The first thing, the truest thing that Boy noticed were her eyes. Pale ice over an artic ocean underneath, a dead-grey suit trying to blunt them, a plump body to disguise. He didn’t think the disguise was deliberate but couldn’t have said if that made it a good thing or not. The room he had been put in was small, off-green: a cheap table and cheaper chairs. There was a smaller table by the door with coffee and water; Boy didn’t understand coffee. The world didn’t need stimulants.
“You have been sitting here for an hour,” the woman said, her calm a cracking ice. “You didn’t have water once.”
Boy said nothing; there were rules about not taking gifts, about drinking and eating in strange places. That they might not be true didn’t stop them from being rules.
“The officer in charge called me.” She placed a small square of paper on the desk.
Boy picked it up, read it aloud to himself. “Arabetha Franklin, Social Worker.” There was more, but that was the important bit. Speaking things gave them power. Sometimes.
“And your name?” Arabetha said.
“That isn’t a name.”
“It’s mine,” he said, with some heat behind the words.
Arabetha let out a sigh. “We can’t help you unless you help us as well. Who are your parents?”
“I said I don’t remember.”
“That only happens in stories.” The social worker stood, staring down at him. “Do you want your face plastered over every paper and tv station in the city as we find your parents for you? Do you think they will want that?”
Boy went still at that. Behind Arabella, his shadow smiled against the wall. His shadow had hair, which Boy didn’t, and a smile that made Arabella’s eyes seem kind. Boy didn’t like the smile but he had no way to stop it as his shadow reached into Arabella’s and pulled forth ghosts to plaster them onto the wall like faded photographs.
Arabella’s smile was a flash of ugly victory at whatever she saw in Boy’s face. “Well?”
Boy stared past her into the phantoms that faded even as his gaze took them in, listening to whispered words at the edge of hearing. Arabella’s hand slammed into the cheap table, shaking her coffee. She’s said other things.
Boy looked up. Her words flattered, faltered. He wasn’t sure how he felt about that. “You were kind to Zoe. She was lost, scared, had run away from her step-mother like they do in a children’s story. She went back home, after interventions with her parents, but it wasn’t enough. You were less kind to Joseph but still helped him get into a community college, gave him everything you could but nothing replaced the high in the end.”
“What?” Arabella’s voice is a knife blade, ugly and scared and other things Boy isn’t sure about.
“The ghosts we carry with us are the ones that break our hearts, until we have nothing left for them to haunt. I think it’s like that sometimes,” Boy said. “Danielle isn’t a ghost yet but she is terrified her parents will refuse to accept she never should have been Daniel, will never see the truth inside their son. Too many stories like his end badly, and those are the only ones she knows.”
Boy stood, and it hurt to see Arabella flinch back from him.
“How do you know that?” she said. “Is this some trick?”
“I’m not Mr. Fox,” Boy said, though she had no way of understanding that. “I think, I think I gained some things, when I lost myself. Or they gained me. I don’t know. I just know everyone carries anb echo of the Wasting inside them and sometimes I can see that.”
The social worker said nothing. Boy wanted to try to explain, but somehow ‘sorry’ didn’t seem enough and he had no idea how to explain what he didn’t understand himself. She didn’t move as he walked to the door, didn’t even react when the locked door opened for him (though Boy was unaware it was locked at all); he asked his shadow to take her phantoms with it but had no way of knowing if that happened at all.
No one stopped him from leaving the police station even though Boy was certain they should have tried. He found the nearest streetlight and just stood under it, as if somehow the light could make his shadow go away.