The Answer Circle: part two

The Answer Circle: The Dirtbrain of Prague

TW: self-harm, suicidal ideation

Donovan had been expecting today to be different, but the orchestra room inspired the same feelings it always did: awe and shame. Elation and melancholy. Excitement and fury. Maybe a little more than usual, but nothing was exactly different.

For the most part, he was a very mild person. He had been raised on please and thank you, and the rest of his personality seemed to grow from there. He rarely picked fights with adults or tried to draw attention to himself–he hardly ever even said swear words. There had come a bit of horror to the realization that he was basically a Victorian noble lady.

But with music, all that was abandoned. Hobbies satisfy you; passion never can. He had decided this upon the realization that Paganini, Mozart, Tchaikovsky, even the simple act of standing in this room filled him with nothing but greed. He could rarely be content with just sitting and listening to great art. He always came back to the thought, I want that. I want to do that. A regrettable trait, maybe. But he couldn’t shake the feeling of power that came from holding dear old Grim under his chin and spiraling away. He couldn’t bring himself to hate the hunger that came with learning new techniques, or thinking about the greats, or imagining all the possible creations the world had left to find. Donovan was left wanting shamelessly, to a point where music was his sin. And, naturally, he was punished for it.

Looking down, he saw that without realizing it, he had started twirling his finger around the chain of his pendant. He wore it every day; a locket shaped like a swan. Black on one side, white on the other. Sometimes he liked to hold it against his left palm, as he did then. If he placed it the right way, it could look like it was swimming across his scar.

He distinctly remembered Montague’s look of horror when the poor man happened into the kitchen and found that Donovan was slicing his own hand open. For the most of his eighth grade year, everyone, mostly Montague, made a habit of keeping an eye out for anything Donovan might use to hurt himself. They must have finally stopped right before this happened.

He wasn’t a cutter, if that’s what you’re thinking. He was just a little irked at something the doctor had said the year before. Something about Donovan’s minimal exposure to the unidentified substance and how lucky he was just to be alive. However. The substance seemed to have taken a unique effect on his nerves.

For one thing, soon after the Thing that Happened five years ago, his left hand started to do things on its own. It wasn’t like sci-fi had led him to believe, with his arm suddenly going rogue and trying to strangle him, but it could cause trouble. It would compulsively undo things his right hand had done, like closing drawers he had just opened or unbuttoning shirts he had just buttoned. His particular condition of it was baffling to doctors, as there was no apparent damage to his brain. It was explained to him that rogue hands didn’t act on their own, but were the product of neurological malfunctions. Basically, the refined sense of restraint was taken from the hand, and it would lose the ability to distinguish what it could do from what it shouldn’t do, and start to do things it shouldn’t just because it could. 

But with Donovan, the usual parts of the brain that needed to be damaged to result in classic alien hand syndrome had been left untouched, as if his hand really was acting on a mind of its own. Furthermore, his hand seemed to have a distinct awareness of its surroundings that sometimes even exceeded Donovan’s. It would catch something it hadn’t seen falling or grab a hand he hadn’t noticed was about to touch his shoulder. On a particularly strange day, Hand suddenly picked up the LEGO Eiffel Tower he and Essie had built from his dresser. It was one of the last things they had done together before they never did anything together again. He had had instances with his hand before, but this was one of those days he felt like someone had broken into his body and was holding him at gunpoint from the inside. He thought about trying to take it from himself, but didn’t want to risk his hands getting into an “argument” as they occasionally did, and dropping it anyway. All he could do was think, Don’t cry when it breaks, it’s going to break and let that be fine, it’s going to break and don’t cry when it breaks.While he stood worrying, the floating shelf above his dresser came crashing down in front of him without warning, right where the LEGOs would have been. It was only then that he could set them back down.

Doctors were fascinated by his condition. One woman seemed to be at war with herself, trying to keep her expression neutral as Dad described Donovan’s symptoms, but she couldn’t contain occasional flashes of a grin. However, she was soon having to force her lips from a strict downward curl (at which she also failed miserably), when she was asked not to make the condition public, not to tell anyone who didn’t already know, and not to carry out any medical experiments except those which were absolutely necessary to Dovovan’s health. They were all disappointed, but they seemed to understand why the Gales wouldn’t want any unnecessary stress as Donovan becoming a medical spectacle, what with recent events.

Not that keeping it a secret did much for his social life. Leaving the sudden jolts and grabs unexplained actually might have made things worse. People didn’t even give him a weird look. They gave each other weird looks over him. People suck, in case you didn’t already know.

He didn’t care. He wouldn’t miss always having to watch himself, to talk just enough, to hear a new tragic backstory every five seconds—people actually do that! They actually introduce themselves with, “Hi, I’m Whoever. My dad walked out on us when I was born and my mom used to beat me up because she thought it was my fault, I have body insecurity and self-diagnosed anxiety disorder and my brother shot my sister trying to shoot me.” What are you supposed to say to that? So, yeah. He didn’t care. At least this way he’d be able to focus on his music, right?

Lucky, the doctors had said. Lucky to be alive. Lucky to have unprecedented control over his hand among AHS patients. And yet he was not left completely alive. He was not left completely in control. He was left with weird freaking nerves that responded in stupid, super rare ways to the dumb, unidentifiable chemical substance. He was left with very little feeling in his dumb rogue hand, with very little outside of a basic understanding of when pressure was applied. It was not death. It was not paralysis, or deformity, or constant fire under his skin. But it made it pretty damn hard to play the violin.

He could still play, of course. As long as his fingers could touch the strings and his hand could hold the bow, he could play. It didn’t matter what was going on with his hand–in fact, Hand almost never acted up when he was playing. It was like there was an understanding between them, I don’t want a rogue hand determined to constantly unbutton my shirts and you don’t want a rogue body always buttoning them back up, but music takes priority. Music always has its way. Even if we can’t feel it beneath our fingers, even if we get to a point where we can feel nothing but air, we’ll always fall back to music.

But the world didn’t understand. More specifically, Cera didn’t understand.

“There’s really no point in you taking orchestra on to high school,” she said when Donovan was asking Dad to sign his course selection. Donovan barely held back an eye roll. He hadn’t liked Cera even before she became a central character in the Gale household, back when all he had to worry about was her coming to social gatherings. Never leaving Dad’s side, continuously rattling on about when they went to school together, and how she turned him down when he asked her to prom in a very public way, and how they got together in college and she was sure they were meant to be until “personal matters” got in the way. She always managed to flit her eyes at Donovan every time she said “personal matters”. He didn’t like her when she showed up on their doorstep not five minutes after they got home for the first time after the Thing that Happened, sobbing her condolences and asking Dad out to dinner for what felt like every subsequent night, just long enough to make it clear her intentions were beyond condolences. Soon after this incident, Donovan would go on to hate her–yeah, hate her–for laughing at Donovan’s strikingly-informed little cousin during a political argument and telling her she was “full of it”, and ranting about how political correctness was “literally the worst issue our country has to face,”  and one drunken night, telling Donovan, “I mean, you were an accident—like, you know you were an accident, right? You of all people ought to be pro-life.”

This particular incident would become the bridge between “not liking” and “hating” when she laughed at him after he insisted, “But it’s my passion.” 

She asked to see the rest of the course selection, and Dad only barely hesitated before handing it to her. She ran a finger down the list, actually shaking her head.  “Isn’t there a business management class? I thought you were going to carry on your dad’s business.”

Donovan was so bored by the clicheness of this situation that he didn’t even bother pointing out that he had never once indicated an interest in doing that. She might then have to do something even more comically evil to make it even worse. Try to marry him off to a bratty princess. “I don’t think there’s anything for freshmen. Besides, I’m doing really well in orchestra. I’ve nearly been first chair all year.”

Cera’s phone vibrated, and she opened it and texted whatever to whoever while she said, “Weren’t you moved down for, what, three months?”

“Yeah, because I lost feeling in my hand.” Donovan snapped. The second after he said it, he wished he could unsay it. Not because it was rude, or because he could feel his temper rising, but because he knew he had just handed Cera a fatal weapon, and she would drive him to the ground with it.

“Oh, yeah,” she said, showing no shame in the fact that she had forgotten about it until then. “Wouldn’t you rather do something a bit more…within the realm of your capabilities?”

“Within the realm—I just told you, I’ve been first chair all year!”

“But this is chamber, Donovan. You can’t expect your middle school talents to translate to high school. The music will be a lot more complicated, your competition will have a high advantage over you, and you’ll probably get stuck at non-varsity for the next four years, and I’m not sure you could handle that. Wouldn’t you rather leave on a high note and try something else?”

Donovan glanced at Dad, who seemed to have found the floor extremely interesting. Not that this was a surprise. It wasn’t that he usually agreed with Cera, only that she was just more difficult to have as an enemy than Donovan. When he turned back to her, she was–oh hell no—she was erasing orchestra from Donovan’s number one request slot and flipping through the packet of Starbay High’s classes stapled to the back. She clicked her tongue, and he knew she had just double-checked to see if there really were any business courses for freshmen.

“What about Spanish? Babe, don’t you think that would help him with the business? It really helps for diplomacy, speaking more languages. Right, babe?”

Dad shrugged, and Donovan began to wonder who was the teenager in this situation. “I mean, yeah, it’s helped…”

“But I already take French!” Donovan resisted. Horror was settling in—it was starting to dawn on him that he really might not be in orchestra next year.

Cera laughed again. From then on, whenever Cera laughed, Donovan would unconsciously be reminded of this moment and find her laugh extremely sickening. “It’s Texas! No one speaks French!” She flipped her pencil around and wrote “Spanish 1” in the request list and handed it back to Dad. “At least now we can save money. Now you don’t need private lessons.”

As if things weren’t bad enough, this made Donovan’s blood flare. He knew she wasn’t worried about money, and she didn’t really care what class he took. That was the worst part. He knew the only reason she said anything at all was because she had had a bad day, or she didn’t get to take the class she wanted in high school, or her coffee tasted bad. 

But upon this realization, Donovan found relief. It was just a phase, then, and it would go as easily as it had come. Later, she’d be upset about something else and no longer care what class Donovan took. He would take orchestra. Nothing else would make sense. Plus, Dad was sane. Even if Cera forgot to remember she didn’t care, at least he knew what was going on. 

Look, there he was then on the evening of the fight, knocking on Donovan’s door to tell him that Cera had calmed down and Donovan could take whatever class he wanted. Or better yet, that Cera was crazy and Donovan could take whatever class he wanted. Or better yet, that Cera was crazy, Dad had just dumped her, Donovan could take whatever class he wanted, Tchaikovsky had risen from the dead to congratulate them and upon exposure to modern technology, was now on his way to compose a rock ballad, and putting French fries in the microwave after they got cold now made them edible. 

Dad said not to change the schedule, that Cera was a very successful, respectable woman who was right about most things, and the city council was thinking about holding a ceremony on the anniversary of the Thing that Happened, and she wanted Donovan to talk about losing the ability to play the violin.

After a good half hour of mulling over everything in rage, Donovan sneaked into the kitchen. He could work through any injury, but he would not be rendered an invalid. He would not be the poor little town darling lamenting the loss of his love for their entertainment. He surely knew his own hand better than those doctors did, and all they knew was that they didn’t understand what was going on, right? He and his hand were entirely separate entities. If he couldn’t feel it or control it, then how could it even be his own hand? If it had a mind of its own, how could he contact it? How could he get beneath his own skin?

…Oh. It was that simple.

As he held the knife at his palm, he tried to decide what to think as he cut himself, just in case this was his one chance of communication. Wake up? Go away? Come back? Or was he supposed to listen? Was it supposed to tell him what to do? Before he could decide, he heard footsteps approaching the kitchen. His first impulse was to put the knife back, but then he thought, Don’t I want this? Isn’t it my dream? Shouldn’t I be forging on recklessly, not caring what anybody thinks? As the door behind him opened, the knife slipped across his palm.

“Donovan? What are you doing here? Is that—what did you do?”

He turned around to see Montague in all his wide-eyed, slack-jawed glory. It almost made Donovan laugh to see someone who was usually so put-together in such a state of panic. Social consciousness made him swallow it, as he didn’t want to be seen laughing while holding a bloody knife. However, he couldn’t contain a smile at the new purpose that had been dealt to him. At the moment of the cutting, he hadn’t felt a sting or a pang or whatever he was supposed to feel, and it had nothing to do with orchestra, but it was a purpose. A clear purpose that seemed so obvious, he wanted to get started right away.

The words echoed in his head and he held on to them greedily, playing them over and over for the whole forty-five minute lecture he hardly heard a word of—he was pretty sure he was in trouble, he was pretty sure he was going to be seeing a therapist. Finally, he was allowed to his room. He scrambled to find a sheet of paper and a pen—he found a pencil first, but he needed this to be in pen—while it was still fresh in him, and he wrote it over and over again.

There is something you must do. You will know it when it’s time, for with will be harder than anything else. Be ready to claim your birthright.

Not wanting to have his moment alone, he let the hero of the day have a moment and turned the page around, placing the pen in his left hand. It worked entirely on its own, and Donovan finally let the long suppressed laugh out when he imagined how thrilled those doctors would have been to see it draw like this, maybe with Donovan blindfolded. He actually thought about covering his eyes, just to heighten the wonder of the moment, but he was having too much fun playing Pictionary with himself. Line! Pole! Lamppost! I’ll be a light in the darkness! X! Cross! I’ll cross unimaginable boundaries!

When it was done, he didn’t quite get the metaphor, but it was a fine mess. He taped it above his desk, not caring that it looked like a child drew it. No one ever came here anyway.

A sword. He wasn’t sure what it meant. He had no personal connection to swords, or knights, or even plain old fantasy stories. 

He started to take fencing just in case.

Four years later, Donovan still wasn’t quite sure what it meant. He ran a thumb along the mark. It was almost gone now. Only someone who looked very closely would notice a slight dark line, but usually, no one saw it. It would probably be completely gone in another year or two.

He brought his gaze to the orchestra room and felt a pang of fury when he saw the cubbies along the wall, about a third of them stocked with violins and violas that had been left here overnight. You know, because their owners were two good for practicing, clearly. Donovan couldn’t stand it. On some days, he’d come by the orchestra room and see students goof off, disrupting class by talking back to Mr. Heston or trying to play their instrument backward just for laughs. He recalled overhearing a former chamber violinist casually mentioning that she quit because she thought Mr. Heston was too uptight, laughing it off like it was no big deal.

It wasn’t long before he knew he’d lose it after another day. So, he folded his sword into a tiny square and put it in his pocket before going to school a full hour early so he could sneak into Mr. Heston’s office. This is my dream. This is more important than anything. It’s my right to be reckless about it. That’s what he told himself on the way to school, but when he got there, he found himself standing before the door, walking to it and away from it over and over. Nothing was physically stopping him. The athletics budget didn’t leave room for things like a lock on the orchestra teacher’s door. But still. To it and away from it. To it and away from it. Until he thought

IF THIS UNLOCKED DOOR
CAN STOP ME FROM GETTING WHAT I WANT
THEN WHAT ELSE WILL?

and he went inside.

He didn’t even steal anything. He just found the shelves overstocked in sheet music and took photos of a few film scores, a few Led Zeppelin arrangements, and all the Nutcracker suite because he needed all of it. When he got home, he printed them and practiced on his own. Victimless crime. Went on for the whole first semester of freshman year.

One day, Mr. Heston was waiting for him. Donovan immediately fell to his knees–he literally got on his knees—before Mr. Heston held up a hand, smiling. Without saying a word, he pointed to the corner behind the door, where there was a well-hidden security camera. It definitely hadn’t been there the first time, when Donovan had been hyper-vigilant about any little thing that could be used to throw him straight in jail. “Came out of my own pocket,” Mr. Heston explained. “I was wondering about my little shoemaker elf, messing up my mess.” He brushed a hand over the folders. “You put things back in the order they come in each performance. I had them alphabetized. I mean, I guess your way is technically right, but, y’know. It’s easier to organize them this way. I don’t think you meant to mess it up, must’ve been completely unconscious.”

Donovan jumped right to it, “Sir, I’m so sorry, I’ll pay for it.”

“Kid, you didn’t break anything.”

“I’m sorry, sir, I’m so sorry, I meant I’ll alphabetize them, I’m so sorry.”

Mr. Heston kept his smile. He crossed the room and unlocked an old, black case sitting on his desk by his computer. “The violin, right? You have a look about you.”

Donovan looked from Mr. Heston to the shelves and back. “Are you… I could start right now… If you want me…to alphabetize…”

Mr. Heston opened the case and stepped aside. “Well, come on. Show me what you’ve learned.” Donovan tried to gesture the shelves again, and Mr. Heston added quickly, “Do it now and don’t say another word or I’ll have you expelled.”

It didn’t occur to Donovan that Mr. Heston may not have had the power to do that, so he got up, raced over, and rosined the bow. He realized, with the violin on his shoulder, that it was extremely heavy, and the bow was also extremely heavy, and also his whole body was shaking, but he didn’t have enough time to sort it out. He tapped out the first thing that came to mind: Swan Lake, Opus 20, Act 1 No. 2, Valse. Studying music theory for so long had made it difficult to go back and simply enjoy music, but he could never judge Tchaikovsky. 

From the start, he cringed at every slip and scratch. This was it, the world depended on this one performance. That helped. Slip. Scratch. He waited for the moment when he’d magically be overcome by that force of this is who I am, this is what I’m meant to do, and for that to magically make him perfect. But. It kept not happening. Slip. Scratch. For the whole. Freaking. Song.

When it was over, he couldn’t even look at Mr. Heston. He started to loosen the hairs and put the violin back. “So. You know. I can start alphabetizing now if you want—”

“Say that again and I’ll get a lock.” Donovan could hear the smile in Mr. Heston’s voice as the man kneeled by a vertical stack of books in the corner, running a hand along their spines. Landing on one, he tried to pull it out really quickly but ended up toppling the stack anyway. He merely shrugged and handed the book to Donovan. “I think we should work on your performance anxiety first and foremost. This may have been a worst-case scenario for you, but you’ve got to be prepared for anything. I want to get to a point where, say, they could hold your family at—” He stopped himself. “Where, say, if you had to convince aliens that they shouldn’t end the world if only for its music, I want you to be able to do it well. We’ll work on that before we move to bigger things.”

“We—move—what—”

Mr. Heston tapped the book, ignoring him. “Now, this one here, it changed my life. The author’s a genius. It’s got relaxation techniques, projection tips, little confidence mantras, pretty much everything you’ll need. So, I want you to read it, and on Friday, I want you to play that piece again.”

“Uh, sir?”

“Now, it’s admirable that you’re able to get yourself out of bed so early, but honestly, I cannot. I barely could today. I will not again. You don’t have anything going on after school, do you? You don’t seem like you do. So, you stay late on Friday, and—”

“Sir, I don’t play. I mean, I’m not, I’m not signed up. I’m not in the class.”

Heston rolled his head around his neck and gave Donovan a look that was an inch from flat out saying, How can you be this stupid? He reached over and tapped his arm. “Has this stopped working? Can you no longer hold a bow? Do we need to amputate and get you fitted with something better set to your needs? Manami Ito lost her arm in a car accident in 2004. She became a paralympic swimmer, the first nurse in Japan with a prosthetic arm, and she plays the violin. She didn’t let it limit her. So. Is that the problem?”

“Er…no, but—”

Mr. Heston tapped Donovan’s glasses–he wore glasses back then. “What about those? Can you not see sheet music? That’s difficult too, but we could work it out, I’m sure. Andrea Bocelli did. So did Nobuyuki Tsujii, and Helmut Walcha. Is that the problem?”

“No, sir, but—”

“What about that?” he tapped Donovan’s forehead, but Donovan suspected he was referring to something beneath his forehead. “That would probably be the most difficult thing to work without, in music and in life. It doesn’t matter a person’s circumstance, whether it be their physical condition or their living situation. If you want this, you should do anything to get it. If you love it, it’s normal for it to be more difficult than anything else you could do.” He put a hand on Donovan’s shoulder, and looked at him with a bright determination behind slowly rusting features. “I couldn’t forgive myself if I let someone go who really wanted this. When someone has true fire in them, someone like Minami Ito, and Andrea Bocelli, when they feel it in there,” he tapped Donovan’s chest, and once again, probably meant something beneath it, “then nothing and no one can stop them. Nothing except that.” He tapped Donovan’s forehead again.

Over the last few years, Donovan had been continuing his musical studies as a side project. Mr. Heston would give him classic pieces and have him perform them each Friday, giving him critique. He would sometimes even challenge him to transcribe music or compose his own based on a specific theme. He never asked for anything in return, only that Donovan keep playing.

Now, Donovan held in his bag an intimidatingly thick binder filled with all the music he had amassed over the last few years. He could almost never bring himself to throw any of it away. If he had given any serious thought to the day he’d have to lug it to school on his back, he may have cleaned his pockets out a bit. But, alas.

He knocked on the door to Mr. Heston’s office, not really expecting a response. He was still relieved when none came, realizing he had no idea what he would have said or how he could have given back the music, on today of all days, without hinting that this was goodbye.

He let himself in, snapped on the light, threw his backpack off, leaned his longboard by the desk where Mr. Heston let him keep it, and hauled the binder out of his bag and onto the desk. Letting it go gave him a sudden sense of emptiness he hadn’t anticipated, like leaving without it would be heading out without his skin. He quickly found a pen and a Post-it note. After a good seven minutes of staring at it, he finally landed on, “Thanks. Sorry. —D”

As he made his way out, he glanced at one of the violins in the cubbies and briefly thought about practicing one last time, but ultimately decided he didn’t trust Hand not to shatter some poor dumb-ass’s violin, as much as he glutted on the image. 

He left the room and, for the first time, started wondering how he’d do it. Would he hang himself?… No. He just knew all the post-mortem photos would be at his worst angle.


The least comfortable chair in The Slipped Letter has just everything wrong with it. It’s only slightly larger than one of those chairs you’d find in a kindergarten class, so Kindra, who wasn’t all that short, sat with her elbows just able to perch on the table. She was doing her best to make it seem like it wasn’t as bad as it was, but Monty still saw her shifting back and forth, making him suspect that one of the legs was shorter than the other three, and he knew there was a long crack along the plastic seat that surely pinched her every time she moved. He had also heard that there was a hex on the chair to make whoever sat in it think, Get out, you shouldn’t sit here, you don’t belong here, you’re doing something wrong, but he suspected the SLPD wouldn’t have bothered with that, as everything else seemed to do enough. 

Basically, everything about the chair discouraged one from sitting in it, which was a precaution against UnLettereds. Every Lettered knew that if you ever needed the SLPD, you had to sit in this chair for a whopping fifteen minutes. For that entire fifteen minutes, you couldn’t look at your phone, or a book, or a watch, or the clock on the opposite wall, or anything. You couldn’t put in earbuds. If you brought somebody with you, which was discouraged anyway, you could not talk to them, or even look at them too much, and they also were not allowed to distract themselves in any way. If someone tried to talk to you, you were to completely ignore them, no matter what they said, unless they were an employee asking, “Hey, do you need help finding anything?” This meant you had passed the fifteen minute wait, and you had to respond, “Yes, can you help me find Heart of Darkness?” The employee was then supposed to make a sympathetic grimace and say, “Oh for a project?” and you then had to say, “No, I just really like that book.” Which, of course, no one would say unless they had to say it. This was the last test. The employee would then lead you to the heart of the building.

It was a tedious process, but Monty couldn’t deny that it was clever. Anyone who wasn’t aware of the system wouldn’t have sat in the chair to begin with, wouldn’t have been able to go the fifteen minutes undistracted, and wouldn’t try to kid anyone into thinking Heart of Darkness was in any way readable. And the SLPD having as much on their plate as they did, this was an effective method in getting rid of anyone who didn’t really need them.

Kindra would hear no offer from Monty to sit in the chair, so he sat next to her. It killed him to hold himself upright. His brain felt like it had holes being punched into it, and he desperately wanted to lay his head down. But he didn’t want to risk falling asleep and resetting their fifteen minutes, so he rested his chin on his hands and busied himself with the lining of the wood along the table. They were only there for five minutes when a voice behind them said,  “It’s fine. Batty’s expecting you.” 

Kindra shot up and whipped around, her hand over her heart. Monty suppressed a sigh. Not only was he starting to worry about her, but acting like every little thing was out to get them was doing more harm than good. There were times he wished she had been excluded from the plan, but he always ended up accepting that he couldn’t possibly have done it alone.

Half-trying to counter her shock, half simply not having the energy for much more movement, he lazily leaned back and turned over his shoulder to see a tall, dark-haired man with a white shirt, black tie, and bored look. The man nodded at a door across the room labelled EMPLOYEES ONLY. “Just go in.”

“Oh, thank you,” Kindra said quietly, helping Monty up. As he stood, his brain felt like it was rolling over in his skull at the sudden movement. 

 The day before, he had managed to convince himself—and Kindra—that the headache was simply caused by stress, and it would be gone after a night’s rest. That morning, he had to check in the mirror that his forehead hadn’t split open, because his brain felt like it was trying to crawl out. The wisest thing Monty could have done, he knew, was pretend to be fine. And he was totally going to do that, but the second Kindra saw him that morning and said, “Are you okay?” he lost the motive and collapsed into her arms. Whatever the SLPD had in store for him, nothing could be worse than this headache. When Kindra insisted he needed medical attention, the most he could do was beg her not to take him to the SLPD, but they both knew the mission was doomed from the start. They might as well have brought an umbrella out in a hail storm.

Behind the EMPLOYEES ONLY door was all this…ugh, Monty had to close his eyes. It was making his head hurt more. He let Kindra lead him through, refusing to look, to listen to the sound of memories growing out of dirt and the words pounding to be let out of their books. He, like most Lettereds, wanted no part in his own world. Not in person. Kindra’s “Hey, where could we find…thank you,” was the only sane sound in this room.

He didn’t open his eyes until he heard a cold, smooth, “Ms. Lowe.” He finally looked up to see a young hijabi woman in a wheelchair. “I don’t suppose I need to tell you that you’ll be heavily fined for violating the…” Monty must have looked really bad, because Batty trailed off after getting a good look at him. 

He became conscious of the fact that he had about half his body weight leaning on his mother—who was several inches shorter than he. Curious about Batty’s disapproving slight squint of one eye, he felt his chin and became aware that a line of drool was making its way down. He smudged it a bit in a half-hearted attempt to wipe it off, but was just too far out of it to do any good.

Batty wheeled over to a gurney in the emergency room—he realized they were in an emergency room—producing a medical mask from a drawer in the night stand next to it. “Bring him here. Do you know if he was exposed to anything dangerous lately? An allergy?” she asked as she wrapped the mask over her ears. Kindra hauled Monty over, glancing around nervously.

“We were… We went to…”

As she lay him on his back, Monty fought a hundred pounds of gravity to put his hand on her shoulder and barely nod. It won’t hurt us.

“… The university was hosting an exhibit at the natural science museum. I specialize in the entomology department, and Monty was…was helping me…move specimens around. I can’t help but feel one got out and… I’m not sure if—”

“Ooh! Did you host the thing about the parasites?” Batty lit up immediately. “I wanted to see that, I had no idea that was you! Did you actually have one of those zombie ants? Like, an infected one?”

“Well, we didn’t have anything attached to a host… Thought it’d be kind of graphic…”

“Oh, that’s too bad. Pretty crazy, isn’t it? Like, your brain is all you have, but it could be so easily manipulated. You know, some people think brain damage is what causes Lettering, like it gets jumbled into a certain shape…”

Monty groaned miserably and Batty managed to stop herself, turning back to the drawer and fishing out some more medical paraphernalia. She took his temperature and blood pressure, jotting down the measurements in a rather unprofessional-looking notebook, which had a pizza with a smiley face on it. As strict as they could be, Monty had to remind himself the SLPD had minimal assets beyond any other retail store.

“My colleague says your head started hurting yesterday?” Batty exclaimed more than asked, looking over her notes. 

“Yes, that’s right,” said Kindra.

“Mm-hm. And…” She leaned over Monty to give him a soft, honesty-eliciting look. “Have you taken any alcohol or recreational drugs recently?”

He had suspected he would be asked this, but was nonetheless annoyed. “No,” he tried to say firmly, but the weak dryness of his voice might have made him seem less certain.

“I see. Would you feel more comfortable answering if your mother weren’t present?”

I did answer, Monty wanted to snap, but he could barely find the energy to give her a full glare. Luckily, Kindra stepped in.

“Ms. Moradi,” she said, the surest she had sounded in a few days, “if my son says he wasn’t drinking, he wasn’t drinking. He’s  straight-A student and he would do nothing to jeopardize his health.”

Batty stopped an eye roll just as it started, nodding to hide the action. Once again, the SLPD was virtually identical to a retail store in all its official assets. She may be some sort of medical prodigy, but Batty couldn’t have been more than twenty years old. Monty sometimes wanted to ask her about how she had gotten her job, but they had never exactly been in a position to strike up a conversation.

Just as quickly as she had lost it, she resumed her professional persona. “If you’d like, Ms. Lowe, you could wait outside while I perform the…er… CT scan.”

Kindra took in the room, and Monty knew what she was thinking–the table of mechanical and medical doodads, the overly-stocked shelves of books and notebooks all across the wall, the quietly humming chamber on the wall. No CT scanner to be seen.

Batty must have noticed this. “I have a different sort of procedure. It’s much faster than Unlettered contraptions, and it’s completely safe.”

Her uncalled-for assurance that it was safe must have set something off in Kindra. She took Monty’s hand, and he gratefully grasped back. He had nothing against the girl, but something about being left alone with a makeshift doctor who had a nickname like “Batty” was a little off-putting. Dr. Wallace had gone on countless rants about her astounding exploits, which started with her becoming one of the youngest people to perform an autopsy the world would never know at the age of fourteen and apexed at the time she created a lizard-bird that was alive for a full forty-five seconds before it saw a mirror for the first time and flew directly into it at full speed. She had a strange apathy about her, a sort of “awkward genius” element. Monty trusted her with his life, but he was much more comfortable with his mother at his side.

Batty shrugged and sat up straight. “Very well. Now, you might want to look away for a moment…”

Kindra moved to hold Monty with both hands, eyeing Batty fearfully.

“Oh, it won’t hurt him,” she insisted. “I’ve just heard it’s…disturbing…to look at me while I’m doing it.”

“Whatever you have to do, you can do it in front of me,” said Kindra, kneeling next to Monty so it was easier for him to see her face—looking up was getting more painful by the second. He was much more comfortable letting his head carelessly flop to the side to see her messily-dyed hair, to more clearly hear her breezy voice. Noticing he was looking at her, she offered him a small smile and pushed back a lock of his hair before Batty took him by the chin and turned him towards her. He wanted to complain about the moment being so abruptly interrupted, but lost that train of thought when Batty’s eyes disappeared.

He blinked a few times, sure it was a hallucination. The skin around her eyes were blurred like a lagging video, but unmistakably, two black holes were all that was left of the big brown eyes that had been there moments before.

Before he could ask what was going on, he felt a sudden presence in his head, like a cloud drifting through. Who’s there! He thought irrationally. Who’s that! He tried to wriggle out of Batty’s hand, but it was strikingly firm. He squeezed his mother’s hand harder, silently begging her to do something, but she just squeezed back. He shook, he tried to flail, he pushed. The cloud was taking up far too much space in his skull.Who are you! He internally yelled. Get out! There’s no room! Kindra and Batty moved at the same time, each holding down one of his arms. He struggled against the hand on his chin, trying to look furiously at Kindra. Couldn’t she see the empty space in the medic’s sockets? Couldn’t she see that his brain couldn’t fit in his head, that it was on the verge of popping out?

At last, the cloud left, and Monty gasped in relief, crumbling into his mother’s arms. “You said it wouldn’t hurt him,” she reminded Batty. Monty turned over his shoulder to find her eyes back in their place, but not looking the same way. She held a hand on her temple as she looked back and forth, trying to get them back into focus. When she did, she backed her wheelchair up, turning to the bookshelf.

“Did I say that?” she mused lightly, as if it were a minor inconvenience. “I apologize. I should have said no damage or harm would be done unto him. As in he wouldn’t be injured.” She reached for a book just a few inches above her fingertips. “And he isn’t injured, is he? His headache will be gone as soon…as…I…” She strained with effort as she reached, stretched her arm as far as possible to no luck. Monty thought he saw the tips of her fingers disappear before the book slipped from its place on the shelf and fall directly into her lap. Tucking it under her arm, she selected a few more before rolling back to the bed. She piled the books onto the top of the drawer, flipping through one about parasites. 

“It looks like that zombie ant fungus. I think. You might have been exposed to it at the exhibit, somehow. It’s trying to manipulate your brain, but it doesn’t realize you’re not an ant,” she looked up with a small smile. “You don’t have to worry about clamping a tree until it bursts out of your forehead like a unicorn horn and kills you.” She said it like it was a funny joke. Batty turned the book around so they could see a picture of an ant with the aforementioned unicorn horn. “See, ophiocordyceps unilateralis. It shouldn’t have such a dramatic effect on humans, but specific Lettereds might be more susceptible to it. That’s pretty common for viruses and illnesses and things to hurt more.”

She put the book back on the desk and drew out another one. This one was a spiral bound-notebook with a picture of a muffin arm-wrestling a cupcake on it. Once Batty found her page, she turned the notebook around to show several hand-drawn pictures of brains, each picture from a different angle, and she pointed to green highlights in each of the drawings. “See, when you become Lettered, different parts of your brain wake up and gain new functions so you can perform your ability. This is what sets us apart from Unlettereds, but more of a brain means more to get hurt. Now aren’t you glad we stopped you from going to the Unlettered hospital? They wouldn’t have known what to do with you. We’ll have you better by this very afternoon.”

“Oh, thank you,” sighed Kindra, relaxing for the first time that day. “Thank you very much.”

“It’s what I’m here for, isn’t it? If you come to me, that is. Now, I’ll call my partner back, and Daphne could probably whip up something to combat the fungus. In the meantime, Dice or someone will come to discuss and collect your fine, and after that… Well, I guess you could stay here, Ms. Lowe, but I’m gonna warn you: this place can get kind of depressing this time of year. What with—”

The door to the lab suddenly flew open and the man who had directed them to Batty leaned in. “Hey, Bats?” he called without even looking at Kindra and Monty. “Are we running low on anything I can get from Palser’s?”

Batty got a nervous look about her, which worried Monty. She didn’t seem like the type to get nervous over much. “Cobalt, if you’re…today, I don’t know if you should… Maybe if you just went to the…”

“Anything? Like, anything? I can get it.”

“Um, no, we’re good.”

“Are you sure? Don’t you need more of the, y’know, I’m forgetting the word, that purple stuff? Because I’ll—”

“We don’t need anything. You don’t have to.”

Cobalt sighed. “All right, you caught me. Here’s the thing. He doesn’t like me over unless I need to be there. With your approval specifically. So. If you could just.”

Batty glanced at Kindra and Monty. “Can we not talk about this in front of the Lowes? This kid’s really sick—”

“Yeah, okay. ‘Cept this is important. So. If you could just.”

“I won’t do it and I’d appreciate you showing a little more respect to my patients. You’re not the only one with problems.” 

Cobalt opened his mouth to respond, and Monty could have sworn he saw a red glint in one of his eyes. But it went away quickly, Cobalt waving Batty off. “Yeah, sure. All right. See you around.” He didn’t quite slam the door behind him, but he closed it a little harshly. 

Monty watched after him for a moment after the door closed. Kindra seemed to be on a similar train of thought. “Err…” she started awkwardly. “Not that it’s any of my business, but isn’t he the one who…whose…”

“Yeah,” said Batty, busying herself with putting books away. “Don’t go thinking he’s cold fish, he’s a sweetheart deep down. It’s just, y’know, he’s…” She trailed off, putting the last book away. “Like I said, it’s a pretty depressing time for us. You might want to step out for a while.”

“I’ll stay,” said Kindra, unwavering.

Batty shrugged. “Suit yourself. Mind going out and getting Daphne for me? You can’t miss her—tall, red-headed, probably near Dice. Ask her to come down, and then we’ll work out the fine. I’ve got to call Wally. Oh, catch.”

Kindra turned just in time to see a small brown thing flying across the room, and her protective instincts managed to work beyond her critical thinking, as  they always did. She caught the thing before she seemed to understand what was happening. “Um… Is this an avocado?”

“Yeah.”

“What’s it for?”

“Eating.”

“Wh—why?”

“To make you feel better.”

“No, I mean, thank you, but, I mean, why are they here?”

Batty shrugged. “Because they make people feel better. The guys up there can cut it for you. They have salt.”

Why do they have salt?

Because it makes avocados taste better, Ms. Lowe, now you may head along.”

Kindra opened her mouth to question is further, but seemed to think better of it. She stuck the avocado in her coat pocket, giving Monty’s hand one last squeeze before trying to turn around, but he held her back. She leaned over, her eyes soft. “What is it, sweetie?” she asked gently.

Monty started to take off the clay bead necklace, but if you only had Kindra’s expression to go on, you’d think he was pulling out a knife. If normal, clear-headed, not in the heart of the SLPD Monty could see his future self giving her the necklace, he might have had the same expression. He had promised himself that he would sooner bite off her hand than let her take it, but they were running out of options. If Batty found the single bead’s discoloration suspicious, or detected some odd smell or sound or aura emitting from it that was untraceable to a normal person, or if Monty fiddled with it too much, then they were doomed. They had to take any and every chance to keep the plan from failing, at any and every cost.

Noticing Batty glancing up from her phone, Monty touched the Star of David pendant. “You need His strength more than I do right now,” he said, setting the beads in her hands. He flitted his eyes back to the medic, relieved to see her smile and return to her phone. Understanding his true goal, Kindra nodded and placed the beads around her neck before leaving the emergency room.

Monty, for the first time, relaxed in the gurney, only then realizing how much strain he had been putting on his back, holding his shoulder blades together. So far, so good. When they were given the task, he initially didn’t think two less likely or worse-qualified candidates could be chosen. Now he saw that only they could have done it. 

Who could have slipped so seamlessly by one of the most powerful groups in Texas but a sweet, well-meaning, God-fearing mother and son? Cobalt—he knew the name had sounded familiar, yes, Dimitri Cobalt, he now remembered—had once been a household name in the world of true Lettered crime. And look at him now, walking right by the ones who would perform a scheme that would shame each one he had ever foiled.

Monty’s mind stayed on Cobalt. He certainly hadn’t been friendly, the way he marked them off as unimportant. Monty still pitied him, of course. He knew what had happened, why he was in such a bad mood today. But a sick part of him couldn’t help but think, Maybe we could use that. No one will miss him. He seems like a tough guy. And the way Batty was talking, it sounds like he’s just hurting everyone anyway…

He shivered at the idea, the way it thrilled him. It would be a clear act of pride, setting his eyes on someone here of all places, but maybe he didn’t have a choice in the matter. Maybe it was already written, this headache predesigned to get him here and give him the idea. 

God lay all the tools to carry out the plan right before him, as vivid as though they were etched in stone. They only thing left up to Monty was his own will, the question of whether or not he would take the hand that had been dealt. 

But, let’s be honest: that wasn’t really an option either, was it? Who could say no to God?

 

AC BALLI

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