It took Matt barely twenty minutes to earn a very respectable ‘9’ for his preparation and performance and to successfully discharge his PD examination obligations for another six months. Freed from his assessor’s scrutiny and having wished Mrs Blithe safe driving in the wet (the Bureau of Meteorology was claiming a ninety-eight percent chance of precipitation about two hours north, where she’d be passing through on her way home), Matt spent the remainder of the period polishing off some overdue math equations, before packing up and exiting the deserted classroom at the sound of the lunch bell, the evaluation form clutched firmly in his hand.
If Matt had been the type of person to talk about his “powers” to his friends, he would have been keen to talk to them today. He wasn’t, for obvious reasons – Matt had never told anyone what he really was. Still, he thought ruefully as he pushed his way through the crowded hallway towards the school office, it would’ve been nice, if for no other reason than to get some appreciation for all his hard work. Five years of pulling off a successful con didn’t feel nearly as impressive without someone to boast about it to.
Matt pushed open the door to the front office and was greeted by a rush of air-conditioning. “All done,” he smiled at Miss Cambridge as he strode over to the reception desk, sliding the assessment form across the countertop. The fit thirty-something year old woman said nothing and made no move to acknowledge his presence other than to look up at him with a nauseated, slightly panicked stare.
Matt’s smile faded. Miss Cambridge was normally very cheerful.
“Everything okay?” he asked, glancing around the otherwise deserted room – but before the receptionist could answer a man’s voice barked “Mr Callaghan!” so loudly the pair of them jumped.
“Mr Callaghan,” repeated Principal Rance, half-shouting through his office’s open door where he stood stock still behind his desk, hands clenched on the back of his chair. His piggy eyes burned into Matt as if he was afraid the boy might at any moment turn tail and flee. “Matt. Just the man I wanted to see.”
Matt didn’t like the sound of that, and he liked Principal Rance’s wide eyes and unusually sweaty jowls even less.
“Sir…?” he extended reluctantly, but the pasty, grey-suited man shook his head and beckoned furiously at him to come over. Against his better judgement but not wanting to disobey, Matt moved reluctantly towards the Principal’s office, shooting a look back at Miss Cambridge, who was watching him go with the terrified expression of someone seeing the family cow walk to slaughter. Matt stepped into the office to find Northridge’s Principal flanked by its Deputy, who seemed, if possible, even more nervous than his boss – and who shared Rance’s wild-eyed avoidance of looking at the third person in the room, a bronze-haired girl in a light grey hoodie who was sitting silently in the plastic chair in front of Rance’s desk, staring straight ahead.
“Sir?” he said again, confused by the obvious tension but even more confused by the way the girl did not in any way acknowledge his existence, “What’s the-?”
“Matt!” yelped Principal Rance in a voice that was several decibels too loud for enclosed spaces, “This is Jane. She’s new!”
“Hi-” Matt started to say, but before he could even glance at the girl Rance’s irrationally high voice made him start back around.
“Jane, Matt will show you around!” he continued, racing through the words as though they were hot coals in desperate need of spitting out, “Won’t he?”
“Sure,” Matt shrugged, turning properly around to face the girl, not getting why they were all stressing out over some new-
It was then that he saw the ‘E’.
A pool of black ice crashed down into Matt’s stomach and he involuntarily stepped back, seized by a rush of panic. An empath. An actual empath. It took every ounce of Matt’s self-control not to run.
It was like seeing a tiger or bear up close – he’d read about them, seen them on TV, but it didn’t prepare you for the sight, the actual knowledge that the thing was right there, alive and dangerous and ready to kill you. That ‘E’, that symbol, the warning and reminder of not just power and imbalance, but genocide – of half a billion souls snuffed out in an instant. The darkest day in human history. He’d only been a kid but Matt could still see it, still remember, the sky black, the sea burning. People running, fear, everywhere, palpable. Talk of the end of the world.
If she had noticed Matt’s visible recoil or his compunction to flee, the empath didn’t show it. Instead she merely sat where she was, her face blank, staring straight ahead at nothing.
“Can I go?” she asked dully. She made no attempt to meet Matt’s fixated, horrified gaze or in any way acknowledge his existence. Rance’s hands fumbled across the neck of his chair.
“Of-of course,” he stammered rapidly, wiping sweat into the leather, “The, ah, the cafeteria is-” But at the first hint of dismissal the girl was up and out the door into the main office, gone before the pudgy principal’s sentence had time to wither and die. A billowing silence expanded in her wake. Matt’s head swung ashen-faced between the door and the two men, his mouth agape.
“Thank you, Mr Callaghan, for agreeing to this,” gushed Murphy.
“I-” Matt stammered, struggling to find the words. “Um-”
“You’re a model student,” Rance assured him, covering his discomfort with a stiff cough, “And she, ah, needs a companion. Someone to… to keep a close eye on her.” Matt turned back around to find the Principal and Deputy staring at him with desperate, uncomfortable intensity. “A close, comprehensive eye.”
“What do you-”
But suddenly the penny dropped – and in a rush of multi-layered terror Matt realised why he of all people had been picked to stay close to this dangerous newcomer.
Crap, the so-called clairvoyant internally swore.
Matt wandered out of the school office so caught up in a feeling somewhere between dazed and terrified that half a minute later he almost ran into the back of a Mexican sophomore with retractable dragonfly wings who had abruptly stopped moving forward – blocked, Matt saw as he looked up properly for the first time, by a crush of bodies backed across the hall.
“Excuse me,” Matt muttered, fumbling past, not really thinking. Was there a spill or something? He shot a glance at the floor as he made his way between the muttering students, but he didn’t see anything out of the ordinary and his shoes weren’t sticking. Matt kept pushing through absentmindedly. He couldn’t smell smoke – it didn’t seem like one of the pyromancers had set their locker on fire again. But people were just stopped, standing there, blocking the way to the cafeteria like stupid statue sheep, whispering amongst themselves. It didn’t make sense.
Then Matt reached the front of the crowd, saw the girl and realised he knew exactly what was going on.
She was sitting at their table. Weirdly, this was the first thing Matt noticed and it sent a little flicker of completely irrational annoyance running through his mind. They always sat there, and here she was, a foreign invader. Of course, he conceded a split second later, she wouldn’t have known it was their table.
The second thing Matt noticed was the space. The area around where the empath sat was completely and utterly empty – the students of Northridge High bunched up in a perimeter around her like fish skittering around a shark. An increasing feeling of panic fluttered through Matt’s stomach as he watched the empath sitting alone, surrounded by empty tables, eyes blank and picking half-heartedly at her food. What was he supposed to do? Rance had explicitly told him to keep a “close eye” on this girl, but that wouldn’t just put him in danger, it’d single him out in front of the entire school. So far everyone was just standing there, silent and horror-struck, and Matt understood why. They’d come back from a seemingly normal day to find a monster in their midst, a creature that wasn’t just empowered like they were but who could copy their identities, their very essence, and use it against them. And he was supposed to monitor this thing?! How?! God, she could do anything, be anything, steal from anyone!
The thought popped out of nowhere, unbidden – so clear and sudden that it almost shocked Matt to think it. Anyone except him. That big spikey ‘E’ was an imbedded, lingering warning – but to him, the girl may as well have been wearing a t-shirt saying “I steal ovaries”. Cool, good for you; but Matt had none to steal. She was a thief – but he was bankrupt.
Suddenly, Matt found himself suppressing the bizarre, hysterical urge to laugh. It was like in an instant the whole world had flipped upside down. Everyone was standing here watching this new kid, terrified – and for the first time in his life, he had less reason to be afraid than any of them. What was she going to do, copy his nothingness? Oh sure, she had powers – but didn’t everyone? Was someone walking around with four guns that much more dangerous than someone walking around with one? What was she going to do, kill him twice?
Honestly, what could this new girl do that anyone else couldn’t?
Because she was just a girl, he realised now, and it was like his eyes suddenly adjusted and for the first time he was actually seeing the totality of the person in front of him, unobscured by the mark. She was just a girl. A tall, lean, auburn-haired girl wearing a ratty grey jumper and sitting all alone at a table meant for eight, gazing straight ahead while an entire school stood ten feet away staring at her like she was Satan.
She hadn’t asked for this, he realised. Nobody got to choose what powers they got. He knew that better than anyone. And yet there she was, alone and despised just because she’d happened to be born a freak like him. The whole school was afraid of her – heck, Rance was so scared he’d implicitly ordered Matt to watch her future. The canary in the coalmine, whose job it was to die.
Or, he suddenly realised, to keep singing.
And in an instant, Matt made up his mind.
He strode forward – out behind the girl, past their table and off towards the serving area. A sea of eyes and low murmuring followed him as he walked, the first one to break ranks. Matt could feel their gazes burning on the back of his head, but in a way it didn’t matter. He suddenly knew what he was doing. He moved with confidence, chin up, chest out. The lunch lady filled up his tray, going through the motions with a look of stunned surrealism. Matt smiled, said thank you, then turned around, walked back-
-and sat down opposite the empath.
The girl glanced up at him for a few seconds with an expression that was halfway between weary and confused. He looked back at her and smiled, then bent down and started to eat. There was a low murmuring behind him. Out of the corner of his eye, Matt could see Taylor mouthing swear words and furiously shaking his head. Matt ignored him.
They ate slowly, in relative silence. The girl stopped looking at him and Matt kept his face forward, acting – no, being – like this was just another normal lunch. Around them the shock, or perhaps the novelty, was starting to wear off, decaying under the pressure of time and inaction. People were beginning to realise that they were actually hungry, and hey, the world hadn’t actually stopped spinning – the bell would be ringing soon and they’d all be trapped back in class. So after a few minutes people slowly began to move, hesitantly, in dribs and drabs, though giving Matt’s table a wide berth and many nervous looks.
Sound, the buzz of conversation, slowly began to re-fill the hall. Matt pinched open his carton of milk and took a sip. The girl forked blankly at a piece of broccoli. The tables around the room were filling up, no one voice distinct now, the sound louder, more normal. Movement and colour and life returned, albeit somewhat confused and subdued, and with every second eye fixed very intently on the two of them.
Finally, quietly – once the background noise was enough to cover it – the girl glanced up at him and spoke.
“What’re you doing?”
Matt’s composure never wavered and his posture remained relaxed. “Eating.”
“You know what I mean. What is this?”
“Lunch.” He put down the carton of milk and pulled the corner off one of his cookies, popped it in his mouth, and looked up at her, smiling genially.
The girl looked back at him, her thin brows arched in evident hostility. Not too much hostility though, not enough to be visible to anyone else – she might have been angry, but the girl wasn’t stupid. She was quite pretty actually, thought Matt; maybe even beautiful. It was hard to look at anything other than the big ugly ‘E’ tattooed on her face, but if you get past that she actually had quite striking features – grey-blue eyes, a small nose and elegant cheekbones. No make-up to speak of, or at least none Matt could see, which was kind of impressive in its own way, though it meant there was no disguising the dark rings under her eyes.
“I’m not going to sleep with you.”
If he hadn’t been being so deliberately composed, Matt might have choked on his food. As it was, he just coughed a little, caught himself and swallowed.
“I’m not going to sleep with you.” The girl’s voice reminded him of a flagpole he’d licked one winter.
“Well, never say never,” he said with a smile. Her eyes narrowed. Matt’s smile faded and he leant back a little. “I’m joking.”
“I’m not. Go away. I don’t care what stupid bet you’ve made with your stupid friends.” She glared at him. “Leave me alone.”
Matt was taken aback. “What are you talking about, what bet?”
“Your bet. Your bet, or dare, or stupid bro-initiation ‘first one to get the empath girl’ hazing trash to prove you’re a real man. You think you’re the first? You’re. Not.” She punctuated her words with her fork, jabbing it at his chest with discrete viciousness. “So go back to the other idiots and tell them whatever you like. Tell them you failed. Tell them we made out. Kill yourself. I don’t care. Just go away.”
Matt blinked, stunned. “Anyone ever tell you you’re kind of rude?”
The girl didn’t reply but instead looked down and stabbed violently at another vegetable.
A silence stretched out between them while Matt tried to form a coherent sentence.
“Ok,” he said finally, “Well, first, I’m not trying to sleep with you. Second, how do you know you don’t want to sleep with me, we’ve only just met. I could be adorable.”
The girl glared daggers at him.
“Again, joke,” Matt continued, moving hurriedly on, “I’m not trying to sleep with you. And nobody bet me anything.” Although that wouldn’t actually have been a bad idea, he avoided adding regretfully, he could have made like fifty bucks.
“Oh yeah?” Heavy sarcasm slathered in contempt.
“Then why the hell are you sitting here?”
“The principal told me to.”
“He told you to show me around,” she replied, then rolled her eyes around the room, “Oh look, the cafeteria. You showed it to me. Well done. Now go away.”
“And,” Matt continued matter-of-factly, “This is my table. This is where I usually eat lunch.” He kept his eyes steady and his movements calm and deliberate, matching his voice.
Silence, punctuated only by the sea of background chatter. Then: “Is this some kind of joke?”
“Well are you stupid? Or blind?” She pointed, savage but discrete, at her cheek. Matt stayed focused on his meal.
“You know what this is.”
“Was that a question?”
“It’s not a fashion statement.”
“I don’t know much about fashion anyway.”
“You can goddamn see it.”
“I can,” he replied, calm and neutral, “And so can everyone else. They can all see exactly what you are.” He looked up and into her eyes. “What else can they see?”
For the first time since he’d sat down, the girl hesitated. “What do you mean?”
“When they look at us, at you, right now.” He waved his fork around idly, subtly indicating the entire room, his gaze very deliberately not following his implement. “What do they see?”
“I don’t know, what kind of stupid-”
“They see you,” Matt interrupted without raising his voice in the slightest, “And me, sitting here eating lunch like it’s nothing. Like it’s the normal-est thing in the world. Heads up, I’m going to take one of your tater tots.” He reached over and pierced the piece of fried potato with his fork, then drew back and put it in his mouth. The girl didn’t move, though she stared at him like the fork had gone into her leg. Matt forced himself to chew, swallow and keep going.
“Now what do you think they think, seeing us here, sitting, talking, acting normal? What do they assume? What do they know? They know you’re an empath. You can copy people’s powers; they know that from the tattoo on your face.”
The girl’s mouth hardened, but Matt pressed on towards his point. “And they know who I am,” he continued, “They know I’m a clairvoyant.” The girl’s eyes got maybe just a little bit wider. “Because I’ve been going here for years.” He paused and shook his head at her. “I’m going to take another tot because it really doesn’t seem like you want them.”
The girl said nothing, so Matt reached over and took it. It needed salt. “So they see you, and maybe you’re all rigid and tense and dangerous – but me? Look at me.” He sat up a bit, squared his shoulders. “I’m casual, man, cool as a cucumber. Ain’t got a care in the world. And I’m a clairvoyant. I can see the future.” He relaxed slightly and went back to his food, slow and deliberate. “And if me, who can see the future, is totally relaxed and un-phased around you, then you obviously aren’t going to hurt me, or I wouldn’t be here. They don’t know what you’re going to do, but I know, and they know I know. And I know you’re not going to hurt me. And I know you’re not going to take my powers. And that’s that.”
For about half a minute, the girl didn’t speak. She’d stopped picking at her food. Matt ate in silence, looking up occasionally to watch her process.
“Why?” she said finally.
Matt swallowed a mouthful of weakly-gravied meat. “Well for one,” he shrugged, keeping up his cover, “The future’s the future. Are you going to hurt me?”
“No,” replied the girl, chewing reluctantly on the word.
“Right,” confirmed Matt, “And I wasn’t planning on hurting you, so there we go. Two, well, I got told to. Three, table. Four,” he said, holding up three fingers and a fork, “-I don’t know, because I’m nice? Because it’s the right thing to do?”
“I don’t need your help.”
Matt pointed with his fork. “See those guys over there? That big table of African dudes who’re staring at you like you killed their dog? No don’t turn around, look subtly.” He waited for the girl to get a glance in at the four young men, tall, dark and furious. “See them? Yeah. They’re Ugandan. And I’d imagine – but, you know, this is just speculation – that they don’t feel the greatest amount of affection towards empaths.”
The girl’s eyes fell to her tray. “What’s your point?”
“My point is that right now, they’re sitting over there thinking about trying to kill you. And they’re probably not the only ones. Everyone’s afraid of you and fear can make people stupid.”
“You’re worried I’ll get hurt?” the girl scoffed.
“No. Anyone comes at me, I’ll destroy them.”
“Yeah, maybe you will.” Matt leaned in. “But see, these are my friends. They might be stupid, they might be scared, and they might be bigots, but they’re still my friends. And I don’t want them to get hurt any more than I want you to.”
“You don’t know me.”
“I don’t know a lot of people. Doesn’t mean I want them to get hurt if I can help it.”
“And this, sitting here, eating goddamn pudding cups, this is doing something?”
“Yes. It’s normalising. It’s showing everyone they don’t need to be afraid.”
A silence stretched out between them, the boy eating as calmly as he could, the girl glaring coldly at him.
“I don’t need your help.”
“Who’s helping? I’m just eating lunch.”
The girl’s hands clenched the ends of the tray, and for a second Matt thought she was about to launch across the table at him – but then she just stood up, turned around and walked off.
Bio: Born and raised in Newcastle, Australia, Ben is a lifelong writer currently studying his Masters in Creative Writing at the University of Technology Sydney. An avid fan of the weird and wonderful, he has wanted to be a writer since he was five years old (before which he wanted to be a dinosaur).