Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for violence.
It wasn’t long after Ainsleigh’s Gift manifested that she found her parents having the conversation. Managing to silently open her bedroom door – which her father had thankfully fixed the next day- she crept to the stairs and huddled up there, hands braced on the wooden spindles. The night her bedroom door had still been braced against the wall, awaiting her father’s shopping trip to buy more brackets, she had awoken to catch the dark silhouette of her mother watching her from the hallway. Just… standing there. Ainsleigh had knotted her little fists in her duvet and watched, so scared she didn’t dare move. Did her mother know she was awake? Could she see her eyes peeking out from under her curls?
After what felt like far too long, her mother went slinking back upstairs as silently as an apparition. When Ainsleigh woke up that morning, she wondered if it had all been a disturbing dream.
“Registering is what’s best for her,” said her mother now. From where she was sitting, Ainsleigh could only see her mother’s hands on the tabletop, she watched them moving around as she articulated her words. Her father was in full view, sitting opposite with a forlorn look on his face. “It’s what’s best for us, as a family.”
Ainsleigh’s heart fumbled. Family. They were still family.
Her father shook his head, his dark curls unmoving. He had cropped his close to his head after being sick of getting so much dust and grit stuck in them.
“That’s what they tell us. It’s what they want us to think,” he countered.
Her mother’s hands lay flat against the tabletop. “Free healthcare? Tax reductions? A cheque every quarter?”
Her father nodded. “And she’d get into the best school in town, I know.”
His brows lowered. “But, we still don’t even know why the Gifted are given special treatment. What would they want with her?”
“Why do you think the government want anything from her?”
He sent her a withering look. “They don’t do anything for nothing in return. C’mon, Jules, you know that.”
A silence followed. Ainsleigh’s grip tightened on the spindles.
“We need that money, Simon,” her mother finally replied, voice breathy. “We needed it before and now- she’s broken so much already.”
Ainsleigh’s gut twisted. It was true. When her father had brought her up to the bathroom to get cleaned up, she barely leaned against the sink and the porcelain cracked. The deep crevice was now filled in, but every time Ainsleigh looked at it, her blood ran cold.
Her father bobbed his head again, conceding. “I understand what you are saying. And I am listening. But, I just don’t trust them. I don’t want them having so much information on us. It feels like a violation.”
“So, what do you suggest? We lie on her next check up? Say she’s perfectly normal?”
“She is perfectly normal.”
“She is not.”
Her father cowered, his hands that had been inches from his wife’s, pulled back and slipped under the table.
A creaking noise brought Ainsleigh’s attention to her fists. Oh no. She loosened her hold on the spindles and frowned at the splintered wood. A slight tap and the two rungs would snap completely.
“We’ve still got another month until her next check up. We’ve got time to think this through,” said her father, but Ainsleigh could tell he had lost his gusto.
“If I have to live like this, I expect to be compensated.” The scrape of a chair signalled her mother standing. Panic fluttered through Ainsleigh and she quickly darted back into her bedroom.
That night, Ainsleigh got the same strange feeling that she was being watched. She sucked back a whimper and peeked at her door. It was slightly ajar, the murky greyness of the hallway seeping into her room. She had closed her door before had gotten into bed. The feeling was still there. A presence. She wasn’t alone in her room. Her heartbeat thrummed in her ears. The soft weight of her duvet suddenly didn’t feel like enough. She felt exposed. Vulnerable.
There was no lamp next to her bed. She used to ask for one, so she could read before she slept. But every time she had brought it up, there was always something more important that her parents needed to spend the money on. So she was stuck in the dark. The light switch by the door was too far away. Her legs were numb with fear. There was no way she could leap over there.
Should she wait? Pretend to be asleep? Maybe she will leave like last time? But last time she hadn’t come in.
Heart in her throat, Ainsleigh shuffled her upper body beneath the duvet and turned her head.
A dark shape hovered beside her. Long, dark hair falling past the shoulders.
“You’re a mistake.”
Then everything went black. Something was covering Ainsleigh’s face. A pressure so hard she felt her mouth close up. Grey blots shone behind her eyelids as the pressure continued to bear down on her. She struggled, legs kicking as her lungs swelled in her chest. The force was so strong, so violent, the back of her head pressed against the mattress through her pillow.
She grabbed at whatever was stifling her. It was big, plush and soft. A pillow? She reached, trying to tug it away but instead found arms. Two, thin but taut arms pressing it down on her face. Smothering her.
“Your dad thinks you’re worth it. You’re worth all the lies, the deceit,” her mother hissed above her. “Says we can’t risk them taking you away. Like that’s such a bad thing.”
Ainsleigh thrashed harder, her spine twisting so violently pain lanced up her back. But she had to keep moving. Find air. Her head was becoming foggy. Her mouth filled with pillow fluff.
Nails found her mother’s arms and she clawed, as deep as she could. She heard her mother take a sharp intake of breath. The distraction was enough, the pressure lifted ever-so-slightly. Ainsleigh spun, fists clutching the pillow. Her legs found empty air, and then she was falling. The pillow came free from her face and she dropped, her temple smacking hard against her bedside table.
She crumbled into a heap on her rug, raking in harsh, painful breaths. Her throat was raw. She winced as she swallowed, trying to wet it.
Her mother stumbled back and knocked against her wardrobe, a dark fuzzy shape in Ainsleigh’s blotted vision.
Then there was light. Ainsleigh cringed and dropped her face into her rug, covering the back of her head with her arms.
“What the stars is going on?”
It was her father.
“She- I- I was going to the toilet and I heard her squirming. She just fell out of bed, that’s all. Must have been a bad dream, right, Ainsleigh?”
Her rug was wet with tears. Sucking in a sob, Ainsleigh lifted her head. Her father was a purple smudge in the blinding light. She could feel her mother’s presence beside her, far too close. A shiver crawled up her back.
“Right,” Ainsleigh croaked, folding her hands onto her lap. “A bad dream.”
By the time Ainsleigh was getting ready for school in the morning, the ache at her temple had become a swollen, purplish lump. Her whole eye socket was tender. Looking back, she figured she may have fractured a bone there, after leaning what a fractured bone felt like throughout the coming years.
The subject had been The Problem Year. Ainsleigh was pretty sure her class had twice as many ‘history’ lessons as all the others. Right from when she had first started education at four years old, her and her classmates were bombarded with all the events of The Problem Year and all the theories of where exactly their special Gifts came from, and why it was only those born in that year that manifested them. But the fact that there was no solid proof that anything was the definite root cause made all those classes particularly exhausting.
Today’s theory was the chemical plantation that exploded in a tiny country on the other side of the world. Apparently the explosion had been so catastrophic that it had ‘blown the country off the map’ and rearranged all the bordering countries. The explosion had also been the start of the earthquakes and floods that affected pretty much the whole world. Ainsleigh hated to admit that this class was particularly interesting.
The running story was that those who were pregnant and inhaled the fumes in the neighbouring countries then passed something down to their children. But how did people in countries nowhere near the disaster also have children that Manifested at puberty? It sometimes felt like whoever spoke the loudest and the most passionately was deemed to have solved the mystery, until someone else spoke louder and more passionately about something completely different.
Ainsleigh didn’t believe any of it, no matter how many essays she was made to write about the phenomenon. It was just about luck, and the kids who Manifested were simply just unlucky.
Her teacher pulled her aside after class where Ainsleigh had spent the whole time attempting to cover the mark with her too short hair, or a well-placed hand as she rested on her elbow while she worked.
“You can tell me if something is wrong,” said Mrs Weatherly. Her lips drawn into a tight line. “At home.” She searched Ainsleigh’s eyes as if she would find the answer within them. “You know, you are all at a very special time of your lives right now. You and your classmates are all going through this together. Marco has already Manifested. Have you heard? Two weeks ago.”
Ainsleigh nodded. Marco had ‘super hearing.’ He missed a few days of school because of it. Now he constantly wore ear buds and cringed a lot. He had to sit at the back of the class on a table on his own.
“Is there anything you want to tell me, Ainsleigh?”
Ainsleigh shook her head. “I fell. That’s all.”
Mrs. Weatherly didn’t look convinced. But she straightened and gestured to the door. Ainsleigh hurried out, wincing a little as her bounding steps somehow jostling her skull in such a way to cause fresh pain to claim the side of her face.
Ainsleigh tried to avoid attention out on the playground but she couldn’t hide from her best friend.
Cassidy bounded over to her and ripped her hand away from her bruised face. Ainsleigh yelped in protest.
“Tell me what happened,” Cassidy demanded, her bright blue eyes wide and fierce.
“I fell,” Ainsleigh mumbled back, tucking her hands underneath her thighs as she curled into herself on the bench.
“Bullshit.” Cassidy loved that word ever since she had said it at home after hearing her father scream it down the phone to an employee. Her mother had gone bone white and hissed ‘never use that word again.’ The next day she had found Ainsleigh at school and relayed the story, bouncing with glee. Ainsleigh loved how Cassidy found fun in the little things, and envied how she never so much as got a slap on the wrist even when she was trying her best to be a rebellious daughter.
Ainsleigh looked down at the frills of her socks poking out the top of her school shoes.
“She did that to you, didn’t she?”
Ainsleigh cowered at the anger in her tone.
Cassidy was a little sprig of a girl, with long blonde hair her mother refused to let her get cut and a face as lovely as sunshine. Adults fawned over her as she twirled her skirts and fluttered her eyelashes. Ainsleigh would have found her revolting if she hadn’t known it was all a game. Cassidy knew which cards to play. She knew how to use her angelic presence to her advantage. Cassidy was a wicked genius mastermind and Ainsleigh couldn’t help but be drawn in. She felt safe hiding in her shadow.
“It’s nothing, Cass. Can you just let it go?” Ainsleigh pleaded.
“I knew it. I knew this was going to happen. You let her treat you like crap!”
“She’s my mum!”
“Exactly! She’s supposed to take care of you not beat you up!”
“She didn’t beat me up!”
Cassidy’s eyes bore into her friend. She was shaking with fury. Ainsleigh watched her, fingernails digging into the underside of her thighs. She couldn’t tell her what happened, why it happened. Ainsleigh’s relationship with her mother had never been great, but the reason behind this sudden spike in hostility had to be kept hidden. What if she told Cass she had Manifested and their relationship changed? What if Cass started looking at her the way her mother did? No, that was too much. Ainsleigh couldn’t lose Cass.
Finally, Cassidy blew out a harsh breath, dissipating some of her anger and sank down onto the bench beside her.
“You don’t have to protect her, you know that, right?” Her voice was calm now, and the concern in her words made the backs of Ainsleigh’s eyes itch. She sniffed, wiping her nose on the sleeve of her school jumper. Cassidy wrapped her arm around her middle and squeezed. Something dislodged within Ainsleigh. The tears came hard and fast until she was gulping mouthfuls of stinging, too thin air.
She could see her mum standing over her, the hatred swirling in her dark eyes as she stared down at her. Her father standing at the door pretending to believe his wife’s lie. And it was just the beginning. Ainsleigh knew with bone-deep dread that her mother was only just getting started.
Cassidy squeezed her harder, tucking Ainsleigh’s head under her chin and rocking her like a baby. She said nothing. There was nothing left to say.
Ainsleigh was terrified. What was she going to go home to? Was her mother plotting? Why was her father not doing anything to stop it? He knew she was ‘temperamental,’ but that had meant that she would throw her slipper at the TV when someone did something stupid on her favourite soap, or she would give both of them the silent treatment for days and never actually explain the reason for the treacle thick tension running between them.
But her mother had tried to smother her in her sleep.
Had she really tried to kill her own daughter?
Ainsleigh’s fingers dug deeper into her own thighs, and her teeth sank into her lower lip as she shook, tears still spilling free. She felt something drip on her forehead. It trickled down her nose and dropped onto her chin. She angled her face up to see Cass’s bleary, red eyes. She was staring into the distance, her long eyelashes clumped with tears. She must have felt Ainsleigh’s attention on her because she looked down, dropping more tears onto her friend’s face. Ainsleigh smiled and Cass smiled back, but they were tight and wobbly and biting back so many worries.
Cassidy’s tears dropped onto Ainsleigh’s sore eye. It tingled. Cold, then warm, then cold again. Ainsleigh furrowed her brows at the sensation. The tightness of her swollen cheek was gone. Cassidy froze and Ainsleigh felt her hold loosen. Fear was alight in her fearless friend’s eyes. Ainsleigh’s heart thudded. She straightened, pulling herself free from Cassidy’s chest.
Ainsleigh lifted her hand to her black eye, fingertips skimming the tender area. Only, it wasn’t tender anymore. She pressed down harder, feeling the ridge of her eye socket perfectly intact.
Fumbling, she grabbed Cassidy’s bag from the ground beside them and fished out the little compact mirror she knew she always kept in the front zip pocket. Popping open the mirror, she gazed in amazement at her own reflection. Two light green eyes, lightly puffy from crying, stared back at her. The bruise and swelling was gone.
“Cass…” She turned to her friend, wonder and amazement making her limbs tingle. Cassidy was shaking her head, retreating into herself to hide from the truth. But they both knew. This was real.
Cassidy had Manifested.