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The monster is as tall as the trees; trees are so tall no one in the world could ever reach the top of them. Only the monster is that tall. Silver Claw is the scariest monster. Bones are white, colorless, the shade of the world when lights dance. Silver Claw is the color of bone. His back is rough and covered with spikes whose tips are flaming fireballs. He eats babies and breathes fire; his body is so hot that just touching him will set aflame a human.

Babies are the wisest among all the peoples. They are still close enough to God that they know the secrets of the universe. In the afterlife, Heaven dwellers know the thoughts, intentions and dreams of those on Earth; babies still remember these things. It is because of their vast knowledge that their lips are touched by God before birthing day; otherwise, they might share secrets of the universe. Instead of being voiced, infants carry these secrets in their eyes. The spark others see is the reflection of Heaven.

Silver Claw, that monster taller than the trees, eats babies because their eyes remind him of all that he lost when he rejected Heaven. Some babies, though, are different. Sometimes, if the babies’ eyes show evil within them, he doesn’t eat them. Instead, he seeks to cripple them, to castrate their power before it grows. Keeping these children alive leaves open the possibility of harnessing their evil. Silver Claw mauls these children, scratches their eyes out until only gaping black holes remain. It is how Silver Claw remains the strongest, most powerful of the monsters. When parents see these holes, they know the child harbors evil; keeping the child would mean unleashing a curse upon the entire family. Throwing the child away protects the family and usually results in the death of the child and, thereby, the ungrown monster .

These children of evil grow in the shadow of Silver Claw for he never just forgets them. Sometimes he snatches them from their beds. Sometimes he yanks their feet until they drown when they go swimming. Sometimes he stands over behind them when they play breathing on their necks until they run away screaming. Sometimes, if he thinks they may ever become stronger than he, he holds them in a dungeon until they become his minions. Until they are grown, these children are always at risk of being attacked by Silver Claw.

There is no noise. Auner does not screech, Ekko does not stutter. Even Alizabet is quiet. Tsst, tsst, tsst. The tip of my tongue glues for a moment to the roof of my mouth, then pops. The sound is loud; to fill the silence, I do it again. The words I am one of these kids gets stuck; I can’t say the words. I don’t need to. The gaping holes in my face, where eyes should be, tell them. That I am here, with them, tells them. All I see are shadows. Shades of black, gray and white. I smell things the others say they can’t smell. I hear things before others hear them. I am not the same.

“Do you–you see–see him, Sil-Silver Cl-Claw?” Ekko stumbles over his words. Ekko’s voice is raspy; it’s the sound of Alizabet when she uses her nails to scratch her arms or her face. When Ekko is in front of me, the shadows are a little darker; when we are taken out of the beds and are standing, shadows tell me how tall he is. He is the tallest of all of us for his shadow is the longest.

“You have eyes, though, Alina.” Alizabet’s voice is soft; she sounds like the wind when it flows through the windows. Hers isn’t as light as my voice, but it is kinder. “You don’t have gaping holes.”

“But they are empty.” I say back. “Silver Claw didn’t have time to rip them out completely because Auner was coming out; he was born only two minutes after me.” You’re soulless, the horror in the man’s voice rings loud in my ears. Get away from me, you soulless devil! “So he took my soul instead; I’m soulless.”

“What’s a soul?” Ekko’s voice isn’t terror-filled; it’s curious.

“I don’t know. All I know is I’m supposed to have one but I don’t. It’s why my eyes are empty.”

The feeling of fingers rolling over my knuckles makes me jerk my hand away. I never know when Silver Claw might come back. The hum of the heater is the only sound in the room. “It’s me, Alina.” Ekko’s voice whispers. His fingers find my hand and tug. My fingers touch a face, then a nose. When the edges of my fingers encounter cloth instead of eyes, I frown. “What is that?” I ask.

“I want — want to see what — what you s–see. I tied a — a piece of bed-bedding over my eyes.”

I am horrified. “But Silver Claw might — why would you do that?”

“I don’t believe in Silver Claw.”

“He’s real.”

“Have you see–seen him?”

Images flash through my mind; horrible images. The monster clawing my legs, holding me down, breathing on me. “Yes.”

Ekko doesn’t respond. Instead, he says, “I can see the trees. They aren’t so tall. I can see them outside the window.”

“They’re the tallest thing there is, except for Silver Claw. No one could reach the top of them.”

Ekko is quiet for a long time. His voice sounds far off when he says, “I bet — bet I could.”

***** ***** *****

I think of running away.

It’s a really dumb idea. The soulless girl without sight; how far could I possibly get? Even without eyes, though, I know where things are. I know how many steps it is from the bed to the kitchen, and how many steps from the bed to the outside door. It’s fifteen steps from the bed to the door of this room, then there’s one small step up into the hall. Ten steps to the right puts you at the kitchen door. The stove — hot, hot, don’t touch! — is on the right; I don’t want to touch that again. It will burn me, like it did before. A long table is on the left; grab the edge of the table so I don’t bump into it. Ow! Make sure I count carefully so I don’t stump my toe on the edge of the freezer that’s seven steps from the stove. From there, it’s only six steps to the door outside.

I think of running away. Sometimes when I think of doing this, Auner is with me. He’d be my eyes. And Auner is good at talking to people; he could help us get food. I wouldn’t get lost and wander in circles. Proof that I am soulless: Sometimes, when I think of running away, I am by myself; sometimes, I leave him here. They’re more likely to miss two of us than one. And Auner isn’t arrested by Silver Claw like me. Silver Claw is clever; he’s dangerous because he’s a shape shifter. During the daytime, he looks like Chimp; tall, big arms, hairy. He’s strict, sometimes even cruel during the daytime. But he’s not the monster. Not until the world goes black. When the world goes black, he looms over the bed; his thick fingers wrap all the way around my wrist and pull. Auner gets knocked flat when he screeches and tries to pull me back; he lost a tooth once from getting punched trying to pull me away. The monster screams but only I can hear the scream; it’s a roaring in my head that makes me dizzy. It’s part of his power, the silent screams that shake my insides. The darkness is scary when he walks so fast I can only stumble behind him; his steps are bigger than mine, so counting steps doesn’t help me. Bruises dot my shins and knees and toes from bumping into things I cannot see.

The room he always takes me to is small and musty and hot; there’s not a window open. Panic screams in my chest, but I can’t voice it; if I do, he’ll kill me, he’s promised he would. “Open your mouth and I’ll make sure you never speak again.” He showed me by wrapping his hands around my throat and squeezing; the black shifted to white; my head swam and I was very dizzy. I tried to claw his hands with my fingers and he laughed, letting go of my throat and crushing me against the floor. Air filled my lungs and tears my eyes. I don’t try to scream anymore; instead, I think of running. When I am torn, when the thickness of blood trickles down my legs, I make a fist and lash out, striking him in the shoulder, the pain such that I can’t be still. His body is so hot touching it will burn you. The monster’s body is hot; the burn is inside of me and it is the worst pain, worse than when Noodle bruises us with the baton. The weight of him, I can’t escape the weight of him, I can’t kick, I can’t roll, I can’t move, I can’t see, and the tears clog my throat, choking me until my belly heaves. I’ve never wished for sight as when in this room.

My teeth chatter when I am back in the bed. We were three, me and Auner, when the man came. I don’t know his name ; Auner says it was Victor, but I don’t know if he really remembers that or if he’s made it up. He was before Noodle. He was before everybody; he’s the first person I remember besides Auner. He’s the one who told us about the monster. It’s a good thing your mum got rid of you; d’ya curse her before she left? With two of you lookin’ the way you do, it’s a wonder she’s still living, your mum.” He called us the changelings and told stories about the evil things changelings do. Sometimes I wonder if I have that power. Sometimes I think of running. Sometimes I think of taking Auner with me and running from here, getting far away from Chimp who shape shifts into Silver Claw. Sometimes I am afraid of Auner because what if he is a changeling whose powers work? But then I am afraid for Auner because, deep down, I know I am the only changeling. And then, sometimes, like tonight, I wonder if Ekko really can reach the top of a tree.