Chapter 13: Pretending

     Isaac retreats upstairs, but doesn’t go to bed. He checks on his mom first, still snoring lightly in their shared bedroom, then closes the door and sits at the top of the stairs.

     “You mean he doesn’t know?”

     Doesn’t know what? Isaac wonders, closing his eyes, trying to listen with his mind. He can usually tell when adults are lying to him—strong emotions are easier to read, and this house is full of them. Whatever they’re trying to keep from him sounds like white noise, static.

     He likes Mulder. He’s not sure about the doctor, though she seems nice. He can tell his mother doesn’t like either of them, which makes the former FBI agents that much more interesting.

     His mother…

     He feels a fluttery pang of guilt, but shoves it back without much thought. It’s a sentiment he’s carried for most of his life. She can’t understand him, can’t understand why he prefers to be alone, why he doesn’t have friends, why he escapes into books—horror novels, mostly.

     “How can you read that filthy stuff?” she’ll nag, wrinkling her nose.

     How does he explain that it’s only half as terrifying as what he might hear?

     Like Mr. Elmer, his fifth-period teacher, who spends study hall imagining what his male classmates look like undressed.

     Or Mrs. Frank, their elderly neighbor, who smothered her baby girl in her sleep, but tells everyone it was crib death.

     Or the quiet, mousy-looking kid he passed in the hall the other day, whose singular thought could be heard over the crowd of noisy middle school students with terrifying clarity: Kill them, kill them all, kill them all…

     For all the gore in his books, it’s nothing compared to the real world. He can close a book, secure in the knowledge that the monsters within are works of fiction.

     It’s the monsters on the outside you have to watch for.

     If anything, he envies his mother. He wishes he had her blind, trusting faith…that he could chalk everything up to God’s will and feel confident in her higher power’s love and guidance, but if there is anything he believes without question, it is this: No god would have made someone—something—as awful as him. No god would have allowed his father to die at the hands of his three-year-old son.

     Over the last few years, Isaac has begun to suspect that his knowledge surpasses that of his mother, and this scares her. His intelligence is a threat to her beliefs, a black mark on her otherwise simple, devoted life, rather than something to be proud of.

     He’s an anomaly. A glitch. A mistake.

     Which is why these FBI agents are so intriguing. They’re not afraid of him. If anything, his presence makes them curious. It’s the first time in many years he’s felt worthy of consideration, rather than a freak.

     Isaac sits at the top of the stairs for a few more minutes, fingers tracing thoughtful circles in the dust on the step, but it seems there’s nothing more to hear. The adults have gone their separate ways. It doesn’t take telepathy to know that the two agents are fighting about something, something to do with him, but the details are fuzzy.

     He tiptoes back to his room, crawling onto the twin mattress, pulling the blanket up to his chin. He wonders if he’ll sleep tonight.

     The dreams. As if it wasn’t unsettling enough being on the run, he’s plagued by nightmares. Nothing he can remember clearly, but over time the dream’s imprint grows stronger, like worn tracks in the carpet. He’s running through a forest, there’s a bright light, the shadowy shape of something standing in the center. There’s a giant gray mass hovering over him like some kind of metallic cloud. There are monsters with long, leathery fingers, monsters that hide in shadows and suck the light from everything around them.

     His mother, a melting corpse, pulling him headlong into darkness…

     He shivers. While these images, these dreams, are fleeting and often gone by morning, it’s the feelings they create—a growing dread, a black certainty, like a vise across his chest, tightening little by little—that stay with him long after he’s opened his eyes. He wakes tangled in the sheets, dripping with cold sweat.

     In those first minutes after he wakes, there is nothing but his labored breathing and the chilling certainty that he is the last person on Earth.

     He’s had these vivid dreams since he was five. He spent a lot of time in hospitals back then, shuttled between clinics and specialists, his mother presiding over his illness as though it were a symphony, and she, the conductor.

     He tried to tell her about the nightmares once, but he didn’t have the vocabulary to describe their significance. She’d brushed them off as a product of his illness (in her mind, everything was a product of his illness) and he gave up trying to explain. He knows they mean something, something big, but it’s better to keep the peace by pretending they don’t exist.

     As he slips toward sleep tonight he wonders, not for the first time in his life, when he can stop pretending.

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