You would think that in a world full of normal people, freaks would be kind to other freaks. But Finndabar, which at its core is a school for freaks, proves this wrong. Rather than being sensitive to one another’s differences, the student body uses them for lunchroom entertainment. And believe me, when you have a student body like Findabar’s, there is plenty to be entertained by.
There’s Stronghand Pol, whose left hand is twice the size of his right and can crush rocks. You can guess what else people talk about it crushing. The poor guy can’t even go to the bathroom without people asking if he and his hand were getting a little alone time. And then Merilyn, who has the head of a donkey but the body of a vestal virgin. She also can make inanimate objects sing, but that’s not what’s brought up in the lunch room. “Ass face” is. Then there’s Fergus, who can turn anything to gold with a single touch of his bare skin. While he’s struggling to open his pudding with his gloved fingers, people ask him what he’s “blinged” lately. We’re a strange bunch, to be sure, with the power of untrained gods, the faces of angels, and the raging hormones of a herd of teenaged Justin Timberlake fans.
I wonder what you call a group of children of the gods. A “herd” really is too innocuous. I know a group of jellyfish is called a smack. I think that’s a lot closer.
The only one who doesn’t talk smack to the freaks is me, which is ironic, because I am the only one that seems to be pretty normal. Unlike Rjork, I don’t call down thunderstorms in the boys’ bathroom. Nor do I change forms when I get angry like Fionnuala. I don’t have to eat my weight in eggs every day like Ben, either. I’m just me — probably the product of a pairing between a clueless mortal man and a nymph lacking in maternal instincts. No one here knows who their parents really were; only that at least one of them was of the supernatural variety.
It’s not like it keeps me up nights.
It’s a fun life, for the most part, here at Finndabar, though it’s a bit dangerous. Every so often one of us accidentally kills one of the teachers or one of the other students. We never really forget that’s why we’re here.
But that doesn’t really keep me up nights, either. Most nights.
Lunchroom. It’s sort of the meeting place for all of the students, no matter what time of day it is. It’s a modest name for a rather awe-inspiring room. All of Finndabar is made up of old churches — structures that were condemned because of disrepair or doomed because of their location, right in the middle of a future superhighway. The churches were shipped in bits and pieces and then cobbled together into a massive, star-shaped piece of irony with the separate “houses” on each point of the star.
The lunchroom has the highest ceiling of the entire building; it’s an old cathedral with a deep, brilliantly blue ceiling interrupted by vividly yellow ribs. The slender, pointed windows that stretched over our heads always reminded me of really tall women for some reason, hands folded on their chests.
In the morning, when the students were laughing and chattering sleepily over breakfast, the entire school seemed benign and beautiful. Maybe a flock. A flock of gods’ children.
A few tables over, Grin Andersson was snapping his fingers, watching the flame that gathered on the tips of his thumb and forefinger in a rather bored way. He looked through the fire to where I sat and extinguished the flame. Abandoning his table of minions, he sat on the table next to my plate, making the old table surface creak and lean towards him.
“Good morning, Helen,” he said with a grin. He always said my name with an emphasis on “hell.”
I glanced up at his freckled face, his wide smirk of a grin underneath hard blue eyes and a riot of red hair. “Good morning, Grin.”
“Care to join me at the fun table?” He scrubbed his thumb lightly across the table surface beside him, leaving behind a black singe mark before jerking his chin in the direction from which he’d come.
“No thanks. I’m busy being an island of sanity in a sea of utter madness,” I said, shoveling a mouthful of tapioca pudding into my mouth. You had to give it to Finndabar’s, they had really good tapioca pudding.
“Don’t I know it,” Grin replied. “But we could use some sanity over there. We were just talking about what a danger to society we all were.”
I looked up at Grin, a bit longer this time. There was always something about him that put me ill at ease. Something about just how damn alive he was that made me feel like I was an underachiever. “I’m just trying to eat my pudding,” I said.
“It’s exceptional pudding,” he agreed, still smiling. “I was just telling Professor Lansing the other day how exceptional the pudding is here. I wonder where they get it. I’d like to go shopping for it some time. I was thinking of asking Lansing about it.”
“Now you’re just being wrong in the head,” I said. “Do you mean leave the school grounds?”
“Supervised,” Grin said. “Just a few students at a time. Just to see what it’s like.”
I put my spoon down. “And the first time one of us accidentally maims another shopper because we lean over to pick up a canteloupe and shoot lightning bolts out our ass, the government will come in and have us all killed.”
Grin’s smile was painted on top of a face that was something entirely different. “This is why we need you at the table, Helen, see, I knew you would be the voice of reason.”
“Don’t I know it,” I said. “Now can I just finish my pudding?”
He made a little gesture like he was tipping a hat to me and retreated back to his own table. Later during breakfast, one of the juniors turned in a goat and ran through the breakfast bar, splattering pudding everywhere, and pretty much proved my point I thought.
* * *
As the student resident advisor of my house, I get a room of my own, which is a rarity. It’s not big — just a tiny, wood-paneled room that used to be a confessional — but it’s quiet and it’s my own, which is important. I keep my door open until 10 p.m. in case any of the students in the house need my help for anything, and in reality, my room is usually occupied by at least two others until almost 11.
Tonight it was Minerva, a beautiful girl who looked nearly normal but for her four arms and long, long fingernails. She sat on the end of my bed, looking at the pictures on my walls and hugging her arms around herself.
“What happens to us after Finndabar?” she asked. “Do we graduate? Do we leave?”
“I don’t know,” I said. I handed her a cup of tea and sat down on the chair by the desk opposite the bed. The room was so small that my knees were nearly touching Minerva’s. “Do you want to leave?”
Minerva stared into the cup of tea. It was black, but not as black as her eyes were. They were wells of darkness, her eyes. It was unnerving, the pupil that covered the entire surface of her eye, until you got used to it. Her long nails tapped, tapped, tapped on the edge of the cup, and she didn’t drink it. “I’m getting so hungry, Helen,” she said, finally.
I didn’t say anything, because I sensed she wasn’t done. I just drank my tea and waited.
“I’m so hungry,” she said again. “I think I am hungry for the souls of men.”
“Oh, Min,” I said, and put down my tea cup. I took hers, because she clearly wasn’t going to drink it, and I rubbed her cold hands in mine. I couldn’t offer her what she wanted, and I couldn’t tell her that she’d be free to go when she hit 18. “Let’s go watch Sleepless in Seattle.”
“Thank you,” Minerva said. I gathered other students on the way down to the media room, students who were listless or fighting or bored, and together we watched Sleepless in Seattle and I didn’t get back to my quiet room until 11.
“How does this work?”
I jerked awake, my eyes seeing nothing but darkness and the glowing green numbers of my alarm clock: 1:30 a.m.
“Do I just tell you what the problem is, and you make me feel better?”
I sat up slowly, disoriented in the darkness. I knew who the voice belonged to; not a member of my house, but familiar nonetheless.
“Turn on the light,” I said. “I can’t think with the light off.”
Grin lightly clapped his hands together and a moment later, light flickered into the room. I saw him on the end of my bed, his hands spread like a book in his lap, flames flickering in his palms.
“I mean the real light. Put that out before you burn off your dick,” I said.
“I didn’t know you cared what happened to it,” he replied.
I didn’t bother to dignify his comment with a response. I reached over and clicked on my dim bedside light as he closed his hands together, extinguishing the light. He looked pale underneath his freckles.
“I don’t suppose I have to tell you how much trouble you’d be in if you were found out of your house,” I said. “And in my room, to boot.”
“No, you don’t.”
“Okay, then, talk. What made you come over here instead of talking to your own resident?”
Like all of the students who came into my room, he looked at the pictures on my walls. Photographs and magazine images: the turquoise sea and a tangerine sun above it. White beaches and white cliffs. Twisty trees ripe with fruit and olives.
“Because you’re clever, Helen,” he said, head tilted back to look at the wall better. He stood up, my bed rocking precariously, so that he stood face to face with an image of a sail boat bent low over a sapphire ocean. “Because we’re too busy being monsters to use our brains.”
He traced the line of the sail and I winced, remembering the singe mark on the breakfast table. But the paper remained unmarked beneath his careful touch. “What are these things, Helen? Do you wish you could go to these places?”
“I thought you came to talk about you,” I said.
“I didn’t say that,” Grin said, putting his hands in the pockets of his cargo pants and still carefully studying the photos instead of me.
“Yes, you did,” I replied. “You said you had a problem.”
Grin didn’t say anything and it struck me that the line of his shoulders looked somehow vulnerable, in comparison to his usual cocky stance. I let my voice soften, just a touch. “Grin, you risked a lot to come over here. Just tell me what I can do.”
He turned to look at me, still standing, the light from below throwing strange shadows across his face. “I’d like to know who my parents are.”
I didn’t say anything. Not because he had more to say, but because I didn’t know what to say to that.
“I think we should have at least that,” he said. “If we have to stay here and we can’t leave, even for a few hours, and this is our whole life, then we should at least have that. We should at least know where we came from, even if we’re never going anywhere.”
“What do you want me to say?” I asked.
“I want you to say what you always say. That it’s stupid and that I should forget about it because it would cause more problems than it would solve. I want you to be the voice of reason, Helen, like you always are.”
I was surprised that he thought of me that way. Not as a wet blanket. “I don’t know,” I said, shrugging. “I really don’t see how that could cause us harm. I think that’s a fair question.”
He sat down in front of me again, blue eyes staring into mine so intensely that I was afraid he would see just how badly I, too, wanted to know who my parents were. Why I was here when I didn’t light fires with my hands or turn things to gold or turn into goats.
“Okay then,” he said. “Okay, I’ll ask.”
He seemed about to say something else, but he just said, “Okay then” again.
“Good luck,” I told him.
Because of our class schedule, I didn’t see Grin until dinner time the next day. He sat at a table by himself, no food in front of him, elbows on the table, just staring down. One fist clenched and unclenched, over and over again. I didn’t have to know what had happened. He’d asked.
What did I think would happen? I felt bad for not advising against it.
I would’ve gone to him, but my table was swamped by juniors having hissy fits over the new sofa placement in our house common room. And by the time I had settled them and gotten up, Grin was gone. For some reason, all I could think about was the longing way he had drawn a finger across the sail in my favorite photograph.
I awoke to the sound of screaming and the ground surging beneath me. It turned out to be just my housemates leaping on my bed — but the screaming was real.
“Helen!” shouted Hera, one of the younger nymph daughters who always smelled of fish. “Locke House is burning!”
My gut dropped out from under me, and I scrambled around in my bed to look out the tiny window across the courtyard.
In the night sky, orange and red burned the darkness away, smoke skudding across the courtyard between the houses. I saw teachers knotted in the smoke, getting hoses organized, and Illia, who had a talent with vomiting water, making his long-legged way across the lawn. Evacuated students from Locke drifted back and forth like a school of fish, following each others lead. Leaping out of bed, I told the girls to pay attention to the teachers if they told us to evacuate, and then I bolted down the halls, intent on making my way to Locke House.
“Where are you going, Helen?” Professor Lansing asked me, standing in the middle of the hall that led to Locke.
“The fire,” I said. I didn’t know why I didn’t say anything more coherent.
“It’s under control,” he said. His voice was hard. “Go back to your house, please.”
I wanted really badly to say his name, but I bit it back with effort and just said, “Is anyone hurt?”
“It’s under control,” Professor Lansing said. Then he said, more kindly, “This business has nothing to do with you, Helen. You would do best to stay well out of it.”
But I knew better.
The next morning, I went to Locke House. As I walked down the twisting, crooked hallways made of church lobbies and cloak rooms, I saw where the fire-making had begun. A black handprint on the right wall became two black handprints on the left became a long dragged seared stretch of plaster. The motivational posters in the common room of Locke had been burnt to a crisp, and the sofas were overturned, burnt-out shells, like land-locked, ruined ships.
My heart thudded in my hollow chest as I ran my fingers along the burnt claw marks in the doors, the smell of smoke burning my nostrils. Windows were broken and paintings smashed over radiators; it wasn’t just a fire. In my head, I pictured the rage that had accompanied the flames.
I turned around and left.
Professor Lansing’s office had been rendered useless, and so he was doing his work from the empty guest room in Hallow House. He looked up, surprised, when I walked in.
“I’d like to see him,” I said. “Can I see him?”
“I’m not sure that’s a good idea,” Lansing said.
I folded my hands in front of me, trying to convey my usual sea of sanity image. “Surely it can only help, me talking to him.”
Lansing considered for a moment and finally sighed. “I don’t think you’ll like it.”
But he took me to him, in the isolation room. I’d never been to the isolation rooms before, and I don’t know what I had expected. A tiny closet, I guess. But it was a huge, auditorium like room, lined with tile like a bathtub or an ugly mosaic, with small windows situated high in the walls. In the middle of the room, Grin sat in the middle of the floor, back to me.
Lansing shrugged when he saw me looking and then shut the door behind me, leaving me alone with Grin. Grin didn’t move, though he must’ve heard the door and my footsteps as I walked across the floor and finally sat in front of him.
He looked up at me, and I jerked when I saw the brilliance of his eyes. There was fire in them, somehow, behind the blue, and he was so very fearfully alive that I crossed my arms over my chest in retreat.
“I knew you’d come,” he said.
“There are better ways to deal with your anger,” I said.
He smiled fiercely.
“Why do you think we’re here?” Grin asked me.
“To keep from slaughtering pedestrians with arcs of flame?” I suggested. “To keep us from killing normal people?”
“I don’t think it’s normal people they’re afraid we’re kill,” Grin said. “I think Zeus and Odin and Venus and the rest are afraid of what we’d do to them. That is why we can’t know them. That’s why we can’t get out.”
I looked at him, because I knew he wasn’t done.
“Let’s break out,” he said. “Let’s go find that sailboat.”
I didn’t say anything.
“Tell me it’s a bad idea, Helen.”
I uncrossed my arms and let him take my hands. His fingers were tough, like they had been scarred again and again by the fire inside him.
“It’s a bad idea,” I said, because I knew it was true.
“Tell me not to do it,” Grin said.
“Did you find out who you were?” I asked him.
He leaned forward. “No. My file wasn’t in Lansing’s office. But yours was. I know who your mother was.”
“It’s a bad idea,” I said again. Outside, a flock of crows flew past the tiny windows, black wings sailing in an azure sky. No, not a flock. A murder. That’s what a bunch of crows were called.
Grin’s mouth was right on my ear and his hands squeezed mine. “Athena. Makes sense, doesn’t it?”
“It’s a very bad idea,” I said, louder, but I stood up, his hand still in mine. And together, as we walked toward the door, I felt as alive as he was.
Author’s note: oi this got long. To think I wanted to write it through the revolution . . . novel time!
image courtesy: Pandiyan