The news spread faster than the handcuffs were slapped onto my wrists. That look of disgust that I abhorred so much was everywhere I looked, in every narrowed eye and clenched fist. The 'm' word wasn't so much as breathed, but I could smell it in the air, see it blaring like a siren in every kid's mind, saw it in the way the principal flinched when I turned my gaze to him. Like I was something dredged up from a sewer, a rat with bloodstained teeth. Murderer. Freak. Everywhere I turned, humanity glared back with unflinching hatred now that they knew that I was one of them. Even the policeman manhandling me into the back of the van did so delicately, twitching back once I was in place, and wiping his hands discreetly on the front of his uniform when he thought I wasn't looking, as if I were riddled with disease. Unclean. A clear message: Stay away. The mesh door was locked shut, and then the external van door, shutting out the sea of hostile faces and enclosing me in the dark. I let out a shaky breath of relief, and curled up on the floor, as far from the driving compartment at the front as possible, and tried to prepare myself for what was going to happen next.
Court, prison, all places I'd never been. Would I even get to go there, to hold the same liberties as a human? Or would I be singled out by my new mutant status, executed in some hidden facility, or handed over to the CIA to be experimented on, dissected. The more I thought, the worse the future looked. And using my powers to escape would only result in more trouble, more paperwork and handcuffs, maybe even more deaths of innocent men left dripping red from my hands. I couldn't do it, I just... couldn't. I groaned, and cradled my head in my knees, willing myself to just stop thinking. All I could possibly do now was to sit and wait.
So I did. I sat and waited for what felt like a good few hours before they finally hauled me out, a few of the officers screwing up their noses like I smelt bad. Thanks, guys. Subtle. A few cold, tiled corridors later, I was shoved into an anonymous interrogation room, and told abruptly to wait.
Hmm. More waiting.
Instead I paced, taking in the bland white walls, the brittle blue carpet underfoot, plastic chairs and a laminated table that seemed to have been stapled to the floor, presumably for the interrogator's safety. Goodness knows what I might do. A mirror took up one of the walls behind me, and I couldn't help but smirk at the sight of it, the familiarity of it from evenings of watching cheesy cop dramas. I couldn't help but pull a few faces for the benefit of those most likely watching, my usually varied selection greatly reduced due to my hands still being cuffed, before finally collapsing into a chair to stare at the ceiling. I focused on keeping my breathing steady, my mind smooth and glassy, a puddle the second before you jump. This was what they wanted, for the silence to unravel me before a cop so much as opened the door. This room, this moment, that was what would decide everything that happened next. The next move on a chessboard, drawing out the inevitable checkmate.
They eventually deigned to send me an officer, a fifty-something with greying hair and tired eyes, the sort who regarded the world from behind his glasses with the weary patience of having seen everything before. Well, maybe not quite everything.
"Are you Henrietta North?" He began with the basics.
"Sixteen years of age?"
He frowned, and shuffled a little in his seat. "I must say, I find this case..." He struggled for a suitable word. Several decades in the force, and I was probably the first to render him speechless. "...special."
You could say that again. I smiled politely, and waited for him to continue.
"There have been serious allegations made against you, kid, one of murder, and four of assault, possibly even of attempted murder." He tipped himself forward a little, and I was suddenly reminded of small children sharing secrets. "Do you have anything to say on the matter?"
I stared into my hands, mouth clamped shut. Willing his eyes to be anywhere but on me.
I heard his chair creak, and then the rustle of a plastic bag. I looked up, only to see a blurry representation of myself pressed onto paper. "Know anything about these?"
The photos. Shit.
"An eyewitness took these," the officer continued, a note of triumph in his voice. "Do you deny that this is you in each of the pictures?"
I shook my head.
"And these figures, are they the boys who are now in hospital, with one dead?"
He tutted, drumming his fingers on the table. "Things aren't looking good, are they?"
I wished he'd stop pointing out the obvious when the same thoughts were already swirling around my head.
"Now how about you tell me what happened?"
I squirmed, head ducked to avoid his insistent gaze, but there was no point staying silent when the photos on the table said it all. They'd find out either way, and it was best if it came from me first, undiluted and first hand. "I... I was walking home from school, as I normally did." My voice wavered with the fragility of smoke – translucent, seconds away from trailing away into obscurity. But as I continued to talk, my resolve hardened, and my words grew stronger, took on a strange sort of authority in that tiny white room. "They attacked me. It was something of a routine, I... expected it, really." I smiled bitterly. "Being quiet never really got me accepted by the other kids. Anyway, it was the same old routine – kicking, name-calling, taking my bag from me. Usually I can take that sort of thing, I'm so used to it, but..." I fought to speak past the sudden lump in my throat. "... he, he kissed me, touched me. That was new, and I... well, I didn't like it, but no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't make him stop."
"This being the boy who's dead?" There was an element of gentleness to his voice now; I felt that if I appeared to notice it in the slightest, it would vanish as quickly as it had appeared. "And the others?"
"They helped. Held me down, egged him on, that sort of thing."
This was it. I was on eggshells now, and the slightest movement would crush any chances I had of remaining hidden within human society. True, the school was now buzzing so brightly with the news of a mutant amongst them that even a few of the officers had begun to believe them. But if I could twist the tale somehow, admit to the crime without divulging my method...
I shrugged helplessly. "You know the rest. I got mad, struck out. I must have blacked out or something, because the next thing I knew was that they were all out on the ground."
At this he beat the table with the flat of his hand and broke out into bellows of laughter so loud that I cringed back into my chair. When he eventually finished, he was wiping tears of mirth from behind his glasses. "Oh, that's good, kid, that's very good, but I'm afraid I'm going to need better than that."
"What do you mean? It's true, I don't know what happened-"
He snorted. "Please."
"I've as good as confessed to everything!"
"As good as." He raised an eyebrow. "Don't think I don't know what you're trying to pull, 'cause they're all trying to pull the same trick day in, day out, and believe me when I say that I don't buy it." He nodded conspiratorially. "Don't get me wrong, I'm rather impressed. You call the unconscious card, and suddenly no one can push charges. What if someone else did the killing whilst you were lying there all helpless and innocent? What if you were framed?" He shrugged, and the grin slid from his face. "But I'm afraid you're going to have to try a lot harder."
I stuck to my guns despite the sickening lurch of my heart. "I said I don't remember," I repeated stubbornly.
"Alright, then maybe these will jog your memory." He shoved the photos forward, and again I was confronted by the naked truth of what I'd done. "What I'd really like to know about is this." He gestured to the shimmering blue wall around me in the picture, too blurry to be properly identified. Through the layers of photos, it could be seen to expanding, with several of the boys caught mid-air in one shot. "It's got all our best scratching our heads."
"No idea." I squinted at the photos with mock puzzlement, even going so far as to hum in a musing manner. "God knows."
"Still got amnesia, huh? Well tell me this, missy. How was it that each one of the boys involved sustained at the very least severe second-degree burns? Are you really expecting me to believe that they somehow spontaneously combusted?"His leer was one of complete arrogance; he thought he had me well and truly cornered.
I paled, but said nothing.
He sighed, and flopped back into his chair. "You'd better start talking soon, otherwise things are going to get a whole lot worse," he said, his voice low. When I failed to respond, he sighed again, moving towards the door and gesturing for me to follow. "Perhaps a night in a cell might give you some time to start remembering," he called over his shoulder as a pair of guards emerged from behind me to grab my shoulders and march me forwards. As if I were going to put up a struggle. I felt lost and alone in this place, a mere thing to be churned through the system as quickly as possible only to be deposited in some distant prison for so many years like a scrap of rubbish in landfill. If anything, I was glad of the support; my legs felt like they were going to give out at any second.
The cell was as much as I'd expected. A small, tiled box with an orange mattress in one corner, and a chemical toilet and washbasin in the other. A light strip submerged me in bright whiteness, so that everything around me took on an artificial, almost surreal air, like it would all unexpectedly crumble away to be revealed as some wildly elaborate magic trick. The echoing slam of the door was horribly final, and I was suddenly all too aware of my own breath, the walls pressing in on me from every angle, and the deep, deep cold pressing into my bones. My head already throbbed painfully from the pulsating brightness that filled the room to bursting, the metallic tang of the brittle air enough to send my stomach roiling and bucking. Somehow I managed to stumble to the mattress and curl up with my face pressed into the wall in an attempt to block out everything, to pretend that it was all okay and that in reality I was at home, in the familiar warmth of my room. Though the light bleeding through my eyelids and the chill raising a cold sweat on my skin only served to pierce such a dream with the brusqueness of a pin deflating a balloon, I only clung to my own naïve conceptions with an even stronger conviction that things would once more return to the way they were, the way that they should be. It was like my own life amongst hundreds of thousands of others was a single puzzle piece, its edges meaning that there would only ever be one designated space for me to fit into in the entire universe. But now my edges had been remoulded and reformed, and I no longer fit where I felt so strongly I was supposed to slot into the the grand scheme of things. Where did I go now? Was there a special me-sized slot in some dark dungeon somewhere, or was I destined to float outside of the interconnectedness of the human hive to be discarded on a pile of dud pieces, dreams that just hadn't fit?
I couldn't sit quiet and accept that. Be pinned down for keen observation under the neatly-inked classification of 'mutant', or 'murderer'. Surely I was more than that, a living, breathing contraption of flesh and bone just like the rest of them, a soul clothed in skin seeking for a way to leave my mark on this world?
But what could I do? To the rest of the world, and most of all to myself, I was dangerous, and officially a killer - and that was a tag that one did not easily dodge without a decided lack of evidence and a very good lawyer. Neither of which I had.
Bleary, half-baked plots at escape swam around my head with the same dreamlike fuzz as the light contained within my cell; they faded in and out of existence, so that one palpable idea I clutched at hopefully one second would leave me flailing at thin air the next. The few I managed to hold onto varied between the wildly laughable, and the reasonably seaworthy that lacked the Mission Impossible flourish I was hoping for. Plus what I was going to do once I'd finally evaded the deft grasp of the 'Fuzz' was an entirely different kettle of fish that made me feel ill just by thinking about it.
So I pushed everything from my head and attempted to make myself comfortable – which is easier said than done, what with the mattress having the cushioning ability of a cactus – in order to put a couple of hours sleep under my belt, at the very least, for what was to follow.