“I’m seeing a child. Young on the outside, old on the inside. He’s troubled.”
From the other side of the desk, he heard Cross’s pen quietly scritch-scratch across the paper.
“What do they look like?” she demanded.
“Blonde,” Matt stated, “White. A little boy. Blue eyes.”
His head still down, Matt opened his eyelids just a fraction, watching Cross’s face for any trace of recognition.
There was none. Cross just looked irritated. “Tell me what he’s connected to,” she ordered, “Give me a specific place or time.”
Matt shook his head, his eyes still closed. He heard Cross make that little ‘tch’-ing noise she made when she was annoyed.
“Is he related to the priest you identified last time?” she pressed, “The one where there’s, quote, ‘deception laying inside’?”
“I don’t know,” replied Matt, not needing to fake the exasperation in his voice. She’d taken to asking questions in their last few tests, which did not bode well.
“Hmm-hmm,” muttered Cross. She poked a hard full stop in her paper, “And this priest, any more on him? What does he look like?”
“Like a priest,” said Matt, rolling his eyes, “Older. Grey hair. Not as much of it as there used to be.”
“Uh-huh,” glowered Cross, sounding dissatisfied. Her pen scratched a small note and she looked up at him, “And that’s it?”
“That’s it,” said Matt impertinently.
An uncomfortable silence stretched across the small room.
“You know what I think?” said Cross, and it was abundantly clear that he was going to find out, “You know why I think we don’t seem to be getting anywhere?”
Matt felt a sudden rush of fear.
“Why?” he asked, trying to control his heartrate.
“I think you’re lazy,” scowled Cross, and Matt struggled not to loose a sigh of relief, “I think you’re lazy, and I think you’re not putting in the effort befitting your gifts.”
Matt folded his arms, acting defensive. “Well maybe I’m sick of these stupid tests,” he snapped, doing his best to sound brattish. He’d spent the morning watching online videos of delinquent children forced to live in the wilderness and was working on mimicking their belligerence. “Maybe you suck, maybe you should learn how to do your job.”
Cross’s eyes narrowed, and for a moment the room fell unnaturally quiet as the stumpy woman’s skin began glowing. Then the glow faded, and she drew a long breath between her teeth.
“Let’s press on, shall we?” she said, with meticulously forced calm. She turned a sheet over on her clipboard and gave a small, amicable nod. “This prediction here. That something terrible will afflict Detroit.” Cross looked up at him with what could have been an attempt at a placating smile. “Anything further on that?”
“No,” Matt answered, who truthfully hadn’t, but nevertheless felt safe to predict that something at some point would go wrong with that crappy place. The corners of Cross’s mouth twitched.
“Okay,” she murmured, closing her eyes and rubbing her temple with a short finger. The red was coming off her manicure. “Okay. Matt, I’m trying to help you, but you need to work with me. I really need you to focus.”
Despite his position, Matt couldn’t help feeling a little sorry for the beleaguered Ashes woman. Throughout all their testing, the most specific visions he’d managed to give her had been “I see a man in a white shirt” or “I see the colour brown”. A part of him wanted to keep it at that, to keep being so vague in his predictions that the Academy decided he wasn’t any use after all and kicked him out. But unfortunately, that course of action carried with it the risk of going too far – of Cross or someone else coming to suspect that maybe, just maybe, he actually wasn’t a clairvoyant at all. Having already survived one close call and unable to forget the child’s warning to “stay hidden”, that was a risk Matt simply couldn’t stomach.
And so, almost regretfully, he had started making plans.
“All I see is wings,” he announced. Cross’s eyes shot open.
“Wings?” she demanded, “What wings?”
“I don’t know,” shrugged Matt, looking genuinely indifferent, “It’s not, like, a serious thing. I just see wings. Black wings. I don’t get it any more than you do.”
Cross looked curious, but nevertheless sighed after it became apparent that nothing more was going to be forthcoming. “Very well Mr Callaghan, that’ll be all,” she said, waving him away, “We’ll break for lunch.” Matt stood, and after gathering the papers she had scattered across the desk and tucking the clipboard under her arm, Cross joined him.
They moved through the halls and down the central stairs in silence – the lack of talk between them the awkward kind that arose between a teacher and pupil with not that much in common. As they made their way towards the Hall however, their silence was overrun by the sound of commotion. Cross glanced, furrow-browed, at Matt.
“What’s going on?” she demanded of an Acolyte, a Sri Lankan girl who was laughing her way through a half-jog out the double doors.
“It’s a bird,” she laughed, “A stupid crow, somehow got in through the windows. It’s flying around screeching and swooping everyone.” Her face was a beacon of mirth. “I’m going to get Becky, hopefully she can catch it.” She walked off, still chuckling.
Cross’s face paled and she threw a wide-eyed glance at Matt, who shrugged. Slowly, the stocky Ashes woman pushed open one of the Hall doors and stuck her short blond head inside – where, indeed, a wild and very disgruntled crow was making its displeasure at its current situation decidedly known. Cross stared at the crow, squawking and flapping between the rafters. Then slowly, like clockwork, she turned back to Matt, who was standing nonplussed beside her and who she’d been sitting with for the last half hour – and therefore couldn’t possibly have been involved.
“Wings,” she whispered, gazing at him with shaking eyes, “Black wings.”
Operation Tranquil Seagull was not Matt’s most elegant plan, but it was special in that it required a partner. A partner, a backpack, a bottle of cough medicine, a bag of French fries and considerable patience. And it had all come to Matt through the power of procrastination.
As the days grew shorter and the cool winds of autumn shifted into drizzling miserable rains, which cast a gloom over everyone’s morning activities and spackled anyone who went outside with mud, Matt’s life at the Academy settled into a kind of eclectic routine. He’d sleep in in the mornings, then get up around ten and meander down into the Grand Hall for a late breakfast, which sometimes turned into an early lunch. Around midday, he’d wander up to the cushion room to sit with Selwyn – who, Matt was pleased to note, showed no signs of moving towards requiring any kind of tangible results – and then after an hour or two of silence thank the bald projectionist for his “help” and go off to spend the afternoon doing what was now his primary activity – faffing about.
Driven by boredom, Matt Callaghan had transformed the burden of having too much free time into a reservoir of hours in which to upskill himself – a fanciful term which here meant “start a bunch of useless hobbies”. One of these, completely on a whim, was bird-watching, and it was here that Operation Tranquil Seagull came to life.
Matt knew for a fact that Cross was starting to get irritated at his lack of trackable progress. He’d made predictions, yes – but he hadn’t stated when or where they’d be occurring, and so they were all hard to quantify. In principle, Matt knew Cross understood this, but in practice he could sense the Ashes woman getting impatient. In order to avoid suspicion, he knew he needed a genuine prediction. Cross needed a tangible result.
And so Matt got to work.
Many of his plans were long cons. The vision of the deception-riddled priest (who could be either losing his faith or finding something worse), Detroit suffering literally any negative event and his prediction that a US Senator would cheat on his wife were all just a matter of time, but Matt didn’t trust them to be enough on their own, so he’d started scheming closer to home.
His first trick was simple. The Nyquil Nighttime Cold & Flu Relief went in the chips; the chips went in the bird; the bird went in the backpack. And then the backpack went to Jane.
“I hate you,” she told him, heaving the bag of unconscious crow over her shoulder as discretely as possible, looking thoroughly uncomfortable.
“You’re the best,” he assured her. He gave the empath an enthusiastic double thumbs-up, which he toned down somewhat as a pair of Acolytes walked past. “Remember, nice and subtle. Bag open. Bird under the table. When you start to feel it move, that’s your cue to leave.”
“I hate you,” Jane reiterated. But nevertheless his plan went off without a hitch. Cross had her prediction – and Matt had an alibi.
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).