Sydney McCain, ten years old and seated soundly on a carpeted floor, had a pleasantly empty mind. She held two markers in one chubby fist, dragging them across her notebook. She stopped only to flick her 3d goggles down onto her face and see if they were working yet. She had pulled them out of rental movie box, and in her feckless ambition she had crumpled the bridge of the nose. They didn’t sit quite right on her face. A ways back was McCain senior, a woman of considerable years with the world weary eyes of single mother on a mission. Currently her mission was to iron Sydney’s yellow dress. This was made difficult by her shaky hands, an unfortunate result of her medication. Nancy McCain was a good mom by almost all accounts. She worked two jobs and did all she could to push her child to be her best self. For only ten Sydney was exceptionally bright, but simultaneously unmotivated. She found her Catholic school not nearly stimulating enough.
Nancy held the product of her labor by the shoulders and examined it with satisfaction. She glided into the sitting room and addressed her daughter.
“Syd, stand up for me – let me look at this on you.”
Sydney obeyed with minimal whining, letting her mother poke and prod her.
“Sydney, you’d do well to eat a little less junk food…” McCain Junior Squirmed.
“I know, Mom.”
“It looks good! You’ll be so cute. Put the markers down, I don’t want you to smudge it up. You need to look presentable tomorrow. Father Marcus has done a lot for us, and I want him to see that we’re all cleaned up.”
“I don’t like Father Marcus, Mom.”
“Why wouldn’t you? We probably wouldn’t even have a home, girl. Have some respect.”
“He doesn’t believe in God.”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
Nancy reared up, giving Sydney a hard glance.
“That’s quite an accusation to make about a pastor.”
Sydney shrank from her mother's gaze, looking at the ground.
“It’s true. I heard him say it last Sunday. He said ‘I can’t keep doing this. I can’t even lie to myself. How can I stand here and lie to these people?’ He said it right on the big stage.”
Nancy took Sydney’s hand a little too hard and with a bit too much intensity.
“I was right next to you. He didn’t say any of that. Either you imagined it,” She gripped harder. “or you're just trying to make me mad. Tell me that you imagined it.”
Sydney knew there was no winning this one. She folded instantly, spitting out “I imagined it, Mom,” without an ounce of sincerity. Nancy cocked her head and looked at her again, then hesitantly dropped her wrist and wandered back to her ironing board. She wiped her nose as she sat down, lighting a cigarette.
“Go play outside or something. You're getting paler by the day.”
Sydney woke up with a start, hitting her head hard against cold, hard metal. She let her cheek sink back onto the pallid tile. It took a considerable time of fumbling around before she could grasp the ledge of the sink and drag her aching body to its feet. Her whole body protested each movement. Blood pumping, stomach turning, and her mouth filled with the unmistakable taste of copper, she probed for the light switch, cringing at the harsh white mirror-top light which belched to life just inches away from her face.
She was a mess. Twin streams of ruddy dried blood culminated in a smudge on her cheek, corresponding to the large, face shaped brown spot at her feet. That explained the dizziness, anyway. She had a black eye which she didn’t remember receiving. She rubbed it and looked back at the floor behind her. From her tipped red solo cup, the spots of brown on the floor and bath mat as well as her position under the sink, she could deduce how the scene had played out. She wondered how long she had been passed out. After a short wash and a quick comb, she pushed open the door and was blinded a second time by the sunlight spilling through the curtains in the hallway. Okay, a really long time.
Stumbling downstairs, she came face to face with Mandy, a tall woman in a long pajama shirt and exhausted grimace. “OH! You’re still here,” She said in words. What the hell are you still doing here?
“Um. I’m making eggs. You want some?”
“Okay. I passed out in your bathroom.”
“Whoa. Damn. Are you ok? You look like someone beat the hell out of you.”
“Yeah I know. It totally sucks.”
Sydney slumped down on the couch, which was ugly and old, and made an audible screech of rusted springs as she pressed down onto it. Mandy busied herself in her kitchen, but her thoughts betrayed her annoyance at the party guest who had overstayed her welcome.
“So! Sydney! How long are you in town for?”
Sydney shifted uncomfortably. It looks like it’s time for the unanswerable questions.
“Uhh... Just a few days probably. Or like a week. Maybe two.”
Before Mandy could respond Sydney tacked on “Three at the absolute maximum.”
Mandy looked down at her. She was a certain kind of young adult that already had eyes full of midlife crisis and cheap cosmetics. She was insanely thin and tall, always sporting baggy clothing to try to compensate for her gaunt figure. Mandy cared intently about the way she looked, but didn’t have the time or energy to make her ideal self come to life. She was doomed to look like an off duty celebrity, a model after the pageant ended.
She better have cleaned up in there.
Sydney winced as her host’s unspoken words pressed into her still disoriented mind, and suddenly felt a bit self-conscious about how she was intruding on a former friend’s space. She almost jumped when a plate of scrambled eggs was placed in front of her. “Oh. Thank you.”
Mandy sat down in the wing chair opposite from her and looked her in the eye as she ate. “So what have you been doing since high school? Did you get in anywhere good?”
So this was the way it was going to be. Sydney shifted in her seat, wincing at the thought of school. “College wasn’t really for me.”
“So you dropped out?”
“No! I didn’t drop out! I quit! There’s a massive difference!”
“Whoa, ok, sorry. I didn’t mean it in a condescending way or anything. I didn’t go either.”
“Uh. Well. Look around you. Does it look like I’m in college?”
“I thought maybe you were staying with your mom just for the long weekend or something.”
“I am living with my mom this long weekend, technically. As well as every other weekend, regardless of whether or not it is long. Well, she’s living with me more accurately. She’s not exactly in the shape to bring in any income.”
That explains the neural whispering from upstairs, she thought.
At ten forty five that night Mandy Sinclair fumbled with her house keys in the darkness under her broken porch light. Her boyfriend, Greyson, stood at the bottom of the porch in the moonlight. Their relationship was mostly one of survival and proximity. He was another suburban neighborhood kid without much direction. To any outsider, their “relationship” looked like a tired and forced affair, with all the enthusiasm of two kids on an arranged playdate because ‘you’re both eleven’. The lock, frustratingly enough, seemed to undo itself without any need of the key at all, making her feel a bit silly. She sheepishly laughed to her partner and they both squeezed into the apartment. They were both chuckling at the awkward situation, fumbling for the light switch. “You should just move in with me and this wouldn’t happen so often!” Mandy couldn’t see his face, but could guess that he had a smug smile. She smiled too. “Shut up, if anything you should move out of that shack and come here.” She took him by the side gently as her hand finally settled on the switch, and closed her eyes as she drew him in for a kiss. The lights sprung to life.
“Whoa, what the hell?” mumbled Sydney, sitting up bleary eyed and still in the same grey t-shirt from that morning. The couple pushed each other away and Sydney was instantly assailed by palpable negative energy, making her instinctively cover her nostrils.
What on earth are you doing here?
“I’m just –”
“What on earth are you doing here?”
Wincing as she realized she jumped the gun, Sydney collected herself to start again.
“I might have to stay here for a little while.”
Mandy wasn’t having it.
“Sydney, I don’t know what kind of relationship you imagine we have, but the last time I saw you was like, three years ago. We are absolutely not on the ‘show up and stay in my home without my permission’ basis.”
“You left me in your home alone! I thought that meant you trusted me!”
“I trusted you to take a shower and leave!”
Greyson stood poker faced by the door, shuffling from foot to foot uncomfortably. He piped up between furious jabs. “Hey Mandy? Maybe I should just go.”
Mandy shook her head, her eyes fixed on her unwanted visitor. “No, you're not the one who has to leave.”
Sydney stood to look at her at her own level, or as close as she could get with her stature.
“Ok, look, could I talk to you in private for a little bit? Maybe I overstayed my welcome a bit, but I have a really good reason to be here, I promise!”
Mandy and Greyson locked eyes briefly, and Sydney could feel their mutual annoyance and unspoken agreement. He nodded at her and yanked the door open with a horrible splintering creak, forcing himself through the gap with a single “See you later.”
Mandy pulled up a chair and settled in, her awkwardly large body folding irregularly into itself. “Lay it on me, I guess.”
“Mom! Stoppit! I don’t wanna!” Sydney planted her feet into the floor and pushed down with her puny might, blubbering in protest as her mom dragged her by the elbow. Nancy hissed at her unruly child, shooting apologetic glances at the other churchgoers. “Syd, you’re making a scene. It’s five minutes. Toughen up a little.”
Sydney resorted to bonelessness, falling limp and letting her mother plow her through the carpet. Nancy grabbed her daughter by both shoulders and hoisted her to her feet, scowling at the black dirt stains on her yellow dress. Sydney looked practically identical to her mother, though she would never admit it. She had never seen her father, and suspected her mother hadn’t much either. Clearly he hadn’t left much of an impact, genetically speaking. Their visual similarity made it all the more painfully obvious that yes, it was McCain’s girl who was currently being dragged over an elderly woman’s shoes.
In truth, Nancy didn’t think that confession was the most agreeable practice. She liked to believe that religion was about hope for reward, not just to instill guilt and fear. Nonetheless, there are certain things you must do for the institution that houses and feeds you between jobs. She lifted Sydney with a grunt. The girl clung to the door frame with all her willpower, but the look that Nancy gave her was so intensely threatening that her fingers faltered and she fell into the booth with a audible thump. The door shut behind her promptly. She was all alone in the feeble yellow glow of the plastic light bulb. There was a creak, and Father Marcus cleared his throat politely. He wore a thick pair of spectacles which didn’t quite fit, causing him to look down the bridge of his nose at you. They sat in silence for a short time. The priest peaked at her through the lattice window. “Oh! Hello there. Are you Sydney? Nancy told me all about you! I hope you’re finding the room comfortable.”
Flinching at the thought of what her mother might have told him, Sydney pressed herself against the wall of the booth. She grunted in agreement.
Marcus chuckled to himself and smiled a smile that she could feel somehow. “I know confession can be very scary for the young people. Just know that you don’t have to say anything if you don’t want to. We can just sit here for a little while and make your mother happy, okay? And if you feel God move you, you can say something. Only if you want to.”
Sydney used to think that God was moving her. She knew that people like Jesus and Noah knew what they should do sometimes because of voices from God or the angels. She thought that everyone did, or she assumed so based on her experience of the world. But she had many voices, and some of them said things that didn’t make sense, or scary things, or things she didn’t understand, or just cry out in fear, and she wasn’t sure which ones were god and which ones were... something else. When she talked about it as a very small child it made her mother and teachers laugh. It made the other kids mad when she almost always won at card games. When she moved, things took a turn. Suddenly it wasn’t laughing matter anymore. Her mother hardly laughed at anything. She was now expected to wear a uniform and have good manners and “stop playing pretend.” She was hearing a voice right at that moment, and wondered if this one was god. It was an old man’s voice, judging from the color and smell, and the books made God look like a pale old man. She tasted something funny.
God sounded very scared. Not of anything in particular, just the world. He seemed very afraid of the other people around him, and whether he was truly doing good for the community, and he made a big deal of many small offenses which Sydney thought was very silly to worry about. He was worried that he ate at the deli too much. He worried about her mom as well. Her mom and the couple others living there. Sydney felt moved to speak.
“You don’t have to be worried about my mom. She’s already so grateful for the things you do!” Marcus nearly jumped, and peered at her again through the lattice. “What did you say?”
“God compelled me to speak,” she chirped proudly.
Mandy had lit a cigarette now, and reclined with her legs folded over the arm of the chair. Syd hated the smell of cigarette smoke. She never remembered Mandy smoking in high school. “Ok,” Mandy began, with a short pause to choose her words. Sydney found it agonizing to know what someone wanted to say in advance but still have to wait through a gut wrenching silence. “Ok, here’s the thing though. There’s no way Nancy would just kick you out. I remember when you brought you lunch during Hurricane Katrina.”
“I know, but this was a special circumstance. It’s largely a religious thing.”
Nancy nodded and grunted as she pulled herself into a more regular sitting position.
“Sydney, you know it's fine if you're gay right?”
There it was.
“No! I’m not gay! There are many other reasons that someone would –”
“Okay, but you know, I have other lesbian friends, and I don’t care if –”
“That’s fine! But it doesn’t matter! Because I’m not gay! I’m not!”
Mandy put her hands up and opened her eyes wide in mock offense.
“Ok! I believe you, it’s just like, your Catholic mom kicks you out suddenly in a totally unforeseen breach of character, but you won’t tell me why exactly, and you’ve never had a boyfriend before, and-”
“Hey! That doesn’t have to do with anything! Why would you bring that up?”
“I just think, I think it's a likely story, you know? I made an assumption, shoot me I guess.”
She laughed and took a long drag on her cigarette, which Sydney knew was her signal to change the subject.
There was a long silence. Mandy sucked on her cigarette gruffly and maintained eye contact with her friend. Sydney could feel her disbelief. She felt the familiar frustration of being a conversational captive. She knew she was under scrutiny but couldn’t defend herself. Mandy was too intelligent, she knew Sydney was leaving out some quintessential detail.
The silence was broken – mercifully – by the pizza arriving.
Of course, Sydney eventually figured out that the angel’s voices belonged to other people down on earth. There was never really a single moment of awakening, she just began to slowly associate each voice with each person. It was difficult, because everything seems warped in your mind. Her delight at the things she could do with this knowledge was only dampened by her disappointment at not being a new age prophet. At the age of 13, the world was her oyster. She learned to pick out and focus on one voice at a time, even in a crowd, and how to block them out when they became annoying. She could learn the other children’s secrets even when they try not to think of them – it just took some carefully placed verbal suggestion. All she would have to do is make some passing remark on the subject nearby her mark, and whether they wanted it to or not, the thought she was hunting would spring forth in their mind. In class she excelled. She seemed to know exactly what the teachers wanted to her say and do. To the outside observer, she was unstoppable. Succeeding at anything she bothered to try, she was loved by all her teachers and reviled by every student. The only person who seemed utterly unmoved and unsurprised by her impossibly quick wit was Nancy McCain. Sydney noticed at a certain point that her mother’s thoughts were the only ones that she couldn't reach. Everyone had a different font and tone to their thoughts. Some people were light and airy, empty of cares. Most of the other kids, or her own, for instance. Others were slow and full, bogged down with unnecessary details. Her mother’s mind, though, was like trying to hold oil on your fingertips. She got the general shape of it – dark, slippery and scalding hot – but she couldn’t read her. Because of this, her mother began to become a source of fear. In the presence of any other person she felt completely in control, one step ahead. But her mother seemed to know her inside out. One day, when she was fifteen, it hit her that how she felt around her mother was most likely how her unsuspecting victims felt around her. She was less smug from then on.