Before I even crack my eyelids I know it has happened again. I’ve traveled. The oppressive, terrifying certainty that I no longer exist is a dead giveaway. The familiarity of the sensation does nothing to dull the roaring panic.
“Breathe, Althea. You know you still exist.”
I listen to myself a moment later, after my heart rate slows enough to ward off an attack. Daring to peer out between my lashes, I survey my surroundings. It’s early morning. It always is. I hear movement on the floor below and force my fists to unclench, releasing the garish orange comforter wrinkled inside them. The one I went to sleep under last night was green. Resigning myself to starting over, I swing my bare feet out from under the heavy down and settle them into the slippers waiting patiently beside the bed. Like I never left.
Steeling myself, I creep across the carpet, kneel on the padded window seat, and peer out the clean glass. The trees are bright splotches against the brilliant blue sky, some crimson, others sunny yellow, with a few fiery oranges thrown into the mix for good measure. Autumn. I sigh and reassemble the rest of this life in my mind. Autumn means Connecticut and the Morgans. Althea Morgan. I chant the name in my head a few times and try and make it stick. It usually takes a few days before it does.
“Thea, darling! Come and get some breakfast! You have to be at school in less than an hour!”
Great. New school again. More kids who avoid me like the plague, a place where everything I say or do is wrong. Even when it’s right. Maybe especially when it’s right. Not ready to face the breakfast scene quite yet I head for the shower instead. I don’t find any more or less than I expect. The bathroom is stocked with the things that belong to me but aren’t mine. A robe, some makeup I’ll never wear, a toothbrush, towels…I’ll find similar provisions hanging in the closet and stuffed in the painted, white furniture. In my worse moments I want to rip everything to shreds. Today I can’t summon the energy.
Stepping under the hot stream of water I pop open the bottle of homemade shampoo and take a deep breath. Jasmine. I can’t escape the scent no matter how hard I try. I’ve never smelled the flower in nature, of course. It only blooms in the summer. Shaking slightly and still battling the nagging fear of non-existence, I hide in the shower longer than I should. Throwing on a pair of jeans and a long sleeved, midnight blue t-shirt, I run a brush through my sopping blond hair and brush my teeth before closing my bedroom door.
Flopping back onto the bed, I pull a necklace from underneath my shirt. It’s the only thing that travels with me, besides the clothes on my back. The gold chain is delicate, like I could snap it with no effort at all. A small, four-pointed star, no bigger than my thumb, dangles off the chain. It’s some sort of black jewel littered with gold flecks, and I handle it carefully as I pry it open and pull out of tiny, folded square of paper lodged inside. This is my ritual, on the day I travel.
Unfolding the paper, rubbed soft by hundreds of handlings, my eyes caress the words I’ve read so many times before.
You feel different because you are Something Else. You are not alone, though. There are more, and you will find each other when it is necessary. In the meantime, trust no one.
I have no idea who Koj is or why this note is scrunched inside my necklace. If it weren’t addressed to me I would assume it is a mistake. But my name is on it, and I do feel different. Sighing, I fold the paper up exactly like it was before, the only way it will settle back into the small space inside the locket. Reading it helps me feel less alone, even though that’s what I am. It also reminds me to hide the ways I am different, for they are obvious if I don’t work at concealing them.
“Thea! Ten minute warning!”
Gritting my teeth, I head down the stairs. Landing at the bottom, I turn left and walk through the doorway into the small, cold kitchen. I take my seat at the round, maple table across from Mr. Morgan. He smiles at me and I force myself to return it. There is nothing special about him, nothing that would never make you remember his face. His hair and eyes are exactly the same shade of brown, and a mustache sits on his upper lip.
“Good morning, Thea. Have some pancakes. You’ll need to be out the door in eight minutes in order to make it to school on time.”
Neither of them seems to notice that I’ve been away. I don’t know exactly when I was here last, but I think it has been a while. He just looks back down at his own plate, finishing off a stack of cranberry pancakes doused in honey. I have to admit, the cranberry pancakes are one of the better things about the Morgans. It’s one of their Markers. It could be worse. I scarf three pancakes, two pieces of turkey bacon, and down a glass of orange juice before standing up and carrying my plate to the sink. I’m not hungry. I eat because that’s what is expected. What’s normal.
Mrs. Morgan is washing dishes by hand, a white, frilly apron tied around her slender waist. I slide an arm around her and kiss her smooth, peachy cheek, a stray piece of graying hair tickling my neck. My lips smiles as my stomach heaves and the cranberry pancakes threaten to make a curtain call. I do the same to Mr. Morgan, and head out of the kitchen toward the front door. On the way I pass two shelves and a table full of family photos. All of the ones of me were taken in the fall. The Morgans never mention it. I guess they don’t think its weird. I don’t ask.
My backpack waits on a hook next to the front door, worn and smelling slightly like stale sweat. I might have left it there when I got home last night. If I had been here last night. I grab it and slide it over my shoulders. It weighs nearly nothing, and I know it contains only identification and extra pencils. Everything else will be at the school.
Opening the front door, I breathe in the crisp, cooling air of the fall. The sun is out, but its rays are just lukewarm instead of hot, the way they were yesterday in the waning springtime. The temperature is pleasant in its own way, probably around sixty degrees. For me, it’s a bit chillier than I like and I wish I’d grabbed a sweater. I just can’t make myself turn around and go back in that house right now. Instead I turn down the sidewalk that will take me to the high school, where I suppose I’ll be a senior. Like it makes a difference. I have no friends at Danbury Prep School. I don’t have friends anywhere.