Laurelton, Rhode Island
Naomi gave birth to a healthy baby boy that day. You have just been born.
When your mother was pregnant with Daniel, I spent countless nights wondering if he would be Afflicted, like me. But within hours of his birth, the professor declared him safe and healthy. The second I saw you, I knew you would not be so blessed.
The professor told me about the Shaw child, what he would become, but not the consequences of it—that you would become something too.
I’ve discovered what actually happened on that night when I believed I seduced the professor.
He had known it would happen. He knew that your mother would be born, that you would someday as well. I’d thought I was his partner, but I was only a tool.
I raged at him for what he had allowed to happen. For what would someday happen to you. He lied, said he couldn’t have changed it. Said, “She cannot become other than what she is.”
He is right about that.
You will make a difference in this world, child, whether you want to or not. Most people are like sand, the impact of their lives washed away by years. They cause no lasting damage, no lasting benefit.
You are not most people.
You are like fire; you will burn wherever you go. If contained, channeled, you can bring light, but you will also always cast a shadow. You can choose to end life or choose to give it, but punishment will follow every reward. And if your fire is unchecked, you will burn through lives and history. The closer anyone gets to you, the more at risk they are of falling under your shadow, or being consumed by your flame. You will have to pretend to be other than what you are. You must wear enough armor so that no one can see or touch you. It isn’t your fault. It’s nothing you did. You cannot change who you are, any more than you can change black eyes to blue. You can only accept it. If you fight yourself, you will lose, and fighting leaves scars. But you will survive them. I have survived many. You will do good things you will regret, and bad things you won’t, but you must keep going, for my daughter’s sake if not your own. She loves you so much already.
I want you to know that I would have wished for a different life for you, and for my beloved daughter, who will never know about any of this if I can prevent it. Sometimes I wonder, if I had chosen a different name for myself, might I have grown into a different person? Might I have become someone else? There were days when I felt that a dragon slept inside me, and exhaled poison with every breath. I flirted with suicide more times than I can count. But I know now why I never did it. I was saving that day for you.
There is a chance, however slim, that if I die before you manifest, the cycle for my bloodline might end with my sacrifice. I don’t know what the odds are, but I’m willing to take them for my daughter; I can’t change the past, but I can choose my future.
I should warn you, though, that the professor will find you someday, as your fate is tied to the boy’s. He might ask you to help him, to join him, to make a difference. He picks at history like a child at a scab, and might offer you the same opportunity. But know this: He has more knowledge than anyone else alive, but it has not brought him happiness. It hasn’t brought me much, either. I’ve known many people over many lifetimes, and the ignorant ones seem more content.
But you must decide for yourself. If you wear this, he will know of your choice.
I don’t know where to leave this for you so that you’ll find it, when you’re ready, without your mother seeing. If I shared the professor’s Affliction, perhaps I’d have some idea. But I will make the best choice I can with the knowledge that I have, and hope.
Letter in one hand, doll in the other, I made my way to the kitchen for a knife. I slit Sister’s doll open from groin to chin, then slipped my letter inside. I stuffed the doll back up, and began to sew before I remembered the necklace. I carried it back to the doll in my closed fist, then pushed it inside with one finger. I sewed it closed.
There. Done. I would wait three days, and then I would leave the world as I’d entered it—alone.
I HOLD MARA IN MY shaking arms as her pulse fades to nothing. My father doesn’t even wait until she’s dead before he soils the air with words.
“You did the right thing, Noah. I’m proud of you.”
For as long as I can remember, I’ve had trouble with feelings. Other people get scared, or nervous, or shy, or excited, or happy, or sad. I seem to have only two settings: blank or empty.
I feel neither of those things now.
The pain of losing her is physical. Every breath of oxygen tastes like poison. Every beat of my heart feels like a hammer to my chest. How could she possibly have expected me to bear this?
“I’m going to take care of her brother,” my father says as he types something into his phone. “Her whole family. They’ll never want for anything.” He holds the phone up to his ear, and I hear a ring echo from somewhere inside the building.
Inside the building.
Daniel has been here the whole time.
It’s a double blow, one I can barely process as I stare at her unnaturally still body. I’ve spent too many nights with her to be able to pretend, even to myself, that she’s only sleeping.
Jamie’s voice cuts through the static in my brain. I look over at the laptop.
His tear-streaked face is anxious, afraid. “Something’s happening. The machines sound weird.”
My father puts his hand on my shoulder. I can’t muster the energy to tell him not to touch me.
“I’ll go find out what’s happening,” he says. “He will be all right, Noah. I promise.”
As if his promises mean anything to me. But if he’s wrong, I will make him suffer every day for the rest of his worthless, pointless life.
He entreats Jude to watch me—so I won’t do anything crazy?—and when Jude agrees, my father leaves me to choke on my grief alone. Or almost. I am aware of Jude’s presence, the way his eyes have been hungrily staring at the knife my idiot father left here. I know Jude will reach for it. I’m not sure what he’ll do next, but I am sure that I don’t care.
“What are you waiting for?” I say.
He turns to make sure my father is gone, and then, as predicted, he reaches for it. Jude looks at me, his eyes filled not with hate but with hope.
Freak. “Go on, then. Do it.”
“Put her down,” he says. “And I will.”
I do. He does.
LIGHT STAINED THE BACKS OF my eyelids red. I bolted upright as if someone had plunged a syringe of adrenaline straight into my heart.