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take what the water gave me

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Sophie Foster hears voices.

They barge their way into her brain—sometimes sharp and prickly, other times foggy and dull. She has been hearing people’s thoughts since she was five years old, and after seven years of unsolicited opinions rolling around like marbles in her head, she can tell you—everything you ever imagined about telepathy was wrong.

She tugs out an eyelash and tries to concentrate on her history exam. Twenty-three inner monologues envelope her, each desperately running through its own theses exploring the assassination of Julius Caesar. Stabbing the essay prompt at twenty-three different angles, if you like that sort of poetic justice.

Wrong. Sophie begins to sift through her classmates’ thoughts, one by one. Wrong. Correct, but not in the way he thinks. Wrong, but interesting. Wait—that’s actually good. Wrong again. God, the education system has failed us all. We should all just stab Caesar.

In almost no time at all, the timer beeps. Twenty-three thoughts sigh in a mixture of relief and dread. Twenty-three blue books are collected. They shiver as they settle into a neat pile in Dr. Rao’s hands.

And just like that, junior year is over.

Several students lay their heads down on their absurdly small desks and stay there, unmoving. Sophie does as well, though for a different reason than everyone else.

In a perfectly quiet exam hall, the noise is deafening.

Her classmates’ minds are screaming—running over exam questions they might have missed, trying to calculate percentages and letter grades, blasting summery pop songs and flashing images of beaches that Sophie’s parents would definitely never let her go to. There’s so much of everyone else in her head that there’s barely enough room for Sophie herself in there.

“Sophie? Are you alright?”

She lifts her head from the desk. Dr. Rao is standing beside her desk, a worried expression on her face.

The room is empty. The students are gone, milling around in the courtyard outside the closed door. But the door can’t keep out the voices. Nothing can.

“I’m fine.” Sophie brushes her hair out of her face and stands up, the pencils on her lap clattering to the floor. She tugs out another eyelash. “Yeah. I’m fine.”

“Okay.” Dr. Rao still looks concerned. “If you say so. Just know that if you’re feeling stressed, you can always visit the guid—”

“Bye, Dr. Rao!” Sophie grabs her things and is out the door before she can sling her bookbag over her shoulder.

She can always slip away that fast from an uncomfortable conversation. It almost feels like she can think about a place she wants to be, and suddenly she’s there. Sophie can’t explain it. But it’s useful, especially as a preteen high school junior. Teachers are always all over her like a whole nest of overprotective mother birds.

The evening bus arrives at Sophie’s stop just as night is falling, the pall of sugar-sweet smoke clouding the half moon. She ducks beneath the willow tree in front of her house, its branches gently grazing her shoulders. A pair of female larks chirp, high up in its branches. She waves to them, feeling a little silly.

Alone on the front porch, with just the songbirds for company, an emotion that Sophie can’t describe washes over her. For that moment, everything is quiet. The noise of private thoughts—from her classmates, her bus driver, her teachers—it has all faded away. Only the sweet murmur of the larks’ love song, the swish of the willow tree branches, and the silent smile of the moon above remain.

 Linh Song hears voices.

“Maybe what you want for me isn’t what I want for me!”

A door slams. Her father curses.

“Open that door right now, young man!” The doorknob rattles. “You have no right to lock me out!”

You have no right to tell me what I can and can’t do!”

A kick, then a thud. Inside their bedroom, Tam has knocked a desk over. The strength to do so had come with his eleventh birthday two months before.

“If you don’t come out right now, I’ll pull you out of Foxfire. I’ll cancel your entrance exam scores.”

“Screw. That.”

Linh shivers. Her brand-new school books, covered in stretchy blue fabric, slowly and silently slide to the ground as she lets go. She claps her hands over her ears and shuts her eyes tight.

It’s not happening. They’re not fighting. I can’t hear them. Not here. Not here.

She tugs on the ends of her hair, as if she could tear her own head in two. She feels pulled in two directions—dragged in one direction by her father, then jerked back the way she had come by her twin. In the midst of all the motion, she doesn’t know where she, Linh , fits in.

“Look what you’ve done!”

“I didn’t do anything!”

Pounding on both sides of the locked door.

“You’d understand if you’d just come out! Now your little sister’s having a breakdown.”

“Linh is my twin !”

Every fight always comes to this. The one thing Linh hates more than anything else is being talked about, being used, being weaponized. And she knows Tam will break eventually and come out to comfort her. Like he always does.

She hates it, that kind of smothering attention.

“Tam.” Mai Song says his name quietly, almost muttering it. But everyone listens anyway. “You’re behaving like a child.”

But we are children, Linh thinks.

“Think of your family,” Mai says. “Think of your sister.”

The doorknob turns.

“I can’t do this.” Linh gets up, starting to leave. Then she stops.

What would Tam do?

“Stop using me like I’m—I’m—ugh!” She kicks the pile of her books, scattering them across the floor. Then she runs.

The scent of salt and the sea hits her as soon as she passes through the back door.

“Oh.” The sound escapes her lips before she can stop it.

The sky is impossibly blue, a bright shade than she has never seen before. As she watches, two white clouds drift lazily across that ocean-colored sky, twisting around each other like a pair of dancers in tulle.

At that moment, standing in the open doorway, Linh feels something extraordinary: a sensation that she is being pulled toward herself. She sees a figure at the foamy edge of the ocean, a girl with strange brown eyes and a hand over her heart. They both hear larks.

It is as if the world has reversed its rotation while these two girls remain in place. As the earth spins away from them, they revolve around each other, each pulled toward the other by a perfect gravity.

But never touching.