Allan was invisible. If he didn’t move, nobody would notice. The rain beat out an uneven rhythm on the window. He squeezed his eyes shut. If he thought hard enough, if he could just make his mind really concentrate on nothing, maybe he’d slip away into nothing, too. In, out, in, out.
BEEP, BEEP, BEEP!
Allan banged the alarm quiet. Reality sucked.
The air was cold outside the covers. Either Mama forgot to pay the heat again or the thermostat was broken. Again.
He pulled his foot back and reached down for his socks, balled up on the floor beside his bed. They weren’t too dirty. He could wear them another day. He’d do some laundry when he got home, if they had detergent. He made a mental note to check before he left for school. He could pick some up on the way home. They probably needed milk too. It was the end of the month, but there might be enough on the food card for some cereal. Mama would eat cereal even if he wasn’t home.
Allan finished dressing and checked the thermostat. It was on, but it was wrong. He went to his room and got a screwdriver out of his toolbox. It wasn’t really a toolbox, just an old shoebox, but he kept the few tools they had in his room. Mama wouldn’t know a flat head screwdriver from a crescent wrench. He pried the thermostat cover open and unscrewed a couple of wires and screwed them back in. The heat popped on, and he closed the cover, then opened Mama’s door a crack. She kept the curtains closed all the time, so it was too dark to see if she was awake yet.
“Mama?” Not too loud because she got headaches.
“Hmm?” Mama said back. His eyes adjusted and he could see her stretch, her sandy braid sliding across the pillow. She sounded pretty good, so he opened the door all the way and stepped over the clothes on the floor to sit beside her. The bed sank low and Mama sighed.“You’re gonna break the bed if you get any bigger.”
She wasn’t crying or screaming. Maybe today was going to be a good day. “I can’t get any smaller,” he said.
Mama motioned him closer and put her skinny arms around him. She needed a shower, and he felt guilty for noticing. He held his breath until she let go.
“As long as you don’t get too big for this,” she said, falling back on the pillows. She pulled her arms back under the covers. “It’s cold in here.”
“The thermostat was broken again.”
She swore and he winced. It wasn’t going to be a good day.
“I fixed it,” trying to delay the inevitable.
“You ain’t supposed to do that. You want Mr. Wang after you again? You know how he gets when you do Max’s job.”
“I do it better.”
“Fine, Mr. Magic Hands,” Mama said through gritted teeth. “I’m not sticking up for you this time. Max gets paid to keep this crap-hole running. He might as well earn it.”
Allan waited for her to finish. It always went one of two ways when she was like this. Either she’d work herself up to screaming about how worthless he was, or she’d start crying about how worthless she was. Allan wasn’t sure which one he hated worse. She reached out her hand and Allan tensed. He could stop her from slapping him, but that just made things worse, besides she wasn’t very strong. She didn’t slap him, though. She fingered a lock of Allan’s tight black curls and pursed her lips. “You look like your dad.”
“Dad didn’t have freckles.”
“No, you get that from me,” she said. “And them eyes. Daddy’s brown skin and my blue eyes and freckles.” She looked sad, but a different kind of sad. Lonely. “You’re handsomer than your daddy, I think. Truly beautiful.”
“Come on, Mama.” Allan gently pushed her hand away.
“You need a haircut.” Allan knew she was trying to decide if she was up to giving him a haircut. They both knew there was no money for a barber.
“I like it long,” said Allan, and Mama looked almost grateful.
“You got school?”
Mama burrowed down into her pillow. “Bring me some cereal before you leave.” She wasn’t going to get out of bed today, either. Allan tried to think of the last time she’d done anything. Sometimes he wondered what she would do if he wasn’t here to do everything for her. Sometimes he wished he had the courage to find out. Six more months and he’d be done with high school. Another month after that and he’d be 18. The number felt like freedom. Especially with the stack of college acceptance letters on the table in his room and the academic scholarship award papers carefully filed in the box beside them. Everything was about to change.
Allan turned on the tv in their tiny living room and went to wash the dried milk out of yesterday’s bowls.
“Another teen is missing from Hope High School,” a pretty blonde lady in a blue suit was saying. “In what has become an epidemic of teen run-aways from the satellite school serving gifted, underprivileged children; parents, administrators, and grant officials are left wondering, ‘Why?’”
The principal of Allan’s school, Mr. Greene came on, looking tired. “These kids come to us from difficult circumstances,” he said, sweat glistening on his dark forehead. “I mean, most of these kids are from group homes. They’ve got nobody to care for them, and we’re doing our best to fill their educational needs, give them hope in a future for themselves, but sometimes it just isn’t enough.”
The pretty blonde lady re-appeared. “While police are looking into all reported disappearances, some in the community say it is too little, too late.”
A dark haired woman with a thick latino accent came on. “Nobody cared till that little white girl. Black and latino kids been disappearing for weeks, but it don’t make the news till some little white girl takes off.”
Allan turned off the set. The flustered policeman was going to say the same thing they’d been saying for weeks. They were doing their best. They probably were. There were a ton of police at the school already and kids were still disappearing. How are you going to make somebody stay when they don’t want to?
Allan knew most of the kids who were missing. It wasn’t that big of a school. They were all supposed to want to go to college and then on to big careers in science or medicine or engineering. All the kids in the STEM school were smart enough for that, but you could make a couple thousand a day selling pot to the rich kids in Clinton. You could sell it in Jackson, too, but you weren’t going to get as much. Plus, those college kids bought up Adderall like it was candy, and any idiot could fake ADHD. Especially if you were some crazy smart poor kid on government take and the whole state’s invested in you. The pressure could get to you. Sometimes easy was just easier.
Allan carried two bowls of cereal and a glass of milk into Mama’s dark room. Mama was sitting up. She’d undone her braid and was pulling a brush through it. Allan waited while she braided it back into a long rope and twisted a rubber band around the end. He held out her bowl of cereal. Mama kept a picture of the three of them at the Jackson Zoo by her bed, and she carefully moved it aside to make some space, pushing it back amongst the half-filled water bottles, anti-depressants, and unopened bills. She poured half the milk on her cereal and held it out for him.
“You gonna eat?” she said, taking a bite. He took the glass and emptied it into his cereal.
“You remember that?” Mama said around a mouthful of Captain Crunch, pointing at the picture with her spoon.
Allan remembered everything about that day. It was one of those times Dad was on forced time off from the factory, and it just happened to fall on Allan’s 13th birthday, so they decided to celebrate. Allan was already taller than Mama then, but skinnier. Mama had a long flowered dress and she wore sunglasses with a big floppy hat, but her smile was bright even in shadow. Her skin was tan and she had freckles even on her arms. Dad wore sunglasses too and he had his arm around Mama. The hand on Allan’s shoulder held a lit cigarette. His smile was the thing Allan remembered most. All those white teeth in his dark face. He had the biggest smile on the planet. Allan beamed out of the picture from between them, a stuffed panda in one arm and a bag of cotton candy in the other. They never had a lot, but they were happy, before Dad died of lung cancer. The factory said it was the cigarettes, but Allan thought it was the paper lint. In the end it didn’t matter. No money either way. Allan tried to remember what Dad’s eyes looked like.
Mama tapped the picture. “You can do almost anything for someone you love,” she said.
Allan suddenly felt angry. He thought about the broken thermostat, and the empty cupboards, and the dirty laundry and dishes and the pile of bills. “I gotta go to school.” He left without waiting for an answer.
“Be Awesome!” Mama called from the bedroom, like she always did, even if she was crying.
Allan picked up his backpack and shut the front door behind him.
Sure, he thought. Awesome.
Allan took his time going down the stairs to the street. He liked the stairs because they were open to the city. He loved the city. Pretty much everybody was invisible once they hit the street. Everybody ignored everybody. Besides, nobody else used the stairs. They were colder in the winter and smelled a little like urine.
He breathed in the chilly, smelly air anyway and pushed his worry for Mama into a worn corner of his brain and worried about something else.
Lani was the little white girl the reporter had been talking about. She had disappeared two weeks ago. They were the only two in Allan’s apartment building that went to the STEM school. They were both Junior’s and he had a couple of classes with her. Allan couldn’t help but notice her. She was one of only a handful of white kids in the whole school and she was smart and pretty in a kind of nerdy way. She had turquoise rimmed glasses that she didn’t really need that were too big for her face. She wore colorful scarves and swishy skirts with tee-shirts and flip-flops. She lived with her grandmother a couple of floors down from Allan and his mom. In the winter she wore a big Christmas tree green wool coat like from an old movie, with four big buttons in the front. She said it was her grandmother’s. When she wore it, it made her brown eyes flicker with gold. She wore her blonde hair short and whispy around her face, and she talked to Allan. Sometimes, she walked to the bus with him. Once Allan figured out when she was going to be in the stairs, they walked together a lot more. She liked to talk. It didn’t seem to bother her that he didn’t talk back, she talked enough for both of them.
They were friends or anything. Lani talked to everybody. She ate lunch with a bunch of girls and never invited Allan to sit with them, it would have been weird if she had, but she always said “Hello,” and if they sat together in class, she told him all about the times her parents took her hiking on some island in the Pacific, or boating down some river in China, or to see glaciers in Alaska. Her real name was Victoria Ka’iulani Adessi. Allan liked the way her name felt in his mouth. She told him that her parents named her after a Hawaiian princess. They had disappeared in an avalanche in the Himalayas on one of those trips, and the sherpas had dug her out with two broken legs. They never found her parents. She had been brought to live with her Grandmother three years ago.
Lani had once paused long enough to ask him where his parents were. He told her how his dad had died of brain cancer. She had stopped right in the middle of the stairway and took his hand and looked him in the eyes and said, “It’s crap, isn’t it,” then just kept walking, holding onto his hand all the way to the bus. She let go when the bus got there, but not like she was embarrassed or anything. She just waved, said, “See ya,” and went to sit with a girl named Connie from another building several blocks away. Allan had sat by himself, like he always did, but feeling like he wanted to laugh and cry at the same time. Lani made him feel like that a lot.
Lani’s grandmother had gone to every apartment in the building when Lani disappeared. She asked if Allan knew her. Allan said he did. She asked if they were friends. Allan realized he wasn’t sure she even knew his name. She asked if Allan knew where she was. Allan didn’t. She left, and Allan wanted to throw up.
Allan saw Lani’s grandmother that night on the news. She said there was no way her Lani was one of the run-aways. She said Lani was a good girl and someone must have taken her. The reporter had nodded, like she believed her, then the news had cut to a policeman telling everybody that kids weren’t officially “missing” until they were gone for more than a day. He barely able kept from rolling his eyes.
The latino lady from the morning newscast was right. After Lani didn’t come home, the news started giving daily updates on the missing kids. There were close to 20 now.
Allan pulled his hood up against the rain, but it pelted down the front of his neck anyway and soaked his chest. The shelter over the bus stop wasn’t much help against the November sleet either. He resigned himself to being cold all day.
The city bus door swished open and Allan climbed the stairs and sat down in his usual seat, his sneakers squeaking on the rubber floor. He leaned his head against the window and crossed his arms, trying to warm himself as he watched the rain making snake-like trails down the window-pane. The sound of the rain on the roof of the bus and the swishing of the windshield wipers almost drowned out the noise of the other students.
The bus had to make three more stops in the city before it began the 30 minute drive out of town to Hope High. Allan closed his eyes as the bus wound through the city streets. Once it made all its stops, it would exit onto the freeway. Twenty minutes on the freeway, then another ten on a country lane before the final meander down a long unpaved drive to the school. The city had bought the dilapidated building at auction from the State of Mississippi when the funding for the state park had run out. The building sat on the edge of nowhere surrounded by dense trees and even denser vines making a wall around the school.
The bus stopped. Allan was the last to get off. He trudged in line beneath the sign over the door. The old letters had been chiseled off, and the new sign said, “Hope High, School of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mechanics.” The faint, sun-bleached outline of the words “Experiment Station,” could be made out just below the last line.
Allan privately enjoyed the irony that the new high school for the exceptional, underprivileged, rapidly disappearing youth of Jackson, Mississippi, should be housed in an experiment station.
The door to Allan’s locker banged shut with his wet sweatshirt inside. There were no locks on any of the lockers. Something about building a community of trust. That just meant that nobody kept anything important in their lockers, and there was zero worry somebody was going to steal his ratty old sweatshirt.
Allan pushed against the noisy tide of students to the restroom to try and dry his shirt with the hand blowers.
“Hey Allan,” a voice wheezed behind him.
“Hey Dex,” Allan said.
Dexter Pots looked nervously at the door.
“You hiding from Jordan again?” Allan asked, pushing the button on the dryer.
Dexter pushed his glasses up on his nose. “There’s a paper to be written on the inverse relationship between muscle growth and brain development. You’ve gotta wonder how some people got in here.”
“Athletic scholarship?” said Allan. They both laughed. Hope High’s only athletic team was a girl’s synchronized swim club that met on Tuesday’s at the Clinton YMCA.
“I thought this school was supposed to be the end of swirlies, wedgies, and noogies,” sniffed Dexter. He reached in his bag for an inhaler. “Just goes to show you, jerks come in all IQ’s.”
“As soon as I’ve got this dry, I’ll walk you to class,” Allan said.
“It isn’t fair you’ve already hit your growth spurt,” said Dexter, drawing himself up to his full height, which still put him well below Allan’s shoulder. “As soon as I’ve reached my full height, he’s dead.”
“Isn’t your dad shorter than you?”
Allan held his shirt out to the dryer one last time. The chrome nozzle reflected an odd shimmering behind him. Allan looked behind him. Dexter examined a pimple in the mirror. Allan shook his head, which was starting to thud dully. Great, he was going to have a headache along with wet clothes. He reached for the dryer button. The lights flickered.
“Ouch!” Allan jumped back, shaking his hand from the shock he’d received from the dryer. “What the heck was that?”
Dexter stepped away from the sink and held a pair of tweezers away from his nostrils. “Lightening? You know, I don’t know if they properly grounded these old buildings.”
“It doubt it’s pre-revolutionary,” said Allan, holding his burned hand to his mouth.
Dexter shrugged. “You okay? You don’t look so good.”
“Fine. Let’s go.” Allan shouldered his backpack. Dexter followed him into the hall. The pain from the burn was fading, but the headache was getting worse. He tried to remember how his mom described her headaches. Something about vision problems? That had to explain the light twinkling around the edges of his sight.
Allan didn’t even notice when Dexter slipped into his Germanic Literature class. He stumbled down the hall to Computer Science and dropped into a seat. His head was starting to pound.
“You’re in my seat.” Tyrone Donald bellowed, or it at least it sounded like a bellow in Allan’s tortured brain.
“Get lost,” Allan said, cradling his head in his hands.
Normally Tyrone would have left him alone. Allan was bigger and stronger. Maybe he sensed Allan’s weakness from the headache, or maybe he was trying to impress Dayna Sweets, who actually was on the synchronized swim team, and was sitting right behind Allan. Whatever the reason, Tyrone pushed Allan in his seat. Allan swayed up. The pounding between his ears exploded. The lights flashed again. All around the room computer screens flashed off and on again. He stumbled forward, holding to Tyrone’s shoulder for support. He felt sick, and there was a loud buzzing to go with the pain and the lights.
“Get off me!” Tyron squealed. He twisted sideways, pushing Allan’s hand off. The sparking lights on the outside edges of Allan’s vision threatened the center and he fell.
Somebody said his name, but it sounded far away, across the buzzing and lightening.
Allan’s head collided with a desk corner. Before he blacked out, the sparks were beginning to coalesce into a girly shape with short blonde hair.
Allan tried not to panic. His cheek was stuck to something papery and his nostrils were filled with air that was heavy and antiseptic. He sat up slowly. It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the dim light.
He was fairly certain he was in the nurse’s office because the hallway outside the slightly ajar door was the same off white paint as the rest of the school. Besides the antiseptic smell, Allan could smell the acid stink of vomit. It was coming from his own shirt. He must have been sick on himself after he’d passed out. Somebody had tried to wash it off but only managed to smear it. That same person had taken his shoes off, too. He hoped they hadn’t noticed his dirty socks.
His head was throbbing in a different place now and his fingers found a good sized lump on the back of his head. The nausea was gone though, and so were the lights. Allan wondered if there was something wrong with the milk or the cereal he ate this morning. He wondered if Mama was having sparkly hallucinations of Lani. Probably not. Maybe she was seeing Dad. That would be nice, except for the sick part.
The crackle of the paper sheet was loud in the still room as he swung his feet over the side of the bed. He wondered when the nurse was going to come check on him. Probably they were trying to get hold of Mama. She had no way of getting to the school, even if she answered the phone. The city bus only ran this far twice a day for school. He wondered if someone would take him home to change.
The floor was cold, especially through the hole in his sock under his big toe. His shoes were an chair next to the bed and he pulled them on. He tied the laces loose. Mama hated that he did that. She said he was going to come right out of them, but he didn’t like his feet squished.
It felt a little silly to tiptoe across the floor to the door, but it felt like the right thing to do in the dark room. He poked his head out of the door and pulled it back in.
“Every single one of them!” Mr. Pendleton, the music teacher gestured wildly at Principal Greene.
“Keep your voice down, Author,” said Principal Greene.
Mr. Pendleton’s voice got quieter but lost none of its intensity. “I had two boxes of tuning forks and every one of them is gone! That’s 100 tuning forks! How, precisely, do you suggest I replace them!”
“What do you need 100 tuning forks for?” Mr. Greene asked in an exasperated tone. He ran his hand over his face. “Never mind. I don’t care. You’re right, we can’t replace them. You’re just going to have to do without them. I don’t know how you had money for that in your budget in the first place!“
“They were gifted to the school by the Matilda Baynes-Hagermann estate,” huffed Mr. Pendleton, crossing his arms over his suspenders.
“Why… Never mind. I don’t have time for this, Arthur. Missing tuning forks are about 573rd on my priority list right now. Miss Mendoza just quit.”
“The PE teacher?”
“Yeah. Said she couldn’t deal with the constant hum in the gymn.”
“No idea, but she said it was giving her headaches, so she quit. Now I’ve got to deal with union reps jumping down my neck because she reported it as an unsafe work environment. On top of that, Mrs. Friedman says the kids are eating twice as much food. We’re recording exactly the same number of meal receipts, so you tell me where all the extra food is going. And at the very top of the list, I’ve got all those missing kids!” There was a pause and Principal Greene’s voice was tense and so quiet Allan almost couldn’t hear. “I’m sorry, Arthur, but I just don’t care about your… (something too quiet for Allan to hear, but he could guess,) “…tuning forks.”
Allan pressed against the wall beside the door as Mr. Pendleton strode past his door. He paused and turned back. “Miss Mendoza may have it right,” he said, adjusting his polka dot bowtie. “Nobody can work under these conditions.” He turned on his heel and stomped away.
A few seconds later Allan heard Principal Greene’s door close down the hall, and then quiet except for the humm of copy machine next door.
Allan decided he didn’t want to wait for anybody. His ears were starting to buzz again and the throbbing in his head was getting worse. He just wanted to get out of here. Maybe he could find a place to lay down in a janitor’s closet. There had to be places nobody would find him in an old building like this. He took a couple of steps into the hallway. The light was nearly blinding after the dim nurse’s office.
Another step and buzzing got louder. Allan held his hand up to shield his eyes from the brightness. He saw something flicker off to his right. Sparks of light becoming that figure again. His stomach rolled and he wondered if he might be going crazy.
Allan stumbled backwards into the dim safety of the nurse’s office.
“Allan, stop!” It was Lani’s voice. He really was going crazy.
The whine in his head was becoming unbearable. He leaned against the sink and something pulled at his shirt. He twisted around. The sparks were definitely a figure now, and it was pulling on him. Something long and thin appeared from its side what looked like a hand held it up. Allan held his head, trying to push the agony away so he could think, react, anything but fall on the floor.
The figure held the thin thing out, tapping it against the wall. The buzzing turned into a ringing, piercing through the pain. The figure swept its arm towards him, quicker than he could react, and touched the thing to his temple. The air and Allan’s head simultaneously exploded, and Allan screamed.
As quickly as it had started, the pain was gone. Lani stood over him, one hand holding his right hand tightly, the other holding a tuning fork to his head.
Allan slumped against the cupboard, his ears and head still ringing slightly. He squeezed her hand, afraid he was hallucinating. “Lani?” The glasses, swishy skirt, scarves and jewelry that were so defining of her were all gone. This girl wore a black t-shirt, camouflage pants with large pockets, and combat boots. Even her hair was longer, pulled back in a short ponytail.
“It’s okay, Allan.” She pushed a stray wisp of hair from her eyes and stowed the tuning tuning fork in one of her pockets, without letting go of his hand. “Sometimes it takes a while to wear off. Do you think you can walk?”
Allan nodded, feeling stupid. He got to his feet unsteadily, slightly distracted by the pattern her pale porcelain fingers intertwined with dark brown ones made.
“I know you’ve got a lot of questions,” said Lani, “but we’ve got to get going. It took longer to get you than I thought, and I’m almost out of time. I promise, I’ll explain everything once we get to the Hole. Now, whatever you do, don’t let go of my hand.” She pulled him into the hall, not seeming to care if anyone saw them.
Allan found his voice. “Mrs. Manter’s going to see us” he croaked, pulling back.
Lani smiled. “Don’t worry, Allan,” she said. “She can’t see us. You’re invisible now.”