Written by: Lee L. Krecklow, Voiced by: Mallon Khan
The park was green and sprawling, larger than most towns. Really, it was a town of its own, composed of a golf course and botanical gardens and a dozen picnic areas and playgrounds. In its center were the woods: acres and acres of untouched preserve; thick, old-growth trees; rivers and waterfalls; marshes and swamps. There were trails, but the trick was to stay off those.
Prentice walked through a grassy field and stood at the tree line. He looked into the shadowy forest, underneath the dark canopy of growth.
He took a breath, then stepped inside.
Meet us in the woods. The instructions from Marlow were vague, and now, as he looked around, he wasn’t certain he’d understood correctly. It was quiet, and there wasn’t a soul in sight. Insects flittered inside narrow beams of sunlight. Birds and squirrels warned each other of the intruder. He walked deeper. Twigs and dry leaves crunched underfoot. A breeze whispered through the leaves above it all. The smell of earth and moss came to his nose.
And then the smell of lavender.
Startled, he spun around, and there she was, sitting on a mat with her legs crossed and her hands on her knees.
“I’m happy you’re here,” she said.
He’d almost walked past her. “Where are the others? I thought you said there was a group.”
“You’ll see them when they’re ready.”
Marlow didn’t move, but her eyes were on him. Prentice looked around, unsure of what to say next, unsure of what to do.
She patted the yoga mat. “Why don’t you have a seat?” She slid to the end and gestured for him to sit at the opposite end. Prentice sat and faced her. He crossed his legs, felt the stiffness in them, the strain of tight muscles.
“You ask me whatever you’d like,” she said. “You’re here for you and nobody else.”
He sat quietly and closed his eyes. He thought about the events of the last week. The events of the last year. He thought about his childhood, then a random, specific memory of being at a summer camp, a camp in which his parents enrolled him in spite of his tears, a camp during which he remembered watching kids singing songs and running and playing games he didn’t understand, and he remembered the one real friend he’d made there, and how they used to hide in the woods and play pretend together with action figures they made out of popsicle sticks and pipe cleaners stolen from the craft tent. It was one of the first times he felt different.
“What are we?” he said.
“A psychology book would tell you that we’re introverts. You’ve used the word yourself. But that’s an oversimplification.”
“How do we fix it? How do we feel more normal?”
“It’s not an affliction, Prentice. There’s nothing to fix. And there’s nothing abnormal about it. There are millions of us.”
“Millions of Hidden?”
“No. It’s one thing to be an introvert. It’s another to be a Hidden. To be a Hidden requires an even deeper understanding of who you are. And a respect for every nuance in others. Hidden have certain abilities that come from a practiced knowledge of themselves.”
“Great, now tell say that again in English.”
Marlow smiled and giggled. “We have powers, Prentice.”
“Powers. Okay … and you think that’s me?”
“Not yet. But it can be. If you want it to be.”
Prentice wasn’t sure of the answer. This was already a lot of information for him to process. He closed his eyes and thought. He could hear Marlow’s breath slow and deepen, take on the same rhythm it did on his roof. He tried to match it.
“What made me this way?” he said.
“A lot of things. The factors are different for everyone. Much of it is natural. Like what made your hair brown or your eyes green? What made you love to read?”
“You’re saying I was born this way?”
“Maybe you were. Many of us are what they call high-reactive. Some say highly-sensitive. We experience everything with more intensity than others. Even as babies. Sights and sounds. Emotions. Touch. Taste. And especially other people. They’ve done tests and it’s true. We think more, take in more information. And we need to process more. And if we don’t process, don’t have time to ourselves, well, it hurts. It’s overwhelming.”
“Is that what you’re doing here? Processing?”
“Part of it, yes.”
Prentice thought about everything he was hearing. And he understood how much sense it all made. The overstimulation. Heightened emotions. The burden of being around other people. But none of it made him feel any better.
“I just want to be happy,” he said. “I just want to stop feeling tired and anxious all the time.”
Marlow flexed her hands, stretched her fingers, then placed them back on her knees. Prentice thought maybe she would never speak, but when she was ready she said, “Have you ever read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance?”
“Seriously? Um, no.”
“It’s not what you think. It’s a powerful book of philosophy. In it there are two men driving across the country on their motorcycles. One man has studied his bike, learned what makes it work. That man stops every evening and pulls out a set of tools. He checks his chain. Checks the timing of the engine. Uses the tools he’s packed to make adjustments. The other man does not. He thinks that’s what mechanics are for. However, when that man’s bike becomes harder to start and sputters on the highway, it causes him terrific stress. He doesn’t understand what’s wrong. There are no mechanics for a hundred miles. He doesn’t have tools, and if he did, wouldn’t know how to use him. The stress takes the joy out of the ride.”
“You’re trying to give me the tools to care for myself.”
“That’s right. You’ll find more happiness when you become more self-aware. You’ll learn to listen to yourself. And you’ll adjust.”
“The other night … when you touched my forehead …”
“Yes, some people think we have more grey matter there, which gives you …”
Just then, there was a sound behind him. Prentice turned and jumped to his feet, and there before him were three others, unfamiliar faces, appearing from nowhere. Where there was trust a moment ago, the security of one-on-one conversation, there was now that familiar wash of overloaded senses.
“Perfect timing,” Marlow said.
“What is this? Where did you come from?” Prentice said.
“It’s okay, Prentice. They’re like us. They understand.”
They all stood back, quiet, not moving, giving Prentice the time he needed to evaluate the situation, as if he was an anxious dog sniffing new hands
“I know this is a lot,” Marlow said. “We don’t want to overwhelm you, but I think you should meet everyone.” Marlow walked toward the three and stood by each for a moment, saying their names. “This is Tasha. This is Rosita. And this is Pacey.”
It was Rosita who spoke first. “It’s good to meet you.” Her voice waivered, fluttered. “But I need to go.” She backed away from the group, nodded at the others, then turned and vanished into the woods, like smoke blowing into the trees.
“Where did she go?” Prentice said.
Marlow started to answer, but Tasha got her words out faster. “This is a lot for her, too. She doesn’t trust you yet either. She’s not trying to be rude. Just needs to take care of herself first.”
Marlow added, “She got anxious fast. She often does.”
Prentice looked again to Tasha. “And I don’t make you anxious?”
Tasha laughed a bit. “Me? No. I’m good. Anxious isn’t my thing.”
He looked at Pacey now, tall, barrel chested, handsome and athletic. Prentice recognized him … a senior on the football team. He was hard not to recognize. Everyone knew Pacey. “What are you doing here?”
Pacey looked up slowly. Took a deep breath. “I don’t understand the question.”
“You don’t seem … the type.”
“Well …” Pacey trailed off. Searched the sky. Prentice waited for an answer, wondered if it would ever come. “It depends on what you mean by ‘type.’” Again the man paused, clasping his hands behind his back. “I gotta tell ya, I kinda have a problem with being a type. I’m just me.”
“It’s okay, Pacey,” Marlow offered. He didn’t mean anything.
“I wasn’t done,” Pacey said. “Still, I recognize your question. What am I doing here? Let me think on that more. I may need to get back to you.”
Prentice started, “You’re all so … so …”
“Different?” Tasha said. “Well yeah we’re different. What did you expect? Robots?”
“No, I just …”
Marlow cut in. “Of course we’re different. Like I said to you on the roof, everyone is different. Even us. Very different.”
“So what do you do here?”
“Like I just said,” Marlow answered. “We’re all very different. And we do very different things. Maybe we should talk about that.”
There was no sixth or seventh period. It was Friday, the climax of Homecoming week, and the last classes of the day were canceled. There was extra excitement with the football game being against North Central, a hated rival, which prentice never understood: were they really meant to dislike people just because they went to a school three miles away? Regardless, everyone moved through the hallways, jostling and cheering, heading toward the all-school pep rally. There was a static in the air, an energy. Prentice felt it.
Quite literally, he felt it, crawling over his body like hands. He heard Marlow’s voice say, We have powers, Prentice.
The hairs on the top of his head stood up, flaring in some primal way, and electricity ran up and down his arms and his back and his legs. The smell in the air was like peppermint, and it opened his mind and his eyes. Over the tops of the heads of others, Prentice saw an aura, a glow, not a color exactly, but a disturbance in the air, like waves of heat rising off pavement. He read the patterns in the waves as if they were a text, and they looked to him like excitement.
None of this came from inside of him. Inside he felt quiet. Thoughtful. Calm. He was able to pull back mentally from the crowd and observe and understand. The excitement and energy he felt was definitely theirs, and he felt it seeping into him from outside.
It was happening. It was finally happening.
Last week, after going to the woods with Marlow, they started talking about the powers he could have, the things he might see, if he only focused. She talked about his ability to solve problems and mediate conflict. She talked about heightened powers of observation and memory. She talked about how he could grow into the leader his dad wanted him to be. He went back to the woods several times after, each time learning more from her, and from the others, too. Of course, they couldn’t tell him exactly what would happen. “Everyone is different,” they kept saying. “Each with their own strengths and weaknesses.”
And each of them gave him something different, too. Marlow talked about being able to steady and insulate his mind, be his own person. Pacey talked about taking time and being thoughtful, about thinking first and acting deliberately. Tasha talked to him about storing up the strength to be in crowds and interact when necessary. Rosita explained to him the anxiety he sometimes felt. And they all talked about the exciting possibilities nobody could predict; powers that would be his and his alone. He worked and thought and focused so hard for so many days, but nothing happened.
He moved with the crowd toward the gymnasium, toward the pep rally, taking stock of everything he felt along the way. There were variances in the individuals he walked past, differences in their aura, in the waves over the heads of each, variations in the scent, in the static along his skin. In some he sensed no excitement. In some he sensed what felt like annoyance. In some there was a mixture of emotion. Was this one exhaustion and impatience? Was this one both ego and insecurity? It was all a new language.
In the gym it came faster. He knew the teachers felt weary and the football players felt invincible. He climbed the bleachers and felt the nauseated twist of a girl’s sick stomach … was it something she ate? Then the contempt a boy felt … was it for everything school-related? And he felt so many others, like him, who were simply overwhelmed by the crowd and the noise.
But the faster the feelings came, the less in control he felt, the more confusion he felt, and the less he enjoyed this new power.
He found what felt like a quiet spot, an eye in the storm of emotions. There was an empty seat and he took it. The band played on the floor of the gymnasium and students continued to file in. Someone started a chant, “North Central sucks! North Central sucks!” and everyone joined in. He took breaths in his space, trying to exercise the meditation he’d learned from Marlow. It wasn’t working. He saw Pacey out on the floor with the team, and he tried to make eye contact with him, tried to make some connection with him, receive some assurance, but it was useless trying to get attention in the crowd. Even with another Hidden.
Then, from outside his body, he felt the pinpricks of fear. It was coming from his right, where sat Jerome, a freshman in the school who had a condition called vitiligo, which cause patches of white to appear on his otherwise black skin. Jerome had patches around his eyes and cheeks, and on his hands and arms. Prentice knew Jerome and liked him, and he saw that Jerome sat with other friends, yet the boy’s fear was mounting.
Then, from behind him, Prentice felt the cause. He turned and saw three boys, unkempt hair, unshaven, older, and what came from them was complicated and needed to be deciphered. Prentice felt aggression from them, first and foremost. He felt condescension from them: a feeling of superiority. He saw the waves rising off of them, the heat of their thoughts. But where it got complicated was in what lied beneath it all. For all their armor, Prentice also saw weakness and insecurity.
They were making quiet jokes among themselves and pointing, slapping each other’s arms and egging each other on, and as they did, their insecurity lessened and their condescension grew. Prentice could feel that Jerome was their target. And Jerome seemed to know it, too. It was awful to witness and worse to feel; Prentice experienced all those emotions along with them. He nearly felt guilty for it.
The three moved down a row, closer to Jerome, and as they did, their aggression increased, and Jerome’s fear mounted, and the tension between the two was also visible to Prentice. Their waves were clashing, fighting. And there was the smell of rot and decay coming at him hard, a smell that overwhelmed the eyes to the point tears, the smell of war and dead flesh. And again the three moved closer to Jerome. Jerome who just weeks ago wrote an open letter to the school and published it on the school blog asking everyone to understand his condition and stop making him the target of jokes and jeers, to respect the person he was and not get hung up on the differences they perceived.
Prentice turned his focus to Jerome and tried hard to tune out the others. Marlow had helped him when he was afraid, so maybe he could do the same for Jerome? Help him find strength? Their hearts beat faster and faster in sync with each other. But Prentice couldn’t calm him. His powers weren’t strong enough yet.
The three moved closer one more time, so they were right behind Jerome now. And Prentice heard their thoughts, heard their jokes, the horrible things they were about to say. And that was the last straw. With a surge of adrenaline, Prentice turned to the three and yelled over the sound of the pep-rally band and over the sound of all others in the bleachers, “Back off! Don’t touch him! Leave him alone!”
All three turned and looked at him, and Jerome turned and looked too. Prentice was standing, fists clenched, eyes like lasers pointed on the would-be bullies.
“Leave who alone? We didn’t do anything, you freak!”
“I saw you. I saw all of you. I know what you were doing.”
One of the three stood now, Brett, tall and unshaven, wearing torn jeans and a metal band shirt and homemade tattoos across his knuckles and a look that told Prentice that he was now the focus of his hostility.
“What did you see? You didn’t see anything because I didn’t do anything.”
Prentice tried to see Brett, tried to feel him, understand what Brett was feeling and use it to defuse the situation. But Prentice felt nothing except his own fear, this new feeling coming from deep inside himself, not from anyone else. He was powerless.
“What do you know, huh? You think you know me?” Brett reached out and pushed Prentice, not hard, but enough to rock him back. “Who the hell are you anyway, huh?”
Prentice put up his hands, put his palms up in defense, in surrender, but the effort it took to keep them up began to feel like too much. His head began to swirl, his breath get short. He opened his mouth to speak, to explain himself, to try to get himself out of the mess he created, but no words came to him. His arms fell, his vision blurred, his knees buckled, and the last sensation he was aware of was falling backwards, falling, falling, falling, but never hitting the ground.
“I just lost it all.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“It was gone. Just as fast as the powers came to me, they were gone again. But not just the powers. My body stopped working. My thoughts slowed down. Like my whole head was underwater, and my mind was slogging through it.”
Prentice was on his roof with Marlow. They sat together, close, facing each other, focusing on each other, talking through everything that had happened.
She told him that the Hidden had been watching him. She told him that Tasha had seen him in the hallway and had known what he was feeling. She told him that they, too, were there in the bleachers at the pep rally, and they saw what had happened. They watched while he came into an understanding of his ability, watched as he tried to control it. They had seen him come to the defense of a classmate. They saw him get into a fight. They saw him collapse. And they caught him before he fell.
“Why do you think that happened?” Marlow asked. “Why do you think you started to shut down?”
Prentice knew by now, after so many conversations with her, that she already knew the answer. But it was her way to not offer information that he was capable of producing on his own. She was just there to facilitate his thoughts.
“I’ve never liked conflict,” he said. “I hate confrontation.”
“And yet you stepped into it.”
“I didn’t have a choice. I needed to do something to help.”
“What do you mean maybe? How can you say that? You were there. You saw what was happening.”
“Nothing happened, Prentice. Except that you got into a fight.”
“Are you telling me I shouldn’t have intervened?”
“I’m not telling you that. Only you can know that for sure. Maybe you did the right thing. But what I’m telling you is that people have emotions. All the time. And they may or may not be able to handle them on their own. And they have ideas that they may or may not act on. And you’re just now learning to see those things in people. And just now learning to understand your own abilities.”
“Yeah, well I think I understand what I saw and felt.”
“Did you understand that you were about to pass out? Did you understand that we were there watching, and that the only reason you didn’t fall and split your head open was because we would catch you? You should always help people who need it. And being willing to put yourself in harm’s way for the sake of others makes you strong and caring. Those are powers. But doing it safely? Doing it with a full understanding of the consequences of both your action and your inaction? Doing so with humility? Those things make you a leader. Do you know for sure that Jerome couldn’t handle them?”
Prentice scoffed, turned away, laid back onto the slope of the roof. He looked up at the sky, cloudy now, backlit by the moon to the south.
“I don’t mean to upset you,” she said, turning and laying back also.
Prentice thought, ran his fingers along the edge of the shingles. “You’re not upsetting me. I’m just tired.”
“I know you are. I should go soon. Leave you alone.”
“Tell me why I got sick.”
Marlow stood, looked down at him, brushed the tiny stones and dirt from off her legs and back.
“Your weaknesses are going to become more pronounced at the same time your strengths are. Everything about you is growing. Including the things that hurt you most. You thought you hated confrontation before? It’s only going to get harder.”
“I don’t want anything to get harder.”
“Even Superman had his Kryponite.”
“I hate Superman.”
“But as it gets harder, your tools for dealing with it will become stronger also. You’re going to be fine.”
“Sometimes that’s hard to see.”
“You’re not going to see me for a while, Prentice.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean I’ve taken you a long way, but you’re going to need to do more work on your own now.”
“What am I supposed to do?”
“Exactly what you have been doing. Go to the woods. Practice your ability. I’m just not going to be there. It’s time you do some thinking and feeling on your own.”
Marlow turned and walked along the roof to the tree, her tree.
“How do I find you if I need you?”
She started to climb down.
“I’ll find you when I know you do.”
Stay tuned for Episode 4 next week!