Title: Laika’s Void
Genre: Supernatural, Coming of Age
Laika is nine years old and her hands have never touched anything.
“Touched,” as in felt the friction, heat, or coolness of another person or object.
Because, you see, her hands make matter vanish. It only takes less than a second. Way before she feels a thing, that which is touched disappears, poof.
Even the milk cartons that the nuns install around her wrists to serve as shields. Even the air molecules that her fingers brush against. And sometimes, yes, even living organisms.
Laika might be the loneliest girl on Earth. She lives with the void.
A standalone short novel in which children with supernatural abilities learn to love and protect their own.
Two nuns accompanied me to the center of a nearly empty hall, pointed to a chair, and told me, “Keep your hands up, Laika,” as if I needed any reminding.
Then the older one hurried out the door as fast as possible. But the younger one, Sister Christina, was new. She faltered between the chair and the door, stirring the stuffy, hot air. When she finally decided to stop, she faced me and said, “You did nothing wrong, my dear. God and the Sun Child loves us all.”
As if she’d said the most touching and profound thing, she choked on her own tears a little bit. She smiled. Because she was two or three heads taller than me, all I could focus on was how her chin folded in ugly layers as she gazed down.
How grotesque, her mask of unwavering conviction—especially because her completely black habit encircled her pale face, making it look like it floated on its own. My attire was as black as hers—not just my dress, but everything else, too, including my clammy stockings and loafers. But at least I didn’t have to wear that coif and no one expected me to attach meaning to all things in life by referring to their God and the Sun Child.
This nice Sister Christina had just told me a lie. But that didn’t mean that she was a liar; some people honestly believed in lies.
After she had taken plenty of time to revel in her own piety, she left the hall. The older nun slammed the door shut—so loudly that the hall rang for many seconds after that, and to me, it seemed like much longer than that.
BANG, bang… bang… bang…
That didn’t hurt me at all. It wasn’t the first time people had shut the door quickly and forcefully to separate themselves as thoroughly from me as possible. Many people had done that to me, even the nuns here. Especially the nuns.
Not that I thought that their being nuns was a cause or an effect of banging the door at me. I only said “especially nuns” as an acknowledgment of my peculiar surroundings. Both my sample size and the nature of my sample were limited. I’d grown up at this “hospital,” more like an asylum run by nuns of a peculiar order, my entire life. The occasional visitors were never invited in and I never saw them. I only knew they existed because I could sometimes hear them yell from the boundary of the hospital premises: “Heretics!” and “Heathens!”
Nuns and angry visitors. I knew that neither group could possibly form a majority of the entire human population. They were both too convinced of their correctness. Not to say that they were necessarily wrong; just to say, acting from conviction required a lot of energy and I couldn’t imagine most of the people of this world leading that kind of a lifestyle.
Anyway, I had no way of knowing how the average people, who couldn’t care less about God and the Sun Child, behaved outside. I only guessed that, should anyone know what I really was, they’d shut the door in my face as quickly as the nuns.
I didn’t feel hurt by the nuns and I truly meant no harm to anybody, so I listened to what Sister Christina had told me: I sat down and kept my bare hands up—never lowered them to rest them on my lap or attempted to move the chair elsewhere to a spot where the bright sunlight didn’t shine directly into my face through the many tall, curtained windows on all four brownstone walls.
No, I did none of that, because whenever I had to push a chair using my feet, I felt like an animal. Like a cat or a dog pushing something with their snout, except my feet had less fine control than their snout. Or their paws. That realization never failed to insult me. No offense to cats and dogs. They’re beautiful creatures, I should know. I was entranced by one with a short snout once, enough to…
Never mind. I wasn’t born as one of them, and shouldn’t be like them.
You’d think that I’d dislike obeying orders because I didn’t want to feel like an animal. But obeying orders, strangely, made me feel more human—like I proved that I qualified as a human because I could communicate with other individuals of my species. So I tended to obey orders, especially harmless ones, like sitting down and holding my hands up.
Not as a punishment, by the way. Not at all. The nuns never told me to keep my arms up. Just my hands. Away from my own body parts. Sort of the way surgeons did after they washed their hands and were about to enter the surgery room, because washing their hands and then letting all the water drip back on their hands by lowering them would render the hand-washing that had just happened pointless.
Anyway, so I sat on the hard, uncomfortable chair in that brownstone hall. No other furniture occupied this space, though it was large enough for at least twenty cots with plenty of space in-between for the nuns to walk around. That was what they used to do, I’d heard—walking from cot to cot to tend to the hundreds of injured soldiers, who were said to have been the primary patients at this hospital before Monsignor dreamed of a divine revelation in which God told him to turn the place into a haven for abandoned children like myself. Not just any abandoned children, either. The truly abandoned ones. The ones that really had no place to go, and would never have a place to go because they had no chance whatsoever of being adopted.
And in my case, too lethal.
By focusing on such children, God had said in Monsignor’s dream, the Sun Child would see this hospital as his home. The Sun Child, Son of God, who’d been persecuted for being too bright, too blinding, too mesmerizing, would know he’d have a home here. Here, the Sun Child would know that no one dared burn him to death; here, he’d know that the entirety of God’s work was worshipped, not just the predictable and manageable. He’d come on the Day of Reckoning and save us all from the ignorant limits of the rest of Christianity that called itself legitimate.
That was why I was here: as the unpredictable, unmanageable manifestation of God’s work. A small fragment of it, at least.
The glass panes of the windows separated the hall from the outside. Five stories below, sparrows twittered and fluttered among the rich green foliage of deciduous trees that formed a meager front “forest” functioning more like a fence. Primarily beech trees. It was summer. Out there, life sprouted and grew. In here, the air was hot from stillness—which was why the two nuns had left me here instead of in a better-ventilated room.
God forbid that a breeze blew in and the long, thin curtains fluttered.
God forbid that I should be lured by those dancing curtains, ignore Sister Christina’s instructions, and escape my invisible cell, the chair, to approach the windows.
And God forbid that if I forgot myself just for one second, pressed my forehead against the glass to watch the little birds closer, and as I did, the breeze blew once again and the curtain blocked my view.
Then what was a human child supposed to do? Push the curtain out of the way of course.
Using what? Not feet, of course not. Using hands. That was instinct.
And would the human child be oh-so-careful to touch only the curtain, and absolutely nothing else? No. Such a thought wouldn’t cross its mind in that brief instant. It could touch the window, bump into the wall and touch that, or even fall and touch the floor. Then…
A disaster. A total disaster. Even though the nuns wanted a ticket to heaven so they could sit next to God and the Sun Child in their eternal afterlife, and therefore said that they welcomed the unpredictable and unmanageable, they were only human; if the unmanageable could be predicted, they wanted to avoid it.
Even I shuddered, imagining what would happen if I were to touch the floor. At that, an unnecessary number of air molecules around my hands disappeared.
What do you mean, “disappeared”? you might ask.
What I mean is that at my every touch, things can vanish, and the molecules did just that just now.
The air. The curtain. The glass pane of the window.
The little birds. The beech trees. Every single green leaf that forms their foliage.
My own lap.
They’ll vanish, should I touch them.
Not by melting away or burning away, no. Things disappeared, from this spacetime to another, or to none other at all. Just gone. Gone forever.
Correction. I guess, in the case of my lap, I’d vanish entirely, instead of only the lap vanishing. Maybe my teeth might be left behind. I’d always assumed so because I saw myself as an organic being, mostly without a clear limit to each body part. The word “lap” might seemingly convey a crystal-clear meaning, but where does a lap begin and where does it end? No one knows. Hence my guess: if I touch any part of myself, I’ll vanish, except my teeth, which I wasn’t born with.
Vanishing. That was what had happened to the pair of casings around my hands right before the nuns had brought me to this hall.
That was why Sister Christina had told me to hold my hands up, so I didn’t randomly touch things. That pair had been my one-million-and-three-hundred-and-thirty-eighth or so.
This guesstimate was based on the comments of a nun who quit years ago. She’d told me that by the time I’d turned three, I’d already eliminated a million pairs of casings. She’d told me that they’d been made of various material. At first, of metal, according to the doctors’ hope that stronger and thicker material would provide some protection against my curse of deleting things out of existence. After a few useless tries of that, they used cheaper stuff, like milk cartons and detergent boxes—pretty much anything and everything that could function as a temporary barrier between my hands and the outside world.
From my third birthday on, I’d eliminated about one pair of casings every week. By accident, of course; never because I’d run about out of control. This, because by that time, I’d witnessed first-hand what I could do to a living thing if I got too close. To be more precise, a dog, which lacked clear boundaries to the description of its body parts, such as the “ear,” which didn’t begin exactly at point x and end at point y; or the buttocks, which really had an ambiguous distinction.
I don’t really want to talk about what happened with the dog. You’ll despise me if you hear the story. But let me tell you this: that event had been such a trauma that for days, I could barely move. I’d just lain in bed, letting tears flow down my cheeks because I had to keep my hands away from me. My elbows rested on the mattress. I stared at the ceiling. I didn’t eat. I didn’t wash. I didn’t even sleep for fear that I’d touch something in my sleep, even though the nuns had provided me with new casings immediately. I think I was waiting for the moment when I woke up from the nightmare, and for someone to tell me: darling, all this was just a dream, your hands have no power.
Such a moment didn’t come.
The reason I had to eventually move was that I had to pee. That was when I’d come to the terrible realization that there was no God. I was a being that had to prioritize peeing over remorse. Yes. At age three. This sickening priority of a being alive hadn’t been a pleasant thing to realize. But I did. I’d probably not thought of things with such clarity back then, but I know that I knew deep down, because I cried as one of the nuns accompanied me to the restroom and she helped me with my panties while she tried to stay as far away from me as possible. Her face had been distorted in a grimace. She feared me, pitied me, but needed me for her to go to heaven—the worst combination.
(By the way, that nun who gave me the one million number had talked about me to the other nuns before she left. She said that her experience with me led her to believe that there was no God. Sun Child or Jesus, call those figures whatever you want, there still was no God. I didn’t hate her for using me as an excuse. What she believed was the truth and she was no liar. Her realization only surprised me a bit because to other nuns, I had the opposite effect of reinforcing their belief in God and the Sun Child.)
Anyway, one pair of casings every week, since age three; fifty-two weeks in the year; six full years plus half a year, because presently, my tenth birthday was half a year away: that made three hundred thirty-eight. Hence my guess that I’d eliminated one million and three hundred and thirty-eight pairs of casings, made of metal, paper, plastic, and every other imaginable material that humans had created.
This calculation was probably correct. I was moderately good at mental arithmetic. See, the nice thing about numbers was that they were all in your head; the numbers didn’t scare away from you, disappear, or wear out. Not the slightest. They were always fresh, always new—infinitely, into eternity, forever.
Not so with the air molecules. Given sufficient time, theoretically, I could suffocate myself by just sitting here. Sure, a little bit of air constantly squeezed in through the cracks but I wasn’t going to press my nose against the crack just to live. No. Never. I had dignity, even though I was a monster approached by no one but people who thought they could get a reservation in heaven through me.
No doubt the nuns were discussing the next steps to secure the next pair of casings for me. For example, did they have spare milk bottles lying around the kitchen? Did someone collect the shoestrings that they’d used to fasten the old, vanished bottles around my wrist? (Because, you see, the curse ended with my hands, thank God. My wrists could touch whatever they wanted.) And the padding that went between the casings and my wrist, did they have anything for that?
The padding, usually made of cloth or sponge, existed for two purposes. One, it kept my wrists from being scratched mercilessly by the crude scissor cuts that the nuns made to fit my hand through the hole in a milk bottle. Two, the padding limited the air inflow to the casing. After a few hours, my hands existed in a sort of semi-vacuum. However, for fear of adverse effects on my cursed hands, the nuns removed the casings once a day or so. They made me stretch and shake my hands so the blood could flow properly. Then they confined my hands with the casings once again—just like prisoners were required to exercise in the yard before they were pushed back into their cells.
And just like prisoners sometimes brushed against the cell walls, so did my fingers; when I slept, or as I grew, they touched the casings, and poof, the casings disappeared.
You couldn’t control everything in life. You couldn’t even control most things in life.
Anyway, if not milk bottles, something else would have to do. The nuns always found something.
Suddenly, footsteps thundered on the staircase outside.
I tensed, sitting up. Had the kids come to watch me? They never dared to approach and physically harm me, but oh, their eyes—they pierced and made me feel like a trapped zoo animal.
They were definitely headed here. The noisy footsteps and high-pitched teasing swelled and echoed in the hallway. Only several feet separated them from this hall. But one set of footsteps outpaced all others. It was more eager, more desperate—
The door flung open. A welcome breeze blew in.
And there stood the ugliest, most shiny alien pretending to be a human child.
If not an alien, how could its head consist of one featureless mass, without protruding or sunken parts such as the nose and ears? Also, if not an alien, how could the surface of its head be so uneven and shimmery? Instead of one layer of skin covering the bones and muscles, this alien was multilayered. In some parts, its skin was red; in other parts, it was blistering white.
Only when my thoughts reached that word did I realize what this person was. He or she wasn’t an alien; he or she was a human child, about as tall as me, probably about as old as me. Judging by the black pants, he was a boy; a burn victim, with the wounds so irreversible that his nostrils, lips, ears, and eyes were mere slits. No soft body part had survived the burn without sustaining damage; many such parts had vanished completely.
My heart filled with a rush of pity.
But I should make this clear: I never pitied others because I thought I was better off than them. I wasn’t that unintelligent; I knew pretty well that I was in no position to think that anyone was worse off than me. So, the pity I felt for this boy was based on a sort of solidarity, the knowledge that we’d never leave this hospital.
No one wanted a boy whose head basically didn’t have a face; no one wanted a girl who could kill everything around her with the slightest touch.
Nevertheless, what I felt was definitely pity, not sympathy. His pain wasn’t mine. I couldn’t possibly dare pretend to know what he was going through, because at least for me, people who didn’t know me didn’t run from me at first sight. For him, that probably happened a lot. And from his perspective, there was probably plenty to pity about me too; he could pity me without daring to sympathize.
No one, absolutely no one but me, could know what it’s like to have killed as soon as I was born, and to not even remember; no one could know what it’s like to do remember what I’d done to that dog…
The boy gazed at me. Because he didn’t have any eyebrows and his thick regrown skin hid most of his expression, I couldn’t tell with clarity with what emotion he was gazing at me.
But I assumed that it was bewilderment. If so, I understood. What was he supposed to make of a girl sitting on a chair in a nearly-empty hall, alone, while holding up her hands for no apparent reason?
Outside, the laughter and footsteps of a herd of children petered out until the hallway became completely quiet. That puzzled the boy further. He glanced from me to the kids outside, whom I couldn’t see directly. But I knew what had happened: the kids knew I was in here and didn’t dare enter.
“Freaks hang out with freaks,” a girl said.
Her name was Koaly. I recognized her voice; it sounded distorted—robotic.
The kids broke out in laughter. Then, as if this had been their plan all along, the herd stormed away, chitchatting and giggling.
The boy and I waited until the noise faded completely. I didn’t recognize him. There were only twenty kids at the hospital beside me. And someone like him, I would have remembered even if we’d had a thousand children.
Once everything was quiet, the boy said, “They were scared of you.” A hoarse, ugly voice. The fire had not spared his vocal cords.
“You noticed?” I said, raising my eyebrows. I should have hoped that us being us, we could skip the obvious and get to the interesting part, which was basically everything except the obvious. To see how he reacted to the obvious, I asked, “What happened to you, new boy?”
“I was burned, obviously,” said the boy indignantly.
I smiled. At this, he seemed to frown—his forehead getting even wrinklier than it already was—then his lipless mouth twisted into a smile too.
How grotesque, I thought, and frowned. But see, I admit it, because I know that the most insulting reaction people show toward me is to pretend that they have no problem with me. Yes, I know it’s difficult to openly show revulsion, but truly, I appreciate it when someone doesn’t imply that I’m an idiot by trying to hide so obvious an emotion. That was why I didn’t hate the kids either.
The boy seemed to agree with me. He raised his forehead, where his eyebrows would have risen, had they still been there. I knew that this act was done not with sarcasm but rather with curiosity, because he approached while eyeing my hands.
“Why are you doing that?” he asked.
“Because I have to,” I said.
“You have to keep holding your hands up like that, all the time?”
The boy stopped a few feet away from me. He smelled of antiseptics and ointments. Their thick layers must have been why he glistened and shimmered so much in the sunlight. Some of the ointments had an Asian hint to them, for the lack of a better word. Shall we say, herbal and earthy, of traditional medicine.
I breathed in. His smell, combined with the sunshine and the twittering sparrows beyond the windows, briefly made me feel like I was outside.
“But really,” he said, “why do you have to do that?”
“You wouldn’t believe me and you wouldn’t wanna know.”
“Why not?” and he continued to approach.
“Don’t come closer.” I braced to jump back.
He stopped for a second, but then marched even faster toward me. He seemed to have jumped to the conclusion that now was the time to be offended. “You’re just like them, aren’t you? You think I’m revolting. And here I thought because they called you a freak, you were different.”
“I said don’t come closer.” I got up and backed away.
The curtains fluttered. I looked left and right, back and forth, and stayed in the center of the hall, keeping maximum distance to each and every one of them. I also made note of the open door; should this boy come any closer, I’d run out, to the place where everyone cooperated with me and stayed out of my way.
“What…” The boy stopped and shook his head, seeing me still holding my hands up. “Are you a loony?”
“As if a real loony would ever tell you that she’s one.”
“So you’re not.”
I considered that. “I don’t know.”
“You…” The boy contemplated the right word. “You’re weird.”
“Gee, thanks.” At least he didn’t try to get closer anymore. Also, he seemed to have ruled out insult.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“Like the dog in space?”
“Your parents named you after a dog?”
“At least she accomplished something.”
“That’s true. I’m Helio.” He offered his hand, then retracted. “But you wouldn’t shake my hand.”
“You got that right.”
“Not because I’m me, but because you’re a loony, or not. You don’t know.”
“And you won’t tell me why you’re doing that.” He pointed at my hands.
“I’m not telling you.”
I didn’t know why. He’d learn soon enough; it wasn’t like I could keep my secret forever. Maybe that was why—that I knew there was no forever except in the abstract world of numbers. It had been ages since the last time someone had approached me so fearlessly. Maybe I wanted to make the most of this refreshing situation, no matter how fleeting.
“Okay,” Helio said, and shrugged.
Someone gasped at the open door.
The two nuns who’d left me here, Sister Christina and the older one, peeked in. Their faces already expressed extreme concern; how in God’s name had I managed to open the door?
Then they saw Helio.
“What are you doing here?” the old one said.
Red alert, red alert, was written all over her face. She hurried toward us, fluttering her black habit like the cape of a dark wizard. Hot air whirled around the hall, making the curtains shiver gently. She snatched Helio by his waist and carried him outside. Meanwhile, Sister Christina rushed toward me with two paper milk cartons. She tried to smile but did a poor job of it because she kept glancing back at the open door, through which the old nun had vanished with Helio. This lady was no multitasker. And as noted earlier, she tended to lie without realizing that she was lying.
“It’s all right,” she said. “She’s just— Just worried that he doesn’t know you and might…” She couldn’t finish her sentence, because now she wavered between putting the cartons on my hands versus listening in to figure out if the old nun was returning or not.
“You can do it when she comes back,” I said. “It’s safer if one person holds the carton while the other sticks in the padding.”
“What?” said Sister Christina, momentarily confused; she’d been that absorbed in her indecision.
“No hurry,” I said, taking my seat on the hard chair.
“I’m sorry, Laika, I…”
“Don’t be sorry. I killed my mother. You should be scared.”
“Oh, honey—” But she didn’t deny being scared.
I smiled. See, as I said, she wasn’t a liar even though she lied all the time; she only lied about the things that she didn’t know were lies.
But Sister Christina did venture to say, “You didn’t kill your mother. You couldn’t do anything about it.”
“Well, I think that’s just the difference between murder and manslaughter; either way, I killed her.”