I am so glad that the creators of the Rebirth Anthology put a six week submission period on this anthology! School finally slowed down enough that I was able to steal some moments to dash off an entry. It is a backstory to a larger novel idea that I’ve had in my head since college, and gives me hope that it may one day make it to that final draft.
All proceeds from this anthology will go to a UK-based charity for stroke victims. Be sure to check out the other entries, and check out the original Rebirth post if you think you can get an entry in by May 16th!
by Angela Goff
999 words – Book: Yes
Thad cowered beneath the office desk. It was a poor hiding place, but Mr. Ogle would return for him at any moment. Thad had no intention of making the extraction process easy.
He can’t make me leave. He can’t make me do anything.
It was a lie, of course. Mr. Ogle, his case worker, had moved him often, shuttling him from one foster family to the next, only to reclaim him whenever a family said they’d “had enough.” The last time he moved, Thad glimpsed his file over Ogle’s shoulder: Hypersensitive. Chronic runaway. Enochlophobic. Selective mute. Strong grades, but no friends.
Thad never bothered to look up the phobia. He had never moved past that last phrase: No friends. It burned because it was true.
The door of the office opened. Two pairs of shoes approached the desk: Ogle’s threadbare sneakers and tattered jean hems, followed by leather dress shoes, striding beneath neatly pressed cuffs.
“Down there.” Thad heard Ogle fumble with his tablet. “Gimme a minute, and I’ll pull up…”
“No need,” said the stranger. “I read his file. He’s already approved. An excellent fit, from what I can tell.”
Excellent fit? Thad leaned forward. Fit for what?
Ogle rocked back on his heels, sneakers creaking.
“Don’t you need to know why I bailed him out this time? I thought you agents…”
“Not me,” said the stranger. “Our agent’s in the hall.”
A shocked pause, then: “You mean the kid? He’s the agent?”
Ogle’s tablet clattered to the floor.
A foreign hand nipped down to pick it up. For a moment two blue eyes scrutinized Thad beneath the desk, then disappeared. Ogle tried again to argue– something about federal law, and the Child Protection Act – but the stranger cut him off with a tone Thad knew from repeated trips to the principal’s office. It meant: You have no say here.
The office door creaked. Shadows scattered across the faded carpet.
“The receptionist will see you out. She has all the paperwork: death certificate, forensics file, and so on. Everything will be neatly managed, I promise.”
“Death certificate?” Ogle shrilled, but he was farther away, his voice trailing into the corridor.
“To keep up appearances. No harm will come to him unless he chooses danger; and that decision is entirely his. Not yours, or mine.”
The shoes vanished as their owners retreated further down the hall. Thad hesitated, wondering what to do next. Should he bolt for the nearest exit? He thought he remembered the direction.
Before he could decide, another set of lighter, smaller footsteps approached his cave beneath the desk. Into his line of vision stooped a young boy: ruddy, freckled, with tousled brown hair and stylish clothes covered in grass stains.
“Hello,” he said.
“Are you the agent?” asked Thad.
The boy sat down on the floor.
“Agent-in-training,” he said. “I’m Brock. What’s your name?”
“Doesn’t matter,” said Brock. “They’ll change your name anyway – they always do. How old are you? I’m nine. I quit public school last year.”
“Really?” Thad’s mood lifted. “Why?”
Brock pulled a packet of gum from his pocket.
“It was boring.” He popped a stick of gum in his mouth, then handed the rest to Thad. “Do you like school?”
Thad took two sticks of gum. “No. I’m always in trouble.”
Thad winced. “Listening. Hiding.”
“Oh? Listening to what?”
“Anything. Everything,” said Thad with a shrug. How could he explain his almost obsessive compulsion to eavesdrop? He meant no harm. He never blabbed what he heard. He just liked to know what was going on, what made people tick.
But hearing secrets came with a price, he’d learned. Effective eavesdropping required effective hiding skills, and Thad was a lousy hider.
Brock leaned in eagerly.
“Can you listen in Spanish?” he whispered.
Thad thought back to his third foster family, with some measure of anger. He bit his lip.
“A little,” he admitted. “And…um…sign language, too. A little.” That was his seventh family, if he remembered correctly. There was a deaf child in that house, and he’d stayed just long enough to connect the patterns.
“Cool!” said Brock. “Can you do it with dead people?”
Thad’s jaw dropped.
“Not real dead people,” said Brock in a rush. “You wouldn’t see them while they’re dead. We…”
He paused as the dress shoes sauntered back into the room. Brock looked up at the newcomer and waved sheepishly.
“I screwed up,” he said.
The man in the business suit crouched to peer beneath the desk. His hair was dark and tousled like Brock’s, and he had the same slanted, mischievous smile.
“It’s all right,” said the man. “Portolan House is not easily explained in a few moments.” He sat on the floor with his legs crossed before him, and gave Thad a mocking half bow.
“Name’s Hadrian,” he said. “And you are…?”
Thad sucked in his lower lip and bit it. Hadrian chuckled.
“Speaks to children, not adults,” he said, nodding. “They warned me about that. But no matter. You’re done with labels and case workers now. I can promise you: you’ll never go back to the foster system – ever. No more moving. No more guessing.”
Thad gave Brock a searching look. Is he lying? he wanted to ask. But Brock only grinned, wider than before.
Hadrian leaned in conspiratorially. “You’re one of us now,” he whispered. “New name. New home. New life.”
Thad’s heart stuttered. It sounded too good to be true – all except that part about choosing danger, and listening to people before they died. That didn’t sound comfortable at all. But to walk away from all that haunted him, to have a new name and a new start – it was more than he’d ever hoped. Maybe – just maybe – he would even have friends. Friends like Brock, now beaming like one who’d been told Christmas had come early.
“What’s my new name?” Thad whispered.
“Choose your own,” said Hadrian, grinning, “and we’ll take it from there.”