honey, please,” my Mom pleaded quietly. “They are from a private school in Ireland. It’s the school that…” she hesitated, and in that split second I could see the words in her eyes before she could bring herself to say them “your father runs.”
Of course. Jocelyn. Also known as my father. The man my mother had been madly in love with. The man who swept her off her feet, only to walk out on all of us less than a month after Ryland was born. The man we hadn’t seen or heard from in ten years. If anything could have convinced my mother to side with them, it was throwing Jocelyn into the mix.
If I was angry before, now I was livid.
She must have seen the rage fly across my face, because she was quick to continue, “They say that they know what’s wrong with him and that they can help.”
“There is nothing wrong with him,” I growled between clenched teeth, never taking my eyes off the intruders.
The older scary-looking guy leisurely folded his hands in front of him and raised his chin. “Ryland is in need of care that only we can provide,” he said, with a cocky air that made me want to kick him in the shins. “He should be honored to be admitted to such a fine institution.”
“Institution. Exactly.” I snapped.
“St Brigid’s Academy,” he corrected with a glare, “will give him th–”
“It’s just a school,” the younger man interrupted, in what I can only imagine was his best peacekeeper voice. “I promise.”
“You promise? What are we, twelve? Next I suppose you’re going to pinky swear me that this will all be for his own good, and expect me to let you take him?”
Ignoring my snide commentary, the younger man continued, “St Brigid’s attracts some of the finest students from across the UK and Europe.”
“Then maybe you should stay over there.”
“Becca!” Mom snapped. “Please, just listen,” she begged, but now with real irritation in her tone.
I closed my mouth and crossed my arms, as the younger man continued to plug his hopeless cause. “We host some of the finest instructors from all over the world. Our graduation rate is nearly 100%, after which, the majority of our graduates continue on to some of the most prestigious universities in the world. The diversity of our curriculum rivals most–”
“Yeah,” I interrupted, no longer interested, “it’s a hell of a school. Got it. Let’s just say for one second that I am buying this private school crap. Why on earth would one of the top academies in Europe come to personally recruit a kid who hasn’t gotten above 80% on a spelling test since the first grade?”
The younger man opened his mouth to reply, but unfortunately the older man beat him to it. “Jocelyn feels it is time for the boy to join him.”
The younger man shot a look at his companion that made it clear that even he – who had known me less than ten minutes – knew that was absolutely the wrong thing to say.
“The boy?” I growled. “You know what, that is probably exactly what Jocelyn said, because odds are he doesn’t remember the boy’s name!”
The older man brought himself up to his full height and had the audacity to shake his finger at me like he was scolding a dog, “Young lady, this situation does not concern you. Ryland needs to be among people who understand his condition and can help him control it.”
“You bas–” but before I could even get the “tard” out, the younger man stood up, stretching one hand toward me, palm out, while placing the other hand on his partner’s shoulder in a gesture that would hopefully keep him from talking.
“We don’t want to hurt him,” the younger man said, but I was done caring.
“You listen to me,” I snarled at both of them. “I don’t care who you are, where you’re from, or who sent you, but believe me when I tell you that I will lay down in front of any car that tries to take Ryland from this house!” With that, I stormed out of the door, and up the stairs to my room, cursing under my breath.
The bedroom door banged as I shut it behind me, and I headed straight for the window against the back wall. One look outside told me that Ryland was still hiding in the tree house, and from here I could watch to see he stayed there. This spot was also perfect as it was right next to the heating vent in the floor which, when opened, allowed me to hear any conversations going on in the living room below.
All right, so I’d camp here until they left. No problem.
Except it was a problem. As much as I wanted to sit still and keep an eye and ear on things, I couldn’t; I was too riled up. In an effort to calm down, I changed out of my work clothes and pulled my long hair out of my “work appropriate” bun. I grabbed my brush, pulled my desk chair up to the spot by the window, and started brushing out my mess of hair, not taking my eyes off the back yard.
I’d really started to think that this was all over. I thought life could finally be normal.
When Ry was younger and the voices started he would panic every time he heard them and tell anyone nearby – me, Mom, his teachers at school, his friends, their parents – anyone. We thought it was just a normal childhood “imaginary friend” sort of thing, but it wasn’t long before everyone realized it was more than that. These voices he heard came at random times and usually said really weird things. Like once, Ryland had an all-out panic attack at a baseball game because there was a voice screaming that if the Pirates didn’t win someone was going to die. Another time he was at school and had to be pulled out of class because he started crying hysterically when his teacher returned their most recent math test. Everyone assumed that it was because he’d gotten a bad grade, but he insisted that it was due to the voices that had suddenly come, yelling and crying in this head.
It wasn’t long before he stopped receiving invites to friends’ houses, started sitting alone at lunch, and began making regular trips to the counselor’s office. Everyone thought he was crazy.
Finally the guidance counselor, with the help of the school psychologist, started sending people to talk to Mom about getting “help” for Ry. The problem was when they said “help” what they really meant was locking him up to be observed and medicated, and I couldn’t let that happen. He was my brother, and I had to take care of him.
But more than that, I knew he wasn’t crazy. Deep down, I knew it. Yes, he heard voices, and yes it was strange, but why was everyone so convinced that Ryland was imagining the voices he heard? What if they were real? No one had ever even tried to figure out what was going on or if there was a way to help him – actually help him, not simply slapping a “crazy” sticker on his forehead so they could hide the problem behind an institution and drugs. I seemed to be the only person who wanted an actual explanation for the problem, not just a by-any-means solution.
A knock at my door made me jump. I reached for the handle, thinking it was Mom, but the voice on the other side wasn’t hers.
“Rebecca?” It was the younger of the two men.
“What?” I snipped.
“Do you mind if… Can I speak with you for a moment?”
I was about to tell him to go to hell, but something in the tone of his voice stopped me. Maybe I should talk to him. The fact that they hadn’t left yet meant they were going to be persistent, so I might as well get ready for the long haul. Anyway, better him than the crooked-nosed creature he had brought with him. “It’s not locked,” I said, though I still put as much venom in the words as I could.
He slowly opened the door, stepping in so cautiously it looked like he was trying to avoid landmines. He stopped five or so feet from where I stood with my arms crossed, ready for battle.
“So, talk,” I said, after a few moments of silence.
“We really do want to help your brother.”
Really? More of this? What, so cute guy thinks he can just waltz up here and win me over with some alone time. I snapped. “Oh, sure, you want to ‘help’ him ‘control’ his ‘condition’,” I said, making sarcastic air quotes. “Do you really think you are the first people to come and try to take him away ‘for his own good’? Do you think I don’t know what that means? I don’t care what you’ve been told, he’s not crazy. If you think that I am just going to stand by and let you lock him up in some institution somewhere, so you can–”
“I would never do that,” he interrupted quietly. His tone hadn’t been more than a whisper, but it was so earnest and solemn and, honestly, a little scary, that I couldn’t help but believe him. And just like that, it was gone; all my rage and aggression flew out of me like air out of a popped balloon. I sank down onto the edge of my bed, too tired to yell anymore. Besides, something inside was telling me that this man didn’t deserve a beating from me. I had no idea where that hunch was coming from, and I didn’t like it. He was the enemy, and I had to be strong. Yet unnatural as it felt to show weakness, I also couldn’t fight it. I sat hunched over on the edge of my bed, staring up at the stranger in my room, hoping I didn’t look as lost and helpless as I suddenly felt.
He glanced toward the window and saw my chair. “May I?”
I nodded. He sat down and swiveled the seat so that he was facing me. He leaned forward resting his elbows on his knees, looking calmly at me.
“So?” he said with a small smile.
“There are things I’d like to explain to you, as well as I can anyway.”
I made a small sweeping motion with my hand, letting him know he was welcome to begin. However, he shook his head. “I think we might make more progress with a question and answer session.”
“You ask me questions, and I’ll answer them. I’ll be honest, I prom–” he hesitated with a smile, “I pinky swear.” I huffed a laugh in spite of myself. “I just don’t want you to think that we mean Ryland any harm, because that couldn’t be further from the truth.”
“What I’m worried about is the difference in our definitions of the word ‘harm’. The people that want to lock him up and medicate him into a stupor don’t consider that to be ‘harming’ him either, but I certainly do.”
He nodded, but didn’t comment. His eyes never left mine, and I got the strange impression that he was really listening to me. Most people don’t listen. When you listen you hear the sounds and the silences. You hear the words people say, and the words they don’t say. Real listening takes more effort than most people are willing to give.
With a sigh, I decided to play his game. What could it hurt? Hell, maybe I’d even get a few answers along the way. “Who are you?” I asked after a moment, as that seemed the best place to start.
“My name is Alex Bray. The man with me is Taron Calgot. We both live at St Brigid’s Academy in County Clare, Ireland.”
“Wait, you live there? Like, all the time?”
“Yes. Taron works as one of the lecturers, and I work in… recruitment.” His pause seemed odd, but I let it go. “I have also taken many of the upper level classes that St Brigid’s offers, and would like to one day be brought on as a teacher.”
“And what do you want with my brother?”
“We want to help him. We really do understand. Ryland has… abilities. Abilities he can’t control yet. He can do things that the average person can’t. That’s why we want to take him to St Brigid’s, so he can be with others who are like him, and learn to control his abilities in a safe environment.”
He finished and was silent, waiting for my next question, but I was at a loss for words. This was definitely a new one. He hadn’t said anything about “fixing” Ryland; he’d simply said “control”. I could admit it sounded promising, but I knew better than to get my hopes up.
“How do you know all this?” I asked.
“Because,” he paused and looked at me as if to gauge my reaction, “I have abilities too. I’m like Ryland, and so is Taron, and your father.” He must have seen my eyes flash at the term “father” as he quickly continued. “And there are others. We all have abilities that the normal person doesn’t have.”
“And, exactly what do you mean by ‘abilities’?” I asked, growing more skeptical by the minute. “Please don’t tell me you’re talking about comic book-style stuff, like x-ray vision, or flying.”
“Well…” Alex paused, as though he were afraid to continue. “No one can fly, at least not that I’m aware of.”
I stared at him, waiting for him to smile, as obviously this was a joke. But he just sat there, looking back at me without so much as a smirk. “You’re serious with this?” I asked, after I was sure there was no punchline coming.
“Yes,” he nodded.
Oh. My. God. And people thought Ryland was crazy? “Yeah,” I said, not sure whether I should be laughing or offended that this guy actually thought I was that stupid. “Thanks for the talk, but you and your buddy can go sell psycho somewhere else.”
“Please, I know how it sounds, but–”
“Out,” I clipped, standing, ready to physically remove him if necessary.
“I’ll show you.”
“Show me?” He really wasn’t going to give up.
“Yes. I can show you what I do, if you’ll let me.”
“OK, fine,” I challenged, almost amused. I sat back down on the bed and crossed my arms, waiting for the show I was more than sure wouldn’t come.
“Thank you,” he said, apparently happy with his tiny victory. “It will only take a moment, and then you can decide if you’d like to talk further. I will warn you though, it’s, well, strange, so just try not to freak out or anything, OK?”
“I’ll do my best,” I said flatly.
He walked over to my bedroom door and shut it softly, immediately sending alarm bells ringing in my head. Strange guy… in my room… shutting us in…
“Just so you know, I scream really loud,” I informed him, eyeing the closed door.
“Don’t worry,” he said, undeterred by my announcement, “I will stay over here.”
“Do I need to say the magic words?” I asked, hoping my sarcasm would help me ignore the fact that I was actually getting nervous. Of course nothing was going to happen, but he was also taking this way too seriously for a stupid joke.
“No magic words, though it will be easier if you stand,” he said, gesturing to the middle of the floor. I got up and moved to the spot he had indicated in front of him, while he stayed where he was, hands behind his back. “You ready?” he asked after a moment.
I waited quietly for a second or two, thinking maybe he would do or say something, but he didn’t. Nothing happened at all. It was just me and Alex, standing a few feet apart from each other in the middle of my room.
But then, suddenly, my vision went blurry. Everything in my room seemed to shift out of focus, like there was something in my eye that I needed to blink away. All the colors and shapes began to melt into each other until I couldn’t tell where one thing left off and another began. My eyes flew to Alex, thinking that he too would be an edgeless fuzzy blot of color, but he was still there, standing exactly where he was, the only thing in the room, other than me, that was still crisp and clear.
His eyes met mine, and when he saw that they held only wonder and confusion but no fear, he smiled and the fuzzy blobs of color began to move. The greens sank down to the floor and grew, spreading out under our feet, reaching far beyond the boundaries of my small bedroom. The blues and whites soared upwards, expanding as they went, creating a clear sky high over our heads. Lines, edges, textures, and dimension returned, but in the forms of grass under our feet, clouds in the sky, and water – an entire ocean of it – stretching out over the horizon. Suddenly all the lines were clear again, only now Alex and I were standing on the edge of an enormous cliff. To my left, an ocean swelling and falling with white foam caps on each of its rolling waves; to my right a seemingly endless field of gently sloping hills covered in lush green grass. It was the most beautiful place I had ever seen.
I looked over at Alex, who was still standing a few steps away from me, watching me calmly. “Where are we?” I breathed.
“In your bedroom,” he answered quietly. “What you are seeing are the Cliffs of Moher in Ireland. They’re near St Brigid’s.”
“You’re doing this?”
I turned towards the edge of the cliff trying to make sense of it all. This couldn’t possibly be an illusion, it was all so real. I could hear the waves pounding into the bedrock of the cliffs below us. I could feel the wind pouring up over the edge of the cliff.
And then it hit me; I could feel the wind. Feel it blowing past my face and onto the fields. Yet my hair, which was hanging free and should have been whipping like mad around my face, lay perfectly still against my back. I took a step towards the edge of the cliff when suddenly my leg hit something. I looked down but there was nothing there. I could feel the object pressing against my shin, but the only thing in front of me was open air.
“What is that?” I asked Alex, swinging my leg again, kicking it.
He smiled, obviously happy I wasn’t having some sort of mental breakdown. “Your bed. We’re still in your room. Here…” He reached down and patted what looked to be empty air, though it made a sound. “Feel.” I reached down towards the invisible obstruction, to find that it was indeed my bed. I couldn’t see it, but it was there – the sheets, the pillow, and the quilt with the little embroidered rosettes – all of it.
My vision began to blur again, the sounds of the sea tapered off until they were only an echo, and a few moments later I was back in my room looking down at my quilt. I twisted around and plopped down onto the edge of my bed, disillusioned, yet somehow exhilarated. Alex pulled the desk chair up next to me and sat. I glanced up at him to find him studying me.
“Are you all right?”
“I think so,” I said, though my voice shook more than I would have liked. Dear God, had that really just happened? Was it even possible? I blinked a few times and shook my head, hoping I wasn’t losing my mind. “What was that?” I finally asked.